Monks with Guns

Buddhists aren’t immune to anger, fear, or violence

| May-June 2010

Young Buddhists with Guns

image by Corey Wise / Alamy ©

The publication late last year  of Buddhist Warfare, the book I coedited with sociologist and religious studies scholar Mark Juergensmeyer, was a bittersweet experience. It marked the culmination of a journey that began with an exploration of the peaceful aspects of Buddhism—only to end up chronicling portions of its dark side.

The journey began in 2003 when my wife and I spent a year in Thailand. I was there to research Buddhist social activism, which was going to be the topic of my dissertation. Rather than look to archives, I decided to speak with Buddhist monks and nuns.

I interviewed monks protecting the forests from big business and villagers from dangerous pesticides. I spoke with Thai Buddhist monastic intellectuals. I met and began to chronicle the activities of the first fully ordained Thai Buddhist nun. Then, in January 2004, violent attacks broke out in the southern provinces of Thailand, some of them directed at Buddhist monks.

Since contemporary issues and my research seemed to be converging, I thought: What better way to study Buddhist activism than to observe Buddhist monks engaged in peace­making? Unfortunately, I found very little of this. During my visits between 2006 and 2008, southern Thai monks shared with me the challenges of living in fear-infested communities. All but a few concentrated on survival.

Peacemaking was the last thing on their minds.

The constant fear and violence took a toll on them. Monks talked about the guns they now kept at their bedsides. Others spoke heatedly about the violent militant attacks on Buddhist civilians and monasteries. Although the cause of the violence was and is multilayered—owing much to corruption, drug trade, and corporatization—many monks also felt Islam was to blame. In their minds, the conflict was anchored to a larger discussion of religious violence: Muslims against Buddhists.

6/7/2010 4:57:19 AM

This article has a very interesting perspective to share. The author's movement from exoticization and idealization of buddhists to dissillusiontment in one aspect, and a need to humanize on the other is worth hearing. It is important to recognize the innocence of a perspective that saw buddhist practitioners from an outsider's perspective and i'm assuming, from a politically stable climate and then to see the reality of a pratice that has many different forms, specific belief models and pratices which vary from country to country, and from person to person in daily practice. While i may not agree with the author's final verdict on Thai buddhism, I respect the point of view that he has to share.

m g_1
5/6/2010 8:17:51 PM

This article is misguided and misleading. Buddhist teachers coming to the United States haven't left out a "dark, violent side" of Buddhism. Buddhists refrain from killing living beings no matter the cause. Rather, one need realize that not everyone wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk takes the rules of Buddhism as seriously as they should. Some become monks merely to escape poverty. A TRUE Buddhist practitioner would never kill another being. This is made quite clear in the teachings of the Buddha.

john scott ridgway_2
5/4/2010 4:51:05 PM

Wonderful article. I cannot wait to read the book. I have been watching the monks grow more violent than I had remembered for years. Thank you again.