“Ethnocentric Buddhism?”

“Buddhist monks protest near Shwedagon Pagoda against the opening of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation offices in Burma in October 2012.” Image via Reuters.

Buddhologist Paul Fuller (who blogs here) has a new piece at the Democratic Voice of Burma that argues for a new term when discussing ethnic conflicts led by Buddhist monastics within countries like Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka: “ethnocentric Buddhism.” He advances this term to be used in place of “Buddhist terror” or “Buddhist extremism,” which have been used (most famously in Time Magazine) to describe phenomena such as the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka and Wirathu’s 969 movement in Burma.

Fuller explains:

“Ethnocentric Buddhism” is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent one. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example, in Thailand there is the idea of “nation, religion and monarch” (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma “nation, language and religion” (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defence of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity — to defend one is to defend the other.

There are a number of possible factors and ideas that could shape the formation of an ethnocentric type of Buddhism in a given country. Not all of these ideas are available in each cultural context. Some are available across Buddhist Asia, some confined to a particular area, or would have been used during different historical periods. There is the idea of the “true dharma” existing in one particular place and of that location preserving this true version of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, in Sri Lanka after the transmission of Buddhism, some aspects of the Pali Canon would be considered to preserve the essential word of the Buddha. Later, national identity could be built around this idea together with other texts being used and composed together with Buddhist symbols, the tooth relic for example, creating the notion of a direct lineage to the Buddha.

You can read the rest here. It’s an interesting and often compelling collection of arguments, and worth a read.

I confess, though, I was left wondering what exactly would be wrong with using terms like “Buddhist terror” or “Buddhist extremism” to describe some of the situations that precipitated Fuller’s article. Let’s use Burma as an example. As I wrote last year:

Today, the United Nations consider the Rohingyas “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” [There has been] considerable unrest and devastating violence — dozens dead, whole villages razed, and well over 100,000 displaced — in the Rakhine state as a result of what the Agence France-Presse identified as “the rape and murder of a Rakhine women and the revenge mob killing of 10 Muslims.” By [fall 2012], Human Rights Watch had issued a report noting that “recent events in Arakan State demonstrate… state-sponsored persecution and discrimination [of the Rohingyas],” including murder, rape, and mass arrest. Reuters released a shocking special investigative report not long after which led with what was essentially a confirmation of HRW’s report: “The wave of attacks was organized, central-government military sources told Reuters. They were led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks, and, some witnesses said, abetted at times by local security forces.”

Is “ethnocentric Buddhism,” then, really helping us understand the full extent of these particular phenomena? Or does it fail in these cases to capture some of the horrible realities here? (At least one blogger from the Rohingya community has responded to Fuller’s piece. I’m not reposting it here since it is more a collection of insults than an actual counter argument, but beneath what the author says are the same questions I have asked here.)

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments…

  • s mitchell

    It sounds as though his use of the term “ethnocentric Buddhism” is intended to be broader than “extremism” or “terror” and that, perhaps, the later are characteristics of the former. I’d like to see a longer analysis and argument for the use of the term, though, because it sounds very much like we’re simply swapping one term out for another without any clear rationale for why “ethnocentric” is better. (What he describes could also be said of Buddhist modernism, Buddhist nationalism, etc.) He directly contrasts it with “Protestant Buddhism” and declares that Protestant Buddhism focuses on laypersons as the central authority. Fair enough. But how is “ethnocentric” different from, say, “nationalist”? I’m not saying it’s not, I would just like to see how he would construct the argument.

    Moreover, arguably it’s not a “new” phenomenon that”s “emerging” at all. We can see exactly this same rhetoric in Japan pre-World War II with many Buddhist explicitly connecting Buddhism with the “soul of Japan.” The discourse was slightly different, to be sure, but ethnocentric Burmese Buddhists, unfortunately, aren’t the first ethnocentric Buddhists. (God that’s depressing.)

    At any rate, thanks for sharing this and if you have links to other work Fuller’s done, please pass them along.

    • RevDannyFisher

      All very well said, sir! Thanks for chiming in, and so usefully!

      • Paul Fuller

        Thanks Danny for posting this – and thanks for some very constructive comments. They are incredibly helpful.

