OPINION: Buddha Bar trio did not blaspheme


Published in the Democratic Voice of Burma, 11th October, 2015:

The case of Phil Blackwood, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin has highlighted the issue of blasphemy and Buddhism. The three were imprisoned for an image of the Buddha they allegedly produced, wearing headphones with a psychedelic ambience, which caused offence to some Buddhists.

In a previous article to DVB, I suggested the reasons that insensitive images of the Buddha might cause offence. The basic idea I put forward was that an image of the Buddha is in religious terms, much more than a simple depiction of the Buddha. These images have a meaning far beyond a simple representation. A Buddha has a very real power, through his ethical and meditative activity, and this power can help and protect his followers. Misuse of his image can cause very real offence.

The image of the Buddha and other Buddhist religious artefacts are more complex in the cultural and religious context than is often appreciated in the Western imagination. In that imagination, Buddhism is reduced to a simple set of principles and much of its sacredness is downplayed. In many ways the romantic idea of Buddhism, the sacredness, is completely removed and the form of Buddhism as used in the media and advertising is often unrecognisable from the way Buddhism is practiced in Asian societies.

As Prof. David I. Steinberg has suggested: “The Western schoolbook approach which views textual Buddhism as pacifistic, meditative and non-violent misses the dynamic of Buddhism in Myanmar as a socio-political force. It is as naïve as interpreting the history of Western Europe on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount.” [Myanmar’s militant monks smash stereotypes, East Asia Forum, 13 November, 2014]

Having suggested these ideas, there is very little in the Pali Canon which would justify any form of blasphemy, and certainly not punishment for producing images of the Buddha. In fact, the two famous passages that mention offence being made against Buddhism it is clearly argued that those practicing the path to awakening will not take offence at any perceived insult to Buddhism.

Before considering these two passages a brief explanation of ‘intention’ (cetana) might be helpful. As is well known, one of the key features of Indian religious teaching, which the Buddha adopted and clarified, was the notion that ‘actions have consequences’ (kamma/karma). In the Buddha’s discussion of ‘action’, he clearly stated that action is to be understood as ‘intentional action’. The notion of ‘intention’ is central to any Buddhist understanding of an action having a consequence. It is for this reason that many Buddhists are not vegetarian, namely, they did not intend depriving the animal of life. If, without intent, one kills a living being, there is no negative consequence to that action. The same argument can clearly be extended to describe any offence caused unintentionally. If the intention to cause an offence is absent then, clearly, on purely philosophical grounds, no blame should be levelled against those who have caused offence.

In several passages from the Pali Canon the Buddha is very clear. His condemnation is not aimed at those who cause offence, but at the negative and unwholesome states of mind of those who take offence. The message that is repeated throughout the Buddha’s teachings is that the Buddha’s teachings are concerned with the overcoming of suffering. A major obstacle to this is not external factors, in others praise or disparagement, but in controlling feelings of anger and resentment.

It is in this context that the case of Phil Blackwood, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin is better appreciated. All three have clearly not had any unwholesome intentions to insult Buddhism. Further, all three have offered sincere apologies.

The attitude taken by the Buddha in the Pali Canon and the advice he offers is quite clear. If disparagement, negative comments and offence are aimed at Buddhism then the Buddhist should not allow negative and unwholesome states of mind to overwhelm them. The aim of the Buddhist path is to practice in such a way that one performs ethical activity, calms the mind, and cultivates wisdom and metta. Such behavior seems a much better Buddhist response than to act with offence and anger when none was intended.

Thai film banned for ‘blasphemy’ against Buddhism

A Thai Film, Arbat, has been denied release in Thailand due to its depiction of misconduct by a Buddhist monk. Scenes in the film are considered by the Thai ministry of culture to be disrespectful to Buddhism:

Thailand’s ministry of culture announced Tuesday that the film, titled Arbat, would be denied its planned wide release on Thursday because it depicts “misconduct” by Thai monks, including drinking, drug-taking, violence and “improper relations” with women. The Thai censorship board said that some scenes were “disrespectful” to [the] Buddha.

