Where does Buddhism get its reputation for peace?

When I teach an undergraduate course on ‘Buddhism and Violence’, I usually start by asking students to rank religious groups according to the number of followers they have in the British Army. Typically Christians are at the top of the student lists and Buddhists at the bottom.

This reflects an unconscious prejudice that many of these students have regarding Buddhism – they assume that all Buddhists are peaceful and that a Buddhist is not likely to embrace a career that might well involve violence at some point.

So they are always surprised to find that there are more Buddhists in the British Army than Muslims and Sikhs combined – despite the relatively small number of Buddhists in Britain.

But why do so many people in the West associate Buddhism with peace?

According to historian Professor Jonathan Walters, the roots lie in colonialism and Christian missionaries. Encountering different beliefs among the colonized peoples, the missionaries adopted a strategy of framing other religions in such a way that Christianity could be presented as superior and attractive.

In their eyes, Islam was too aggressive and focused on strict adherence to the rules. Buddhism was too extraterrestrial, pacifist and passive to the point of stagnating. Christianity has been placed in the Goldilocks spot in between.

The framing always has a strong pull and leads to some cognitive dissonance when, for example, Buddhists make the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Avoiding “the assault on living beings” and instead cultivating benevolence towards them is at the heart of Buddhist ethics; this is the first of the five moral precepts, and the one you must follow if you decide to follow any of them. The Buddha discouraged violence and advised kings to find other ways to solve problems. Selling weapons is considered an inappropriate livelihood for a Buddhist.

Buddhist violence

But Buddhists have been involved in violent conflict pretty much since the emergence of the religion. The justifications for such actions have generally been based on defending the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), occasionally demonizing or dehumanizing the enemy to make them less karmically evil to kill them.

A particularly uncomfortable example of this is found in the fifth-century Sri Lankan quasi-mythological Mahavamsa chronicle, in which monks reassure a king that of the millions he had just slaughtered, only two were Buddhists and the rest looked more like to animals than to humans.

When it comes to “Buddhist violence,” as with any perceived religious conflict, religion is only one factor in a complex situation. Often times, ethnic identity is the real issue – it just so happens that one of the ethnic groups in question has historical Buddhist affiliations, the others do not.

At one point, the Sri Lankan conflict of 1983-2009 saw three different civil wars unfold simultaneously, as many as anything along ethnic and political lines: Sinhalese against Tamils, Sinhala extremists against the Sinhala government. and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam against other Tamil militant groups.

A religion of peace with a shrine dedicated to war heroes: Sri Lankans light oil lamps to commemorate the dead of the civil war.
EPA-EFE / Chamila Karunarathne

While it was not as simple as Buddhists, Muslims and Tamil Hindus clash, the conflict nonetheless saw the rise of Jathika Chintanaya or “nationalist thought” which promoted an exclusively Buddhist vision for Sri Lanka which is now influential in organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”).

Tensions between ethnic Buddhist and Muslim groups in Myanmar’s Rakhine State escalated into riots in 2012 and ultimately led to the displacement of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh. While explicitly describing itself as non-violent and not responsible for these events, the 969 Buddhist nationalist movement has nonetheless stirred up anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar and presented Muslims as a threat to national identity. It is important to note, meanwhile, that these nationalist movements do not speak for all Buddhists – lay or monastic – whether in Sri Lanka or Myanmar.

Buddhist monks actually carried weapons and fought in the Korean defense against Japanese invasions at the end of the 16th century. Although military service is not prohibited in Buddhist texts, the life of a soldier is considered problematic due to the likelihood of dying in combat, motivated by murder and obsessed with violence. Ideally, a Buddhist wants to die with a calm mind that is more likely to be attracted to a positive rebirth. A violent spirit could lead to the hell realms of Buddhism.

It is not only war and external threats that provide examples of Buddhist violence. Corporal punishment was a feature of the pre-modern Tibetan legal system. In 1997, three Tibetan monks were murdered in Dharamsala – police linked the suspects in the case to an ongoing controversy within Tibetan Buddhism. Thailand maintains the death penalty, the last time it applied it in 2018.

Peaceful in her heart

At the end of the course, I’m still worried that students will focus on the more sensationalist and violent material covered: that one extreme point of view will replace another. However, the pacifist stereotype of Buddhism is not unfounded.

Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, surrounded by Buddhist monks and supporters, greets spectators.
Emblem of passive resistance in Tibet: the Dalai Lama.
EPA-EFE / Sanjay Baid

Witness the Dalai Lama’s continued opposition to violence regarding the issue of Tibetan independence, the peace activism of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, or the efforts of Navayana Buddhists (“Ambedkarite”) in relation to with social justice in India, lifting millions of Dalits out of the structural violence of the “caste” system.

But then Buddhism is at least as internally diverse as Christianity or Islam – and as such we should be careful not to generalize. After all, few Christians would like the perception of their religion to be based solely on images of the Quakers or the Westboro Baptist Church.