In yesterday's Independent, there was an excellent article on how China and Sri Lanka's Buddhist culture combined to help brutally defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It's well worth reading the whole thing, but this part in particular is of interest to those thinking about Buddhism and politics.
We in the West by and large have a pretty foggy understanding of Buddhism, but one thing we know for certain is that Buddhists are for peace. So the idea that the war party in Sri Lanka – not just in the past five years but throughout the years of independence – was identifiable with Buddhist monks does not sound right. It's like finding Trappist monks engaged in a talk-athon or Orthodox Jews running a pork pie factory.Buddhists don't do war. Look at the Dalai Lama: for 50 years he has strained every fibre to prevent Tibetan resistance to Chinese oppression turning violent. He has a great line on this challenge: "In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher."
Up close, Sinhalese Buddhism looks as harmless and pacific as any other variety. Visit any temple in the country during Poya or full moon day, a monthly national religious holiday on the island, and you will find scenes of perfect serenity as families dressed all in white offer food to the monks in their saffron robes, then picnic under the trees or stroll around the whitewashed stupa.
By contrast, listen to the words of the Venerable Athuraliye Rathana in 2002: "There are two central concepts of Buddhism," the monk said, "compassion and wisdom. If compassion was a necessary and sufficient condition, then the Buddha would not have elaborated on wisdom or prajna. Hitler could not have been overcome by maitriya [compassion] alone. Today there is a discourse about peace in Sri Lanka. It is an extremely artificial exercise and one that is clearly being orchestrated under threat of terrorist attack."...
How did Sri Lankan Buddhism veer off so sharply from the other schools? Buddhism was born in northern India in the 6th century BC, and spread throughout the subcontinent and beyond. But eight or nine hundred years later it began to lose ground to new schools of devotional Hinduism, which steadily supplanted it. Eventually it disappeared from the Indian mainland altogether.Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka watched this process with alarm, and hatched a way to stop it at the coast: they wrote a new book of scripture, the Mahavamsa, to establish indissoluble links between the historical Buddha and their island. The Mahavamsa claimed that the Buddha had visited Sri Lanka three times and had declared it "dhammadipa", "the island of righteousness" – a sort of Buddhist Promised Land, where the Sinhalese should rule and Buddhism should be unchallenged. The Mahavamsa, although not accepted by scholars as a core teaching, helped to ensure that the island remained Buddhism's last remaining outpost in the subcontinent. But there was a price to pay: a vein of intolerant chauvinism, inimical to the religion elsewhere, became part of its permanent baggage.
After independence in 1948, Sri Lanka's Buddhists established themselves as a fierce, intimidating nationalist presence. Although the fourth prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike, had done the Buddhists' bidding in making Sinhala the official language, he temporised over Buddhists taking over schools run by Christians. So in September 1959, a monk called Talduwe Somarama pulled a revolver out of his robes and shot him dead.
This bit here is not surprising; any practice can be misused, and the big problem of course is that this brand of Buddhism seems to have promoted views of separateness and superiority with respect to other paths. It might be tempting to say they're "not real Buddhists," but that too would be a form of duality. Simply put, though, one must be cautious about wanting to separate one's practice or views from the world in which one lives. Clearly chauvinism was not the most expeditious response to the advance of devotional Hinduism. There's a lesson here for Western (and Eastern) Buddhists. As the article points out, there's also lessons for those who think they can install any leader they want an call it a democracy. But for Buddhists the lesson should be cautiousness of a more specific yet generalized kind. It is true that compassion and wisdom are necessary, and there are times when unfortunately, violence seems to be horrible "least worst" alternative. But it's better not to get to that point in the first place.