I first heard about these attacks in a prayer meeting where someone referred to the “militant Buddhists”. At the time, I was surprised to hear that term and made a joke about what an oxymoron it appeared to be. I now understand more of the context of the attacks led by Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka, as discussed in this article http://bit.ly/Zvhgul. However, my initial response is probably representative of how many people, particularly in the west, view typical Buddhist behaviour as peace-seeking Some of these views are correct as the attacks in Sri Lanka can’t be described as common to Buddhist communities throughout the world. And yet, these violent acts and others are not as atypical as the average westerner may think.
The principles of the Noble Eightfold path, central to Buddhism, include right speech and actions which lead to a life that upholds the right ethics (pg 205). In theory, the religion is pacifist where violence and killing is to be avoided at all costs. However, there has historically been some allowance for defensive violence in the context of “just war” (pg.209). Over the years, many Buddhist communities have had need for defence during periods of intense persecution, especially in India and China. However, justification for the current violence towards Muslims in Sri Lanka is less obvious.
The group BBS (roughly translated Buddhist Strength Force), which is credited as a major source of anti-Islamic rhetoric, identifies itself as countering Muslim extremism yet there are not many examples of Islamic extremism by the minority Muslims in Sri Lanka. This group also has strong nationalistic interests. One suspected supporter of the BBS, the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, made a speech that linked the Buddhist religion with race, culture and country, specifically in the context of “protection”, or defence. These examples appear to provide justification of anti-Islamic sentiments and provoke violent action due to undertones of urgency (i.e. “protection” and “countering….extremism”).
On one level, it is certainly possible that this is an example of how religion can be co-opted by politics to justify actions that are sometimes in apparent contradiction to the principles of the religion. This can occur in any religious community and at any scale, within a church or a nation. Are the Sri Lankan Buddhists’ concerns about national and religious identity or about protecting their economic position in the country and preventing a minority group from gaining economic power? Although it is important to be aware of political influence, there are also other questions which arise that may be helpful to consider the whole issue:
1) Is there a history of Muslim aggression in the region (i.e. is this only one side of the coin)?
2) Where else in this world is this occurring and why? Is the basis for these actions similar to what is happening in Burma?
3) Is this part of a “normal” tension between minority and majority religions? Does the exclusive and evangelistic nature of Islam contribute to the tensions?
4) Does Buddhist doctrine have an influence on the uptake of anti-Islamic sentiments in the general population as a result of less strict adherence to religious ethics? In Sri Lanka, the “Lesser Vehicle” Theravadin Buddhism is dominant whereby the laity is not able to achieve enlightenment.
5) Is the Western view of Buddhism partial or faulted, and if so, does this impact reporting on the issue? (SH) #worldrels