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Buddhists Behaving Badly
September 23, 2017
by William P. Meyers

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Buddhist Attacks on Rohingya are not unprecedented

Buddhists tend to have a positive image in the United States. A few hard-core Christians may not like them, but they are exotic and associated with New Age and 1960s culture. They seldom cause any trouble here. And when they talk about themselves, they emphasize they are a peaceful lot, dedicated to enlightenment, art, and love for all creatures.

Then again, Christians will tell you they are the most wonderful people in the world. So will atheists. And Islamists. And Jews and Hindus and almost every group of people no matter what their common identity.

Then there are the facts of the current situation, and the actual historic record.

Right now the Rohingya are in the news, and so are the Buddhists of Myanmar (aka Burma). The Buddhists of Burma are behaving badly. So how much of that is because they are Buddhists, and how much of the bad behavior is despite Buddhism?

The first thing Americans need to know about Buddhism is that it is not a single, monolithic religion. Buddhism has many sects, some big and some small, just like Christianity in the United States. Some Christian sects, notably Roman Catholicism, have long histories of violence, and others have less or perhaps no history of violence. So too, some Buddhist sects may be currently more violent than others, while some may have been violent in the past, even if they are presently peaceful.

However, I think we can say a lot about Buddhism in general by looking at its history of violence. I have at times come across incidents in that history, but don't pretend to have made a comprehensive study of it.

By the way, the kind of Buddhism widely practiced in Myanmar is called Theravada.

The Buddhists in Myanmar are fighting with an Islamic ethnic group. Given the recent global situation, Americans might be inclined to blame the Rohingya. But the prior large-scale exercise of Buddhist violence was the Sri Lanka civil war, from 1983 to 2009.

In Sri Lanka the Tamils, an ethnic minority in the island of Ceylon practicing Hinduism, sought independence from the central government. The island had been largely Buddhist since the second century B.C., and most Buddhists are in the Sinhalese ethnic group. Like Myanmar, the predominant sect is Theravada; in fact, it is where that sect originated around the first century A.D. The civil war was very bloody, with Buddhist soldiers accused of mass killings of civilians.

Before you conclude from recent events that Theravada is the problem, not Buddhism in general, you might want to consider the history of Buddhist violence over larger geographies and time scales.

There is the troubling history of Buddhist violence in Korea, which I started to document in Korea, Buddhism and Violence. Basically, Buddhism arrived as warrior sects from China. Political rivals found these sects convenient to use as armies.

And the Chinese Buddhist warriors? They originally came from Tibet. Tibetan Buddhists were the terror of East Asia for centuries. The Chinese originally conquered Tibet in order to prevent raids by Buddhist monks into western China. Not something the "Free Tibet" people want you to know.

One reason that Buddhism is so violent is that it is extremely patriarchal. Right back to the original scriptures, Buddhism is based on hatred of women. There is no Mary Mother of God to mellow out the patriarchal ideology. The Buddha left his wife and child to go out and enjoy the contemplation of nature; we never again hear of the abandoned wife and child. Some parts of Tibetan Buddhist scripture I have seen have sickening attacks on women.

Christians (and modern non-religious commentators) often criticize Buddhism as making people passive. But that is great for kings and dictators, who like passive populations. A passive, obedient population can be turned into soldiers with a few months training.

Finally, don't forget Pearl Harbor. I have some sympathy for the Japanese, who saw the attack on Pearl Harbor as self defense. FDR had told the Japanese he was planning to declare war on them and use the Pacific Fleet to take Taiwan, then mainland China, and eventually Japan. So I see the raid as similar to Sir Francis Drake's much-lauded 1587 attack on Cadiz.

Nevertheless, Japan had developed a violent, military culture and had already conquered Korea and much of China before America enterered the war. Buddhism was an important element of Japanese culture. Mixed with Shinto and the modern version of science and technology that focused on economic power and war, Buddhism helped create an Asian form of Fascism that rivaled the Roman Catholic fascism of Mussolini and Hitler.

To bring this rant to an end, I want to point out that science and atheism are themselves no cure. The like of ultra-violent crazy atheists like Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky have given atheists a bad name. [Disclosure: I am an atheist.]

Most modern Buddhists most of the time are peaceful. So are most modern Islamists, Christians, Agnostics and Atheists. Disarming the violent minorities, however, has proven to be no easy task. It will be a long and difficult process.




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