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.


Some Random Notes

• It’s been a week since I last posted. I think that is the longest I have gone during the some four years I have been writing The Endless Further. My doctors were concerned about the size of one of the lesions on my liver, so last Monday I went into the hospital to undergo a procedure called a Radio Frequency Ablation. They put me under, stuck a needle in my stomach, ran it over to the lesion and bombarded it with high frequency radio waves. The doctor who performed the RFA said the lesion was “effectively treated,” meaning they killed it. This procedure buys me some more time while I wait for the Big T.

They released me Tuesday morning, and I have spent the days since then recovering. These things take a lot out of you. My get up and go, got up and went, and left me in the dust. However, I am feeling a little bit better each day. The healing process takes time.

• The European Union Council on Tourism and Trade is scheduled to present Burma (also known as Myanmar) with the award of World’s Best Tourist Destination for 2014. According to Business Standard, the “award is presented based on ethics for tourism industry, safety of tourists and preservation of cultural heritages designated by the UN Tourism Division, Unesco and the European Union Council on Tourism and Trade.”

This is the country where last month it was reported that state security forces and Buddhist vigilantes massacred at least 48 ethnic Rohingya Muslims, mostly women and children, and where in 2012 Buddhist mobs killed more than 200 Muslims and burned thousands of homes, drove more than 100,000 Rohingya into militarized camps, where they remain today, prohibited from traveling beyond the police and army checkpoints without permission.

Yeah, let’s promote tourism to that place.

• On a more positive note, it’s been reported that 50 volunteers the group Buddhist Tzu Chi are working closely with Malaysia Airlines (MAS) to provide counseling support for the families of the passengers on flight MH370. The volunteers include 15 Malaysians.

Tzu Chi (“compassionate relief”) is an international humanitarian organization, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has special consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Cheng Yen, a Buddhist nun, founded the organization in 1966 and I have heard nary a discouraging word about them.  I would provide a link to their site but Google says that it may have been hacked. Instead, here is a link to the Tzu Chi Wikipedia page.

• In the wake of the Dalai Lama’s historic opening prayer at the U.S. Senate, The Daily Beast tells us of 10 Religious Surprises in the US Congress.

• Included in the Dalai Lama’s Senate offering, was the prayer he recites himself each day, one that gives him “inner strength to serve humanity.” Several years ago I wrote a post about the Dalai Lama teaching on this prayer in 1999.  I called the post The Dalai Lama is Crying.


Smatterings of Violence Followed by Polyphonic Interlude

burma-violenceIn the news:

Fresh sectarian violence broke out in north-western Burma Saturday when police refused to hand over a Muslim man accused of raping a Buddhist woman. Buddhist mobs burnt dozens of Muslim-owned houses and shops. The radical monk Wirathu, who calls himself the “Bin Laden of Buddhism,” claimed on his Facebook page that hundreds of people took part in the riot.

Last month, A Burmese court sentenced 25 Buddhists up to 15 years in prison for murder during a night of rioting, burning and killing in central Burma. A day earlier, a Muslim was handed a life sentence for murdering one of 43 people killed in March also in central Burma. In June, another Muslim man, 48-year-old Ne Win, whose attack on a Buddhist woman set off sectarian rioting in north-east Burma was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Also last month, in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in Sri Lanka’s capital and at least 12 people were injured, the latest in Buddhist violence against Muslims there.

Violence and mob action on the part of Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka is reprehensible. I believe that Buddhists around the world who share this view could do a lot more to stem the tide of this violence by speaking out against it. The force of Buddhist public opinion could be a tremendous force for good. However, aside from a few token comments here and there, the world Buddhist community has remained largely silent.

In the United States, we don’t really have any sectarian violence, just the regular senseless kind: In Spencer, Oklahoma, a Buddhist monk, Weera Chulsuwan, 66, also known as “Tony the Monk,” was nearly beaten to death by two teenagers last Friday. Evidently the two youths thought Chulsuwan had money, unaware I guess that Buddhist monks are not known for carrying around large sums of dough. Chulsuwan received 15 blows to the head and face, and for over 24 hours was in and out of consciousness. In the moments following the attack, he managed to crawl several feet from his yard to his home and then had to charge his phone battery before he could call 911. He has been a monk for 30 years. The two teenagers were still at large.