        Just a couple of brief points. The terms ‘Buddhist terror’ or ‘Buddhist extremism’, I agree, are more to the point, but it simply made the Buddhist community so enraged that no meaningful discussion was possible. Blood seems to boil on both sides, as it did with the Rohingya blogger with the list of insults you mentioned. I do agree that he had a point as well. But how do we get a discussion going on these important issues?

        I am suggesting that we at least have more nuanced terms to describe the phenomenon. ‘Protestant Buddhism’ helped us to understand aspects of modern Buddhism, and I am grappling for a term and am now building arguments that the term ‘ethnocentric Buddhism’, might be helpful in understanding aspects of recent Asian history.

        As suggested above in one of the comments, I am not at all certain that this is a new phenomenon, and would consider the idea that Buddhism has always had this dark, ‘ethnocentric’ underbelly hidden by more acceptable and attractive teachings.

        Just some ideas – and thanks to those who have commented. Very, very helpful.

        All the best.

        • RevDannyFisher

          Hi, Paul!

          Belated thanks for your comment–very glad you chimed in!

          Two questions asked in earnest about your first point: (1) Is it clear that the Buddhist communities in question would have meaningful dialogue if we changed our terminology? (2) Is it clear that the terms outside observers use, such as “extremism” or “terrorism,” have the effect of inflaming or worsening the situation (or any discernible effect)? I ask simply because neither is necessarily clear from my admittedly limited vantage point. If it’s clearer to you or other experts, that would be helpful information to have. But based on the reporting and so on that I’ve digested, it’s not so clear. For instance, in a recent Religion & Ethics Newsweekly piece (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2014/04/18/april-18-2014-atrocities-in-myanmar/22768/), Phil Robertson, who is the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, says he does not believe that the 969 Movement “is prepared to listen” to any voice other than their own. Similarly, Matthew Smith, the Executive Director of Fortify Rights, notes that when 969 representative says things like “Muslims are dogs” or “Rohingya are subhuman” that it’s “not just rhetoric,” but they “actually believe it.” (Based on interviews I’ve seen with U Wirathu, that’s my sense as well.) I’m left to wonder, then, is it better/more dignified for us to be “more to the point” if the language we use isn’t really going to have a discernible effect on these situations anyway? I’d be curious about your response to those two questions.

          With gratitude,

          • Paul Fuller

            Hi Danny,

            Let me begin by saying that I really appreciate your
            comments and questions. I am working with these ideas, they are not set in stone, and I am not even saying I am ‘correct’ in some ways. I’m really very happy to have my opinions changed. I think that is part of what we are engaged in here.

            I guess one way I would begin to answer your question is to suggest that, unlike, for example, Phil Robertson or Matthew Smith I am involved in the academic study of Buddhism, and am attempting to offer categories within
            Buddhist Studies, and more broadly Religious Studies to understand these movements within the history of ideas within Buddhism, within its philosophical teachings, and within its list of doctrines. Saying that, in a non-academic context I might use much stronger language to express my own opinions about the Burmese treatment of the Rohingya (note: I think even labelling these actions ‘Buddhist ’could be problematic). Even calling U Wirathu simply ‘Wirathu’ (it should be ‘Ashin’ – Venerable) or using other terms for him is culturally problematic – he is still a Buddhist monk. I’ve certainly heard Burmese use less than flattering term for him, but I feel a bit sensitive, as an outsider, to do this. By using the term ‘ethnocentric Buddhism’ – which in itself offends some for not simply calling racists racist, I want to understand the complexity of Buddhist ethnic identity in its wider Buddhist and Asian context.

            So, I agree with yourself, and the commentators you have cited, but I might be involved in a different debate, or a different aspect of it – whether the use of the term ‘ethnocentric Buddhism’ can lessen tensions, I am not at all sure. I would hope that the use of such terms might help us to think of the appearance of Buddhist nationalism across Buddhist Asia in a more intelligent way. Sorry, that last point sounds a bit strong but is not in any way intended to belittle the opposing opinions.

            Really happy to have this conversation – it is a massive
            help to me, and I hope others might start to think about these issues. I’d be happy to receive any criticisms on what I am saying.

            All the best,

  • terremoto415

    You might consider adding Bhutanese Buddhism to the list. It has been used as an excuse to harass, and even expel, Hindus of Nepalese descent.