The Rohingya Crisis

It’s just a shot away:

“When they are being killed and forcibly transferred in a widespread or systematic manner, this could constitute ethnic cleansing and could amount to crimes against humanity.”

In fact it can be the precursor to all the egregious crimes — and I mean genocide.”

These are the words of Adama Dieng, the UN special advisor for the prevention of genocide. He is referring to the crisis in Burma (Myanmar), a humanitarian crisis that has recently worsened.

On August 25, the military began “clearance operations” in the Rakhine State.  Since that date it’s been estimated that some 370,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed over the border into Bangladesh. They have carried with them allegations of mass killings and burning of Rohingya villages by Buddhist vigilantes and Burmese soldiers.

Image: Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. (Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

The Rohingya people, from Rakhine in Myanmar, are mostly Muslim and they are stateless. Despite the fact that they have been in Burma for centuries, the Buddhist majority refuses to recognize their citizenship. In 2013, the United Nations called the Rohingya “one of the most persecuted communities in the world.”

On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the situation in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Many of the accounts of violence are unverifiable because the Myanmar military will not let international journalists in the region where the violence is occurring. According to the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de-facto leader, claims that fake news is inflaming the outrage over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. She says it is “simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”

Up to now, Aung San Suu Kyi has been strangely silent about the Rohingya crisis.  And it is not clear to me who “the terrorists” are to her. To me, the terrorists are the Buddhists. Myanmar’s Buddhism is fueled by anger, hate, and Islamophobia.

Recent reports have surfaced of Rohingya insurgents attacking police posts, killing 12 officers, and 130 people, including women and children, massacred in a single village by soldiers and Buddhist vigilantes, but while there has been violence perpetrated by both sides, the lion’s share of responsibility for the killing and burning lies with the Buddhist majority and the military. The Buddhist side is led by a group known as the “969 Buddhist nationalist campaign.” 969 refers to a Buddhist tradition in which the Three Jewels or Tiratana is composed of 24 attributes (9 for the Buddha, 6 for Dhamma or the teachings, and 9 for the Sangha).  They rationalize persecution of the Rohingya by claiming they are protecting Buddhism from the evils of Islam.

Ms Suu Kyi, one of the most respected women in the world, has come under fire for her silence. Recently, Malala Yousafzai, 20, the women’s education activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 and who survived to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on her fellow laureate to condemn the “shameful” treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. She said that “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

We have been waiting.  Suu Kyi’s silence has been troubling. Yet, as the Washington Post noted on Sept. 6, “Defenders of Suu Kyi argue that she has to walk a delicate line with the Burmese military, which not so long ago was her jailer and remains backed by an increasingly vocal constituency of Buddhist nationalists.”

Friday, during an impromptu interview with reporters, the Dalai Lama said, “Those people who are harassing Muslims then they should remember Buddha helping, definitely helping those poor Muslims… Still, I feel that. Very sad. Very sad.”  He was referring to a statement he made in 2014 that if the Buddha was there, he would protect the Muslims from the Buddhists.

Several years ago, the Dalai Lama, during a meeting of Nobel Laureates, urged Ms Suu Kyi to curb the violence, and even more recently he wrote her a letter, again urging her to speak out and to resolve the crisis.

Silence is not always noble.

I’m still wondering where’s the outrage from the international Buddhist community.  We can’t allow anyone to use Buddha-dharma as a weapon of hate.  Speaking out is a responsibility that all Buddhists share.

And I still think a strong and repeated condemnation of the Myanmar Buddhists by international Buddhists would have some impact. It would be difficult for the Myanmar sangha to ignore such a response. Put the pressure on.

So, Buddhists can do more.  Out job is to raise awareness.  Buddhists need to talk more about it, blog more about it.  It is not the only crisis in the world by any means, but it is our crisis.  All Buddhists need to own it.  Not to pat myself on the back, but I’ve mentioned or dedicated an entire post to the crisis in Myanmar about 11 times between 2012 and 2015.  Even though I have been silent on the crisis for a while,  I have not given up disturbing the sounds of silence.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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Wavelessness

Zhao De wrote, “If water is still enough, everything is reflected clearly.  If mind is calm, then wisdom grows.”

A key goal in the practice of Buddhist meditation is to develop a calm mind.  We call the practice mindfulness but mindfulness is also a state of mind.  And calmness does not mean absolute stillness.  There is movement in calmness.  According to the T’ai Shang Ch’ing-ching Ching (“Cultivating Stillness”), a text attributed to Lao Tzu, “Movement is the foundation of stillness.”

Sometimes we engage in metaphor:  Still water is our mind.  The stillness of the water is disturbed when the wind blows and makes waves.  Waves are our sufferings.  The nature of water is stillness, while the nature of waves is movement.

