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Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
Bodhisattva Vows

Buddhist Violence

The “first precept” of Buddhist though is “no killing.” Somehow, the very idea of Buddhist monks as the archetypical ‘world renouncers’ exhorting frenzied mobs to commit acts of violence against perceived ‘enemies of the religion’ seems to be outright ludicrous. Recent events in Myanmar/Burma, but also in Thailand and Sri Lanka, however indicate that a militant strand of Theravada Buddhism is on the rise.

There was one issue on which the Buddha’s position was very clear: what kind of behavior is skillful, and what kind of behavior is not. Here the Buddha drew some very sharp lines: “What is unskillful? Taking life is unskillful... And what is skillful? Abstaining from taking life is skillful..." In no recorded instance did he approve of killing any living being at all. The Buddha never taught a theory of just war per se.

The doctrine of ahimsa figures prominently in early and Theravadan Buddhism. The first of the five moral precepts (panca silani) in Buddhism is ahimsa, and in the Dhammapada the historical Buddha purportedly states, "All are afraid of the rod. Of death all are afraid. Having made oneself the example, One should neither slay nor cause to slay." The early Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa should not, however, be construed as compassionate altruism. Ahimsa at first did not express some sort of underlying altruistic concern for the well-being of others. Vegetarianism and other ways of avoiding himsa, harming or violence, derived from ancient Indian ritual taboos against blood and other bodily liquids. Buddhists ethicized and psychologized earlier notions of physical pollution, and advocated abstention from violence primarily as a means of self-cultivation, as a way to keep the mind pure, like an unstained cloth.

The Western public tends to assume that the doctrinal rejection of violence in Buddhism would make Buddhist pacifists, and often expects Buddhist societies or individual Asian Buddhists to conform to the modern Western standards of ‘peaceful’ behavior. This stereotype may well be termed ‘positive Orientalism,’ since it is based on assumption that an ‘Oriental’ religion would be more faithful to its original non-violent teachings than Western Christianity, which quickly developed a just war theory as soon as the burdens of state power demanded one.

So how can Buddhism be used to justify violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka? This representation of Buddhism finds support in Buddhist texts, doctrines, and ritual practices, which often advocate ahimsa, nonharming or non-violence. The historical record, however, belies the portrayal of Buddhism as a "religion of nonviolence." When Buddhist-majority states came into being, the monks had to find ways to justify violence, including war. By reinterpreting early doctrines of ahimsa, Buddhist thinkers have legitimated violence in particular situations, practitioners have committed acts of violence, and Buddhist institutions have lent support to institutions — social, political, and governmental — engaged in violence, the enthusiastic acquiescence by monastic Buddhism to the most brutal sorts of warfare.

An early example of such a justification is found in the Sinhalese Mahavamsa (the Great Chronicle). The Mahavamsa is the Sinhalese national epic, with sources consisted mainly of traditions and chronicles preserved in the monasteries, and strongly colored by ecclesiastical predilections, but also of popular tales and folklore. It adds much that is derived from the stories and legends of the people. The epic is itself composite, the first twenty chapters covering the same ground as the Dipavarhsa, and detailing the circumstances of the introduction of Buddhism into Ceylon, with lengthy historical introductions; while the remainder of the work relates the story of King Dutugamunu / Dutthagamini, the national hero of Ceylon, who united the whole island under his sway, and whom the Mahavamsa transforms into a warrior saint, a champion and patron of the Church.

After a battle against a Hindu army, Buddhist King Dutugamunu felt remorse for all the death he had caused. Monks told him not to worry, since he had caused the deaths of only one and a half persons – one who had just converted to Buddhism, and another who had been a Buddhist lay follower. All the rest had just been “unbelievers and men of evil life […], not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways ...”. The Buddhists called all non-Buddhists pásandas, heretics. This verdict implies that killing is justifiable in the defense of the religion.

This is a defensive “holy war” or “Dhamma Yudhaya” in response to a the "Crusade" and “jihad” against Buddhism. The dharmayuddhaya theory is an advance on the notion of compassionate killing since it gives one clear jus ad bellum criterion, namely defense of the Dharma. However, it does not explain why it is thought justifiable to kill.

The founder of Nichiren Shoshu was Nichiren Daishonin (AD 1222-1282), one of the most controversial and important figures in Japanese Buddhism. It is definitely laid down that to kill heretics is not murder and that it is the duty of the Government to extirpate heresy with the sword.

According to Daishonin, the cause of all unhappiness is evil religion, which, more or less, constituted all other religious interpretations apart from his own. Shakubuku (to break and subdue) is one NS term descriptive of his attitude toward other religions. Shakubuku is the forceful method of conversion, whereas shoju is the more moderate approach. According to Harry Thomsen, author of The New Religions of Japan, “Nichiren maintained that to kill heretics is not murder, and that it is the duty of the government to extirpate heresy with the sword.”17 Shakubuku is considered an act of great love and mercy, because it breaks the evil religion of the person being converted.

Despite attempts at accommodation, hostility toward Christianity remained a feature of the writings of Nichiren Shoshu. Regrettably, Christianity is often misrepresented and then attacked as an inferior and irrational belief. Thus, in the authoritative NS literature the major doctrines of Christianity are described as follows: “unscientific nonsense,” “stupid superstition,” “ridiculous,” “fantasy,” “irrational,” “morbid,” “shallow,” and so forth.

During the 19th century, alarmed by the success of the Anglican mission in converting a large number of Sinhala Buddhists to Christianity, an America named Olcott went to Sri Lanka. He hired a Sinhala Christian convert to publish pamphlets in Sinhala to discourage the Sinhala people from converting to Christianity. Don David Hewavitharana was born in 1864 to a family of wealthy Sinhala entrepreneurs. This Christian covert reconverted to Buddhism and renamed himself as the Anagarika Dharmapala and became a key Buddhist revivalist. The Anagarika Dharmapala contributed much to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and world-wide. By age 38 he had travelled three times to the United States of America and made a significant impression as a Buddhist He also was successful in taking steps to preserve Buddhist sites in India, which were being neglected by the Hindu rulers and people.

However he also planted the seed of hatred of Tamils in the Sinhalese mind. This hatred led to discriminative policies, which in turn, led to 30 years of blood-letting in the island. In Sri Lanka mobs instigated by Buddhist fanatics kill non-Buddhists in the name of Buddhism.

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Page last modified: 17-05-2019 17:20:31 ZULU