The ‘Buddhist Flag’? Blasphemy and disrespect to Buddhism

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The Buddhist flag (sometimes called the sāsana flag) was designed by J.R. de Silva and Colonel Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880. One could say it is some ways an American invention. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress. It is part of what scholars would term ‘Protestant Buddhism’ a complex movement that is both a ‘protest’ against (colonial) Christianity and a movement which adopts many features of Protestantism. The flag itself is an uncomfortable creation, if I can use these terms, involving many historical, political and religious ideas.

Often superimposed on the flag are the Burmese numbers ’969′ as part of Burmese nationalist ideas of nation and religion.

Last week there was some controversy when rumours spread that an American staff member at the NGO Malteser International was seen to have removed the flag from outside the offices of the the NGO in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state. International aid offices were subsequently attacked, and many aid workers, many foreign, were evacuated for their own safety.

The act of taking down the flag was clearly seen as being disrespectful to the Buddhist religion. Rumours were quickly spread that foreign aid workers were using the flag as skirts or treated in other disrespectful ways. All these stories seem to be unfounded and members of Malteser International have spoken of the need, as humanitarian organisations not to display any religious or political symbols, and of the respect they have shown to the flag. It was taken down originally to avoid inciting sectarian tensions.

It seems clear that Buddhist nationalists have taken insult with any misuse of the Buddhist flag – the very touching of it now perceived as an insult. However, few know the history of the flag, its origins in Sri Lanka, and its ‘invention’ by Olcott.

One could ask what place blasphemy has in Buddhist thought, as the Burmese nationalists were clearly expressing sentiments close to the idea that by mistreating the Buddhist flag some notion of blasphemy was being committed against Buddhism.

The text usually quoted in this respect are the opening passages of the Brahmajāla-sutta. This text gives the classical Buddhist response to these ideas. I think the issues are far more complex than is often acknowledged. There may be a very real tension between the rational advice for a Buddhist to not show attachment to perceived offences, and the idea that disrespect towards Buddhist symbols are a very real threat to national and ethnic identity.

The passage worth quoted is the following:

‘If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me [the Buddha], or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves[…]’

‘And if, bhikkhus, others speak in praise of me [the Buddha], or in praise of the Dhamma, or in praise of the Sangha, you should not give way to jubilation, joy, and exultation in your heart. For if you were to become jubilant, joyful, and exultant in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves (Brahmajāla-sutta (D I, 1).

Some would say that these passages could be used to display the superiority of Buddhism over other religions – Buddhist should not take offence. Often, however, they need to be quoted back to those who perceive offences against Buddhism – the very one’s supposedly protecting these important ideas.

 

‘Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did you would not be able recognize if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should explain whatever is incorrect saying: “This is not correct, that is not true, we do not do this, that is not our way.”’ (D.I,1-3). Having said this he then added an interesting point: ‘Should anyone speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should not get proud, puffed up or exultant because of that. For if you did that would become a hindrance to you. Therefore, if others speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should simply acknowledge what is true as true saying: “This is correct, that is true, we do this, that is our way.”’ – See more at: http://www.buddhisma2z.com/content.php?id=40#sthash.kshiN2aY.dpuf
‘Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did you would not be able recognize if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should explain whatever is incorrect saying: “This is not correct, that is not true, we do not do this, that is not our way.”’ (D.I,1-3). Having said this he then added an interesting point: ‘Should anyone speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should not get proud, puffed up or exultant because of that. For if you did that would become a hindrance to you. Therefore, if others speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should simply acknowledge what is true as true saying: “This is correct, that is true, we do this, that is our way.”’ – See more at: http://www.buddhisma2z.com/content.php?id=40#sthash.kshiN2aY.dpuf
‘Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did you would not be able recognize if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should explain whatever is incorrect saying: “This is not correct, that is not true, we do not do this, that is not our way.”’ (D.I,1-3). Having said this he then added an interesting point: ‘Should anyone speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should not get proud, puffed up or exultant because of that. For if you did that would become a hindrance to you. Therefore, if others speak in praise of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha you should simply acknowledge what is true as true saying: “This is correct, that is true, we do this, that is our way.”’ – See more at: http://www.buddhisma2z.com/content.php?id=40#sthash.kshiN2aY.dpuf
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U Wirathu to Visit the Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka

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It seems like a new alliance of what I term ‘Ethnocentric Buddhism’ is beginning to take shape in South and Southeast Asia. It is reported in Ceylon Today that the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) have invited U Wirathu, leader of the 969 movement in Burma, to visit them in Sri Lanka.

Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, had recently met U Wirathu in Burma. He isreported as saying:

‘There is no need for a hullabaloo yet. We will let the relevant people know in due course. We have invited him and he will come and we will have a meeting. That is all. The media does not need to know for how long he will stay here.We will plan it and reveal it at the appropriate time.’

No dates are confirmed by the  Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) but a visit appears to be imminent.

Chamila Liyanage, Education and Research Unit Chief Coordinator for the BBS comments:

‘Buddhist countries in the Asiatic region are facing difficulties and even violence from the Muslims and the other religions in the region. The best example comes from Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. This is the very reason why Ven. Wirathu decided to start the 969 Movement in Myanmar. We visited Thailand and Myanmar and we will be visiting other countries in East Asia. We will definitely be starting an international network with global reach with like minded Buddhist civil society institutions, Buddhist scholars and Buddhist activist organizations in these countries. With Ven. Wirathu Thera we will be discussing strategic plans for at least a regional network for the time being, for which we need a concrete plan.’

Thanks to Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide for drawing my attention to this news.

 

Burmese Buddhist Monks and Discrimination Against Rohingya Muslims

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As reported in the Democratic Voice of Burma various Buddhist groups lead by U Wirathu have threatened to boycott the upcoming census. The Buddhist groups, lead by monks, have taken issue with the term ‘Rohingya’ being used to signify ethnic affiliation. They want the term ‘Bengali’ to be used for the ethnic group.

As Shwe Aung in the Democratic Voice of Burma explains:

‘The forthcoming census has caused controversy in many of Burma’s ethnic states and regions, especially the restive western state of Arakan, where an estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship and referred to as illegal Bengali immigrants, though many claim to have lived in Burma for several generations and in some areas constitute a majority of the population.’

On 16 March U Wirathu joined thousands of others in a protest against the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ being used in the state capital Sittwe, as pictured above.

In further developments it has been reported that monks in Rakhine State are urging Rakhine families to fly the so-called ‘sasana flags’ (Buddhist flags) in their homes to show their commitment to the defense of their race and religion.

I have previously described the notion of discrimination in Buddhism.

H-Buddhism

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H-Buddhism has finally moved to its new platform (H-Net Commons).

H-Buddhism is known to anyone with an academic interest in the study of Buddhism. It describes itself in the following terms:

‘H-Buddhism serves as a medium for the exchange of information regarding academic resources, new research projects, scholarly publications, university job listings, and so forth, for specialists in Buddhist Studies who are currently affiliated with academic institutions.’

The new format has many new features including teaching resources such as syllabi on a range of subjects including ‘Buddhism and Medicine’; ‘Pure Land Buddhism’; Yogācāra Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Madhyamaka.

What has generally been the most used features, the ‘Discussion Log‘ and ‘Reviews‘ remain but there is now the new interactive feature ‘H-Buddhism Commons’ where most of the new features are found. It is the content in this section which will make H-Buddhism useful to academics in ways that were not possible in the past.

Ne Win, Buddhism and a different Burmese History

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General Ne Win ruled Burma for 26 years after seizing power in a coup in 1962. Ne Win, like many Burmese leaders, was superstitious and interested in numerology. Numerology proposes a connection between numbers and coinciding events.

Although usually considered a ‘divine science’ of some type, the study of relationships and connections could be central to many religious practices (Man and God, Ātman and Brahman, the idea that actions have consequences (karma), paṭiccasamuppāda).

