Compared with other world religions, Buddhism enjoys excellent PR, but the recent anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar – much of it incited by Buddhist monks – has dented its image.

Like most religions, Buddhism is inherently good but some of its adherents do bad things in its name. Corruption among the clergy is believed to have been a factor in inciting several anti- Buddhist pogroms in Chinese history. The most notorious were the “persecutions of Buddhism by the three Wus”, so named because all three emperors responsible – Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei dynasty (408-452), Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou (543-578) and Emperor Wuzong of Tang (814- 846) – had the same “wu” character in their titles. The Wus’ own religious convictions – two were devout Taoists and one a Confucian – played a part but the monasteries’ excesses, if not the real catalyst, gave the emperors justification for their campaigns. By taking land from poor farmers, through usury, trickery and sometimes violence, monks were able to grow tremendously rich at the expense of the court – monastery lands being taxexempt. There was also a moral dimension: many supposedly celibate monks and nuns openly engaged in sexual activity.

The persecution was severe: temples were destroyed, lands confiscated and clergy defrocked. But the tenacious Buddhist faith rebounded after each emperor’s death.