On Buddhist Religious Extremism

The other day I was reading a recent report by the Human Rights Watch on sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls committed by military officials in Burma. Though these men may not have been ‘Buddhist’, they live and come from a culture that adheres fairly strongly to Theravada Buddhist values. The actions committed by these men - although horrific and devastating in nature - are not necessarily surprising, as the Burmese have persecuted the Rohingya for decades. In one article by the Guardian, the author dubs the perpetrators of such crimes as “nationalist Buddhists,” a term that suggests a correlation between fierce national loyalty and commitment to the “Dhamma.” Bear in mind that Burma once jailed a man for three months for unplugging a loud-speaker blasting Buddhist chants.

We often hear and talk about Islamic extremism in recent times, but very little do we talk about Buddhist extremism. On this very forum, in fact, we have had problems in the past with Buddhist anti-Semitics, which seems so contradictory in nature that it’s almost laughable. One such person had (at least in part) maintained that their ‘Buddhism’ was separate from their ‘anti-Semitism’, and that they were separate ‘interests’. Thus, on one hand you could argue that the Buddhist values present in Burma are separate from Islamophobia, but I’m inclined to think that a kind of unwavering and fierce loyalty to Buddhism is what inspired their hatred in the first place.

This is indeed the case with monastic groups such as the Ma Ba Tha, whose name literally (I kid you not) translates to “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.” There is thus a powerful desire to maintain not only Buddhism as the dominant religion in Burma, but also to maintain a ‘pure’ (i.e. non-Arab) ethnicity. I am often simultaneously intrigued and confused as to how the Dhamma can exist in tandem with such violence and religious/ethnic hatred. On one hand, I know that any kind of Dhamma practiced by one who advocates hatred is illegitimate, but on the other hand I am aware that people such as the Ma Ba Tha believe that they are Buddhist.

So how do we, as Buddhists, help condemn those who discredit the Dhamma through acts of violence? Is it as simple as not supporting the sangha in Burma who practice and teach Islamophobia? How do we educate people on other religions who believe that all other religious practices are blameworthy?

(I’m so sorry for bringing up another sad/miserable topic - here is a picture of my dog when he was a puppy):


according to the Buddhism it’s their attachment to self and views (likely the wrong ones in this case) which inspires and fuels the hatred

i doubt that hatred can be inspired by adherence to self-effacement which is a true Dhammic ideal

by inviting people to explore the Buddha’s teaching and explaining its principles even if briefly
i’ve already seen sarcastic comments on YT about purported peacefulness of the Buddhism in connection with reports from Burma or Sri Lanka and i engaged in little discussions with their authors
still these educative efforts will fall on barren ground with those who are eager to stigmatize instead of giving themselves labor to pause and really find out what Buddhism actually teaches, compartmentalizing is so much easier and more time effective


Brenna, I am glad you bought this up. And I also like your dog as a puppy :smile:

I agree that this is an important step. Although I can’t help but think of Muslims who have spent the last 15 years trying to teach us that “Extremism and terrorism are not a part of Islam’s teachings”. They must be going hoarse from repeating this, and yet are met with disbelief and ridicule from many.

I agree it is certainly not simple. I think of all the things people cry out for after “Muslim” terror attacks. Demands for explanations and statements from religious leaders denouncing the acts. Evidence this isn’t a part of Islam’s teachings, etc, etc. However I don’t think that these things really help.

I think the crux of it lies in [quote=“Brenna, post:1, topic:4274”]
the Protection of Race and Religion.
(as a concept). People perceive a threat to ‘their way’, ‘the old way’ and become extreme in protecting that and annihilating all that is ‘not them’. That’s my belief about rising nationalism, and fundamentalist religious reform everywhere - because it’s in the face of unprecedented globalisation and multiculturalism to which we are unaccustomed.

So maybe our solution is to develop inter-religious understanding in countries where we all live together. Yes, I think we should denounce the acts of these “Buddhists”. But more than that we need to build positive relationships with those who would be perceived to be enemies and ensure that we act at all time as much as possible in line with the Dhamma.

Convincing atheists is a harder task. I think learning about the real roots of the rise of these ideologies and actions is helpful (that it’s not necessarily based on religious teachings), noting that many Buddhists (and people of other religions) live around the world in relative peace. I am now getting involved in the Women’s March action groups and am fairly vocal about being Buddhist. Although most of the other activists are strongly atheist, they respect the role of religion in people’s lives. I’ve always thought that being kind and gentle and living one’s life well is the best way to set a good example for one’s religion.

That’s the end of my rant. If you got this far, here’s another puppy!


