The most central focus of this paper is how violence has presented itself in Buddhism, especially in Sri Lanka and modern Asia, and, in connection with Buddhist ethics, how this is facilitated through the interpretation of a particular doctrine. Thus, it is necessary to place an emphasis on a multitude of violence-enabling concepts that are present in Buddhist doctrines, such as karma. Although karma firstly appears to have no connection to violence because it states that human actions inevitably have consequences that are determined by the intent of the actor, many individuals and their families have endured discrimination, ridicule, isolation, and harsh treatment because of the alleged evil they committed in past lives. While this is not exactly direct physical violence, there are many other ways in which violence can be committed against people, and Buddhist values are sometimes named as the rationale behind such acts. For instance, Buddhist nationalism has been one of the major driving forces that have contributed to widespread violence against ethnic groups like the Indo-Aryan Muslim Rohingya of the Rakhine State in Myanmar, and this has caused a grand amount of harm which has only fueled Islamophobia in the both the Buddhist and outside world.
Considering the common inclination that describes Buddhism as forever harmonious and free of conflict, it takes much deliberation to qualify that this doctrine of nonviolence nevertheless continues to harbor practitioners that condone and promote violence, and who even use the doctrine to justify it. Inspecting this topic more closely, it seems that many Buddhists have refused to practice this sort of violence, but the Buddhist code that governs the life of monks allows them to defend themselves, even though this same code prohibits the act of killing, even in cases of self-defense. And even with this creed of non-violence, there have been numerous cases that feature Buddhist nationalists and monks killing for the sake of “protecting the faith.” Given acts like these but also with the knowledge that there are numerous, if not a majority of, Buddhist monks and practitioners who do not align themselves with violence, I plan to explore the manner in which these cases are either defended or used as evidence against the common idea of Buddhism being the embodiment of nothing but a peaceful religion.
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek writes about a particular story that can be referenced when analyzing violence in situations when it is repeatedly justified or overlooked. The narrative begins with: “There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves.” What this goes to say is that we often underestimate how violence can be systemic because we naturally view violence on the individual level. Because we frequently view violence as a subjective matter, we are blinded to the possibility that we all have the capacity to be offenders as well, as opposed to being blameless observers. Under this mindset, acts of violence are random events that disturb the typical peace of everyday society, instead of posing as demonstrations of what is already ingrained in every community.
In terms of Buddhism, this quote brings about the investigation into Buddhist regimes and how they have the ability to possess violence at the structural level, have ways to justify and/or hide this brutality, and are neglectful in issuing acknowledgements and reactions to the stress and outcomes of said violence. If governing bodies really do have the power and access to violence, then they also own the potential of granting or limiting access to this knowledge, along with the capability of determining how their societal participants are able to review each occurrence. In this case, there is one idea present that can be contested by its clear opposition: Is violence systemic to the society in which we live (or the Buddhist system), or is it rather a completely separate entity that only features itself once an individual manifests it inside the nation? In other words, we must examine whether violence is a natural phenomenon that takes place given any circumstance, even in Buddhism where non-violence is one of the most central convictions, or the opposite: that any violent acts are isolated incidents, as monk Matthieu Riccard declares.
In light of explaining some of the violent tendencies of Buddhist actors, especially those in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, it is essential to first delve into the history of the groups that are affected by such violence: namely the Rohingya of Myanmar and Muslims of Sri Lanka. Firstly, the Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, and they are considered to be the “most persecuted minority in the world,” according to the United Nations. This description of the Rohingya is used chiefly due to the fact that Myanmar has refused to recognize the existence of this group of people for thousands of years. Beginning in the 1430s, Muslim settlers traveled to the Arakan State (now the Rakhine state of Myanmar) and were taken over by the Burmese Empire in 1784. Forty years later in 1824, Britain conquered Burma and made it part of British India, and Muslims from Bengal came to Burma as migrant workers as a result. By 1864, Burma’s Muslim population had tripled because of Britain’s rule in the nation; even though Britain made a deal with the Rohingya to create an autonomous state in exchange for their help in World War II, Britain did not keep this promise, and the majority Buddhist Burmese people began to resent the Muslim community, viewing them as invasive, uninvited workers. About a century later in 1948, Myanmar gains its independence from Britain, but this new government does not offer a Muslim state for the Rohingya people either. Instead, they do not acknowledge that the Rohingya are part of Myanmar by excluding them from the constitution and actively work to cast them out of the country. For example, the government of Myanmar passes a citizenship law in 1982 that denies the Rohingya citizenship, which means that they are considered to be stateless and ack even the most basic rights within the nation. Out of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Rohingya are not counted, despite there being over one million living in the country.
Where Buddhism comes to play in this history is through the majority-Buddhist government-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya, beginning in 1962 when Myanmar becomes a military state. Named “Operation King Dragon,” Burmese military forces target the Rohingya people and commit various human rights violations against them, including rape, destruction of private property, and mass arrests under no evidence-based foundation. Due to this violent and overt victimization, many members of the Rohingya began to flee to Bangladesh to escape capture. Those who stayed in Myanmar still face hardships by the Buddhist majority, including the inability to access social services and education and limited access to both birth control and marriage. In more recent years, Amnesty International has stated that Myanmar is trapping the Rohingya through a “dehumanizing apartheid regime,” and the United Nations has added that the nation of Myanmar is guilty of ethnic cleansing.
