In the wake of the most recent eruption in terrorist activity, whether interrupted or successful, the world’s media have been full of stories and op-ed pages citing the failures of the West in coming to terms with Islam.

For their part, Islamic scholars have pointed out that a very large proportion of Muslims are not terrorists, and thus to confuse the religion with terrorism is pointless. That is contentious. Let us think for a moment of the two ways of wording a statement, and because this is a contentious topic, let’s look elsewhere at an older, more sinister albeit state-sponsored terrorist organization, the Waffen-SS.

In 1933 (and I have specifically chosen a period well before wartime atrocities began) there were 52,000 members in the Waffen-SS within a population of 66 million Germans. “The Waffen-SS comprised a ridiculously small minority of Germans” or “All members of the Waffen-SS were Germans.”

In effect, both statements are correct, but their implications are vastly different. It is in recognizing the second version that post-World War II Germany achieved meaningful introspection, and why the country does not pose a military threat now, nor is ever likely to in future. Prolonging the comforting fiction afforded by the first version of the statement would not have helped Germany repent for its actions collectively.

This is the same problem confronting the Muslim world today. The linkage between Islam and today’s terrorists can be framed very similarly to the German pyramid of the early 20th century. Then, frustrations and anger within the wider population were radicalized progressively, until they reached the fanatical breadth of the Waffen-SS. The progression of terrorists through Islamic society, one imagines (because one doesn’t really stand around witnessing the birth of new terrorists), is a similar process where a number of local frustrations have fueled the nucleus of modern terrorism.

For lessons on how to avoid the spillover of such extremist tendencies toward action, Muslims may want to examine the Buddhist example from history, in particular focusing on its evolution within Chinese culture.

Very similar to the schism that developed in Islam between Sunnis and Shi’ites is the one that developed in Buddhism in the 1st century AD. Then, the arguments between the literal sayings of the Buddha and a theological expansion from those sayings laid the ground for the evolution of Mahayana (Greater Wheel) Buddhism, which is the version that thrived in India and was later exported to China and Japan. The older, and arguably truer, form of Buddhism was thenceforth cited as Hinayana (Lesser Wheel) and was primarily followed in countries such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand).

Mahayana and China

As the Mahayana school spread in China, its greatest appeal was among those following Taoist thought. The antipathy of Confucian scholars to Buddhism is well recorded. They objected to the idea of a man giving up his worldly possessions and abjuring sex, as these violated the importance of relative standing upon which Confucian values of a person’s importance are founded. Confucians also opposed the foreign-looking imagery of the Buddha, and in particular to his depiction in statues of exposing one shoulder, as this was barbaric to them.

Taoist beliefs, on the other hand, cited the value of a person unto himself – and it was here that the lower classes in China found a solid echo in Buddhism. By promising rebirth in a better position, and promising besides that oppressors would themselves suffer in a rebirth, Buddhism was able to fill the poor with greater optimism about their lot.

The transition meant that stability across the classes was achieved for China and, over a period of time, the Confucian elite managed to strengthen its hold over the country’s thought. This was compensated across the lower classes, who focused on self-maximization as guided by Taoist principles, while the more literate among the lower classes focused on the Buddhist principles of seeking an escape from mere bodily pleasures. Needless to add, such people did not procreate, and therefore failed to perpetuate their discontent.

The contribution of Buddhism to Chinese culture and language has been immense. The “butterfly dream” poem of Chuang Tzu in particular occupies a core of Zen thought now. This is a situation where the learned scholar wakes from his dream, where he remembers dreaming of himself as a butterfly. He then inquires whether he did indeed dream that he was a butterfly or whether his current state of being, as a human, could be the dream of a butterfly. The idea of non-attachment (as against detachment) is core to Buddhist thought, and explains away the injustices millions of people have suffered for the past few millennia. I believe that this core of thought, suffused with a Taoist instinct for self-preservation (and maximization), forms the essence of Chinese practicality. It informs the philosophy of action, and can be seen as a guiding hand of common sense in the works of Sun Tzu, which are more popular in the West.

Hinayana and Ceylon

The core practices of Buddhism that were initially exported at the time of Emperor Ashok were to become foreign in their land of birth as India took to the Mahayana form of Buddhism. In foreign lands, Buddhism nevertheless encountered one of the key objections to Mahayana thought, namely the need for deifying the Buddha (which was frowned upon by the Buddha himself) to spread the message wider. That the Mahayana school succumbed to the temptation to deify the Buddha and widen the discussions on his thoughts remains the key reason for the Hinayana school’s derision of the other school’s adherents.

The natural pessimism attached to Buddhism centers on the sheer pointlessness of one’s existence should one fail to secure separation from self. While this is optimal for an individual to examine at some length, it does not form the basis for nationhood. Indeed, much as the Confucians observed, true Buddhists do not form armies and do not join government, as these acts necessarily injure others. Thus challenged, the Hinayana school in practice adopted the sacred relics of the Buddha as its guiding force. The transition of focus from the immutable self to an object proved successful as a way of guarding the basic culture from foreign invasion.

It is thus no accident that all the main adherents of the Hinayana school Buddhism – Ceylon, Burma and Siam – succeeded in creating military societies (I define that term as a society ever-focused on external threats to its culture, with less focus on internal reforms). Indeed, the Hinayana school has a basic openness on religion that is somehow combined with a basic disdain for exceptional behavior.

The key exception for Buddhism with respect to terrorism is thus to be found in its oldest school – it does not take any leap of faith for us to examine the modern-day barbarism shown by the Myanmar junta on its own people, nor the atrocities heaped on minority Tamils and Muslims by the majority Sinhalese (Buddhists) in Sri Lanka, as having philosophical underpinnings not in Buddhism, but in the organization of the state around the idea of protecting the religion.

Back to Islam

As with the Hinayana school, today’s Islam organizes itself around the sacred experience of visiting Mecca and Medina, and adhering to other tenets laid down many centuries ago. And as with the experience in Burma and Ceylon, this led to the successful establishment of a military society.

The evolution of Shi’ite thought was on similar lines to that in the Mahayana school, and very similar to the history of Buddhism: circumstances (ie, history) played a great part in rendering the divide on nationalist lines. The lack of open debate in Sunni Islam today harks back to the Hinayana experience, although with a key difference, namely that while Buddhism’s strictest thoughts survived away from its place of origin, the same cannot be said of Islam today.

Evolution has been an integral feature of all expanding religions, be it Christianity’s incorporation of pagan beliefs in Europe or Buddhism’s adoption of Taoist principles in China. While Islam itself underwent similar evolution – witness the Sufi school of thought, which borrowed much from Buddhism – today’s voices speak from the core alone.

Thus the statement that terrorists do not represent a majority of Muslims may indeed be true mathematically, but that does not absolve the rest of the Islamic community of their failure to address the narrowness of the core. This silence forms the basis of the global terrorist pyramid.