Sri Lanka

Buddhists and violence

It’s been reported that Aaron Alexis, the former U.S. Navy reservist who went on a shooting spree on a naval base, leaving 13 people dead, including him, was a Buddhist.

This isn’t of course the first time a Buddhist has acted violently. While Buddhism generally has a peaceful history, Buddhist institutions have persecuted non-Buddhists and those from other Buddhist traditions and have sometimes supported war (Japan in the Second World War is a notable example). And Buddhist individuals have committed pretty much every violent act you can imagine, for their own personal reasons, whether that’s greed, hatred, or, in Alexis’ case apparently, mental illness.

Is it possible, in the face of all this, to say that Buddhism is a religion of non-violence? My response would be, it depends what you mean by “Buddhism.”

There is nothing whatsoever in the teachings of the Buddha that supports violence. This was something that the Buddha never once compromised on. He famously said that even ill will — not violence, but mere ill will — cannot be justified under even the most extreme provocation:

“Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves.”

This may seem like an impossible standard. And in fact it almost certainly is! The point is simply that the Buddha’s teaching does not see ill will as anything but destructive. Ill will is antithetical to the practice is the Dharma. If you’re experiencing ill will, then in that moment you are not following the Buddha’s Dharma.

This rather goes against a certain way that we tend to see things. We tend to think that if a person is a Buddhist then they’re a Buddhist, as if the label “Buddhist” was somehow intrinsic to them, as if it described some permanent attribute they had. But people are not really Buddhists in that way. People who call themselves Buddhists at best follow the Buddha’s Dharma some of the time (perhaps almost all of the time, but perhaps hardly any of the time). When we’re being patient and kind in the face of provocation, we’re following the Buddha’s teaching. When we’re experiencing ill will — or practicing violence — we’re not following the Buddha’s teaching. In fact we’re undermining our own practice. Our “Buddhism” is something that comes in and out of focus, or is even something that goes in and out of existence. When we’re being violent we’re not really “doing Buddhism” — we’re doing something else.

The problem with the word “Buddhism” though is that it encompasses much more than “the teachings of the Buddha.” It can encompass all official or semi-official practices and teachings that have emerged, among people who call themselves Buddhists, since the time of the Buddha. And in this sense, as we’ve seen, “Buddhism” is sometimes violent. Right now monks are instigating violence in Sri Lanka and Burma. They see their religion, or culture, or nations as being under threat by non-Buddhists (Tamil Hindus and Rohingya Muslims respectively). And so they’ve been leading riots and committing violent acts. There’s no justification in the Buddha’s teaching for acting this way, but these actions are still obviously part of “Buddhism” in a wider, cultural, historical sense.

Really we need to use separate terms when we’re talking about Buddhism as the teaching of the Buddha and Buddhism as “the stuff Buddhists do and teach.” The term Buddhism is actually quite new, and a western invention, and, as we’ve seen, ambiguous. It’s probably better to talk about “the Buddhadharma” (a traditional term meaning “the teaching of the Buddha”) and save the word “Buddhism” for the cultural phenomena that have arisen from those teachings, even though they sometimes contradict them. But we’re unlikely to be able to establish or maintain that clarity of terminology, and so we’ll probably have to just keep coming back to saying “Buddhists may be doing violent things, but the things they’re doing aren’t in line with the Buddha’s teachings, which are uncompromisingly non-violent.”

But Alexis was not a Buddhist representative. He’s not a Buddhist teacher. He’s just another tragic figure with a mental illness and access to high-powered weaponry — and a person who, at times, practiced Buddhism. The time he took a gun and used it to kill people is not one of the times he was practicing Buddhism.

