The Dalai Lama is undoubtedly the most famous face of contemporary Buddhism and is considered a spiritual leader among Buddhists from many different schools and traditions. Tenzin Gyatso has traveled widely as a teacher, scholar, and statesman promoting peace and nonviolence to a world audience. The annexation of Tibet by the Chinese in the 1950s and the subsequent establishment of the Tibetan Government in exile in Dharamsala, India have inspired Free Tibet movements around the world. Though the Chinese dispute this version of history, global admiration and support of the Dalai Lama and his message of peaceful coexistence is widespread and pervasive, leading many to associate Buddhism with a universal and uncompromising understanding of nonviolence. Other well-known Buddhists representing a nonviolent understanding of Buddhism are the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhát Hanh who protested against the Vietnam War and continues to promote peaceful coexistence through his Center in France known as Plum Village, and the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön who teaches about paths to individual spiritual enlightenment.
Other contemporary representations of Buddhism challenge the widespread association of Buddhism with nonviolence. For example, the Buddhist 969 Movement in Myanmar has targeted the ethnic Muslim Rohingya who are not recognized by the government and who comprise nearly one sixth of the Muslim population there. The leader of the 969 Movement is a monk named Wirathu. He justifies the ethnic cleansing campaign as a necessary protection of Buddhism, which is culturally aligned with ethnic Burmese nationalism in a nation that has long struggled with power imbalances between the dominant Burmese and other, smaller ethnic groups seeking integration or independence.
In Sri Lanka, a new form of Buddhist nationalism known as the BBS (Buddhist Power Force in Sinhalese) has recently emerged following the end of the nearly 30-year civil war with the separatist Tamil Tigers. Its leader Galagodaththe Gnanasara likened the defeat of the separatists to an ancient Sinhalese victory and justifies ongoing violence in defense of (Buddhist) Sri Lankan culture. In this same vein, he also promoted anti-Muslim rioting in 2014 in the southern villages. In both Myanmar and Sri Lanka there are Buddhist monks and lay leaders who are challenging the violent expression of Buddhism, but they are currently marginalized by other factions that are in positions of power. These examples demonstrate how Buddhism, like all religions, is internally diverse and interpretations of the tradition justify the full range of human agency.
The Dalai Lama (2009), Michael Thibault, Flickr Creative Commons.