Here’s something about about Tibet that is refreshingly non-violent. The UK’s Daily Mail reports that “The Rolling Stones were a huge hit when they headlined Glastonbury this summer, but an even older group were the festival’s surprise stars.” The reference is to the Gyuto Monks of Tibet who have been together for 600 years, and like the Stones, not always with the same line-up, although that may depend on your point of view about reincarnation. In any case, The Stones have only been around a mere 50 years.

gyuto-monksThe Gyuto Tantric Monastic University is a major tantric institution belonging to the Gelug tradition. Jetsun Kunga Dhondup, a disciple of the First Dalai Lama, founded the Gyuto Order in 1475. Nearly 1000 monks lived at the monastery in 1950 when Tibet was invaded by the Chinese army. In 1959, only some 60 or so were able to flee with the Dalai Lama to India.

Gyuto monks are known for their distinctive style of chanting, often referred as “overtone” but is actually polyphonic. An individual monk sings what sounds like an entire chord as opposed to a single note. A sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall brought the monks worldwide fame in 1973. This was followed by a series of recordings by David Lewiston in 1974. Since then they’d made a number of recordings, and have toured often, once in America with the Grateful Dead.

I should also mention that these guys have really deep voices. Enjoy this short taste of the Gyuto Tantric Choir:


Nichiren The Original Face of Buddhist Terror

On Tuesday, May 7th, Tenzin Gyasto, the 14th Dalai Lama, told an audience at the University of Maryland,

Really, killing people in the name of religion is unthinkable, very sad. Nowadays even Buddhists are involved in Burma . . . Buddhist monks  . . . destroy Muslim mosques or Muslim families. Really very sad.”

It might surprise you to learn that millions of Buddhists today follow the teachings of a man who openly advocated killing people in the name of religion.

I’m not talking about U Wirathu, the self-proclaimed “Buddhist bin Laden” and leader of a ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement, whom many believe is responsible for inciting anti-Muslim violence in Burma, where, as the NY Times reported on June 21, 2013, “Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes . . .” – the man Time Magazine labeled  “The Face of Buddhist Terror” on the cover of their recent Asian edition.

No, not this monk who refers to Muslims as “the enemy” and “mad dogs,” who wraps his twisted message around the idea of “protecting” Buddhism, and appeals to the Burmese people’s nationalist pride, telling them they must think and act as nationalists, for the good of the country, and says “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.” [1]

I am referring to Nichiren, a 13th century Japanese priest who promoted a single practice based on the Lotus Sutra, and who declared that the entire nation of Japan should abandon all other forms of Buddhism and take faith in his dharma or suffer dire consequences. Like U Wirathu, Nichiren claimed he was only trying to protect Buddhism and his nation.

There are close to 40 different Nichiren factions currently active in the world, and if the numbers of these “believers” were combined, it would make Nichirenism one of the most followed forms of Buddhism, topped only by Pure Land. One group, the lay organization Soka Gakkai, alone claims to have 12 million members worldwide.


Nichiren’s intolerance and extremism has been almost universally glossed over, minimized by his followers, and by modern Buddhist academia. This “free pass” is regrettable. Convinced of the superiority of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren taught that all other forms of Buddhism were not only heretical but also invalidated by the Lotus teachings. He predicted that followers of other Buddhist traditions would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”. [2]

In a letter to a woman named Konichi-bo, Nichiren wrote of an incident in which he was confronted by a number of government officials (who later exiled him to Sado Island),

I attacked the Zen school as the invention of the heavenly devil, and the Shingon school as an evil doctrine that will ruin the nation, and insisted that the temples of the Nembutsu [Pure Land], Zen, and Ritsu priests be burned down and the Nembutsu priests and the others beheaded.” [3]

Today, Nichiren’s followers will argue he really didn’t mean it. However, as Nichiren’s letter continues, ask yourself if this sounds like a man who doesn’t mean what says,

[I] repeated such things morning and evening and discussed them day and night. I also sternly informed [the government official] and several hundred officers that, no matter what punishment I might incur, I would not stop declaring these matters.”

In Senji Sho, “The Selection of the Time”, he tells the same story, this time saying that he told the government official,

Nichiren is the pillar and beam of Japan. Doing away with me is toppling the pillar of Japan! . . . All the Nembutsu and Zen temples, such as Kenchoji, Jufuku-ji, Gokuraku-ji, Daibutsuden, and Choraku-ji, should be burned to the ground, and their priests taken to Yui Beach to have their heads cut off. If this is not done, then Japan is certain to be destroyed!”

