Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?
While history suggests it is naïve to be surprised that Buddhists are as capable of inhuman cruelty as anyone else, such astonishment is nevertheless widespread — a fact that partly reflects the distinctive history of modern Buddhism. By “modern Buddhism,” we mean not simply Buddhism as it happens to exist in the contemporary world but rather the distinctive new form of Buddhism that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this period, Buddhist religious leaders, often living under colonial rule in the historically Buddhist countries of Asia, together with Western enthusiasts who eagerly sought their teachings, collectively produced a newly ecumenical form of Buddhism — one that often indifferently drew from the various Buddhist traditions of countries like China, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Japan and Thailand.
This modern form of Buddhism is distinguished by a novel emphasis on meditation and by a corresponding disregard for rituals, relics, rebirth all the other peculiarly “religious” dimensions of history’s many Buddhist traditions. The widespread embrace of modern Buddhism is reflected in familiar statements insisting that Buddhism is not a religion at all but rather (take your pick) a “way of life,” a “philosophy” or (reflecting recent enthusiasm for all things cognitive-scientific) a “mind science.”
Buddhism, in such a view, is not exemplified by practices like Japanese funerary rites, Thai amulet-worship or Tibetan oracular rituals but by the blandly nonreligious mindfulness meditation now becoming more ubiquitous even than yoga. To the extent that such deracinated expressions of Buddhist ideas are accepted as defining what Buddhism is, it can indeed be surprising to learn that the world’s Buddhists have, both in past and present, engaged in violence and destruction.
There is, however, no shortage of historical examples of violence in Buddhist societies. Sri Lanka’s long and tragic civil war (1983-2009), for example, involved a great deal of specifically Buddhist nationalism on the part of a Sinhalese majority resentful of the presence of Tamil Hindus in what the former took to be the last bastion of true Buddhism (the “island of dharma”). Political violence in modern Thailand, too, has often been inflected by Buddhist involvement, and there is a growing body of scholarly literature on the martial complicity of Buddhist institutions in World War II-era Japanese nationalism. Even the history of the Dalai Lama’s own sect of Tibetan Buddhism includes events like the razing of rival monasteries, and recent decades have seen a controversy centering on a wrathful protector deity believed by some of the Dalai Lama’s fellow religionists to heap destruction on the false teachers of rival sects.
These and other such examples have, to be sure, often involved eloquent Buddhist critics of violence — but the fact remains that the histories of Buddhist societies are as checkered as most human history.
It is important to emphasize that the current violence against the Rohingya is not a straightforwardly “religious” matter. Myanmar’s long history of exclusion and violence toward the Rohingya has typically been framed by the question of who counts as a legitimate ethnic minority and who is instead to be judged a foreigner (and thus an illegal migrant). It is also significant that the contemporary nation-state of Myanmar represents the blending of the former military dictatorship and the democratically elected National League of Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi; in this hybrid form of government, the mechanisms and influence of civil society and public opinion are relatively new.
Nevertheless, the violence against the Rohingya is certainly related to increasingly popular campaigns in recent years to revive Myanmar’s Buddhist tradition (understood by some to be the marker of “real” Burmese identity) and to protect it particularly against the threat that Islam is thought to represent. Popular campaigns to this effect involve the politics of monastic hierarchies, revivalist education campaigns, the advancement of laws for the “protection of race and religion” and attempts to influence the 2015 elections. While the movement is diverse, there is little doubt that it is shaped by (and that it further fuels) a strong anti-Muslim discourse.
This anti-Muslim discourse is, to be sure, exacerbated by all manner of sociopolitical considerations (in Myanmar as elsewhere there is widespread uncertainty at a time of rapid economic, social and political change), and these and other factors are used by a wide range of political actors to gain advantage in the new hybrid democracy. One notion central to this discourse, though, is the idea that Buddhism is under threat in the contemporary world — an idea that appears not only in Myanmar’s history but also in the Buddhist texts, written in the Indic language of Pali, that are taken as canonical in Myanmar. Indeed, many Buddhist traditions preserve narratives (undergirded by the cardinal doctrine of impermanence) to the effect that the Buddha’s teachings are always in decline.
Efforts to revive and preserve Buddhism against this supposed decline have driven many developments in Burmese Buddhism for at least two centuries. One such movement was the Buddhist leader Ledi Sayadaw’s colonial-era program of teaching insight meditation to Buddhist laypeople, who had not traditionally engaged in the meditative and other practices typical only of monastics. This lay meditation movement was later promoted as a practice available to an international audience — a development that is part of the history of contemporary Western fascination with mindfulness.
What is especially interesting is that Buddhist proponents of anti-Muslim discourse often assert that Myanmar is under threat from Muslims precisely because Buddhism is, they say, a uniquely peaceful and tolerant religion. In arguing that Rohingya are illegal immigrants who promote an exclusivist and proselytizing religion that is bent on geographical and cultural conquest through conversion and marriage, some Buddhist leaders in Myanmar thus exploit the very same presumption of uniform tolerance and peacefulness that makes many Westerners uniquely surprised by Buddhist violence.
