Is Buddhism Violent?

Buddhism is a religion of peace. So why do some monks carry guns and preach hatred? In this conversation with Lion’s Roar, religious studies professor Michael Jerryson says that, if you look closely, “violence abounds” in Buddhist doctrine.

Randy Rosenthal
1 November 2019
Photo by Steve Evans.

In recent years, the phenomenon of “Buddhist violence” has received increasing attention. The seeming oxymoron entered the Western consciousness during the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009), but I first heard about it during the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in southern Thailand that erupted in 2004. Today, it is notorious due to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Buddhists are people, and people are violent. But the fact that Buddhist monks incite violence against Muslims is disturbing to many Westerners — especially to Buddhist practitioners who consider the Buddha’s teaching to be completely non-violent. Many of us struggle with how to understand the violence encouraged by nationalistic Buddhist narratives found in Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

Last year, I wrote an essay on the Myanmar situation that was published in Buddhadharma. In it, I concluded that the crisis was a cultural — not religious — conflict and that extremist Buddhists were unofficially directed by the military government. Therefore, I surmised, the violence could not accurately be called “Buddhist” — a conclusion in accord with the views of many Buddhist practitioners, teachers, and academics.

But Religious Studies scholar Michael Jerryson thinks otherwise. He has written extensively on Buddhist violence, including in his books Buddhist Fury and, most recently, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, in which he argues that violence is inherent in Buddhism, both in practice and in doctrine. I spoke with Jerryson to better understand what he wants us to know.

In your introduction, you write that “violence abounds in Buddhist thoughts, doctrine, and actions.” What do you mean when you say that “violence abounds”?

In the West, for about the last hundred and fifty years, white Western males have pretty much controlled what they see as the canon of Buddhist scripture, or doctrine. We’ve been normed in the West to orthodoxy — looking at texts and scriptures as being the authority for doctrine. There’s orthopraxy, which is people who think that rituals are more important. But there’s also a third component that I’ve argued, which is the cultural authority. Burmese monks and Thai monks are seen as the equivalent of scripture.

I’ve heard Western Buddhists say, “Is that truly Buddhist? Is that Buddhist doctrine?” To which I say, “Who are you to dictate what is doctrine for these people?

For example, [Buddhist studies professor Rupert] Gethin and I had a dispute about whether or not the Mahavamsa [an epic Sri Lankan poem written in the 5th or 6th century] is considered part of the canon. Gethin said, “No it’s not. It’s not at all,” and explained how it’s not part of the Vinaya [the rules for Buddhist monks] or the core teachings.

I said to him: “If you go to Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan Buddhists will see the Mahavamsa as core to what they believe and what they do.” He said, “Well, it’s not core.”

People say that extremist monk U Wirathu is not drawing upon doctrine. In Myanmar, as one of the high-ranking Buddhist monks, what he says is doctrine.

That’s a great reflection of how what we consider doctrine is already artificial. And the Mahavamsa has a very powerful argument for violence in it. [King] Dutthagamini ends up slaughtering millions of Tamils. And, at the end, he’s visited by these fully awakened beings who tell him he’s only killed 1.5 people: only one person took on the three refuges, which means that they are a Buddhist; and only one person committed to the five moral precepts, and so they are half a person. The rest are no more than beasts. That’s an example of how violence is in doctrine.

People also say that [Burmese extremist monk] U Wirathu is not drawing upon doctrine. I argue that Wirathu is speaking doctrine, because, in Myanmar, as one of the high-ranking Buddhist monks, what he says is doctrine.

Doctrine is not locked in. Every Buddhist tradition has different amounts of doctrine. The Vinaya differs everywhere you go. The suttas or sutras differ everywhere you go. The Abhidhamma differs everywhere you go.

In my study, I’ve never found encouragement of violence in the Pali Canon. Is there something I’m missing? Is there anything in the orthodoxy that encourages violence, or is it used to justify violence?

I would say it’s the latter. It’s how it’s being used and interpreted. We see this in all the world’s traditions. The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not commit murder.” We have Christian ministers who kill abortion clinic doctors because of how they interpret the meaning. In that same line of thinking, shunyata — emptiness — is a very powerful notion because it strips a person of any sense of permanency and it removes a sense of killing a person.

