Buddhist Islamophobia

rohigya

An article appeared last week exploring the issue of Islamophobia in Burmese Buddhism. Burma’s Time Bomb by Kyaw Zwa Moe describes a suspicion that the Burmese government manipulates religious prejudice for its own purposes. For example, during democratic uprisings religious hatred may be used to divert attention from protests and to promote support for the military. He continues that:

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a Burmese-language book with a shocking title: “If You Marry a Man of Another Evil Race and Religion.” The book is believed to have been written by a Buddhist monk under the pen name Pho Pa Nyaw, and it was published with permission from the Religious Affairs Ministry in January 2010, back when no book could be printed and distributed without government approval. It includes 11 stories about Buddhist women who were sexually abused, raped or forced to marry members of another “evil” religion.”

After reading some of the stories, I am convinced that the book was intended to plant seeds of hatred against Islam among the country’s Buddhist majority, although the author never specifically referred to Muslims. One story was about a Buddhist woman named Su Su Lat. She married a man of another faith, and her husband and his family prohibited her from worshipping the Buddha. In 2000, when they discovered that she was continuing to practice Buddhism, they beat her to death. The entire family was later arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Similar outcomes were described in the other stories, with the Buddhists always referred to as victims.

Two things are striking. First, the book is purported to be written by a Buddhist monk. Second, its publication was supported by the Religious Affairs Ministry. The book follows a long tradition and, as noted in the article, has its infamous predecessor in U Kyaw Lwin’s ‘969’ published as far back as 1997. As Kyaw Zwa Moe comments about the former book:

This book seems to be based solely upon hearsay, lacking detailed references to places, names or specific incidents. But even if the stories are true, I wonder why the Religious Affairs Ministry approved their publication. The writing is racist and provocative, and assuming that government officials actually read it themselves, they must have known it would stir up tension.

There is a common theme here and one which could explain the Islamophobic Buddhist rhetoric that seems to many observers to be so contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. Does the Burmese military use discrimination and prejudice against Islam as a means to divide the population and give the army a reason for its continued governance? If the country is under threat from a supposed Islamic enemy then the army, as always in recent Burmese history must be in control to defend ‘nationality, race and religion’ (ma-ba-tha)

As  As Kyaw Zwa Moe concludes:

I wonder whether the book my friend sent me recently contributed to our country’s current religious tensions. But the real question is, why did the government give its blessing? Is it state policy to encourage religious tension?

As my friend told me, “Religion is used as a time bomb here, all the time.”

Another article Buddhist vigilantes in Myanmar are sparking riots with wild rumors of Muslim sex predators considers similar themes:

 The specter of rapacious Muslim men, plotting a slow genocide of Buddhists through sexual conquest, is actually quite old in Myanmar. A 1938 newspaper article, translated by The Journal of Burma Studies, offers a stern warning to Buddhist ladies who marry Muslims brought over by British colonizers: “You Burmese women who fail to safeguard your own race … are responsible for the ruination of the race.”

In 30 countries, heads of state must belong to a certain religion

Bhutan

As reported by the Pew Research Center 30 countries in the world require their heads of state to have a particular religious affiliation, they must belong to a particular religious group.ii

Two countries, Bhutan and Thailand (both monarchies), require their head of state to be Buddhist. While in Burma the president is ‘prohibited form being a member of a religious order’.

There are other interesting findings:

‘More than half of the countries with religion-related restrictions on their heads of state (17) maintain that the office must be held by a Muslim. In Jordan, for example, the heir to the throne must be a Muslim child of Muslim parents. In Tunisia, any Muslim male or female voter born in the country may qualify as a candidate for president. Malaysia, Pakistan and Mauritania also restrict their heads of state to Muslim citizens.’

While ceremonial religious duties are required in other countries:

In addition to the 30 countries in this analysis, another 19 nations have religious requirements for ceremonial monarchs who serve as their heads of state. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth II – also known as the Defender of the Faith – as their head of state. The other countries in this category are Denmark, Norway and Sweden.’

FT_Religious_Requirements

 

 

 

Sri Lankan Buddhist monk denounces the Dalai Lama

bbs

As reported in Al Jazeera, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force)  has made some outspoken comments about the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had recently urged Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka to end violence, particularly against Muslims.

‘Like Pope for Christians, he is considered as the leader for all Buddhists by the West. But we don’t accept him as the leader of the Buddhists…We see Dalai Lama is also a victim of the Muslim extremism…They (Muslim extremists) have fed misinformation and he has got wrong information.’

The Dalai Lama had recently 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.’

 

 

 

 

 

Mindful Sex

Mindful

Jeff Wilson has recently published Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture.

On the Oxford University Press website it is described as:

‘The first comprehensive exploration of the practice of mindfulness in America.Outlines how Buddhism influences and is appropriated and adapted by non-Buddhist cultures in the United States and elsewhere.’

