29 March 2013

Robes and Cudgels

I wonder if the people currently attacking churches and mosques in Sri Lanka have ever considered the damage they are doing to their own faith—Buddhism.

Christianity and Islam are strong world religions. Some buildings and valuables will be lost in these attacks, there may even be some martyrs, but persecution in Sri Lanka will only make them stronger. No Christian or Muslim is going to abandon his belief or practice because of these attacks.

In contrast, Buddhism itself will take generations to recover from the damage inflicted on it by these extremists. It may never recover at all.

Buddhism gets a good press, by and large, in the non-Buddhist world. In the twentieth century, it enjoyed perhaps the most felicitous reputation of all world religions. Buddhists were thought to be peaceful, kindly, reasonable people: a little unworldly perhaps, as befits those who practise detachment as a spiritual discipline, but certainly none the worse for that.

Many non-Buddhists—some religious, others not—have found great wisdom in the teachings of the Buddha, as well as practical instruction on how to live calmer, less stressful, more peaceable lives. I am one of these people, and although I will never be a practising Buddhist, I have a great deal of affection, sympathy and respect for the religion. There are millions like me around the world.

Sri Lanka’s latest gift to world Buddhism—the image of a robed monk at the head of a violent, thuggish mob—is going to change all that. Indeed, it has already begun to do so. The world media are carrying such images, and the story of crimes committed in Sri Lanka in the name of Buddhism, into hundreds of millions of homes around the world. Buddhism has lost its innocence. It will now be obliged to face the same charge of crimes against humanity that Christianity, Islam and Judaism have faced for centuries. It will be judged, like those faiths, and like them it will be found wanting. Its hitherto unstained reputation will be sullied and tattered.

I have heard many concerned Sri Lankan Buddhists disavow any fellowship with the extremists, insisting that the latter are not true Buddhists. They may well be right, but this defence won’t stand up in the court of history. Faiths—like political institutions, like social movements, above all like people—are correctly judged by their actions, not by their words. As far as any non-Buddhist is concerned, these people are what they profess to be: Buddhists. What they do, they do in the name of Buddhism. This will never be forgotten by the world. These people are making history, and it is their faith which will bear the stigma of it for all time to come.

There is only one escape from this judgement and the opprobrium that will follow from it. Sri Lankan Buddhists, both as individuals and as members of various Buddhist social groups and communities, must publicly and unequivocally condemn the acts of the extremists, repudiating them as unBuddhist.  They must demand that the persons bringing Buddhism into such disrepute be spurned by the Buddhist community, and any who commit violent and criminal acts in the name of Buddhism should be brought to justice and punished. Above all, they must state clearly and publicly that as Buddhists, they recognise the right of non-Buddhists to their own religious faith and practice. And they should apologise, unreservedly, for the wrong that has been done in the Buddha’s name.

Only if these things are done can Buddhism ever hope to recover from the damage presently being done to it in Sri Lanka, by people who claim to be Buddhists and to speak for Buddhism.


  1. I like this post but I think it is rather naive to think that "Buddhism has lost its innocence" after these incidents. Aside from the fact that in the last 100 years monks behaving badly is not a new phenomena in Sri Lanka, the history of Sri Lanka itself would suggest otherwise. The last 2000 years have been a clear indicator that although Sri Lanka professes Buddhism it is not always Buddhist in its actions (cf.the Mahavamsa which I take as a ecclesiastical record.) The same of course can and should be said about other faiths.

    If you are interested in following up on this refer Gananath Obeyesekera's "Meditation on Conscience" or "The Conscience of the Parricide: A study in Buddhist History"

  2. I agree with Deborah Philip. Quote, "The last 2000 years have been a clear indicator that although Sri Lanka professes Buddhism it is not always Buddhist in its actions"
    Buddhism is the Buddha's teachings. Only those practising this great teacher's path can take ownership of this wonderful philosophy.

  3. Agreed with Deborah's comment. In this country, as in Burma and Thailand, Buddhism is an institutionalized religion, used for political gain and racialised thuggery. But then again, in post-colonial times, I am not sure if it has ever been this bad

  4. I don't dispute that a critical reading of Buddhist history shows it to be as much about identity and exclusion as any other popular religion; indeed, I have often made the point myself.

    However, the need to make the point illustrates that my central premise above is correct: whatever may have happened in the past, the public image of Buddhism in the West, and in the modern world generally, is positive: that of a peaceful, nonproselytizing, egalitarian faith. Of course we who live in Buddhist-majority countries know otherwise; but it is of the damage done to Buddhism by the destruction of its positive public image that I speak.