What Buddhism teaches about peace and war

Buddhism is generally considered, with good reason, to be the most peaceful religion in the world. Like other South Asian religions, it emphasizes the principle of Ahimsah, the “non-injury” of other living beings. Yet his teachings also emphasize that violence harms the spiritual state of the abuser, as well as that of the victim. Evil thoughts or acts are seen as obstacles in the way of nirvana, the surpassing of oneself which is the final point of all spiritual effort. Early Buddhist history contains strong pacifist messages. The faith’s founder, Gautama Buddha, is said to have ended an impending war over water supplies with a rival clan, the Koliyas. After converting to Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka, who ruled South Asia in the 3rd century BC. AD, is said to have felt remorse for the bloodshed he had caused in his previous life.

More recent history is quite different. In Asia, Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of bloody intercommunal conflict, either as propagandists or even as participants. In Sri Lanka, zealous groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) have propagated the idea that a small Muslim community is a mortal danger to the country’s integrity as a Buddhist nation. Hardline monks took a militant anti-Tamil stance during the country’s civil war that ended in 2009. Last month, a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka was arrested and charged with attacking a center for Muslim refugees. In recent years, militant monks have also stormed mosques, slaughterhouses and places of learning. In Thailand, Buddhist monks have been victims and protagonists of a conflict raging in three southern provinces where the population is predominantly Muslim. It is not uncommon for monks to brandish weapons under their robes. The killing of two monks in 2004 sparked an escalation in fighting.

But it is in Myanmar that Buddhist violence has become most familiar of late. A monk named Ashin Wirathu called for a harsh response to a perceived Muslim threat. Her organization, Ma Ba Tha, has reportedly been banned, but she still urges the authorities to take the hardest line against Rohingya Muslims, more than 600,000 of whom have been deported to Bangladesh. Ma Ba Tha spreads the idea that Myanmar’s overwhelming Buddhist majority is threatened by the Muslim minority. The position is criticized by some Asian Buddhists. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, chastised his co-religionists for persecuting the Rohingyas, saying they should “remember Buddha”. He insisted that the faith’s founder would “certainly help these poor Muslims”.

Like all other important religions in history, Buddhism engenders powerful feelings of protection among its followers, especially when sacred history and national history intertwine, as happens in Sri Lanka. In the collective memory of Sri Lankan Buddhists, the emergence of their nation is seen as linked to the advent of their faith during the time of King Ashoka, if not earlier. And whenever people feel a threat to their identity and origins, they can easily be incited to lash out with disproportionate force, just as medieval Christians went to war when told that the holiest places of their faith in Jerusalem were profaned. Moreover, as in any vast corpus of sacred texts and annals, one can find in the Buddhist tradition elements justifying violence, at least in the case of self-defense. Medieval Japan, for example, had its Buddhist warrior monks. And even the Dalai Lama agrees that one can take limited action in self-defense. If a man points a gun at you, he once said, you can shoot back, but to hurt rather than kill.