Westerners think that Buddhism is about peace and non-violence. So how come Buddhist monks are in arms against Islam?
by Michael Jerryson, ‘Aeon,’ London, Melbourne, New York, January 15, 2018
The recent violence in southern Thailand began on 4 January 2004, when Malay Muslim insurgents invaded a Thai Army depot in the southernmost province of Narathiwat. The next day, after the burning of 20 schools and several bomb attacks in a neighbouring province, the Thai government declared martial law over the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Shortly after, two Buddhist monks were killed during their morning alms, and a third injured. In these provinces, the majority population is Muslim, and Buddhists are a minority. By the summer, journalists and scholars had written articles about the insurgents and the role of Islam in the violence. But since Buddhism was associated with peace, no one thought to investigate the role of Buddhism. How could a Buddhist monk participate in the violence? Yet clearly, Buddhism was involved in the conflict.
In Pattani’s capital district, the My Gardens Hotel is popular with tourists. I had gone there to collect people’s opinions on the killing of Buddhist monks. On this day, the hotel was nearly vacant, the lobby empty, save for two police officers, who were devout Thai Buddhists. As I wanted to get their perspective on the ongoing violence, the three of us sat down together. They explained that they were periodically stationed at the My Gardens Hotel because insurgents had begun to bomb local businesses. Economics, they said, was an important factor behind the current violence. Poverty was creating a desperation that deepened the crisis.
But when I asked them about the attacks on Buddhist monks, their cool analysis changed to passionate outrage. They said that murdering a Buddhist monk was the very worst thing a person could do – and if they caught the perpetrators, they would kill them. The expression of such rage, and their justification for violence in response to an attack on Buddhist monks, was shocking. I, like many, had thought that Buddhists were peaceful and that their religion abhorred violence.
Such an association of Buddhism with peace is neither accidental nor unusual. The vast majority of introductory books on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy do not mention Buddhist violence. Instead, they associate Buddhism with pacifism and non-violence. Think of the many books on Buddhist meditation, the 14th Dalai Lama and his advocacy of non-violence, and the peace work of Buddhist activists such as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (whom Martin Luther King Jr nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967). It’s no surprise that many Westerners think of Buddhism as a non-violent religion, dedicated to inner peace and harmony, not violent politics.
As a result, when travelling into the Thai conflict zone, one is prepared to encounter Buddhists working to quell the violence. Surely monks would be engaged in interfaith dialogue while Buddhist volunteers applied the principles of loving-kindness (metta-karuna) and compassion to heal their community’s fears and anger? But the police officers’ retaliatory rhetoric clashed with any such assumptions. And their view is not unique.
On 16 October 2015, a head monk at the prestigious Marble Temple in Bangkok posted on his Facebook page his outrage over the latest attacks on Buddhist monks in southern Thailand. Phra Apichart Punnajanto argued that the situation required a violent response: for each Buddhist monk who is attacked, Buddhists should burn down a mosque. Punnajanto was not the first monk, nor the last, to justify violence for Buddhism.
Thailand is over 93 per cent Buddhist, the second most Buddhist country in the world, behind Cambodia. Yet this religious demographic is inverted within the three southernmost provinces (formerly the Islamic kingdom of Pattani), which are over 80 per cent Malay Muslim. The violence since 2004 marks the most recent chapter in a centuries-old conflict between the Thai government and the southern region. Over the centuries, Malay Muslims have fought for political independence. This recent episode was mired in political motives, corporate corruption with the local fisheries, and a decades-long drug trafficking problem in the area. Although the bombings, beheadings and killings have reduced over the past year, they have not stopped. More than 6,500 people have been killed in the conflict. The majority of the victims are moderate Muslims, though these numbers do not capture the impact the violence has had on the minority Buddhist population. Many Buddhist families have faced violence or have been intimidated into leaving the region altogether.
The declining number of Buddhists in southern Thailand has led to a decline in the number of Buddhists who will ordain as monks. This dwindling number, coupled with the violence against Buddhist monks and laity, has led many Thais to believe that Buddhism is under threat. Buddhists equate an attack on monks with an attack on their religion’s vitality. It seems to many that Buddhism must be protected – with violence, if necessary.
