Buddhist Violence: An Oversimplification of the Conflict in Myanmar

Violence motivated by religion is a thematic element of both historic and modern-day societal living. In many instances, religion has served as a strong motivator for persecution, crusades, and general discrimination emphasized by religious superiority. Moreover, religious violence occurs across all disciplines of religion including Buddhism, which is widely regarded as a pacifist religion. Because […]

Violence motivated by religion is a thematic element of both historic and modern-day societal living. In many instances, religion has served as a strong motivator for persecution, crusades, and general discrimination emphasized by religious superiority. Moreover, religious violence occurs across all disciplines of religion including Buddhism, which is widely regarded as a pacifist religion. Because of Buddhism’s reputation, there is confusion about the current day violence in Myanmar towards Muslims by extremist Buddhist monks, and Western media outlets are desperately attempting to find the monks’ reasoning and justification. Extremist sangha members justify violence in Myanmar through self-preservation ideologies, scriptural exceptions to violence in Theravada Buddhism, and by othering the Muslim populations. However, because the violence is motivated by non-religious factors like colonization and the manipulation of true Buddhism, the conflict should not be solely labeled as Buddhist violence.

Extremist monks who are persecuting Muslims in Myanmar oftentimes justify violence in the name of self-preservation. Since Buddhist monks believe that Buddhism requires a strong connection with the government to reproduce, extremists justify violent action against highly concentrated Muslim populations by claiming they are protecting this connection. Walton and Hayward describe how monks argue “that [violent] actions taken against non-Buddhist communities, which seem counter to Buddhist values of compassion and equanimity, are justified undertaken in defense of the sasana” (20). They believe that without a Muslim presence in Myanmar, Buddhism cannot have the strong connection to the government that it needs, and thereby, violence with the intention to re-establish this connection is justified. Moreover, violent monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka often ask their followers, “How can one seek after Nibbana when a gun is pointed at one’s throat?” (Lehr 187), and then use this ideology to promote that “an armed monk was better than no monk at all” (Lehr 221). Extremist monks believe that because Buddhism is under siege in a deteriorating world, it is necessary for monks to take action to preserve Buddhism, and this justifies violent action against Buddhist enemies. However, in true Buddhism, Kweon explains that “only nirvana offers a final solution [to suffering]” (47). Because their final goal has shifted away from nirvana, extremist monks practice a manipulated version of Buddhism. Thus, the violence is not perpetuated by original Buddhist doctrine, but by the non-religious fear of losing power.

While original Buddhist doctrine does not promote violence, Theravada scriptures also allows monks to justify violence in the religious sphere. Many of these justifications come from Theravada interpretations which allow for exceptions to non-violence based on the intention of the assailant and the nature of the victim. Because karma revolves around intention, Theravada scriptures allow for varying degrees of condemnation for violence based on the intention of the assailant. Jerryson describes how “a death caused by the deliberate intention to kill results in expulsion” whereas an accidental death will be condemned with “penalties that are not as severe as deliberate acts of violence” (42). In Burma, Wirathu denies his connection to the violence against Muslims by claiming his intention in preaching the sermons was not to cause riotous behavior, thus removing his own karmic culpability (Walton and Hayward 42). Because of the ambiguity of intention in Theravada scripture, extremist monks can claim good intentions when they indirectly call laypeople to violent action. In addition to intention, Buddhist violence is also justified with regard to the nature of the victim. After analyzing Theravada scriptures, scholar-monk, Buddhaghosa, deemed that “in the case of beings that possess [moral] virtues, such as human beings, the act of killing is less blameworthy when the being is of little virtue and more blameworthy when the being is of great virtue” (Jerryson 42). Politically active monks in Myanmar today have then taken this explicit exception to violence and used it to further nullify the blame of persecuting Muslims by preaching that they have ‘little virtue.’ However, because the politically active monks have justified their violence solely on the basis of Theravada Buddhism, the sanctity of pure Buddhism remains intact and separate from the violence in Myanmar.

