1. The Precept of Non-Violence and the Philosophy of Pacifism
all my sons and grandsons may not seek to gain new [military/territorial] victories, that in whatever victories they may gain they may prefer forgiveness and light punishment, that they may consider the only victory the victory of Righteousness, which is of value both in this world and the next…[From Thirteenth Rock Edict]5
1.1. Religious Competition, Political Realities, and Geopolitical Pressures
1.2. Double Effect
2. Asceticism to Overcome Human Suffering
3. Limits of Ascetic Withdrawal from Worldly Societal Concerns
3.1. Syncretizing Social Influences
3.2. Functional Polytheism and Its Influences
4. Religion as Lived Experience
4.1. Religion, Nationalism, and Modernity
4.2. Modern State Capacity
5. Contemporary Myanmar
5.1. Colonial Rule and Buddhist Activism
5.2. Religious Nationalism Under a Constitutional Republic
Conflicts of Interest
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In this article, I rely on Anthony D. Smith’s definition of nationalism as “an ideology and a movement, seeking to attain and maintain autonomy, unity, and identity for a social group deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’” (A. Smith 1999, p. 46).
Complete name: Ārya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upāyaviṣaya-vikurvāṇa-nirdeśa Sūtra.
Timeframe of origin is uncertain, but it was cited by another work by 2nd century ce.
(Geiger 1912) This Pali-language chronicle of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) was written in the 5th or 6th century ce, and recounts the history of Buddhism.
Not to be confused with the Yakkha people, an indigenous ethnic group on the Indian subcontinent (mostly in modern-day Nepal and India).
Sinhalese Buddhists will also refer to the canonical Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta to justify defensive war. (Bartholomeusz 2002, p. 22).
As calculating as it may be to put it in these terms, religions compete with each other for “market share,” and they will use violence to both expand their presence and protect their membership. For example, (McCleary and Kuijp 2010) found that the Gelug religious sect operated like a “club” in that it sought to generate benefits for members through greater participation and size of membership. It utilized doctrinal innovation—including imitating its major competitor the Karmapa sect by creating an incarnate Dalai Lama and developing its own unique practices such as allowing only ordained abbots, in order to reinforce religious activity and monastic community—and, in the absence of a political authority, fought and killed in order to become the monopoly religion and thereafter maintain “club benefits” for its members.
For more on the Gelug school’s historical rise to prominence, see also (Maher 2010). On club models of religion and “participatory crowding”, see also (Iannaccone 1992).
See, e.g., (Yu 2005, pp. 54–55).
These major branches of Buddhism differ in significant ways, as well. Theravāda Buddhism is grounded in the extensive and varied Pali canon, which includes some works of uncertain origin but is generally considered to have derived from the Buddha and his own disciples. The canon is usually divided into “three baskets” (Tipitaka): the Basket of Discipline (Vinaya Pitaka) covering the rules of the sangha and its monks and nuns, the Basket of Discourses (Sutta Pitaka) recounting Buddha’s teachings, and the Basket of Higher Teachings (Abhidhamma Pitaka) providing philosophical and scholastic underpinnings and explanations, each of which consist of multiple works.
Despite the precept of non-violence in Buddhism, some might interpret certain ascetic practices such as fasting as doing violence to one’s body in pursuit of liberating one’s mind, e.g., (Olson 2014).
See fn97 on temporary novitiation practices.
Anawrahta Minsaw, the first king of a united Burma (1044–77 ce), helped ease the imposition of Theravāda Buddhism on his people by officially promulgating the assimilation of 37 nats into Buddhist worship. The admixture continues to this day, but recently to the increasingly violent consternation of some fundamentalist Buddhists, bearing some resemblance to ongoing anti-Muslim campaigns there (The Economist 2019).
The association between large, complex societies and adherence to moralizing gods has long been noticed, but the causality has been difficult to determine; recent research, however, shows that moralizing gods and their “prosocial” supernatural punishment have followed large increases in a society’s social complexity (at around a population of one million), rather than the other way around, perhaps because they help sustain and order those societal intricacies and reduce free-riding (Whitehouse et al. 2019).
Because monotheistic religions’ gods tend to be both “high gods” and moral arbiters, they are more easily co-opted for extreme moralistic judgments, and the violence that can accompany them.
Fallible monotheism is a decidedly heterodox approach. For example, (Joseph Segal’s 2007)’s interpretation of the Old Testament is considered radical, because he portrays God himself developing, learning, and changing his ways through the course of his struggles with humanity, e.g., when Abraham tries to persuade God to uphold a justicial principle of sparing the innocent and challenges God to be a just deity, both of which God does not immediately take onboard (Joseph’s Bones, pp. 58–69).
For example, both deities and demons fought wars against each other in ancient Greek, classical Roman, and Hindu mythology.
Theocratic political rule is likelier to emerge when the religion in question is monotheistic. (Coşgel and Miceli 2013) found that theocracies are more likely to be established where religion can serve to legitimize the state and where the society’s religious market is monopolized by one dominant religion. They found that monotheism alone seemed to be a robust (but not necessarily statistically significant) factor in contributing to the development of theocratic rule; although, unsurprisingly, if the ruler was also considered a god, then the results became significant. They speculate that the insignificance of monotheism alone as a factor may result from the scarcity of monotheistic religions in their sample, constituting only 8% of the ancient polities in their dataset, as the effect of monotheism became clearer and more consistent when looking just at contemporary societies, after the development of the major monotheistic religions.