In the case of Sri Lanka, we have seen a severe outbreak of rioting and protesting against the Muslim community over the past few decades. In 2014, 10,000 people were forcibly displaced by violent rioting, and 80 percent of these people were Muslims. This overt violence sparked national attention, and the media was especially drawn to images of extremist Buddhist monks who were at the head of these brutal attacks. It is a well-known reality that these monks have attacked peace demonstrations, political party rallies, and individual religious (Muslim) minorities. Instead of directly addressing the cause of these violent riots, which is widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, Buddhist President Rajapaksa blames foreign forces, declaring that these forces threaten “post-war peace and reconciliation” for the country, without giving specifics as to which forces or the reasoning behind such attacks. Although many Sri Lankans have named Muslim organizations as the cause of these riots, Muslim groups have “no history of agitating for secession or territorial autonomy,” and there is “very little history of violent Islamic extremism” on the island. Contrary to this rationalization, the Sri Lankan administration has described that the country is vulnerable to Muslim extremism and has noted that Islamic radicals have been discovered as the primary threats to the nation’s security. In October of the same year as these riots (2014), the President allows Myanmar Buddhist extremist group “969” and the Bodu Bala Sena (a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization) group of Sri Lanka to meet in Colombo to discuss the threat that Buddhism faces by Muslim groups like the Rohingya. Under the militarized regime by Rajapaksa, violence has been legitimized as a mechanism to solve problems, utilizing Muslims as a scapegoat and portraying them as the primary terroristic threat to national security.
Without a doubt, Sri Lanka has offered itself as a nation-state which declares itself as a home to “a pure Buddhism.” Modern forms of Sri Lankan Buddhism have more of an ideological basis which emphasizes purity, authorizing the misrepresentation of practice and ideologies through “reference to an ‘imagined’ previous state of virtuousness.” In other words, the reimagining of Buddhist doctrine, which has occurred in numerous religions as well, has caused massive conflict between Buddhist nationalists and religious minority communities like that of Muslims. One of the most pressing issues that is a result of this reconceptualizing of Buddhism is that there is extensive state-sanctioned violence against minority groups under the grounds that Buddhism is under threat of extinction and needs protection. For instance, the Sri Lankan Constitution declares that Buddhism has the “foremost place” in society, and the State has the right and duty to “protect and foster it.” Thus, the combination of Buddhist nationalism and ethnocentrism has found its place in state policy and the very foundation of the government, which means that any other religions are inherently undesirable and unwelcome in Sri Lankan society due to the perception of discrimination against Buddhism. There is a political party in the vanguard of these anti-Muslim beliefs called the Jathika Hela Urumaya, which is the National Sinhalese Heritage Party. Founded by nationalist monks with the desire of territorial and religious integrity, the JHU has enlarged the spectrum of ethnic and religious exclusivity and has lowered the democratic legitimacy of the nation. Under the primary doctrine of the JHU, Sri Lanka should be “ruled according to Budhdist principles,” and the government has the obligation to “protect the Buddhist religion” by any means necessary. While it is important to describe this political organization and its implications for both the government and the rest of society, it must be noted that this group has faced criticism, and it is just one example of an extreme form of Buddhist interpretation that does not speak for all Buddhist practitioners.
That being said, some Buddhists in Sri Lanka have perceived their religion to be under attack from various threats such as an increase in Muslim migrants, and violence has to be the only way to defend Buddhism. This has been the case for the large-scale militarism which has victimized itself while also justifying aggression in response to the realization of understood dangers to the preservation of Buddhism, contributing to the “just-war” analysis of the majority of these believers. However, there is notable tension between those who believe Buddhism is under constant danger and rationalize the use armed violence with those who adhere to strict nonviolence. One speaker who has condemned all sorts of violence stemming from Muslim attacks in Southeast Asia is Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who stands by the principle that Buddhism has never been and will never be a religion that promotes violence. He provides a direct counterargument to the sources which claim that Buddhism possesses an inherently violent doctrine and asserts that even though there have been acts against ethnic groups like the Rohingya, these are all isolated incidents; there is not a time when Buddhism will ever accept violence as part of the religion. While condemning Buddhist nationalists for not properly representing the faith, Ricard places the blame on an individual basis instead of on the religion as a whole, calling for radical passivism. For example, Ricard emphasizes the concept that “there is not a single sentence in [Buddhism’s] canonical scriptures that could be interpreted as an encouragement to inflict harm on others,” which promotes the idea that Buddhism does not differentiate killing in times of peace and war. Simply put, there is no such thing as a “just war” or “holy war,” as nationalists propagate, and the use and encouragement of such theories are never in the name of true Buddhism. In direct reference to the overt discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ricard states that the use of the words “killer monks” is a “contradiction in terms” because once a monk kills someone or persuades another person to kill, he is “immediately dispossessed of his monastic vows, forever.” So, these monks who claim to be Buddhist or commit these acts of persecuting the Rohingyas (or any other disadvantaged and underprivileged group) under the name of Buddhism are in flagrant contradiction with the teachings of Buddha. Thus, Ricard sees violence as an entity that is not systemic in nature, in contrast to other scholars such as Professor Michael Jerryson, who instead examine how Buddhists justify and overlook violence, which illuminates and problematizes the relationship that many Buddhists hold with violence.
As a renowned professor of religious studies at Youngstown State University, Jerryson has scrutinized how Buddhists have dealt with the violence of blasphemy toward the sanctity of the religion and how they have subsisted in the face of such conflicts. He reviews common Buddhist approaches to war and violence and explores the wider field of lived choices and the doctrine that relates to such choices using the basis of ethics. While providing a chronological overview of Buddhist-inspired conflicts, wars, and the ethical debates surrounding these events, Jerryson addresses the ambiguous subject matter of violence. Applying the Buddhist interdiction of ahimsa (non-harm/non-injury), he reviews doctrinal and historical cases in which Buddhist doctrine or individual Buddhist practitioners themselves have warranted harm/injury by means of murder, torture, capital punishment, and discrimination.