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


Out in the Streets

Look what’s happening out in the streets
got a revolution got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
got a revolution got to revolution

Jefferson Airplane

Marking two months of protests, Thursday was declared a “Day of Action” by the Occupy Wall Street movement with demonstrations across major cities nationwide remonstrating against financial greed and corruption. In Southern California, the LA Times reported: “In what police called an ‘orchestrated series of arrests,’ nearly 100 police in riot gear moved in to arrest 23 protesters who locked arms around tents in the middle of Figueroa Street . . .”

Meditator arrested in Oakland

“Orchestrated series of arrests” is another way to say “civil disobedience.” More about that below, but first, the city of Oakland, California has taken a hard line against the protesters. There has been violence and then Monday, police forcibly evicted demonstrators from their camp in the downtown area. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Oakland police arrested [Pancho] Ramos Stierle before dawn on Monday as riot police were clearing out the Occupy encampment at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. He and two other activists had been meditating for hours in the plaza’s amphitheater as police surrounded the camp and ordered everyone to disperse.”

Criminal charges against Stierle have been dropped, but because he is an immigrant, the cops turned him over to ICE. As of Thursday he has either been released or will be released pending a hearing before a judge. In either case, he is facing deportation. His case has become a bit of a cause célèbre (Free Pancho).

I don’t know if Stierle is connected with any particular spiritual group or whether he’s just a guy who wants to meditate for peace. It doesn really matter to me, and I certainly support his aim and his actions as far as the protest goes. I am not, however, all that sympathetic to his status as an immigrant. Apparently Stierle’s visa expired in 2008, which, as far as I understand things, makes him illegal. I know this is an unpopular view, but frankly I’m not convinced that people who are in this country illegally should enjoy the same rights as citizens and legal immigrants.

That aside, when you engage in civil disobedience you have to expect some consequences. The authorities do not like civil disobedience. That’s an eternal truth. I wish Stierle the best, but I assume that he is an intelligent person and knew what he was getting into.

At the same time, I do wonder if everyone really understands what civil disobedience is all about.

Civil disobedience is the time-honored act of the “professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.” (Wikipedia) In this current movement, we’re talking about multinational powers.

I think it is safe to say that a good majority of acts of civil disobedience are designed to provoke an “orchestrated” arrest. At the very least, those who engage in such actions should be cognizant of the possibility of arrest and/or persecution by the authorities. To put it in Buddhist terms, civil disobedience is Bodhisattva action. It invites suffering for the purpose of making a statement against suffering.

Gandhi, whom we can look to as sort of an expert on civil disobedience, called his revolution ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (truth). His brand of protest was grounded in spirituality, and marked with the force of compassion and acceptance of resulting suffering. Gandhi wrote,

Complete civil disobedience is rebellion without the element of violence in it. An out- and-out civil resister simply ignores the authority of the State. He never uses force and never resists force when it is used against him. In Fact, he invites imprisonment and other uses of force against himself . . .

Civil disobedience means capacity for unlimited suffering without the intoxicating excitement of killing.”

Nearly a hundred years earlier, Henry David Thoreau, in his 1849 essay, On Civil Disobedience, put it bluntly:

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.”

Gandhi behind bars

Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay what he believed was an unjust tax. Gandhi was imprisoned in 1922, 1930, 1933 and in 1942. All together, he spent 7 years in prison. In the early days of Gandhi’s activism, in South Africa, he tried to organize resistance against the Registration Act. On September 11, 1906, at a mass meeting with some 3000 Indians, Gandhi warned the assembled to expect repercussions: imprisonment, beatings, fines, and even, deportation. He also told them,

I can declare with certainty that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can be only one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”

Goldman Sachs on trial


The OWS is calling their movement an “American Revolution.” Chris Hedges is an American journalist who has specialized in writing about the Middle East and is now involved with OWS. Last Thursday, Hedges, Cornel West and others held a mock trial of Goldman Sachs in Zuccotti Park. Hedges was arrested. Tuesday, he wrote on Truthdig,

Welcome to the revolution. Our elites have exposed their hand. They have nothing to offer. They can destroy but they cannot build. They can repress but they cannot lead. They can steal but they cannot share. They can talk but they cannot speak. They are as dead and useless to us as the water-soaked books, tents, sleeping bags, suitcases, food boxes and clothes that were tossed by sanitation workers Tuesday morning into garbage trucks in New York City. They have no ideas, no plans and no vision for the future.