Ma-Ba-Tha celebrate ‘protection of race and religion’ laws


It has been reported in The Irrawaddy and the Myanmar Times that Ma-Ba-Tha, the Burmese ‘organisation for the protection of race and religion’ have begun two weeks of celebrating the passing into law of the 4 so-called race and religion protection laws (Monogamy Law, Religious Conversion Law, Interfaith Marriage Law and Population Control Law).

In The Irrawaddy U Wirathu is quoted as saying:

‘Our victory will be written in the country’s  history. With our victory celebration, we want to show our strength, and that our laws will likewise strongly exist in the country. We faced many challenges from the international [community], and even in the country, in passing these laws. If there are people who remain against these laws, we want to give warning: You will face punishment from the people, including the country’s monks.’

The Act of Giving: what makes Myanmar so charitable?

With Myanmar being named in the ‘World Giving Index’ as the most generous country in the world, this article, appearing in the Myanmar Times, suggests the possible reasons for its charitable status:

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The Act of Giving

‘The World Giving Index, published annually by the British Charities Aid Foundation, aims to describe which countries have the most charitable behaviour – and, by doing so to encourage donations to charities around the world. In 2014 Myanmar tied with the USA as the highest-ranked country for generous behaviour. Given the economic disparities between those two nations, we might be surprised at that pairing – but perhaps not, when we consider how devoutly religious Myanmar is. But why, out of all Buddhist countries, is Myanmar considered the most benevolent? And considering that most religions promote charitable offerings, what is distinctive about Myanmar’s Buddhist attitude toward charitable behaviour that pushes it to the top?’

Preaching by the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements

The following video has recently gone viral among followers of the 969 and Ma Ba Tha movements. In Burmese the video is introduced with the following: ‘Those who haven’t been to, or haven’t heard or seen a 969 Ma Ba Tha fun preaching ceremony, say, sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.’

The music has a strong nationalistic theme. A translation of the lyrics to the song have been offered by Dr Maung Zarni, with many thanks:


“We will fence our nation with our bones”

Buddha’s Wisdom shines over our land
In defence of Bama race and Buddhist faith we will stand at the front line.
These people (the infidels/Muslims) live on our (Buddhist) soil.
They drink our water.
They break our rules.
They suck our wealth.
And they insult us the host.
They destroy our youth.
Alas, they are just one ungrateful, worthless creatures.

We are one Buddhist brotherhood, now joining hands as One.
We shall pledge to join hands as One.
We do pledege to join hands as One.
We will be loyal and faithful to our Race and our (Buddhist) Faith.

We will only do business with those who share our Buddhist faith.
We will only marry those who share our Buddhist faith.

Hey, shall we
talk about our national affairs.
Let our nationalist consciousness awake!

We will fence our nation with our bones.
If you show us your (hateful) sword
We will surely reciprocate in kind.

We will fence our nation with our bones.
If you show us your (hateful) sword
we will surely reciprocate in kind.

We will fence our nation with our bones.
If you show us your (hateful) sword
We will surely reciprocate in kind.


Thein Sein helps to donate Buddha images to flood victims


Burma’s President Thein Sein is pictured with 9-inch tall Buddha images that will be donated to victims of the recent floods in Burma caused by Cyclone Komen. This is clearly connected to the Burmese Buddhist practice of yadaya. Buddhism is protective and averts danger. In the past the Burmese military have been preoccupied with the construction of stupas in order to preserve power and avert danger and instability.

‘The Dog-Duty Ascetic: Action in the Pali Canon with Reference to the Politics of Action in Modern Burma’

A recent article, dated 2013 (but that only appeared in 2015) in the ‘Thai International Journal of Buddhist Studies’. Abstract below and PDF available here: FullerTIJBS-2013-e-copy-260115