Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

It’s no where near as widespread as the vicious attacks against Buddhist Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, but a similar inter-religious clash is currently roiling Sri Lanka.

If you're not current with the breaking situation, this Reuters news piece will help. So will this analysis from Britain’s The Independent.

There are two takeaways here that journalists need to understand.

First, some majority Buddhist nations -- all of them in Asia -- are reacting to the growth of Islam in their midst in similar fashion to the reaction of some European countries, not to mention a large number of American Christians (religious and cultural) and others.

That is to say, with much alarm; fear of Islamic terrorism being a prime motivator. A second motivator is cultural in nature; the fear of losing one’s historical national dominance as global demographics shift. Call this the tribal component.

This New York Times analysis explains what I mean in far greater detail. Its’s headlined: “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” Here’s a taste of it.

Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?

I know this is on the longish side, but allow me to also quote this part of the Times essay. It's illuminating, as is the entire article.

The basic Buddhist analysis of the human predicament makes sense, as well, of the irony of colonialist conceptions of Buddhism and of the misguidedness of colonial attempts to exploit religious identities. According to a Buddhist analysis, we go through life thinking we’re advancing our own interests, while actually producing ever more suffering because we misunderstand ourselves.
Similarly, as the case of Myanmar shows, the colonial origins of the modern secular state have, in some ways, insidiously fostered the hardening of religious identities. To that extent, the violence perpetrated by Buddhists in Myanmar, astonishing though it might seem to us, may not be so far from the origins of our own ways of perceiving the world. It is clear that this violence is driven by Burmese participation in (and interpretation of) global contemporary discourses that also shape societies in Europe and North America, where the vilification of Islam and of immigrants has (not coincidentally) also been widespread.

The second takeaway -- and this is key for Western journalists -- is that the politics of ethnic Buddhists living in their homelands are generally far different from the politics of American and other Western fans of Mindfulness and other Buddhism-derived practices.

The tribal instincts prevalent in Buddhist nations is largely absent among Western Buddhist converts and explorers. (The prime exception to this is Tibet. Western Buddhists tend to strongly back ending China’s occupation of Tibet, thanks in large part to the global popularity of Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.)

This second aspect is the one I’m going to devote the rest of this post.

Since the late-1950s, Buddhism has grown exponentially among non-ethnic Western Buddhists. It began with Zen, then embraced Tibetan and Southeast Asian Buddhist schools.

Key is that the first adherents tended to be counter-cultural types -- beatniks, hippies, and serious Judeo-Christian spiritual seekers (not that beatniks and hippies couldn’t be serious, too) -- unfulfilled by the religion into which they were born. They also tended to oppose the Vietnam war on political and moral grounds, leading them to adopt anti-war, anti-violence, and inclusive world-views.

This piece from the website of Tricycle, the leading Western pan-Buddhist publication, hints at this important attitudinal difference.

No where does the news article defend on nationalistic grounds the violence of Sri Lankan Buddhists, or identify with them because of religious ties. Rather, it puts the blame for the violence squarely on Sri Lankan Buddhists, labeling them “Buddhist agitators” and “Buddhist ultra-nationalists.”

Fear and resentment toward Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, who make up around 10% of the population, have been growing in recent years. Gehan Gunatilleke, Research Director at Verité Research in Colombo, Sri Lanka, recently told Al-Jazeera that this is a symptom of the “entitlement complex” of Sinhala [Sri Lankan] Buddhists.
“The Sinhala majority is signaling that their dominance is not to be messed around with,” he said. “The moment a minority demonstrates economic success -- as with the Muslim community -- or struggles for autonomy like the Tamil  [a mostly Hindu ethnic community with whom Sri Lankan Buddhists fought a long civil war] or is accused of conversion like the Christian community, the moment there is some kind of threat to that dominant status, there is a tendency for violence to be used to re-assert that dominance.”
The increase in Buddhist majoritarian fear and resentment toward Sri Lankan Muslims follows a pattern that has also been seen elsewhere in the Buddhist world in recent years [in addition to Myanmar]…In southern Thailand, a crisis between the Thai Buddhist and ethnic Malay Muslim minority has led to over 6,000 deaths in both communities and allegations of continued human rights abuses by the Thai government in managing the crisis.

So remember, just as with Christians, Jews, Hindus and, yes, Muslims too, Buddhists caught up in national struggles can display vastly different attitudes from those living far from the scene and, thus, less identified with their faith's homeland.

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