I think @LXNDR pretty much nailed it. In the EBTs there is very little if anything that can be used or interpreted in a nationalistic or otherwise extremist way. There is an occasional trace of mysogyny of later monastic generations here and there, but using Suttas for advocating violence would be a fairly tricky task. Okay, there is an occasional what-the-heck moment when you read Jatakas, but it can easily be countered with an honest discussion about what the Jatakas are.

I think in that respect the Buddhism is in a more favourable position as some other religions whose holy books contain ethically questionable ideas (and I am not referring to the big elephant in the room only).

Finally, I should also mention that we shouldn’t forget that each conflict has two sides, and most of the time both sides are wrong. As far as I can see, clashes with Rohingya as well as the Rohingya insurgency have a pretty long history of violence in Myanmar, and not always the Myanmar people or Buddhists were to blame. Judging by what I read on this fellow’s blog (sorry, Russian only and I was a bit lazy to look for the specific post), the Buddhist religion started to play any significant part in the latest conflicts only; prior to that the Burmese aggression was caused by primarily nationalistic motives. The religious background of the entire affair came almost as an after-thought: Ma Ba Tha was founded in 2014, the 969 movement in the 2000-s, after almost 60 years of conflict with the Rohingya people. I mean, I wouldn’t say that the ‘unwavering and fierce loyalty to Buddhism’ is something that can inspire hatred and violence. An unwavering Buddhist should emanate metta even if sawn in two pieces with a rusty saw. I would rather say it is an abuse of Buddhism to pursue political and nationalistic goals that creates it.

Besides, bad relations between the Burmese government and the Western world mean that the Western organizations will mostly focus on the crimes against the Rohingya people, not the other way round, exactly as it happened during, say, the two Chechen wars prior to 9/11. I mean, while we should be 100% on the side of the Rohingya violence victims, we also shouldn’t pretend that all of the Rohingya people are innocent and only resort to violence when attacked. This just can’t be true, sadly.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the significance of Buddhist extremism or Buddhist nationalism, and I certainly don’t want to look for excuses for rapes and murders. An honest talk about the dangers and horrors of the Buddhist nationalism in some Theravada countries is certainly overdue. The nationalistic and hateful rhetorics of Buddhist monastics are unacceptable no matter against whom they are directed. Killing, stealing, raping and spreading the hatred in the name of the Dhamma goes against every single Vinaya rule, every single Sutta teaching, and it definitely should not become the leading interpretation of the Dhamma in the traditional Theravada countries - and it sure can. For me as a Buddhist, the rise of the extremist Buddhism is especially worrying, even though it doesn’t threaten my life directly, and I always try to explain it to my Bangladeshi friends when we have a talk about the events in Myanmar. This is also what I can do when I see critical comments on the Internet. Finally, if I have enough money, I can try and support financially all victims of violence in Myanmar, be they Buddhist or Muslim, Burmese or Rohingya.

Thanks for bringing up this topic, I think it is really important we talk about these sad things! :sweat:


Well said!

A couple of years ago I read Erik Braun’s book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (Buddhism and Modernity) which provides some history of how the great lay Buddhist movement in Burma arose as a national response to Western colonialism. It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember being kind of delighted at the idea that so many Burmese took up meditating every day and memorizing Abhidamma in order to save Buddhism from the perceived threat of the British Crown. And equally delighted with the irony that that nationalistic movement led to the Western vipassana meditation tradition in which I was trained. But nevertheless, the great Buddhist revival in late 19th century Burma was a nationalistic movement and so it is not that surprising that it continues to spawn hostility towards those perceived as “outsiders”.


I don’t want to get engaged too much in this discussion.
Just want to say that islam is not a friendly religion.
According to their book, no Buddhist can ever marry a muslem without converting to islam.
Excuse me, but that is fascism.

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I think that the connection between the modern Buddhism in the traditional Theravada countries is a difficult and hugely under-estimated field of research. On the one hand, most of us Westerners know very little (frequently to the point of ignorance) about the traditional Buddhism in these countries, on the other hand many people from these countries are very reluctant to acknowledge that the Protestant Christianity or Colonialist Enlightenment ideology may to some extent have shaped the social aspects of the Buddhism as it is now. If we had to look for the ultimate reason why the Buddhism can be abused as an ideological excuse for violence, the colonialist past and its cultural interference with the traditional ways of life would be the most likely suspect. Not that the Theravada Buddhists had not been violent before the colonial era, that the religion hadn’t played any role in that violence, or that there hadn’t been any ethnical element in this violent acts. It’s just that it lacked this strong nationalistic stench we are observing now as there had been no nations back then. The nationalism and nation state are European constructs.

