In a post yesterday I discussed the fact that although Buddhism did not have many of the absurd philosophical baggage of other major religions, its philosophy had some negative aspects that warranted concern but usually don’t get as much attention.
Another argument that is put forward in favor of Buddhism is a more practical one, that its philosophy of detachment from the world and seeking personal enlightenment as opposed to material goods is less likely to lead to conflict with others. Also it does not have the drive to proselytize, which has been the cause of so much strife down the ages. These qualities are what give it its reputation as a peaceful religion.
All this sounds good on paper but the true test of a religion’s commitment to peace and tolerance is when it is dominant in a country and has access to state power. In the case of two countries (Sri Lanka and Burma) where followers of Theravada (also known as Hinayana) Buddhism form the overwhelming majority, we see that Buddhism can be as ugly as any other religion and its commitment to non-violence and tolerance is not what it is cracked up to be.
In the case of Sri Lanka the Buddhist clergy and their most militant followers have long been at the forefront of attempts to make Sri Lanka a Buddhist country that treats all others as second class. Governments have repeatedly pandered to these hardline elements, giving in to their seemingly insatiable demands for special privileges. They were in the forefront of preventing successive governments from negotiating political agreements with the Tamil/Hindu minority and instead pushed for a brutal military solution. And now that that victory has been won, these Buddhist groups seem to have become even more triumphalist and turned their attention to suppressing the Muslim minority as well. The militant Buddhists seize on any slight, real or manufactured, to attack the Muslims and the government does little to protect them.
Then we have the clashes in Burma where armed Buddhist mobs have attacked Muslim communities, killing people and burning mosques, and driving thousands from their homes.
People in the west encounter Buddhists as an exotic minority. Naturally these Buddhists will preach the virtues of non-violence, tolerance, and peace because they are at the mercy of the dominant Christians. The true nature of a religion is how it treats others when they are dominant and we see that Buddhism can be as bad as the rest and its followers as cowardly as those of other religions who attack others only when they cannot fight back.