Wilson also has an article published today on the oupblog called ‘Mindful Sex’. It describes the practice of and therapy leading to mindful sex – ‘the ability to let go of mental strain and intrusive thoughts so one can fully tap into sexual intercourse’.

He describes three categories of this movement:

‘The first category is the scientific discussion of using mindfulness to treat sexually-related problems in a patient or client population [....] The second category of works on mindful sex—those belonging to the self-help genre—take these impulses further. These books and articles are often written by medical doctors, therapists, and other specialists, but their target audience is mainstream North Americans without any particular credentials or connection to the health industries. As such, they reach a vastly larger audience than the medicalized mindfulness studies. Books in this category are no strangers to the bestseller lists, and these mindful sex promoters tout their expertise on impressive websites and through popular TED talks [....] The third category is spiritual applications of Buddhist mindfulness to sex. These are typically promoted by people without formal medical or psychological credentials who operate outside of overtly Buddhist institutions. They offer mindful sex as part of a package of techniques and perspectives for personal enhancement.’
This last category includes the wonderful ‘Orgasmic Yoga‘ and Wilson quotes Bruce Gether and his ‘Nine Golden Keys to Mindful Masturbation’ which I have to quote:

‘Mindful masturbation is a simple, yet powerful practice. It requires dedication, and becomes its own reward. Just pay full attention while you masturbate. Don’t let yourself get distracted by imagination. Keep your primary focus on yourself, your own body, your penis and your own sensations. This path of self-pleasure can take you into realms of ecstasy you have never before experienced.’
The irony of all of this is not lost on Wilson but he does make some very serious points:
‘What are the points that I want to make with all of this? First, North Americans use Buddhist practices to enhance their desires, rather than retreat from or conquer them. Mindfulness of the body used to be an ascetic monastic practice designed to eliminate sexual feelings and break down the erroneous sense of an enduring personal self. Mindful sex is a pleasure-enhancing practice designed for laypeople to rekindle their sexual fires, promote self-esteem, and variously lead the practitioner to mind-blowing orgasm, greater bonding, or perhaps metaphysical oneness with all.’
Wilson suggests that ‘Buddhism has been used for achieving these-worldly benefits more or less since its creation, be they faith-healing, safe childbirth, protection from harm, and so on.’ On this point one has to agree and perhaps reevaluate some of these practices and consider them in a new light.

 

 

 

 

The causes of intolerance and prejudice in Buddhism

buddhism-in-burma

An article I published in the excellent Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific ‘New Mandala’:

‘A sense of bewilderment is often apparent when news of violence appears with regard to Sri Lanka and Burma. The incredulity could be summarized in two ways. For the Asian Buddhist the idea is dismissed that the teachings of the Buddha could ever lead to hostility. ‘Buddhism’ is airbrushed from the scenes of violence and in its place the only thing seen is the threat to the nation, a threat to the culture and a threBuddhismat to the religion.

For the Western observer there is the idea that those committing these acts are not ‘real’ Buddhists. The original teachings have mingled with culture to such an extent as to become unrecognizable – dig beneath the culture, to the text, and there the ‘real’ message of the Buddha will be found. For the West (and I use the term ‘West’ not in a geographic sense but to imply those societies irrevocably influenced by modernity), Buddhism has to be separated from its cultural environment. This is out of necessity – for it is assumed that Buddhism is not a ‘religion’ at all. It is a pristine ‘other’, standing alone and somewhat aloof from the messiness of the masses. The notion that Buddhism is not a ‘religion is often a shared idea of the modern West and modern Asia.

To an extent, of course, these reactions overlap. However, it is important to keep in mind the differences. For the Asian Buddhist the ‘West’ can never culturally understand Buddhism (for the West is ‘foreign’ – modern and corrupt). Whereas for the Western Buddhist, it is precisely these cultural accretions that obscure the real teachings. The East is naïve and lacking sophistication. Both East and West, when they look at Buddhism, search for ‘authenticity’.

Should it come as any surprise that Buddhism has recently shown hostility to other religions? On the one hand, yes. Buddhism has portrayed itself, and been described by Western commentators as the ‘religion’ untainted by ‘religiousness’ (dogmatism, violence, fundamentalism). This has taken so many forms that it needs little further explanation. It is the religion of choice for the compassionate, modern individual. That this has been so readily accepted can be appreciated when many believe that Buddhism has a pure history in which misdemeanors, carnage, war and hostility has been committed by everyone, except the Buddhist. This is why there is such shock accorded to recent violence in Sri Lanka and Burma.

If we are seeking clues as to the origins to such hostility, we should not turn to the core textual tradition (although some Buddhist groups might turn to a particular text to justify its position). In the fundamental ideas of the Pali Canon, or the early Sutras of the Mahayana tradition, the teachings of the Buddha are based on tolerance and compassion. However, in seeking the causes of intolerant and prejudiced Buddhist attitudes the textual tradition is not the place to look.

