Violence is everywhere. We see it especially in 2020. And what about Buddhist monastics? Let’s find out
In recent years, the phenomenon of “Buddhist violence” has received increasing attention. The seeming oxymoron entered the Western consciousness during the Sri Lankan civilwar (1983-2009), and some of us first heard about it during the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in southern Thailand that erupted in 2004. Today, it is notorious due to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Buddhists are people, and some people are violent. But the fact that Buddhist monks incite violence against Muslims is disturbing to many Westerners — especially to Buddhist practitioners who consider the Buddha’s teaching to be completely non-violent.
Buddhism Doctrine may vary from a place to place, and may has some violence in it. Doctrine is not locked in. Every Buddhist tradition has different amounts of doctrine. The Vinaya differs everywhere you go. The sutras varies from one Buddhist tradition to another.
And sometimes it is not about what actually is written in the cannon. It’s how it’s being used and interpreted.
In the Russo-Japanese war, during Japanese Imperialism, WWII, Rinzai, Soto Zen, and Pure Land Buddhist monks would advocate that it’s okay to kill. They would explain, “These people are not really people. They are the five psycho-physical aggregates. They’ll get reborn in a true Buddhist land so they can get awakened.”
Sometimes violence might be explained by defensing of dharma — defense of Buddhism — would be one clear example that is used again and again. What we’ve seen in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is these Buddhist monks saying, “These are signs that Buddhism is underattack, and Islam is going to overtake us, and we must protect this.”
There is such a thing in Thailand as “military monks”. Military monks are soldiers who get earmarked to go to a monastery and become ordained. They retain the soldier status and retain a monthly salary and they carry a gun. And the argument is: who is better trained to protect these monasteries than soldiers, clandestinely, as monks?
In both the Sri Lankan and Burmese examples, the monks see Buddhism as a key component of their national identity. They consider any non-Buddhists in the population than to be a threat to the unity and strength of the nation. As a result, they react with violence. Perhaps, if Prince Siddhartha was alive today, he would remind them that they should not nurture such an attachment to the idea of the nation.