New Boat People Crisis

According to Thailand’s foreign minister the number of migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an “alarming level.” Migrants desperately fleeing their home countries have been landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. During the past month, over 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have washed ashore, and the UN estimates that several thousand more are still be at sea, abandoned by human smugglers.

Friday, during the opening of an Asean conference in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn called for governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis. Both he and the UN singled out Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the country most responsible for the situation.

Most of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese persecution, while many others are economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking job in other countries.

At the conference, Htin Linn, the head of the Myanmar delegation, refused to accept any responsibility, while in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, over three hundred protesters, including scores of extremist Buddhist monks, took to the streets to deny that the boat people are Rohingya Muslims. Demonstrators wore shirts and held signs with messages such as “Boat People are not Myanmar, Stop Blaming Myanmar” and “There is no Rohingya in Myanmar.”

Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)

Meanwhile in an interview before a visit to Australia next week with The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama urged fellow a Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out: “It’s very sad . . . I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republic. I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has disappointed many of her admirers around the world.

I would hope that if the Dalai Lama, as head of a Mahayana Buddhist sect, feels confident about pressing Suu Kyi, a follower of Theravada Buddhism, to take some action, he would also feel confident about calling on Theravadins in Burma and Sri Lanka to do something about the Buddhist extremism on the rise in both of those countries.

In an article published Thursday at Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, Theravada Buddhism’s Muslim Problem, Iselin Frydenlund, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Susan Hayward, Interim Director of the Religion and Peace building program at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote that the problem “requires an intra-Buddhist debate on Buddhist principles, religious pluralism, and human rights.” They also maintain that joint statements crafted at local summits between Buddhist and Muslims “carry far more weight than any human rights group’s condemnation of the role of religious leaders in creating intolerance and mistrust.”

This may be true, but joint condemnation or at least some rather loud vocalization from fellow Buddhists would carry some weight as well. In my opinion, Buddhists worldwide have been far too quiet.

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Betraying Buddhism

In 1992, Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah (1929–2014), a social anthropologist, published Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka, a book that traced the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and asked the question “Given Buddhism’s presumed nonviolent philosophy how can committed Buddhist monks and laypersons in Sri Lanka today actively take part in the fierce political violence of the Sinhalese [Buddhist majority] against the Tamils [non-Buddhist minority]?”

monk-with-gunThat question is still relevant 22 years later despite that the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils technically ended in 2009.  Since then, we have seen the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka, and the 969 in Burma. Both are Buddhist extremist groups that promote racism and encourage violence against minorities.

Last month in Burma, 969 followers incited Buddhist mobs to attack offices and residences of international aid workers, prompting the evacuation of almost all non-essential staff and residents. A 13-year-old girl died when police fired into the air to disperse the crowds. The aid workers were targeted because of accusations they are favoring the minority Rohingya Muslim population.

Human Rights Watch in a new report says that Burmese security forces supported by Buddhist monks have “committed crimes against humanity” in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

To be fair, it needs to be said that in Sri Lanka and Burma, all sides have committed violent acts, but the side I am concerned with here is the Buddhist side, for I am a Buddhist, and racism and violence enacted under the banner of Buddha-dharma is an abomination that should not be tolerated.

Make no mistake about it, these fundamentalists are abusing the dharma, justifying their actions with nonsense about how the presence of non-Buddhist ethnic groups in their countries is a threat to Buddhism, or perhaps we should say Theravada Buddhism.

But it is these Buddhist extremists who are the real threat. By promoting hate and inciting violent acts, they not only betray Buddhism, they also degrade it.

What puzzles me, and I’ve commented on this before, is the silence of the world Buddhist community. As far as I know, and I have followed the situation rather closely, only a handful of Buddhist leaders have commented on the conflicts, and those comments have been rather mild. The Buddhist blogosphere, also, save for two or three exceptions, has been silent.

Recently there has been discussion on a couple of Buddhist blogs about what this phenomenon should be called, whether terms like “Buddhist terror” or “Buddhist extremism” are justifiable, or whether something more “nuanced,” like “Ethnocentric Buddhism” would be more appropriate. This was started by a scholar, Dr. Paul Fuller, and I know academics must analyze and classify, but frankly, when considering the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, called by the UN “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” debating what label should be used to describe the Buddhist campaign against them seems rather trivial.  One thing is clear, what these intolerant monks are preaching cannot be called Buddhism.

I feel that if Buddhists who are a bit more enlightened were to engage the extremists in dialogue (the Buddha’s preferred method for conflict resolution), or if the Buddhist world united in one voice to basically tell these folks either to start acting like Buddhists or disrobe, there is a possibility they could be turned around, or if nothing else, made to think twice.  There is no central Buddhist authority to compel them to do anything, but world-wide Buddhist condemnation might have some effect.   At the very least, those of us who discuss Buddhism on blogs and other forms of social media could do much more to raise awareness about the situation.  To remain silent is, in my opinion, also a betrayal of Buddhism.

