When Buddhists call for genocide

There's a fascinating story in the American Buddhist magazine Shambala Sun about the Burmese Buddhists who are killing and harassing their Muslim neighbors. Thoughtful and full of context, it is very much worth a read.

Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher from the US, wrote the piece after traveling through Burma and seeing some of the violence firsthand. He does a good job of explaining the background that has lead up to the genocide in a nuanced way that helps explain how a religion of peace turns violent without taking the emphasis off the victims of that violence.

The biggest source of conflict is the unsettled situation of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s westernmost state. Rakhine is a beautiful land bordering Bangladesh that was for centuries a great seafaring kingdom. But ever since the central Burmese kings conquered Rakhine, the people there have been treated badly. And over the last century, a million Rohingya Muslims, seeking new opportunity or fleeing poverty and mistreatment in present-day Bangladesh, have settled in Rakhine. Today, overpopulated Bangladesh doesn’t want them back and the Rakhine natives, already poor and mistreated by the central government, fear they are losing land and livelihood to the Muslims immigrants, even though many Rohingyas have lived there peacefully for decades.

The current economic pressure has made the situation ripe for fear, violence, and political exploitation. Muslim homes and businesses have been torched and 100,000 Rohingya Muslims, many of them women and children, have been forced into impoverished refugee camps. When I spoke to Rohingyas from Rakhine, their eyes got wide with dismay, and there was a palpable helplessness and fear of attacks by the Buddhist majority. Recently, the drumbeat of violence against Muslims and other minorities has spread to other parts of Burma, often with the tacit approval of the local police and military.

I witnessed firsthand the results of the spreading violence in the town of Lashio in northern Shan state, where this past year a mosque, businesses, and a Muslim orphanage were burned not far from the town’s most revered pagoda. While the local Buddhists I spoke to were friendly, they were also worried, and from their ranks came mobs who torched their Muslim neighbors.

Of the nearly half a million monks and nuns in Burma, those espousing hatred and supporting violence are a handful, less than one percent. But their message of fear and prejudice resonates because of several factors.

Notable Replies

  1. The Buddhists in Sri Lanka haven't always been very nice to their Hindu minority either. Buddhism probably isn't any worse than any other religion, but the hippie stereotype of Buddhists as all-tolerant wonderful people doesn't really hold up to reality.

  2. Bobo says:

    Seems like a few more folks need to read the original texts and not just use the banner of religion as a social/tribal rallying call (sadly, buddhists as well...)

    Probably one of the more relevant quotes from the article:
    "In this culture of devotion, the teachings of the noble truths and
    eightfold path, of nonviolence, mindfulness, meditation, and virtue, are
    not emphasized. And the Buddha’s admonition to see and think for
    yourself is lost entirely."

    And the most:

    "Neither in anger nor hatred

    Should anyone wish harm to another."

    —The Buddha, in the Metta Sutta

  3. The thing to remember about Buddhism is that all through its history, the leity have been largely separated from the "pursuit of enlightenment" that we attribute as the religion's primary goal as exemplified by the culturally prominent monks of the religion.

    It's already hard enough to live "morally" and to seek wisdom as a privileged recluse in a monastery full of knowledge, removed from the hardships of everyday life among the ignorant peasantry. To expect much in the way of moral behavior from the uneducated masses has been seen as foolishness for centuries.

    Hence you have monks being vegetarians while ostensibly "Buddhist" commoners eat meat; hence you have monks being chaste while ostensibly "Buddhist" commoners are decidedly unchaste; hence you have monks being pacifists while ostensibly "Buddhist" commoners are violent and murderous.

    This is of course not to say that the leity are not held to any standards of morality whatsoever, but historically the standards and their enforcement have been very lax.

  4. All Buddhists are peaceful pacifists in the same way that all Christians love their neighbors...

  5. I see, do go on. Where did you study Comparative Religion, the University of Fox News?

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