In addition to scriptural justifications, Myanmar’s racist cultural norms encourage the monks’ violence. Even while Buddhism is an inherently peaceful religion that preaches compassion, racism still pervades the culture in the Sangha. Jerryson explains how while the Buddha rebuked the South Asian Brahmanical caste system, the Sangha “contain[ed] a wealth of physical restrictions for those who wish to ordain, and the vast majority of [the Buddha’s] followers were of the higher castes” (64). In South Asia, the caste level has a direct correlation to race, causing the Sangha to propagate racist notions by creating a community subconsciously conditioned against those with darker skin tones. Furthermore, historical interpretations of Buddhist lore show “light skin tones for the Buddha and darker skin tones for his adversaries” (64), and Jerryson concludes that “these features suggest a structural level of violence that integrates Buddhist lore and racialized subjects” (64). These conditionings of colorism can be seen in the general violence and discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; other groups in Myanmar often refer to Rohingya Muslims using the slur kalar which is aimed at their darker skin tone. Furthermore, in Myanmar, Wirathu works to condition the lay-people against the Muslims in the Rakhine state. In his sermons, he compares the Muslims to dogs; he says that “you can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog. If we are weak, our land will become Muslim” (Lehr 158). Not only does he make it clear that Muslims are the enemy, but he also dehumanizes them with the phrase ‘mad dog.’ In ancient Buddhist doctrine, the animal realm holds less merit than the human realm, and this distinction between the two allows for laypeople and monks to attempt to justify their violence and still falsely believe they are true practitioners of Buddhism. However, the true Buddhist doctrine of non-violence “inculcate[s] respect for all living creatures, whether human or animal, and regard[s] the intentional destruction of life as a grave wrong” (Keown 11). Thus, regardless of attempted justifications dehumanization, the violent Buddhist monks practice and promote a form of Buddhism that does not truly follow the original doctrine. Moreover, not only do the extremist monks practice a manipulated version of Buddhism, but their violence against Muslims is more motivated by racial conditioning rather than a clash of religious values.

While the extremist monks are motivated by a manipulated version of Buddhism, the violence in Myanmar cannot solely be credited to a religious dispute. As Lehr explains, “other factors like widespread poverty, grievances, and resentment against governmental authority or strong charismatic leaders are required even if there is a doctrinal justification for violence available” (182). King presents this very phenomenon of unjustly treating religion as the main motivation behind violence in his theory about the relation between religion and violence. He explains that society’s downfall is its constant interest in “tak[ing] religious discourse and practice as constitutive of changing social identities, rather than treating them as ideological smoke screens that hide the real clash of material interests and social classes” (249). Rather than taking into account ulterior motives behind the violence, society attributes religious discourse and practice as the sole motivators behind violent action, which wrongly labels the violence in Myanmar as Buddhist violence. Furthermore, the violence is largely motivated by remnants of fear left behind after the colonization of Myanmar. The colonization of Myanmar by the British caused the Sangha to fear losing their power again, and this fear increased Buddhist nationalism and xenophobic conditioning within the monastic community. Lehr describes how Monk Dharmapala “manifested the dual aspects of a colonial product – the rational puritanism of the missionaries interpreted in terms of Buddhism, which he combined with an intense hatred of the religion and culture of the Western rulers” (125). In an effort to combat the effects of colonization and to restore the Sangha’s power, monks like Dharmapala integrated notions of ‘rational puritanism’ and an ‘intense hatred’ of outside groups into the Sangha. These original notions turned into forms of Buddhist nationalism and xenophobia that perpetuate the violence seen today. Moreover, colonization brought “chaotic disturbances to the traditional social and political equilibrium” (Park 2), and these chaotic disturbances caused Buddhist monks to change their religion. Park describes this change by explaining that “the accommodations they reached with colonial powers account for the Buddhists’ occasional collaborations with imperial war, social injustice, and military occupation” (4). Following colonialism, Buddhist monks shifted away from the original doctrine to a manipulated mindset that allowed for Western ideologies like nationalism, militarism, and xenophobic conditioning; this change in mindset is what perpetuates violence seen against Muslims today.

Extremist Buddhist monks in Myanmar attempt to justify their violence towards Muslims through various lines of thought: self-preservation, scriptural exceptions in Theravada Buddhism, and the racist otherization of Muslims in the Rakhine state. However, due to the monk’s manipulation of original Buddhist doctrine and postcolonial ramifications, the violence in Myanmar has been wrongly labeled as Buddhist violence. By continually using the phrase Buddhist violence, western media has over-simplified the conflict in Burma while simultaneously overshadowing monks that do not align with extremist ideologies. Unfortunately, the western world’s infatuation with violence occurring by members of a very pacifist religion will only increase and promote more media traction around the alluring concept of ‘Buddhist violence’. However, regardless of Western portrayals of the conflict in Myanmar, it is important to remember that the true beauty of the Buddhist religion remains in these countries and that many monks and laypeople are still dedicated to the mission preached by the original Buddha.

Works Cited

Jerryson, Michael. “Buddhist Traditions and Violence.” In Violence and the World’s Religious Traditions: An Introduction, edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson, Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 37-69.

Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford UP, 2013.

King, Richard. “The Association of ‘Religion’ with Violence: Reflections on a Modern Trope.” In Religion and Violence in South Asia: Theory and Practice, edited by John R. Hinnells and Richard King, Routledge, 2007, pp. 226-257.

Lehr, Peter. Militant Buddhism: the Rise of Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Walton, Matthew J., and Susan Hayward. “Buddhist Narratives of Insecurity and Conflict” and “Constructing a Counternarrative.” In Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar, East-West Center, 2014, pp. 17-29, 30-44.


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