Such a position is not only held by the Buddhist laity, but also by Buddhist monks. Buddhism holds a dominant role in Thai society, yet some monks have wanted a more robust form of Buddhist nationalism inserted into the Thai constitution. Others want Thailand to become more actively engaged in a battle against the perceived ‘global jihad’. These monks have adopted the discourse that Buddhism is under attack – and that they need to defend it in Thailand.
Early in the conflict, fear caused many Buddhist monks to revise their daily religious practices. Insurgents continued to periodically target and kill monks on their morning alms. Because of this, the majority of monks no longer carried out these morning rituals; it was too dangerous, even with armed guards. Some monks even began to sleep with handguns, ready to fire into the air to scare off would-be attackers. The most dramatic change was with Buddhist soldiers who accepted covert duties to protect Buddhism from the southern ‘Islamic’ invasion.
The monk pulled back his saffron robes to reveal his Smith & Wesson handgun
Rumours had circulated about a secret group of Buddhist monks who were covertly retaining their status as soldiers. These special monks were supposedly armed and receiving a military salary, but the rumour did not seem credible. According to Buddhist doctrine, monks are prohibited from serving in the military. Knowing that soldiers might want to ordain, the Thai military had made several provisions to allow soldiers a brief respite, to spend time as monks before disrobing and returning to military service. With these governmental provisions and the Buddhist injunctions against soldiers ordaining as monks, the rumours seemed improbable.
In December 2006, I met with a monk in a southern Thai Buddhist monastery. I had finished teaching an English class to some novices, and the monk had asked me about my research. During our conversation, the monk pulled back his saffron robes to reveal his Smith & Wesson handgun. Here in front of me was a military monk – part of a covert group of soldiers who had been trained to protect Buddhist monasteries by serving as fully ordained Buddhist monks. The rumours were true after all.
The military monk explained how the conflict justified his presence: ‘Because we are here, the monks and the people stay. Instead of running away, they stay together with us and fight. We southern Thai Buddhists are like small ants uniting against an elephant. Though small in number, we can collectively combat the Muslim terrorists.’ He saw the insurgency as not merely political, but religious in nature. Buddhism itself was under attack, and such a threat justified special steps to protect Buddhists and Buddhist monks.
Today, more and more Buddhists echo a similar view: Buddhism is under threat of a transnational Islamic expansion, and Buddhists need to respond with violence. Punnajanto’s call to burn down mosques fits into this mosaic of justifications that has been brewing in Thailand for more than a decade.
The recent Buddhist-inspired violence in places such as southern Thailand shocked many. When I lecture on these events, people often ask if these are ‘truly’ Buddhists. After all, violence does not fit into the popular narrative of Buddhism being wholly peaceful. But they are indeed ‘true’ Buddhists, and many are monks. The problem is that the ‘peaceful Buddhist’ narrative is erroneous. It prevents us from understanding the causes of violence. Buddhists, after all, have an agency that goes beyond Hollywood stereotypes of mystical monks, Himalayan mountaintops and Shangri-La.
These popular narratives of passivity and victimhood in Western culture are blind to the diversity in Buddhism and its long history of violence. The stories that seem to take root are ones that provide space for Westerners to become the heroes – rescuers of those from the besieged ‘East’. They centre on intrepid voyagers who travel to the East and come back with the exotic mystic arts, as recently portrayed in the Marvel film Doctor Strange (2016).
In these accounts, Buddhism is not so much a full-bodied religion than (merely) a philosophy. Within the United States, the origins of this view can be found in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago. On the shores of Lake Michigan, wealthy white US citizens were introduced to the science of Buddhism by Zen Japanese Buddhist priests and Western-educated Sri Lankan monks. Many, like the German-born author Paul Carus, left that conference with a vision of a ‘philosophy’ that was spiritual and in harmony with scientific progress.