Of course, we shouldn’t feel guilt for the creation of nationalism, it was 150 years ago, for Bhagavan’s sake. Yet, talking about it in an academic context can potentially contribute to at least stopping the abuse of the Dhamma for political purposes.


I agree, and as I’ve spoken of before on this forum, Richard Gombrich does talk about this in Theravada Buddhism. I think the fact that we saw a fundamentalist shift in many major religions and nationalist politics starting in the 19th century and continuing, should be a point of investigation. Anyone know of more research on this? (especially re: Buddhism)


Thanks for raising this question. I don’t want to comment too much, as it would lead down a deep rabbit hole! There are a few things that are, I think, useful to help understand the current situation.

While most of us have become aware of this conflict only recently, it has a long history.

The outbreak of riots in the past few years in west Rakhine were shortly preceded by extensive riots in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh:

Maungdaw, the center of the Rakhine riots, is just a few tens of kilometres away from Cox’s Bazar.

These are not separate incidents: they are part of a much larger ongoing issue. The violence in Cox’s Bazar, where Buddhists were slaughtered by Muslims over a (false) accusation of a perceived slight to the Quran, was no isolated incident. I have known several Bangladeshi monks over the years, and they have all spoken of suppression, violence, destruction of temples, murder of monks, and the like. This has been ongoing since partition.

Of course, it is not the only side of the story. Much of the time Bangladeshi Buddhists are able to continue practicing their religion peacefully. At the Sakyadhita conference in 2015 we heard of how, when the Sangha refused to support a samaneri ordination, a local Muslim made his land available for the nuns to use. And at a Religions for Peace conference some years ago, I heard from a Burmese Muslim who quoted the Buddha and King Ashoka and spoke of the work he does, together with Buddhist monks, to help rebuild the communities shattered by the violence.

It’s complicated. And, lest we forget, the roots of all this lie with the insane greed of British Empire.

The future of the region is extremely unstable. Many of these countries will be among the first and most severely impacted by global warming. An estimated six million Bangladeshis have already been displaced by global warming. Government estimates project that some thirty million people will be displaced under a relatively moderate 1 metre sea level rise. Note that Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister of our nakedly denialist government, personally told us (ARRCC, a group of religious leaders advocating for action on climate change) that a 1 metre sea level rise would not be a big problem for Australia.

I have spoken about this issue on multiple occasions with our leaders in Australia. In some cases, they were aware of the problems. Bob Carr, the then Foreign Minister, told me that he was visiting Rakhine state to see for himself. But too much is taken for granted. Each issue is seen as a local dispute, and the long term implications are too much to handle. We do not have the infrastructures to address things meaningfully, and even under the relatively mild stresses we are currently experiencing, the rule of international law, such as it is, is crumbling.

Conflict between Buddhists and Muslims has, in recent years, affected almost every country in the region—including Australia. We must find a way to live together. It is not impossible. Buddhist and Muslim communities in S-E Asia have, in fact, lived together in harmony for many centuries. Yes, we should recognize the many terrible things that are happening, including those crimes perpetrated by the Buddhist communities. But the solution will come, not by complaining about the worst, but by learning from the best.


I’ve known quite a few, too, and we have one living in our loacal Thai Wat at the moment. Another did much of his schooling here (as a samanera). He was adopted by an American monk based in Bangkok in order to give him a stable future and is now in the US. From the stories I’ve heard, even taking Buddha images into Bangladesh can be problematical.

Of course, that does not excuse other violence or repression, but as Bhante indicates, the problems have a long and difficult history.


Hi Leon74,

Thank you for your post and for expressing your opinion, but please note that this thread is not one in which we are debating the ‘friendly’ or ‘fascistic’ nature of Islam. The sentiments you express are wrong speech in that they are discussed at an improper time and without regard to the topic of violence against both Muslims and Buddhists.

Thus, before you (or anyone else, for that matter) consider posting such opinions again, please reconsider as to whether your ideas benefit the conversation taking place. At this time, they do not.

With metta.


Thank you so much to everyone for your valuable comments and ideas, they have been wonderful to read! Apologies for my late reply, I’ve been busy doing schoolwork (and procrastinating on doing schoolwork). :smirk:

This is an excellent idea, Cara, and I agree that building relationships and inter-religious dialogue/understanding and the key to lessening ignorance and hatred. The question is then, how do we do this? How do we alter the perspectives of those who have spent their entire lives believing that Muslims are violent people?


Thanks for bringing this up, Vstakan, I’m certainly not so up-to-date on the history of the area. This indeed makes it harder to cultivate dialogue, particularly when old conflicts go back many years and are based on disputes that evolve into ethnic/religious tension. [quote=“Vstakan, post:4, topic:4274”]

Finally, if I have enough money, I can try and support financially all victims of violence in Myanmar, be they Buddhist or Muslim, Burmese or Rohingya.

