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‘Buddhists Behaving Badly’

Extracts from a report by William McGowan for the Foreign Affairs magazine (Emphasis by TG)

See here for full report.

In Sri Lanka last September, a Sinhalese mob led by some 100 Buddhist monks demolished a Muslim shrine in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. As the crowd waved Buddhist colors, gold and red, a monk set a green Muslim flag on fire. The monks claimed that the shrine was on land that had been given to the Sinhalese 2,000 years ago -- an allusion to their proprietary right over the entire island nation, as inscribed in ancient religious texts.

In April, monks led nearly 2,000 Sinhalese Buddhists in a march against a mosque in Dambulla, a holy city where Sinhalese kings are believed to have taken refuge from southern Indian invaders in a vast network of caves almost two millennia ago. The highly charged -- but largely symbolic -- attack marked a "historic day," a monk who led the assault told the crowd, "a victory for those who love the [Sinhala] race, have Sinhala blood, and are Buddhists."

Militant Buddhism there has its roots in an ancient narrative called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which was composed by monks in the sixth century. According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha foresaw the demise of Buddhism in India but saw a bright future for it in Sri Lanka.

"In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish," he said.

The Sinhalese take this as a sign that they are the Buddha's chosen people, commanded to "preserve and protect" Buddhism in its most pristine form.

[...] Much of the Buddhist clergy gave its blessing to a final offensive on the separatist Tamil Tigers. In May of 2009, the Sri Lankan military emerged from that battle triumphant.

Although human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council, have called for an investigation into humanitarian abuses and possible war crimes, the Rajapaksa government has resisted. The monks have backed this obstinacy, saying that such demands attack what Sinhalese refer to as the Buddhist "motherland."

Another sign of militant Buddhism's enduring power is the government's refusal to confront the human rights abuses committed in the war's final push. President Rajapaksa, who went to Kandy, the cultural capital, immediately after the 2009 victory to genuflect to the country's top Buddhist clerics, has rejected a UN Human Rights Council resolution, passed in March, that called for an inquiry into humanitarian abuses and possible war crimes.

In fact, as the UNHRC voted on the March resolution, hundreds of Buddhist monks led a prayer vigil in Colombo against it. Hundreds more led protests when it passed. The Los Angeles Times quoted one demonstrator as saying, "Evil forces both local and international have joined hands to deprive Sri Lanka of the present environment of peace and take this blessed island back to an era of darkness."

The fundamentalist idea that Buddhism is a unique national possession has encouraged a sense of moral superiority, which makes it hard for many Sinhalese to accept how bruised their Buddhism has become. As one prominent lay Buddhist painfully (and discreetly) explained to me more than twenty years ago, "Buddhism is hollow now in Sri Lanka. We are only going through the motions."

Today, those motions are growing ever more disturbing.

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