Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims? Alan Strathern on BBC News

In a recent post, Buddhist Monks as Hate Preachers & Sexual Abuse, I mainly referred to sad developments within the global Buddhist community where Buddhist monks spread words of hate, actions that harm others, themselves as well as people’s faith in Buddhism. Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk, was even jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred. After his release in 2012, he has referred to himself as “the Burmese Bin Laden”.

In a BBC article Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims? Alan Strathern from Oxford University asks and examines “… why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?”

He makes clear in his article, that this is against a basic Buddhist principles as well as that where this is happening – in Burma and Sri Lanka – people are not facing an Islamist militant threat and the Muslims in both countries are “a generally peaceable and small minority”.

Strathern explains the violence from different angles – including power issues (“Faustian pact with state power”), national and religious identity (“many came to feel Buddhism was integral to their national identity – and the position of minorities in these newly independent nations was an uncomfortable one”). And he concludes his article by looking onto the violent events from a global perspective:

Even though they form a majority in both countries, many Buddhists share a sense that their nations must be unified and that their religion is under threat. The global climate is crucial. People believe radical Islam to be at the centre of the many of the most violent conflicts around the world. They feel they are at the receiving end of conversion drives by the much more evangelical monotheistic faiths. And they feel that if other religions are going to get tough, they had better follow suit.

However, there is one point, I don’t agree with Strathern. Though it is true that there has been violence by Buddhists and Buddhists used Buddhism to justify wars and violence against others – I object the following generalisation made by Strathern:

So, historically, Buddhism has been no more a religion of peace than Christianity.


1) One should discriminate between the people and the religion. Buddhism is in nature a peaceful religion which roots are non-violence, love, compassion and the teachings of interdependent origination. It are human beings that (ab)use religion to justify violence. Therefore, the faults Stathern attributes to Buddhism are not the faults of Buddhism but of the people who either ignore or twist Buddha’s teachings. All actions based on hatred, desire and ignorance are considered to be wrong and an object of abandonment in Buddhism. (It get’s more complicated and complex, when one considers the understanding of non-violence (ahimsa) in the context of the Bodhisattva ethics. In the book “Buddhist Warfare” one author goes even so far to claim that the ascetics of a monk could be also considered as violence. But if this author had a clear understanding of Buddhist principles, that violence is the wish to harm or all actions based on hatred, he could see that this view is not tenable from a Buddhist point of view, and from a mundane point of view it follows also those people who practice fasting to benefit their body are violent towards themselves.)*

2) Compared with the violence performed by other religious people in the name of their religion the amount of harm Buddhists have done to others (or humanity) by abusing Buddhism to justify war and violence seems to be not that much.

Alex Berzin writes about the conflict in Burma and Bangladesh:


One-third of the population in Northern Rakhine State in Arakan, Burma/Myanmar, is Muslim, while the rest is Buddhist. The two groups are of different ethnic origin and speak different languages. Between 1991 and 1992, a quarter of a million of these Muslims, known as Rohingyas, fled as refugees to Bangladesh. They fled, however, because of government discrimination and oppression. The military government, which officially promotes and associates itself with Buddhism, considers the Muslim population as foreign residents. Consequently, they deny them citizenship, restrict their movement, and limit their educational and professional opportunities. In 1995, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assisted with the voluntary repatriation of 94% of these Muslim refugees. They are still receiving humanitarian aid and only slowly are some of them being issued government identity documents. Anti-Muslim riots at the hands of Buddhists, however, still occur. The Muslims allege that they are instigated and supported by the government. Much of the tension between the two religious and ethnic groups, however, stems from the preferential treatment given to non-Buddhists under British colonial rule. The present military government’s preferential treatment of Buddhists may be seen as a reaction to this. Without a change of government policy, it seems unlikely that settlement of Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Burma/Myanmar can be settled by religious dialogue alone.


One percent of the population is Buddhist, while the vast majority is Muslim. The Buddhists live primarily in Chittagong District and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In 1988, an amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh was passed proclaiming an “Islamic way of life” for the country. Since then, the tension between the religious and secular factions within the government has increased. This has been greatly exacerbated, however, since 2001, with the “War on Terror.” The American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have fueled Bangladeshi Islamic fundamentalism and this has led to heightened persecution of non-Muslim minorities, including the Buddhists.

Alan Strathern’s article

More from BBC about the background of the conflict in Burma

More about Buddhism and Islam by Alexander Berzin

More about Violence and (Tibetan) Buddhism

* Non-violence or non-harmfulness is explained in the Abhidharma literature as follows:

Non-harmfulness (rnam par mi ‘tshe ba)
Regarding non-harmfulness, the Compendium of Knowledge says:

QUESTION: What is non-harmfulness?
RESPONSE: It is a mind of compassion and is involved with non-hatred. It has the function of not inflicting injury.

Just as it has been said above, non-harmfulness is a patience that, lacking malice, observes suffering sentient beings, thinking, “May they be free of that [suffering]!” This abandoning harm to sentient beings, or non-harmfulness, is the essence of the meaning of the Conqueror’s scriptures. It is taught [in sutra]:

Patience is the supreme austerity.
The Buddha said, “Patience is supreme nirvana.”
An ordained one who harms or injures another
Is not a trainee-in-virtue.

Even the Conqueror’s teaching in the context of bestowing a water strainer in the Vinaya procedural rite is a fine distinction of compassion. Since one must definitely turn away from harming others as well as their bases, the necessity of equipping oneself with a strainer for the sake of abandoning harm to creatures in water has been taught. And on the occasion of giving the instructions, one is cautioned about the necessity to abide in the four qualities that makes one a trainee-in-virtue:

Even when derided, do not deride in return.
Even when someone gets angry at one, do not get angry in return.
Even when hit, do not hit back.
Even when one’s faults are exposed, do not expose others’ faults.

Therefore, if the intelligent ones analyze and understand this well, they will be able to understand that abandoning harmfulness is the essence of the teachings.

From “A Necklace for Those of Clear Awareness Clearly Revealing the Modes of Minds and Mental Factors” by Ye-she Gyel-tsen, Translated from the Tibetan by Toh Sze Gee

  Last edited by tenpel on June 24, 2013 at 9:41 am