When we gaze upon a calm sea, we see that the surface is tranquil, smooth, waveless.  Because there is no surface movement to distort the reflection, in still water we see a clear reflection of things as they are.  A calm mind reflects the world without distortion.  In addition, this mind does not try to seize and cling to everything it sees, and when there are waves, it is not smashed by their impact.

You know the theory:  If a person’s mind is profoundly still, he or she becomes aware of their true nature and the real aspect of things.  Like still water, when the mind is calm it sends back a clear image of the non-duality of the world, and we discover that a wave is not separate from water; it is water, in movement.  It’s a rather obvious conclusion but remember water and waves are metaphors.

In meditation practice, to develop this non-dual realization fully, we consider the mind to be water and sufferings as waves, and we meditate to become waveless.

Being present in the moment, mindfulness is wavelessness.

Being aware, of course, that movement is also present.

A certain sage from Texas maintains that “Still is still moving to me.”

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Butterflies Are Free

I remembered when I was a kid, I picked up a chrysalis and kept it in a jar until the butterfly started to come out.  So I broke open the cocoon to make it easier for the butterfly. When it finally came out, I noticed that it flew sort of feebly.  And then it died. Then I found out that it’s the struggle the butterfly makes trying to break through the cocoon that makes its wings strong.

Shepard Rifkin, Shepard, The Murderer Vine

The buddha nature that exists as wisdom-potential within our being is like a caterpillar.  When a caterpillar has completely grown, they form themselves into a pupa, also known as a chrysalis.  Within the chrysalis, the caterpillar undergoes an extraordinary transformation, called ‘metamorphosis.’  When metamorphosis is complete, a butterfly emerges, perhaps one with strong, beautiful wings.

Two elements are necessary for this process to be successful.  One is transformation.  The other is struggle.  In terms of Buddhism, a person who does not change cannot become a buddha.  A person who does not struggle, in the sense of making effort, cannot become a buddha.  Since we are talking about sentient beings and not insects, there is a third element that is crucial and that is the aspect of mind.

To ordinary persons, buddha potential, located within the mind, is obscured by illusion.  An ordinary person does not yet have the ability to see the true aspect of reality, much less his or her own enlightened nature.  However, a buddha sees through the veil of illusion and knows the world as it truly is.  And, a buddha recognizes that all living things are also buddhas, or potential buddhas.  A potential buddha must undergo some struggle and develop their their mind, in order to have strong wings and free themselves from illusion.

In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha states:

“This mind is luminous, shining brightly, but colored by our delusions.  Ordinary people do not understand this, and so they do not develop the mind.  This mind is luminous, shining brightly, and free from delusion.  Noble wayfarers understand this well, so for them there is development of the mind.”

Development means effort, work, struggle.  In a religion like Christianity, “works” or good deeds can never win salvation.  Only faith in God, only through loving God.  Potential buddhas do not need to call upon supernatural beings and deities.  If a wayfarer trusts the potential within the mind and expends effort to develop that potential, then we call that person a realized buddha.  This, to my thinking, is the most potent form of empowerment.  We call it jiriki or “inner power.”

“Your destiny is shaped according to the combination of conditions pre-determined at birth and other factors that you are able to change through your own efforts.”

–Ryuho Okawa, The Essence of Buddha

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Not Hate, Fear

Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said, “The enemy is fear.  We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”  This is an unsourced quote and may not be legitimate; nonetheless, it speaks truth.  I think it helps explains what happened in Charlottesville, what has happened so many times in the past, and what will undoubtedly transpire in the future.

I think it is clear that we need a new approach to this problem.  First, though, it would be helpful to have a better understanding of the nature of the problem, an understanding rooted in compassion.

It is not hate, it’s fear.  The Dalai Lama says,

“If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations.”

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a hater whose support Trump refused to reject during the campaign, was there in Charlottesville, tweeting that “our people were peacefully assembling” but were attacked by “radical leftists,” and “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?”

After two hundred years of Black Americans being targeted for worse things than discrimination, all we’ve been saying is let’s give equality a chance.  When one group achieves equality and freedom, everyone benefits in the end.  The plight of white people in this country doesn’t quite stack up against the sufferings endured by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, either.  Duke’s argument is just not reasonable, and yet behind it is palpable fear, emotion as solid as a stone statue of Robert E. Lee.  Income inequality, job loss, old and familiar values giving way to new ones that seem threatening and foreign, a world moving ahead too swiftly – these are real concerns for many people.  Not just in the South but all across America.  When people are for whatever reason unable to adapt and change, it produces fear and, in some cases, leads them into hate.

Speaking of General Lee, I’ve always thought it interesting that very few in the South have ever thought about the fact that these statues, like the one I used to see at Lee Circle in my old hometown of New Orleans, are monuments to a traitor.  Furthermore, Lee was a slave-owner, responsible for hundreds of thousands of war deaths, and a white supremacist.

