Reconciling Buddhist Teachings and Buddhists' Atrocities

Compassion and a desire to relieve suffering are central tenets of Buddhism. Yet, as with the world's other religions, the behavior of Buddhism's nearly 500 million adherents often run in opposition to the religion's teachings.

Nowhere today is this juxtaposition starker than in Myanmar, where the government representing the majority Buddhist population has waged what the United Nations refers to as an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group native to the country's Rakhine State. Doctors Without Borders estimates that a military crackdown begun on August 25 of last year has claimed the lives of nearly seven thousand Rohingya, and more than half a million more have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. 

Many of Myanmar's Buddhists have appeared largely indifferent to the suffering of the Rohingya. Some have denied that the crackdown has occurred at all, as Bob Woodruff of ABC News discovered when he asked Buddhist monks about the situation during a reporting trip to Myanmar.  

How can the compassionate teachings of Buddhism be reconciled with Buddhists' behavior toward the Rohingya? Thupten Jinpa, a Buddhist scholar best known for serving as the English translator for the Dalai Lama, explains that not even Buddhism can resist the human impulse for tribalism.

"It doesn’t matter how beautiful a teaching is," Jinpa said on Thursday at Asia Society. "The moment we use the label 'mine' and 'ours,' it gives us the ability to make a distinction between us and them and turns even something as beautiful as Buddhism into a vehicle for oppression."

"Religion tends to pull at a deep level of identity and emotion for its believers," he added, "And once you turn something like this into a basis of national and ethnic identity, then you can justify anything in the name of protecting it."

Jinpa spoke about the Rohingya during a conversation with ABC News journalist Dan Harris that also featured a discussion of the transformational potential of mindful meditation. To watch the complete video of Thursday's conversation, see below: