Off the Cushion: EPISODE #7: “When Does Ethnocentric Buddhism Become Buddhist Terror?”

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I had the pleasure in taking part in an episode of the excellent Rev. Danny Fisher’s ‘Off the Cushion’ series. Episode 7 is on the topic of “When Does Ethnocentric Buddhism Become Buddhist Terror?”

This week, as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for his second visit to Burma, we look at the escalating violence against Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists in the country. Dr. Paul Fuller talks to us about his proposed term for understanding this phenomenon: “Ethnocentric Buddhism.” In addition, Myra Dahgaypaw, Campaigns Coordinator for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, pulls back the curtain on the much-discussed 969 Movement and its leader U Wirathu. Plus: United to End Genocide’s Director of Policy and Government Relations, Daniel P. Sullivan, tells us about the #JustSayTheirName campaign and how it might help stop this conflict.

A very big thank you for Danny for inviting me to contribute. I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to consider some of these ideas with Myra Dahgaypaw and Daniel P. Sullivan.

The causes of intolerance and prejudice in Buddhism

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An article I published in the excellent Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific ‘New Mandala’:

‘A sense of bewilderment is often apparent when news of violence appears with regard to Sri Lanka and Burma. The incredulity could be summarized in two ways. For the Asian Buddhist the idea is dismissed that the teachings of the Buddha could ever lead to hostility. ‘Buddhism’ is airbrushed from the scenes of violence and in its place the only thing seen is the threat to the nation, a threat to the culture and a threBuddhismat to the religion.

For the Western observer there is the idea that those committing these acts are not ‘real’ Buddhists. The original teachings have mingled with culture to such an extent as to become unrecognizable – dig beneath the culture, to the text, and there the ‘real’ message of the Buddha will be found. For the West (and I use the term ‘West’ not in a geographic sense but to imply those societies irrevocably influenced by modernity), Buddhism has to be separated from its cultural environment. This is out of necessity – for it is assumed that Buddhism is not a ‘religion’ at all. It is a pristine ‘other’, standing alone and somewhat aloof from the messiness of the masses. The notion that Buddhism is not a ‘religion is often a shared idea of the modern West and modern Asia.

To an extent, of course, these reactions overlap. However, it is important to keep in mind the differences. For the Asian Buddhist the ‘West’ can never culturally understand Buddhism (for the West is ‘foreign’ – modern and corrupt). Whereas for the Western Buddhist, it is precisely these cultural accretions that obscure the real teachings. The East is naïve and lacking sophistication. Both East and West, when they look at Buddhism, search for ‘authenticity’.

Should it come as any surprise that Buddhism has recently shown hostility to other religions? On the one hand, yes. Buddhism has portrayed itself, and been described by Western commentators as the ‘religion’ untainted by ‘religiousness’ (dogmatism, violence, fundamentalism). This has taken so many forms that it needs little further explanation. It is the religion of choice for the compassionate, modern individual. That this has been so readily accepted can be appreciated when many believe that Buddhism has a pure history in which misdemeanors, carnage, war and hostility has been committed by everyone, except the Buddhist. This is why there is such shock accorded to recent violence in Sri Lanka and Burma.

If we are seeking clues as to the origins to such hostility, we should not turn to the core textual tradition (although some Buddhist groups might turn to a particular text to justify its position). In the fundamental ideas of the Pali Canon, or the early Sutras of the Mahayana tradition, the teachings of the Buddha are based on tolerance and compassion. However, in seeking the causes of intolerant and prejudiced Buddhist attitudes the textual tradition is not the place to look.

The roots of intolerance might be found in the reaction of one Buddhist group to another. For example, although notoriously intricate, there appears to be something of this sectarian attitude in the emergence of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Mahāyāna identified itself in opposition to what it termed ‘Hīnayāna’ Buddhist groups. Although Mahāyāna is often translated as ‘Great Vehicle’ and Hīnayāna as ‘Smaller Vehicle’ – term ‘hīna’ actually means ‘inferior’, ‘low,’ ‘poor’, ‘miserable’, ‘vile’, or ‘contemptible’ implying a detrimental religious aspiration.

The internal evidence then suggests that the some Buddhist schools had an uncompromising attitude to other Buddhist schools. With the rise of Buddhism in the West (including the Asian ‘West’) – that ‘intolerance’ is pronounced. There is an internal dialogue about which group is the most compassionate. In fact, I think other Buddhist groups, whether Asian or in the West are using this ‘stick of compassion’ on Burmese Buddhists, as a way of distancing the rest of the Buddhist world from the situation in Burma. There is an evaluation of which group is more authentic – in short there appears to be dogmatic rigidity running through Buddhist history. It is in these aspects of Buddhist history, I suggest, that the roots of Buddhist hostility are found.

I am suggesting that there is a tendency in Buddhist history to negatively evaluate other Buddhist groups. Its intolerance of others could come from an intolerance of itself. From this it should come as no surprise that there is a negative evaluation of non-Buddhist traditions.

When this tendency expresses itself in modern Asian history we find Buddhist defending the so-called ‘Buddhist flag’ (the sāsana flag, designed by J.R. de Silva and an American, Colonel Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880) and raging at the blasphemy of those who handle it inappropriately.

There is the idea that the ‘outsider’ cannot understand the cultural subtleties of Buddhism. The notion of the superiority of Buddhism, often based upon a supposed scientific resemblance and methodology – Buddhism is better because it is more ‘scientific’ more ‘rational’. And because it is perceived as ‘better’ Buddhists go to war, discriminate against others, take Buddhism to be an essential factor in the formation of national identity, and do things that, in other respects, we might find are completely contrary to the Buddha’s teachings.

There is an historic pride in the fundamental goodness of the Dhamma which causes conflict and hostility. There are enough teachings in the Buddhist Canon that warns against such an attitude, but there are also many examples in Buddhist history where a strong sense of pride in one’s own tradition is supported. It is precisely where an attitude in which the most compassionate, the most Buddhist, the most traditional are valued – that intolerance in Buddhist culture comes into focus. National identity has become inseparable from Buddhist identity in much of Buddhist Asia and both have become something other from what they otherwise would have been. Intolerance and prejudice are not far from such an identity and belongs in neither.’

Paul Fuller has a PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Bristol.  He has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK.