1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Buddhist Violence, Real and Imagined

By April 11, 2013

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It has come to my attention that there's a Wikipedia page called "Violence in Buddhism." It's a very odd page that mixes valid and invalid -- in my opinion -- examples of violence perpetrated by Buddhists and Buddhist institutions.

The page title begs the question, "What does 'in Buddhism' mean?" Violence promoted by Buddhist teachings? Endorsed by Buddhist institutions? Perpetrated by self-identified Buddhists? Carried out by people who keep a Buddha statue on their desks? Accusations of violence that probably never happened?

I wonder if the page writers actually know that much about Buddhism, or Buddhists, or even Asia. For example, the page uncritically lists accusations made by the government of China against the 14th Dalai Lama. File those under "probably never happened." On the other hand, it leaves out some rather nasty and well-documented violence, such as the time troops supporting the 5th Dalai Lama attacked an encampment of Karma Kagyu monks and drove the 10th Karmapa into exile.

I see that a major source of information for this page is Michael Jerryson. I've complained about him in the past (see, for example, "Thoughts on Religious Violence.")  This is the guy who wrote, in his book Buddhist Warfare, --

Buddhist messianic violence persists in contemporary times, with the latest violent outbreak occurring in Japan. In 1995, Asahara Shoko's Aum Shinrikyo unleashed Sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway, killing a dozen people and injuring many more. Part of Aum Shinrikyo's ideologies is based on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most popular and influential sutras (scriptures) in Mahayana Buddhism.

This is profoundly dishonest. There is nothing whatsoever in the Lotus Sutra that condones such violence. Nor does Jerryson bother to find out exactly what part Aum Shinrikyo's "ideology" is taken from the Lotus Sutra or any other part of Buddhism. My impression of Asahara Shoko is that he made up his own religion, with iconography and ritualism borrowed from Buddhism and Shinto and with some Christian apocalypticism tossed in. He probably used the Lotus Sutra more as a kind of totem than as a source of teaching.

Now to the Wiki page, which cites the Ketsumeidan assassinations as an act of "Buddhist terrorism." These were some political assassinations carried out in Japan in the 1930s by a group headed by a Nisshō Inoue. Inoue called himself a priest of the Nichiren school, but he was never ordained, and as far as I know no school of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan claimed him as its own. He was a fake, in other words. So why is what he did "Buddhist terrorism" and not "some charismatic psychopath pretending to be a priest terrorism"?

On the other hand, in feudal Japan there was actual violence between genuinely ordained monks of rival sects from time to time. That violence might arguably be a legitimate example of "Buddhist violence." But the Wiki authors don't give that example.

Jerryson and others seeking to dig up dirt on Buddhism fall into a major logical fallacy, which is that every act done by anybody with even a tenuous connection to Buddhism must be blamed on Buddhism and would never have happened but for Buddhism. As I wrote in the older post linked above,

"So the question is, where there is violence associated with religion, is religion promoting the violence, or is religion being co-opted to excuse violence that would have happened anyway? I think you have to look at individual circumstances. Certainly, sometimes religions, and religious institutions, initiate and genuinely condone violence. And sometimes a religion becomes infected by the social pathologies of its culture and serves as an unwitting host for an agenda of violence.  And if that particular host hadn't been handy, another would have served just as well."

In other words -- correlation ain't causation, folks. Keep that straight.

For that matter, people are still uncritically citing Brian Victoria's Zen at War book, even though some of Victoria's claims -- not all, but some-- have been debunked.

Certainly, some of the examples given on the Wiki page are legitimate, such as the role played by some Buddhist institutions in the Sri Lankan civil war. But if someone is going to go to the trouble of documenting violence in Buddhism, it would be nice if the someone had some real knowledge, and was not just pulling random stuff out of popular nonfiction.

April 12, 2013 at 1:14 am
(1) Hanas says:

The following are some web links to support the Buddhist violence. This is taking place in a country where by the constitution Buddhism in protected. You can find violence perpetrated by Buddhist monk almost every day in Sri Lanka media.


April 12, 2013 at 10:21 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hanas — You aren’t telling anyone here anything we don’t already know. Read my post again (assuming you read it at all). I believe you missed the point.

April 12, 2013 at 5:56 am
(3) Mark O says:

The wiki article is pathetically bad, an unfortunate vindication of those who despise Wikipedia for its inaccuracy and unreliability.

April 12, 2013 at 9:12 am
(4) Mila says:

I agree with Mark O that the article is pathetically bad. Actually, to call it pathetically bad is being rather generous :)

My favorite part (simply for its comic value) is the suggestion that the Kalachakra Tantra is a “doctrinal source” supporting violence, lol. I’m surprised they didn’t mention Manjushri’s sword (as advocating, perhaps, Samurai mass-murder?) or the Tibetan wrathful deities (the Buddhist mafia?) — What. Ever.

A quick search revealed similar “violence in/and” articles for Christianity, Islam and Religions of India — and I imagine there are others.

