Monks, Mobs, and Multi-nationalism: What the Buddha never wanted

When we think of Buddhism, we usually visualize the calm ebbing peace of monks in meditation, prayer, and a state of reverence. However, when I scrolled through the main page of BBC News, I found quite the opposite. Instead of advocating non-violence, Buddhist monks were reported to be leading hate crimes and mob activities against the Muslim community, which has resulted in destruction of property, displacement, and death. These radical actions have occurred in primarily two countries separated by an entire ocean: Sri Lanka and Burma.   

In the country of Sri Lanka, a new extremist Buddhist monk group, called the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, also called the Buddhist Strength Force) has risen. Extending their bitterness over their own civil war involving the Tamil Muslims in the early 1990s, the BBS has taken apart of various radical activities, including burning down Muslim homes, removing cultural programs, and attacks on mosques. These activities have been highly supported by the Sinhala Buddhist centered government of Sri Lanka, as the Secretary of Defense (and the president’s brother) has advocated the BBS and stated that “it is the monks who protect our country, religion, and race. No one should doubt these clergy. We are here to give you encouragement.” While the reports from Sri Lanka were disturbing, the reports from Burma are even more unsettling. In the Rakhine State, over 40 Rohingya Muslims (considered to be the most persecuted minority in the world) have been killed and over 12,000 have left their homes in fear as a result of Buddhist monk actions. With a very fragile democracy, massive corruption of the state and the police system has led to sympathy with the Rakhine Buddhist majority and their displays of public hostility, which has only encouraged more violence and bitterness to continue.  

How does this happen? How do these actions even remotely represent the wisdom of Buddha’s being? The words of Buddha remain some of the world’s most sacred pacifist texts. When we hear the philosophical phrases such as “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love” and “Better than a thousand hollow words is the one word that brings peace”, we don’t think of extremists who are set to purge their society of different races and religions. Times are changing, but are they really changing so rapidly that a man who found peace under a bonsai tree can now represent a valid excuse for a hate crime?

Clearly, as our world becomes even more engrossed in the political and social turmoil of the day, we are forgetting Who We Are to become Who They Told Us To Be. And even monks aren’t immune to this. Making sense of it all can drive even the sanest senseless. Becoming too engrossed in anything – either political or social in nature – can have devastating effects on your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. With disputes between the majority and minority, differences in the eyes of both rulers and civilians overshadow the spiritual ties that bind them together. As religion has been dubiously warped countless times to fit the needs of the government, it is crucial that we truly understand the underlying force behind all decisions. As these primarily Buddhist political systems see the currently non-aggressive Muslim population as a threat, they are willing to take steps away from their original thought to secure their position of power. When looking at the actions of the ‘monk mobs’ in Sri Lanka and Burma, we cannot but to realize that they, though their religion, have done “spiritual actions based upon political motivations.” What if we could reverse this thinking?

Just image a world based on spiritual decisions. If we decide to create such a world, then we can transform the statement above to “political decisions based upon spiritual inspirations.” Siddhartha Gautama was a man who understood all of this. He realized the fraudulent happiness in politics, its lies, and its dissatisfaction; so he decided to become something different. At the age of 29, Gautama decided to completely leave his princely role to find his own definition of enlightenment. With a new source for his decisions, he created a new order based on love, detachment, and peace. We can do exactly the same thing: we can make our own decisions based on spiritual ideals, instead of political agenda. We, the youth with decide. With older generations too far embroiled in their own conflicts, we can make the decision, like Siddhartha, to detach ourselves from systems that are simply too dysfunctional. We can replace those systems with ones that promote peace, if we choose to truly love ourselves, and each other. All it takes is a change in thought, and a change in choice. Hopefully, if these current Buddhist monks choose their own spiritual decisions, they can become these same emissaries of light once again.

(Lauren is a Feature Editor of The Global Conversation. She lives in Wood Dale, IL, and can be reached at

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