So much for peaceful Buddhists

June 24, 2013 • 6:33 am

We always think of Buddhism as a peaceful religion, but of course that’s belied by the violence that once raged in Sri Lanka, and the lesser-known and continuing enmity between the Buddhists and Muslims of Myanmar (Burma).  In that country Buddhists outnumber Muslims by about 25 to 1, and Muslims are the most common victims of religious violence. Predictably, they’re also the ones who get imprisoned most often.

Here’s one example of the kind of religiously-based stupidity that even a Buddhist-majority government can perpetrate. According to the New York Times, a trivial “offense” to Buddhism can reap a stiff prison sentence:

A court in Myanmar has found two Muslim women guilty of setting off a recent outbreak of sectarian violence, one of them by bumping into a Buddhist novice monk. Myint Thein of the pro-government National Unity Party, who attended their trial, said Wednesday that the two women in the central township of Okkan were convicted of “insulting religion.” Both were sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor. A police officer in Okkan, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the news media, confirmed the sentences.

. . . The two women’s trial was related to an April 30 episode in Okkan that culminated with Buddhist mobs destroying shops and homes in several villages. Myint Thein said the court heard that one of the women bumped into the monk as he was collecting alms and the other grabbed the monk by his shoulders. It is considered inappropriate in Buddhism for women to have any physical contact with monks.

Even if the Muslim women did that on purpose, it doesn’t merit two years of hard labor. (I shudder to think what “hard labor” means in Burma.) And none of this would have happened had there not been religion.

h/t: Diane G

51 thoughts on “So much for peaceful Buddhists

  1. And none of this would have happened had there not been religion.

    Bigotry is a fundamental human characteristic, if there hadn’t been any religion people would have found some other nonsensical reason to discriminate people.

    I have once considered to right a story in which fans of a certain sport (korfbal) were discriminated by fans of other sports (mostly hockey fans) at nearly all levels of society.

    1. “if there hadn’t been any religion people would have found some other nonsensical reason to discriminate people.”

      This is often used as a rationale to avoid the difficult task of eliminating bigotry. I think it’s a dangerously false statement.

      1. We should eliminate bigotry of all kind, but is in my opinion an illusion that we could solve all problem just by eliminating religion. Humans has certain deep horrible instincts, which cannot simply abolished. That’s the sad reality we live in, but in order to make the world any better we cannot ignore human psychology.

        1. “an illusion that we could solve all problem just by eliminating religion. ”

          I don’t think that anybody actually believes this.

        2. Nobody, least of all me or the New Atheists, have ever said that all problems would be eliminated by getting rid of religion. That would be a very stupid thing to say. There will still be crime, ignorance, greed, bigotry, and other vices that stem from the darker side of secular human nature.

          Can you cite somebody who’s even suggested that idea?

          However, I still think that many of the world’s wrongs would disappear if religion did too.

          1. Getting rid of religion would remove the world’s biggest “get-out-of-jail-free” card. People can commit the most heinous acts as long as they can justify it with their holy book or seek forgiveness afterward. Without religion, people would have to defend their actions on their own merits. Of course there are other ways to justify oneself, nationalism comes to mind, but religion is far more culpable. I saw in the news this morning, another acid attack on a woman in Pakistan…hard to justify with nationalism, easy with religion.

        3. i don’t think anyone believes that eliminating religion would eliminate all the wrong in the world. however, it is a major source of bigotry and mistreatment, so it should most certainly be addressed.

    2. True but bigotry is born out of tribalism and religion sure seems to enable tribalism in a more enduring fashion than other mechanisms even all the despotic state “isms” (which can be argued are religions by another name).

    3. The more divisions there are between people, the more rancor. I don’t think that something that divides culture from culture will, if it disappears, inevitably be replaced by something else. As Steve Pinker has pointed out, those divisions have already lessened in the last few hundred years, and that’s largely due to the spread of Enlightenment values. As one example, rancor towards blacks and gays, while still present in the U.S., has lessened considerably, even in my lifetimes.

      I don’t see the inevitability of bigotry, or at least of pervasive bigotry. The “Moral Arc” described by Pinker and Singer is, I think, and real thing, and has gone far to alleviate the divisions between people. See Pinker’s book for lots of evidence and several explanations.

      1. I have heard about Pinker’s theory, and from what I know about it, I would agree with his basic premisses. Pinker’s book is already on my reading list.

      2. ” considerably, even in my lifetimes.” Interesting… Do you have 9 lifetimes, just like cats? 🙂

    4. “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” – Steven Weinberg

  2. I don’t have any time for religion either, Diane, but I think the last comment is misguided. If there was no religion, the exploiting classes would find some other way to divide us. To take an example I know a little more about, nobody ever killed anybody during the North of Ireland troubles because they did or did not believe that the host literally becomes the body of Christ when you munch on it. They did it because the people from the community which purported to believe this weird stuff were denied decent jobs and decent housing, while those who purported to believe other weird crap were privileged in various ways.