As Barbara points out, the problem with so many of the conclusions drawn in articles such as these is that they are based upon faulty reasoning. In addition to mistaking correlation for causation, what I also see is a lot of

(1) faulty generalization — i.e. inductive inferences rooted in insufficient evidence — basing broad conclusions about an entire group (e.g. “All Buddhists are violent” or “Buddhism is a violent religion”) on a small and statistically insignificant sampling of instances; and

(2) something like ad hominen arguments writ large — i.e. arguing that because there are individual instances of violence among some members of a religion, therefore the religion as a whole is not to be trusted, or is useless, or has nothing of value to offer. This is more-or-less the institutional equivalent of an argument such as: I once saw Mila step on and mortally wound an ant; therefore Mila is inherently bad, and cannot be trusted, in any way, shape or form.

April 12, 2013 at 11:35 am
(5) Annie says:

When I saw the title of your article, I expected it to be about (or at least mention) the current violence happening between Buddhists & Muslim minorities in Burma. Any comment there?

April 12, 2013 at 6:09 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Any comment there?

I’ve already written a blog post about the current violence in Burma (see here) and have nothing new to add.

April 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm
(7) Jami says:

Wiki entires are on the Rohigya people. As an argument, one points out the Burmese governments have annexed and colonized them in the past.

Assuming past goverments had Buddhist among them, we may say that could be an example of all to-human failings among the Burmese Buddhists. Japan and China of course have unique illustrations.
But the Question is: does Buddhism teach violence? And the answer is in the negative.

April 12, 2013 at 11:05 pm
(8) buddhanonymous says:

Some years back, a teacher came across some monks that were figuratively patting themselves on the back for following a religion that did not have to apologize for past incidents of violence. The teacher then dug up instances of obscure wars in Burma to teach humility to the monks.

Human beings being what they are, incidents of greed and anger arise among the unenlightened. Buddhism probably has the fewest incidents of oppressive behavior among its followers. “Few” does not mean “none.”

I am not sure what the purpose of the Wikipedia article is. If it is to show that bad behavior occurs among followers of all religions, it may have some value. If the purpose is to denigrate Buddhism due to the actions of a few, then it has no value.

April 13, 2013 at 4:13 am
(9) Chris White says:

This post is too long for one entry, so I have divided it into two.

I suspect that the article was written/edited by someone intent on painting Buddhism as a violent religion for their own purposes. Highly emotive phrase like “a robust history of Buddhist-related self-flagellation, suicides, torture, and wars” and “… over sixteen hundred years of Buddhist violence in Asia” are designed to present a very specific and partisan view of Buddhism, without any alternative views being presented.

Many comments are taken out of context; regarding the Sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo sect, it states “[t]he religious justification for Aum Shinrikyo’s use of violence was connected to Buddhist rationalizations of taking the lives of “less spiritually advanced” beings…”. In fact, the article cited states clearly that Asahara distorted the Tibetan concept of Phowha (releasing ones consciousness just prior to death) in order to justify one of the murders committed by sect members (1).

The article also makes sweeping statements, such as “…scholars often refer to it as an off-shoot of Japanese Buddhism” (also with reference to the Aum sect). This statement is attributed to one scholar (2) who later states that “… many religious leaders denied that Aum was even a religion, much less a form of Buddhism” (3). Once again, the more balanced view outlined in the original source is ignored.

(1) Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons – pp 14-15 http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/CNAS_AumShinrikyo_SecondEdition_English.pdf

(2) Juergensmeyer, Mark; Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence; University of California Press, 2003.

(3) Ibid, p. 222

April 13, 2013 at 4:14 am
(10) Chris White says:


All the news articles quoted are from services based in Islamic countries (Gulf News is published in Dubai), and apart from Michael Jerryson’s and Brian Daizen Victoria, very few other scholars are quoted or even mentioned. The authors are so desperate for supporting material that they have even used an article about the revival of Jihad containing only seven words referring to “…Buddhist terrorism in Japan;” (4).

While no one with any sense would claim that no Buddhists have committed acts of violence, this article is a very poorly researched and written attempt to present a distorted and dishonest account of Buddhism’s association with such acts. It is an extremely shoddy scholarship which quite rightly deserves to be ignored.

(4) Calvert, John C. M.; The Striving Shaykh: Abdullah Azzam and the Revival of Jihad, in; The Contexts of Religion and Violence, Ed. Ronald A. Simkins, Journal of Religion & Society Supplement Series 2, 2007, p. 83.

April 13, 2013 at 8:24 am
(11) Mila says:

Chris — I think you should post your comments (if you haven’t already) on the “talk” page associated with the article; where they could be used to improve the piece.

To be fair to Wiki, they have flagged the article as “having multiple issues” — and as I understand their process, it’s one of gradually improving submissions that initially are weak. So anyone wishing to spend their time doing so, could be part of making it a much more fair representation.

April 13, 2013 at 2:41 pm
(12) Tim says:

Barbara, have you considered editing the wikipedia article? It is a open website, and it depends on people like you with expertise and cited examples to clear up articles with issues.

