Sunday, February 10, 2019

Violence and Ethical Wrongdoing in Buddhism

Myanmar 8

[This is revised and updated from a blog post in 2013.] 

Buddhism is generally seen as associated with non-violence and peace. These are certainly both strongly represented in its value system. This does not mean, though, that Buddhists have always been peaceful. Buddhist countries have had their fair share of war and conflict, for most of the reasons that wars have occurred elsewhere. Yet it is difficult to find any Buddhist rationales for violence, and Buddhism has some particularly rich resources for use in dissolving conflict. Overall, it can be observed that Buddhism has had a general humanizing effect throughout much of Asia. It has tempered the excesses of rulers and martial people, helped large empires (for example, China) to exist without much internal conflict, and rarely, if at all, incited wars against non-Buddhists. Moreover, in the midst of wars, Buddhist monasteries have often been havens of peace. — Peter Harvey 

*          *          * 

The Dalai Lama has called on Myanmar to follow the example of the Buddha and come to the aid of the country’s persecuted Rohingya minority, more than 300,000 of whom have fled their home province in two weeks. Speaking to journalists in North India, the Tibetan spiritual leader expressed his grief over the ongoing violence inside Buddhist-majority Myanmar on Friday, saying the Buddha would have definitely helped the Rohingya. ‘They should remember, Buddha, in such circumstances, Buddha (would have) definitely helped those poor Muslims. So, still I feel that (it’s) so very sad ... so sad,’ he told reporters. 

*          *          * 

For the record, the Dalai Lama has condemned the horrid treatment of the Rohingyas at the hands of the Myanmarese state, and his fellow Buddhists since at least 2012. He has spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi personally and he has spoken about the issue publicly, not just once, but multiple times. He has neither waited until now, nor has he been silent, unlike some of his fellow Nobel laureates such as former US president Barack Obama whose secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is the one who lobbied for Aung San Suu Kyi to enter the government under a constitution that gave the military full power.

[….] He is not responsible for the actions of fellow Buddhists in Myanmar. He has no political power over them, and he has done nothing, nor said anything, that would encourage such violent, immoral actions. If anything, he has spoken in favour of non-violence in even the most difficult circumstances. When more than a hundred Tibetans, both monks and ordinary citizens, self-immolated in protest, he empathised with their distress but did not approve of the violence – directed towards themselvesas a form of protest. 

In fact, the Dalai Lama has no political power at all, not in Myanmar, not in Tibet, nor even among the Tibetan exiled community. He disassociated all political power from his religion in 2011, when the Tibetans in exile voted for their first Sikyong, or political leader, Dr Lobsang Sangay. It was a step that he had been working towards for a long time.

At a reception after the elections, he expressed his delight at finally doing so, saying that since the religious role had been merged with political powers in the time of the 5th Dalai Lama there had always been controversies, and he hoped that with dispensing with the remnants of political role – he had been slowly passing power to elected representatives since the foundation of the Central Tibetan Administration – the controversies would end. Obviously his expectations for good sense were not in line with what people display. He has no responsibility in this tragedy beyond that of being a moral and religious teacher. In that regard, his behaviour has been exemplary. He has gone out of his way to explain to Buddhists over whom he has no political power, that the harassment and targeting of the Rohingyas is against Buddhist teachings and, in fact, the Buddha would have stood by the Rohingyas. – Omair Ahmad

*          *          *

Inspired by a post by Kenan Malik, “Buddhist Pogroms and Religious Conflicts,” I’ve assembled a small list of titles (below) that treat the topic of Buddhists resorting to violence in the context of social and political conflicts, especially Buddhists whose individual and collective identity has become entangled if not fused with nationalism. Malik begins his piece with the dire situation of the Myanmar’s (Burma’s) Rohingya: 

“The Rohingya are Muslims who live mostly in Rakhine, in the north west of the country, bordering Bangladesh. Early Muslim settlements date back to the 7th century. Today, in a nation that is 90 per cent Buddhist, there are some 8 million Muslims of which probably a quarter are Rohingya. Many feel they are fighting for their very existence.