After the Second World War, the Buddhist movement found its home in the Beatnik generation through romanticised works such as Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958), the writings of the poet Allen Ginsberg, and those of the ex-Episcopal priest Alan Watts. Later, Robert Pirsig’s philosophical reflections in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance(1974) gained an enthusiastic following among readers dissatisfied with modern life and who wanted more. In 1987, US interest in Buddhism began to assume political implications with the founding of the Free Tibet movement.
In the West, Buddhism is more an accoutrement to one’s way of life than a full-bodied religion. In the late-20th century, it became commodified within the fast-paced market of US consumerism. You can now buy a Yogi Relaxed Mind tea during your work break, pay for special meditation classes in air-conditioned studios after a full day at the office, and escape from the Western work culture for a periodic meditation retreat. All entreats that promote a calm, serene, non-violent association with Buddhism.
This historical version ignores the long legacy of Asian Americans who had been Buddhists for generations before their white counterparts ‘discovered’ Buddhism; it fails to include the Chinese-American Sze Yap Company, which founded the oldest Buddhist monastery in San Francisco in 1853. Forgotten is the powerful impact of non-white Buddhists on US Buddhist lineages, meditation practices, and philosophies (one notable exception is the work of the feminist author bell hooks).
In this treatment of Buddhism, there is no space for any Asian or other non-white Buddhists to serve as primary heroes, other than through the caricature of martial-art experts. Nor is there any inclusion of admired Buddhists in their opposition to Western interests. Instead, Asians became the supporters or sidekicks of Western heroes. There was no room in this depiction for Buddhist monks who rallied against the West. One of the more pervasive narratives that displays this contradiction is the popular Western portrayal of Vietnamese Buddhist self-immolations.
The myth of Buddhism ignores the fact that Buddhists will go to great lengths to defend their religion
On 11 June 1963, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-immolated outside the Cambodian embassy in the city of Saigon in Vietnam. Journalists were notified in advance to show up, but had not been told what would happen. The US journalist Malcolm Browne photographed the scene. His photograph became an enduring worldwide image of Buddhist protest.
Many in the US assume that the self-immolation was a protest against the war in Vietnam, paralleling anti-war protestors at home. This idea fits nicely into the popular association of Buddhism with peace. It is, however, wrong. Quang Duc’s self-immolation and the others that followed were a protest against the South Vietnamese Ngo Dinh Diem administration and its allies in the West. Vietnamese Buddhists felt persecuted by the Vietnamese administration’s pro-Catholic stance. Their self-immolations were acts to defend Buddhism.
Buddhists have always been involved in civil disobedience movements and peace-making agendas, such as the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. Further, Buddhist meditations have proven incredibly helpful in the rehabilitation of criminals. In short, Buddhism, to its practitioners, is not an ‘accoutrement’ to life or ‘just’ a philosophy – it is a full-bodied religion whose adherents are eager to protect. The myth of Buddhism as a wholly peaceful religion ignores Buddhists’ agency and diversity – and the fact that they will go to great lengths to defend their religion, whether by way of pistol-bearing monks or self-immolating protesters.
Recently, Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka have also called for violence. In 2013, Time magazine placed the Burmese Buddhist monk U Wirathu on their cover with the headline ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’. U Wirathu has been a fiery critic of Burmese Muslims, particularly those who identify as Rohingya. The 2014 Myanmar census found that Buddhists make up 89 per cent of the population, compared with Muslims at 4.3 per cent. Nevertheless, U Wirathu and his counterparts argue that both Burmese Buddhism and Myanmar itself are threatened by the ‘Islamification of Asia’. In well-attended sermons, U Wirathu has repeatedly derided Muslims and Islam, accusing them of seeking to destroy Burmese culture and the future of Buddhism. In one sermon, he likened Muslims to the African carp, explaining that they are inherently violent, prone to breed quickly, and want to eat their own kind.
U Wirathu is a member of the 969 movement. This movement and the Ma Ba Tha (the Patriotic Association of Myanmar) retain significant influence over the Buddhists of Myanmar. They distribute pamphlets and taped sermons that warn about the threat of Islam. Their work to foment fear of Muslims helps to propel Burmese Buddhists toward violence, as in the murderous anti-Muslim riots in the central city of Meiktila in 2013, where at least 40 people died. Before these, there were powerful precursors from the western Rakhine state. Since 2012, nearly 140,000 Rohingya have been displaced from their homes in Rakhine. Most of these Rohingya have been deported from homes into special internment camps. Due to the terrible conditions in these camps, journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times argue that the Buddhist treatment of the Rohingya constitutes genocide.
