Violence between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in western Burma has resulted in 62 deaths so far, a government official says. Mobs from both groups have attacked, beaten, and killed others, and set homes on fire.
My impression is that desperately poor Rohingya Muslims, who are considered to be illegal refugees from Bangladesh (even if they were born in Burma) have gotten the worst of it. There is no question many Burmese genuinely despise the Rohingyas.
I condemn this violence and am disappointed that this has happened in Burma. Burma has been such an inspiration in the past. But this brings us back to a larger discussion of the relationship between Buddhism and violence.
At Wildmind, Bodhipaksa offers some valuable comments on what it is to "be" a Buddhist who commits violence. As he says, there is no justification for violence in Buddhist scriptures or teaching. He continues,
There is no Buddhist doctrine of "just war" or even of "righteous anger." The Buddha condemned all forms of violence, and famously said that even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb, you should have compassion for your torturers.
However, that hasn't stopped others from claiming that the violence in Burma proves that Buddhism teaches violence. Bodhipaksa describes a comment thread in which people blamed Buddhism for the violence:
The original thread I was commenting on was started by an atheist, and she had a number of atheist followers who chimed in, citing the violence as evidence that Buddhism is a bad thing ("full of shit") was one phrase used. I had a feeling that there was a generalized disdain of religion which was being uncritically extended to Buddhism.
We've run into this before from logic-challenged critics of Buddhism such as Michael Jerryson. There is a knee-jerk assumption that if an individual or group self-identified as Buddhist commits an act of violence, Buddhism must be the cause. This is unvarnished bigotry, of course. Since Buddhism unequivocally condemns hatred and violence, blaming Buddhism for violence makes no more sense than blaming any other attribute one could assign to the perpetrators, such as race or ethnicity.
Sometimes people self-identified as Buddhist do violent things. When this happens, does it mean these individuals would never have been violent if they hadn't been exposed to Buddhism? Or does it mean Buddhist teachings just didn't sink in?
In southern Thailand Buddhist laypeople and monks are sometimes attacked and slaughtered by Muslim extremists. Some Buddhist laypeople have formed anti-Muslim militias, and even monks arm themselves sometimes for self-protection. Does this mean that if none of these people were Buddhist, it would never in a million years occur to them to form militias or carry arms in response to very real threats? That makes no sense, but some people (ahem) seem to think that's the case.
You can extend this same reasoning to religion in general. Certainly, there are religions that condone violence in some circumstances. And very often influential religious institutions are headed by people who co-opt religion for their own purposes, and use violence and oppression as a means to consolidate power. History also provides examples of sociopathic leaders who used religion to manipulate their followers. Is this the fault of religion, or sociopathy? And if religion is removed, would not nationalism or racism or any fervently held ideology serve the same purpose, just as well?
The infamous Spanish Inquisition was, arguably, more about maintaining the power of the Spanish monarchy than purifying the Spanish church. And we've probably all met people for whom a religion is more of their tribal identity than anything they practice or believe.
The point is that "religion" does not exist in a vacuum, but is something woven into and conditioned by culture and psychology. Sometimes it's a cause; sometimes it's an excuse; sometimes it is a supporting factor; sometimes it's no more related to a situation than the size of the perpetrators' shoes.
Logically, the only time one can clearly know that X religion caused Y violence is if you can demonstrate that Y would never have happened if you remove X. If Y would have happened anyway, because of racial or national prejudice or because people are in fear for their lives, then you can't say X caused Y. You can only say X failed to prevent Y. And there could be ten thousand different reasons why X failed.
In the case of Buddhism, I would look first to see if Buddhist institutions in western Burma are doing a proper job of teaching. That I do not know.
But in what way does it make sense to criticize Buddhism itself because of the behavior of people who call themselves Buddhists? If Buddhism (i.e. the Buddha's teachings) said "violence is wrong unless..." then, sure, I'd accept the premise that Buddhism is full of shit. But it doesn't. The Buddha was completely uncompromising on the question of violence. When people are violent they're not following the Buddha's teachings.
Why is that so hard to understand?