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'Buddhism & Violence' - academics discuss Sri Lanka and Burma

Discussing 'Buddhism & Violence' in a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 program 'Beyond Belief', academics and human rights activists discussed the nature of Buddhist violence, including the texts used the justify war in the defence of Buddhism, in Sri Lanka and Burma. See here (first broadcast on 19th August 2013).

Guests included Michael Jerryson, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in Youngstown State University in Ohio and co-author of the book 'Buddhist warfare', and Rupert Gethin, professor of Buddhist Studies in the University of Bristol and author of the 'Foundation of Buddhism'.

Outlining the two main streams of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin explained:

"Theravada Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that takes as its authority of set of texts written in Paali, which go back many many centuries to two millennia. This is the kind of Buddhism that is followed by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, South East, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao.

Mahayana Buddhism which is the other main stream of Buddhism, to simplify things, is the kind of Buddhism followed in Tibet and China. They have scriptures that correspond in some way to the Pali cannon but they also have additional texts that they take as authoritative."

Discussing the use of Buddhist scriptures to justify violence, which on the surface appears diametrically opposed to Buddhist teachings of non-violence, Michael Jerryson said,

"There are texts that have been used in recent years to justify violence."

"For example there are texts, the Buddha once spoke with a mercenary. The mercenary asked the Buddha for example, 'Look I'm not an aahat [enlightened being], I'm not enlightened, what I'm doing though is my job, will I have repurcussions for it?' And the Buddha said 'yes, you'll have repurcussions for it. Not for the act of killing, but for holding debase thoughts and bad intentions whilst doing the killing'.

This text has been used sometimes, by for example by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka right now, by Buddhist monks in Thailand, to give sermons to soldiers to cool their minds, in order for them to clear thoughts whilst doing the killing."


Asked if there were anything comparable to the 'Just War' theory by which Christians justify going to war, Michael Jerryson explained,

"There are lot of small examples, but perhaps the most prominent pertains to Theravada Buddhism, which is the Mahavamsa. This is considered to be a mythical history, the early origins of what becomes Sri Lankan Buddhists and the Sri Lankan Buddhist traditions. It's not cannonical to us in the West, it's cannonical to Sri Lankan Buddhists."

"In one particular chapter, the king, Dudugemunu, has to wage a war against the heathens, they are called the Tamils, and in the text it says he slaughters millions in this war. At the end of it he visited by eight Aahats, eight enlightened beings, who come to him and say 'Oh Great King, do not feel remorseful because you only killed one and half beings. You killed one person because they took three *[Buddhist vows], meaning that they are Buddhists; and one person was following the precepts of Buddhism, so that's half a person you killed. The rest are just beasts, so that doesn't count, you didn't kill humans. And on top of that, you did this to defend Buddhism, and so you will be granted peace and rebirth in heaven'"

Studying history to identify texts that Buddhists have used sacred texts to justify war, Michael Jerryson said he's identified three exceptions to the rule on violence being sinful - insanity, accidental death and the stature of the victim. He explained,

"Are you killing a human, an animal or a supernatural being? Humans were the worst, but if a monk killed a crow or an animal thats a slight offence. If you killed a supernatural being like a Yaksha, or fearsome driad, then that's a lesser offence but you're not expelled from the Sanga (community of monks).

And what I found is in a lot of Buddhist scriptures, you begin to Buddhists referring to the enemy or the other as a beast or an animal to lessen the offence and make an exception."


Asked if there was anything in Buddhism that could justify something comparable to a 'lesser Jihadism' and defend that concept of a 'holy war', Jerryson said,


"The survival of Buddhism".

Discussing the campaign against the Rohingya muslims in Burma or Myanmar, which has been described by Human Rights Watch as 'ethnic cleansing', Dr Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, discussed the role of the state in relation to the Buddhist monk leader, Ashin Wirathu, of the principal anti-Rohingya group, the 969 movement.

Dr Zarni said:

"Wirathu is, simply put, an instrument, that the Burmese military state has been using. I think the anit-Muslim and anti-Rohingya world view were incubated primarily within the home ministries department of religious affairs, before anyone knew who Wirathu was as a monk, advocating what I call neo-Nazi Buddhist views."

"The ministry of home affairs has been publishing Islamophobic publications and literally dozens of them, portraying the Muslims in the most unflattering light, and framing Islam and Muslims as a threat to Buddhism and Buddhism way of life. And so Wirathu is simply an instrument. He is not the main problem. The main problem is the state that has patronised Wirathu."

"He is trying to promote the view that Buddhism is under threat by Islam. But his view, his Islamophobia, resonates with certain segments of Burmese Buddhist society. When the entire government has come out backing Wirathu as a peaceful son of Lord Buddha, then is power to mobilise public opinion drastically increases".