:pray:[quote=“Vstakan, post:7, topic:4274”]
The nationalism and nation state are European constructs.

Indeed, it’s important to remember that colonialism is itself an act of violence, and that the forceful redrawing of borders leads to further violence.

So - how do we educate people on such history in a way that leads to a different conclusion (i.e. that not all Muslims are violent)?

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Hi Brenna,

I not just expressed an opinion: no Buddhist can ever marry a muslem without converting to islam.

That is a fact.

Birma therefore restricted interfaith marriages:

And, in my opinion, rightly so.

And being among Buddhists, calling the islam rule forbidding interfaith marriages fascist - I can’t see why that would be wrong speech or “without” regard to the topic.

After all, you yourself say: "How do we educate people on other religions who believe that all other religious practices are blameworthy? "

There you generalise. Who says those Buddhists who are anti-islam in Birma believe that all other religious practices are blameworthy?
Maybe, amongst others, it is this islamic fascist rule against interfaith marriages that incites Buddhists.
There is a reason why the parliament of Birma approved that interfaith marriage law.

Also, you in the US with only 1-3 % of muslems look at it from a comfortable place far away:
In Rakhine state 25 % of the people is muslem.
I wonder how things would be, if in the US you would have 25% muslems.
Or in Europe.

This does not mean Buddhists should kill, or rape, or whatever - but -and that’s why I said islam is not a friendly religion: there are things in islam, like this rule forbidding interfaith marriages, that cause societal unrest.

As I said, I did not want to get engaged too much in this discussion, exactly because I expected it to get heated. But now that we at it, let me put it as sensitive as I can:
You have a very prejudiced mind with regard to this issue:

You cite Human Rights Watch, and their reports are only based on Rohingya eyewitnesses, as I understand it. Is that reliable?

The jalied man you talk about: He was from my country. He was not just jailed for “unplugging a loud-speaker blasting Buddhist chants”. What he did is called tresspassing and also in the US there are penalties for it.

You also wrote: " the Burmese have persecuted the Rohingya for decades"
But, as bhante Sujato already rightly remarked: this is not just about Buddhists persecuting muslems. There have been fierce conflicts for a very long time and muslems have played their role in the violence, too.

If you are so prejudiced, than how do you think you can “educate people on other religions who believe that all other religious practices are blameworthy” (as you put it yourself)?

If you want to do that, I suggest you first learn to see more sides to a conflict, than just one.

addition This topic title “Buddhist Religious Extremism” is plain wrong: What is happening in Myanmar/Rakhine state, is intercommunal violence and it has little to do with religious extremism. Are Buddhists forcing their religion upon muslems? I don’t think so. Because that would be Buddhist Religious Extremism.
As for muslems, there was religious extremism: in the past they tried to install an islamic state in Rakhine.

And oh Brenna, calling me out for wrong speech; remember the Dhammapada?

“Verse 50: One should not consider the faults of others, nor their doing or not doing good or bad deeds. One should consider only whether one has done or not done good or bad deeds.”

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The English word is Muslim - could you please write it correctly? I’m a bit grammar-sensitive, and currently my eyes are bleeding :wink:

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Sorry, I’m equally grammar-sensitive but English is not my mother tongue. Thanks for letting me know.
I promiss, I will use moslem in the future :slight_smile:

And history of other places shows, it can escalate pretty quickly, pretty badly (see especially 2008-2009):

Everybody gives a different number for the casualties, according to this site, UN panel said it was 40000:

And the most terrifying for me is, that I’ve learned about it a year ago when I read a book about this conflict. There was not a word about it in the media, at least not in the polish media or parts of internet that I frequent.

But you should read Dutch media :wink:


Yes, closer to home we have seen that in Yugoslavia, and to stay on-topic, we have also seen (amongst others in Yugoslavia) that the more foreign countries interfere, the quicker a situation can explode.

And @Vstakan already showed in this or another thread, by naming the Chechen wars, how insensitively one-sided people/countries can judge, especially people in Western countries.

Well, Brenna is a moderator on this forum and that is the job of a moderator. Even when we disagree, we strive to speak gently and moderately and maintain points that are not just sudden interjections, but that relate clearly to the topic at hand.

My understanding was that this referred to atheists… People who see the violent acts done in many a religion’s name and seek to see all religions wiped out because ‘what good do they bring?’ How do we then defend the practices of Buddhism, or religion in general to them, when it seems to breed hatred and misunderstanding, even among Buddhists?