Aung San Suu Kyi dialoging with Muslims in 2012 (EPA)
Aung San Suu Kyi dialoging with Muslims in 2012 (EPA)

Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi has received her share of criticism for remaining largely silent about this situation. I have no doubt that as a Buddhist and a human being, she deplores these crimes. After all, she has stated many times that “democracy must include everyone.” She has also said that she can accomplish more by working quietly behind the scenes for reconciliation than by making public statements. This seems to me a wise strategy, considering that she is no longer a political dissent but an elected member of the Burmese Parliament and can dialogue not only with the persecutors and their victims, but also those who wield the real power.

Speaking of Suu Kyi, the other night I finally saw The Lady, the 2011 biopic about the Nobel Laureate. As I recall, the film received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release. Condensing a person’s life to a two-hour movie is always difficult, but I was satisfied and inspired by French Director Luc Besson’s effort.

Michelle Yeoh as "The Lady"
Michelle Yeoh as “The Lady”

Michelle Yeoh, who made her name as a star of Hong Kong action films, gave a strong, emotional performance. I thought she captured Suu Kyi perfectly, and from what I read afterward, she studied about 200 hours worth of audiovisual material on Suu Kyi and learned Burmese so that she could deliver Suu Kyi’s political speeches authentically.

One of the real-life characters in the film, U Win Tin, a writer and co-founder of the National League for Democracy Party with Aung San Suu Kyi, died Monday at the age of 84.

At the very end of The Lady, a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi appears on the screen:

Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

Ultimately, there is no “your,” only “ours.” The sufferings of the Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups are our sufferings. For those who think of themselves as Buddhists, the abuses of a small group of extremists committed in the name of Buddha, is our shame, and our business.

We, who live in more democratic societies where we enjoy the right of free speech, should use our speech to promote human rights and freedom for all.

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Short Takes:Two Interviews

(AP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Aung San Suu Kyi is in the United States for a 17-day tour. Yesterday, she met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just look at the expression of joy on Clinton’s face. It’s wonderful.

Suu Kyi was interviewed by Scott Stearns for Voice of America. He asked her this:

 STEARNS: One final question. Another question from Facebook – In your years under house arrest, what is it that kept it going? Did you feel that it was just never going to end?

ASSK:  No I never felt it was never going to end,  and I didn’t really feel the need for anything to keep me going.  I felt myself to be on the path that I had chosen and I was perfectly prepared to keep to that path.

I don’t know if I would have that kind of perseverance. Aung San Suu Kyi has been free nearly two years now, and she will be in Los Angeles at the Convention Center on October 2, and I am free to attend this free event. I am really looking forward to seeing and hearing this woman I have admired for so long. If you’re in the L.A. area and are interested, go here.

Dylan in 1963

Bob Dylan is also on tour in the U.S., and Canada. Last week, I shared some thoughts on Bob’s new album and I mentioned how he’s been accused of plagiarism. Accused is not the right word. It’s a proven fact. Bob has been a serial plagiarist going back to his high school days. Below are some links that discuss some of the incidents.

What does Dylan have to say about it? In a recent interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone, he says, “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

He also claims, “In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” That’s true, to a certain extent. In rock, for instance, who hasn’t borrowed from Chuck Berry? That classic guitar riff has been used in plenty of songs with only a few of the borrowers crediting Berry, who in turn borrowed the lick from his piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Bruce Springsteen has been rather open about what he calls “stealing.” Listen to Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” sometime and then listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band.” It’s basically the same song, Springsteen just slowed it down.

Still, when an artist releases 3 albums in a row full of “quotation” and refried blues licks, it gets a bit old. I cannot believe the reviews Bob’s latest, Tempest, is getting. If it is the best album of the year, then the rest of the stuff out there must be really putrid.

In new interview Bob sort of confesses to stealing lines from Japanese novelist Junichi Yakuza (2001’s Love and Theft), and Civil War poet Henry Timrod (2006’s Modern Times).

Bob “writes” a poem in 1957.

Plagiarism in Chronicles Volume One.

Questions about Bob’s “Original” Artwork.

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Having A Stubborn Streak

"The Lady" meets the Dalai Lama

I’ve been on vacation. Visiting relatives in Northern California. Had a wonderful time. Now I’m back and catching up on all the news and different things I missed while I was away: Rodney King died. That guy had one troubled life. Hosni Mubarak suffered a stroke and may be brain dead. And Henry Hill, the guy who inspired Goodfellas, also passed away. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Europe and finally got her Nobel Prize.  And yesterday, on her 67th birthday, she met with the Dalai Lama.

