Like most people, I suppose, I thought Buddhists were peaceful and enigmatic and the last people to impose their beliefs on others by violence. As it turns out, Buddhists are human beings and subject to the same failings as any other group of human beings.
Fascism is hard to define and is one of those things, like “life” that is best defined by listing its characteristics. Fascism, in Italy, Germany and Japan had the following characteristics:
- A “race” with a belief in their superiority because of a divine or supernatural origin.
- A compelling ancient claim on the territory of their nation; “blood and soil,” as Hitler said.
- Aggressive militarism in expanding their influence.
- Primacy of the state: heroic citizens will sacrifice for the fatherland.
I was quite surprised to find that Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka met all these criteria, with the same results as fascism in Europe and Japan: near genocide of the “inferior race,” the Tamils.
Many Sinhalese claim descent from Vijana, who had a lion for a grandfather. Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BC along with a cutting from the bodhi tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment. Supposedly this tree still grows in Anuradhapura, festooned with prayer flags and lights. This, according to the Sinhalese, is the basis for the legitimacy of their superior position in society.
The Tamils, as you might imagine, disagree. They have their own origin story and resented the progressive disenfranchisement and state-sponsored religion of Buddhism. In the 1970s young militants formed the Tamil Tigers and a 25-year civil war ensued, with horrible atrocities on both sides, resulting in the deaths of 100,000.
In December of 2004, a tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing 30,000. Initially, there was optimism that the nation would pull together in this tragedy, but arguments soon erupted in regard to unfair aid distribution.
The Big Picture, the ever-repeating historical pattern here is:
1. Racism: the institutionalized belief that one ethnic group is superior to another and therefore should rule…
2. Valorizing the use of force to maintain proper order
3. A religious/ideological/emotional justification for full dominance by superior group
THESE CONDITIONS ALWAYS RESULT IN BLOODSHED ON AN INDUSTRIAL SCALE, and in the end, regress for the whole society.
How to nip these horrors in the bud?
1. Call out racism, do not tolerate it from either “side” in the conflict. Being proud of your ethnicity is not racism; racism is the institutionalized belief that one’s “race” is naturally or divinely chosen to dominate others; that repressing the inferiors is a divine mandate.
2. Call out the use of force against peaceful protesters and dissenters. What do the dissenters want? What mechanism do they have to be heard? If there is none, create one.
3. A religion/ideology that requires dominance through physical or structural violence is a BAD religion/ideology. Everyone has beliefs and values that make up their identity. Everyone should be free to discuss these freely and to attempt to persuade others; the others should also be free to reject it and walk away unharmed.
A religion or ideology that cannot persuade, but must use violence, thereby demonstrates its weakness and ultimately-its bankruptcy.
As a teacher of Religious Studies I find this historical and geo-political story deeply disturbing; I am however relieved to see that others also believe religion should be called to account. How ironic that Buddhism is famous for its dispensing of wise words for our betterment. I was instructing a class just this morning not merely to rehearse what religion teaches but to critically assess whether in fact it practises what it preaches. I do not wish to rid the world of their preaching rather to enjoy the benefits of it. Sadly much preaching delivers little more than the air that propels it forward.
As I study history I see operating what I call Poligeon (Politcs+Religion) Politics is about power sharing (or not sharing). Humans are motivated by their values, religious values are just one set power-brokers will manipulate. But shame on the believers for allowing them to do it when it violates their religious values. There’s a name for that: hypocrisy.