In 2015, the two Burmese Buddhist organisations successfully lobbied for the passage of pro-Buddhist legislation. Many international human-rights groups argue that these new laws are discriminatory against minority groups, particularly Muslims. U Wirathu continues to develop connections not only with Thailand’s Buddhist monks, but also with Sri Lankan Buddhist monks.
The Buddhist organisation ran an incendiary campaign, calling for a boycott on stores selling halal-certified meat
From 1983, Sri Lanka was engaged in a civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought to separate and form their own independent state of Tamil Eelam. The Sri Lankan government opposed this, both through secular language and Buddhist rhetoric. Buddhist monks fiercely argued against negotiations, and for fighting to keep Sri Lanka ‘whole’. For these monks, Sri Lanka is the true land of Buddhism and it was under attack. Monks were straightforward political players, delivering incendiary speeches, joining political parties (such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), and taking part in violent clashes.
The civil war ended in 2009, but Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have continued to push their political agendas. Since 2011, there have been further escalations in violent rhetoric by Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalist organisations such as the Sinhala Ravaya (The Roar of the Sinhalese), the Ravana Balaya (Ravana’s Force) and the Bodu Bala Sena (The Army of Buddhist Power). Often, the rhetoric is directed at businesses, for example against halal provision for Muslims. In early 2013, the Bodu Bala Sena ran an incendiary campaign, calling for a boycott against stores that provided halal-certified meat. The Buddhist organisation falsely alleged that Muslims were slaughtering young calves (an illegal practice), and accused the governing body for halal-certification, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, of taking steps to bring about Sharia law in Sri Lanka.
Similar to their counterparts in Myanmar, these Sri Lankan Buddhist groups have incited anti-Muslim riots, as in Aluthgama in 2014. Buddhist groups have been implicated in the assassination of politicians and peace activists. The growing influence of these hyper-nationalist Buddhist organisations, together with the Sri Lankan government’s tacit support (through a lack of response) has spurred NGOs and local communities to protest. In November 2016, 367 Sri Lankan citizens submitted a collective complaint about the inaction of the police to protect minorities from the persistence of Buddhist monk-led attacks.
No religion has a monopoly on ‘violent people’, nor does any one religion have a greater propensity for violence. Rather, social conditions such as poverty and societal upheavals generate violent behaviour, regardless of religion. It is no coincidence that poorer regions and neighbourhoods suffer higher crime rates. When people find the world changing around them, they turn to their religion to make sense of things. Some look to religion as a means to preserve what they have, and religion provides a way of understanding one’s place in the world and, more importantly, one’s duty.
In order to comprehend such people’s justifications for violence, it is important to explore their worldview, namely, the way in which Buddhists understand and protect what is sacred to them. Although Buddhism is incredibly diverse, all Buddhists venerate the Triple Jewels: Buddha, Dharma (doctrine) and Sangha (monastic community). As long as these jewels remain in the world, humanity still has a way of escaping the vicious cycle of rebirth. Buddhists, along with Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, believe that time is cyclical, and that there is a decline before the end of each great cycle.
According to Buddhists, their doctrine provides rulers with justice, societies with equilibrium, and individuals with a path to salvation. Its attenuation, therefore, is one sign of the decline. Another is the absence, or dwindling numbers, of the sangha. When there are no more monks, Buddhist End Times will begin.
Buddhist scriptures measure internal time by how many breaths you take, and external (cosmic) time through the rotation of four kalpas, or aeons. Unlike in Abrahamic religions, time in Buddhism has no beginning. It is a constant cycle. There is no definitive amount of time given for each kalpa, but Buddhist scriptures provide suggestive analogies. In the Prajnaparamita Sutra, one kalpa lasts longer than the time required to wear away an 18,000-square-metre rock by brushing it with a piece of cloth once every 100 years.
