For many Americans, popular images of Buddhism have often included those of monks in saffron-colored robes, meditating peacefully on windswept mountains, revering all forms of life while seeking higher states of enlightenment.
In the context of such clichés, it has been jarring, many say, to see very different images coming out of Myanmar. Many monks, barefoot and clothed in the traditional robes of Burmese Buddhist monasteries, have been at the forefront of the violent repression of the Rohingya Muslim minority, which the United Nations has characterized as ethnic cleansing.
Over the past month, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled their homes in what United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Sunday called “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world” right now. Often spurred on by Buddhist monks, local mobs and government forces have reportedly burned hundreds of Rohingya villages to the ground in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, slaughtering many of their Muslim inhabitants as hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
Many of the country’s Buddhists are afraid their own faith is in jeopardy, viewing the Rohingya Muslims as a threat. The military, as well as many monks, have used this fear to stoke a “Buddhist nationalism” that combines religious and civic identities.
The mix of faith and nationalist politics has been combustible for many religions and societies. Religious leaders seek government backing, and governments use the imprimatur of religion to justify killing. And as with most religions, religious scholars point out, there’s the spiritual ideal and then there’s what happens among the less-than-faithful.
“Everywhere there are human beings, you find political violence,” says Joshua Schapiro, senior lecturer at Fordham University in New York and an expert in Buddhist intellectual history. “So it shouldn’t be surprising that in various cases there are both Buddhists and human violence.”
When it comes to religious extremism, in fact, Buddhism has often escaped the scrutiny faced by other groups: Muslim militants, fundamentalist Christians, and Hindu nationalists in India, observers say.
“There is a romantic, more often than not, Western and academic vision of Buddhism as pacifist,” says Scott Davis, professor of religious studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
That romanticism brings with it, not only a disconnect between the violence on the news and Hollywood portrayals of the religion, but deeper consequences. Middle Eastern scholars point out that the world's reaction would likely be very different if Myanmar's Muslims were the ones doing the oppressing, rather than being oppressed.
Hollywood celebrities have taken up Buddhist practices, cultivating friendships with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet. Films like “Seven Years in Tibet,” which starred Brad Pitt as an Austrian mountain climber who became friends with the Dalai Lama at the time of China's takeover, often emphasize such romanticized views, notes Daniel Stevenson, professor of religious studies and historian of Buddhism at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“There’s a scene in which the Tibetan monks are plowing the ground and moving rocks, careful to remove the worms underneath and not cause any harm to them,” says Professor Stevenson, noting the popular images in other US media. “It’s this archetypal image of the life-loving Buddhist monk, careful and meticulous not to harm any creature.”
Reverence for life
In the US, romantic ideas of Buddhism have a long history. The blueblood Buddhist convert, Henry Steel Olcott, a Civil War veteran and co-founder of the Theosophical Society in New York City, once proclaimed, “As far as we know, [Buddhism] has not caused the spilling of a drop of blood.”
In his 1881 “Buddhist Catechism,” he described the practices he embraced as “a religion of noble tolerance, of universal brotherhood, of righteousness and justice,” without a taint of “selfishness, sectarianism, or intolerance.”
In fact, the first of Buddhism’s Five Precepts is indeed a commitment to undertake training to refrain from taking the life of any living creature, Buddhist thinkers say. And in some ways, its injunctions against killing are similar to Jewish and Christian traditions, which share the 7th of the 10 Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” In Islam, too, the Quran proclaims that if anyone kills a person, “it is as though he has killed all mankind.”
In the Abrahamic faiths, however, the divine injunction against killing is mostly limited to other human beings. And the commandment has to do with the murder of innocents, not evildoers who wreak havoc in a community, or in what theologians later articulated as a defensive “just war.”
“But as I give as an example in my classes, look, one of the primary teachings of Jesus in the Gospels is to turn the other cheek,” says Dr. Schapiro. “So when confronted with explicit violence, what is the Christian thing to do if you’re following the teachings of Jesus?”
“So the project of awakening, or liberating one’s self from the daily forms of suffering and committing one’s self to refrain from killing, is a major part of Buddhist teachings and a facet of the lives of some Buddhists,” he continues. “But that does not stop Buddhists at large from being human beings and living in a society.”