Nichiren (1222-1282) described himself as the “son of a fisherman,” medieval Japan’s lowest class. He was educated at a backwater temple that had ties with nembutsu followers within the Sanmon Tendai faction. The temple’s abbot was a nembutsu priest [4]. Nichiren’s lack of a “formal” education and lower-class origins provide some insight into his thinking. Based on scholarship by Yutaka Takagi (Nichiren: sono kodo to shiso, Tokyo: Hyoronsha, 1970), Laurel Rasplica Rodd writes in her biography of Nichiren,

Nichiren’s lowly origins were unique among the religious leaders of the Middle Ages in Japan. Honen, Shinran, Dogen, and Eisai all came from noble or samurai families . . . [At Mt. Hiei, the Japanese center of Buddhist learning] Probably Nichiren was not admitted to the circles of disciples gathered around the famous teachers. Thus while Nichiren could attend public lectures he was forced to draw his own conclusions from scriptures and commentaries as he might not have done had he been directed by one of the masters.” [5]

This might explain how Nichiren when he studied Nagarjuna was unable to appreciate the great philosopher’s warning about grasping for the absolute, and why, as noted by Bruno Petzold [6], even though “Nichiren incorporates into his own system the whole Tendai philosophy,” he could not fathom the subtlety of that school’s doctrine.

Nichiren had convinced himself that the seemingly unprecedented spate of natural disasters befalling Japan, and later, the threat of foreign invasion, was directly attributable to the proliferation of “evil religions”: heretical forms of Buddhism.

Superstition and an mistaken view of Buddhist history, such as the notion that the Buddha was born circa 3000 BCE, that the Buddha directly taught the Mahayana sutras, and the idea of the degenerative age of Mappo (“Latter Day of the Dharma”), contributed to Nichiren’s radical position. And yet, other Buddhist teachers of the same era labored under the same beliefs and misunderstandings and they did not adopt such  extremist views.

Unlike the militants in Burma today, Nichiren had more regard for the “foreign enemy” than he did for his fellow Japanese Buddhists. When Kublai Khan began sending messengers to Japan demanding the nation either pay tribute to him or face invasion, Nichiren wrote, “How pitiful that they have beheaded the innocent Mongol envoys and yet failed to cut off the heads of the priests of the Nembutsu, Shingon, Zen and Ritsu sects, who are the real enemies of our country.” [7]

Reading Nichiren, one is impressed with how at times he could be poetic, tender and wise, and yet a disturbing thread of paranoia and self-aggrandizement permeates his writings:

Now the great earthquake and the huge comet that have appeared are calamities brought about by heaven, which is enraged because the ruler of our country hates Nichiren and sides with the Zen, Nembutsu, and Shingon priests who preach doctrines that will destroy the nation!”

Senji Sho, “The Selection of the Time”

[Among] all the sacred teachings expounded by the Buddha in the course of his lifetime, the Lotus Sutra alone holds the position of absolute superiority.”

Jimyo hokke mondo-sho, “Questions and Answers on Embracing the Lotus Sutras”

I, Nichiren, am sovereign, teacher, and father and mother to all the people of Japan.”

Kaimoko Sho, “Opening of the Eyes”

I, Nichiren, am alone, without a single ally.”

Nanjo Hyoe Shichiro dono gosho, “Letter to Hyoe Shichiro” (“Encouragement to a Sick Person”)

It’s not a matter of taking these statements out of context. These statements are the context. If they were merely isolated remarks that could be excused or rationalized, but these declarations are repeated almost ad nasuem.

Contrary to his claim, Nichiren actually had many supporters and allies, including a great many samurai. Buddhism in Japan, especially during the Kamakura period, was a rather violent affair. Many of the Buddhist sects maintained small armies, and some of the influential teachers had at least a small band of armed warriors about them. Some scholars have suggested Nichiren, too, maintained a small army, and it is not unreasonable to consider. And while there were violent clashes between various Japanese Buddhist sects, as far as I am aware, Nichiren is the only Buddhist leader to actually advocate killing in the name of religion.

On several occasions, Nichiren’s followers were accused of arson, even murder; charges that they denied and blamed on Nembutsu (Pure Land) believers. The counter-charge was that they were framed by people who wanted Nichiren’s downfall. This paranoid sense of persecution still resonates among some contemporary Nichiren followers.