In the Russo-Japanese war, during Japanese Imperialism, WWII, Rinzai, Soto Zen, and Pure Land Buddhist monks would advocate that it’s okay to kill. They would explain, “These people are not really people. They are the five psycho-physical aggregates. They’ll get reborn in a true Buddhist land so they can get awakened.”

In Theravada, you have a very strong promotion of a king, the equivalent of what would be a bodhisattva in Mahayana. You could say that, in Theravada, the king is vaulted to the level that the bodhisattva is in other traditions. In Theravada, the Buddhist king is given a lot of leniency on what he needs to do.

Across doctrinal divisions, there are times when people proclaim that they are awakened, and they think Mara [the embodiment of evil] has arisen and that we have to combat Mara, and this is end-times. This is embedded in Buddhist scriptures. By invoking that “Mara’s here” or “I’m Maitreya,” it strengthens the sense that we must really push back at all costs — including violence.

You write in one chapter that Buddhists have a “just war ideology.” Is this where that sense comes from?

In Christianity, your first rule is non-violent. But, if another virtue presents itself, it can trump the first interdiction. In Buddhism, you need to avoid harm. However, there are certain times when a need overrides that. That’s considered “just violence,” or a “just war.” So defense of dharma — defense of Buddhism — would be one clear example that is used again and again. What we see now in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is these Buddhist monks saying, “These are signs that Buddhism is under attack, and Islam is going to overtake us, and we must protect this.”

When I lived in southern Thailand, a military monk explained to me, “The Buddhists are like small ants against this great elephant. But, when we come together, we can push back against it. That’s why I keep this Smith and Wesson behind my robes here.”

Can you explain what a military monk is?

Certainly. Initially, I didn’t set out to study Buddhism and violence. I was interested in social activism and Buddhism, so I went to Thailand to do interviews. When I was in southern Thailand in 2004, I started hearing rumors about military monks. One day, in my fieldwork, I was at this monastery and I met a military monk. He explained to me that military monks are soldiers who get earmarked to go to a monastery and become ordained. They retain the soldier status and retain a monthly salary and they carry a gun. And the argument is: who is better trained to protect these monasteries than soldiers, clandestinely, as monks?

This example of a military monk, of someone who’s simultaneously a soldier and a monk, violates the Vinaya — the monastic guidelines. However, it’s an example of how the ways in which people actually practice are different than how they read about it.

If you’re not a Christian and you read about Christianity in the Bible, and then you look at how Christians behave, you’ll see that as well. So, when I teach religion, I always tell people: You have to look at both the emic — the internal perspective — and the etic — the external perspective. Both of these matter.

In Buddhism, you need to avoid harm. However, there are certain times when a need overrides that. That’s considered “just violence.”

From the outside looking in at Thai Buddhists, you could say, “They’re not being true Buddhists.” But we have to honor their perspective as well, which is that they are Buddhists.

At first, I thought this monk was an aberration. But there have been soldier monks in Thailand, the Japanese have this, the Chinese have this. The Martial Arts have come from this, too, with Chinese monks who were soldiers. And I found the undercurrent of a pattern that had been left out of the way in which we think about Buddhism. I thought these military monks were a perfect example of the Buddhist relationship to violence.

Brian Victoria, who wrote Zen at War, and I are at odds. Brian Victoria thinks that all the travesties and terrible things that Japanese Buddhists did were actually aberrations; they’re not Buddhist. That it’s just politics to have done this. I’ll tell Brian: First off, there is no universal Buddhist council, like the Pope in Roman Catholicism, who says what is right and wrong. There is none. The sanghas decide what is right and wrong in each tradition, and they can defrock who they want to. And you don’t have the ability to say, “This group is wrong.” The sangha has the authority.

See also: The Rise of Militant Monks, by Michael Jerryson

And he says, “Well, Michael, it’s not Buddhist. It’s political.” And I tell him: Politics have always existed in Buddhism. The earliest legend of the Buddha is that he was a prince. The idea of the sangha comes from the gana-sanghas, pseudo-democracies created by the Sakya clan that the Buddha was a part of, in modern-day Nepal. The Buddha liked this idea and drew from it.

