May 01, 2014

Buddhism’s Fundamentalist Streak

The growing influence of Theravada Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka, Burma, and ThailandAnuradha Sharma and Vishal Arora

BANGKOK (RNS) To many Americans, Buddhism is about attaining enlightenment, maybe even nirvana, through such peaceful methods as meditation and yoga.

But in some parts of Asia, a more assertive, strident, and militant Buddhism is emerging. In three countries where Buddhism is the majority faith, a form of religious nationalism has taken hold:

  • In Sri Lanka, where about 70 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, a group of monks formed the Bodu Bala Sena or the Buddhist Power Force in 2012 to “protect” the country’s Buddhist culture. The force, nicknamed BBS, carried out at least 241 attacks against Muslims and 61 attacks against Christians in 2013, according to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
  • In Burma, at least 300 Rohingya Muslims, whose ancestors were migrants from Bangladesh, have been killed and up to 300,000 displaced, according to Genocide Watch. Ashin Wirathu, a monk who describes himself as the Burmese  “bin Laden,” is encouraging the violence by viewing the Rohingya presence as a Muslim “invasion.”
  • And in Buddhist-majority Thailand, at least 5,000 people have died in Muslim-Buddhist violence in the country’s South. The country’s Knowing Buddha Foundation is not a violent group, but it advocates for a blashemy law to punish anyone who offends the faith. It wants Buddhism declared the state religion and portrays popular culture as a threat to believers.

Though fundamentalism is a term that has thus far been used mostly in relation to Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, some are beginning to use it to describe Buddhists as well.

Maung Zarni, an exiled Burmese who has written extensively on the ongoing violence in Burma and Sri Lanka, argues that there is no room for fundamentalism in Buddhism.

“No Buddhist can be nationalistic,” said Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “There is no country for Buddhists. I mean, no such thing as ‘me,’ ‘my’ community, ‘my’ country, ‘my’ race, or even ‘my’ faith.”

He views the demand for an anti-blasphemy law in Thailand also as a distortion of Buddhism, which doesn’t allow any “organization that polices or regulates the faithful’s behavior or inner thoughts.”

But Acharawadee Wongsakon, the Buddhist teacher who founded the Knowing Buddha Foundation, insists Buddhism needs legal protections and society must follow certain prescribed do’s and don’ts.

She and others see the new movements as providing “true knowledge on Buddhism.”

Thailand’s conflict between Muslim insurgents and local Buddhists, which reignited along the Malaysian border in 2004, is part of a long-standing feud pitting Buddhist monks and Muslim insurgents.

“For sure, Thailand has its own brand of ‘Buddhist’ racism towards non-Buddhists,” said Zarni. “But, I am not sure the Thai society will go the way of those two genocidal Theravada Buddhist societies (Sri Lanka and Myanmar)—where racism of genocidal nature has enveloped the mainstream ‘Buddhist’ society.”

Buddhist monk Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, a senior lecturer at Chiang Mai Buddhist College in Thailand, said there are reasons why Theravada Buddhists see Islam as a threat. Among them, he cited the destruction of Nalanda University in India by Turkic military general Bakhtiyar Khilji in the early 13th century and attacks on Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, around the 7th century and more recently by the Taliban in 2001.

“Thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism,” he said.

Zarni agrees there are links “among what I really call anti-Dharma ‘Buddhist’ networks” in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, which are “toxic, cancerous and deeply harmful to all humans anywhere.”

Wirathu was recently labeled on the cover of Time magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The Myanmar government banned the edition. But Wirathu was quoted telling a reporter, “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”

—Anuradha Sharma and Vishal Arora

Read Maung Zarni's Tricycle article "Buddhist Nationalism in Burma" from the Spring 2013 issue and his interview for the Tricycle blog.

Image: Wen-Yan King/Flickr

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Kristina108's picture

A fundamentalist Buddhist? Means what? That a Buddhist takes the teachings exactly as they are. (The same definition we use for when Muslim or Christian or Jew believes their texts to be literal.) Then...a fundamentalist Buddhist would not fit with the views that are outlined above, at all. Buddha never gave teachings about government or how the environment or outer world should operate. He only spoke of teachings and methods that dealt with people's inner lives - how to liberate themselves and reach enlightenment. What this article outlines is the politicization of Buddhism. Something that has nothing to do with the dharma. If practitioners want to express their political views about how their country runs or want to protect themselves from other belief systems - that's their human right, in my view. But this should not be considered a Buddhist movement. And it's definitely a misnomer to call it Fundamentalist Buddhism.

EnnoJacobsen's picture

Agreed! Fundamentalism doesn't equal violent religion. Fundamentalism is "a form of a religion [...] that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture." In my understanding a Buddhist Fundamentalist would be actually great to be around. People who understand cause and effect, are compassionate, see highest qualities and potential in things – and mind their own business because they are not interested in proselytizing. Sounds like the kind of fundamentalists you would actually want in your life. :)

darshanaocean's picture

As a Buddhist of Asian origin, I am concerned about the same issue. But the sentiments on the ground seem much more complex than just what is taught by the Buddha. I experienced first hand the emotions involved when a fellow Sri Lankan Buddhist shared news about a British lady deported from Sri Lanka due to a Buddha tattoo on her upper arm. I mentioned that it seems the Lankan Buddhists overreacted and that comment invited an impassioned rebuttal from my otherwise amiable friend. I want to do more apart from just getting worried...

Kristina108's picture

This is a political matter, and you should take it up as a concerned citizen who stands up for human rights. But don't act under the banner of Buddhism. Buddha gave teachings that are timeless and universal. This situation is not so. So consider leaving claims of the dharma out of it.

darshanaocean's picture

Thank you for your opinion and advice :))

poetess1966's picture

Work on promoting peace on both sides. Without peace there can be no dialogue and without dialogue, no end to the killing. Buddha was very specific, monks and laymen and laywomen who have taken the vows can not kill. No matter what."Buddhism is NOT a religion to fight, kill or die for" (Thich Nhat Hanh).

darshanaocean's picture

My sentiments. Thank you for your opinion and advice _/\_

jspeltz163's picture

"Monks, some might speak to you using speech that is timely or untimely; monks, some might speak to you according to truth or falsely; monks, some might speak to you gently or harshly; monks, some might speak to you with a good motive or with a harmful motive; monks, some might speak to you with a loving heart or with hostility. On all occasions, monks, you should train yourselves thus: 'Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to that very person, making him as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.' It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves."
- Kakacupama Sutta, MN 21 (PTS: M i 122)