Thinking Aloud : Myth of Buddhist non-violence — Razi Azmi
In a world filled with hate and violence on account of religion, race, ethnicity, etc, Buddhists are no exception, despite their contrary image
Buddhism is almost
universally regarded as synonymous with peace, tolerance and non-violence. On the other hand, so strong and widespread is the perception of Muslims as the source of intolerance and violence in this world that people seem to overlook not just the past but also the present when it comes to judging all the rest, and not just Buddhists.
One wonders whether the recent pogroms against Muslims in Myanmar (Burma) and the totally unwarranted anti-Muslim hysteria in Sri Lanka will have any effect on these perceptions. Truth be told, neither the Buddhist scriptures nor Buddhist history is free of violence. In a world filled with hate and violence on account of religion, race, ethnicity, etc, Buddhists are no exception, despite their contrary image.
A 2009 book Buddhist Warfare, by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, is introduced in these words: “Though traditionally regarded as a peaceful religion, Buddhism has a dark side. On multiple occasions over the past 15 centuries, Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence, and even war. The eight essays in this book...show that Buddhist organisations have used religious images and rhetoric to support military conquest throughout history.”
In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha is said to have killed some Hindus (Brahmins) in one of his past lives because they insulted the Buddhist sutras (scriptures). “When I heard the Brahmins slandering the ‘vaipulya sutras’, I put them to death on the spot.”
Professor Paul Damieville is quoted by Danios (www.loonwatch.com) as writing that Buddhists justify killing infidels (icchantika) for a number of reasons, one being pity. Bizarrely also called ‘compassionate killing’, its supposed aim is “to help [them] avoid the punishment they had accrued by committing evil deeds while continuously slandering Buddhism.”
Another reason is defence of the Buddhist faith. “When the dharma is threatened, it is necessary to ruthlessly fight against the forces of evil.” The Nirvana Sutra is unambiguous on this subject: “The [true] follower of the Mahayana is not the one who observes the five precepts, but the one who uses the sword, bow, arrow, and battle ax to protect the monks who uphold the precepts and who are pure.”
Putting unbelievers to death carries no sin and is not bad karma. According to Demieville, the Buddha says in the Nirvana Sutra that the status of the infidel is lower than that of ants. “One may well kill an ant and earn sin for doing harm, but there is no sin for killing an icchantika.” Besides, killing can in any event be excused if it is done by the right person, especially a ‘dharma-protecting king’.
Danios concludes: “Buddhist Warfare provides many other examples of the theological justifications for waging war and killing, but these shall suffice us for now. They provide the religious basis for Buddhist holy war: (1) Killing those who slander Buddhism as a necessity; (2) Anyone who rejects Buddhism is by default slandering it; (3) Killing infidels carries no sin; (4) In fact, it is not really killing at all.”
Seen in this light, the current anti-Muslim hate campaign and violence in Myanmar seems not to be the exception, but rather in line with both Buddhist scripture and history. According to a BBC report by Alan Strathern, it is spearheaded by the ‘969 group’, led by a monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred and released in 2012.
The initial anti-Muslim rioting occurred in the western state of Rakhine, targeting the Rohingyas, who are accused of being foreigners on account of their Bengali origins, even though they and their forefathers were born in Burma and they have always lived there. It has now spread to central Myanmar, close to the largest city and the former capital, Yangon.
The rioting in Rakhine followed an alleged rape. In a subsequent incident in central Burma, rioting resulted from an argument between the Muslim owner of a gold shop and an ethnic Burmese customer. In the latest incident, a Muslim girl on a bicycle colliding with a monk led to rioting. It seems that anti-Muslim pogroms can happen in Myanmar virtually at the drop of a hat. These incidents have resulted in hundreds of Muslims killed, many hundreds of houses torched and thousands turned into refugees. All this happened while the police just stood and watched.
In Sri Lanka, the issue of halal slaughter has suddenly been turned into a national crisis. Led by monks, members of the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Brigade) have been holding rallies calling for direct action and the boycotting of Muslim businesses. Objection to the size of Muslim families is thrown in for good measure.
In any list of countries where coups have been endemic, Thailand will rank high. According to one count, it had have 11 ‘successful and nine ‘unsuccessful’ coups in the 20th century. One such coup was accompanied by the Massacre of October 6, 1976, in which student and other protesters were attacked by the military, “shot, beaten and their bodies mutilated.” Hundreds were killed.
In 1999, hundreds of Buddhist monks in South Korea staged a pitched battle over control of the country’s richest monastic order. According to the BBC correspondent, Andrew Wood, “”the fight is not about theology, it is about power and money. They are struggling for control of the temple complex, which is headquarters to the largest order of Buddhist monasticism in South Korea. The sect claims around 10 million followers.” It was the second major clash between Chogye monks in nine months. Thai and Cambodian troops have repeatedly fought over control of the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple on their border.
Given the general perception of Buddhists as the ‘nice guys’ of this world (no prizes for guessing who the ‘bad guys’ are!), I conclude with Professor Michael Jerryson’s disclaimer: “Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people — but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.”
The writer is a former academic with a doctorate in modern history and can be contacted at www.raziazmi.com or email@example.com