Let’s be careful not to say that Alexis wasn’t a Buddhist, though. I saw one person say the following: “While you may here in the coming days that ‘Aaron Alexis is a Buddhist,’ you will know that while anyone may claim they are a Buddhist and anyone can attend services or meditation, that doesn’t make them a Buddhist.” But this is falling into the “No True Scotsman Fallacy,” which in this case takes this form:

  • Buddhists are not violent.
  • Aaron Alexis was a Buddhist and he was violent.
  • Therefore Aaron Alexis was no true Buddhist.

This is a fallacy because it seeks to retroactively exclude Aaron Alexis from the category of people called “Buddhists” in order to preserve the “integrity” of the statement “Buddhists are not violent.” Buddhists can certainly be violent. It’s just what when they are being violent they’re not practicing the Buddha’s Dharma. And when Buddhists are being violent, and in so doing failing to follow Buddhist teachings, they’re therefore not reflecting anything about the Buddha’s teaching except perhaps that in the face of mental illness or extreme emotional imbalance, the Dharma sometimes isn’t enough.

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Bangladesh vows to uphold religious harmony

Unprecedented violence against the country’s Buddhist minority has outraged Bangladeshis. Officials say they detect the hand of extremist groups in what appears to have been a pre-planned attack.

Bangladeshis appear to have been stunned by the weekend attacks against the country’s Buddhists, who have lived there for generations without any known confrontation with their majority Muslim counterparts.

“Never before in our history have places of worship of a religious minority been ravaged on such a large scale and in so deliberate a manner,” Mahmuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star wrote. “And this happened against a community who are among the most peaceful …

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Of a sustained Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka

Raashid Riza, Sri Lanka Guardian: The last few months have seen a rapid increase in anti-Muslim sentiment amongst sections of the political class in Sri Lankan society. The situation has yet to deteriorate to the extent that the default image of a Sri Lankan Muslim is one represented by an anti- Sri Lankan or anti-Buddhist element. But the trend that is developing is truly alarming and surely points towards such an inaccurate mental image.

The rise of extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka is truly disturbing and does not bode well to the sense of national resilience that the government is trying to foster …

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French tourists guilty in Sri Lanka over Buddha photos

Charles Haviland, BBC: A Sri Lankan court has given suspended jail terms to three French tourists for wounding the religious feelings of Buddhists by taking pictures deemed insulting.

Two women and one man were detained in the southern town of Galle after a photographic laboratory alerted police.

The pictures show the travellers posing with Buddha statues and pretending to kiss one of them.

Most of Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhist.

Mistreatment of Buddhist images and artefacts is strictly taboo in the country. The incident is alleged to have taken place at a temple in central Sri Lanka.

Website posting
Police spokesman …

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Sri Lanka Buddhist monks destroy Muslim shrine

Charles Haviland: A group of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka led a crowd that demolished a Muslim shrine last week, the BBC has learned.

This incident took place on Saturday in Anuradhapura, an ancient Buddhist city and Unesco world heritage site.

The monk who led the group told the BBC he did it because the shrine was on land that was given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago.

But a prominent Muslim in the area said he was very sad and the sentiment was shared by many Sinhalese too.

A Sri Lankan news website showed photographs…

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Oasis of meditation amidst bustle of the city

In the heart of Colombo is a serene place where professionals, businessmen and women, fathers, mothers, grandparents and children gather to follow an age-old discipline—meditation.

The Nirodha Trust City Center (NCC) declared open just over a month ago at 15/1A – 1/1, Duplication Road, Colombo 4 is aimed at English-speaking Buddhists and non-Buddhist meditation enthusiasts in and around Colombo who want to receive proper, in-depth training in meditation. Its founder who goes only by the name of Dhammaruwan is a meditation expert who has undergone professional teacher training in the US.

The Nirodha Center is a project of the Nirodha Trust (, again founded by Dhammaruwan, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to foster, preserve and spread the authentic teachings of the Buddha.

The NCC conducts programmes on guided meditation, Dhamma workshops, Sutta discussions, Dhammapada teachings, Yoga and animated Dhamma talks for children.

