A new article hosted at The Buddhist Channel discusses militant developments among Burma’s young monks. Some are beginning to question the usefulness of nonviolent tactics in their struggles with the country’s repressive ruling regime. According to the article, some monks are considering taking up guns against their enemies. In response, a number of Buddhist blogs (mainly by Westerners) have objected to the idea of armed monks.
Leaving aside the question of whether it is strategically sound for Burma’s monks to take up arms at this moment, it is worth acknowledging that coordinated violence by Buddhist monks is hardly a new phenomenon. Monastic armies, often directed by the heads of major lineages or temples, have played important historical roles in such places as Tibet, Japan, and Korea. These soldier-monks were most often employed in pitched battle against rival monasteries or forms of Buddhism, as well as sometimes taking the field against secular military forces. A similar phenomenon is monastic training of the country’s armed forces, such as the Zen establishment’s use of traditional practices to train Japan’s Pacific War soldiers as more efficient killers. And even when monks weren’t actively involved in wielding weapons, virtually every army that has gone to war in Buddhist Asia has taken along monks to bless their endeavors and provide services to the warriors. This leaves aside the many instances of individual violence by Buddhist monks, such as politically-motivated assassinations–I’m only focusing on larger-scale, organized armed violence such as the Burmese monks may eventually produce.
Buddhist lineages that have never fielded warriors are probably in the minority. But there is something that makes this potential Burmese situation more unusual: the possibility of monks fighting their own government. Most often, monks have either fought other monks in religious squabbles (that, it must be said, typically had political implications), or foreign invasion forces. Active revolution to overturn one’s own country’s regime is far less common. That’s where the prospect of violent Burmese monks is most innovative, rather than in the simple fact of monks with weapons.