Myth of Buddhist non-violence

Neither the Buddhist scriptures nor Buddhist history is free of violence. In a world filled with hate and violence on account of religion, race, ethnicity, etc., Buddhists are no exception, despite their contrary image.

 (Daily Times, 8 My 2013)

Buddhism is almost universally regarded as synonymous with peace, tolerance and non-violence.  On the other hand, so strong and widespread is the perception of Muslims as the source of intolerance and violence in this world that people seem to overlook not just the past but also the present when it comes to judging all the rest, and not just Buddhists.

One wonders whether the recent pogroms against Muslims in Myanmar (Burma) and the totally unwarranted anti-Muslim hysteria in Sri Lanka will have any effect on these perceptions. Truth be told, neither the Buddhist scriptures nor Buddhist history is free of violence. In a world filled with hate and violence on account of religion, race, ethnicity, etc., Buddhists are no exception, despite their contrary image.

A 2009 book, “Buddhist Warfare” by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, is introduced in these words: “Though traditionally regarded as a peaceful religion, Buddhism has a dark side. On multiple occasions over the past fifteen centuries, Buddhist leaders have sanctioned violence, and even war. The eight essays in this book . . . show that Buddhist organizations have used religious images and rhetoric to support military conquest throughout history.”

In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha is said to have killed some Hindus (Brahmins) in one of his past lives because they insulted the Buddhist sutras (scriptures). “When I heard the Brahmins slandering the ‘vaipulyasutras’, I put them to death on the spot.”

Prof Paul Damieville is quoted by Danios ( as writing that Buddhists justify killing infidels (‘icchantika’) for a number of reasons, one being pity. Bizarrely also called ‘compassionate killing’, its supposed aim is “to help [them] avoid the punishment they had accrued by committing evil deeds while continuously slandering Buddhism.”

Another reason is defence of the Buddhist faith.  “When the dharma is threatened, it is necessary to ruthlessly fight against the forces of evil.”  The Nirvana Sutra is unambiguous on this subject: “The [true] follower of the Mahayana is not the one who observes the five precepts, but the one who uses the sword, bow, arrow, and battle ax to protect the monks who uphold the precepts and who are pure.”

Putting unbelievers to death carries no sin and is not bad karma.  According to Demieville, the Buddha says in the Nirvana Sutra that the status of the infidel is lower than that of ants.  “One may well kill an ant and earn sin for doing harm, but there is no sin for killing an icchantika.” Besides, killing can in any event be excused if it is done by the right person, especially a “dharma-protecting king”.

Danios concludes: “Buddhist Warfare provides many other examples of the theological justifications for waging war and killing, but these shall suffice us for now. They provide the religious basis for Buddhist holy war: (1) Killing those who slander Buddhism as a necessity; (2) Anyone who rejects Buddhism is by default slandering it; (3) Killing infidels carries no sin; (4) In fact, it is not really killing at all.”

Seen in this light, the current anti-Muslim hate campaign and violence in Myanmar seems not to be the exception, but rather in line with both Buddhist scripture and history.  According to a BBC report by Alan Strathern, it is spearheaded by the ‘969 group’, led by a monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred and released in 2012.

The initial anti-Muslim rioting occurred in the western state of Rakhine, targeting the Rohingyas, who are accused of being foreigners on account of their Bengali origins, even though they and their forefathers were born in Burma and they have always lived there.  It has now spread to central Myanmar, close to the largest city and the former capital, Yangon.

The rioting in Rakhine followed an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya Muslim men.  In a subsequent incident in central Burma, rioting resulted from an argument between the Muslim owner of a gold shop and an ethnic Burmese customer.  In the latest incident, a Muslim girl on a bicycle colliding with a monk led to rioting.  It seems that anti-Muslim pogroms can happen in Myanmar virtually at the drop of a hat. These incidents have resulted in hundreds of Muslims killed, many hundreds of houses torched and thousands turned into refugees.  All this happened while the police just stood and watched.

In Sri Lanka, the issue of halal slaughter has suddenly been turned into a national crisis. Led by monks, members of the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ (the Buddhist Brigade) have been holding rallies calling for direct action and the boycotting of Muslim businesses. Objection to the size of Muslim families is thrown in for good measure.

In any list of countries where coups have been endemic, Thailand will rank high.  According to one count, it had have 11 “successful” and 9 “unsuccessful” coups in the 20th century. One such coup was accompanied by the Massacre of 6 October 1976, in which student and other protesters were attacked by the military, “shot, beaten and their bodies mutilated”.  Hundreds were killed.

In 1999, hundreds of Buddhist monks in South Korea staged a pitched battle over control of the country’s richest monastic order.  According to the BBC correspondent, Andrew Wood, “”the fight is not about theology, it is about power and money. They are struggling for control of the temple complex, which is headquarters to the largest order of Buddhist monasticism in South Korea.  The sect claims around 10 million followers.”  It was the second major clash between Chogye monks in nine months.  Thai and Cambodian troops have repeatedly fought over control of the 900-year old Preah Vihear temple on their border. 

