Like many people I’ve been shocked by the horrific violence in Myanmar, but perhaps especially because its been perpetrated by Buddhists and I am a Buddhist myself. I condemn violence in any form – as a Buddhist, one might think that goes without saying, but sadly, this issue, and others before it, suggest otherwise. I welcome that members of our Buddhist community have put out a joint statement doing so.
What it leaves me wondering is what this tells me about Buddhism. Well, in a way, not much I didn’t already know. To expect that no Buddhist could ever be this violent betrays an unrealistic view of religion. Neither Buddhism nor any other religion or philosophy is so powerful that it can completely overrule the autonomy of the individual and just magically stop them from being violent and angry.
Buddhism doesn’t work, unless you actually do it – following some of the outward forms and calling yourself a Buddhist isn’t enough – you have to actually make effort to change your mind for the better and the first step towards that is to actually want to change.
Mixing religion and politics is dangerous. When a religion becomes a state religion, then people start to get into it for the wrong reasons – for power, status and control, rather than surrender, renunciation and liberation. Such people manipulate the trust and faith of honest practitioners for their own malign ends. In a way, Buddhism is a like a toolkit, and tools can be used for both good and bad.
In fact, I’m tempted to say that people commiting these atrociticies arent actually Buddhists. I could dress as a Fireman claim to be one, but if I went round putting gasoline on fires instead of water, you could be forgiven for questioning whether Im really a Fireman at all.
I think there’s truth in that, or if you prefer, allowing that they are Buddhists, just spectacularly bad ones. But even that rings an alarm bell, because the little I know of Burma’s history (invaded by, you guessed it, the British, and then taken over by an oppressive military junta) – its had a very troubled past and its people have clearly suffered a lot more than I have. Can I really be sure I wouldn’t be reacting in the same way if I were born into the same awful conditions?
In the end, all I know is my own experience. Buddhism is working for me. Its helping me become steadily kinder, clearer, more patient and more focussed, although there’s still much further I could go. My practice continues.