Today, these Nichiren believers will maintain that his radical Buddhism belongs to the past. However, my own experience as member of a Nichiren tradition for 12 years, the experiences of many others I’ve known and spoken with, as well as numerous published anecdotes and documented episodes, all tell a different story. The seeds of Nichiren’s intolerance and extremism continue to ripen and bear fruit.

And that is the point: Buddhist extremists and fundamentalists are not contained merely in one or two Asian countries. They may be in your city, in your neighborhood, down the street, maybe next door to you. They may not be dangerous, and yet, extremism is hardly ever harmless.

More about that next time.

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Washington Post, June 21, 2013

[2] Yakuo-bon tokui sho, “Essence of the Medicine King Chapter”

[3] Konichibo gosho, “Letter to Konichi-bo”

[4] Alicia and Daigan Matsunaga, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism Vol. II, Buddhist Books International, Los Angeles-Tokyo, 1976; and others.

[5] Rodd, Laurel Rasplica, Nichiren: A Biography, Arizona State University, 1978

[6] Petzold, Bruno, Buddhist Prophet Nichiren: A Lotus in the Sun, Tokyo: Hokke Journal, Inc., 1978

[7] Moko Tsukai Gosho, “Writing on the Mongol Envoys”

All Nichiren quotes taken from SGI versions of these writings found in the Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin series.


The Lighter Side of Burma

Burma (also known as Myanmar) has been in news of late, and for no good reason. If you read the last post, you’ll know why. It’s depressing, but then all the news of the last few weeks has been rather heavy.

Time to lighten things up.

Last year on this date, May 2nd, a significant event took place in Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, was sworn in as a member of Pyithu Hluttaw, Burma’s lower house of the parliament. Also on this date, in 1942, Japanese troops occupied Mandalay Burma. Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, formed the Anti-Fascist Organisation which petitioned the United Kingdom to form a coalition with other Allies against the Japanese. The Allies were not able to drive out the Japanese until April 1945.

Unfortunately for me, I could not find the date that Burma Shave was formed, or when the first or last Burma Shave sign appeared. But chances are it wasn’t on May 2nd of any year. Too bad. It would have made for a somewhat smoother segue.

Credit: Outdoor Media Specialists

Burma-Shave was an American company that in 1925 introduced a brand of brush-less shaving cream. As an advertising gimmick, they began to post small sequential signs featuring humorous rhymes on America’s highways. If you’re from my generation, or older, you probably recall the Burma Shave signs.

I remember going on vacation trips as a family and how it always involved extremely long periods of driving. (“Are we there, yet?”) Since we started out in Kansas, there wasn’t much to look at while on the road. Kansas is not known for its mountain scenery or seaside vistas. So the Burma Shave signs were something to really look forward to:

The first signs went up in 1927. Essentially, they were to promote the Burma Shave product, like this jingle from 1930:

Modern man
Spreads it on
Pats it in
Shaves it off
See him grin

Early on thought, the writers of these signs saw an opportunity to offer some social commentary. Like this observation on domestic bliss, also from 1930:

Does your husband
Grunt and grumble
Rant and rave
Shoot the brute some

Starting in 1935, they began to offer road safety messages:

Train approaching
Whistle squealing
Avoid that run-down feeling

Jumping ahead quite a few years, here’s one I remember seeing:

Take it slow
Let the little
Shavers grow

Back in those golden days, a clean shaven face was essential for making it with the female race, as evidenced in this jingle from 1942 that incorporates a timely military theme:

“At ease,” she said
“Maneuvers begin
When you get
Those whiskers
Off your chin”

And just like the movies, during the war Burma Shave did its patriotic bit:

Buying defense bonds
Means money lent
So they
Don’t cost you
One red cent

Before Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert, there was Burma Shave:

That promise perfection
Are like
Some candidates
After election

The substitutes referred to here is any shaving lotion that wasn’t Burma Shave. When Phillip Morris bought Burma Shave in the 1960’s, the company’s lawyers advised them to discontinue the signs. Evidently, and ironically, they were a safety hazard. It was a damn shame. Damn lawyers.

Finally, here is one last piece of sagely adage that even the Buddha himself couldn’t have said better :

If harmony
Is what
You crave
Then get
A tuba