Buddhism used as a basis for prejudice and discrimination

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As reported in The Irrawaddy the NLD official Htin Lin Oo has been condemned for criticising the use of Buddhism in Burma to promote religious nationalism.

The Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union issued a statement saying that:

‘In the past, NLD was the party which all Burmese citizens relied upon, supported and respected. But deliberately offending people who do not support the NLD anymore for various reasons would lead to a great blow to the NLD’s image.’

In a speech lasting over two hours certain parts of Htin Lin Oo’s speech have become the object of criticism on social media. In one part he states:

‘Buddha is not Burmese, not Shan, not Karen—so if you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don’t believe in Buddhism.’

Htin Lin Oo has urged people to listen to the entire speech, seemingly aware of the offense he has caused to some monastics. However, it could be argued that such sentiments are badly needed in the religious debate within Burma.

Buddhist ‘race protection laws’

As this report points out ‘Burma’s constitution banns discrimination on race, religion, birth and sex ‘ but here are monks and nuns arguing in favour of laws restricting marriage between Buddhist women and Muslims. As one nun says ‘I joined this demonstration with the aim of protecting our religion’. One could also suggest that nowhere in the Buddhist Canon is there any sentiment that would support such discriminatory laws.

Some have argued that the military are behind these protests which places the Buddhist Sangha in an alliance with the military against any form of outside influence. There could be some validity to this but the complexity of differing narratives is not so easily disentangled.

Off the Cushion: EPISODE #7: “When Does Ethnocentric Buddhism Become Buddhist Terror?”

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I had the pleasure in taking part in an episode of the excellent Rev. Danny Fisher’s ‘Off the Cushion’ series. Episode 7 is on the topic of “When Does Ethnocentric Buddhism Become Buddhist Terror?”

This week, as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for his second visit to Burma, we look at the escalating violence against Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists in the country. Dr. Paul Fuller talks to us about his proposed term for understanding this phenomenon: “Ethnocentric Buddhism.” In addition, Myra Dahgaypaw, Campaigns Coordinator for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, pulls back the curtain on the much-discussed 969 Movement and its leader U Wirathu. Plus: United to End Genocide’s Director of Policy and Government Relations, Daniel P. Sullivan, tells us about the #JustSayTheirName campaign and how it might help stop this conflict.

A very big thank you for Danny for inviting me to contribute. I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to consider some of these ideas with Myra Dahgaypaw and Daniel P. Sullivan.

Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar

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For those seeking an excellent summary and analysis of recent issues on the religious complexities in Burma ‘Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar’ is available to download for free. Written by Matthew J. Walton (Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Susan Hayward it is, to date, the most thorough analysis of nationalism and inter-religious tensions in Burma. It is published by the Honolulu: East-West Center.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been marred by violence between Buddhists and Muslims. While the violence originally broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, it subsequently emerged throughout the country, impacting Buddhists and Muslims of many ethnic backgrounds. This article offers background on these so-called “communal conflicts” and the rise and evolution of Buddhist nationalist groups led by monks that have spearheaded anti-Muslim campaigns. The authors describe how current monastic political mobilization can be understood as an extension of past monastic activism, and is rooted in traditional understandings of the monastic community’s responsibility to defend the religion, respond to community needs, and guide political decision-makers. The authors propose a counter-argument rooted in Theravada Buddhism to address the underlying anxieties motivating Buddhist nationalists while directing them toward peaceful actions promoting coexistence. Additionally, given that these conflicts derive from wider political, economic, and social dilemmas, the authors offer a prescription of complementary policy initiatives.

Wirathu rejects ‘self-immolation’ rumours

Thích Quảng Đức

As reported by the Democratic Voice of Burma Ashin Wirathu has dismissed rumours on social media that he intends to perform a self-immolation if the proposed ‘Race Protection Laws‘ are not adopted in Burma by the end of November. Reports circulated that the controversial monk would douse himself in petrol and set himself on fire on Decmber 2nd if the laws were not adopted.

Acts of self sacrifice have a long history in Buddhism, going back to the Jatakas. The most famous Buddhist self-immolation in the textual tradition is perhaps that of Bhaishajyaraja in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra). The most notable image is that of Thích Quảng Đức as a protest against the war in Vietnam.

Ashin Wirathu commented on the rumours ‘I did not say that or made any written statement about it – I have rejected these rumours on my social media pages.’ His comments were said to be made at a meeting of the Burma Race and Religion Protection Organisation.

‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’?

 

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An interesting article has appeared in OpenDemocracy titled ‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’ by Johannes Nugroho. It summarises and analysis some of the issues in Tibetan Buddhism about the so-called Dorje Shugden controversy.

