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When Buddhists Oppress

When Buddhists Oppress

Surprise: Buddhists are not morally pure and blameless. We participate in systems of injustice, both directly and indirectly. But while we work to undermine these systems, can Right Speech and Right Action afford to be gentle when acute violence is being enacted? (And what considerations should be made when criticizing others from a position of privilege within the United States?)

Burma (Myanmar) has made the news recently with an increase in violent Buddhist attacks against Muslims. According to CNN, “Burmese security forces backed by Buddhist monks have ‘committed crimes against humanity’ in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims in the southwest of the country, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch.” These crimes include the murder of hundreds of Rohingya people, including children, and destruction of thousands of Muslim residences. The Burmese government and military forces have been accused, at minimum, of doing nothing to prevent violence, and at worst, of coordinating it.

Aung San Suu Kyi—who for Westerners has long been a symbol of principled resistance and socially engaged Buddhism in Burma—has remained silent about the riots. This is probably a political move to smooth her way into Burmese politics as an elected official, which is more than a little disappointing.

For me, this raises a question of whether Buddhist ethics and beliefs can ever be merged with nationalism and remain universal in scope. There have been several examples in recent years of Buddhist nations engaged in bloody civil conflicts against minorities—Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. During World War II, the Japanese Empire harnessed Buddhism to its imperial dreams, sending thousands of willing monks into battle to colonize Asia. So while Buddhist teachings are fundamentally against killing and other forms of harming, when it becomes part of the dominant ideology of a state, the provincialism of nationalism trumps the universalist aims of Buddhism. Cultivating peace becomes less about non-violence than about protecting the integrity of a nation, a land, a way of life, a people. Violence can be justified in the name of defense.

Some argue that this is what happened when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. What was previously a marginal, persecuted set of beliefs became the law of an imperium, and all the material and military resources of an empire became available for its strengthening and defense. Consequently, other religions became marginal and persecuted. If in some weird twist of fate Buddhism became the dominant religion of the United States, it would be a horror to behold.

On the other hand, these religious and ethno-religious trappings are often just a part of the conflict. They are easy focal points for coalescing frustrations about economic problems, or masking the way elites are profiting or attempting to profit. In Burma, by not recognizing the Rohingya as Burmese and treating them as foreigners, I have to ask, “who is benefiting most from these views and policies, directly or indirectly?” Though I don’t know the answer, if we keep asking this question every time the situation is framed as a religious conflict, eventually we might discover that it isn’t at all religious in nature.

Nationalism, regardless of whether it’s explicitly or implicitly Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or any other flavor, is in all likelihood completely inimical to the universal teachings of these religions once it becomes part of the modern state. Merging religion with state power makes for a very parochial understanding of “us,” one that equates religion exclusively with a specific people and land. Sadly, at some point the state will have to defend this view, whether through military action, or as is often the case with politicians trying to stay afloat, through inaction. Who benefits the most?

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Comments (7)

  • Mushim

    Thank you, Kenji and Turning Wheel Media, for this thoughtful and well-written essay on the destructive distortions that occur in Buddhism, and in any religion, when it and they are coopted by nationalist greed and hatred. Taking a (title) page from one of my favorite books, leading social justice activist Paul Kivel’s painstakingly researched yet very readable book on class in the U.S., we can use your question of “who benefits?” and add to it others from Kivel’s analysis, to use the lens, when looking at power differentials, of: WHO BENEFITS? and WHO PAYS? and WHO REALLY DECIDES? (See

    As some Zen groups chant, in English, “The Dharma is deep and lovely.” I personally have always found this to be so, since I received the Bodhisattva Precepts in 1983. I am also close to some Christians, Muslims, and Jews whose study, understanding, and expression of their religious faiths is, to my perception, deep, lovely and loving, and peaceful (by which I mean ahimsa, non-harmfulness). However, any faith can be and usually is subject to distortion at various scales of societal influence. In this regard, my “Bible” has for many years been Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s “The Dynamics of Faith,” a book that, like the Kivel book, I cannot recommend highly enough:

  • fred

    Simple…any Buddhist who practices violence is no longer a Buddhist….. any monk who does the same or incites others is no longer a monk…just dressing up and play acting.
    Real Buddhists do not practice violence, nor hatred nor discrimination.

  • fred

    violence can never be justified….even to protect ones own life or that of loved ones.

  • Jay Garces

    glad to hear its simple, real buddhist – truly wish i could be you. me, i’m a fake buddhist with violence i didn’t ask for, can’t escape it, never trying to practice it, no way justify it, don’t think you’d know it less it smacked you right in the head most days. sorry, i have to hate that shit cos i already lost enough loved ones. ain’t playin at all, bro. call you when its over, you can preach at me then. peace.

  • Naming Names

    Why do you want to know “who benefits the most?” Is it so that you can know who to put in front of the firing squads and underneath the guillotines?

  • Jeff

    Excellent review, Kenji. I agree that the System that oppresses so many worldwide is not an impersonal machine that has somehow spun out of control, like SkyNet in the Terminator movies. Understanding it will certainly identify those very few who maintain and are nourished by it (the same ones who employ firing squads now). Ideally, a broad, enlightened popular resistance will firmly but gently persuade the “legal” mega-thieves to restore what they’ve taken. Then they can do community service, much nicer than the prisons they run now. If this is a utopian fantasy, why be an engaged Buddhist at all?

  • Emmet

    Rabid nationalism, brutal tribalism, racism, bigotry….ignorance, hatred, and greed….call it what you like, but it’s not Buddhism. There’s not one word in the sutras that can justify these atrocities.
    Throughout the world, may or Muslim brothers and sisters be safe, free of fear, and at peace.
    May we all deeply experience one another’s intrinsic divinity which is our mutual birthright.
    May all peoples of the Earth look kindly upon one another as kindred, and live in harmony and at peace.
    May all without exception transcend suffering and attain enlightenment.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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