Sectarian Violence in Burma

First, an update related to Saturday’s post on Tibet. China has recently closed Tibet to foreign visitors. The fear is that with Tibet cut-off from the world, the Chinese may engage in a massive crackdown (which to some extent they already have) that no one will ever know the true dimensions of. On June 1 Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Programme Director said, “Massively cracking down on the population in Lhasa is not a solution to the broad unrest we are seeing among Tibetans.”

Rohingya Muslim protesters in front of a United Nations office in Bangkok (Sakchai Lalit, AP)

Over the weekend in Burma the government declared a state of emergency to deal with unrest after hundreds of Buddhist villagers’ homes were set on fire and seven people killed in rioting on Friday and Saturday. The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims threatens to undermine the new government’s reforms and the country’s transition to democracy. Read more here at Reuters.

At the center of the violence, as the news service points out, is “an issue that human rights groups have criticized for years: the plight of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions . . .”  The government does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as citizens and there have been accusations of persecution by the military for years. The Rohingya also claim that many of their people are forced into labor at military camps.

Burma is also facing a crisis with the people in Kachin, the country’s northernmost state. June 9 marked the first anniversary of the breakdown of a 17-year-old ceasefire between the “Myanmar” government and the ethnic Kachin people. In the last 12 months there have been over 100 clashes between government and Kachin forces. The United Nations refugee agency say there are more than 50,000 displaced people in the Kachin state. It, too, is blocked off, as most international aid agencies and journalists are not allowed there.

Getting back to the violence over the weekend that led to the emergency rule, Reuters notes that the Rohingya Muslims “are despised by many ethnic Rakhine, members of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist majority.”

Rakhine Buddhist holds a machete as he guardshomes in Sittwe, Burma (Reuters)

The Rakhine are largely Theravada Buddhists. It’s difficult to understand how a group that claims to be one of the first people to embrace Buddha-dharma in Southeast Asia could despise another people. Mahatma Gandhi had the same feeling in 1938, when he could not understand how it was possible for Burmese Budd


China’s “Harmonious Campaign” and Buddhist IPOs

This week The Buddhist Association of China announced it was launching a “harmonious monasteries” campaign in Tibet. Here’s what the People’s Daily Online reported:

Tibetan Buddhism has always upheld harmony and peace, sought to create a graceful world and extended sympathy to all lives, said Jamyang Losang Jigme Tubdain Qoigyi Nyima, a living Buddha who is also vice president of the association.

As both Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese citizens, monks and nuns should benefit the country and the people, adhere to religious doctrines, promote Buddhism and serve followers, he said.

In the statement, the association’s Tibetan Buddhism division urged monks and nuns to behave as good citizens, protect the national unity, ethnic harmony and social stability, as well as avoid secessionist activities . . . The association also called on them to abide by the law.

Chinese police demonstrating a harmonious way of dealing with foreign pro-Tibet activists in Beijing, 2008. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

It’s not hard to read between the lines here. It’s just a attempt to persuade Tibetans to behave and not protest while China destroys their culture and engages in what Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, described some years ago as “ethnic cleansing by population transfer.”

According to Wikipedia, “The [Buddhist Association of China] shares jurisdiction over Buddhists in China with the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which regulates all recognized religions.” While technically the BCA is not state-run, its ties to the government are obvious. In addition to the guy with the long name mentioned above, the “11th Panchen Lama” is also a V.P. of the BCA. His name is Gyaincain Norbu and he is China’s pick for the position of the highest lama in Tibet after the Dalai Lama. The person recognized by Tibetan Buddhists as the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was detained by Chinese authorities shortly after his selection was announced in 1995 (he was six years old) and he hasn’t been seen since. Many Tibet/China watchers believe he is dead.

Here is a little flip side to the state-sponsored Buddhism scene in China: Liu Wei, an official with the State Administration of Religious Affairs, recently told Buddhist and Taoist temples that they have no right to go public and list shares on stock exchanges. According to Reuters, “The listing of companies linked to world famous Chinese heritage sites is not new in the country’s three-decade-old capital markets, but attempts to list at least one religious site have apparently crossed a line.”

Now we know why the Happy Buddha is so happy.

This is not aimed at just Buddhism and Taoism, but also the other religions (Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) recognized by the Chinese government. Apparently a few of the more historical and popular religious sites are suspected of becoming overly commercial. This is one of the few times I agree with the Chinese government. Buddhism and commercialism should not mix.

A few years the commercialism charge was leveled at Shaolin Temple, probably the most famous Buddhist temple in the world. Over a million people visit Shaolin Temple in Henan province each year. The temple rakes in money from entrance fees, online sales of Shaolin memorabilia (fans, t-shirts, etc.), and its traveling performing troupes. A sub-industry has spouted up in the land around Shaolin where there are now more than 80 private kung fu schools that train more than 60,000 people to be like the monastery’s famous warrior-monks.

Shaolin Temple was founded in 495 CE. According to legend, the founder of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, Bodhidharma meditated for nine years in a nearby cave and then taught the monks at Shaolin meditation and an exercise called the Eighteen Arhat Hands. The monastery has long been associated with Chinese martial arts.

In the West. Shaolin Temple may be most famous for being the place where Kwai Chang Caine (AKA “Grasshopper”) was a monk as a young boy in the Kung Fu television series starring David Carradine, along with two great Asian character actors Keye Luke (blind Master Po) and Philip Ahn (Master Kan).

I can just picture a modern day Master Kan telling young Grasshopper, “Quickly as you can, sell the shares listed . . . When you can sell all the shares before the closure of the IPO, it will be time for you to leave.”


Farewell Summer: Death of A Peerless Storyteller

Ray Bradbury, one of the true masters of science fiction (or fiction period) has died. He was 91. He passed away here in Los Angeles, after what is described by his family as “a lengthy illness”.

Many years ago when I worked at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, each morning before reporting for duty I would stop at a delicatessen called Dave’s Table on the corner of N. Beverly Drive and Wilshire (it’s not there anymore-the deli, that is). Often Ray Bradbury would come in around the same time and get a cup of coffee and maybe a croissant or a bagel to go. I think he had an office in the building next door. No matter what the weather, he always wore the same thing: a pull-over sweater and white tennis shorts. He had these pasty pink and white legs that never tanned. Frankly, if I had been him, I would have thought about wearing pants, but that was his business. I never spoke to him, but I always wanted to (not about the shorts, of course).

In a 2010 CNN interview, Bradbury described himself as a “delicatessen religionist.” I guess he was really into delicatessens. He told the interviewer that he was inspired by both Eastern and Western religions. But he added,

I’m a Zen Buddhist if I would describe myself. I don’t think about what I do. I do it. That’s Buddhism. I jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down.”

I rather doubt he was a practicing Zen Buddhist. By that I mean someone who engages in regular meditation. But you never know. He did write a book called Zen in the Art of Writing, but it was more about the latter than the former.

As much as Ray Bradbury’s mind soared to other worlds, he had feet firmly planted in the town that he loved, Los Angeles. He’d lived here since the 1930’s and in his interviews it was always great to hear him talk about “old” L.A. and describe things that aren’t around anymore.

Ray Bradbury was an immensely influential writer in the science fiction field. His novels included, The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. You can read about his life and work at Wikipedia.

There was a time, when I was a kid, summer meant three months of no school. I would spent most of that time reading. For some reason, those warm, carefree months seemed just right for science fiction, and I remember that for several summers in a row I read nothing but Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and of course, Ray Bradbury.

There are those days which seem a taking in of breath which, held, suspends the whole earth in its waiting. Some summers refuse to end.

– Bradbury in Farewell Summer

Thanks for those endless summers, Ray.


Something You Already Know

Dharamsala-June 1 (

I hadn’t heard about the Dalai Lama’s remarks to young Tibetans in Dharamasala when I published my last post, although it would have been a neat trick if I had, since I wrote the post a day before he spoke. However, I had similar thoughts in mind. Paraphrasing his remarks, the Tibet Post International reports that the Dalai Lama told the young people “no [one] can say that one religion is good and another religion is bad. Usually, religion is just like medicine. We have to prescribe it according to the conditions of each patient and each disease.”

These remarks were made on June 1, the beginning of a three day session in which Tibet’s spiritual leader conducted teachings to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to young Tibetans and students in Dharamsala, using as his texts, Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of the Buddha for His Teaching on Dependent Arising and Nagarjuna’s Drops of Nourishment for People.

I have to admit that I am not as generous or ecumenical as the Dalai Lama. I’m not so sure that I agree with him about what one can say about a particular religion or that religion itself is usually like medicine. Nevertheless, in my post, I did compare Buddhism, which I don’t really consider a religion, to medicine.

I mentioned how the Buddha is called “The Great Physician” because of his diagnosis of the disease of suffering and his prescription for its treatment.

Continuing with that theme, Chapter 3 of the Bodhicaryavatara (“Conduct or Way of the Bodhisattva”) by Shantideva contains a verse that is part of a well-known “aspirational prayer”:

May I be the medicine
For all beings ailing in the world,
May I be their doctor, their nurse,
Until their every sickness has been healed.

Although Shantideva is considered the author of a great work of literature, and his poetry is praised for its profundity and depth, his book contains many “stock” phrases (not unusual in Buddhist literature), and in this instance he may have been inspired by a passage included in his other work, Siksasamuccaya (“Compendium of Doctrine), from the Vajradhvaja Sutra:

May all beings be like efficacious medicines and drugs. May all beings stay far from the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. May all beings be like the sun arising, by scattering the veil of darkness and gloom for all beings.”

The wish to become medicine is just one expression of the greater aim of bodhicitta, the “aspiration for awakening,” which is the subject of the Bodhicaryavatara. The Dalai Lama says that

Bodhichitta itself has two aspects: aspiration and application. Aspiration is simply wishing to attain enlightenment for all beings, the desire to pursue the path. Application begins with taking the vow of bodhichitta and promising to put it into action. Aspiration is like simply wanting to go somewhere; application is actually going.”

Actually, I think it is difficult to say that any religion or spiritual philosophy by itself is medicine. The people who use spiritual teachings to improve their lives and to help others are the real medicine. Elsewhere in the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva says, “If the doctor’s instructions are ignored, how will a patient in need of a cure be healed by the medicine?” It stands to reason that if we don’t practice Buddhism and try to put the teachings in action through the course of our daily living, then having such an great physician and effective treatment does us very little good.

According to, the word “medicine” comes to us “via Old French from Latin medicina ( ars ) (art of) healing, from medicus  doctor, from mederi  to heal].” All of which implies action taken. A doctor engages in the practice of medicine, “to heal” means to engage in the art of healing. The Buddhist art of healing consists of aspiration and application, and both aim at healing ourselves and others. One without the other is like a one-wheeled cart: it won’t take you very far.

If you’re like me you’ve heard this sentiment about taking action, applying the teachings and so on many times. But it is such an important point that it’s good to recollect it often. Or as Woody Guthrie once said, “Let me be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew”


The Doctor Will See You Now

Suffering (dukkha) is a disease, the basic ‘ill’-ness of life, and because the Buddha offered an insightful diagnosis and effective treatment for this malady, he is called The Great Physician.

Every disease has a cause, and the cause for suffering, the Buddha taught, is the false sense of “self” and the passions this delusion inflames. The treatment he prescribed is the Eightfold Path, which we can summarize as ethics, meditation, and wisdom. Ethics I always feel is self-evident. Everyone, irrespective of religious considerations, should strive to live an ethical life. Meditation is the process that cools the fever of passion, and wisdom is the insight into and realization of no-self and all that goes with it.

The cure, then, we call Nirvana. The popular definition of this word is “blown out,” as in a candle being extinguished, and has sometimes been linked with the idea of extinction (of the entity of human life). However, its other and more relevant meaning has to do with the restoration of healthy conditions after the disease of suffering is treated.

There is the famous story of the maiden Kisagotami who from her balcony watched Siddhartha when he was a prince return home after he learned of his son’s birth. So taken by the prince’s beauty and glory, she spontaneously broke out in song: “Happy is the mother who has such a child, happy is the father who has such a son, happy is the wife who has such a husband!” The word she used for happy was nibbuta. Now, the future Buddha took this word, nibbuta, as a synonym for nirvana (nibbana) and transforms Kisagotami’s song in this way: “In seeing a handsome figure, the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana, the heart of a wife attains Nirvana.” Then he asks himself, of what does Nirvana consist? And the answer he arrives at is, “When the fire of passion is cooled, the heart is happy.”

Nirvana, that state said to be “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable” is actually, just plain and simple happiness, the transformation from a state of ill-ness into a state of health, and well-being.  We can accept the idea of “complete nirvana” as allegory, for there are few more powerful images than that of the Bodhisattva who forgoes this ultimate state to stay in Samsara, the world of suffering, and liberate other beings.

But liberation in this sense is a metaphor, because suffering is a chronic disease. As long as we live in the world, we will experience suffering. Liberation, Nirvana, these words mean to maintain a state of well-being, balance, happiness, while in the midst of suffering, a sort of “grace under pressure.” In this way, the key to good health is simply listening to the physician, picking up the prescription, and following the directions.

In the case of sickness, one needs to diagnose it, remove its cause,
Attain the happiness of good health and use reliable medicine for it;
Similarly, with suffering, one should remove its cause, and recognize its remission
And the path of remission should be applied and attained.

Uttaratantra Shastra