(Draft Article) Buddhism and the “Burmese Bin Ladin”

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By a member of the MuslimAnswers.net Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

I came across a series of articles sketching the controversial Burmese Buddhist monk Wiranthu, and I thought that personal thoughts were appropriate from my Muslim-based perspective[1]. I know that my main aim for this site is geared towards intellectual presentations and refutations, but I thought it was very important to mention a few things about this awkward combination of situations, best exemplified by the nickname “Burmese Bin Ladin”.

Firstly, there is the initial comment about how Wiranthu is giving an image of Buddhism unknown in the West, which considers Buddhism as a religion of peace and meditation. I personally see two issues in here: (1) what the outlook of Buddhism is that may make it look pacifist, and (2) whether Buddhism can actually remain totally pacifist.

With respect to the first point, the reason why Buddhism is seen so different from supposedly “violent” Islam is that the sphere of application in the former is towards personal enlightenment and liberation from suffering/ignorance, while the outlook of Islam acknowledges that in order for people to enter into the correct path, there may be obstacles that need to be overcome, barriers that need to be displaced before the masses can see the totality of Islamic belief and practice.

This matter brings us to the second point, where we consider whether a system based on personal enlightenment can remain agnostic to the greater socio-political pressures of the world at large. And the answer to this question is that in reality, no system that wishes to lead a society to any type of salvation can remain totally without some sort of participation within the larger geopolitical world, simply because the path has to be smooth enough so that those who wish to enter into the practice of the given religion can do this effectively. In Islam, this reality was known and revealed right at the time of the Prophet , which is why all of the injunctions and rules for warfare go back directly to his time.

But we should not be pacified into thinking that Buddhism has had absolutely nothing to do with the coercion embedded within the running of a state. There is no need to get into specific details in here, but in the main, the priority of the Buddhists has been in the preservation of Buddhism, not necessarily in the preservation of peace at the expense of Buddhism. This is why, if we browse through the books of the history of East Asia, we see that the Buddhist monks considered gaining the “favor of the court” as an absolutely necessary tactic in ensuring the survival and flourishing of Buddhism in the land, regardless of the military exploits carried out by kings and warriors. In fact, we sometimes see kings adopting Buddhism since the Buddhists apparently gave better results to such kings in warfare through their “magic spells”, etc., and thus proved the worth of Buddhism to the king and the state at large. And likewise we see that across all time periods, Buddhists would generally not have any problems in using “secular power” against their opponents, if such power would perpetuate the existence of the Buddhist clergy and community[2].

In more recent times, of course, we see how the independence of many Buddhist-majority countries from their imperial overlords has led to ethnic disturbances within these countries, sometimes involving Muslim minorities and sometimes involving minorities of other persuasions. In all such instances, the role of the Buddhist clergy in maintaining the “purity of Buddhists and Buddhism” in society at large cannot be glossed over. In fact, what we see in Myanmar with this monk is an actualization of this very fact, a struggle pitting the majority Burmese Theravada Buddhist population and the Rohingya Muslim minority.

So with this background knowledge, we can tackle the topic of our discussion, the monk Wiranthu. Reading the articles covering his situation, the following points struck me as noteworthy:

1. The title “Burmese Bin Ladin”. This is not a title given to him by the media, but rather an epithet he has named himself with. It may not have occurred to some people that a person totally outside the Islamic tradition – and in fact totally opposed to it- may have taken up such a self-description, but this is what is observed in this case.

2. In spite of the violent overtones of this title, the monk Wiranthu seems to have his place in formal Buddhist monkhood, especially considering the fact that he runs a monastery and presides over 2,500 students, alluding to the conclusion that there should be at least some toleration for his views within the formal Burmese religious hierarchy.

3. The militancy angle. Apparently, the “Burmese Bin Ladin” is calling for increased militancy of his followers and of Burmese Buddhists in general, in order to counter what he calls “aggressive expansion by Muslims” and that his followers only respond to attacks by Muslims. However, it also seems that there is scope for expansion of targets in this respect, as one of the articles notes his saying that “Once we [have] won this battle, we will move on to other Muslim targets.”

4. The rumors. There are apparently a number of rumors concerning Muslims, as well as some spin with regard to these rumors and “lay analysis” by Wiranthu in order to paint Muslims as totally outside of the “proper Burmese culture”. I will mention a number of these rumors and statements and later I will provide some comments as to what can be gathered from such declarations by the “Burmese Bin Ladin”:

a. The naming of “Rohingya” as “Bengalis”.

b. It is claimed that Buddhist women have been converted by force to Islam and then killed for failing to follow its injunctions.

c. Likewise, it is said that Muslims are targeting “innocent young Burmese girls and raping them”.

d. That the Rohingya indulge in cronyism.

e. That the Muslims in Myanmar are actually crude and savage, but that they are able to mount resistance due to financing by Middle Eastern forces, which also provide them with military and technical power.

f. That the Halaal manner of killing cattle familiarizes the Muslims with blood and could escalate to the level where it threatens world peace.

g. That there is an imminent population explosion among the Rohingya, after which Myanmar will be overtaken by the Muslims.  

Thus, what we notice in the case of Wiranthu is a very strong element of preserving the majority Burmese Buddhist culture against infringement by “outsider Muslims”. And when we think about the totality of the rumors and statements made against the Muslims, we see that the matter is forwarded as that of keeping the “holy Buddhist” land of Myanmar free from non-Buddhist influences, and the Burmese free from Islam.

But we fail to see how Myanmar has become a land wherein Muslim influence is totally unwelcome. That is, until we realize that certain religious traditions, without explicitly mentioning it, presuppose that the entire land will be homogeneous in their religion, and make it an a priori supposition that the “church and state” will be in unison. In the case of the Buddhist religion, this seems to be an absolutely essential supposition, since there is meant to be a synergy between the Buddhist monkhood and the laity in order for their respective paths towards “liberation” and “salvation” may be attained.

It is from this angle that foreign religions and cultures are identified as threats, given the disruptive effect that a non-Buddhist paradigm of the world may have on the Buddhist way of life. Note that this reaches the stage that even the spokesperson for the darling of the West, Aung San Suu Kyi, openly says that her position is that the Rohingyas do not exist at all, and that they are only (illegal) “Bengalis”. The interaction between national identity and the underlying culture/religion may then, in some cases, reach a point where it is impossible to imagine one without the other[3]. Thus, if we were to agree that Rohingyas are indeed “Bengalis”, it is unclear what this may have to do with Buddhism – unless the development of the social aspect of Buddhism has reached a stage where it is impossible to conceive of a polity without Buddhism. 

In synthesis then, we see that the “Burmese Bin Ladin” is only enunciating what the Burmese Buddhist way of life considers as a threat to its very existence, even if to an outsider the threat seems greatly exaggerated. It is perhaps due to this communally perceived threat of extinction that the following of this monk is not seriously threatened by the larger institution of the monkhood or (currently) even the apparatus of the state. In the future, we will hopefully expand on a number of the topics we have touched in this small article, especially on how Islam explicitly recognizes the implicit suppositions that Buddhism makes about public life. But this small piece should serve to let people know that Buddhism has its way of dealing in the public life of the community, and that there is a possibility for the Buddhist paradigm to lead to something other than peace and harmony in the world when non-Buddhists enter into close contact with Buddhist society.

[2] For a more thorough consideration of this topic, the readers may read “Buddhist Warfare”, co-edited by Mark Juergensmeyer and Michael Jerryson. Or if that is not possible then they may read a small related article written by one of the author entitled: “Monks With Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence”