This Week in Asia

Blood sutra: whatever happened to Buddhism, religion of peace and compassion?

Myanmar police prepare for a rally by the hardline Buddhist group MaBaTha at the US embassy. Photo: AFP

The MaBaTha grew out of various groups including an earlier nationwide organisation within Myanmar known as the 969 Movement.

The 969 Movement encouraged Burmese citizens to frequent only Buddhist-owned businesses and purchase goods displaying the group's symbol, which signified that the premises were owned by Buddhists. This symbol is the Buddhist or sasana flag, with the Burmese digits 969 superimposed on it.

The flag of the 969 Movement. Photo: Internet

This does not conform to the idea of Buddhism cherished in the popular imagination. However, if we put aside our romantic idea of Buddhism, how surprised should we be by these emerging Buddhist narratives? There is little historical evidence for an egalitarian, liberal, multicultural and secular Buddhist society other than in this imagined version of Buddhism. This is not to suggest that the extremism of MaBaTha-type movements might ever have been normal in Buddhist culture, but it would be wrong to deny that narratives of ethnic and religious identity have indeed been important factors in Buddhist societies. Over time, these have created complex Buddhist cultures that do not conform to our simplistic ideas of Buddhism.

Myanmar police guard the US embassy during a rally by supporters of the hardline Buddhist group MaBaTha in Yangon. Photo: AFP

MaBaTha supporters in Yangon. Photo: AFP

Ultra-nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu. Photo: AFP

Some Buddhist leaders have justified violence against non-Buddhists. Sitagu Sayadaw is one of the most respected religious leaders in Myanmar, known for his teachings and for his philanthropic work. In a recent sermon, he clearly intended to suggest that the killing of those who are not Buddhist is justified on the grounds that those who do not follow Buddhist precepts and do not take refuge in the Buddha, his teachings and the monastic community, are less than human. Violence is justified if those persecuted are not Buddhists.

The seeds of such violence are embedded in Buddhist texts and doctrines themselves. For example, Buddhist religious texts state the Buddha's teachings are subject to decline and will disappear at a specific point in history. This lends itself to the need to preserve Buddhism for future generations and defend it against attack. There is also the textual idea that a pure version of Buddhism, existing in a particular geographical location, must be defended, and this includes protecting Buddhism against insult and disrespect. This all leads to an urgency to protect and defend Buddhism, and to the possibility of Buddhist violence. So far the target of this supposed Buddhist backlash has primarily been Islam, but other minority groups are not immune either. In Myanmar, apart from the Rohingya, there are also reports of genocidal attacks on Christian Kachins.

It seems likely that extremist Buddhist movements will continue to flourish in Myanmar. Their arguments are used by nationalist movements to create a populist mix of patriotism and religious allegiance. They have very real currency on the political stage and are likely to play an important part in the 2020 elections in Myanmar.

The bloodbaths in Myanmar, the sporadic attacks on minorities in Sri Lanka, and the assertions of Buddhist identity in Thailand that we have been witnessing of late may only be the rumblings of a more muscular form of Buddhism that Asia will have to learn to live with, as the world comes to grips with a new idea of Buddhism.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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