As a practicing Buddhist, it is horrifying to witness the legions of Buddhists in Myanmar targeting the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people for persecution. As the unspeakable events have intensified in recent months, several writers have rightly decried the atrocities, but have also shone a bright light on the fact the persecution is unleashed by Buddhists, calling into question its status as the putative “religion of peace.” On this point, several atheist skeptics have posited the situation in Myanmar, and in other predominantly Buddhist countries, as proof that Buddhism’s role as the unifying identity in these collective acts of zealotry, makes it no less a demagogic sham than Christianity, Islam, or Judaism.
It is hard to swallow, but well-taken. In public interviews with Western media, the Buddhist, Nobel Laureate Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a page from Donald Trump’s handbook of moral duplicity to frame unspeakable events committed by her Buddhist brethren. When cornered by media about why she has not, in her role as State Counsellor, condemned the violence, she has said “there’s violence on all sides, believe me.” Her tepid, equivocal words, in light of the persecution committed by swaths of Buddhist nationalists, is a disgrace on several levels – ethically, politically, morally, and spiritually.
The very existence of Buddhist nationalist groups such as MaBaTha in Myanmar or Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka is peculiar to any right-thinking, practicing Buddhist. It is obvious the good intentions that may have brought these organizations into existence have fallen into the wrong hands. Insofar as they lend an air of legitimacy to ideas that systematize fear, hatred, and violence toward those of other creeds, they are organizations of ill-repute. In Sri Lanka, this strain of nationalism has led to the mistreatment of Hindu Tamils and Muslims for decades, while in Myanmar it has lead to sectarian violence and systemic persecution of Muslims of all ethnic persuasions, especially the Rohingya in the northern Rakhine State.
I have to confess, a small part of me would like to believe adherents of what I consider to be an extraordinary spiritual practice are incapable of such inexcusable bigotry. A part of me would love to lord evidence of Buddhism’s moral superiority over theistic religions, which have had throngs of their flock justifying sectarian crimes throughout their regrettable histories. The practicing Buddhist in me is well aware this idea is flawed on so many fundamental levels, not the least of which is the richness of magical thinking that must necessarily give it sustenance.
The very idea of such a thing as sectarian superiority flies in the face of Buddhist precepts, which are practice based and decidedly humanistic. There is no sacred text or deity that, irrespective of the community of teachers and adherents, represents a metaphysical form of perfection beyond the grasp of human beings. This is what makes it so appealing as a spiritual philosophy to people such as myself, an ardent atheist far too attached to reality and facts to trade self-delusion for inner peace.
Not unlike any other religion, the degree the ethical ideals extolled in Buddhist teachings are manifest in the Buddhist community are only as good as the wisdom, ethics, and discipline of the teachers and practitioners who comprise it. If Buddhist teachers distort the teachings the communities will likely reflect and manifest a perverted version of the Buddhist ethic. If the practitioners are lazy and undisciplined, the wholesome potential in Buddhist wisdom will go unrealized in the community; the degree Buddhist precepts moderate the excesses of the ego and cultivate humanity’s wholesome potential instead, will be curtailed.
This cuts to the heart of the Western idea that Buddhism is inherently “a religion of peace.” It was always an idealized Western projection – that of disillusioned exiles from the Abrahamic flock mesmerized by the blissful glow of the Dalai Lama and enthralled by the promise of calm in Jon Kabat-Zinn books. For the most part, it is propagated by many who have not delved very far into Buddhism’s dense, and often un-blissful marrow. Too many Western Buddhists adorn themselves with this shallow, superficial label, and sub-consciously perpetuate it in the effort to build a virtuous identity as a “peaceful one.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, one’s experiences with Buddhism’s intense meditation practices are often anything but blissful. The first forays into a meditation retreat will conjure up mental storms that are the antithesis of peaceful. One’s attempts to live according to the ethics are more often humbling for their repeated, abject failure in implementation, particularly when practice is lax. The whole experience can be downright disheartening and many quit trying because the effort involved can be formidable and apparently less satisfying than habitual methods. The effects on one’s emotional well-being, if one persists through the gauntlet, are profound.
This is why it is mystifying to me that Buddhist tenets could become tropes to reinforce an ego-identity. It smacks of corruption in the doctrine, though I cannot assert as much from a position of authority on Buddhist doctrine. Based on my own practice, it seems obvious the greater truths of spiritual practice are an acutely internal experience that cannot be “shown” or forced upon others; its manifestation does not lend itself to the shallow demarcations of an “identity.” The experiences point to something universal, infinite, but defy concrete explications that appeal to another’s rational faculties. In other words, there is little point in proseltyzing since the thrust of Buddhism is practical, not intellectual.
It is obvious those who tout such a thing as a “Buddhist nation” have perverted a central tenet of Buddhist philosophy: identity is a formless concept, a figment of the ego. Without being glib, we are all Buddhas, deep down. The idea a line can be drawn around a particular community such that those on the inside are parts of a “Buddhist thing” while those on the outside are separate, distinct “others” is absurd in this context. Despite this, it does not stop adherents from doing just that, and it is up to dharma teachers to discourage such ego-projects as wrong-headed.
