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What Would Buddha Do? Not Attack Sri Lankan Muslims, Buddhists Say

Screenshot of the Facebook group Buddhists Questioning Bodu bala Sena

Screenshot of the Facebook group Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena

Since at least four people were killed in clashes between Muslims and hardline Buddhists in the coastal city of Aluthgama more than a week ago, violence against Muslims has continued in Sri Lanka. Many have been displaced, and homes, shops and mosques have been torched and vandalized, creating a feeling of unease among the Muslim community. 

The riots began after extremist Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) held a rally in Aluthgama in response to an alleged assault against a Buddhist monk by a Muslim man. The group's anti-Muslim rhetoric, led by BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, fueled tensions.

Muslims make up 10 percent of Sri Lanka's mainly Buddhist population and for decades have lived peacefully alongside the majority Sinhalese. But the sentiment espoused by BBS that Islam is a threat has been on the rise.

BBS may be loud, but it doesn't represent all Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

One Facebook page called Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena is speaking out against the group. The page, which was created in February 2013, has more than 8,400 likes and features lengthy discussion about BBS, Buddhism and Sri Lankan society among its fans — both Buddhist and Muslim — in the comments.

When the riots first broke out, the Facebook page called for Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who has denied any responsibility, to be arrested and for BBS to be banned. “Reject all campaigns that are seeking to create terror and divisions in the country!” the page's administrators urged.

It has continued to follow the violence as it has unfolded, posting news updates and commentary. One recent photo published on the page reads, “Racists and extremists are itching for a fight. Don't give it to them. Please be patient. Together we can defeat them.” In response to a commenter, the administrators explained what they want to accomplish with the page:

[...] we the admins of this page are practicing Buddhists. We cannot solve all the world's woes, that is why we practice to let go. Let go of identities, desires and anger. Our focus by starting and managing this page is to prevent Buddhists from turning towards violence and anger as responses. The Dhamma [teachings of Buddha] has survived for many thousands of years, but this has been done not by the mere preservation of books and artifacts, but by those who truly practice the Dhamma. May you be happy.

Last year, the page organized a candlelight vigil in front of BBS headquarters to protest violence against Muslims, but was met with protests from BBS members and police.

A Srilankan Muslim man stands next to his burnt-down Van infront of his house at Aluthgama, Srilanka. At least four people were killed andalmost 100 injured in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Sri Lanka. Image by Tharaka Basnayaka. Copyright Demotix (17/4/2014)

A Sri Lankan Muslim man stands next to his burned van in front of his house in Aluthgama, Srilanka. Image by Tharaka Basnayaka. Copyright Demotix (17/4/2014)

Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena is certainly not the only Buddhists condemning BBS. Blogger Indrajit Samarajiva criticized BBS’ actions but also wrote that even though it's a “hard idea to swallow,” BBS and groups like them “deserve our compassion, understanding and love,” like Buddha taught:

As a Buddhist it makes me so very sad to see crude, vile and frankly untamed men like Gnanasara Thero in robes, practicing such harsh speech, inciting hatred against Muslims and actually being violent. It makes me sad because I do take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dhamma and the Sangha [practicing Buddhist community].

I have learnt from wonderful monks, from wonderful lay Buddhists (like my mother) and that community of practice is a refuge in a harsh and confusing world.

Mobs in robes like the BBS feel like they pollute that community, like they shame it, like they shame us in front of the world. I honestly find what they’re doing far more detrimental to Buddhism than the Buddha Bar or a tourist with a Buddha tattoo.

On citizen journalism site Groundviews, Thrishantha Nanayakkara recalled that he once helped the Facebook page Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena to compile a list of questions for BBS about their fidelity to Buddhism and Sri Lanka's constitution. He revisited those questions in light of the spate of violence, including:

Question 3) Has BBS looked at how Buddhism is practiced in Sri Lanka itself before blaming others for the deterioration of Buddhism in Sri Lanka? Why do Buddhists convert? If we worked harder to help and educate ourselves, our youth and the needy and vulnerable amongst us would we not promote our Buddhist culture and dissuade conversions. Instead don’t we spend our money on building bigger and larger temples and statues?

In a move to control the situation, the Sri Lankan authorities have banned public meetings or rallies which promote hatred towards another religion or race. Perhaps this alongside members of the Buddhist community speaking up will help put an end to the violence.

  • Saddha

    I certainly agree that Buddhists must look into how The Dhamma is being practiced and why there are conversions. However, Islam is not about that. It has a clear message in the Quran to convert everyone to Islam. Those who don’t take heed will pay.

    • http://3rdworldview.com/ Rezwan

      I think you don’t know much about Islam. There are never forceful conversions in any religion, and local laws are there to protect any abuse. Many Christian missionaries are operating in South Asia for centuries. Anybody has the right to practice and preach in any religion according to Sri Lankan constitution. In my teens I wanted to convert into Buddhism after reading about Buddhism. I guess what you say is that nobody has the right to convert themselves in any religion. Why the phobia?

