Buddhist Fundamentalism?
Posted on August 9th, 2016

Asoka Bandarage Courtesy The HuffingtonPost.com

There are innumerable accounts in the international media and academia on aggression against religious minorities, especially the Muslims, in the Buddhist majority countries in South and Southeast Asia. They report incitement of violence by ‘militant’ Buddhist monks of the the MaBaTha and the 969 Movement against the Rohingyas in Burma, Thai monks against Muslims in Southern Thailand and theBodu Bala Sena against Muslims in Sri Lanka. Human rights groups are calling for international responses to Buddhist ‘fundamentalism’, ‘ethnic violence’, and ‘neo-Nazi’ religious nationalism. Western and international Buddhist leaders are urging Buddhists in Theravada Buddhist countries, especially Burma, where there is widespread violence and displacement of Rohingya Muslims, to uphold social pluralism and Buddhist principles of non-violence, mutual respect and compassion.

Indeed, aggression and violence of any individual or group towards another must be condemned and stopped. However, one-sided, dualistic depictions of majority aggression and minority victimization further polarization and conflict rather than peace and harmony. The vast majority of monks and lay people in the Buddhist majority countries abhor violence and have lived in mutual harmony and with respect towards other ethnic and religious communities for centuries. A deeper perspective on the religious conflicts in Asian Buddhist countries calls for a balanced investigation of the historical challenges Buddhists have faced and continue to face in maintaining their religious identity and culture.

Buddhism which had its origin in 5 BC in India disappeared from the country of its origin due to internal dissension, revival of Brahmanism and Islamic invasions. The destruction of the great Buddhist University at Nalanda by Muslim invaders in 12 AD signified the demise of Buddhism in India. Other Buddhist societies like the Maldives and Indonesia also experienced decimation of their Buddhist cultures due to Islamic conquest. The process of violent Islamization continues to date as in theChittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh where the Buddhist tribal communities are facing religious persecution and cultural destruction.  The destruction of the Bamian Buddha statutes in Afghanistan in 2001 received international condemnation but the bombings in Bodh Gaya at the seat of the Buddha’s enlightenment in July 2013 by Muslim extremists allegedly revenging for the violence against the Rohingyas in Burma, received scarce attention.

As Buddhism began to be wiped out of India the challenge of safeguarding the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhist culture was taken up by the neighboring countries. Support from the state and the monarchy was crucial for the peaceful acceptance, spread and survival of Buddhism in these lands. Buddhist monks made great sacrifices to preserve the Buddha’s teachings for posterity and safeguard Buddhist cultures against internal and external forces of destruction. The Tripitaka, the Pali Canon, was first written down by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka in 1 BC. The vinayamonastic disciplinary code, vipassana insight meditation and other aspects of Buddhist teaching were passed down with difficulty from teacher to teacher in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other Asian countries. These sacrifices have made the Buddha’s universal teachings readily available to the international community today.

The arrival of European colonizers since the 15th century halted the Islamization of India and the Buddhist countries of Asia. However, during British colonial rule and Christian proselytization, Buddhist monastic education and Buddhist culture lost their traditional state patronage in Sri Lanka and Burma (Thailand escaped western colonization). With the arrival of Hindu and Muslim immigrant groups from India into Burma and Sri Lanka during the colonial period, Buddhist communities became further marginalized economically and politically. Many monks, like many lay people who participated in nationalist resistance and struggles for democracy including the recent ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007 against the military regime in Burma, lost their lives in the process. These divergent developments laid the basis for the emergence of current grievances and ethno-religious conflicts.