The idea of cleaving apart politics and religion is a modern invention. Before the 1800s, we had theocracies across the world in all different religions. It’s only recently that we’ve tried to cleave these apart, and I think it’s artificial. The line between politics and religion is not clear at all. Both are about authority, and sometimes they’re able to cleave out different pools of authority so they don’t collide with each other, but in the end they’re both dealing with very similar things. They are both dealing with right and wrong. So, when Brian Victoria says, “This is politics, it’s not Buddhism,” I say “You’re missing the forest for the trees. You’re not seeing the nature of how religion operates in the world.”

You noted that, in Thailand, you could lose your access to the state. Is that because your book criticizes the monarchy?

Yes. I knew when I wrote the book that I might be banned from Thailand for the rest of my life. People like Andrew Marshall and other Western scholars have been tried in absentia, and if they enter the country they get fifteen years in prison, or more. And I have a whole chapter critiquing the monarchy and the king, which can get me in jail.

When I saw the cover of your book, I had a shock. It’s an image of a monk trying to push a boulder onto the Buddha. And the title is a reference to the famous koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” What are you trying to say with the cover and the title?

There’s a legend about the Buddha and his cousin Devadatta. Devadatta is like a nemesis of the Buddha. According to the legend, Devadatta tries to kill Buddha several times — one time pushing a boulder off of a cliff as the Buddha is walking down the road.

And, there’s the koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The idea is that the Buddha is within you. The tathagatagarbha, buddhanature, is within you, not outside of you. Don’t see it outside. Seek it within. It’s not meant to be actual violence. But I paired the koan with the idea of Devadatta meeting the Buddha on the road and actually trying to kill him, showing how we have metaphors and we also have real legendary instances of the same thing. I’m not trying to advocate the koan being about violence, but show that there are both symbolic violence and actual advocations of violence.

Covers of "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road," "Buddhist Warfare," and "The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence"

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance in what I’m doing with these covers. My Buddhist Warfare cover was taken by a photojournalist in 1988, on the eve of the violence in Myanmar. She asked this young novice holding a gun, “Could I take a picture?”

Scholars were furious about the cover before they read the book. People said, “How dare you put a picture of a child with a gun on a book?” I’d go, “Do you think we created this image? We didn’t. This exists. It sounds like you’re more concerned with the issue of violence being present in the world than you actually are with the cover.”

That’s what I’m trying to do with these covers. On the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, I have the image of Abraham trying to kill Isaac. That’s a very horrible image, but it’s embedded right in the foundation of Abrahamic religions. If God tells you to kill your son, do it. I put the image of that to remind people. Wake up! This is what we have here. Don’t dismiss it.

I want to shift gears from physical violence. You also talk about structural violence. In that case, the evidence is more apparent and you don’t have to get so nitpicky into doctrine. You talk about how gender discrimination is a structural act of violence. So, even though the Buddha might have allowed women to take robes and said that a woman can reach enlightenment, nonetheless the Buddhist patriarchal system is equivalent to support of violence against women.

We have no evidence of what the Buddha actually said. The earliest examples of anything we have is from the second or third council, around the time of Ashoka — 150 years later. Often, people who are upset about what I’m saying say to me, “Oh, Dr. Jerryson, you’re wrong because the Buddha said this.” I say, “The Buddha didn’t say anything that you know about. It’s what the tradition thinks the Buddha said.” There’s no proof beyond the inside perspective of what happened there.

In the narrative of the Buddha, his aunt, who raised him, beseeched him after a while, asking to become ordained, and he said no. Turned her away. So then she turned to his cousin, Ananda, his favorite disciple, and she beseeched Ananda to advocate on females’ behalf. Ananda was turned away two times by the Buddha according to this legend. The third time, the Buddha said, “Okay, I’ll let women in. But because I’m letting women in, the life of the dharma has been shortened by 500 years.” And he created some rules for this which are still present to this day.

Fear is a primary emotion. Behind anger is fear. And if you don’t listen to the people in a way that they feel heard, they’re going to go into anger. Violence is an extension of that.

The first is that women must be ordained twice, where men are only to be ordained once. So men get ordained within the male sangha, women have to be ordained within the female sangha and then the male sangha. When women do transgressions they have to visit the male sangha and speak about them to the male sangha.

