Buddhism may be touted in the West as an inherently peaceful philosophy, but a surge in violent rhetoric from small but increasingly influential groups of hardline monks in parts of Asia is upending the religion’s tolerant image.
Buddhist mobs in Sri Lanka led anti-Muslim riots last week, that left at least three dead and more than 200 Muslim-owned establishments in ruins, just the latest bout of communal violence stoked by Buddhist nationalists there.
In Myanmar, ultra-nationalist monks led by firebrand preacher Wirathu have poured vitriol on the country’s small Muslim population, cheering a military crackdown forcing nearly 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
And in neighbouring Thailand, a prominent monk found himself in hot water for calling on followers to burn down mosques.
What has prompted this surge in aggressive rhetoric from followers of a faith that is so often equated, rightly or wrongly, with non-violence? For many in the West, schooled in Buddhism via the beatniks, Hollywood, meditation classes, tropical holidays and inspirational Dalai Lama quotes, the visceral response of these monks can be a shock.
But Michael Jerryson, an expert on religion at Youngstown State University who has just completed a book exploring Buddhism and violence, says that throughout history, some Buddhists like any faith have used religion to justify violence. “There’s a common mindset, whether it’s Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand… that Buddhism is somehow under threat,” he said, describing the latest incarnation of violent Buddhist rhetoric. “Each area has its own history, its own causes and instigators, but these instigators are also interlinked.”
In many recent cases around Asia, this aggression has been targeted toward Muslims. After the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan and the “war on terror” rhetoric, Jerryson says, warped historical grievances have “collided with recent Islamophobia”.
Despite centuries of largely peaceful co-existence and trading, Buddhist fundamentalist groups portray Islam as invasive, toppling ancient Buddhist empires in Malaysia and Indonesia and now threatening the same for modern Buddhist nations through jihad or high birth rates.
Myanmar’s Wirathu has built a following railing against Muslims in incendiary sermons both in person and on Facebook, which closed down his page in January.
While Muslims make up less than four percent of Myanmar’s population, Wirathu paints a millenarian portrait of an Islamic plot to eradicate Buddhism.
His Ma Ba Tha group was instrumental in pushing laws to restrict interfaith marriages and changing religion. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist militancy has gone mainstream, with clergy seen clashing with riot police and leading anti-government protests.
During the brutal 26-year civil war, the ire of ultra-nationalists among the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority was focused on the island’s Tamil Hindus. But after the Tamil Tigers were beaten in 2009, hardliners turned on Muslims, who make up some 10 percent of the population.