Buddhist societies today feel threatened by a confluence of political, economic and cultural forces beyond their control. Globalization and the capitalist consumerist culture which amount to a form of ‘economic fundamentalism’ drive people away from the simple, ecological and harmonious way of life associated with the Buddha’s teaching. Evangelical Christian proselytization, relying on economic incentives to convert poor Buddhist, Hindu and animist groups create tension and aggravate inter-group relations. So do alleged efforts by Islamic groups to establish Muslim settlements within Buddhist and other religious communities. The absence of international financial networks of aid and mutual support, such as, those of Christian evangelicals and the Wahabi Muslims make many Buddhists feel relatively powerless in their own countries despite their numerical majority. The higher fertility and population growth rates among Muslims exacerbate fears of Buddhists (as well as Hindus in India and Christians in the west) over their numerical majority status and the cultural identity of their countries. There is a growing feeling that compared to the more authoritarian Islamic countries which are closed to outside cultural influences, the relative openness of Buddhist societies make their cultural survival precarious. There is concern that the Buddhist identity in South and South East Asia may finally be wiped out by the internationally powerful universalizing religions of Islam and Christianity. While aggression or violence of Buddhists or others should never be condoned, the rise of current conflicts need to be understood in relation to these broader realities.

The constitutions of Burma, Sri Lanka and Burma give special place to Buddhism as the religion of the great majority of their country’s citizens while simultaneously upholding religious freedom and the rights of other religions. However, given increasing fears over the continued majority status of Buddhism, the Burmese government has recently passed several controversial laws restricting religious conversions, marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men and criminalizing extra-marital affairs. Thailand’s 2007 constitution which provides for freedom of speech prohibits speech likely to insult Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist groups are battling internationally backed efforts promoting pluralism and secularism to change the foremost place given to Buddhism in the country’sconstitution.

The seemingly local and religious conflicts in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand are far more complex than suggested by simplistic assertions of primordial hatred and majority-versus-minority violence. The so-called Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Southeast Asia are enmeshed in the broader geopolitical struggle over control of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. As Asian analysts point out, in order to curb the growing influence of China in these regions and across Asia, the United States may well be employing the divide and conquer strategy playing local ethno-religious groups, such as, the Buddhists and Muslims, against each other.

To find lasting solutions, these conflicts need to be viewed in a broader global as well as a humanist perspective rather than as isolated ‘Buddhist’ violence or extremism. There is a great  contradiction in expecting Buddhist countries to uphold‘Western Buddhist visions of a pluralistic society’ while the western countries themselves are exhibiting tremendous fear and antipathy towards immigrant Islamic populations as well as ethno-religious violence, fundamentalism, neo-Nazi tendencies and militarism towards Islamic countries. There is a double standard in the promotion of secular constitutions in Buddhist countries while the Islamic countries and some western Christian countries advocating secularism and pluralism themselves uphold the religions of their majority populations as their state religions. International human rights NGOs, western Buddhist leaders and others calling for pluralism, peace and compassion in Theravada Buddhist countries must also call on the governments, corporations and community leaders of western and Islamic countries to uphold the same. Ethno-religious pluralism, non-violence and compassion are not uniquely Buddhist and should not be required only of Buddhist majority countries. They are universal principles and must be respected by all of humanity.

Asoka Bandarage, Ph.D. is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy (Palgrave MacMillan) and many other publications.  www.bandarage.com

7 Responses to “Buddhist Fundamentalism?”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Well explained Asoka.

    Interestingly, the government backed down from its attempts to ban hate speech knowing well certain religious texts, their reading and sermons may constitute hate speech. BBS would not be the worst affected by hate speech law but middle eastern groups.

    Sri Lanka must not fall into the secular trap. Although western countries and India are secular by constitution, it means the majority religion bulldozes all others. These are powerful countries and they can do it. If Sri Lanka goes secular, external groups will turn it either Hindu or Islamic. A secular country is an open platter for the alpha dog to take.

    Sri Lanka must go beyond granting the foremost place to Buddhism and the constitution must spell out Sri Lanka to be a Buddhist nation. It should not mean Buddhism interfering with governance or policy. It is only to pre-empt the raging conflicts in the neighbourhood coming to the island and for Sri Lanka not to be seen as an extension of Hindustan or Pakistan.

  2. samurai Says:

    Buddhist organisations and the Maha Nayakes – if they have backbones – should ask the Catholics (who issued a statement criticising the Cardinal) how does the Constitution giving Buddhism the foremost place to Buddhism violate human rights. Violation of HR occurs only when people are not allowed practice their religion, not when giving a foremost place to a religion which is practised by the majority of citizens of a country.