The first kalpa is a formative and chaotic period. In the second kalpa, the chaos continues to unfold. It is only in the third kalpa in which the chaos declines, and the world enters into a rapid stage of evolution. The fourth and final kalpa is called the Age of Destruction. It ends with an apocalyptic rainfall that destroys all life and sparks the beginning of the first kalpa. Buddhists believe that we are living in the fourth and final section of the last kalpa. The end of the kalpa will inevitably come and, when it does, a new Buddha will emerge: Maitreya, the Buddha-to-be. But Buddhists can forestall the end. The longer the Buddhist monks and their doctrine remain strong, then the slower the pace toward the end of the kalpa.
Buddhist traditions have different ways of identifying the signs of deterioration. According to legend, on the eve of the Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) becoming awakened, he was tempted by Mara, the embodiment of desire, death and rebirth. Although he conquered his desires and vanquished Mara, many Buddhists have believed that the re-appearance of Mara is a sign that the End Times have arrived. Others think that the erosion of their sacred Three Jewels signals the beginning of the end. In order to forestall the quickening of the End Times, Buddhists have fought against the manifestations of Mara and to preserve the integrity of their practices and doctrine.
For instance, in sixth-century China, the Buddhist monk Faqing led a revolt and declared the arrival of a new Buddha. He marshalled 50,000 men to fight, promising them that, with each kill, they would reach a higher stage in the bodhisattva path. In ninth-century Tibet, Emperor Langdarma was assassinated by a Tibetan lama. According to Tibetan sources, Langdarma had become possessed by demonic forces (gdon). He destroyed monasteries and began to attack the Buddhist establishment. Things were changing and not in the right direction. The murder of Langdarma ‘saved’ Buddhism in Tibet. It has become such an important event that the Tibetans commemorate the murder in their Cham dance, which offers moral instructions through performance.
Japanese fighter planes carried images of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara
During the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese emperor strengthened support for Shintoism, and began to dismantle Buddhist institutions that were not favourable to the state. Buddhist monks had a choice of either complying with the state, or leaving the monkhood. Many remained and supported the onset of Japanese imperialism. During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, Rinzai Buddhist monks spoke out in favour of the military campaign. For them, the war was a fight for the preservation of civilisation and the Buddhist doctrine – a fight for the world.
The Buddhist call-to-arms reoccurred throughout the Second World War. Japanese fighter planes carried images of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Zen and Pure Land Buddhist monks argued that the Second World War was justified in order to preserve ‘true’ Buddhism. The Buddhist traditions in places such as China, Korea and Singapore had become corrupt and faulty. It was a sign of decay.
As humanity moves closer to the Buddhist End Times, the Buddhist doctrine explains that it will become harder for a person to become enlightened. In recent years, many Buddhists have turned to Pure Land Buddhism. These Buddhists believe that our world is now fraught with a multitude of obstacles to becoming fully awakened. To avoid this, a follower practices uttering Amitabh’s name (nianfo) and visualizing him. In this way, the follower ensures a rebirth in Pure Land, where he can receive the teachings from the Bodhisattva Amitabha to reach enlightenment. Pure Land Buddhism is one of the largest populated traditions in East Asia, and is quickly expanding its numbers globally. While some Buddhists turn to traditions such as Pure Land Buddhism, others fight to preserve what they believe is true Buddhism, such as in southern Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Over the centuries, there have been tremendous changes to Buddhism. Indeed, change is one of the foundational principles in Buddhism: all is impermanent. Some changes are in concert with modernity, others are in reaction. Each Buddhist tradition has transformed with the times – and the times are always changing. But there are persistent patterns that keep pace with these changes. Buddhist monks in the early sixth-century China led revolts to defend Buddhism. Today, monks in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka continue to fight – violently – for their religion and to call their followers to action. The cycle of violence continues in this final stage of the cycle of time: the Kali Yuga, the Age of Destruction.
Micheal Jerryson is an associate professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio. He is co-founder and co-chair of the Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Unit through the American Academy of Religion, and co-edits the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (2011).