      • Lone Beagle

        ” There are never forceful conversions in any religion…”

        Do you mean just in Sri Lanka, or worldwide? There certainly are recorded instances of forced conversion (generally from Christian to Muslim) going on even as we speak, in many parts of the Muslim world:

        http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/17/attacks-rapes-and-forced-conversions-islam-spike-e/

        http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/minorities-pakistan-fear-forced-conversion-islam/

        I think what Saddha was getting at is that Islam, along with Christianity, has a historical record of either forced conversions, or outright slaughter of unbelievers. The historical record of the Christian onslaught on Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as it was called then) is particularly painful, as first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then British Christians did everything they could to coerce, and even force, the populace to embrace Christianity at the expense of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. And theologically, both Islam and Christianity can justify forced conversion through scriptural authority. We as Buddhists cannot do any such thing and still claim to be closely following the essential teachings of the Great Physician.

        This does not excuse the actions of Bodu Bala Sena, but it does point out that there’s an unequal playing field here…Buddhists are held to a higher standard when racism, prejudice and inter-religious strife is at play. I know of no Muslim groups protesting the current situation in Egypt and Pakistan, and I heard no great Muslim outcry when the young, innocent Burmese Buddhist woman, Thida
        Htwe, was savagely raped, then partially decapitated by three young Muslim men in 2012 — setting off the sad, brutal, predictable chain of events as the Buddhist-majority population sought revenge. We heard, here in the West, dispatch after dispatch on the Buddhist atrocities committed in Myanmar in the aftermath…but not a word condemning the original action — the proximate cause — of this social unrest. It’s as if the theistic religions of this world have a free pass on brutality and injustice.

        Even here in the United States, the so-called “Land of the Free,” I’ve had my life threatened and lost jobs — all because I wished to follow Buddhist teachings and not kowtow to the popular deity here in this country, nor immerse myself in the supernaturalistic, wishful thinking that permeates my society. My experience is not anything extraordinary for Buddhists here in the West, particularly in the US. Even now, I have a steady stream of Christians knocking at my door, disparaging my spiritual beliefs and threatening me with eternal punishment if I don’t submit to their god.

        As a Buddhist, I cannot allow myself to wallow in the delusions of grandeur and righteousness that the rest of my predominantly Christian culture seems to so willingly embrace, or to engage in open hostility to those who happen to think differently about spirituality. Is this attitude of distrust, relativistic morality and hatred the natural product of theism? Well, it certainly isn’t unique to the god-worshippers, as the situation in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka demonstrate. However, the burden of being called upon to rise above the moral morass of these kinds of clashes seems to always fall upon the Buddhists. Why? Well, I guess the most telling response is: Why not? As a Buddhist, I’m willing to attempt to rise above my own defilements of mind, to let go of enmity, and to realize that we’re all sentient, suffering mortal beings who deserve compassion and respect — yes, even love. To my Christian and Muslim friends: do you believe that we’re all worthy of compassion, kindness and equal treatment — as a strictly spiritual, moral issue — despite our differing spiritual paths? I’m listening carefully for an answer, but all I’m hearing so far is silence.

        • http://3rdworldview.com/ Rezwan

          LOL why compare to the situations of oppressive religious regimes (there are instances of forceful conversion into Christianity too) to the situations where minorities are barely trying to survive. Its not religion to blame but the forceful conversions, attacks, rapes are all signs of inequalities where minorities or weak are being oppressed by majorities.

          There should not be any notion of us or them or me or you. We are all humans – If we could just look at each other through this lens.

  • Pragyan Jha

    of late many news has come up about sri lanka bieng non co operative and failing to take sufficient measures to secure minority rghts…add to that when already the whole world is behind the country for its alleged involvement in war crimes against minority tamils…religion has very little to with groups like BBS and one thing is for sure whoever says we follow dhamma they are proud because they do not support terror organisation who use the religion as a mean to attain desired end….unlike many religion this is one of the strikingly distinct feature of buddhism that they do not use religion for personal and political gains, which is marred by the current attack on muslims and bbs leaders current friendship with myanmar budhhists(allegedly involved in religious riots in myanmar)……

  • Pingback: What Would Buddha Do? Not Attack Sri Lankan Muslims, Buddhists Say - Global Voices Online - Sri Lankan Online News | Sri Lankan Online News

  • Karze

    What would Mohamed do for Islamic terrorism be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria or Somalia where there everyday killing in the name of Allah.

    Number of Muslim who died in Sri Lanka or Burma is like drop in ocean compared to the Muslim killed by Muslim in Arab and Islamic countries.

  • wijesoorya

    Qouran says, live peacefully among the infidel until you have enough follwers then rise up and slaughter the infidel for this is alla’s disire. india, sri lanka etc,etc, will be in danger…

    • PE FE

      is that true? very dangerous situtaion

      • wijesoorya

        yes, fanatics are always…

  • Pingback: Ataques a muçulmanos continuam no Sri Lanka · Global Voices em Português

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