    Furthermore the Sri Lankan Constitution does not say Buddhism is the State religion unlike Islam in Saudi Arabia or Hinduism before the fall of the monarchy in Nepal.

    Buddhists leaders should ask what right has the Catholics to raise this issue and demand secularism when the supreme head of the Catholic Church is also the head of a State – the Vatican. Which other religious head today runs a State?

  3. Ratanapala Says:

    Buddhists must know how to assert their strengths. All talk of pluralism, democracy, human rights, secularism, multi- culturism are ruses that apply only to the meek and not the powerful. They are mere “red herring” to make us go a stray.

    Buddhists have been taken at their weakest by straight jacketing them as docile and non violent. Buddhism only tell us the consequences of deviating from non-violence and making bad karmic actions which has their own repercussions.

    Among Buddhists there are those who are willing to go through the worst of hellish domains to protect and safeguard their age old religion Buddhism. The alternative is for Buddhism to vanish as has happened in other places such as India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldives only to name a few.

    There is no alternative to being militant – that is the main lesson we have from our 2500 year old history and our only reality.

  4. Lorenzo Says:

    Look what the ISLAMANIACS have done in THAILAND today. Multiple terrorist attacks killing civilians. Where is CNN? Where is FOX? Where is all weeping stories like Paris?

    For those who spread violence answer these questions.

    Which Buddhist country has nuclear weapons? NONE. (China is not a Buddhist country). Christian, no-religion, Islamic and Hindu countries have nukes.

    Where do Buddhist countries come in defence spend? LOWER than Christian, Hindu and Islamic countries.

    How many Buddhist countries sponsored TERRORISM in other countries? NONE!
    Christian, Islamic and Hindu countries always promote terrorism in other countries.

    It is time Buddhist countries FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE.

  5. Fran Diaz Says:

    Lanka will have to defend itself the way Switzerland does – train every adult who is a genuine citizen to defend the country. This means knowing the History of the Country, as well as knowing the Law of the Land, at least the important parts in the Constitution.

    Buddhism or no Buddhism, the country has to defend itself. Or else Lanka is a sitting duck for all the pirates & thugs of the world.

    Today, Lanka has a Parliament which has no effective legitimate Opposition. The JO is not the recognised Opposition. The recognised Opposition is the TNA, with the JVP leader (Anura Kumara Dissanayake) as the Chief Govt Whip. The same situation was there when JRJ was President and INDIA imposed the illegal 13-A on the JRJ govt. Then it was the TULF leaders who headed the govt Opposition and they had nothing to say re the 13-A – not a word of protest ! What kind of citizens of Lanka are these people ? Born to Separatism and misleading the Tamil population of Lanka ?

  6. Fran Diaz Says:

    Ethnic & religion based political parties will HAVE to be banned in Lanka, to prevent further damage and splitting up of the country.


    That there are some 20 Million Tamils of Dalit origin (this is in their birth certificates) in Tamil Nadu seems unknown to the deaf & dumb Lanka’s Yahap govt at present. INDIA does the Census taking on caste base – even the 2011 Census was done with this base. The Caste system is 3,000 yrs old.
    If the sea tunnel to Tamil Nadu is built, then it is more than likely that low Caste bound Tamils will escape to Lanka. Is Lanka prepared to host millions of such Tamil folk ?
    It is bad enough as things are, but a sea tunnel will spell the end of small island (25,000 sq miles) Lanka, for sure.

    Message to Lanka Yahap govt : Please do not pretend to do things that Lanka is incapable of doing.

  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    Furthermore ….

    The Buddha said that it is a ‘rare good fortune to attain Human life’. ALL Nations should respect Human life.

    Re the UN and their ACCOUNTABILITY issues to mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka :

    Suggestion :

    *** Sri Lanka PORTS (both sea & air) must be used ONLY for peaceful purposes, always. ***

    – Is Yahap up to getting that done ?

    – Will INDIA back Lanka with such an idea ?

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