Featured image courtesy Al Jazeera

Recent attacks on Muslim mosques instigated by certain Buddhist groups (members of which include Buddhist monks) as well as the post-independence orientation of the Sangha in general, aside from admirable exceptions, against the Tamil community in Sri Lanka raise serious questions about the theory and practice of Theravada Buddhism in the country. One could surmise that such a dichotomy between theory and practice is common to all organised religion. However, the contrast appears drastic particularly given the fundamentals of Buddhist teachings and the practical implications that this has brought to the surface politically in recent times. Most alarming is the active involvement of at least some Buddhist monks in violent politics.

Not only were the Buddha’s teachings extremely moderate, pacifist and peaceful, but when Buddhism came to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE through the initiatives of King Dharma Asoka, the guidelines were to tolerate other religions. The four immeasurable concepts of Karuna (compassion), Metta (unconditional love), Mudita (empathy) and Upekkha (equanimity) do not appear together in any other religion in that clarity or prominence. Dharma Asoka’s advice also was to ‘respect other religions as much as you respect your own religion’ (Edict XII).

Early Religious Plurality

Buddhism spread through the length and breadth of the country as evident from pagodas, inscriptions and chronicles. However, the country preserved the plurality of religions and the plurality of interpretation of Buddhism allowing different schools to survive side by side. The prominent schools or nikayas were Mahavihara, Abhayagiri and Jetavana. In this sense, Theravada led by Mahavihara was only one school, but the most prominent one.

The proper origins of Theravada could be traced to the Fourth Council held in Sri Lanka during the first century BCE. There was another Fourth Council held in Kashmir in the First Century CE which gave birth to the Mahayana tradition. It is during this time that Abahayagiri came to prominence in the country, following Mahayana convictions. That tradition was quite liberal and open to new ideas, including the worship of bodhisattvas.

There is no question that the Theravada school or Mahavihara contributed immensely to preserve, interpret and enhance the teachings of the Buddha for posterity. Some of the contributions came from visiting scholars like Buddhagosha in the sixth century and his compilation of Visuddhimagga is testimony to this fact. However, there was another side to its contribution. In a sense, Theravada tradition was rigid, dogmatic and in certain respects sectarian. There was a clear attempt to portray Sri Lanka as a sacred land (dhammadipa) and to emphasize purity and lineage both in terms of sangha and kingship. Mahavamsa, authored by one of the key monks of this tradition is an example.

The above aspects of Theravada tradition were boosted after challenges from several South Indian invasions and occupations. The other reason was the unification of the three schools or the abolition of the other two (Abhayagiri and Jetavana) and the establishment of the predominance of Mahavihara in the twelfth century. It is this Theravada which went to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.

Some Questions

Last year, John Clifford Holt edited a book on Sri Lanka titled ‘Buddhist Extremists and Muslim Minorities: Religious Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ with contributions by three Sri Lankan academics. Holt stated in his Introduction that “The rise of a Buddhist militancy victimising Muslim communities strikes most Euro-American observers as surprising.” The reason he gave was that while the West ‘profile Buddhists as peace loving, meditative and representing pacifism and gentility, Muslims are often branded or imagined in almost the polar opposite manner.’ He also observed,

“Before addressing the situation specifically in Sri Lanka, I need to point out that Sri Lanka is not the only Theravada Buddhist dominated society where tensions and violence between Buddhists and Muslims have flared in recent years.” (p. 2)

He was particularly referring to Burma and Thailand and observed many similarities between the violent Wirathu movement in Burma and the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in Sri Lanka.

Over two decades ago, when I was doing my doctoral studies on human rights, I selected Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka as case studies given the magnitude of violence and human rights violations that had occurred in these countries in contemporary times. What struck me later was that all these countries are Theravada Buddhist countries. Although violence in Cambodia was not directly related to the monks or Buddhism there, during the Khmer Rouge violence, the Cham Muslims were killed in overwhelming numbers. I also had occasion to visit where the Cham Muslims lived and perished. I also came across the Khmer word ‘Thimil,’ which was used to mean the enemies of Buddhism. There were all indications to believe that the word originated during the Sinhala Buddhist (Theravada) influence in Cambodia.