I support the Occupy Wall Street movement. I only hope everyone understands what it really takes to engage in civil disobedience, what it means to be a revolutionary. I hope the mistake that was made in the 1960’s is not made again. The Anti-War movement disintegrated after the Kent State massacre in 1970. All of the sudden protest kids realized, “Hey, you can get killed doing this!” I think in our collective unconscious we decided it might be better to just stay home with Sweet Jane.

Both Thoreau and Gandhi would no doubt subscribe to the notion that it is every person’s duty to protest injustice. That also belongs to the eternal, ultimate truth. But in the conventional world, let’s face it, not everyone is going to join in, and perhaps some should not join on the front lines. Those who have a lot to lose by catching the attention of law enforcement maybe should think twice about putting themselves at risk as Stierle did. I would imagine there are numerous ways that someone can support OWS, and in the future, if the movement comes together and gains a measure of organization, some of the most important roles will be played behind the scenes.

The iconic revolutionary

But if you are going to take center stage, man the barricades, stand on the front lines, then you’d better know that, as CSN&Y sang, to find the cost of freedom, you must “lay your body down.”

Revolution is serious business. Che Guevara once said,

In a revolution, one wins or one dies.”

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down

– Crosby, Still, Nash and Young


Street photo:
Stierle photo:
Hedges/West photo:


DOJ Makes Walnut Safe for Religion (Then We Take Berlin)

Yesterday the Department of Justice announced a settlement in a lawsuit over alleged religious discrimination by the city of Walnut, California. You may have heard about it: The Chung Tai Zen Center of Walnut was denied a permit to build a “Buddhist house of worship” on its own property. The Zen Center ended up moving to Pomona, some 8 miles away.

According to the DOJ press release,

The case arose from the city’s handling and ultimate denial of the Zen Center’s application for a zoning permit to operate a Buddhist house of worship. Under the Walnut code, houses of worship may operate in the area in which the Zen Center wanted to build its facility if granted a conditional use permit. The government’s complaint alleged that, until it denied the Zen Center’s application in January 2008, the city had not rejected any application for a conditional use permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship since at least 1980. The complaint further alleged that the city treated the Zen Center differently than similarly situated religious and non-religious facilities. For example, the complaint alleges that in August 2008, the city approved a conditional use permit for a Catholic church that, when completed, will be larger than the Zen Center’s proposed facility. The complaint also alleges that between 1998 and 2003, the city built a civic center complex two blocks from Zen Center’s former location in Walnut.”

The settlement still has to be approved by a Federal judge. Under the settlement’s terms the City of Walnut is prohibited from engaging in “the inferior treatment of any religious organization that seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws.” City leaders, managers and certain employees must also attend training classes on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), enacted by the United States Congress in 2000.

Chung Tai Monastery Taiwan

I don’t know anything about the Chung Tai Zen sect, other than it’s a Taiwan-based monastic order that supposedly follows traditional Chinese Ch’an. I think I may have been to the center in Walnut once, but it was long ago. I used to visit quite a few Chinese temples in the San Gabriel Valley, but they are a bit of a blur now. Except for Hsi Lai in Hacienda Heights, which happens to be the largest Buddhist temple outside of Asia, so it’s kind of hard to forget.

George H.W. Bush, said something once while running for President in 1987 that I think still reflects the thinking of many Americans:  “No, I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

For quite a few of our fellow Americans you could replace Atheists in that sentence with Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, etc. One nation under God, as they, the kind of people who think like this, see him.

Apparently that depraved gunman in the recent massacre in Norway was inspired by one of these types, a far-right anti-Islam activist named Robert Spencer. I don’t know much about Spencer either, except that he seems to be somewhat in the Glenn Beck mode and he collaborates with a woman named Pamela Geller, who has a blog called “Atlas Shrugs” and there is, obviously, some sort of connection to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. According to Salon, “They are now actually fundraising on the fact that they helped inspire a massacre. Or more accurately, they’re begging for money to protect them from the imaginary witch hunt that they claim the liberals will mount.” ThinkProgress reports, “if you donate more than $500 to Atlas Shrugs, they will send you a signed copy of Geller’s book, ‘Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance’.”

