Some see an irony in Buddhist monks aligning themselves so closely with a government that resists accountability for humanitarian abuses. But the greater irony is that, in protecting and preserving their particular form of Buddhism, the Sinhalese seem to have injured it gravely. The sangha’s preoccupation with politics has come at the cost of spiritual focus. Most monks in Sri Lanka no longer meditate, which is supposed to be Buddhism’s core. Some Western Buddhists have gone on missionary trips to Sri Lanka to revive meditational practice. But success has been fleeting.
There has also been a breakdown in monastic discipline. Last February, a monk was sentenced to death for murder — the first monk so sentenced since Talduwe Somarama killed Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959 after he reneged on the full implementation of a Buddhist nationalist agenda. Over the last decade, there have been nearly 100 cases in which Buddhist monks have been charged with sexual abuse of minors, and many instances of monks, particularly young ones, being cited for public intoxication and hooliganism. The fundamentalist idea that Buddhism is a unique national possession has encouraged a sense of moral superiority, which makes it hard for many Sinhalese to accept how bruised their Buddhism has become. As one prominent lay Buddhist painfully (and discreetly) explained to me more than twenty years ago, “Buddhism is hollow now in Sri Lanka. We are only going through the motions.” Today, those motions are growing ever more disturbing.
Sri Lanka’s toxic identity politics are not altogether unique, especially in other Theravada Buddhist nations. Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, for example, provided a similar rallying point against British colonialism. But the conflation of “the land, the race, and the faith” among the majority there, along with a view that this majority is the steward of its own uniquely pure form of Buddhism, has been a great source of political and cultural disharmony with the country’s many non-Buddhist minority groups, most recently the Rohingya Muslims. Although Buddhism might eschew violence on a doctrinal level, it is not immune from nationalist myths that see a place for it.
This reminded me of a book I read about a couple years ago that touched on similar themes:
Since my initial realization in 2004, I began to look critically at my earlier perspective on Buddhism—one that shielded an extensive and historical dimension to Buddhist traditions: violence. Armed Buddhist monks in Thailand are not an exception to the rule; they are contemporary examples of a long historical precedence. For centuries monks have been at the helm, or armed in the ranks, of wars. How could this be the case? But more importantly, why did I (and many others) hold the belief that Buddhism=Peace (and that other religions, such as Islam, are more prone to violence)?
It was then that I realized that I was a consumer of a very successful form of propaganda. Since the early 1900s, Buddhist monastic intellectuals such as Walpola Rahula, D. T. Suzuki, and Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, have labored to raise Western awareness of their cultures and traditions. In doing so, they presented specific aspects of their Buddhist traditions while leaving out others. These Buddhist monks were not alone in this portrayal of Buddhism. As Donald S. Lopez Jr. and others have poignantly shown, academics quickly followed suit, so that by the 1960s U.S popular culture no longer depicted Buddhist traditions as primitive, but as mystical.
…Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, violent people—but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence… In a way, I wish I could return to that dream of Buddhist traditions as a purely peaceful, benevolent religion that lacks mortal failures and shortcomings. But I cannot. It is, ultimately, a selfish dream and it hurts other people in the process.
I showed that article to a sorta-Buddhist friend of mine, who responded:
I wonder if they actually make the intellectual leap that it is both. That although they strive to escape from humanity, an inherent form of enlightenment — the bodhisattva who chooses to remain on earth and protect those still seeking release — in fact, possibly the most important tenet of all, true compassion that results in a selflessness in service to the universal self of humanity is the heart of Buddhism and the heart of their protection of their temples, their forests, this world of illusion that is, nonetheless, the world.
The monks are not on a violent rampage, but using guns as a modern tool — not just trying kung fu or tae kwon do — for the goals they have always had: strength, peace, and being left alone. I do think he does a disservice if he relegates the monks to the level of the “rest of us” and doesn’t examine their use of the violence — is he suggesting they are no different than the drug thug or gang killer?
Context certainly does matter. But I would still suggest that being invested in “Buddhism” as a transcendant ideal, as an identity, to the point of feeling defensive and attempting to rationalize discrepancies away, is itself a form of maya. If a Buddhist writer provides a useful insight to you, that insight isn’t diminished by the actions of someone else in the world who also identifies as a Buddhist. The point is to outgrow such conceptual boundaries, not to purify or reinforce them.