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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Addressing the Question of Why Predominately "Buddhist Countries" Seem to be So Violent and Waring

I received an excellent question on one of my older posts regarding Buddhism and violence from Bangkokker. He wanted to know how Buddhists can explain the violence that one often sees in predominate "Buddhist countries." The following was my humble attempt to answer. Feel free to add your opinions in the comment section. One words of caution--this is a long post:

I think that most Buddhists (especially the monks--although Thai monks are getting rather militant as of late) in Buddhist dominated countries do not want war. However their governments often do not lead their country by Buddhist principles.

Part of the violence in Buddhist countries stems from abject poverty and extreme corruption in their governments who take advantage of the poor and under educated populace.

Additional reasons for such militancy in many of these "Buddhist" countries is due to a lack of eduction and necessary health care. A lot of the failures in regards to these important issues stems from that corruption.

Education is a major brick in the the foundation of peace. If people are not educated in the importance of peace and why it's important--as well as what Democracy is really about then they will often make terrible decisions in both their personal lives but as well as in their jobs and government positions.

As well as knowing that the Buddhist monasteries are not going to engage them in the political arena for the most part. Government officials take advantage of their peaceful nature.

This is the importance of embracing engaged Buddhism taught especially by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Engaged Buddhism encourages involvement in the political process while still maintaining a path of peace. Engaged Buddhism, however, does not mean following it to engaging in violence.

And yet all of these important areas of life: education, health, a vibrant economy, etc. aren't a guarantee of peace and harmony unless one works to let go of greed for power and control.

Buddhism also teaches that critical aspect of peace involves understanding and engaging in interconnection. If we truly understand that we are all dependent upon each other then we are a lot less likely to cause others harm.

Another important concept to understand in Buddhism to help maintain balance and peace in society is that of love for others. If we build on our understanding of interconnection then we feel more love and acceptance toward those we previously saw as our inferiors.

This is because if we love ourselves then naturally we will want to love others because they are apart of us and our happiness depends upon that of others.

Then there is the importance of understanding that all beings want happiness and no one wants to suffer. This helps cultivate patience which is a trait the helps prevent violence and disharmony.

So just because there might be much violence in Buddhist dominated countries does not mean necessarily that those Buddhists agree with it.

I would submit that most violent and oppressive governments in Buddhist countries such as Myanmar is because of militant dictators that have eschewed the peaceful, accepting teachings of Buddhism long ago.

You are correct in saying that many Buddhist countries are not living in peace but I do not think that one can blame Buddhism for that. Buddhism does not preach hate or violence and if a monastery does do that then they have strayed from the Dharma severely.

Perhaps the most important issue to keep in mind is that peace should be first and fore most about peace in ones own heart. As long as one practices the Dharma then one will find the peace that perhaps is denied them from their government. Nothing can stop the power of inner stength.

One only need look at the strength of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. The Nazi's hoped that they could break the Jews from their religion but instead it only strengthened their resolve to maintain their faith.

From what I've researchedI can not find a war that was ever waged in the name of Buddhism.

Of course, many Buddhist individuals have taken part in wars, and wars have been waged by countries that are nominally Buddhist. But these wars have been waged over territorial, economic or political disputes, not in the name of the religion itself, and the dictates of Buddhism have never been used to justify or rationalize a war.

Any Buddhist who wages war or engages in violence for violences sake is not following the Buddhist path--they have fallen astray.

Next I'd like to address the specific examples that you raised:

-The Vietnam War was not waged over Buddhism. It was waged by Communists who are not only non-Buddhists--they are non-religious altogether.

-The Cambodia genocide was not waged by sincere Buddhists, nor was it condoned by Buddhists.
-Burma's military junta was waged by a military that was certainly not following the peaceful Buddhist teachings. They took power because of greed, selfishness and disregard for human rights. None of which are taught or condoned by Buddhism.

-The Laos cleanings are most certainly not carried out by Buddhists--at least not Buddhists who actually follow the teachings of the Buddha. Anyone can call themselves "Buddhist" but to live as a Buddhist is to follow the teachings of the Buddha which means more then anything--non-violence.

-Bhutan's case is one of corrupted Buddhism. They are attached to a lust of power which is a form of attachment which Buddhism does NOT condone in the least. These actions are extreme examples of why duality is so poisonous.

Buddhism does not usually concern itself with where it ranks on the peace scale in relation to other religions--that is a form of attachment to the stroking's of the ego. The maintenance of peace amongst Buddhists is a personal experience--something that must be accomplished by each practioner alone.

One can not force fellow "Buddhists "to be "peaceful." In doing so one is engaging in a type of violence.
The Buddha emphasized personal experience in realizing peace and harmony because otherwise one is doing it for others and that is a peace that can never last.

Buddhism is not exempt from corruption and perversion of it's teachings and anyone who tells you otherwise is living in a thick cloud of delusion.

Living a certain way because you are "Buddhist" and that's what "Buddhists" do is wrong action and intention which will always lead to difficulty due to grasping and craving of the desire for "enlightenment" and "perfection."

It is called spiritual materialism.

~Peace to all beings~

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PeterAtLarge said...

James, isn't violence just as prevalent in "Christian" countries, even though Christianity preaches peace and goodwill to all men? And in countries where other, equally well-intentioned religions are predominant? Religion, it seems, comes with no guaranees that its adherents will practice what they preach. One might wish that predominantly Buddhist countries would be different, but the sad truth is that power-hungry, ruthless greedy human beings are to be found everywhere. Cheers, Peter

Dissident said...

An interesting post about a question I've thought a bit about, though I admit to not having done a great deal of rigorous empirical investigation. But I agree with Peter that the answer can mostly be boiled down to this: People do not always practice what they preach.

