Buddhism: Justifying violence

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism started to develop in the late 19th/early 20th century as an anti-Christian movement. At that time, the Sinhalese and the Tamils stood together against the British. After some time, however, the Tamils started to feel uncomfortable with the Sinhalese dominance in politics. After independence in 1948, Sri Lanka adopted a kind of secularism but with a preference for Buddhism. The state felt a direct responsibility to foster Buddhism, and the latter was used to justify political power. Religion went from being a personal moral practice to a cultural and political possession.

The incorporation of Buddhism into the state led to a perversion of Buddhist teaching and to hegemonic and exclusionary tendencies towards non-Buddhists. There is a debate between social scientists whether the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is a contemporary phenomenon or rooted in history. Seneviratne goes through textual and syncretistic Buddhism in order to determine whether the role of Buddhism in the war is a new or old phenomenon. Textual Buddhism are the scriptures of the Buddhist doctrine. This doctrine has, of course, been subject to different interpretations throughout time, causing some contradictory views and ideas. According to Seneviratne, the texts do not contain anything that could be a factor in the conflict in Sri Lanka. Syncretistic Buddhism is the sum of beliefs and practices in Buddhist societies.

These beliefs and practices produce a culturally unique Buddhism specific to each particular society. Here Seneviratne discusses how Buddhism has adapted to so many and different cultures. In Sri Lanka, and especially post-colonial Sri Lanka, we have seen, religion became entangled with politics, producing an interpretation of Buddhism that contributed to the conflict. Buddhism is known for its preaching of non-violence or Ahimsa. In the words of Buddha, “do not harm neither yourself, nor others as everything is interrelated and every action has a fruit.” Moreover, as Gomez puts it, non-violence is linked to the notion of no-self, and that of the love of self.

The principle of no-self means that you shall put yourself in the place of others before taking an action: “see the other as yourself.” According to Harris’ interpretation, not even a duty can mitigate these principles. A warrior has in mind hatred and anger, which according to Buddhism, is the cause of suffering. According to Gomez, Buddhism leaves the question of a just war unresolved, since Buddha’s words are: violence must not be met with violence. So, when can Ahimsa be modified and when the principles be broken? Does Theravada Buddhism, the dominant Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka, provide the possibility of a just war? As the oldest Buddhist tradition, it is characterized by lack of consistency and being sensitive to contexts and therefore easier to manipulate.

Harris sees three ways to justify war in the Buddhist Sri Lanka: First from texts, two, from utilitarian arguments for the greater good and, three, by contesting the notion that war has negative consequences. Concerning the texts, the stories from Mahavamsa are there which can be used to justify war. But in the Theravada canon, Buddha also uses military vocabulary which the Sinhalese use for justification. An example of military metaphor is how Buddha mentions how a virtuous person in war is better than a coward. The question though is: does he have to be taken literally, or is he using metaphors (the warrior being the spiritual warrior).

On the utilitarian argument, Bartholomeusz discusses how the Sinhalese have developed an ethical pluralism and choose their ethics according to context. The first of the three ethics is the de-ontological which emphasises that the act of war is wrong whatever the consequences. The second is consequentialist which Buddha preached: an act of war is wrong because of its consequences.

The third is regarding virtue ethics that being moral means not so much following rules but having a virtuous, moral character and intentions. The focus here is clearly on utilitarian and virtue ethics. War is justified because it allows the state to protect its citizens from aggression and to prevent Buddhism from being destroyed i.e noble consequences. Moreover, it is argued by Sinhalese that if the war is a state-duty, one’s mental state will not be damaged. The suffering, which is caused by hate and anger in the mind of the warrior is diminished when this warrior is simply an agent of the state carrying out orders. And guilt is relieved if one regrets killing. Hence, the virtue of ethic is also salvaged.

When confronted with the opposition between all this, and Ahimsa, the Sinhalese explanation is that “reality does not always allow for the Buddhist ideal”. Moreover they also deploy the argument that their Buddhist religion is superior because of its non-violent values and because of this their religion must be protected because of its superiority. Thus the Sinhalese use violence to erode violence, blaming others for making them violent.

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