The Dark Side of Buddhism

We define fundamentalism, in the broad sense, any ideology whose purpose is to create a homogeneous system where there is no plurality of ideas and programs, reconciling and unifying all the existing positions, or rejecting and delegitimizing all positions other than its own, in practice rejecting any compromise so that the latter will prevail over all others.

Wikipedia, Italian version, July 14th, 2013

When we hear of the “fundamentalist” adjective, especially if linked to religious aspects, the first thing that comes to mind in Western countries is Islamic fundamentalism. From the prohibition for Saudi women to drive the car or just a bicycle, to the application of the death penalty for homosexuals in Iran, with everything in between, including stoning and female circumcision.

Those who have a basic knowledge of history, however, know that even in Western countries the religion came to extremes which are inconceivable today. Just think of the Inquisition and the persecution of the Cathars when, in 1209 only, 20,000 men and women were executed, often summarily, by the believers of the “true faith”.

Of course not only Catholics became responsible of real genocide. Often we refer to the “Christian roots” of Europe, but this claim is questionable if not entirely false. Europe was often evangelized with fire and sword, and not with words and love of neighbor.

An example was the Christianization of Poland, which took place so far from peaceful. Hundreds of villages were put to fire and sword by the Teutonic Knights and tens of thousands were the victims, including children and the elderly. Even after King Mieszko I and his wife, Dobrawa of Bohemia, converted to Catholicism in 966 AD, the Christian religion continued to be adversely affected, especially in the countryside where the resentment of the people of Poland resulted in the rebellion of the third decade after the year 1000; especially from 1035 to 1037, real rivers of blood flew on the Polish territory.

However, many do not know that fundamentalism is still present in the Christian world too, both the Catholic and Orthodox one. One example is very recent: in June 2005, in Tanacu, 350 kilometers north-east of Bucharest, Romania, a 23 years old nun, Irina Frames, was crucified by the sisters of the monastery on the orders of an Orthodox priest, Daniel Corogeanu, convinced that she was possessed by the devil.

From a historical point of view, it could be argued that the violent and uncompromising attitude of the Church in the Late Middle Ages has to be set in a quite primitive and violent society, but fundamentalist movements within the Catholic Church also developed around the 30s in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Italy. Among these, the intransigentism, perched in the defense of the Catholic tradition in the face of any attempt at religious renewal.

In the Protestant religions we have the fundamentalist doctrines, intended to interpret the sacred texts in an absolutely literal and dogmatic way. On the other hand, the term “fundamentalism” was born in the United States of America between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and was used to indicate a specific Protestant current, whose goal was the return to the basics of Christianity, through the only and infallible word of God.

A particular form of fundamentalism that concerns different religions, not just the monotheistic ones, is the creationism, in open conflict with the scientific theory of evolution. In particular, the Catholic creationism and especially the Protestant one, have tried several times to bring their ideology in schools, often resorting to the courts too.

In the Jewish religion, fundamentalism is well represented by the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, a vast galaxy of religious groups that make up the so-called “Jewish fundamentalism”. Less rigid but traditionalists are also the datiim, the masortiim, and the hilonim. With regard to women, the attitude of haredim resembles the Taliban.

So far nothing new. That in the three great monotheistic religion there are fundamentalist groups is well known, as it is known that violent and intolerant forms also exist in many polytheistic religions such as, for example, the nationalist ideology Hindutva in Hinduism.

But what many do not know, and I’m sure that they would remain astonished to hear about it, is that fundamentalism, especially the violent one, is not only exclusive of monotheistic religions or some ancient polytheistic religion, but it does also exist in a religion that we all usually associate to peace, patience and understanding: Buddhism.

It is October 23rd, 2012, we are in Burma, in a small village called Yin Thei, inhabited mostly by Rohingya Muslim, a little less than 2,500 people. In the village there are also few dozens of Rakhine Buddhist. It is a couple of days that the region is involved in various ethnic groups clash, often very violent.

That morning, a group formed by thousands of Rakhine Buddhist, all men, gets to the village to take to heels of the few policemen present. They begin to set fire to houses with gasoline, then the slaughter begins: men, women, children, without any distinction. A little girl of only eighteen months, Guzar Bibi, gets out of hand to the mother who is running away, is grabbed by a man and slaughtered without mercy. Another, of only eight months, Sarjida, is pierced by a sword with her mother, a twenty years old young woman. Six other children are massacred, their bodies thrown into the flames.

Yin Thei’s was just one of many episodes that have seen the Rohingya Muslim victims of a real ethnic cleansing. Back in June of the same year, 650 Rohingya were killed in the clashes, 1,200 were missing, and more than 80,000 people were displaced. To make matters worse, the Burmese government has declared a curfew in the region. There is talk of violence and torture by both the army and the police, but the worst thing is that the various bodies of Buddhist monks in the region have hampered in every possible way the humanitarian aid to the community of Muslims who fled Bangladesh in 1982 and who took refuge in Myanmar. For the Government, those Muslims are stateless persons without citizenship and no right, for Buddhists an enemy to be eliminated by any means.

By the way, this event should not surprise us so much, since we are accustomed to fundamentalism in a religion such as Christianity, which asks us to love our neighbor and to turn the other cheek, or as the Islamic one, where God is said Merciful. Why not in Buddhism too, then? It is really difficult to understand how the believers in religions that claim to be based on a series of high principles, can indulge in acts of incredible violence such as those narrated here, justifying such actions with that very religion which really abhors them!

The point is that violence is not in the religion itself but in human nature, which hypocritically dresses by high principles its blood lust and its desire to destroy whatever is different.

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