Buddhism and Violence on the BBC

(click on the image to go the BBC and listen to the discussion)

On Monday the BBC radio show Beyond Belief debated the place of violence in Buddhism. The host, Ernie Rae, was joined by:

  • Michael Jerryson, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, Ohio, who co-edited the book ‘Buddhist Warfare‘;
  • Rupert Gethin, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, and
  • Soe Win Than, a journalist who was born in Myanmar and who works for the BBC’s Burmese Service
  • as well as, breifly, Maung Zarni, a Burmese dissident and LSE-based scholar.

According to the show’s website:

Buddhism is generally portrayed in the West as a religion of peace and non-violence. The first of Buddhism’s ‘Five Moral Precepts’ states that it is wrong to take the lives of others. But recent clashes between native Buddhists and minority Muslims in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) have left over 200 people dead, and more than 150,000 people homeless. So what is Buddhism’s teaching about the use of violence? Is it permitted or prohibited?

The discussion is good and wide-reaching, though of course in 30 minutes it doesn’t get too deep. Jerryson mentions the US 969 “Movement” but doesn’t seem to be on the same page as myself and others when it comes to the movement’s status (which, as far as I know, is still just one guy – see also the FP article linked in my post on them – ergo the movement is a ‘he’, not a ‘them’). I would have liked to hear more especially from Rupert Gethin, who was most careful about giving the context of and the limited scope for certain Buddhist violence.

The short answer to Rae’s question is that violence is prohibited in various ways throughout the early teachings, but, like any religion, some Buddhists under pressure in particular circumstances, have resorted to both violence and its rationalization in writing. Understanding the conditions that have led Buddhists to violence in the past -and present- is the best work that can be done today.


For an excellent, concise background article, read Alan Peto’s Buddhism: Peaceful or Violent Religion. Or see “Born to Rage” – Henry Rollins, Buddhism, and Violence, a past post from here.

Lastly,an excellent discussion of Jerryson’s book, Buddhist Warfare, can be found at My Buddha is Pink:

“Why am I here?” – an interview with Zen priest and interfaith dialogue participant, Rev. Dr. David Zuniga
Mapping Buddhism in America
The Onion sends NBC’s Brian Williams to Tibet
Fake Buddhist Monks hit San Francisco
  • Richard Harrold

    Hey, thanks for the shoutout to my blog!

    • justinwhitaker

      My pleasure, Richard. And thank YOU for the great review.

  • Douglass Smith

    Thanks for that, Justin. I also have a take on the early material in particular here:


    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for adding that, Doug. Excellent piece, with some great comments as well.

  • Michael Hussein Jerryson

    Good points. I noticed that you are also following the Twitter account. I has also have been in correspondence with Andrew Sila at the 969movement, and while there does seem to be one point person serving for this, there seems to be ample networking from Sri Lankan, Burmese, Indian, Bangladesh, and U.S. followers (the Facebook page is much older and much more traffic, “The Buddhist Defence League,” which has almost 15,000 likes).



    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for the comment here, Michael. I guess I am still just a bit sceptical about the ‘movement’ being anything more than Andrew (or whatever his real name is), and perhaps a few others here and there. The BDL is indeed quite big and clearly shares much of the 969 Islamophobia, but it isn’t, as far as I know, directly related to Andrew’s 969. It’s hard to say much based on Andrew’s own’ FB page, but his 969movement discussion forum is completely deserted and it seems that a fair number of his twitter followers are reporters and academics just keeping an eye on him… In my case, and I have heard from at least one other blogger, Andrew -via 969Movement- actually reached out to us, so if he has been vigorous in such outreach it wouldn’t be surprising that he’s getting a small ‘following’ of curious onlookers.

      I’ll (unhappily) eat my words if he does manage to form a nonprofit, complete with it’s own English language 969 magazine, but for now I would caution against taking him/the movement (in the USA) credit for a size or support-base that may or may not actually be there.

      • Michael Hussein Jerryson

        True enough. There is a link to the BDL on his website, https://969movement.org/links/, but it is unclear how connected this is. The BDL presence and following suggests an English-supported push to stylize Buddhist movements in a “English Defence League” manner. What happens from here is, as you point out, up for grabs.

  • http://www.alanpeto.com/ Alan Peto

    Thanks for the mention Justin! :)

  • justinwhitaker

    Thanks for the comment, Dion (and my apologies that it didn’t come through right away; there is/was a little glitch in my commenting software…). Anyhow, my “just one guy” comment refers just to the USA 969 Movement; the guy in California who has set up websites and was in touch with me and Foreign Policy magazine in July.

    I have no doubt that Wirathu has wide support in Burma (and Thailand and Sri Lanka, to name a couple other places where Islam and Buddhism aren’t mixing so well). I imagine that most (all?) of those 20-30 students are Thais or other S.E. Asians.

    • Dion Peoples

      Mostly Burmese and Bangladeshi Bhikkhus (the majority of nationalities that I instruct, and there are sympathetic associates from other places: Cambodia and Vietnam. Although I teach here in Thailand, I seldom have Thai or Lao students. The Bangladeshi and Burmese students face the same threat… rather: reality.

      • justinwhitaker

        Ah – I’m a bit surprised by that. I would have figured you got mostly Thai students with a few others from around the region…

        The thing that gets me is that while there have been historic tensions here or there, I have read the comments of several Burmese who say that they grew up in places where there was harmony between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma. I’m not so sure about southern Thailand… But then there is our friend Ashin Sopaka in Penang, where, as far as I know, Buddhists and Muslims continue to get along okay.

        But my sense is that the 969 Movement cannot/will not get far among convert-Buddhists in the West… we’ll see though.

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