The principle of non-violence is central to Buddhist teachings, but in Sri Lanka some Buddhist monks are being accused of stirring up hostility towards other faiths and ethnic minorities. Their hard line is causing increasing concern.
The small temple in the suburbs of Colombo is quiet. An image of the Buddha is surrounded with purple and white lotus flowers. Smaller Buddhas line the walls.
But upstairs, a burly monk in a bright orange robe holds forth – for this is one of the main offices of a hard-line Buddhist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS).
The peaceful precepts for which Buddhism is widely known barely figure in his words. Instead, the monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, talks of his Buddhism in terms of race. Most Buddhists here are ethnically Sinhalese, and Sinhalese make up three-quarters of the island’s population.
“This country belongs to the Sinhalese, and it is the Sinhalese who built up its civilisation, culture and settlements. The white people created all the problems,” says Gnanasara Thero angrily.
He says the country was destroyed by the British colonialists, and its current problems are also the work of what he calls “outsiders”. By that he means Tamils and Muslims.
In fact, while a minority of the Tamils did indeed come from India as tea plantation workers, most of them, and most of the Muslims, are as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese, with centuries-old roots here.
“We are trying to… go back to the country of the Sinhalese,” says Gnanasara Thero. “Until we correct this, we are going to fight.”
This firebrand strain of Buddhism is not new to Sri Lanka. A key Buddhist revivalist figure of the early 20th Century, Anagarika Dharmapala, was less than complimentary about non-Sinhalese people. He held that the “Aryan Sinhalese” had made the island into Paradise which was then destroyed by Christianity and polytheism. He targeted Muslims saying they had “by Shylockian methods” thrived at the expense of the “sons of the soil”.
And later, in 1959 Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk – the circumstances were murky but one contentious issue was the government’s failure to do enough to ensure the rights of the Sinhala people.