Searching for Humanity in Burmese Buddhism
Since the anti-Muslim violence and business boycotts broke out in Burma last year, I have been trying to reconcile my personal experience with Buddhism and the hateful propaganda coming from monks throughout the country.
Below is an excerpt from The Irrawaddy on this week’s Monks’ Convention in Burma:
“RANGOON — About 200 senior Buddhist monks convening in Rangoon on Thursday have begun drafting a religious law that would put restrictions on marriages Buddhist women and Muslim men.
Ahead of the two-day conference, the monks — who are highly revered in Burma — had said that they would meet to discuss how to resolve ongoing tensions between Buddhists and the country’s Muslim minority.
U Wirathu, a well-known nationalist monk, said he was delighted with the plans to try to stop any Buddhist woman from marrying a Muslim man. “I have dreamed of this law for a long time. It is important to have this law to protect our Buddhist women’s freedom,” he said during a press conference.”
I first visited Burma in May 2012, weeks before Muslim-Buddhist violence broke out in Arakan state. On a sunset trip to Shwedagon Pagoda, I struck up a conversation with a man of Indian descent. He said he was a Muslim, and that he enjoyed walking around the pagoda during the half and full moon days (important days of practice for pious Buddhists). He talked at length about how there were times of trouble in the past, but everyone got along – Buddhists, Muslims, Indians. My conversations with monks, young and old, in Mandalay and in the monasteries I passed through in remote Shan state carried similar statements: ethnic violence was in the past and now we want to move forward. Though I never heard anyone else say this overtly, I never sensed any underlying tension in my three or so weeks there.
Sectarian violence broke out in Arakan state shortly after I departed. Reacting to a report that a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Muslim men, Arakan villagers killed a busload of Muslim men. This led to riots in Rohingya districts and reprisal killings. The sectarian violence escalated with government and Buddhist leaders implicitly and explicitly fanning the flames. The Rohingya, outgunned and outnumbered, fled to makeshift camps near the Bangladesh border. Denied citizenship, legal rights, or basic safety/services by Myanmar, many attempted to cross the closed border. For the rest of the year, human rights watch groups, aid agencies, diplomats and the Myanmar government sparred over how to resolve the situation.
Flash forward to my visit this past March: the government was successfully implementing a long-term segregation policy for Rohingya and other Muslims, forcibly displacing 125,000+ persons to squalid camps on the border and limiting access by aid agencies. Worse yet, the dissonance seemed to be escalating with new anti-Muslim protests in Yangon and new bouts of gruesome violence around Mandalay. Noble Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, likely empathetic but mindful of the elections in 2015, was notably quiet on the issue.
As a component of my Open Masters program, I was studying various Buddhist texts, practicing daily meditation and digging into Burmese Buddhist history. Serendipitously, the Spring 2013 issue of Tricycle featured an essay by an esteemed Burmese scholar entitled “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma.” In stark contrast to the oft heard chants of “metta and the Lovingkindness Sutra”, the magazine displayed a photo of a group of monks with spears overlooking a smoldering Rohingya village. The author largely condemns the active role Buddhist leadership in Myanmar played in encouraging violence against Muslims and blocking opportunities for reconciliation.
During my time in Yangon and surrounding towns, I hoped to find a degree of humanity behind the rhetoric. Surely, I thought, the strong yet decentralized Buddhist community that gave rise to various human rights demonstrations would have a plurality of opinions on the plight of the Rohingya. If nothing else, would there not be a monk or abbot that took a middle view?
Sadly, I didn’t find what I was seeking. Granted, I only spoke with a dozen or so monks and abbots, as well as a number of Burmese individuals; this was not a sample size that would pass muster in an academic survey. I was simply hoping for a singular middle voice in this group that would give me hope that an alternative reconciliation movement was possible.
Here is a bit of what I heard:
An Abbot in Bago – “They don’t belong here. The solution is for them [Muslims] to go into the sea. To drown or leave for somewhere else, as long as they are gone.”
A Monk in Bago – “They have as many children as possible. They are trying to take over the country. They must go back from where they came.”
A Fellow Tea Drinker in Yangon – “It is not a good religion. It is a violent religion. They are trying to take our good women and make them Muslim.”
A Monk in Yangon – “This is a fight between Islam and Buddhism. We are a Buddhist country.”
A Man in Yangon – “Iran and Saudi Arabia send money to Muslims here. They want to convert people. They are arming the Rohingya for a war through their charities.”
There are voices of reason out there certainly, but sadly I didn’t hear them.
Disheartened, I talked with my good friend, a Buddhist and filmmaker, about my conversations. “Well, what did you expect? We receive a very scientific, watered-down version of Buddhism in the West that is more or less completely separated from its cultural roots and what we might call superstition. Just like any religion, you have a plurality of views and cultural nuances. Above all, you have humanity at its best and worst. In a massive, multiethnic country undergoing tremendous change you have people looking for identity and security. Just like the fundamentalist Christians that emerged in the US in the 20th century, old cultural divisions and conservative theology start to arise as people make sense of this societal shift. ”
Another friend added: “Myanmar is the midst of major scaling back of surveillance programs, police powers and internet restrictions, not to mention democratic reforms. Some Burmese have seen this as a power vacuum and are taking advantage of the situation to settle old scores.”
In the end, I suppose I was searching not for humanity, as humanity is noteworthy for creating needless divisions. Rather, I was searching for individuals that might validate my perspective. Instead of being disheartened, my first friend added, “you should be grateful for the opportunity to listen and your new insight.” (As a side note: a recent article in Tricycle speaks to the challenge of recognizing human nature at its best and worst in one’s spiritual mentors)
The situation remains tenuous between Muslims and Buddhists throughout Myanmar. While I can better appreciate the longstanding political and ethnic issues, I still fail to reconcile the disconnect between the actions and speech of local Buddhist leaders and my understanding of Buddhist texts and practice. The violence and “solutions” offered in no way adhere to the basic tenants of Buddhism.
While a great number of individuals have been swept up in the inflammatory rhetoric and violent persecution of Muslims, my hope is that there is a silent community somewhere working tirelessly for reconciliation. If you’re out there make your voice heard so the rest of us can engage.
More Reading on the Rohingya and Buddhism in Myanmar:
“Buddhist Nationalism in Burma” by Maung Zarni (Spring 2013)
“Genocidal Buddhists: An Interview with Maung Zarni” from Tricycle Magazine (March 2013)
“In Myanmar It’s Free Beer But No TIME” from The Diplomat (July 7 2013)