“If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

As I’ve noted previously on The Endless Further, extremists in Burma and Sri Lanka are misusing Buddhism to promote religious hatred and violence. In Burma (Myanmar) violence has left more than 200 dead and close to 150,000 homeless since persecution against the Rohingya Muslim minority began in the western state of Rakhine in June 2012. Human rights groups maintain that extremist Buddhist monks have helped incite violence and participated in rioting mobs. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist mobs have attacked Muslim neighborhoods – four people were killed in a clash between Buddhists and Muslims last month – unrest incited by the far-right Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) group.

Dalai-LamaXX444b3Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who turned 79 this past Sunday, July 6th, used the occasion of his birthday to call on Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to halt violence against Muslim minorities. In front of a large crowd gathered on the outskirts of Leh, a town high in the Himalayas, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader said,

I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime.

Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

These simple but powerful words need no further explication . . .

But I would like to point out once again that for too long, far too many Buddhists around the world have remained silent on this issue, and this is especially the case with well-known Buddhist leaders whose words influence many people.  About this matter, silence is not skillful means, but rather a tool of complicity.

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Betraying Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

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

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

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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:

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Thick As A Brick

A good overview here of where Western Buddhism is at these days. Personally, I find it refreshing to run across someone able to look at things objectively, without an axe to grind, and without rewriting history and/or trying to create a new –ism.

According to the Sunday Leader, “The U.S. and some Indian politicians believe now is the moment to publicly pressure Sri Lanka to address rights abuses committed by its military at the end of the country’s 26-year war against the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.” At the United Nations Human Rights Council to be held in Geneva next week, the U.S. is planning to introduce a resolution calling for Sri Lanka to “investigate and punish atrocities.”

Yankee Go Home!

This news prompted hundreds of Buddhist monks to protest in front of the U. S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday. An unidentified monk told reporters, “America is interfering in our country. There are 26,000 to 30,000 Buddhist monks throughout the country who are ready to take to the streets.” Yeah, right. The way I understand this is that ethnic Tamil lawmakers in Sri Lanka have urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to take up this matter. The U.S. is just acting on their behalf.

In the 26 year long civil war between the Theravada Buddhist-backed Sri Lankan government and the Tamil, there were human rights violations on both sides. In 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report that accused the Sri Lankan army of “slaughtering” and at the same time urged the Tamil Tigers to cease shooting civilians trapped in the war zone “who try to flee.” In other words, both sides have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Last year, the University of Massachusetts released the results of a study which showed that meditation produces positive changes in the brain (here). Now, Science Daily reports “Earlier evidence out of UCLA suggested that meditating for years thickens the brain (in a good way) and strengthens the connections between brain cells. Now a further report by UCLA researchers suggests yet another benefit.”

I can’t explain it, you’ll have to read for yourself, ‘cause I’m thick as a brick.

Just close your eyes and listen.

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The Wrecking Crew In Sri Lanka

Last week in Sri Lanka, a group of roughly 100 Buddhist monks and their supporters destroyed a Muslim shrine said to have been built on a piece of property given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. One of the participants, a monk named Amatha Dhamma Thero, told the BBC that “he and 100 other monks from various Asian nations destroyed the Islamic shrine because Muslims in the country were seeking to convert the locale into a mosque.”

According to the BBC report, “The mob waved Buddhist flags and – in one picture – burnt a green Muslim flag. There have been no other reports of what happened.” Witnesses to the incident claim the police were present but did nothing to stop the destruction. The police deny they were there, but the photo on the right, published on a number of sites reporting the incident, clearly shows men wearing some sort of uniform looking on.

A local senior Muslim denies that a mosque was planned.

Sinhalese is the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion. Politicians and government officials routinely make pronouncements about how Sri Lanka is the center of Buddhism, and responsible for preserving dhamma, and so on. It’s sort of a Buddhist version of American exceptionalism.

Sri Lanka has a democratic, socialist government (the President is Buddhist). And while Sri Lanka has universal suffrage, the government has been accused of human rights violations in regard to the treatment of minorities, especially the Tamil who are Hindu. To be fair, there’s probably enough questionable treatment of others to go around on all sides over there. However, since I am a Buddhist, that’s the part  that interests me.

Some time back, I read an article by Chamara Sumanapala  entitled “Can A Buddhist Be A Racist Or A Nationalist?” The gist of his piece is that Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka are “misusing Buddhism as a tool to achieve their own ends.”

Sumanapala begins his article with this statement,

An observer of Sri Lankan politics would notice that many if not all nationalist and racist elements of the Sinhalese community are Buddhists.”

The Sinhalese see themselves as a “chosen people.” This belief stems from The Mahavamsa or “The Great Chronicle”, a Pali text, actually a poem, which advances the notion that the Buddha made magical flights to the island of Sri Lanka and chose its people to be responsible for the preservation of Buddhist dhamma.

Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton and a leading scholar of Sri Lanka, writes,

The Mahavamsa is not just a text that gives us information on Sinhala-Buddhist identity; much more importantly it is a text that helps to create such an identity in a way that the previous chronicle, the Dipavamsa, did not. And central to that process of identity creation is the hero, Dutthagamani Abhaya (161-137 BCE), the man who conjoins the land or the place, Sri Lanka, with the sasana, already blessed by the Buddha as a place where the Dhamma will flourish. And when the anguished king asks the monks what consequences will befall him for having killed millions of people, the monks reply, that no real sin has been committed by him because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers, no better than beasts. And more gratefully the Mahavamsa monks assign Dutthagamini a place in heaven in the proximity of the next Buddha, Maitreye.”

Of course, I don’t know the entire story of the incident last week, or how much of what Chamara Sumanapala writes is valid, or to what extent attitudes fround in The Mahavamsa have actually shaped the culture of Sri Lanka, but on the surface none of it sounds very buddistly, as Jeff Bridges would say.

Destruction, whether it be Buddhist statues carved in the side of a cliff or a Muslim shrine, is an act of hate. I’ve always thought of Buddhism as being concerned with the art of construction, specifically the construction of shrines of loving-kindness in human hearts.

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

He who seeks happiness
By hurting those who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.

For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy.
Never harm him
And when you leave this life
You too will find happiness.

from the Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom

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