If you donate more than $500 to this blog, I will send you a signed copy of relationship guru Paula Yorlegagan’s new book, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”

The world is changing every moment, and is therefore unreal, it has no permanent existence. But though it is constantly changing, it has a something about it which persists and it is therefore to that extent real. I have therefore no objection to calling it real and unreal . . . It has been my experience that I am always true from my point of view, and am often wrong from the point of view of my honest critics. I know that we are both right from our respective points of view. And this knowledge saves me from attributing motives to my opponents or critics. The seven blind men who gave seven different descriptions of the elephant were all right from their respective points of view, and wrong from the point of view of one another, and right and wrong from the point of view of the man who knew the elephant. I very much like this doctrine of the manyness of reality. It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Musulman (sic) from his standpoint and a Christian from his. Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa. I want to take the whole world in the embrace of my love. [This] is the result of the twin doctrine of Satyagraha (“truth force”) and ahimsa (“non-violence”).”

Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1926


“Silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth.”

The assassin maneuvered his way to the front, hand in his pocket, gripping the pistol. The crowd had been waiting for a while. The person whom they were waiting for was late. Eventually they saw him come up the pathway, draped in the shadows of the warm evening, accompanied by two members of his “family.” The assassin stood calm, resolute.

When his target was just a few yards from the wooden platform, Nathuram Godse, stepped forward and blocked the path. He bowed in respect and then fired. Three bullets from the .38 Beretta semi-automatic pistol slammed into the body of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who murmured the words, “Oh, God,” and fell to the ground where he died within moments.

January 30, 1948. Sixty-three years ago. Louis Fischer, a well-known journalist at the time, later wrote of Gandhi: “His legacy is courage, his lesson truth, his weapon love. His life is his monument. He now belongs to mankind.”

In the wake of the Tucson tragedy, there has been much talk about how we as a free society should talk. The dust has not settled and exactly what direction this dialogue about the words we use in public discourse will take is yet unknown, but one encouraging sign is that there has been little, if any, of the kind of the revenge talk that followed the Oklahoma City bombing. Revenge, not justice allowed Timothy McVeigh to get the easy way out with a death sentence, which, by the way, was exactly what he wanted.

While all sides have some responsibility to take for the sorry state of our national discourse, I firmly believe that the lion’s share belongs to the right wing/conservative element. It began in the 1990’s when Newt Gingrich told Republicans that they should target liberals and Democrats by calling into question their patriotism, their faith, and their morality. Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in reality was little more than a contract on political opponents. The mean-spirited, exaggerated political rhetoric shot off by angry, gun-metal mouths has continued unabated, but had someone been able to pull the plug on this license to lie and smear back then when it started, or had we not listened, then we might not find ourselves in the situation we are in today.

As the leader of India’s hard-won struggle for independence, Mohandas K. Gandhi became the international symbol of a free India. He lived a spiritual and ascetic life of prayer, fasting, and meditation. He was so admired by his countrymen that he was called Mahatma, meaning ‘Great Soul,’ a title reserved for the greatest sages.

The extraordinary life and teachings of this man still inspires and remains a brilliant example today,  and especially in these days, there is we have much we can learn from his legacy.  These thoughts of Gandhi’s, from his autobiography, seem apropos to the present moment, words that all of us could benefit by reflecting on:

The iconic photo by Margaret Bourke-White.

I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage. My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words. I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. And I can now give myself the certificate that a thoughtless word hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my speech or writing. I have thus been spared many a mishap and waste of time. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. Proneness to exaggerate, to suppress or modify the truth, wittingly or unwittingly, is a natural weakness of man and silence is necessary in order to surmount it. A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word. We find so many people impatient to talk. There is no chairman of a meeting who is not pestered with notes for permission to speak. And whenever the permission is given the speaker generally exceeds the time-limit, asks for more time, and keeps on talking without permission. All this talking can hardly be said to be of my benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.


Syud Hossain, Muslim Voice of Freedom

Syud Hossain

I have a book that I got about ten years ago, I think at a yard sale but it’s been so long I can’t remember. If I paid more than a buck for it, I’d be surprised. It is called Gandhi: The Saint as Statesman by Syud Hossain, an author who at the time I had never heard of. This is a first edition, published in 1937, and it turns out that Hossain, a Muslim, was a friend of Gandhi and was active in the Indian Independence Movement.

The book has an inscription signed by Hossain and Carl F. Sutton, the publisher. Dated August 20, 1938, it reads “To Stephanie and Cyril (?) Holton, with best wishes.” What’s more, inside I found two Christmas cards, obviously from the late 30’s or early 40’s (one looks handmade), sans envelopes, given by Syud Hossain to a Mr. and Mrs Ludwik Opid or Ford (the handwriting is hard to read). I don’t have the foggiest idea who these recipient were.

