A Faustian pact with state power

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.


  1. says

    Buddhism has been very effectively whitewashed for American consumption. The buddhist monks of Mt Heiei were a big problem for the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan, and later the Nichiren sect of buddhists spat out an ultranationalist version of the religion that backboned Japanese imperialism in WWII. Tibetan buddhism used to have the red hat, black hat, yellow hat, blue hat sects and now it’s down to two, the losers having been eradicated by the winners over the last couple hundred years. Every time information about the buddhism schisms and wars sneaks onto Wikipedia pages it gets edited out because, you know… honesty and otherworldliness.

    Religion always serves power as an adjunct ratifying power, except for where it competes with the crown. It’s the oldest scam in the book.

  2. says

    Had the Chinese left Tibet alone in the ’50s the Dalai Lama would probably be considered some weird religious dictator instead of a symbol of Tibetan freedom.

  3. Holms says

    It’s a similar story for all religions when they are not dominant in the regional politics: preach peace and tolerence, and be conciliatory in general. And then it’s a similar story once a that religion gains temporal power: preach dominance and suppression of competing views, pretty much a 180 on all the previous lovey dovey stuff in practice. The only difference seems to be how far along the ‘subtle / brazen’ continuum they fall.

  4. malefue says

    A story from personal experience: An Austrian charity I worked with tried to help rebuild housing and electricity in Southern Thailand after the tsunami of 12/2004 so they approached local Government officials in the affected regions, who were mostly glad for the help. The majority are buddhists there, with a small muslim minority.
    But after a few weeks of them being there a group of monks from buddhist monasteries in the region started organizing protests against the charity’s plans to help victims irrespective of religious affiliation. That went as far as muslim families and charity workers being threatened and their shelters being burned down.
    I know many of the people working on that project came back disillusioned about matters of religious majorities, cultural segregation and things like that. I think it shattered quite a few stereotypes about peaceful Buddhism and violent Islam, especially because Muslims are vilified constantly in my home country.

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