The military junta that came to power in Myanmar in 1962 (or Burma as it was then) has, over the past half century, sought to build popular support for its rule by fomenting hatred against minority groups. The Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship and officially declared foreigners in their native land. Restrictions have been placed on the Rohingya owning land, travelling outside their villages, receiving an education and having children. 

The recent successes of the democracy movement has paradoxically only worsened the problems of the Rohingya. The junta, still clinging to power, has sharpened its anti-Rohingya rhetoric in an attempt to bolster its position. The democracy movement has refused to support the Rohingya for fear of alienating its largely Buddhist constituency. The leader of the democracy movement, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been shamefully silent. When asked to condemn violence against the Rohingya, the furthest she has been willing to go is to condemn violence in general. Many members of her National League for Democracy are openly involved in extremist anti-Rohingya organizations.

The result has been over the past year an unprecedented series of pogroms against the Rohingya. Villages, schools, workplaces and mosques have been attacked and torched by Buddhist mobs, often aided by the security forces. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and some 140,000 left homeless. 

The anti-Muslim campaign has been led by monks who justify their actions as in keeping with the demands of Buddhism. The principal anti-Rohingya organization, the 969 movement, takes its name from the traditional nine qualities of Buddha, six qualities of his teachings and nine qualities of the monks. Its leader, a monk named Wirathu, has reportedly called himself the ‘Burmese bin Laden.’ Muslims, he insists, ‘breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.’ Because ‘the Burmese people and the Buddhists are devoured every day, the national religion needs to be protected.’ Another prominent 969 monk, Wimala Biwuntha, insists that without the anti-Royhinga campaign ‘we’ll lose our religion and our race.’ Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs, Sann Sint, has backed the anti-Rohingya campaign.”

Malik also introduces us to the historic mobilization of Buddhist chauvinism against the Tamils in Sri Lanka, with the end of the war against the Tamils finding that chauvinism now directed at Muslims! One of Malik’s conclusions is especially important, having implications beyond Buddhism. He argues that despite the prominent role of religious identity as an important variable in these violent conflicts, 

“it would be as wrong to see many, perhaps most, of these conflicts as purely religious confrontations as it would be to see the anti-Rohingya pogroms as a religious war. Many have, like the confrontations in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, complex social and political roots, as groups vying for political power have exploited religion and religious identities to gain support. The importance of religion in these conflicts is often less in creating the tensions than in helping establish the chauvinist identities through which certain groups are demonized and one’s own actions justified.”
Myanmar 9
Indeed, in Myanmar, the two principal forms of nationalist ideologies responsible for rationalizing and sanctioning this ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide are Buddhist and militarist. It appears that members of both groups have acted as co-principals of one kind or another (e.g., full joint wrongdoing, conspiracy, co-operation, or collusion) in acts of coercion and violence that amount to ethnic cleansing or genocide. 

It is no doubt true that many “New Age,” “liberal,” and even so-called secular Buddhists have romanticized and idealized Buddhism generally, succumbing to Orientalist or Orientalist-like illusions (most vividly perhaps, in the case of Tibetan Buddhism) or fantasies that prevent them from coming to grips with the darker realities of “Buddhism on the ground” in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In the West, Buddhists were long thought immune from “sexual abuse, corruption and cultic behaviour,” but recent scandals and public accusations and confessions from Buddhists have proven otherwise.

