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Religious intolerance, according to the Pali Canon

There has been some debate recently about the place of racism in Buddhism. This debate is in part based upon ideas expressed by some members of the Burmese Sangha and others involved in the 969 movement. I would like to make some observations. I am primarily concerned with the question of whether discrimination in terms of race, colour or religion is mentioned within the Pali Canon.

In the Madhupindika-sutta, the Buddha is asked by Dandapāni: “What is the doctrine of the recluse, what does he proclaim?” The Buddha replies that “I assert and proclaim such a doctrine that one does not quarrel with anyone in the world … detached from sense pleasures, without perplexity, remorse cut off.” Dandapāni,  not a little confused, shakes his head, raises his eye-brows, grimaces three times, and walks away, leaning on his stick. It seems to me that this is the kind of response we can expect to a religious doctrine which ultimately leads to the abandoning of all positions. Religious doctrines are meant to be the object of religious beliefs, but clearly, the Buddha’s religious doctrine, as expressed here, is not meant to lead to a form of religious belief which causes conflict with other religious doctrines and beliefs.

The Buddha’s doctrine, his religious teaching, is based upon the notion that it does not cause conflict. No opinion should be “obstinately adhered to” with the thought “only this is true, anything else is wrong.” For this would lead to quarrels (vivāda) trouble (vighāta) and vexation (vihesa). This theme is found throughout Buddhist history. Racist views go against the basic premises of Buddhism. They are clearly unwholesome mental acts. Not to know what is wholesome and unwholesome, kusala and akusala, is itself a misguided mental position. Being based upon greed, hatred and delusion, discrimination leads to unwholesome consequences. It might be argued that the premise that overrides this is the idea that there is a higher good, the defense of the Dhamma, of the teachings of the Buddha.

However, most commentators would note that the unwholesome mental consequences of greed, hatred and delusion cannot be averted, even if justified by the idea of the protection of the religion or the nation. Clearly, action is central. It is not birth which causes a person to be worthy, it is actions of body, speech and mind. These are the three headings under which much Buddhist ethical discourse takes place in the teaching of the ten wholesome and unwholesome courses of action. Under these headings much of the racist rhetoric and it outcomes can be put into focus and the negative consequences or racist rhetoric and actions are condemned.


Much of the racist discourse can also be summarised and understood to be based upon greed, hatred and delusion. To these three can be added the idea of fear about the preservation of the nation. Indeed, the ideas of nation, language and religion (amyo, barthar, thar-tha-nar), when taken to encompass one’s identity can be taken to be fuelled by the most unwholesome mental factors. It is not only then as a form of mental rigidity, as a form of psychological attachment, that racism would be negative within Buddhism, but also in understanding society and what makes a good person within society. Is it one’s birth, race or colour that make a person a worthy member of society, a worthy member of a nation? Or is it the conduct of the individual?  On this the Pali Canon is clear.  Whoever is “angry, harbours hatred, and is reluctant to speak well of others … whosoever debased by his pride, exalts himself and belittles others” is not to be esteemed.  Not because of their birth, colour, nationality should one be esteemed or condemned, but because of their conduct.

This leads us then to question whether the recent racist discourses and uprising of anger against minority groups has any place at all in Buddhist culture. It appears that, however justified, such actions, whether verbal or physical, would have to be condemned. Rather than worrying that other groups are hastening the decline of the Dhamma, one would have to conclude that it is in fact racist discourse that is in fact accomplishing this.


Dr Paul Fuller has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK. His research interests include early Indian Buddhist philosophy and the Buddhist ideas of Aung San Suu Kyi. His book, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism: The Point of View (RoutledgeCurzon Critical Studies in Buddhism, 2004) explores the textual basis of discrimination and attachment in the Pali Canon.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB policy.


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