Alan Strathern wrote a backgrounder piece for the BBC on why Buddhist monks attack Muslims a couple of years ago.
Of all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism than any other major religion. So why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?
This is happening in two countries separated by well over 1,000 miles of Indian Ocean – Burma and Sri Lanka. It is puzzling because neither country is facing an Islamist militant threat. Muslims in both places are a generally peaceable and small minority.
But there’s always something. There’s always some pretext for attacking an otherized group.
[H]owever any religion starts out, sooner or later it enters into a Faustian pact with state power. Buddhist monks looked to kings, the ultimate wielders of violence, for the support, patronage and order that only they could provide. Kings looked to monks to provide the popular legitimacy that only such a high moral vision can confer.
The result can seem ironic. If you have a strong sense of the overriding moral superiority of your worldview, then the need to protect and advance it can seem the most important duty of all.
Exactly. There’s nothing like the belief that your worldview derives its moral superiority from a god or a supernaturally Wonderful Person for justifying anything and everything.
So, historically, Buddhism has been no more a religion of peace than Christianity.
One of the most famous kings in Sri Lankan history is Dutugamanu, whose unification of the island in the 2nd Century BC is related in an important chronicle, the Mahavamsa.
It says that he placed a Buddhist relic in his spear and took 500 monks with him along to war against a non-Buddhist king.
He destroyed his opponents. After the bloodshed, some enlightened ones consoled him that the slain “were like animals; you will make the Buddha’s faith shine”.
There you go – the application of holy sanctification in action.
In Burma, monks wielded their moral authority to challenge the military junta and argue for democracy in the Saffron Revolution of 2007. Peaceful protest was the main weapon of choice this time, and monks paid with their lives.
Now some monks are using their moral authority to serve a quite different end. They may be a minority, but the 500,000-strong monkhood, which includes many deposited in monasteries as children to escape poverty or as orphans, certainly has its fair share of angry young men.
Combine angry young men and moral authority and you may end up with a Jurassic Park type scenario.