    1. Right, Steve. It is mere coincidence when conflicts like this happen to fall along sectarian lines.

      1. In this day and age, people who use boiler-plate terms like “the exploiting classes” are simply setting out the dividing lines of their own system of bigotry. History tells us what happens to societies which decide to rid themselves of “the exploiting classes”. They turn into oppressive hell-holes far worse than the ones they sought to replace.

        1. Right, there are no exploiting classes. Tell that to Bangladeshi textile workers, or those who are left aline. And people who use expressions like ‘this day and age’ are mired in cliche.

    2. “They did it because the people ..were denied decent jobs and decent housing,”

      Ah, but according to the reasoning in comment #1, had this not been the case, they would have found some other reason to discriminate.

      Some of these causes have a feedback loop; no doubt class differences played a big role in some types of religious violence, but religious differences often led to class differences. These beliefs do matter.

      The truth is that large groups of people eventually manage to come together and see themselves as a cohesive group, and they do this by putting aside bigotry or by eliminating differences.

    3. “If there was no religion, the exploiting classes would find some other way to divide us.”

      Maybe so, but they likely would have a harder time/less successful time doing it. You’re making perfection the enemy of good. Partial solutions are fine. The answer to the question “what does eliminating only some of the world’s hatred and bigotry accomplish?” is: “it eliminates some of the world’s hatred and bigotry.”

      1. LOL I don’t think that was for me either. Perhaps because of the h/t?

        I have a friend named Diane who used to work in the same department as me – we got each other’s email, phone calls and once she gave my meeting room away because the guy who wanted it contacted her and she (rightly) didn’t remember having the meeting room.

      2. Once long ago, before we were married, I called my wife “Di.”

        Boy, I have never made that mistake again. I thought for sure it was over right then and there.

    4. Without religion to distract them, these people could have focused on the class warfare, which was the real problem, instead and done something effective about it instead of bombing pubs. Religion and nationalism are the two main ways the ruling classes persuade regular people to use their lives enriching those who are already wealthy instead of having a good life. It’s time we realised that the rich are not on our side and that if we want decent lives we need to fight for them, and not get side-tracked by religion and other tribalisms.

  3. There appears to be a lot of wisdom contained in Buddhism, but anytime some philosophy gets institutionalized, you get a lot of people who go through the motions, but managed to avoid getting enlightened. From reading the history of Buddhism, this happened almost immediately.

  4. The Four Noble Truths and the Five Precepts are soundly reasoned. Striving to the best of one’s ability to adhere to the 8 Fold Path enables tranquility and thus the development of the mind. When the mind is developed, one abandons passion (clearly not the case in this instance in Myanmar formerly Burma, a totalitarian state).

    When passion is abandoned, insight is possible. When insight is developed, so too is the capacity for discernment. When discernment is developed, ignorance diminishes and in time may even be abandoned, also.

    These are only instructions for wise existence, which is my definition of the term enlightenment.

    1. I think you have to reconsider your handle.

      – Woo of any kind isn’t “soundly reasoned” except on its own terms. When meeting empiricism, fixed ideologies all fail and magic woo among the hardest.

      – Spouting deepities as you do is an excellent example of how even internally “soundly reasoned” ideas, if any, becomes inanities.

      – Enlightenment is a historical process (a cultural movement) that came out of applying empiricism, mostly skepticism, widely. If we apply the methods of enlightenment on “wise existence”, we see by comparison that enlightenment provides knowledge by empirical sources and that these are the only known sources for it.

      Irony alert: Specifically for buddhists, abandoning “passion” for learning means abandoning enlightenment. As the saying goes, there is no fool like the “wise” fool.

      1. I do not consider myself Buddhist, and I am not writing to defend groups of people who refer to themselves as members of any religion.

        I’m certain nothing I wrote fits the category of ‘deepity’. I certainly am unaware of any portions of the 4 Noble Truths, the 5 Precepts (the 4-5-8), or the 8 Fold Path may be defined as either ‘fixed’ or as ‘ideology’. They read to me as elegant descriptions of reality, lists of observable facts, compiled in writing at some point and attributed to an individual for whom there is as much evidence for a particular personage as there is for Jesus, Mohammed, Prince Valiant, or William Tell.

        I understand The Enlightenment as an event noted in Western Civilization that is not identical to the term ‘enlightenment’ in Buddhism. I intended in my original post to demonstrate that I personally define ‘enlightenment’ as “wise existence”, and I do so because I make a distinction from the concept of reincarnation which, though you didn’t ask, I believe in the same way I believe in heaven, and in Santa’s North Pole workshop. I percieve enlightenment as both a condition of awareness and as a process of consciousness, not as a metaphysical destination. I regret I was not clear about that definition.