In the UK, someone asked Aung San Suu Kyi how she found the strength to resist the military government in Burma for so long, and she said,

During this journey I have found great warmth and great support among people all over the world . . . So it’s all of you and people like you who have given me the strength to continue . . . And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”

Stubbornness is not usually considered a positive trait, but all truly great people are stubborn. Unyielding might be a better word for it. I’m thinking especially of my aunt, who is English, and not because she is particularly stubborn or unyielding herself (although she probably is to some degree), but because during one of the evenings I spent at her and my uncle’s house, she told me some stories about her life as a young woman in London during the early days of World War II, when the Germans were bombing the city and the block she lived in was completely destroyed. Thank goodness, the English people were stubborn, unyielding, and refused to knuckle under to Hitler’s onslaught.

There were a lot of stubborn people around that time. Churchill was stubborn, so was Roosevelt, and Gandhi. Stubborn people are real heroes of life. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela was stubborn. After his long years of imprisonment, he stubbornly did not give in to hatred, bitterness, or vengeance. Stubborn people refuse to yield to oppression, or life-threatening diseases. They are the kind of people who do not accept their circumstances in life and want to better themselves, or resist acceptance of the way things are and because they’re stubborn, they work to enact change. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being stubborn enough to just survive.

In this sense, I think stubbornness is good trait for Buddhists to cultivate. I hear many people complain about meditation practice these days. They say, well, you know, Buddhism is more than meditation, and so on. They’re right, and yet, I have the feeling that’s just a rationalization, an excuse. Whether it’s silent meditation or chanting, a daily practice is hard to maintain. Maybe these complainers lack the stubbornness to keep it up.

“Resolution” is another good word for stubbornness. Shantideva wrote:

The thought of enlightenment has two stages: (1) the resolution for enlightenment; and (2) the advancement toward the same. As the holy Gandavyuha says: ‘Rare, my son, in all the world are such beings who make a resolution toward the highest illumination, yet rarer than these are they that have started toward the same’ . . . The first of these, the thought of the resolution towards enlightenment, is produced by the decision of the mind: ‘I must become a Buddha’ for the Surangama Sutra says that the thought of enlightenment produced by actual deception is a cause of Buddhahood . . .”

The way I interpret this is that the “deception” is the notion that there is a final stage, a consummate state called Buddhahood or enlightenment. It’s a deception because, as I always say, enlightenment is a journey, not a destination. Yet, without some idea of an end, we would never begin; we’d never make that decision of the mind to step off on the journey. That’s why I prefer to use the word “awakening” for enlightenment. The “ing” form implies something happening in the present, of “doing.” We don’t become enlightened so much as we are becoming enlightened, we are awakening.  And to me, being a Buddhist means having the stubbornness, the resolution, the unyielding spirit to continue the process of awakening no matter what happens.

The Dhammavadaka Sutra says,

You, no less than all beings have Buddha Nature within. Your essential Mind is pure. Therefore, when defilements cause you to stumble and fall, let not remorse nor dark foreboding cast you down. Be of good cheer and with this understanding, summon strength and walk on.”

Having a stubborn streak means to “walk on.” For 15 years the military government of Burma kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She could not step out of her small compound, yet she walked on. This year she was elected to her country’s parliament. This week she went to Norway and finally received her Nobel Prize, and she traveled to England and finally received her honorary degree from Oxford University. And she, like Mandela, has resisted the temptation of hatred, bitterness or vengeance.

Unyielding. Resolute. We should all have such a stubborn streak.

Suu Kyi/Dalai Lama Photo: Jeremy Russell/OHHDL

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East, West

I recorded the Charlie Rose Show from the other night and watched Aung San Suu Kyi interviewed via Skype at a Clinton Global Initiative event. She said, “Some people say that democracy is a Western concept . . .” Obviously those people are in her country and using that line as a way to legitimatize maintaining the very non-democratic status quo there.

It mirrors expressions I often hear in the Buddhist World: “this or that is confusing for Western interpreters of Buddhism”, “Westerners putting a negativistic spin on Buddhism”, “the teachers of Western Buddhism will ignore most of this. . . “. And then, “Why are Eastern Buddhists condescending to Western Buddhists”, “Eastern Buddhism needs to catch up to the 21st Century” and so on.

East, West – What does it matter anymore? We’re one world now.  East and West are just hands on the one world body. If you are right handed, you don’t dismiss things done by your left hand, do you?

Sure, there are Eastern customs that may be archaic, just as there are some concepts from the West that are incompatible with Buddhism, like those from Christianity. But we seem to be stuck in a general mode of thinking that still looks for differences. At times, we sound like relics from 150 years ago, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet . . .”

That comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and the remainder of the verse has often been overlooked: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

We’re one world.  East and West are just hands on the one world body.

In response to a question about the recent Arab Spring, Aung San Suu Kyi replied, “Of course, our societies are very different. But in the end, we’re all human beings and I think we can all understand each others hopes and fears . . .”

You can see the interview here. Desmond Tutu, it seems, has a bit of a crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. This I can understand. She is beautiful inside and out.

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