I would maintain that one reason monotheism becomes a significant factor once it develops as a serious competitor to polytheistic religions is because the structure of monotheism functions equivalently to monopolizing the religious market.
Weber’s traditional ideal types of religion would put Buddhism in the class of mysticism, but this does not encapsulate the complexities of Buddhist thought and practice. Furthermore, in practice, Buddhism can manifest as polytheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, or not theistic at all.
For example, it does not advocate suicide.
Mahāyāna doctrine especially advocates trying to improve the world and help others along the path to enlightenment.
(cf. Gellner 1983).
Explains (Brubaker 1996): “We should focus on nation as a category of practice, nationhood as an institutionalized cultural and political form, and nationness as a contingent event or happening, and refrain from using the analytically dubious notion of ‘nations’ as substantial, enduring collectivities”. He adds that “a strong theoretical case can be made for an eventful approach to nationness.” (pp. 19–20, 21).
While this article takes “national” identity and “nationalism” to be modern ideological constructs, it also follows A. Smith’s “ethnosymbolism” in the belief that nations arise from existing ethnic foundations (with differing relative emphases on shared language, religion, culture, history, race, etc.). What matters for the purposes of this article, however, is how Burmese Buddhist nationalists tend to view their “nation”: they justify their nationalism by reference to “perennial” or “primordial” origins (along the lines of Hastings 1997; Grosby 2005).
While distinct civil identities are most commonly found in secular, democratic states, they are possible in every type of state, including theocracies, if there are citizens who do not share the dominant religion. (In Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, there are citizens of minority religions who have civil identities such that they can still say they are Iranian or Saudi).
While the capability is not always used to its full extent (e.g., in more decentralized liberal democracies, and for principled reasons), modern technology and bureaucracy give every state—even weak ones—a greater capacity to enforce on and intervene in their populations.
King Anawrahta Minsaw founded the first united Burmese kingdom and empire in 1044 ce (Lewy 1972, p. 19).
Political domination over religious matters continues to this day, with the government’s appointment of monks to Mahana (State Saṅgha Mahā Nāyaka Committee), which was formed in 1980 to regulate the clergy.
I.e., freedom of conscience under the Myanmar constitution only covers the ability to hold a belief in one’s own head, but does not come with freedom of associated actions (e.g., the right to set up a religious charity or welfare association).
Myanmar’s 2014 census identified 4.3% of its population as Muslim; up to 2% are Rohingya, whose “non-enumerated” population was controversially only estimated rather than counted by the census. (Republic of the Union of Myanmar—Department of Population 2016; Lynn 2016) Until 2017, the total Rohingya population, which has borne the brunt of the anti-Muslim attacks, was approximated to reach 1.3 million. Since recent government-sanctioned pogroms against the Rohingya began in 2016, however, up to 1.1 million have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
The long-Muslim Rohingya claim that they are indigenous to the area, while the Myanmar government says they illegally migrated during the colonial period from now-Bangladesh, considers them Bengalis, and denies them citizenship and proper documentation, thus rendering them effectively stateless. About 80% of Rohingya lived in the state of Rakhine, on the western coast. (There are other Muslims—including some Indian, Chinese, Malay, and others—as well as most Kaman, who also primarily live in Rakhine but are formally recognized as an ethnic group by the Myanmar government and who hold citizenship.)
While the Association may mean “ethnicity” where it says “race”, its context is Myanmar’s peculiar classification of races and ethnicities. Myanmar recognizes eight “major national ethnic races” that are grouped primarily by geographic region, with each race comprised of a subset of the 135 recognized “ethnic groups”. Along with several others, the Rohingya are not among the recognized ethnic groups.
Even religions that reject worldly constraints will develop practices for adherents to demonstrate the sincerity of one’s convictions (Weber, “Religious Communities”, Economy and Society), and that necessarily injects social functions, practices, and institutions into those religions. Unfortunately, social reinforcement around bigoted and discriminatory movements often involves engaging in violence as ritualistic proof of commitment, such as is commonly found, for example, in criminal gangs everywhere, such as The Lord’s Resistance Army (central Africa), etc.
The communal action (Gemeinschaftshandeln) of religion (Weber  1978, p. 399) has its own structures and laws (Eigengesetzlichkeit) with a logic of their own (Klaus Lichtblau, Hans Kippenberg) and whose rationality does not necessarily reference justice or correctness.
Modernization can corrode traditional communities and their values, while political change such as globalization, secularization, and economic development may eventually challenge Buddhism’s primacy in Myanmar society. See also, e.g., (Gravers 2015).
From August through October 2007, there were broad, non-violent protests (including by monks, whose colored robes came to represent the movement) against the ruling military junta’s removal of subsidies on the fuel supply it monopolized.
MaBaTha reconstituted itself as the Buddha Dhamma Charity Foundation, which was similarly outlawed in 2018.
Males become temporary novitiates (sāmaṇera) in these societies for many reasons, including to accumulate religious/spiritual “merit” for themselves and for others, and there is variation within Southeast Asia on the practice. In Burma/Myanmar, for example, usually boys will novitiate, sometimes for only a few days, and they can temporarily return to monkhood later as married men, whereas in Thailand, older boys or young men will commonly become monks for three-month periods. This practice is far less common in Sri Lanka (Gombrich 1984; Samuels 2013).
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