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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Four Statues of the Apocalypse: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lee

I’m stuck on what happened in Charlottesville.  Can’t get it out of my mind.  I am so disappointed that we haven’t been able to make more progress in diminishing the presence of racism, hate and violence in our country.   I’m frustrated.  There isn’t much I can do.  Except share some thoughts, if you don’t mind.  I warn you though, I may repeat myself…

Yesterday, Trump complained about the removal of Robert E. Lee statues.  He said that he’d heard Stonewall Jackson was next.  What then, he asked.   Are we going to take down statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were slave-owners?

These remarks alone show that Trump has zero understanding of the problem of race in America.  Yes, all four men had owned slaves.  However, unlike Jackson and Lee, Washington and Jefferson were not traitors to their country.  Jackson and Lee were military men who attempted to destroy the Union, split our country in two.  And it is for that alone they are remembered.

Washington, on the other hand, led the colonial troops into battle for the purpose of establishing a new country free from tyranny.  Washington and Jefferson were founders of our nation. But their efforts were directed toward something greater than merely the formation of another country, they envisioned the creation of a new society based upon freedom and equality and the sovereignty of the people.

They were involved, as Tagore put it, in the “constant struggle for a great Further…” our “ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.”   The difference between them and the two Confederate generals should be obvious.

While looking up some information on Stonewall Jackson, I ran across this quote from James Robertson, the preeminent scholar on Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson:  “[In] his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”

I suspect that this was the predominate rationalization for slave owning among whites at that time.  I hope most Christians today reject the idea that God would sanction the bondage of any of his creatures no matter how well they were treated.  But Jackson and the others lived in a different time.

Jefferson denounced slavery, and yet he was unable to free himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”  His relationship to slavery is still debated by scholars.  But the important thing is that some 48 years before Stonewall Jackson was born, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the Creator, the most revolutionary words ever composed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The American Declaration of Independence, the real shot heard round the world.

On July 9, 1776, several thousand Continental soldiers had come to New York from Boston to defend the city from the British.  General George Washington ordered them to gather at the parade grounds in Lower Manhattan at six o’clock to listen to a declaration endorsed by the Continental Congress declaring American independence from England.

When the troops heard Jefferson’s inspiring words about equality and the right to pursue happiness – the right of self-determination – and then heard the list of grievances Jefferson compiled of King George III’s tyrannical violations of those rights, the soldiers were motivated to march down Broadway where they toppled and decapitated a statue of George III.  They melted the statue down and made bullets to use against the British.

It appears that removing statues is another old American tradition.

A year before he died, Jefferson wrote in a letter that his stirring words were “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

Some 80 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s mind was inspired by the same words.  In 1856, he said, “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence… Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.”  In his own declaration, The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Franklin Roosevelt, a great admirer of Jefferson, was obsessed with building a memorial to him.  He laid the cornerstone in 1939.  He ordered all the trees between the Memorial and the White House cut down so that he would have an unencumbered view of the memorial every day.  In 1943, during his address at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. , Roosevelt called Jefferson the “Apostle of Freedom”:

“The Declaration of Independence and the very purposes of the American Revolution itself, while seeking freedoms, called for the abandonment of privileges… [Jefferson] believed, as we believe, in certain inalienable rights.  He, as we, saw those principles and freedoms challenged.  He fought for them, as we fight for them.”

The fight Roosevelt was referring to was the World War, the struggle against fascism.  We are still fighting that fight for fascism has not disappeared from the earth and we are still struggling to abandon privilege, the privilege of being born into wealth, of being white or male.  What did Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee fight for?  The right to own slaves?  There were a number of issues that caused the American Civil War, taxation and States Rights, but most scholars maintain the primary cause was the South’s desire to protect the institution of slavery.   Not a just cause.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address (1796) as president, warned that the establishment of political factions, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge,” and would lead to “formal and permanent despotism.”  We have not heeded this warning and we have fallen short of fulfilling the promise of Jefferson’s ideals.   We have to heal the wounds of division because as Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  And we must stand.  We must stand up for the ideals of equality and stand against this new wave of hate and racism.

Jackson, Lee and all the other Confederate leaders and supporters were traitors.  They betrayed our “American Mind.”

Jefferson and Washington, though imperfect men, sought to build a nation not tear it apart.  Jefferson’s words continue to inspire us 241 years later as we work to create a more perfect and just union.  And this is why their statues and memorials won’t be coming down.

Those who brandish Nazi flags and swastikas, offer Nazi salutes, glorify traitors, preach hate and bigotry and try to divide our country, betray the American Mind.  And those who aid and comfort them are complicit in this betrayal.  It is, in a sense, a form of treason.

We must meet this treason with reason.  Once again, dialogue not violence is the best weapon against prejudiced views.  It is the only way to change their minds.

“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.”

– Jane Goodall

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On Men and Kings: Midnight in Springfield

Few words today.  It’s a sad day, tragic.  Not a day of celebration but one for reflection, and protest.  I know many of you share the same feelings I have, and you who are outside the United Stare share our heartache and concern.