I imagine that when black men or women pass by these statues of Lee it produces the same kind of emotion that Jewish men or women must experience when they see a swastika spray-painted on a schoolhouse wall.  It’s taken a long time for us to recognize that.  And it’s why General Lee has to go.

People in the grip of extreme fear cannot see this.  Fear is blinding, making it impossible to see oneself as others.

Reacting to the events in Charlottesville, former President Obama tweeted, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…”

No one is born a racist.  It is an attitude that is acquired, learned around the dinner table, in school, in church, and nowadays, on social media.  Very little has changed since Bob Dylan penned these words 54 years ago:

He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in…

But it ain’t them to blame… they’re only a pawn in a game, a game of fear.

At the time, civil rights activist and folklorist, Bernice Johnson Reagon told a journalist Only a Pawn in their Game was the first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black.  We must understand this.  Not to the extreme that people like Duke take it, but to the extent where we aren’t demonizing anyone and we can see white supremacists as human beings whose liberation is our concern.

Offering up Nazi salutes is offensive.  Yesterday, as I watched the news from Charlottesville, I was eager to jump on the labeling-them-Nazis bandwagon.  But today, I’m not so sure…  On one hand, a historical perspective is crucial; we should never forget the terror of Nazism.  On the other hand, labels do little to promote understanding, which is the beginning point of compassion.

So, while we are right to denounce white supremacy, nationalism, hate and violence, unless condemnation is coupled with understanding of the fear that motivates their behavior and empathy with them as victims of fear, we won’t be moving forward anytime soon.

We can do it.  A 2016 study by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley found “that a single 10-minute conversation with a stranger could reduce prejudice toward transgender people and increase support for nondiscrimination laws.”  It’s conversation that involves what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘deep listening,’ the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person.  Through all this festering hatred and deep division our country is in danger becoming irrevocably torn apart.  We have tools, let’s use them and make this nation less brutal, less fearful, and a great country at last.

“May those whose hell it is to hate and hurt be turned into lovers bringing flowers.”

– Shantideva.

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Bob Dylan, at the historic 1963 March on Washington, is introduced by the late Ozzie Davis.

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Study: Generosity makes you happier.

After conducting a study to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce feelings of well-being, researchers at the University of Zurich have concluded that “Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.  People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy.  Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.”

This is hardly news.  It’s what Buddhism and other philosophies both religious and secular have always maintained.  Yet, insight into how this works is useful.

In the study, the researchers took 50 people and divided them into two groups, one ‘generous’ and the other ‘selfish.’  The ‘selfish’ group was asked to think about spending 100 Swiss francs on themselves and the ‘generous’ group were to consider spending the same money on another person.  Although I’m not sure how they did this, they measured happiness levels before and after the experiment, and found that those in the group asked to think about spending money on others had a larger “mood boost” than the other group.

The bottom line is both simple and encouraging:  Prof.  Philippe Tobler says, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice.”

The Buddhist term for generosity is dàna, a Pali word that literally means “almsgiving,” but in general refers to the practice of giving.  The first step (paramita) on the Bodhisattva path is giving of oneself.

Some years ago, in a series of dharma talks on Lamrim ((Tibetan: “stages of the path”), Thubten Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist nun and founder Sravasti Abbey*, drew a distinction between worldly generosity and what she calls the “far-reaching attitude of generosity” :

“[The] far-reaching attitude of generosity [is] sometimes called giving.  It’s not just generosity as we normally think of it.  Generosity is giving things, which is great; but the far-reaching attitude of generosity is combined with both compassion and wisdom.  It’s different from ordinary generosity, because it is motivated by the wish to become a Buddha in order to benefit others.  It’s very different from ordinary generosity that happens at Christmas time or at Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Valentine’s.  That kind of generosity is very much based on the happiness of this life.”

To achieve the far-reaching attitude of generosity, one must first achieve true selflessness.  This means to practice generosity without making distinctions, without discrimination or preferences.  To practice generosity without preferences is to help others regardless of who or what they are, and it also means giving without any purpose in mind, without thoughts of reward or benefit.

Ultimately, the idea is to dissolve the concepts of subject and object, self and others, because as Seng-ts’an wrote in the “Faith-Mind Inscription” (Hsin-hsin Ming),

“One thing, all things; move among and intermingle, without distinction.  To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about nonperfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality, because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.”

“Trusting” corresponds to the Chinese character hsin or “faith, belief.”  We could also call it confidence.  It’s trusting that the mind’s true nature is awakened mind or Buddha-nature.

The kind of generosity that Thubten Chodron speaks of, the kind of true selflessness that wrote about – these are far-reaching goals.  We might be tempted to doubt ourselves and think, I can’t achieve that sort of all-embracing attitude.   And we can’t, not all at once.  We begin with small steps.  As the University of Zurich shows, just thinking about being more generous can make us happier.

If with kindly generosity
One thinks, “May I relieve living beings
Merely of headaches,”
This produces a boundless positive force…

– Shantideva

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* Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.

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