Nirvanaless: Asian Buddhism’s growing fundamentalist streak

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Buddhist temple Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok, Thailand.

Photo courtesy of Milei.vencel, via Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist temple Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok, Thailand.

BANGKOK (RNS) To many Americans, Buddhism is about attaining enlightenment, maybe even nirvana, through such peaceful methods as meditation and yoga.

But in some parts of Asia, a more assertive, strident and militant Buddhism is emerging. In three countries where Buddhism is the majority faith, a form of religious nationalism has taken hold:

  • In Sri Lanka, where about 70 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, a group of monks formed the Bodu Bala Sena or the Buddhist Power Force in 2012 to “protect” the country’s Buddhist culture. The force, nicknamed BBS, carried out at least 241 attacks against Muslims and 61 attacks against Christians in 2013, according to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
  • In Myanmar, at least 300 Rohingya Muslims, whose ancestors were migrants from Bangladesh, have been killed and up to 300,000 displaced, according to Genocide Watch. Ashin Wirathu, a monk who describes himself as the Burmese  “bin Laden,” is encouraging the violence by viewing the Rohingya presence as a Muslim “invasion.”
  • And in Buddhist-majority Thailand, at least 5,000 people have died in Muslim-Buddhist violence in the country’s South. The country’s Knowing Buddha Foundation is not a violent group, but it advocates for a blasphemy law to punish anyone who offends the faith. It wants Buddhism declared the state religion and portrays popular culture as a threat to believers.

Though fundamentalism is a term that has thus far been used mostly in relation to Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, some are beginning to use it to describe Buddhists as well.

Maung Zarni, an exiled Burmese who has written extensively on the ongoing violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, argues that there is no room for fundamentalism in Buddhism.

“No Buddhist can be nationalistic,” said Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “There is no country for Buddhists. I mean, no such thing as ‘me,’ ‘my’ community, ‘my’ country, ‘my’ race or even ‘my’ faith.”

He views the demand for an anti-blasphemy law in Thailand also as a distortion of Buddhism, which doesn’t allow any “organization that polices or regulates the faithful’s behavior or inner thoughts.”

But Acharawadee Wongsakon, the Buddhist teacher who founded the Knowing Buddha Foundation, insists Buddhism needs legal protections and society must follow certain prescribed do’s and don’ts.

She and others see the new movements as providing “true knowledge on Buddhism.”

Thailand’s conflict between Muslim insurgents and local Buddhists, which reignited along the Malaysian border in 2004, is part of a long-standing feud pitting Buddhist monks and Muslim insurgents.

“For sure, Thailand has its own brand of ‘Buddhist’ racism towards non-Buddhists,” said Zarni. “But, I am not sure the Thai society will go the way of those two genocidal Theravada Buddhist societies (Sri Lanka and Myanmar) — where racism of genocidal nature has enveloped the mainstream ‘Buddhist’ society.”

Buddhist monk Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, a senior lecturer at Chiang Mai Buddhist College in Thailand, said there are reasons why Theravada Buddhists see Islam as a threat. Among them, he cited the destruction of Nalanda University in India by Turkic military general Bakhtiyar Khilji in the early 13th century and attacks on Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, around the seventh century and more recently by the Taliban in 2001.

“Thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands beheaded as Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism,” he said.

Zarni agrees there are links “among what I really call anti-Dharma ‘Buddhist’ networks” in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, which are “toxic, cancerous and deeply harmful to all humans anywhere.”

Wirathu was recently labeled on the cover of Time magazine as “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The Myanmar government banned the edition. But Wirathu was quoted telling a reporter, “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”


  • The Great God Pan

    Don’t worry, Buddhism. No matter what horrors may be committed in your name, a certain brand of Western liberal will keep using you as an example of a “nice” religion that, by your very nature, never harms anyone.

    After all, people’s eyes, ears, noses, hands, feet or even limbs were still being removed as legal punishments in Tibet (then a Buddhist theocracy) in the 20th century. It was technically banned in 1913 but by many reports was still being practiced into at least the 20s or even right up until the Chinese invasion. But you will never hear about that from those who insist Buddhism is all pacifism and kindness.

  • Larry

    Much of the public image of Buddhism as a religion of sedate people is a lot of hooey. Much of it formed because they tended to blend with indigenous religions rather than displace them like Western religions do.

    Nobody can accuse the Japanese as having a pacifistic history and culture despite being 99% Buddhist. Myanmar was notorious for ethnic cleansing of all sorts of people who get in the way of various government interests.

    Sri Lanka’s Buddhists have a reputation for being extremists crazies going back for a while. Their treatment of the Hindu minority of the country was bad enough that the insurgents were the inventors of the suicide bomb belt.

    Pretty much anytime ethnicity is linked to politics, religion gets thrown in the mix as well as just one more dividing point.

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  • Atheist Max

    Religion is always about keeping the tribe together
    and excluding the other tribes.
    Arbitrary taboos, rituals, supernatural powers…

    If only the world would wake up and abandon religion
    and its supernatural widgets we might begin to build a decent world.

  • Atheist Max

    Thank YOU, Anuradha Sharma,
    Excellent report. Very important also.

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  • Dennis Arashiro

    Listen to this. When my Unitarian Universalist fellowship chose a former Methodist minister to lead it, there were objections within the fellowship and in the larger church because he was not an ordained UU minister. I still laugh at this hint of fundamentalism within a denomination with no set creed. We have met the enemy and he is us.

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  • gubbler

    “Though fundamentalism is a term that has thus far been used mostly in relation to Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, some are beginning to use it to describe Buddhists as well.”

    Arent there fundie Jews in Israel who call violence against Arabs?

    And aren’t politically correct homos fundamentalist in calling for silence of those who won’t bend over to the homo agenda?

  • gubbler

    Tibetans have long fused nationalism with Buddhism, but the West never seemed to mind.

    And when Afghan Muslims were fighting the USSR, the US didn’t call them fundamentalist but freedom fighters.

  • gubbler

    If Islam is aggressive and Buddhism is passive, Buddhism will lose. In the end, it is force that decides things.

    It’s like Christians preached love and peace but survived and thrived because they opted for force and violence.

    But most Christians who own guns and support the military are not fundamentalist.

    So, why should Buddhists be called ‘fundamentalist’ for being practical? They should be called realist or pragmatist.

    It is Buddhists who follow Buddha’s teaching to the letter who are the true fundamentalists. They would argue that Buddhists must never use violence since Buddha said so.

    But other Buddhists are realistic and know that meditating about Nirvana alone will not save Buddhist nations from aggressive Islam or Christianity.

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