Buddhist mobs have been killing Moslems in Burma. How did we come to this pass and how must Buddhism reform itself? Thought for the Day 22/6/2013

If you look in a newsagent today you’ll see, gazing out from the cover of Time magazine, a Buddhist monk dressed in the dark-red robes of a Burmese Bhikkhu. His grave expression is far from the smiling, tranquil faces that more commonly represent Buddhism. His name is Wirathu and the headline reads: ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror: how militant monks are fuelling anti Moslem violence in Asia.’

Over the last year, Buddhist mobs have killed hundreds of Moslems in Burma’s Rohingya state while police stood by. Perhaps the most galling aspect for me is that monks like Wirathu have urged them on. Wirathu is particularly extreme, happy to be called ‘the Buddhist Bin Laden’; but he isn’t alone. While many Burmese monks are trying to dampen tensions and help persecuted Moslems, others support his campaign against them.

Tensions between Moslems and Buddhists have flared in southern Thailand and Malaysia. But the closest parallel to Wirathu’s militancy is the Buddhist nationalism of Sri Lanka. Monks urged on the war against the mainly Hindu Tamils and now support measures against ethnic and religious minorities.

There’s no doubt that that this goes against the Buddha’s teachings. He wasn’t exactly a pacifist in the modern sense; but he counseled that actions motivated by hatred would always produce suffering. Many Asian Buddhists follow those teachings; but we can’t just dismiss monks like Wirathu as non-Buddhist, maintaining the fiction that Buddhism is a pure, uncontaminated religion of peace and tolerance. That may be good PR, but the truth is that Buddhism includes men like Wirathu and that Buddhists have frequently supported wars, and even led them.

I believe that only if we acknowledge these difficult truths can we start to understand and address them. It concerns me that in some Buddhist traditions many layers of custom and interpretation obscure the faith’s founding tenets. Their place is sometimes taken by Buddhism’s role as a state-sponsored guardian of national identity. All this paves the way for the militant Buddhist nationalism that Wirathu espouses and suggests important ways in which the Buddhism of some countries needs to reform itself.

It’s naïve to believe that any faith or organisation can avoid the compromises that go with engagement in the world, and regarding Buddhism in that light helps no one in the long run. In every domain, I believe, integrity demands constant reform, a constant return to core values and frankly acknowledging when they’re lost from sight or betrayed.