The roots of intolerance might be found in the reaction of one Buddhist group to another. For example, although notoriously intricate, there appears to be something of this sectarian attitude in the emergence of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Mahāyāna identified itself in opposition to what it termed ‘Hīnayāna’ Buddhist groups. Although Mahāyāna is often translated as ‘Great Vehicle’ and Hīnayāna as ‘Smaller Vehicle’ – term ‘hīna’ actually means ‘inferior’, ‘low,’ ‘poor’, ‘miserable’, ‘vile’, or ‘contemptible’ implying a detrimental religious aspiration.

The internal evidence then suggests that the some Buddhist schools had an uncompromising attitude to other Buddhist schools. With the rise of Buddhism in the West (including the Asian ‘West’) – that ‘intolerance’ is pronounced. There is an internal dialogue about which group is the most compassionate. In fact, I think other Buddhist groups, whether Asian or in the West are using this ‘stick of compassion’ on Burmese Buddhists, as a way of distancing the rest of the Buddhist world from the situation in Burma. There is an evaluation of which group is more authentic – in short there appears to be dogmatic rigidity running through Buddhist history. It is in these aspects of Buddhist history, I suggest, that the roots of Buddhist hostility are found.

I am suggesting that there is a tendency in Buddhist history to negatively evaluate other Buddhist groups. Its intolerance of others could come from an intolerance of itself. From this it should come as no surprise that there is a negative evaluation of non-Buddhist traditions.

When this tendency expresses itself in modern Asian history we find Buddhist defending the so-called ‘Buddhist flag’ (the sāsana flag, designed by J.R. de Silva and an American, Colonel Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880) and raging at the blasphemy of those who handle it inappropriately.

There is the idea that the ‘outsider’ cannot understand the cultural subtleties of Buddhism. The notion of the superiority of Buddhism, often based upon a supposed scientific resemblance and methodology – Buddhism is better because it is more ‘scientific’ more ‘rational’. And because it is perceived as ‘better’ Buddhists go to war, discriminate against others, take Buddhism to be an essential factor in the formation of national identity, and do things that, in other respects, we might find are completely contrary to the Buddha’s teachings.

There is an historic pride in the fundamental goodness of the Dhamma which causes conflict and hostility. There are enough teachings in the Buddhist Canon that warns against such an attitude, but there are also many examples in Buddhist history where a strong sense of pride in one’s own tradition is supported. It is precisely where an attitude in which the most compassionate, the most Buddhist, the most traditional are valued – that intolerance in Buddhist culture comes into focus. National identity has become inseparable from Buddhist identity in much of Buddhist Asia and both have become something other from what they otherwise would have been. Intolerance and prejudice are not far from such an identity and belongs in neither.’

Paul Fuller has a PhD in Buddhist Studies from the University of Bristol.  He has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK.

 

The Saffron Revolution in Cambodia

Cambodia

As reported in The Phnom Penh Post Buddhist monastics are involved in the current political struggle in Cambodia. They have been active at Freedom Park in central Phnom Pen in opposition to the government. The monks have been active in recent political movements. For example, in the garment and service sectors they have supported strikes by workers for more pay:

“We don’t want the regime to control the people. We want the people to control the regime,” said But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, a group at the forefront of anti-government protests. “Whoever are the justice lovers, we will side with them.”

It is interesting to compare these sentiments to those expressed by the Buddhist Association of Thailand about the political monk Buddha Issara:

“Monks can have personal feelings but political expression is banned by sangha regulations,” said the association’s secretary Sathien Wipornmaha. He said Buddha Issara’s involvement in anti-government protests “destroys the image of Buddhism”.

Luang Pu Buddha Issara was involved in the recent anti-government protests in Thailand.

 

 

‘Fascists’ in saffron robes? The rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist ultra-nationalists

bbs

An article appears on CNN by Tim Hume called ‘Fascists’ in saffron robes? The rise of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist ultra-nationalists. Using the same footage of hate speech I used previously of Bodu Bala Sena general secretary Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara the article observes:

‘Then, his arm raised and his voice rising to a shriek, he issues an explicit threat to Muslims, using a derogatory term for the minority.

To roars of approval, he vows that if any Muslim, were to lay a hand on a Sinhalese – let alone a monk – that would “be the end” of all of them.

What is striking about the clip, aside from the viciousness of the rhetoric, is that the firebrand behind the microphone is dressed in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk.

He is Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the Buddhist holy man who is the general secretary and public face of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, also known as Buddhist Power Force).

The ultra-nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist organization has emerged as a troubling presence on the Sri Lankan political landscape in recent years, and is blamed by many for inciting the deadly violence in Aluthgama.’