        Woo? If so, is there some useful vocabulary for describing human behavior that I may substitute for the words I selected? I hope so, and will eagerly and swiftly replace any wooish terminology with more accurate terms.

        Another personal definition I maintain is that the nascent humanism of the Renaissance, refined during the Enlightenment into the basis of secular democratic society, may or may not have been directly influenced by the 4-5-8 (literary references by Enlightenment figures to Buddhism certainly exist). In my opinion, however, humanism and the 4-5-8 not only are not inimical, they seem to be intellectually intertwined, either by intention or by accident. And why should they not be? They are each, after all, descriptors of reality.

      2. “I think you have to reconsider your handle.

        Please Torbjörn. I’m trying to enjoy my sparkling water here! Does not make a good nasal rinse.

  5. Where is the Dalai Lama when you really need him? Oh yeah… he’s on the peace and compassion tour in the US!

  6. I have visited Angkor, the largest city center (some 400 km^2!) of the world for 500 – 600 years. And I was appalled how the buddhists had ravaged the central temple area (Angkor Wat) to build their own effigies for magic.

    So no, “peaceful” and “enlightened” aren’t attributes I would give them anymore than other religions.

  7. To me, it looks like these actions could just as easily be blamed on nationalism or really anything that one group of people uses to say that they are different from another group of people. Indeed, it seems particularly short-sighted to say that this is solely (or even largely) due to the religious differences qua religious differences. As others have pointed out, this seems to be much more parsimoniously explained by religion just being a mark of “us” vs. “them”.

    Moreover, this example seems to go against one of Sam Harris’ favorite canards: extremist Jains would never be violent because violence is not a part of the Jain religion. But here we have Buddhists, members of a religion that is very pacifist and non-violent (though maybe not to the same extent as Jainism) supposedly motivating extremely harsh punishments and mistreatment of apostates.

    I don’t think it’s possible to have it both ways and blame Islam for violence on one hand because it’s supposedly a religion with an unusually violent creed and then blame Buddhism for this because… why exactly?

    1. Sam Harris rightly concedes that there are some religions that are inherently more violent than others. He separates out types of Buddhism as well talking about how Zen Buddhism has a warrior aspect to it.

      I don’t think you can take this example of violence in a Buddhist culture to mollify criticism of Islam or any religion not only because some religions or worse than others but also because as many of us have already stated, ridding the world of religion may not eliminate all of humanity’s bigotry but it will probably go a long way in helping to reduce it. In my view, religion, more than any other “ism” allows the “us” vs. “them” inherent in tribalism to endure and thrive in a culture.

    2. You made a slight, but important, mistake in Sam Harris’ quotes. He doesn’t refer to ‘extremist’ Jains, per se, but ‘fundamentalist’ Jains. People who follow the precepts of the religion as closely as possible. Fundamentalist Jains would never hurt anyone.

      However, there is no fundamentals of Buddhism that are against violence, per se, although it would be looked down upon, as it’s hard to remain dispassionate while killing people. Buddhism isn’t actively pacifist, it’s just a natural result from it’s actual creeds.

      It’s the distinction between ‘True’ Buddhists/Jains/Christians/Muslims/etc, in as much as that term can mean anything. A fundamentalist Buddhist wouldn’t care that a woman bumped into him. But a fundamentalist Muslim would care that someone deconverted. Fundamentalism goes back to what the founders or holy texts say, and Sidharta Gautama was a hell of a nicer guy than Mohammad.

      Extremism could apply to any religion in a negative or positive sense (those fundie Jains Harris talks about are certainly going to extremes). Fundamentalism doesn’t mean good or bad, it just means a strict, often unquestioning, adherence to the dogma. Fundamentalism in a religion is as moral as the basic precepts. After all, a fundamentalist Jain would never take a life, even if the alternative leads to even more death.

      In the end, regular believers in Buddhism are even further away from the actual precepts of the religion they claim than moderate Christians. They’ve turned a not-ineffectual self-help philosophy into a religion with gods you can pray to. They’ve replaced mental discipline with meaningless ritual.

      In a sense, this brand of Buddhism is the Mormonism to ‘true’ Buddhism. So, perhaps, being a fundamentalist of this religion means something entirely different.

      Regardless, the tribalism remains. And the religion of these people, whether or not it is ‘true’ Buddhism, is one more arbitrary defining line between us and them. Sure, it’s tied up in the culture, and there’s more to it than simple religion, but if religion and culture are inseparable, then religion cannot ignore it’s contribution to the culture when things go bad.

  8. “And none of this would have happened had there not been religion.”

    This is the point where I depart in my opinion from JC. It may be religion that is currently the vehicle for unreasonable, persecutory , and violent offenses against fellow man, but it is only the excuse de jour. Eliminate religion and mankind will find other justifications for acting stupid. It should be easily recognized as an evolved trait.

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