Sunday, March 31, 2013

Om Mani Pad Butt: In Which I Shit on Buddhism




"Let not one deceive another nor despise any person whatever in any place.  In anger or illwill let not one wish any harm to another."

 The Metta Sutta, a Buddhist sutta.

"This spirit of tolerance and understanding has been from the beginning one of the most cherished ideals of Buddhist culture and civilization.  That is why there is not a single example of persecution or the shedding of blood in converting people to Buddhism, or in its propagation during its long history of 2500 years.  It spread peacefully all over the continent of Asia, having more than 500 million adherents today.  Violence in any form, under any pretext whatsoever, is absolutely against the teaching of the Buddha."

 'What The Buddha Taught' by Walpola Rahula (emphasis mine).


When I abandoned the Catholicism in which I had been raised and believed on Easter in 1988, I spent the next two or three years in a state of spiritual flux before I eventually came to the conclusion that there was no god.  During that period, I took an interest in Buddhism and added to my library Walpola Rahula's 'What The Buddha Taught', from which I quoted above.

Though I ended up rejecting Buddhism as a package, I did find a lot in the religion that appealed to me and which I incorporated, with varying degrees of success, into my life.  In some ways, Buddhism has a lot in common with Christianity, with both religions admonishing us not to set too much store in the material things of this world.  And Catholicism and Buddhism both have nuns and monks.

One valid criticism that Western Christians have made of Westerners who rejected Christianity and embraced various forms of Eastern religious and spiritual traditions is that they idealized the East while having a shallow understanding of it and overlooking some of the very flaws that turned them off to Western religions.

Regardless of our knowledge of Buddhism, many of us in the West likely hew to notions of Buddhists, particularly Buddhist monks, as being gentle, peaceful folk who would never harm anyone.

This stereotype, whether it was ever really true, is increasingly being shown to be false in at least two Buddhist majority countries.  In both Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have been instigating violence against the Muslims and other religious minorities in their respective countries.

First, Myanmar.  This article from The New York Times paints a frightening picture:

Images from Meiktila showed entire neighborhoods burned to the ground, some with only blackened trees left standing. Lifeless legs poked from beneath rubble. And charred corpses spoke to the use of fire as a main tool of the rioting mobs.

One video posted to Facebook by Radio Free Asia on Friday showed Muslim women and men cowering and shielding their heads from flying objects as they fled their attackers. Onlookers are overheard shouting, “Oooh! Look how many of them. Kill them! Kill them!”

Just as in western Myanmar, where more than 150 people have been killed in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims over the past year, those behind the violence in Meiktila tried to stop images of the destruction from getting out. On Friday, a group of Buddhist monks threatened news photographers, including one who works for The Associated Press, with a sword and homemade weapons. With a monk holding a blade to his neck, U Khin Maung Win, the A.P. photographer, handed over his camera’s memory card. (Underlined for emphasis).

While the violence has only recently flared in towns like Meiktila in central Myanmar, the situation with regard to the Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan, a coastal state on the Bay of Bengal near Bangladesh, has been festering for a number of years and looks to be getting worse.

From a Human Rights Watch report:

The Burmese government is systematically restricting humanitarian aid and imposing discriminatory policies on Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State.


Arakan State’s Rohingya population also faces widespread hostility from the majority Burmese Buddhist society. The violence in Arakan State in June between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims was followed by planned attacks on Rohingya and Kaman Muslim communities in various townships in the state in October.

More recently, disputes between Buddhists and Muslims resulted in violence in the central Burma town of Meikhtila on March 20 to 22, which has spread to other parts of the country. During the violence, at least five mosques were burned down and an unknown number of people died as mobs and Buddhist monks attacked Muslim residents and set fire to Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship. The violence in Meikhtila has displaced 12,000 Muslims, according to OCHA.

“The unfortunate lesson from the violence in Arakan State is that so far the government does little to hold accountable those who violate the rights of Muslims in Burma,” Robertson said. “By failing to stop violence and prosecute those who incite it, the country’s leaders are failing the test of reform.”

And then there's Sri Lanka.

Several people have been injured in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, when Buddhist monks led hundreds in an assault on a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse.
Buddhist monks were filmed throwing stones at the storage centre of popular garment chain Fashion Bug in a suburb of the capital on Thursday night.

After some Muslim groups called a strike in protest against a growing Buddhist campaign against their lifestyle, including halal food classification, a hard-line Buddhist party in the governing coalition issued a statement saying: "Sinhalese Buddhists should be determined to teach such Muslim extremists a lesson that they will never forget".

Perhaps the Sinhalese Buddhists would be wise to heed the words of the Buddhist Emperor Asoka Maurya, who declared in one of his Rock Edicts:

"One should not honor only one's own religion and condemn the religions of others, but one should honor others' religions for this or that reason.  So doing, one helps one's own religion to grow and renders service to the religions of others too.  In acting otherwise one digs the grave of one's own religion and also does harm to other religions.  Whosoever honors his own religion and condemns other religions, thinking 'I will glorify my own religion.'  But on the contrary, in so doing he injures his own religion more gravely."
 



3 comments:

MKL said...

Very well written.

Scott McGreal said...

There is a book called Zen at War that describes how the Zen Buddhist establishment supported Japanese Imperial aggression during the era of Japanese fascism. They even went so far as to use hypocritical phrases such as "compassionate war" to justify killing the enemies of Japan. There is a theory that one of the social functions of organised religion is to promote in-group loyalty, and the corollary of this is prejudice against outsiders. I think that the examples you cite show that the Buddhist establishment in these countries is no exception to this principle.

Tommykey said...

Thanks MKL!

Hi Scott! Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I had been meaning to do a post for some time about how many Buddhist countries have authoritarian and repressive political that would seem to be at odds with the teachings of the religion.