English articles > The problem of fundamentalism and violence in religion
The problem of fundamentalism and violence in religion:
A Buddhist experience

Phra Paisal Visalo

Fundamentalism was first used by American Protestants almost a century ago to distinguish themselves from the liberalones. However, it is now widely used to identify any militant groups or movements in any religion which are characterised by following traits:

-against democracy,pluralism, religious toleration, and free speech
-fear of annihilation by offensive secularism and modernity
-inspired by the glorious history
-selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past
-militancy and piety

Thai militant Buddhists
Though there are a lot of militant Buddhists in Thailand, strictly speaking, they are not fundamentalists. Though they long for glorious past of Buddhism, they tend to feel at home with the modern life, get along with modernity, with no attempt to adhere to pious practices of the past.

The militant Buddhist movement is grown out of the fear that Buddhism will be wiped out, or lose the outstanding status in Thailand. They are very worried by the following developments:

-the decline of monks leadership in all aspects
-fierce criticism against monks and disrespect of Buddhism
-indifference of Buddhism among the people
-growing widespread of Islam piety and more Christian converts

Though the decline of Buddhism is primary caused by the low quality of monks and peoples indifference to Buddhism, the militant Buddhist movement tends to blame other religions ,ie. Islam and Christian as the main reason for the current situation. It is believed by many Buddhists, for example, that other religions are behind the scandal of monks, especially those reported in the media. Rumour has been widespread that Muslim ministers in the governments try hard to push for privilege status of Islam. The militant Buddhists are worried that there is a prayer room for Muslims in every airports and central train station. In their opinion increasing piety of other religious followers is harmful to status of Buddhism in Thailand.

The violence in 3 southernmost provinces helps fuel the growth of militant Buddhism movement. In the past 3 years, many monks were killed, many temples were razed, whereas hundreds of Buddhists lost their lives. It is believed among the Buddhists that Muslims there want to wipe Buddhism out of these provinces where Muslim is the majority. Though this is the intention of the extreme Muslims who regard these provinces as formerly Islamic state, the majority Muslims still believe in the peaceful co-existence with Buddhists.

The prospective retreat of Buddhism, especially in the 3 southernmost provinces, has stimulated militant Buddhists to call for special measures to protect Buddhism. They repeatedly call for official recognition of Buddhism as state religion. Mass rally have been held for months during constitutional draft a few months ago. Rally are also used in protests against any media that portray monks in negative way. And now they are proposing the law that prohibited criticism against monks, Buddhist teachings, and the Buddha.

The most worrisome is the demand by militant Buddhist for heavy military suppression of unrest in the south. This approach is believed by militant Buddhist not only to protect lives of Buddhist laypeople and monks, but also to keep Buddhism alive there. But I am afraid that such aggressive military solution will exacerbate the violence, increase the hostility between Buddhists and Muslim, and put all people, including Buddhists, in more dangerous situations, not to mention the erosion of spirit of Buddhist teaching.

Sri Lanka militant Buddhists
There is some similarity among Thai and Sri Lanka Buddhists in the sense that they are not more militant than fundamentalist. The militant Buddhists in Sri Lanka believe that Buddhism there is threatened by the prospect of Tamil secession. They have strong conviction that the entire Sri Lanka island is the historic Buddhist land that can not be divided. That is the main reason for their full support of military action against Tamil rebel during the past 2 decades. Any attempt for conditional peace, which involves granting the autonomy of Tamil state, always face aggressive protest by Buddhists led by militant monks. Some monks even took part in armed movement, i.e. JVP, against secession.

In fact the issue that is the primary concern of the militant Buddhists is the dominance of Sinhala ethnicity. They want Sri Lanka to be the land of Sinhala, that upholds Sinhala language as official one, and regards religion of Sinhala,i.e. Buddhism, as the foremost one. For them, Sinhala and Buddhism are inseparable. The glory of Sinhala is the glory of Buddhism. What is good for Sinhala is also good for Buddhism. Such belief gives rise to the close connection between Sinhala nationalism and Buddhism. It has been shown throughout history that once nationalism and Buddhism stick together, Buddhism is likely to be used to support nationalism at its own cost.

This can be applied to Thailand where Thai ethnicity or Thai nationalism and Buddhism are closely related. To be Thai is to be Buddhist. This is the belief that is reinforced by Thai state for many decades. Buddhism is therefore used to support Thai state. It was previously used to justify the war by Thai government. And there is an attempt to use Buddhism in support of military action in the south.

Free from attachement to religion
Buddhism is against all forms of violence. Killing for whatever reason is never justified by Buddhism. But Buddhism, as well as other religions, can be used to instigate violence in different forms, including war for religious propagation and preservation.

As mentioned before, religion, as an identity, is used to reinforce
self-centered attitude or superior conceit among the devout believers, while the nonbelievers are labeled as evil. Moreover, the extreme attachment to religion can contribute to strong conviction that holds anything is permissible for the glory of religion. In other word, deviated religious adherence could be a license to kill people of other faiths. This attitude is apparently shared by a lot of fundamentalists or extremists.

It should be noted that the extreme notion does not exist just among religious fundamentalists, but also the secularists including communists, neo-conservatives , or environmentalists. In numerous incidents, millions of people were killed by extreme secularists like Nazis, and communists. Some extreme environmentalists even declared recently that everything is permitted.

Buddhism can contribute to violence if the Buddhist attachment has gone extreme and nurtured conceit. It is therefore very important to be on guard against attachment to ones own religion. The Buddha even warned his followers not to cling to his teaching since clinging can lead to suffering of oneself and others. He likened his teaching like the raft that we use to reach the shore. One we get ashore, we should leave the raft, not to carry it further. The following contemplative mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanhs Order of Interbeing is a good reminder for Buddhists and all religious who care for peace:

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we
are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine,
theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are
guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our
understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight,
kill, or die for.

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong
perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and
bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

In the age of widespread violence, all religions, including Buddhism, have mission to create peace. At least they should avoid being the source of violence themselves. To achieve that, these values are indispensable, namely, compassion toward those in suffering, courage to face all difficulties, wisdom to understand profound causes, and self-awareness to overcome conceit, attachment to ideas, and craving. All these moral forces can strongly inspire believers to take on difficult task as shown in history. On the contrary, however, religion has recently been used to propel killings among believers. The time is ripe for religion to drive the believers to sacrifice themselves to protect lives of others and bring peace to the world through compassion, courage, wisdom, and self-awareness stemming from their deep personal transformation. There is no other way for peace to prevail the world.

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