These and other such examples have, to be sure, often involved eloquent Buddhist critics of violence — but the fact remains that the histories of Buddhist societies are as checkered as most human history.
It is important to emphasize that the current violence against the Rohingya is not a straightforwardly “religious” matter.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really peaceful and harmonious.
This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar.
There is, however, no shortage of historical examples of violence in Buddhist societies.
Sri Lanka’s long and tragic civil war (1983-2009), for example, involved a great deal of specifically Buddhist nationalism on the part of a Sinhalese majority resentful of the presence of Tamil Hindus in what the former took to be the last bastion of true Buddhism (the “island of dharma”).This lay meditation movement was later promoted as a practice available to an international audience — a development that is part of the history of contemporary Western fascination with mindfulness.What is especially interesting is that Buddhist proponents of anti-Muslim discourse often assert that Myanmar is under threat from Muslims precisely Buddhism is, they say, a uniquely peaceful and tolerant religion.The idea of Myanmar’s Buddhists as distinctively tolerant, then, became a key mechanism for dividing Burmese Buddhists from the Indian Hindus and Muslims living alongside them.Colonial discourse that praised Burmese Buddhists for their tolerance functioned in part to condemn the “superstitious” and “backward” practices of caste Hindus and Muslims in colonial Myanmar.Both phenomena have something to do with Myanmar’s experience under British colonial rule, during which religion came to be an important and operative aspect of Burmese identity.In this regard, it is not self-evident that being “Buddhist” or “Muslim” should be taken as the most salient facts about people who are many other things (Burmese, shopkeepers, farmers, students) besides.In arguing that Rohingya are illegal immigrants who promote an exclusivist and proselytizing religion that is bent on geographical and cultural conquest through conversion and marriage, some Buddhist leaders in Myanmar thus exploit the very same presumption of uniform tolerance and peacefulness that makes many Westerners uniquely surprised by Buddhist violence.There are, in fact, important historical reasons that the idea of distinctively Buddhist tolerance figures both in nationalist disparagement of Myanmar’s Rohingya and in widespread Western astonishment at the idea of Buddhists engaging in it.Political violence in modern Thailand, too, has often been inflected by Buddhist involvement, and there is a growing body of scholarly literature on the martial complicity of Buddhist institutions in World War II-era Japanese nationalism.Even the history of the Dalai Lama’s own sect of Tibetan Buddhism includes events like the razing of rival monasteries, and recent decades have seen a controversy centering on a wrathful protector deity believed by some of the Dalai Lama’s fellow religionists to heap destruction on the false teachers of rival sects.