Buddhist Fundamentalism

Recent events, particularly those involving the Rohingya in Burma and the role of nuns in Theravāda Buddhism, raise the question as to what constitutes Buddhist fundamentalism, and whether and how it might be different from its Western counterpart. We will look at the issue in a broad overview.

For further reading please see my earlier essay On Buddhist Violence .

Also see Justin Whitaker’s recent essay: Revisiting the Crisis in Burma and Buddhism’s Role in it.

For a detailed discussion of the problem of nuns (bhikkhuni) in Theravāda Buddhism see this thread at Sutta Central.



  1. daophos on October 12, 2017 at 9:25 am

    I think we need to begin with getting rid of the word ‘fundamentalism’.

    ‘Fundamentalism’ originally described a movement in early 20th century Protestantism that was a reaction against the ‘high criticism’ prevalent in Europe. It argued for the ‘fundamentals’, including a literal reading of scripture. However, it has now become synonymous with strident and politically right-wing versions of Christianity which developed over a half century later in the USA. Yet today in the USA, we find people calling all kinds of Protestant groups, and even some Catholic groups, ‘fundamentalist’. Basically, if you’re perceived as intolerant, you’re called a fundamentalist.

    In Islam, what is often labeled as ‘fundamentalist’ is a movement in Islam called ‘Salafism’*, from the word ‘salaf’ that refers to the first 3 generations of Muslims who lived after the prophet (the prophet himself and his companions, the Sahabah; theTabi‘un, or the successors to the Sahabah; and the Tabi‘ al-Tabi‘in, or the successors to the successors. Needless to say, they stopped at 3 because it just got silly afterward). Salafis emphasize that Muslims need to live by their example; however, they do not necessarily push for a literal reading of the Qur’an. (And many Evangelical Christians do not have a literal interpretation of all passages of the Bible; however, they are often called ‘fundamentalists’.) What so-called fundamentalists in both Islam and Protestant Christianity have in common is a political movement that seeks to impose their values on secular society. It is not a fundamentalist or literal reading of scripture that is necessarily driving this. (*Wahhabism is part of this, too, but it’s not germane here.)

    What’s going on in Buddhism is not ‘fundamentalist’. However, there are groups that have used Buddhism to consolidate, legitimate, and to challenge political power. This has always been the case. We need a new vocabulary to discuss this. I don’t think we should create terms unnecessarily (pace Ockham), but we do need to distinguish what is really going on. Calling Myanmar Buddhists ‘fundamentalists’ is to miss the fundamental point.

    • Doug Smith on October 12, 2017 at 2:42 pm

      Thanks for your insightful post, daophos. I think there is a sense of the term where we kind of understand what people want to say when they call these Buddhists “fundamentalists”, but there is a lot of baggage that isn’t really appropriate there as well.