A Possible Link?   

It might not be correct to make a direct link between Theravada thinking and violence in these countries, because there are various other factors that have influenced violence in general and monks’ involvement in violence in particular. In the case of Cambodia, the monk’s involvement in violence during 1970s or thereafter is minimal. On the other hand, they were victims. The Cambodian monks also do not generally get involved in politics. It is prohibited by vinaya and law. This is also more or less the case in Thailand. Therefore, the question is more general than specific.

Is there anything doctrinal within Theravada thinking/tradition which makes (at least some) monks or the general adherents intolerant of other religions and disposed towards aggression and violence? That is the question which I am posing in this article. One may dismiss or denounce the question as anti-Buddhist or a Western conspiracy. In my sincere opinion, that would not render any good either for Buddhism, which I respect immensely, or the country. According to Kalama Sutta, this kind of questioning is necessary to understand reality. I would not say to understand ‘truth’ which is generally relative in my opinion.

There should be a dialogue within the Buddha Sasana and in general (if not to find the reasons or any connection) to bring the peaceful teachings of the Buddha to the forefront. The lateral way might be the best, avoiding intractable issues. That is the way to spread Buddhism to the world without confining it narrowly to one ethnicity. Likewise, there should also be moderation on the part of other religions and communities without exacerbating frictions. Violence does not serve any purpose, even for the perpetrators. As I have stated at the beginning, Theravada tradition itself has rendered a major service to Buddhism by preserving, interpreting and enhancing the teachings of the Buddha. If there is anything wrong in the order, the discipline (vinaya) or the way the teachings are interpreted today, those must be corrected for the general good.

A Way Out

Visuddhimagga (path of purification) of Buddhagosha might be one way out. Not just individuals, but the whole country must follow the principle of mindfulness of ‘what is being done, not being done and how things to be done in the future.’ There is an abiding duty on the part of the Maha Sangha, the Sangha Nayakas and Buddhist scholars to address these issues. As predominantly a Theravada country, there were periods where religious tolerance and plurality prevailed. As Robert Knox recorded (1681), the Kandyan kingdom was such a period. This was apart from the glorious Anuradhapura period which spanned over a millennium. The same could be said of most of the Kotte period.

With reference to the Sinhalese, after describing their way of charity, Knox said, “Nor are they charitable only to the poor of their own nation; but as I said to others”. There were Moorish pilgrims coming from the other coast, he said. What he meant by ‘the other coast’ was India. They were Mohametans [Mohammedans] by religion, he said. “These have a temple in Candy. A certain former king gave this temple this privilege – that every freeholder should contribute a pannam to it” (p. 171 in Part III, ‘An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in the East Indies). Knox’s descriptions of religions in the Kandyan kingdom were about plurality.

While critically commenting on the Portuguese destruction of some Buddhist shrines, he also noted that the people ‘respect Christians’ because “They love a man that makes conscience of his ways.” While making a distinction between Buddhist temples and others, he said, “But these Arms are not in the Buddou’s Temples, he being for Peace.”

‘He being for peace,’ was Knox’s understanding of the Buddha.

The purpose of the whole article is not to blame Theravada for violence, but to search for answers for the curtailment of violence in the country and beyond.  As the history of many organised religions show, there were priests and monks who were involved in violence periodically, in the name of religion. The reason might be the erroneous belief that ‘their version of the world is the absolute truth.’ The Crusaders were one such example from Christianity. There are more recent examples from the Islamic faith. However, none of this should be an excuse on the part of the Buddhists to indulge in violence. One may argue that Buddhism could be considered the most peaceful religion in its philosophy and teachings. There is nothing wrong if each religion considers or argues itself as the most peaceful. But that must be put into practice.

Readers who enjoyed this article might find “Escalating Violence: Renewed assaults on the Muslim community” and “Sobhitha Himi: Servant of the Dhamma – gift to us all” enlightening reads.