Given the general perception of Buddhists as the “nice guys” of this world (no prizes for guessing who the “bad guys” are!), I conclude with Prof. Michael Jerryson’s disclaimer: “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.”

By Razi Azmi

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7 Responses to Myth of Buddhist non-violence

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Sahib, Thank you for your veery enlightening and educative piece.
    Allah Bless you.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Thanks for enlightening me on this subject. I was always under the impression that buddhists are different, but perhaps I was wrong. We are all the same.

  3. Nadeem says:

    Azmi Saheb,
    Thanks for letting us know the other side of Buddhism. I was in the impression that Buddhism is not a religion but a belief system which is tolerant of all other beliefs and religions and Buddhism agrees with the moral teachings of other religions. I thought Buddhism is very tolerant and there have never been any wars fought in the name of Buddhism. I haven’t seen any Buddhist preaching Buddhism and trying to convertm. This is a fasted growing religion (Muslims will not agree with me) and getting popular in western countries but why all Buddhist countries are so poor.

  4. tony Letford says:

    Razi, Islam is without a doubt the most fascinating religion around at the moment. Christianity is in irreversible decline, Judaism is trying to survive in a secular state and Buddha is really passé amongst the increasingly sophisticated nations which formerly provided its supporters. Islam, in contrast, goes on sublimely impervious to rationality because its adherants still take seriously the idea of a supreme being and his prophet (PBUH) etc while steadily blowing up aeroplanes, markets, kindergartens etc and cutting off the noses of young girls seeking an education. The Sunni Shia debate and conflict is probably the most disgusting and overwhelming example of the stupidity of religion on the planet today. All religions are pathetic but those adherents of Islam who take solace in the idea that Buddhism’s stupidities are comparable to the atrocities committed by Muslims really are, to use a good old Jewish phrase, beyond the pale. Catholics are famous for buggering choirboys,
    Buddhists probably got up to the same sort of stuff but to suggest an equivalence between the follies of Buddhists and Muslims is incomprehensible. When was the last time a muslim immolated himself in political protest without trying to take others with him. How many Buddhists have blown up trains, aeroplanes etc for the greater glory of Lord Buddha? . How many temples and markets have been blown up by Buddhists?

    One could go on. But what is the point? Your clacquers will never be convinced by an unbeliever.

    • Jehanzeb says:


      I have to fully agree with your views here. This piece unfortunately appears more an exercise to muddy the waters by comparing a mole with a mountain. All religions promote and sanction violence — a domination strategy if you will– but some, or one to be exact these days, stand out in brutality. I wonder if Buddhism also carries a reward-system based on 72 virgins for its followers to promote militant suicidal zombies.
      I also wonder if “pogrom” is the right word to describe ethnic violence in Burma when merely “sectarian violence” is usually deemed sufficient for far brutal, numerous and frequent killings in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. The argument would have carried more weight had the article also focused on the hill tribes and north-eastern Christian tribes of Burma to highlight the government-backed persecution of non-Buddhist populations.

      I also wonder how much inspiration perpetrators of the 20 coups in Thailand might have acquired from the teachings of Buddhism. I also wonder how Sri Lankan Muslims, who form only 6 per cent of the population, are able to almost match a Buddha statue with a mosque throughout the length of the Kandy-Colombo Highway and within several Colombo suburbs when the Buddhist Brigade is vying for their blood.

      • Razi Azmi says:

        Tony and Jehanzeb, I am afraid you are barking up the wrong tree. And rather ferociously too. My piece (restricted to about 1,000 words) was not about contrasting religions in any sense, including their followers’ propensity for violence, but to disabuse people of the myth that Buddhists do not engage in violence. In doing so, I quote from recent incidents and an authoritative book. The recent treatment of Rohingya Muslims (and the direct incitement by monks to kill Muslims) is not only most shameful but also systematic. There is only one word for it – pogrom. It is a Russian word, now a part of the English language, first used in relation to the organised persecution of Jews in that country but it fits the current context of the Rohingya persecution in Burma better than any word I know. I am surprised firstly that Jehanzeb takes issue with my using this word here and, secondly, that he should suggest the word sectarian when the issue here is not even remotely sectarian. The treatment of the Rohingyas has been so reprehensible that many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s admirers abroad have been disappointed by her failure to condemn the organised persecution. And why does she not? Because by doing so she will lose the support of the Buddhist majority.
        Even my short piece to highlight the pogrom against an ethnic and religious minority, who happen to be Muslims, does not sit well with some people. Surely, there is something called Islamophobia. In sharp contrast to, should I say, something else called Buddhaphilia.

  5. Carlo says:

    Isn’t it worrisome that this “worst-religion” sweepstakes may reinforce stereotypes, even when it simply adds factual date like this to the discussion?
    I would rather learn how religions make or might make transitions to less bellicose communities. I recommend my friend and colleague’s book in respect to Islam for this reason: Nader Hashemi’s Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies. (Oxford U. P., 2009.)

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