It used to be that the one thing it was safe to assume about religion was that a Buddhist would be likely to refrain from killing his or her neighbors. However, as recent events in Thailand and Myanmar will testify to, this assumption is no longer safe. Buddhism is unavoidably mixed in with violent social conflicts, as, shockingly, it has been in places for hundreds of years. Several scholars take the plentiful Nobel peace prizes won by adherents to Buddhism as proof that, when done “correctly,” Buddhism is nonviolent. Non-violence is seen by many as a major ethical tenet of the religion, emphasizing primarily the preservation of sentient life. This espouses a notion of correctness that is clearly inappropriate. Christianity, Islam, and many more faiths have tenets that encourage peace, but it is not debate among theistic scholars about the true meaning of the text that makes a religion violent or non-violent. Rather, it is the violence caused by that religion or its fervent adherents that makes a religion violent.
It is clear that the notion of a religion “causing” violence is difficult to determine. Persons are subject to almost innumerable influences on their actions and beliefs, and it is difficult to determine whether it was the religious influence that moved a particular person to violence. But it is a pointless task to try and abstract a religion from its particular socio-cultural instantiation in order to find out whether, absent that religion, violence would have occurred anyway. Thus, whether Buddhism was, in fact, the individual cause of the violence is immaterial; what matters is that Buddhist societies have undertaken violence.
As for the empirical question of whether Buddhist regimes or individuals have authored violence, the answer is a resounding yes. While a full historical timeline is not feasible, even token description of sets of Buddhist acts paints quite the gritty picture. Japanese Buddhist “warrior monks” allied themselves to feudal clans. Zen Buddhism later became a major justification for the actions of kamikaze fighters in World War Two. Athurliye Rathana, “the war monk,” was a Sri Lankan Buddhist that helped recruit thirty thousand monks into the army by 2008. Other Sri Lankan Buddhists directly killed people during time of civil war and justified it by reference to Karma. Majority-Buddhist Myanmar has been targeting, via mob rule or governmental coercion, its Muslim minority like it was going out of style . The same could be said, to a lesser extent, of Thailand; the Yala minibus attack of 2007 shows that Buddhist attacks are becoming increasingly mainstream. Buddhists played a critical role in violent Myanmar demonstrations against the government, and in violent resistance against it. Thai temples in the south have recently ordained soldiers as monks ostensibly to protect the temples, transforming some temples into virtual army bases. Properly ordained Laotian Buddhist monk Ay Sa “ransacked the center of the kingdom of Champasak, burning buildings and killing those who had not fled.” Among other Laotian monks, support for violence was not uncommon, usually linked to nationalist sentiment. Thus, it is clear that, systematically, though not as a rule, Buddhists are capable of acting in violent ways or otherwise promoting violence.
Many authors on this subject treat the violence of Buddhists as a sign that the religious fervor of a particular Buddhist has become corrupted via an opposing influence whose epistemic power was greater. But this is a gross mischaracterization. It is not the case that Buddhism as a belief system cannot accommodate violence. That assumes that the identity of a religious person, or the way that a particular religious belief can manifest in a person, is acultural and solely related to the text of the scriptures it is based upon. On the contrary, Buddhism is understood differently in myriad social contexts.
Traditional Buddhist institutions, such as kingdoms, temple systems, and modern day governments have occupied concurrent political and social roles, in part because one’s social status was a direct function of karmic propriety in a previous life and therefore of spiritual goodness, giving Buddhists unique mobilization power on behalf of both political and moral authority. The monks, clerical figures, and individual Buddhists, the actors at play can thus easily ignite pre-established points of political division if they feel it serves their interests. For example, Myanmar’s sangha Buddhism has frequently tapped into deep cultural reservoirs and deep institutional memory to active political sentiment; it has organized oppositional forces to government will, and Buddhist authority was used as a technique of government legitimation, nationalism rallying, and political diversion from more pressing issues. Buddhism seems to do this in a particularly absolutist way; by casting the conflict as a struggle between good and evil forces under the backdrop of metaphysical necessity, Buddhism can aid, and sometimes cause, violent outbursts by activating pockets of discontent. Images of redemption are intermixed in rallying speeches with cultural tropes about political struggle. Thus, this seeming pacifistic religion has profound potential to mobilize violence when political interests align. Given the decentralized nature of Buddhist institutions, the order is powerless to stop from afar those on the ground.
Given violent Buddhism’s inherent insolubility from cultural and political circumstances, only a political solution is capable of solving it. A doctrinal shift at the top level, even if it could be effected, would be meaningless for those on the ground who define their Buddhism through a whole different set of criteria. But, in some sense, that the solutions to these problems are political is beneficial, because politics humans have control over; metaphysics not so much.
What solution would work is particular to each local context, so it would be impossible to outline a set of coherent political solutions in a blanket way. Given these limitations, I will focus on some preliminary solutions in the Thai case. The problem is like this: in the southern regions featuring most of the Buddhist violence, Buddhist forces control much of the powerful positions in society but are increasingly a minority of the population in an area with expanding Muslim population. This makes Thai Buddhists the target of political, class-based violence with the motivation and means to defend its political stake. Merciless killing of Buddhist monks has provoked retaliatory backlash, causing escalating civil unrest along religious. Analysis of Buddhist rhetoric towards the south reveals that fears about Islam and the minorities are linked to fear about the political future of the government, specifically the ever-present legitimacy crises that regularly confound it. Suspicion about governments selling out their interests has spawned widespread distrust for foreign mediation, including with the National Reconciliation Commission, dooming attempts at external peaceful resolution.
In Thailand, violent Buddhism is traceable to political unrest among classes, anxiety over an uncertain governmental system, and paranoia over representation in foreign mediation. Limiting Buddhist violence is thus a matter of removing the largely social and economic barriers to reconciliation and class based conflict via redistribution and a number of other methods, an effort to fixate on a stable government structure that gives confidence in the future, and tangible political guarantees of Buddhist representation in foreign mediation. These goals should not be one shot policies, but rather codified into an institution in the government, or slightly external to it, whose concern it is to locate and eradicate the roots of religious inspired political violence.
While this solution is surely not identical with methods that would work in other countries, the process will be the same: establish an institution with the express purpose of discovering the cultural, social, and political underpinnings of violence so that they may be exposed and eradicated in the level of practice, not of scripture. Only in this way can we give teeth to musings on how to solve the problem of Buddhist violence.
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