Another example is the fact that seniority among Buddhists in the Vinaya is dictated by how long you are a monk. So, Randy, if you were a monk for 10 years and I was a monk for one year, I might be older than you, but I defer to you, because you’ve been a monk longer. And I pay respects in that way. Now let’s say that we met a female monastic who had been a monastic for 20 years. She would have to bow to me, because the way it’s written in the scriptures, in the doctrine. A male monk is always higher than a female monk.

In some traditions, women cannot be awakened on their own. They have to be reborn as a man. In Pure Land Buddhism, they go to Pure Land as a male and then become awakened.

Beyond these examples, we can look to the current debates about whether or not women can be allowed to be ordained. Some Buddhists say, “Look, women cannot be ordained because the lineage has died out. There is no female sangha. And there’s no Buddha to initiate it again so therefore we can’t do it.”

In Thailand, women cannot get ordained. Over 78% of men are temporarily ordained—it is normal in Thailand to be temporarily ordained—and may even do this to give their mother enough merit to go to heaven because the mother can’t do this on her own, because she’s prevented from doing so.

See also: Buddhism: The World’s Most Peaceful Religion?

Monks are given free rides in Thailand. Transportation money. They’re allowed to get income money from the state. Women don’t get this. And, in fact, women who do ordain, who are not part of the Thai sangha, are attacked in Thailand. There’s been arson attacks against them, death threats.

When I wrote this book and sent it off to the University Press, one of the reviewers said, “Gender discrimination is not violence. This should be taken out.” And I said, “No. Too long have we used Western definitions for violence, which by itself is too ambiguous because no one can really define what violence is. We need to start looking at what each religion sees as violence before we look at religion and violence.” So in Buddhism, “himsa” is often translated as “violence” and “ahimsa” as “nonviolence,” when in fact it’s “non-harm” and “non-injury.”

So, in this way, the self-immolations of over 150 Tibetans are not considered violent, because, according to scripture, there’s no harm being evinced by these people burning themselves up, and they’re harming no one else. So it’s not violent. So a Westerner would say, “suicide is violent.” But it’s not within the emic (insider) perspective there. At the same time, women are being harmed in the instances I’ve talked about. They’re being harmed in a social way and in a physical way and in a spiritual way. So that, according to Buddhist precepts, is violence against them.

You include French-American scholar Bernard Faure’s statement that “a consistent feminist critique could shatter Buddhism to its foundations.” How exactly could a modern critique shatter Buddhism to its foundations? There would be no Buddhism anymore?

Religion is always changing. And if it doesn’t change, it dies out. It has to remain relevant to modernity. That’s taking place in Buddhism. There’s a famous example in which Sariputra is met by a female goddess, and Sariputra says, “Well, you’re a female, you can’t be awakened.” And she says, “It doesn’t mean anything that I’m female.” And he goes, “Yeah it does.” And so she goes, “Good, you’re a female,” and turns him into a female. And he goes, “Ah!” And she turns him back — boom — and she goes, “It doesn’t really matter.” And Sariputra has to admit the fact that it doesn’t matter, that gender is really, in the end, insubstantial to what the dhamma is. That we are empty of any true existence in this way. But, unfortunately, these examples are few and far between in Buddhism.

If you examine the idea of himsa and ahimsa and how gender distinctions and discrimination is embedded within a lot of Buddhist traditions and practices, it’s shattering that you have to renegotiate what you’re going to prioritize and how you’re going to prioritize it. A lot of women have done this. We see a lot of reimagining and reconfiguring that I would consider shattering of the foundations. But, it’s gonna take a lot of change. I think that’s what Bernard Faure is getting at.

We have no evidence of what the Buddha actually said. The earliest examples of anything we have is from 150 years later.

Right now, there are so many rapes taking place in Buddhist monasteries. Female monastics get raped and sexually assaulted by male monks and they can’t report it to the authorities, who are male.

In Vietnam, a couple of years ago the UN invited Australian monk Ajahn Brahm to speak about female monastics and ordination at a conference. When he got there, he was disallowed from speaking about it. Fast-forward to two years later, I’m invited to give a paper at a conference in Thailand, and when I’m invited they tell me, “Please don’t talk about southern Thailand.” And I go, “Okay. Is it okay if I talk about gender?” And he goes, “Sure.” So, I talk about all the politics behind gender ordination in my paper. I get past the entry-level reviews. I’m one of the twelve papers selected by the committee. But when it gets to the higher-ups, who are male, they go, “Nope, no discussions about women and ordination. Forget about it.” So, we see here a patriarchal system that has been around for centuries, that has protected men at the expense of women, and has used Buddhist doctrine to legitimize it — at the expense of women who are harmed, from being raped and sexually assaulted to simple discrimination. So, to make this shift will be shattering for many communities.