I’m not a sore loser.  My side has lost before.  This is different.  It is disturbing in ways that past losses were not.  It’s frightening, because he is a dangerous man.

I was outraged when I learned of the secret meetings in early January 2009 where leading Republican lawmakers vowed to oppose President Obama at every step, and when a conservative talk-show host said even before Obama’s inauguration, “I hope he fails.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot.  But, again, it’s different.  For one thing, I do not object to the new President because of the color of his skin, rather on account of the content of his character.  And, yes, I want him to fail.  Individuals who preach hate and trade on fear should never remain victorious.

I agree with our outgoing President, there is more good than bad.  There is also a Buddhist maxim that says great good always follows great evil.  We have hope.  Tomorrow, I will be more hopeful.  Today I feel somber.

I’d like to think that someone like Abraham Lincoln would lower their heads, ashamed at this desecration of democracy.  A fanciful notion, I admit, but it offers some solace, and we all need some of that on occasion.  Sometimes it’s about whatever gets you through the night.

In the poem by Vachel Lindsay, written in 1914, Abraham Lincoln is unable to get through his endless night peacefully. He walks the streets, brooding, contemplating the same matter that led the Buddha to living peace, the matter of human suffering.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
By Vachel Lindsay

(In Springfield, Illinois)

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain.   And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

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Long Hot Summer: First Level of Intensity

1967, the Summer of Love in San Francisco: groovy music, free love, peace and harmony, Be-In’s, Love-In’s, gentle people, and if you went there, you wanted to be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

But for folks in other cities across America, the summer of 1967 was the “long hot summer” of violence and civil unrest, the summer of riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and in Newark.

Newark was the most intense.  Six days of rioting, looting, and destruction that left 26 dead, 750 injured and over 1,000 were jailed.  Mostly African-Americans.  Property damage amounted to more than $10 million.

The background to the Newark riots according to Wikipedia: “In the period leading up to the riots, police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs led local African-American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised. In particular, many felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality.”

lyndon-johnsonOn July 29, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a special commission to study the increase in American violence.  The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was chaired by Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois, and included such people as John Lindsay, Mayor of New York, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP.  The commission was directed to answer three questions: What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

[Photo: LBJ speaks at the advisory commission’s first meeting on July 29, 1967 at the White House,Time.com]

I got a copy of the report shortly after it was published in paperback by Bantam Books.  483 pages.  In his Introduction, Tom Wickers of the New York Times wrote, “This report is a picture of one nation, divided.”  The Commission stated in its introduction, “This is our basic conclusion: One nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

A section in Chapter Two, “Patterns of Disorder,” reads:

“In almost all the cities surveyed, we found the same major grievance topics among Negro communities – although they varied in importance from city to city.  The deepest grievances can be ranked into the following three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity:

  1. Police practices
  2. Unemployment and underemployment
  3. Inadequate housing”

book-civil-disordersFrom their investigation of the first grievance, the Commission concluded:

“Police practices were, in some form, a significant grievance in virtually all cities and were often one of the most serious complaints.  Included in this category were complaints about physical or verbal abuse of Negro citizens by police officers, the lack of adequate channels for complaints against police, discriminatory police employment and promotional practices, a general lack of respect for Negroes by police officers, and the failure of police departments to provide adequate protection for Negroes.”

The Commission devoted 200 pages of the report to the question “What can be done?”  Too much to discuss here, but what is clear is that in the 49 intervening years since the report was issued, there is more to do.  Police employment practices have improved, some inequalities have been rectified, yet many of the other issues persist.

In this report, the energy of intensity decreases as the levels graduate to higher numbers. The First Level of intensity is like DEFCOM 1, nuclear war imminent.

2016, another long hot summer: more violence against African-Americans, more deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, and five police who were protecting peaceful protesters at a Black Lives Matter march assassinated.

Kai Wright in The Nation writes, the Dallas ambush is “a reminder that no life will be safe and truly valued until we also confront the broader American culture of violence.”

There is no question that every day police officers around the country put their lives at risk.  We should be grateful for their selfless service and praise their courage.  But  police violence, the excessive use of deadly force, is a serious problem, and no one should try to deny it.  Just as protestors and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions when they cross the line, so too must police be held accountable. Independent investigations and prosecutions can be a deterrent.

And it’s not just police. I’m sure many of you feel as I do, that violence permeates too many aspects of American culture.

Anyway, I thought it was worthwhile to point out the parallels between 1967 and 2016.  Maybe even necessary.  Of course, ’67 wasn’t the only long hot summer, and this stuff didn’t just start in the sixties.  I think we are still divided.  We have further to go, and we will always have further to go.

However, in the immediacy of the present moment, we need some change.

On July 29, 1967, that day when President Johnson issued Executive Order 11365 establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, the #1 song in the nation was The Doors’ “Light my Fire”:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

– – – – – – – – – –

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam Books, March 1968

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Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

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