April 14, 2013 at 6:44 am
(13) Barbara O'Brien says:

Tim — I regret I lack the time to help the Wikipedia page. And anyway, the few times I have tried to edit or leave comments on Wikipedia, my edits were quickly reversed and my comments ignored, so I’ve come to think it’s futile.

April 13, 2013 at 7:57 pm
(14) Shii says:

That article is really terrible, and someone who doesn’t understand Japanese religion at all keeps re-adding the Aum Shinrikyo line. I’m afraid there’s not much you can do about people who are armed with a link to Google Books and think they know everything.

April 14, 2013 at 5:17 pm
(15) Jami says:

Maybe wiki articles can be helpful or tendentious. This sounds like the latter.

But maybe the writers area posing the question the wrong way. States declare war and East Asian States, like Western ones, have a colorful history of Empires. One can guess how they acquired them.

They have laws, prisons, courts, judges: and the death sentence. On an intuitive level one may say civil societies where Buddhist live exhibit the failures of humanity.

April 15, 2013 at 1:33 am
(16) Narayanan says:

Problem here is that in every religion there are people who resort to things that the religion itself is against and bring the religion a bad name. The reason why Buddhism has got this attention on the violence theme is because a person professing to be connected with Buddhism is supposed to be non-violent and highly tolerant of negative influences which includes vengefulness. I am no thelogy expert but I think Buddhism’s very appeal to the people is its non-violent precepts. In India, the King Ashoka joined the Buddhism movement following a violent invasion by forces under his command. Apparently, out of remorse, he joined Buddhism and did much to promote Buddhism in many countries. In India itself, however, it never really took off (in spite of Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile at Dharmashala) as a religion, though it has survived as a philosophy. Let’s look at the founding principles and basic tenets of the religion for real knowledge. Logically, we should look at the relgion and the so-called ‘citizens of the religion’ separately.

April 15, 2013 at 8:32 am
(17) Philo Vaihinger says:

Some people write that the actual teachings of the various religions regarding violence, coercion, and politics themselves vary considerably, citing Islam as a religion that teaches violence and both Buddhism and Quakerism as religions that teach non-violence.

Such remarks always provoke the “everybody does it” response, and I would guess the Wiki article on Buddhist violence is part of that backlash.

April 15, 2013 at 5:47 pm
(18) Jami says:

@ Philo, just for the record, as you may know, Islam does not teach violence.
It teaches Jihad- until the 20 century, a mainly spiritual concept. But Islam grew in a culture where ‘honor’ (family, tribe, religion) was deemed important to defend, and to the death if need be.
That would entail the second aspect of ‘Jihad’ and here, as to values, perhaps the Rinzai Samurai show a certain affinity.

On the whole, Muslims, like most Eastern folks, have been a peaceful bunch. Christianity teaches peace (the Orthodox Church)- but in areas of the world Christian peace, as an ideal, remained just that: an ideal.

August 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm
(19) Waikamachi says:

I have some points to make and I hope you won’t dismiss me by saying you have addressed these points elsewhere or by simply telling me to go away.
Whatever the inaccuracies are in the Wikipedia article, the fact remains that Buddhist monks and Buddhist institutions have lead campaigns of violence and caused immense suffering to certain ethno-religious groups in, for example, Burma and Sri Lanka. The evidence is plentiful and irrefutable.
Annewieke Vroom from the journal of Buddhist Ethics (article linked below) talks of the ‘’overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to the centrality of violence in Sri Lankan Buddhism’’. Well, I guess we can also add Burmese Buddhism to that now.
I also refer you to a text which I am sure you will find very surprising. The Mahavamsa, a Pali Buddhist text, actually justifies violence against non-Buddhists and describes non-Buddhists as non-human:
“And thereon the king said again to them: `How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host [of people] numbering millions?’
`From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men. The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men!’”



August 21, 2013 at 6:56 am
(20) Barbara O'Brien says:

Whatever the inaccuracies are in the Wikipedia article, the fact remains that Buddhist monks and Buddhist institutions have lead campaigns of violence and caused immense suffering to certain ethno-religious groups in, for example, Burma and Sri Lanka.

I am so tired of people making knee-jerk assumptions that I couldn’t possibly have noticed that Buddhists in Asia are perpetrating violence. Next time tell us that water is wet and the sky is blue. It might be less annoying.

I have in fact written about the violence being perpetrated in the name of Buddhism a lot. And I make no excuses for it. In fact, it’s likely I know more about it than you do. Here’s just one article about what’s happening in Burma that might provide some context for you.

Regarding the Mahavamsa, I had never heard of it and looked it up. It’s a Pali historical poem, not a part of the Sutta-pitaka or any other Buddhist religious or scriptural canon. Put in Western terms, it is something like what the stories about knights looking for the Holy Grail are to Christianity. Why the Theravadins remember it I do not know, although tt’s possible it contains some historical information they find important. But as a Mahayana Buddhist I assure you the Mahavamsa has no more spiritual authority than “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” And may I say it’s rather ignorant of you to quote it as if it proves something.

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