Buddhism is in many ways an exception among religions…but it’s not always as much of an exception as it could should would be. The BBC considers this unsurprising fact.
The principle of non-violence is central to Buddhist teachings, but in Sri Lanka some Buddhist monks are being accused of stirring up hostility towards other faiths and ethnic minorities. Their hard line is causing increasing concern.
Are they simply being accused of doing that, or are they in fact doing it? The second sentence seems to say they are.
[U]pstairs, a burly monk in a bright orange robe holds forth – for this is one of the main offices of a hard-line Buddhist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS).
The peaceful precepts for which Buddhism is widely known barely figure in his words. Instead, the monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, talks of his Buddhism in terms of race. Most Buddhists here are ethnically Sinhalese, and Sinhalese make up three-quarters of the island’s population.
“This country belongs to the Sinhalese, and it is the Sinhalese who built up its civilisation, culture and settlements. The white people created all the problems,” says Gnanasara Thero angrily.
He says the country was destroyed by the British colonialists, and its current problems are also the work of what he calls “outsiders”. By that he means Tamils and Muslims.
Aka foreigners aka immigrants aka others aka mongrel races aka infidels aka vermin…
This firebrand strain of Buddhism is not new to Sri Lanka. A key Buddhist revivalist figure of the early 20th Century, Anagarika Dharmapala, was less than complimentary about non-Sinhalese people. He held that the “Aryan Sinhalese” had made the island into Paradise which was then destroyed by Christianity and polytheism. He targeted Muslims saying they had “by Shylockian methods” thrived at the expense of the “sons of the soil”.
And later, in 1959 Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk – the circumstances were murky but one contentious issue was the government’s failure to do enough to ensure the rights of the Sinhala people.
Now they’re turning their attention from Tamils to Muslims.
They are not the only Sinhalese who express discomfort at a visible rise in Muslim social conservatism in Sri Lanka. More women are covering up than before and in parts of the country Saudi-influenced Wahabi Muslims are jostling with more liberal ones.
Yet there is no evidence of violent extremism among Sri Lankan Muslims. Rather, they have been at the receiving end of attacks from other parts of society.
In the small town of Aluthgama last June, three people died in clashes that started when the BBS and other Buddhist monks led an anti-Muslim rally in a Muslim area. At the time, I met Muslim families whose homes and shops had been burnt and utterly destroyed, and who were cowering in schools as temporary refugees.
Complicated, isn’t it. “Muslim social conservatism” is a bad thing, cf the part about more women “covering up”; at the same time you don’t want to resist Muslim social conservatism in such a way that Muslims become targets.
Moderate Buddhists have also been targeted by hard-line ones.
That’s familiar too. Theocrats always do target secular believers.
Another country where fierce Buddhism has recently made headlines is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. A Buddhist faction there, the 969 movement, is known for strident anti-Muslim campaigns that have triggered widespread violence.
Its leader, Shin Wirathu, was recently invited to Sri Lanka by the BBS. Both organisations say that even if Buddhism predominates in their own countries, overall it is under threat. “We want to protect it, therefore we signed a memorandum of understanding on forming alliances in the Asian region,” says Withanage.
Fighting Buddhism; just what Asia needs.