Romanticizing the religion can have deeper consequences, too, observers say.
“Just imagine, for a minute, if it were Jews or Christians, or else the ‘peaceful Buddhists’ who were the subjects of Muslim persecutions,” wrote Hamid Dabashi, professor of Middle Eastern and Asian studies at Columbia University in New York, in an op-ed in Al Jazeera earlier this month.
“Compare the amount of airtime given to murderous Muslims of ISIL as opposed to the scarcity of news about the murderous Buddhists of Myanmar,” he continued. “Something in the liberal fabric of Euro-American imagination is cancerously callous. It does not see Muslims as complete human beings.”
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka, too, have fomented violence against Hindu Tamils in recent years, citing scriptures to assert their primacy as “sons of the soil.” In Thailand, Buddhist monks in the 1970s offered religious justification for the mass killings of communists.
And from Indian King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC to medieval China and Japan, Buddhism has played a role in justifying violence and killing. “In almost 2,500 years of development in South and East Asia, the urge to protect the community and disseminate the teachings has been tied to the use of military force,” says Professor Davis. [Editor's note: this story was corrected to accurately reflect where King Ashoka ruled.]
The jarring images coming out of Myanmar, too, seem ironic, since Buddhist monks have been one of the primary forces of democratic change. In 2007, many helped lead what is now known as the “Saffron Revolution,” a movement of mostly nonviolent protests against Myanmar’s long-standing military dictatorship.
Nearly a decade later, their efforts helped Aung San Suu Kyi, the dissident who spent years under house arrest and who won the Nobel Prize in 1991, to become the country’s first democratically-elected leader in 2016. Now the State Counsellor, she shares power with the Myanmar military.
Yet as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country during the recent brutal campaigns, human rights and other global leaders have criticized the Nobel laureate, who has appeared to downplay, if not justify, the Rohingya pogroms.
Indeed, for decades, the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, who make up about 4 percent of the population, have been viewed as foreign outsiders.
Practicing a mystical Sufi form of Islam, many Rohingya trace their origins to waves of immigration dating as far back as the 15th century. Others, however, arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants who arrived as part of the colonial bureaucracy in Rakhine, when the state was under the jurisdiction of British India.
This has placed the Rohingya within the crosshairs of lingering anti-colonial resentments. And many of the same politically-active monks behind the push for democracy have embraced a strident ethnic and religious nationalism seen in other religions in other areas of the world. Proclaiming that their religious traditions and culture are under siege, they often cite Islamic conquests from centuries past in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other regions.
“Buddhism will never die!” proclaimed one leader of Ma Ba Ta, a radical group of Buddhist monks, at recent rally in Mandalay, reported by The Guardian. “This is our cause!” the crowd responded.
“Those who insult our religion,” the leader shouted, “are our enemies!” the crowd returned.
When Burma became independent in 1948, successive governments denied full status to the Rohingya, denying their historical claims and refusing to even consider them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups – each a branch of one of the “8 Major National Ethnic Races,” Myanmar officials say.
In 1982, the Rohingya were officially denied citizenship. During the 2014 census, too, most were forced to be identified as “Bengali” – in essence, unofficial resident aliens denied status, effectively stateless. The UN has called the Muslim minority population in Myanmar as “the most persecuted minority in the world.”
Is it fair to judge a faith by its violent fringe?
Even so, other Myanmar monks have resisted the deeply embedded prejudices against the nation’s Muslim minority. Experts caution that Buddhism, like other faiths, has a wide diversity of interpretations and its adherents are hardly monolithic. The actions of an unfaithful cadre of any religious group, many argue, should never be seen to represent the deeper fullness of a major global religion.
“It seems unhelpful to characterize an entire society based on the behavior of a fringe element,” says Doug Carnine, professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Oregon, and a lay Buddhist minister. He and his wife, also a Buddhist minister, taught English to the monks at the Thone Htat Monastery in Myanmar, and he says they experienced a culture of compassion and peace.
“The male monks, children and adults, eat only what is given when they do their alms rounds, so sharing is deeply embedded in the culture,” Professor Carnine says. “Some radical anti-Muslim Buddhist sects do not believe in sharing with Muslims – but other Buddhist groups do feed poor Muslims at the end of Ramadan.”