Buddhism, of all the major world religions, has the greatest record for peace and good morality1. Compared with popular world religions, Buddhism is calm both in theory and in practice. Nonetheless, various forms of Buddhism at various times have been instruments of war, violence and intolerance and "was in fact the inspiration behind many of the martial arts of China and Japan"2 during their violent expansionist periods. Buddhist sects have argued and fought over doctrine, over populations and methods, over pride and national independence. These aren't just historical issues. Countries such as Burma and Laos have a pro-Buddhist bias in their legal systems, leading to prejudice, social intolerance and inequality3,4. In Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand the majority of the populace are Theravada Buddhist, but all are notable as places where Buddhist-inspired violence has prevailed over Buddhist-inspired peace5,4.
The liberal scholar of religion Moojan Moman ordinarily seeks to highlight the positive and congruent side of religion, but even in Buddhism he cannot avoid pointing out some of its historical violence:
“Almost every religion has to some extent authorized some form of religious warfare. Even Buddhism, which is often regarded as a pacifist religion, was in fact the inspiration behind many of the martial arts of China and Japan.”
Mainstream academia agrees:
“Conze has argued [...] that 'some of the success of the [Tibetan Buddhist] Gelug-pa [sect] was due to the military support of the Mongols, who, during the seventeenth century, frequently devastated the monasteries of the rival Red sects. The long association of Japanese Zen Buddhism with military prowess and aggressive imperialism has already been noted... [...] and Trevor Ling has argued that South-East Asian Buddhist kingdoms were as militarily aggressive and self-seeking as any others. Walpola Rahula [describes] a war of national independence in Sri Lanka in the second century BC conducted under the slogan 'Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism'.”
Buddhism has integrated itself with governments and found itself manipulating the populace just as many other religions have done.
“After the Meiji Restoration feudalism was replaced by a State dedicated to overseas expansion, and the Zen establishment found a new role in nurturing absolute obedience to it and supporting imperial wars of conquest. In the 1930s Zen Masters occupied themselves more and more with giving military men Zen training [...]. The events of this military epoch in the history of Zen have been chronicled by Ichikawa Hakugen, a Zen priest and professor at Kyoto's Hanazono University, who in books like The War Responsibility of Buddhists, condemned Zen's (and his own) collaboration with Japanese fascism.”
This is not just a historical problem. Countries such as Burma and Laos have a pro-Buddhist bias in their national legal systems, leading to prejudice, social intolerance and inequality3. Human Rights Watch reported that in 2017, the Theravada Buddhism of Burma sheltered extremist policies that led to widespread abuses throughout the country, and the United Nations stated that Facebook posts by ultra-nationalist Buddhists played a "determining role" in stirring up hatred against the Rohingya community8.
“The cost of not standing up to populist attacks on human rights was perhaps starkest in Burma. Vitriolic nationalist rhetoric increasingly propagated by Buddhist extremists, senior members of the Burmese military, and some members of the civilian-led government helped to precipitate an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, following a militant group´s attacks on security outposts. An army-led campaign of massacres, widespread rape, and mass arson in at least 340 villages sent more than 640,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing for their lives to neighboring Bangladesh. [...]
The government took increasing action against Buddhist monks and organizations that used extremist and ultranationalist rhetoric.”
And the last 100 years has seen infamous nationalist Buddhist movements in Sri Lanka instigate riots and violence against Muslims and other minorities on account of them being 'pagan' non-Buddhists, and although they are opposed by more tolerance and liberal-minded Buddhist communities, the extremists have widespread ongoing support from Buddhist communities.