“We are here in this human form for a very short time. In this precious little time we have, why do we want to live in pain and suffering? Why do we want to live with difficult emotions like anxiety, fear and jealousy? We’re a nation that has gone through a war for 30 years. Why do we want to live with all that when we can come to the Dhamma and practise meditation, come to understand ourselves and deal with these emotions,” asks Dhammaruwan explaining the motive behind the project.

About 15 years ago he did some teaching in Sri Lanka, after which he took part in a teacher training programme conducted by the Insight Meditation Society, a pioneering meditation centre in the US. There Dhammaruwan trained under Chief SanghaNayaka of the US Siyam Maha Nikaya, best selling author Ven. Bhante Henepola Gunaratane thera and popular American meditation expert Joseph Goldstein.

While in the US, Dhammaruwan was temporarily ordained as a Buddhist monk. Showing the Sunday Times a picture of himself in saffron robes with his colleagues in the US, he tells us that his stint as a monk was probably the best period of his life.

Other trustees of Nirodha are Ananda Jayasuriya, Ajith Dharmaprema and American Richard Branca. The Anusasaka, or advisor to the NCC is Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi, the founder of the Nedimala Buddhist Cultural Centre. Long meditation sessions at the NCC are conducted by Ven. Olande Ananda Thera and several public lecturers take part in addition to other trainers and a yoga instructor.

The NCC’s many meditation programmes vary according to participants’ age, level of experience, etc. “Right from the start” is a workshop on meditation basics intended for beginners as well as for experienced practitioners. “Dhamma for Kids” is a programme developed to share the teachings of the Buddha with young people using innovative methods. There’s also personal meditation session conducted by Dhammaruwan called Meditation Counselling and Interviews which offers participants the chance to get meditation lessons on a one-on-one basis.

A special programme titled Cillax is now underway for teenager to help them develop concentration skills and perform better in exams in addition to becoming good, well rounded human beings.

The NCC can be contacted on 071 8691799, 0113 199320 and via e-mail on It is located opposite the House of Fashion on the second floor of “The Drapers” building.

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A Forest Monk’s Lesson in the New York Jungle (New York Times)

The stolen bag did not contain much in the way of material value. But its sudden absence greatly distressed the Buddhist monk who had been victimized, and so the police were summoned to the scene of the crime: a Starbucks at the opulent Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

A police officer in a softball jacket sat down to take the statement of the tall man in a brown robe, whose decaffeinated coffee, no milk, was turning cold. Routine questions elicited complicated answers. For example, the victim’s name was Venerable Kassapa, but Venerable is a term of respect, not a first name.

”I’m a Buddhist monk,” the robed man confided. ”In case you’re wondering.”

”I knew,” the police officer said gently. ”I’ve been around.”

This is a simple tale that is not so simple, about a monk, a theft and New-York style redemption….

Venerable Kassapa, 41, is a forest monk in Sri Lanka. He usually lives alone or with a few other monks in rock-shelter huts, where he depends on the charity of villagers. He eats one proper meal a day, does not carry money, and devotes much of his celibate life to meditation, contemplation and the study of Buddhist texts. People often bow before him.

He sometimes travels to other countries and often speaks to very small groups about Buddhism. For the last few weeks he has been in the New York area, his trip sponsored by the New York Society of United Sri Lankans.

On Monday afternoon he sat on a stone bench in front of the Plaza Hotel and recalled how, as a young boy in London, he became disillusioned with the world. ”I wanted to find a way out of discomfort and uneasiness,” he said. ”A way out of suffering.”

His mother’s struggle with an illness may have prompted his brooding; he is not sure. But he is certain that the factors leading him to a Buddhist temple at the age of 13 included these: his mother’s interest in transcendental meditation, and his own interest in a popular television program of the time, ”Kung Fu.”

When he asked one of the temple’s monks whether they taught martial arts as well as Buddhism, he recalled, the monk laughed. ”Here we don’t tend to the body,” the monk told the boy. ”We tend to the mind.”

At 14, he became a novice monk and moved to Sri Lanka; at 20, he was ordained. ”And I’ve never, ever, regretted making this move,” he said.

With the sun slipping behind the Plaza, Venerable Kassapa agreed to take a stroll for a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Trump Tower. Walking down Fifth Avenue in his simple cloth robe, a simple cloth bag clutched in his hand, he was a character out of context: a six-foot-four study in self-denial, ambling along the boulevard of acquisition.

”I am a beast out of its habitat,” he said.

He passed under the ”You’re Fired” advertisement that adorns Trump Tower and moved through the marble lobby, seemingly unaware of the effect his presence had on others. As an escalator raised him up to a floor redolent of coffee, he was asked whether he knew the name of Trump. ”I’ve heard of him,” he said. ”He’s a very wealthy man.”

Venerable Kassapa sat at a small table and accepted a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Soon he was sharing what he described as his ”vision” for the United States: that this great country, filled with energy and potential, would one day lead the world into a brave new era of truth and harmony.

Shortly after suggesting that American power ”can be harnessed for harm or for good,” he noticed that his cloth bag was missing from the chair beside him. He felt no anger when he realized that the bag had been stolen, he said later. Only shock, because such things do not happen to contemplative monks.

”This is very bizarre,” he kept saying. ”Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

Security officers were summoned, and then two police officers from the Midtown North precinct. They glided up the escalator and walked directly toward the monk. He was easy to pick out.

One officer went off to check garbage cans, while the other interviewed the monk. Finally, the time came to detail what was in the bag. No money, of course (”I don’t use money,” the monk said), but an eclectic list of items duly recorded by the officer.

Among the articles inside the cloth bag: a white plastic bag, a cellphone that someone had lent to him for his New York visit, a bottle of water, some white thread that he gives to people as a blessing and many pieces of paper. On these were written the names and telephone numbers of his supporters around the world.

”I would really appreciate it if you could do as much as you can,” the monk said to the officer. But the officer leveled with the monk. ”A lot of times, with nothing of value, they just throw it in the trash,” he said. ”It could be in Brooklyn, it could be in the Bronx.”

The officers left Venerable Kassapa to contemplate his loss, especially the bits of paper bearing the names and phone numbers of all those friends. ”This is a raw lesson in life,” he said, the kind of thing that ”I first became a monk to overcome.”

He descended the escalator, peered briefly into a garbage can — just in case — and then paused to study Donald Trump, who was standing at the elevator bank, talking on a cell phone. ”I’ve never seen a billionaire before,” he said.

Outside, on Fifth Avenue, the forest monk expressed a keen desire to go to that Manhattan forest called Central Park. ”I need a little bit of a breath of fresh air,” he said, and then he was gone.

That could have been the conclusion to the monk’s New York tale. But destiny would not allow it.

Late Monday afternoon, Riccardo Maggiore found a white plastic bag at the entrance to his hair salon on West 56th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Yesterday morning, his wife, Eileen, did some sleuthing. And before noon, plans were under way to return the plastic bag — though not the cloth bag — to its owner, a forest monk.

There wasn’t much inside the bag. A cellphone. Some white thread. And what Ms. Maggiore described as ”a million pieces of paper.”

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Peace meditation in Sri Lanka’s Parliament

Daily News, Sri Lanka: In view of ushering peace and prosperity to the country, all parliamentarians will observe meditation and take part in inter-religious services at the first sitting of the House in 2003.

Chairman of the Saumia Youth Foundation P. Anthonymuttoo told the Daily News that the Speaker has given his consent to the suggestion made by his organisation to hold religious services and a peace meditation in Parliament and accordingly, parliamentarians will meditate in the new year for the dawn of permanent peace in the country.

The program organised by the SYF in collaboration with other social groups will be conducted by religious leaders from all parts of the country including the North and East.

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