In your book, you stay away from sexual violence. Is there a reason? Are you saving that for your next book?

When I was writing this book, I tried to do three cases where, according to Buddhist views of violence, Buddhists are doing violence. And three cases in which violence is being done to them, and they’re victims of it. So, I tried to make sure there’s balance.

I’m fearful that if I had one chapter on sexual abuses, people would dismiss it, and go, “Oh, that’s just people acting wrong.” But, in my view there is an institutional structure behind this, supporting all of this. Let’s examine the institutional structure, and we’ll see how it percolates into sexual abuses.

I’ve heard lots of reports. Like, in Laos, where a community of young girls will report a Buddhist monk is molesting them, and the parents say, “No, I don’t believe them.” I’ve listened to Rohingya refugees. You hear about the gang rapes by the Buddhist Rakhine soldiers and the Burmese Buddhist military. It’s awful.

Now, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do another book, because I’m dying of ALS. Last year, I was given less than a year to live — or maybe up to five years to live. So, I’m trying to use the last years of my life to fight for and advocate reducing suffering. If I have time to do another book, great. But if not, that’s why.

Wow. I didn’t know that. I really appreciate you spending the time with me to talk about your work. I know you get a lot of blowback. So, I’d like to give you the opportunity to respond to people who say you’re actually doing violence to Buddhism with your work. 

I think there is a problem in Western academics. Most of the scholars who teach Buddhism are former or current monastics. If you’re an academic, you should wear the academic hat, and then take it off when you want to discuss Buddhist issues. But, too often, Buddhist teachers can get away with things that people teaching Christianity and Judaism can’t do. They can preach religion in their classes, do meditation classes. If you did Christian prayers in the classroom, you’d get kicked out.

In the end, I feel that my duty is to disseminate knowledge as best as I see it, to elucidate issues around the world that are not being seen clearly. This is why I went to southern Thailand. I actually had a hit put on me when I was doing my fieldwork for my dissertation. And I had a newborn daughter. My wife didn’t want me to go back, and I said, “Look, journalists are willing to risk their lives to cover the news. If I want to call myself an academic — which is supposed to be the highest level of knowledge production — why shouldn’t I be risking things?” So, I took out a half-million-dollar life insurance policy temporarily and went and did my fieldwork. And, to this day I have PTSD from it. So, I take my duty as a scholar very seriously.

Please don’t dislocate these people from being Buddhist because of the atrocities they’re committing. Help them feel heard, respect their views, and then disagree and explain how you see it as violent.

I don’t think it’s my job to promote things like we see with [Buddhist scholar] Robert Thurman. He once got in a fight with [Buddhist scholar] Donald Lopez, saying you shouldn’t critique the depiction of Tibetans because it will hurt the Free Tibet movement. I would say to Robert Thurman, “That’s not our job.” If you want to do that, do that as a monk. Our job as scholars is simply to explain as best we can. So I try very carefully not to say what is wrong or right. I try to describe as clearly as possible what I see happening.

Too often we dismiss people committing violence and just ignore them. We get angry at them or say they’re not true Buddhists. That’s a big mistake, in my view. Anger is a secondary emotion. Fear is a primary emotion. Behind anger is fear. And if you don’t listen to the people in a way that they feel heard, they’re going to go into anger. And violence is an extension of that — not feeling heard. Instead of attacking people for doing violence or advocating violence, we need to — first and foremost — make them feel heard. Listen to their concerns. When we talk about our fears, fear goes away. When we talk about anger, it increases and gets more and more and more. So, I say to people, please don’t dislocate Wirathu from being a Buddhist, or these Burmese Buddhists from being Buddhist because of the atrocities they’re committing. Help them feel heard, respect their emic views, and then disagree and explain how you see it as violent. But you need to do the first thing before doing the second. Otherwise, you won’t get anywhere. That’s the issue at hand. We have to listen to people’s fears.

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he focused on Buddhist Studies, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, and many other publications.