As with all religious traditions and worldviews, there is invariably a (scalar) gap, sometimes an abyss (e.g., the case with many if not most evangelical Christians in this country, who often appear not to have even read Jesus’s sayings and parables in the Gospels), between teachings, doctrines, spiritual and moral or ethical obligations and guidance one finds in the traditions and worldviews and the daily lives and actions of religious adherents. Some would point to this gap to argue for the irrelevance or impossibility of living according to the doctrinal teachings and spiritual or moral imperatives of these religious worldviews but I think, without attempting to rebut the argument here, that that is nonsense, as are similar or analogous attempts to dismiss utopian imagination and thinking in social and political thought simply because history teaches us many have mistaken utopian dreams and ideals for programmatic blueprints or imminent and concrete possibilities to be realized by any possible means. Along with Condorcet and as defined by the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, man is, I believe, “perfectible” (which does not mean human nature can attain perfection only that we are capable, in principle, of perpetual improvement), and religious worldviews (and not only religious worldviews) often contain core doctrinal teachings (e.g., about love, compassion, justice, various virtues generally … ) and corresponding forms of spiritual praxis: moral psychological and spiritual “exercises” or therapeutic methods, like self-examination, “attentiveness,” meditation, and so forth; what Martha Nussbaum memorably christened “therapies of desire” in the case of Hellenistic ethics, whereby we can make, individually and collectively, perpetual improvements in the moral and spiritual powers and capacities that exemplify the best of human nature, although these are neither inevitable nor guaranteed once attained (in other words, regression is always possible).
Myanmar 10
Perhaps we can find some consolation in the fact that Buddhist groups and organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists have taken on the task of educating themselves and others about Buddhists and violence in the contemporary world. And the Dalai Lama has, for some years now, encouraged Buddhists to speak out about possible immoral behavior among Buddhist teachers, having 

“attributed ethical misconduct in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to the influence of Tibet’s traditional feudal system. He advised Buddhists not to indiscriminately accept whatever their teacher says. ‘That is totally wrong.’ His Holiness advised students to investigate teachings, and, if they find the teachings to be harmful, ‘You shouldn’t follow the lama’s teachings. Even Dalai Lama’s teachings [sic]. If you find some contradiction, you should not follow my teachings.’ When misconduct occurs, the Dalai Lama advised, Buddhists should make the misconduct known: ‘These people do not follow Buddhist advice, Buddhist teachings. Only thing you can do is make public — through newspaper, through radio. Make public.’ His Holiness said that where abusive teachers may not pay heed to Buddhist teachings on ethical behavior, they will likely take notice if their face appears in the media.”
Myanmar 2
Violent Buddhists: A Select Bibliography
  • Bari, Muhammad Abdul. The Rohingya Crisis: A People Facing Extinction. Markfield, Leicestershire, UK: Kube Publishing, 2018.
  • Bartholomeusz, Tessa J. In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
  • Boyle, Francis A. The Tamil Genocide by Sri Lanka: The Global Failure to Protect Tamil Rights under International Law. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2nd, 2016.
  • Chaudhury, Sabyasachi Basu Ray and Ranabir Samaddar, eds. The Rohingya in South Asia: People without a State. London: Routledge, 2018.
  • Dalton, Jacob. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Fortify Rights by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School. “Persecution of the Rohingya Muslims: Is Genocide Occurring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis,” October 2015.
  • Ibrahim, Azeem. The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide. London: C. Hurst & Co., revised ed., 2018.
  • Ives, Christopher. Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009.
  • Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Jerryson, Michael K. and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. Buddhist Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • King, Winston L. Zen and the Way of the Sword: Arming the Samurai Psyche. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Tambiah, Stanley J. Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Tikhonov, Vladimir and Torkel Brekke, eds. Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen War Stories. London: Routledge Curzon, 2001.
  • Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen at War. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2nd ed., 2006. 
  • Wade, Francis. Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim Other.’ London: Zed Books, 2017.
  • Yu, Xue. Buddhism, War, and Nationalism: Chinese Monks in the Struggle against Japanese Aggressions, 1931-1945. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Myanmar 3
Further Reading:
  • Cavanaugh, William. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Cottingham, John. The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Ethics in the Teacher-Student Relationship: The Responsibilities of Teachers and Students (‘from notes taken during the meeting of H.H. the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist Teachers in Dharamsala, 1993’).
  • Ganeri, Jonardon and Clare Carlisle, eds. Philosophy as Therapeia (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark. Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 4th ed., 2017. [Despite the title, there is a chapter on “Buddhist Faces of Terror”]
  • Kakar, Sudhir. The Colors of Violence: Cultural Identities, Religion, and Conflict. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Kellenberger, James. The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Kippenberger, Hans. Violence as Worship: Religious Wars in the Age of Globalization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.
  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Wierxbicka, Anna. What Did Jesus Mean? New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Myanmar 4 
Relevant Bibliographies:
Myanmar 5


Post a Comment

<< Home