But a component of this observation concerns the Sangha. I know as a practicing Buddhist, you are not supposed to criticize the Sangha, but Buddhist organizations hold some of the blame for some of these conflicts. The Japanese Sangha during World War II is an excellent case in point. As far as I know, most Buddhist organizations in Japan either openly supported Japanese military aggression, or they passively supported it by keeping mum (see this excellent NYT article). I would be greatly surprised if there were not comparable cases in other nominally Buddhist countries.

The root of this problem is the Sangha sucking up to those in power, regardless of how corrupt, oppressive, or downright evil (in the case of Imperial Japan) those in power may be. The Sangha has been far too cozy with the political/economic elites in many countries, leading to an inevitable corruption of their ideals.

One way to think about your question is to compare the Buddhist experience with GW Bush and the religious right here in the US. Bush claims to be a Christian, and many Christians in the US gleefully support both him and his warmongering. Does this mean they're not "real" Christians? Perhaps, but I say Christians are as Christians do, regardless of their professed beliefs. Same goes for Buddhists.

You're probably right that no one has officially gone to war in Buddhism's name, but Buddhist religious leaders have openly supported wars of aggression. As one Zen leader said about the role of the Japanese Sangha during WWII (quoted in the article I linked above): "I dare say that Zen was used as the spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war." The situation in Sri Lanka also comes darn close to "war in Buddhism's name."

I no longer consider myself a Buddhist (for philosophical, not political reasons), but I greatly admire Buddhism, so please don't take the above observations as an attack on the Dharma. The problem is not the Dharma, it's the Sangha (or at least certain parts of it at certain times).

They call him James Ure said...


Precisely. No religion is immune to the corruption and twisting of it's peaceful principles. Thank-you for emphasizing that.


Thank-you for commenting on this question.

You said...

The root of this problem is the Sangha sucking up to those in power, regardless of how corrupt, oppressive, or downright evil (in the case of Imperial Japan) those in power may be. The Sangha has been far too cozy with the political/economic elites in many countries, leading to an inevitable corruption of their ideals.

That comment has me thinking of the situation of Buddhism in Thailand. I have read a lot lately on the corruption in some monasteries there.

As for Sri Lanka? There are indeed Buddhists who have succumbed to the lust for power and control of the religious climate. And in maintaining that greed it is far to easy to rely on violence. Violence to maintain and defend "Buddhism" is beyond twisted and wrong view.

If we are honestly following the Dharma laid out by the Buddha then we know full well that everything changes no matter how hard we try to hold on to them. And that includes Buddhism.

Buddhism is not something that should be clung to. Even if the last Buddhist is wiped out--do not fret. As all things come and go--Buddhism or the Dharma under some other name would return--not unlike the rebirth of flowers in spring.

I think these examples (as well as the Japanese example you mentioned) stand as testaments to the importance of regular practice.

So that one can always be aware of ones emotions and perceptions. That way we are mindful of every little change and can let go of unskillful thoughts before they can grow into greedy, violent actions.

Dissident said...

James, that's an excellent response, one that embodies what I see as the true spirit of Buddhism. Thanks for that.

All institutions can become corrupt, but as long as individual practitioners maintain their practice, the Buddha's teachings will live on, whether they're called "Buddhism" or not.

Cole said...

I definitely have to disagree that wars have not been fought in the name of Buddhism. Several areas of pre-shogunate Japan revolted against requirements that all Japanese enroll in Buddhist temples. The different sects of Japanese Buddhism also warred against each other, politically and violently. There's also the huge Buddhist support for Japanese militarism, predating the Sino-Japanese War.

Buddhism has no moral superiority over any of the other major world religions. It has justified and resulted in as many atrocities and has as much pre-modern as any others.

They call him James Ure said...


Much appreciated. I'm glad that it my response helped. Violence never brings anything positive. It only brings more suffering to all involved.

We all have our weaknesses and struggles along the path but engaging in violence to force your way is about as far from the Buddha's teachings of the Dharma as one can imagine.


You are quite right about the Samurai and the other forms of Japanese militarism. My only point is that those who engage in such actions were (and are) not truly following the spirit of the Dharma. Therefore they are basically "Buddhists" in name only.

The Buddha taught us that we must examine his teachings for ourselves before accepting them. However, non-violence is a rather basic teaching that is at the core of Buddhism. Those who engage in violence in the name of "Buddhism" are abusing the religion for their own ends.

Robin said...

I also have to disagree that wars have not been fought in the name of Buddhism.

Look at Tibet (a true buddhist nation), the country suffered so much with no war..

And in Thailand, are the monks carrying guns in their temple?

Jason said...

Yes, I was going to ask you halfway through reading this, do you think part of it might be that Buddhists tend to be really easy to take advantage of? I think that's a really good reason why engaged Buddhism is important. One of the thought processes that I've been having lately has to do with strengths of eastern versus western spirituality. I made a really generalised distinction that obviously doesn't apply in all cases (and Thay is an example) that ideally Western spirituality can help us confront injustice and bring dignity to the poor, while Eastern spirituality can help us know when enough is enough, realise the folly of seeking "stuff" too much, and also to live happily and peacefully even under the most abject conditions. Of course Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition combines in many ways both approaches which is part of why I'm so fond of him. (Though his gentleness is a big part of it too.) :)

Greenwoman said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts...I hadn't really thought about the fact that so many countries that Buddhism seems predominant are quite violent...It was an interesting post. Blessings!!!

They call him James Ure said...


Good points. Thanks for adding to the discussion.


Thank-you. I hope that these countries can find some peace and stability.

They call him James Ure said...


Great comment. I very much agree that the west and east are creating an even stronger Dharma together then separate.

Chris said...

Name a country that hasnt been violent?
I don't think there is one because we are all human, all the same.

They call him James Ure said...



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