Straying From the Middle Way: Extremist Buddhist Monks Target Religious Minorities

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Photograph by Adam Dean / Panos for Time
Photograph by Adam Dean / Panos for Time

The fault lines of conflict are often spiritual, one religion chafing against another and kindling bloodletting contrary to the values girding each faith. Over the past year in parts of Asia, it is friction between Buddhism and Islam that has killed hundreds, mostly Muslims. The violence is being fanned by extremist Buddhist monks, who preach a dangerous form of religious chauvinism to their followers.

Yet as this week’s TIME International cover story notes, Buddhism has tended to avoid a linkage in our minds to sectarian strife:

“In the reckoning of religious extremism — Hindu nationalists, Muslim militants, fundamentalist Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews — Buddhism has largely escaped trial. To much of the world, it is synonymous with nonviolence and loving kindness, concepts propagated by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2,500 years ago. But like adherents of any religion, Buddhists and their holy men are not immune to politics and, on occasion, the lure of sectarian chauvinism.

When Asia rose up against empire and oppression, Buddhist monks, with their moral command and plentiful numbers, led anticolonial movements. Some starved themselves for their cause, their sunken flesh and protruding ribs underlining their sacrifice for the laity. Perhaps most iconic is the image of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk sitting in the lotus position, wrapped in flames, as he burned to death in Saigon while protesting the repressive South Vietnamese regime 50 years ago. In 2007, Buddhist monks led a foiled democratic uprising in Burma: images of columns of clerics bearing upturned alms bowls, marching peacefully in protest against the junta, earned sympathy around the world, if not from the soldiers who slaughtered them. But where does social activism end and political militancy begin? Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.”

(PHOTOS: In Burma, Religious Riots Flare Up Again)

Over the past year in Buddhist-majority Burma, scores, if not hundreds, have been killed in communal clashes, with Muslims suffering the most casualties. Burmese monks were seen goading on Buddhist mobs, while some suspect the authorities of having stoked the violence — a charge the country’s new quasi-civilian government denies. In Sri Lanka, where a conservative, pro-Buddhist government reigns, Buddhist nationalist groups are operating with apparent impunity, looting Muslim and Christian establishments and calling for restrictions to be placed on the 9% of the country that is Muslim. Meanwhile in Thailand’s deep south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed some 5,000 lives since 2004, desperate Buddhist clerics are retreating into their temples with Thai soldiers at their side. Their fear is understandable. But the close relationship between temple and state is further dividing this already anxious region.

As the violence mounts, will Buddhists draw inspiration from their faith’s sutras of compassion and peace to counter religious chauvinism? Or will they succumb to the hate speech of radical monks like Burma’s Wirathu, who goads his followers to “rise up” against Islam? The world’s judgment awaits.

Click here to read Hannah Beech’s full story on the violence between Buddhism and Islam in Asian countries.