One of the things that makes Buddhism an attractive spiritual path for people in the west is its historical track record as a peaceful religion. You’ll often hear western Buddhists say that Buddhism has never had any holy wars, for example. But there’s a but…
Certainly, there’s nothing in the Buddha’s teaching to support violence. In essence, Buddhism is a religion of peace whose teachings have no place even for “righteous anger” or violence as a means of self-defense. As the Buddha said,
“Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred.”
But there have been historical instances of Buddhists resorting to violence, or supporting violence. And there are instances of that in recent times, and those are going on right now. In the recent past there’s been ethnic cleansing in Bhutan, ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, and recently two disturbing reports from Burma (or Myanmar): the forced conversions to Buddhism of Christians, and violence and oppression against the Muslim minority.
Greg Constantine, an award-winning photojournalist from the U.S. and currently based in Southeast Asia, has published the first of a two-part series on the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, who have faced discrimination in Burma, to the extent that hundreds of thousands have become homeless, many of them spilling over into neighboring Bangladesh, “where they are exploited, unrecognized, denied almost all humanitarian assistance, and in recent years, have faced a growing intolerance toward them by their Bangladeshi hosts.”
In Burma, Constantine says, the Rohingya “face severe restrictions on the right to marry, are subjected to forced labor and arbitrary land seizure and forced displacement, endure excessive taxes and extortion, and are denied the right to travel freely.”
“Most Rohingya are not permitted to travel beyond their village. Family household registers are updated regularly so the authorities know who and how many Rohingya are in each house. Any discrepancies to these records are punishable by fines and arrest.”
This is a disgraceful state of affairs. In a sense, this says nothing about Buddhism, since the principles of Buddhism forbid violence, and since merely adopting the label “Buddhist” does not magically transform people into saints. But in another sense the Burmese government is bringing discredit upon the name of Buddhism by perpetrating these actions. That such suffering is being brought about in a country that proclaims to be Buddhist should be unacceptable to all Buddhists.
Burma has made huge strides forward in the last few years, with the military dictatorship having handed over power to a democratic government. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing military rule in Burma, is at the White House to meet President Obama and receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Buddhists should hope that she is being asked for an accounting of recent anti-Christian and anti-Muslim actions in Burma, and how they can be ended. This is not to suggest that Suu Kyi is in any way responsible for these actions, or that she approves of them. I’m sure she isn’t, and doesn’t. The forces of reaction in Burma are still strong, with the military insisting on holding 25% of seats in the country’s government, and it’s possible that she’s not in a position to affect these unjust policies. But questions should be asked.
Thein Sein, Burma’s president, is attending the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week, presenting another opportunity for Burma to be asked to account for the actions of its security forces. The pressures that helped Burma move from military dictatorship to fragile democracy can perhaps help stop further human rights violations.