In Buddhist philosophy, ego-identity is the sine qua non of suffering. The spiritual crux of Buddhism is to rid oneself of the trappings of the self-oriented ego that gives rise to feelings of dissatisfaction, hatred, and so forth that are its lifeblood. Given this, it runs counter to the very fundaments of Buddhism to create such a thing as a “Buddhist nationalist” identity as has been done in certain South-East Asian countries where it dominates.
Certainly, the actions of the Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar chasing the Rohingya into Bangladesh demonstrate that a person who claims to be a Buddhist is not guaranteed to act peacefully. I would argue their actions say less about Buddhism and more about their own understanding and practice (or lack thereof) of Buddhist techniques. They are betraying in stupendous fashion, not only their immensely flawed humanity in the face of historic, acrimonious sectarian cleavages, but also revealing extraordinary distortions in the Buddhism they practice. The fact there is such a thing at all as “Buddhist Nationalism” strikes me as impossible to fathom given the identity-dissipating central tenets of Buddhist philosophy. It clamours for a wholesale revision of the teachings prevalent in the country.
What is going on in Rakhine state is not representative of the Buddhism I know. None of the teachings support the deeds many Myanmar Buddhists are committing, or supporting, against human beings of a different creed. The fact there are a handful of Muslims who commit acts of terrorism under the banner of ARSA in Myanmar, or ISIS or Al Qaeda elsewhere, does not change this.
I cannot claim the mantle of a lama, but my strong sense is the Buddhist way to view Islamic radicalism isn’t to pre-emptively persecute or kill the radicals or their religious affiliates. Nor is it to forcefully banish the religion from which the seeds of radicalism hail. Were that an idea with merit, there would be good grounds to ban Myanmar Buddhist nationalists, at least in my country, for the hateful doctrine many of their leaders have advanced. Rather, the wholesome way to address radicalism is to extend compassion for the flawed humanity that draws suffering beings into the clutches of violent demagoguery and show by way of example a more wholesome way to behave.
Reactionary identity politics and discursive rhetoric will never stand as the skillful means to instill the wholesome intentions of Buddhism in any community. Actual Buddhist practice will. I would suggest this is true for all religions. It is a shame we have returned to a point in human history where individuals with corrupt aims have so readily touted religious doctrine to divide humanity for personal, political gain. It infuriates me that leaders in many religious communities have had an active hand in furthering this insidious marriage; that they have allowed their spiritual practice to be drawn into this unwholesome arena and irrevocably sullied by it. The utility of religious doctrine in dressing up destructive political intentions in self-righteousness is utterly predictable, which is why wisdom dictates it always be avoided.
The atrocities in Myanmar beckons sensible Buddhists to get off their meditation cushions and counter the hateful narratives that propel these misdeeds with words that affirm the humanity of the Rohingya people and deeds that are consistent with Buddhist precepts of non-harm. It is obvious in Myanmar the lines between religion and politics have been blurred so badly the clarity of Buddhist ethics in this regard have been confounded. It is understood that Suu Kyi is afraid to speak too firmly against the persecution; that she fears angering the Buddhist leaders who rallied to seal victory for she and her NLD Party, and does not wish to risk a confrontation with the country’s powerful military for a despised minority. Perhaps she fears her countrymen will punish her for the audacity to suggest that it is wrong, either for a democrat or a Buddhist, to despise minorities of any sort.
I would suggest the solution is relatively straightforward: Aung San Suu Kyi must speak as the nation’s political leader and stand up for the secular rule of law, social order, and democratic pluralism. She must show “Buddhist nationalists” what democracy in action looks like and unbind Myanmar politics from the perverse brand of political Buddhism that has evolved in the country. She must also begin the process of getting the military under the control of civilian institutions, a lack which has blossomed countless armed insurgent groups undermining the development of civil forms of political dissent since the country’s inception. It is time to cease the tack of meeting political dissent with armed force. If there is criminal violence associated with the political process, the police and a functioning judicial system are the legitimate ways to address that in a democracy.
None of this requires a confrontational approach be taken; that any group be shamed or concede defeat. Rather, they are principles that simply need to be articulated as consistent with democacry in a country that has no experience in this regard. Myanmar citizens need a civics lesson and Suu Kyi is just the person who could have claimed the political and moral authority to have imparted the first lesson. I grant, it requires intestinal fortitude given the political, religious, and ethnic cleavages that have plagued Myanmar society for decades. However, having spent years in confinement to win democracy for her countrymen gives Suu Kyi the legitimacy and the right to tell them what democracy actually looks like. They may not like what they hear, but they didn’t spend decades in confinement to win the privilege.
It is a profound disappointment Aung San Suu Kyi is pandering to throngs of chauvinists in her country, none of whom made the same sacrifices as she to get Myanmar on the right political path. She has done nothing to follow through on her reputation as a champion of democracy, which flounders by the day. My hope and wish for the Rohingya people, and for the democratic future of Myanmar, is that she soon comes to her senses. My fear is that her shocking inaction is evidence that all along she was possessed of the same ethnic chauvinism and deference to the militarism of her countrymen; that her reputation was a self-serving falsehood, an idealistic projection of the Western world, much the same as our projection of Buddhism as an inherently “peaceful religion.” I hope Suu Kyi’s next actions prove me wrong in this. Not only is the world watching, but so too are her fellow Buddhists.