Dorje Shugden is a Tibetan Buddhist deity which is meant to protect members of the Gelugpa school. From 1978, the Dalai Lama (who is a Gelugpa), began to outlaw the use of Dorje Shugden as a protector of the purity of the Gelugpa school against influence from other Tibetan schools of Buddhism, particularly Nyingma teachings.

There are interesting themes to be noted in this controversy. As Nugroho suggests:

Many supporters of the Dalai Lama have also voiced their opinion that the NKT [the UK-based New Kadampa Tradition founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso who advocates the use of Dorje Shugden] does not qualify as Tibetan Buddhist practice, implying that it is heretical. However, the concept of heresy itself goes against the core of Buddhist teaching which is far from being doctrinal in nature.

I’m not sure that the notion of heresy is as much of an aberration in Buddhist history as Nugroho seems to think and I would have much to say about the nature of Buddhist doctrines. However his points are well made. His main idea is that there intricate cultural patterns at work within Tibetan Buddhism and that Western liberal converts often disguise and blur some of these cultural intricacies. However, he takes these arguments further:

There is undeniably a great difference in cultural values between Tibetan Buddhists who grew up within their community in India and the western converts who were raised with liberal western values. But this is no longer the end of the story.

The lesson for the Dalai Lama that Nugroho proposes is the following:

There is no doubt that the conflict over Dorje Shugden will continue to haunt the Dalai Lama, unless he somehow reconciles himself with the Shugden followers.

Twenty five years on after his Nobel Prize, he must also realize the world has changed, and so has Tibetan Buddhism. From a faith being practiced by a remote land-locked nation, it has become a fast growing religion in the west, as well as a model of tolerance.

Further, with the advances in technology and the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Tibetan and the global audiences, and to try and approach them differently.

‘The Buddha doesn’t belong in temple’, says statue breaker

 

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An odd episode, reported by various news outlets about a New Zealand resident destroying an ancient statue of the Buddha at the Bayon temple in Cambodia. Here’s one version of the story:

The New Zealand resident who broke a Buddha statue in Cambodia says she did so because it was inside a temple dedicated to another deity.

Willemijn Vermaat, 40, who moved to Wellington from the Netherlands eight years ago, had been on a four-week holiday to Laos and Cambodia when she entered the 12th-century Bayon Temple in Siem Reap late on her final night.

She was later questioned by the Apsara Authority about pushing over a Buddhist statue, which broke into four pieces, but she said it was out of her control.

Delayed by rain, she said, she was standing in the temple entrance way after permitted viewing times when something strange happened to her.

“I was drawn to go into the inner sanctuary where the Buddha statue was,” she said. “When I got in there I got a very strange feeling that something was talking to me, but it was like it was my own thoughts.

“It was telling me I had to clean up the temple because there was too much rubbish, from the monks and other people.”

She said the voice identified itself as the Mesopotamian goddess Inana, who told her the temple was not a temple of Buddha, rather one belonging to her.

While cleaning, Vermaat, who has a PhD in linguistics, was discovered by three monks, who allowed her to walk away even though she had been in there after the 6.30pm cut-off time for visitors.

The monks then alerted the Apsara Authority, which started searching for her. “I was hiding in the jungle until I didn’t hear them searching for me any more. So I returned to the inner sanctuary and I had to meditate.

“I was told I had to move the Buddha but I said I didn’t want to as it’s such a great religion and nothing to make fun of. So I tried to sit on his lap but that didn’t work so I pushed him out, and I was apologising to him, but that must have been when I broke it.”

Breaking it was not intentional but it was quite heavy and hard to move, she said.

It did not look like an old statue, rather one that had been put there for decorative purposes.

The Cambodian Daily reported it dated from the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century and had already been broken into several pieces when rediscovered, but was restored in 1988 so that it could be put on display at Bayon.

But other Cambodian media said it was a replica made in 1988.

Vermaat said she felt bad about breaking the statue but it should not have been in there as it was not a Buddha temple and did not look anything like the many other Buddhist temples she had seen in Asia.

The voices abruptly stopped soon after her meditation so she walked out of the temple.

“I went to where I was supposed to meet my tuk-tuk driver and one of the guys from the authority was there and then eight or so others came and took me to my guest house.

“Two of them took my statement and I told them I had pushed over the Buddha but then they let me go.”

She had spent so long in the temple that she had missed her evening flight to Bangkok but flew out the next day.

Vermaat said she was not fazed by people who thought she might be crazy. “They can take it as they want, there are things in this world that we cannot always explain.”