There are, in fact, important historical reasons that the idea of distinctively Buddhist tolerance figures both in nationalist disparagement of Myanmar’s Rohingya and in widespread Western astonishment at the idea of Buddhists engaging in it. Both phenomena have something to do with Myanmar’s experience under British colonial rule, during which religion came to be an important and operative aspect of Burmese identity.
In this regard, it is not self-evident that being “Buddhist” or “Muslim” should be taken as the most salient facts about people who are many other things (Burmese, shopkeepers, farmers, students) besides. Nevertheless, religious identity under British rule came to be overwhelmingly significant — significant enough that it can now be mobilized to turn large numbers of Buddhists against the Muslim neighbors with whom they have lived peacefully for generations.
The British colonial state required, for instance, that every person have a single religious identity for the purposes of personal law and administration. Such policies reflected the extent to which colonial administrators typically interpreted all of the various cultural interactions in colonial Burma through the lens of “world religions.” According to this way of seeing things, relatively distinct and static religious traditions were defined in opposition to one another, with each one thought to infuse its communities of believers with distinctive characteristics. One of the characteristics ascribed to “Buddhists,” according to this rubric, was that they are generally tolerant and pacifist. The idea of Myanmar’s Buddhists as distinctively tolerant, then, became a key mechanism for dividing Burmese Buddhists from the Indian Hindus and Muslims living alongside them.
Colonial discourse that praised Burmese Buddhists for their tolerance functioned in part to condemn the “superstitious” and “backward” practices of caste Hindus and Muslims in colonial Myanmar. This discourse was picked up by Burmese nationalists and is now invoked, tragically, to justify violence toward Rohingya Muslims.
There is a philosophically problematic presupposition that also figures in widespread surprise at the very idea of violence perpetrated by Buddhists — that there is a straightforward relationship between the beliefs people hold and the likelihood that they will behave in corresponding ways.
Even if we suppose that most Buddhists, or members of any other religious group, really do hold beliefs that are pacifist and tolerant, we have no reason to expect that they will really be pacifist and tolerant. As Immanuel Kant well understood, we are not transparent to ourselves and can never exhaustively know why we do what we do. We can never be certain whether or to what extent we have acted for the reasons we think we did (whether because, for example, “it was the right thing to do”), or whether we are under the sway of psychological, neurophysiological or socioeconomic causes that are altogether opaque to us.
That doesn’t mean that we should (or can) jettison all reference to our stated beliefs, reasons, rationality; indeed, Kant also cogently argued that despite the efforts of all manner of determinists, we cannot coherently explain these away (for any attempt to explain away our rationality would itself represent a use of that faculty). But it does mean that we cannot infer from, say, a society’s widely held belief in toleration and peace that the actions of people in that society will be strictly guided by those beliefs.
We should thus be wary of any narrative on which historical events are straightforwardly explained by the fact that the people in any society hold whatever religious beliefs they do. It just doesn’t follow from the fact that someone is admirable — or for that matter, that she is vile — that it is because of her beliefs that she is so. Given this, we should expect that even in societies where virtuous beliefs are widely held, we will find pretty much the same range of human failings evident throughout history. Buddhist societies are no different in this respect than others.
Many of history’s great Buddhist philosophers would themselves acknowledge as much. Buddhist thinkers have typically emphasized that there is a profound difference between merely assenting to a belief (for example, that all sentient beings deserve compassion) and actually living in ways informed by that belief. To be really changed by a belief regarding one’s relationship to all other beings, one must cultivate that belief — one must come to experience it as vividly real — through the disciplined practices of the Buddhist path.
The reason this is necessary, Buddhist philosophers recognized, is that all of us — even those who are Buddhists — are deeply habituated to self-centered ways of being. Indeed, if that weren’t the case, there would be no need for Buddhist practice; it is just because people everywhere (even in Tibet, Myanmar and Japan) are generally self-centered that it takes so much work — innumerable lifetimes of it, according to many Buddhists — to overcome the habituated dispositions that typically run riot over our stated beliefs.
The basic Buddhist analysis of the human predicament makes sense, as well, of the irony of colonialist conceptions of Buddhism and of the misguidedness of colonial attempts to exploit religious identities. According to a Buddhist analysis, we go through life thinking we’re advancing our own interests, while actually producing ever more suffering because we misunderstand ourselves.
Similarly, as the case of Myanmar shows, the colonial origins of the modern secular state have, in some ways, insidiously fostered the hardening of religious identities. To that extent, the violence perpetrated by Buddhists in Myanmar, astonishing though it might seem to us, may not be so far from the origins of our own ways of perceiving the world. It is clear that this violence is driven by Burmese participation in (and interpretation of) global contemporary discourses that also shape societies in Europe and North America, where the vilification of Islam and of immigrants has (not coincidentally) also been widespread.
Indeed, our own perception of Buddhism as peaceful and tolerant may itself contribute to a global discourse that has, among other things, represented Muslims as less than full citizens — indeed, less than fully human — in Myanmar as in many other places.