Hossain was an interesting guy, although his biographical information is scattered around here and there. “He exiled himself to the United States to find support for Indian independence, giving lectures and writing articles and books. In 1933, Jacques Marchais helped him organize the ‘Roundtable of Contemporary Religion’ in New York,” is how he is described on the Tibetan Material History website. It also says that “Jacques Marchais was a woman who had an early interest in Tibetan culture and who built a museum on Staten Island [Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art] that she thought of as an educational center to provide American people with a place of encounter with the East.” Sounds like another interesting person.

Here is a description of Hossain written by Blanche Watson for Pearson’s Magazine in 1922 (included the book’s appendix) that has some parallels with today’s situation:

From the moment almost of his landing Syud Hossain has been an animated denial. He has been obliged to deny, not once but scores of times, that the Mohammmedans and Hindus are deadly enemies; that the former are all Turks; that India is the size of Texas; that the Mohammedan is a ferocious war-maker; that India is unfit to govern itself; that England is in India for the ‘welfare’ of Indians; that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement is a preparation for bloodshed and violence.

Unfortunately, the aftermath of Gandhi’s revolution did result in a great bloodletting. As for the rest of that statement, it would appear that the misconceptions about Muslims and the East Syud Hossain had to contend with are not much different from those existing today. We haven’t come too far, have we?

Syud Hossain was born in 1888 in Calcutta to a well-to-do and prominent family.  His father was a scholar and the Registrar General of Bengal. In 1909, he went to England to study law.  In 1916, he became a journalist with the Bombay Chronicle and worked with its legendary editor, B G Horniman. While in Bombay he became involved in the Home Rule Movement, and in 1918 he returned to England as secretary of the Home Rule deputation.

In 1919, he joined the Independent where he gained notoriety with some passionate editorials that provoked the displeasure of the British Government.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Hossain fell in love with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the sister of Nehru, who was an Indian diplomat and politician. This was a rather controversial relationship that attracted the attention of the international press for several years. The couple faced immense opposition to their marriage, and from some reason, it seems that Gandhi was vehemently opposed to it. According to the April 27, 1949 issue of the Miami Daily News “just a few weeks before her Washington appointment [as Indian ambassador to the US and Mexico] was announced, Syed Hussain was found dead in his corner suite at the famous Shepherd Hotel . . . His intimates there swear he died of a broken heart”.

This is confusing since the site that provided this information also says that Hossain “was made India’s first ambassador to Egypt where he died on February 25, 1949,” and elsewhere it is claimed that he and Pandit eloped and had a child.

While in the United Sates, Hossain became somewhat of celebrity. He was said to be a masterful speaker and he lectured at universities, social clubs, and various international organizations throughout the country on Gandhi and the Indian independence movement.

Much of this information, I culled from an article by Danish Khan entitled “Syud Hossain: India’s Voice For Freedom Abroad.” You can read the entire article at Indian Muslims.

Here is an excerpt from Gandhi: The Saint as Statesman in which Hossain discusses Gandhi’s principle of Ahimsa:

Nonviolence is thus both a principle and an instrument of Gandhi’s technique, but if any Westerner held that nonviolence, in Gandhi’s sense and use of the term, was anything pusillanimous he would make a grievous blunder. There is nothing namby-pamby about Gandhi. He is a spiritual athlete. His is no creed of cowardice . . .

By ruling our hate from his scheme of things Gandhi automatically rejects and repudiates violence or coercion which he regards as merely the instruments which subserve hate.  To him the attainment of any end, however intrinsically laudable it may be in itself, by methods of forcible compulsion, is a gross immorality. For Gandhi emphatically the end does not justify the means . . .

And Gandhi holds it to be the bounden duty of every individual not to acquiesce in or compromise with Evil, but on the contrary, positively to give it battle. But the difference is that Gandhi gives battle to wrong not by retaliatory hate and violence but by love and self-suffering. In other words, it is the practical unvarying application in daily life and to mundane affairs of the spirit embodied in “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” The application, however, is at once retrospective and redemptive.

Perhaps the most distinctive contribution of Gandhi to the ethical idealism of his time is his application of these principles on a scale that is unprecedented, and in a domain where it has never been tried before, namely, the notoriously sanguinary field in which Imperialism and Nationalism deadlock for mutual destruction.

We may now perhaps better realize how the saint came to be also the recognized and undisputed leader of perhaps the greatest national revolutionary movement of history.