A Short History of Violent Buddhism

Buddhist monks meditate
Buddhist monks peacefully meditating. hc choo via Getty Images

Founded around 2,400 years ago, Buddhism is probably the most pacifistic of the major world religions. Siddhartha Gautama, who reached enlightenment and became the Buddha, preached not just non-violence toward other human beings, but non-harming of all living things.  He said, "As I am, so are these.  As are these, so am I. Drawing the parallel to yourself, neither kill nor convince others to kill."  His teachings stand in stark contrast to those of the other major religions, which advocate execution and warfare against people who fail to adhere to the religions' tenets.

Of course, Buddhists are human beings and it should come as no surprise that lay Buddhists over the centuries have sometimes marched out to war.  Some have committed murder; and many eat meat despite theological teachings that stress vegetarianism.  To an outsider with a perhaps stereotypical view of Buddhism as introspective and serene, it is more surprising to learn that Buddhist monks have also participated in and even instigated violence over the years.

One of the most famous early examples of Buddhist warfare is the history of fighting associated with the Shaolin Temple in China.  For most of their history, the monks who invented kung fu (wushu) used their martial skills mainly in self-defense; however, at certain points they actively sought out warfare, as in the mid-16th century when they answered the central government's call for aid in the fight against Japanese pirates.

Speaking of Japan, the Japanese also have a long tradition of "warrior-monks" or yamabushi.

 During the late 1500s, as Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi Toyotomi were reunifying Japan after the chaotic Sengoku period, most of the famous temples of warrior monks were targeted for extermination.  One famous (or infamous) example is the Enryaku-ji, which was burned to the ground by Nobunaga's forces in 1571, with a death toll of about 20,000.

Although the dawn of the Tokugawa Period saw the warrior-monks crushed, militarism and Buddhism joined forces once more in 20th century Japan, before and during the Second World War. In 1932, for example, an unordained Buddhist preacher called Nissho Inoue hatched a plot to assassinate major liberal or westernizing political and business figures in Japan so as to restore full political power to Emperor Hirohito.  Called the "League of Blood Incident," this scheme targeted 20 people, and managed to assassinate two of them before the League's members were arrested.

Once the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II began, various Zen Buddhist organizations in Japan carried out funding drives to buy war material and even weapons.  Japanese Buddhism was not quite so closely associated with violent nationalism as Shinto was, but many monks and other religious figures participated in the rising tide of Japanese nationalism and war-mongering.  Some excused the connection by pointing to the tradition of samurai being Zen devotees.

In more recent times, unfortunately, Buddhist monks in other countries have also encouraged and even participated in wars - particularly wars against religious minority groups in predominantly Buddhist nations.

 One example is in Sri Lanka, where radical Buddhist monks formed a group called the Buddhist Power Force, or B.B.S., which provoked violence against the Hindu Tamil population of northern Sri Lanka, against Muslim immigrants, and also against moderate Buddhists who spoke up about the violence.  Although the Sri Lankan Civil War against the Tamils ended in 2009, the B.B.S. remains active to this day.

Another very disturbing example of Buddhist monks inciting and commiting violence is the situation in Myanmar (Burma), where hard-line monks have been leading the persecution of a Muslim minority group called the Rohingya.  Led by an ultra-nationalist monk called Ashin Wirathu, who has given himself the bewildering nickname of "the Burmese Bin Laden," mobs of saffron-robed monks have led attacks on Rohingya neighborhoods and villages, attacking mosques, burning homes, and assaulting people.


In both the Sri Lankan and Burmese examples, the monks see Buddhism as a key component of their national identity.  They consider any non-Buddhists in the population then to be a threat to the unity and strength of the nation.  As a result, they react with violence.  Perhaps, if Prince Siddhartha was alive today, he would remind them that they should not nurture such an attachment to the idea of the nation.