Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Buddhist mobs have been killing Muslims in Myanmar. Where’s the outrage? Why aren’t all major Buddhist leaders, those supposed paragons of compassion, loudly, unequivocally, calling for a halt to it? Why aren’t Buddhist practitioners world wide wringing their hands with guilt? Buddhists are expected to hate the very idea of swatting a mere mosquito. Aren’t Muslims sentient beings?

Evidently, given what’s expected of all Muslims whenever a single Muslim commits an atrocity, there’s a double standard for mea culpas.

When Islamist terrorists go on a killing binge, the non-Muslim world immediately puts pressure on all Muslim intellectuals and the great mass of ordinary people as well. Again and again they must dissociate themselves explicitly and just as explicitly condemn actions with which they clearly have no personal connection. On the street and in the media innocent Muslims are routinely tarred with communal guilt. They’re racially profiled, and those with common names, the Muslim equivalent of John Smith, find themselves stuck forever on no fly lists. Although Christians, both clergy and their congregations, are not obliged to dissociate themselves from every mass murder by culturally Christian maniacs, Muslim silence is taken as proof of culpability. What’s more, the bloody passages in the Bible and the Koran get different readings, the former (take a look at Leviticus) being taken as embarrassing anachronisms, the latter as the present day intention of all Believers. To be a Muslim is to live under suspicion.

I was reminded of the peculiarities of this double standard problem as I encountered a fresh variant in American media reactions to reports of Muslims murdered just for being Muslims by members of the Buddhist majority in Myanmar. Buddhists there have raided several Muslim enclaves, torching houses, looting shops, killing people. It’s one of the less savory aspects of the relaxation of military rule in that country. These reports from Myanmar reminded me, in turn, of the continuing, largely ignored maltreatment of non-Buddhist Tamils by the chauvanistic Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka.

Although there are many interesting aspects to the history of Islam in Myanmar, they aren’t the point here. The point is that Muslims are being slaughtered by Buddhists, yet Buddhism isn’t coming in for criticism. No one is asking this Venerable or that Venerable to grovel as imams must grovel to atone for the actions of every misguided, bomb-planting Muslim youth.

This chain of thought got underway a couple of weeks ago, when I received the latest issue of a twice-yearly Buddhist publication called (ever so appropriately, I once thought) “The Inquiring Mind.” The Burmese vein of Theravada Buddhism has been very influential in the spread of the Dharma in the U.S., and it occurred to me that I might find in “IM” some mention of the distressing events in Myanmar. I found nothing. The inquiring mind wasn’t inquiring.

I guess I’m not surprised. I can’t recall having read any significant “IM” commentary on the distinctly uncompassionate victimization of non-belligerent Hindu or Christian Tamils by Buddhists during the guerilla war in Sri Lanka. But “IM” isn’t the only example of non-feasance. I subscribe to another Buddhist publication, a glossy monthly aptly named “Tricycle.” Its latest issue also fails to mention the situation in Myanmar. And I can’t remember any “Tricycle” issues grappling in a serious way with the implications of the violence in Sri Lanka over the years. (I’m happy to be enlightened if I missed anything major.)

Meanwhile, mainstream American publications have also failed to demand an explanation of how adherents of a creed based on non-violent compassion for all sentient beings can behave so murderously. Buddhists pride themselves on their deep study of consciousness and the workings of the mind, and yet they seem to have little or no interest in plumbing, exposing and expiating this very obvious chasm between core beliefs and bloody actions.

Perhaps the most influential leaders of Theravada Buddhism, the branch of Dharma practiced in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, have decided not to wash dirty laundry in public. If so, even though Buddhists haven’t declared war on Westerners, which doesn’t mean that Western values aren’t regularly trashed, it’s time for the rest of us to insist that Buddhist leaders face the harsh music Muslim leaders have had to face. (The Dalai Lama wouldn’t be the most useful apologist here. He leads a sub-branch of another vein of Buddhism.) And how about some engagement from the many Buddhist lay people in America, especially those who teach and write about Dharma? Although the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has called for a socially-engaged Buddhism, most American practitioners seem to prefer the navel-gazing variety. The beguiling injunction to practice loving-kindness degenerates, in all too many instances, into a mind-numbing mantra practice.

Particularly poignant in regard to the Muslim-bashing in Myanmar has been the restraint and remoteness of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s virtual saint, who is reputed to have meditated regularly while under house arrest. During those long years as a political prisoner she was globally admired as a martyr of conscience, and she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent resistance to military rule. Since she’s been free to speak out, however, she seems to have lost her tongue. She certainly hasn’t been campaigning very vigorously to protect the lives and human rights of Myanmar’s Muslims. The Lady is a politician, it seems, not a Buddhist saint. Why is the world giving her such an easy pass?