Famously in 1987, based around Ne Win’s ‘lucky’ number 9 he ordered that all banknotes should be divisible by nine and introduced the 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes. In 1970 he ordered that everyone in Burma should start driving on the right side of the road, rather than the left – some reports stating that this was because Burma had moved politically too far to the left. Famously, he is said to have bathed in Dolphin’s blood in an attempt to extend his life and regain his youth. On another occasion he is reported to have dressed as a king, and, in the middle of the night to have been seen walking backwards over a bridge in Rangoon. All of these actions come in some ways from yadaya rituals, which are intended to avert, prevent or delay misfortune. It could be said that they even have a connection with apotropaic Buddhism – religious acts not connected with Buddhist philosophy but but Buddhist rituals that are performed to protect one from misfortune and danger. It could also be suggested that the ‘numerology’ of the ‘969’ movement and the opposed ‘786’ are similarly influenced.

Interestingly, in an interview with Chit Hlaing, who worked alongside many of Burma’s most prominent leaders, including Ne Win during his time as leader a meeting with the former leader in 1995 is described. Ne Win never had much time for Buddhism and his politics were very secular in nature, unlike U Nu. However, during this meeting with Chit Hlaing:

‘Ne Win confessed that he would not have staged the coup in 1962 if he had studied Buddhism and meditation earlier in life. Ne Win elaborated further if he had known Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta—the three Dharma aspects of life—at the time, he would not have seized power.’

One could simply consider this to be the mellowed, reflective thinking of an old man. However, it could also offer an insight into how religion could shape the thinking of the current candidates in the 2015 elections in Burma and how Buddhist thinking could influence current debates.

In 1966 Ne Win visited America on a State visit. The following film gives an insight into how the Burmese regime was considered in a positive way at this time:

Buddhist Group Against Religious Harmony

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It is reported by Qadijah Irshad that the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) has critisised former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for promoting understanding between different religious and ethnic groups within Sri Lanka. A spokesman for the Bodu Bala Sena, Dilantha Withanage suggested that Bandaranaike was trying to ‘destroy Buddhism’ in Sri Lanka.

Kumaratunga has called for dialogue between different religious and political groups ‘to promote interfaith coexistence’.

The ‘South Asian Policy and Research Institute’ chaired by Kumaratunga, calls for ‘strict legal action against perpetrators of religious violence, which the government has so far failed to deal with. The organisation also recommends a 24-hour hotline for reporting religious violence and creating religious tolerance at school level.’

Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhist Identity

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In an excellent summary of current political and religious issues in Burma, Extremist Buddhists out to kill Suu Kyi’s election hopes (The Nation, 13 March 2014) Htun Aung Kyaw gives a thorough summary of issues to do with the constitution, the upcoming elections, identity and the role of the Sangha in this process.

His basic idea is that the ‘National Religious Protection Group’ (NRPG) headed by U Wirathu is being used by the ruling ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party’ (USDP) to foster a sense of national identity being based upon Buddhist identity. The rhetoric used by the NRPG is one on which Buddhism is under threat from Islam. The preservation and survival of Buddhism is dependent upon laws being passed which protects Buddhism, such as those banning women from marrying a man from another religion if the man does not convert to Buddhism.

These arguments are in turn used to attach Aung San Suu Kyi and her ‘National League for Democracy’ (NLD) party. This attack takes the form of a personal attack on Aung San Suu Kyi for having been married to a foreigner and for having two sons who are British citizens. The now infamous clause 59F prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from leading the country as it is not possible for the parent of foreign citizens to become president.

As Htun Aung Kyaw argues, under the guise of protecting Buddhism these groups, extremist monks and the USDP, are in no way defending Buddhism, for Aung san Suu Kyi, her late husband and children, are or were Buddhist. Htun Aung Kyaw’s thesis is that these nationalistic and religious ideas are being used and manipulated. That Aung San Suu Kyi was married to a British academic is being used as a stick to hit not only her, but the democratic process in Burma. And this stick is being wielded by members of the Sangha, monks, who symbolically and through deeply ingrained cultural norms, it is difficult if not impossible to critisise. As Htun Aung Kyaw argues:

‘Suu Kyi has devoted her life to Buddhism. Her late husband was also a Buddhist, and she followed tradition by having her sons ordained as novices. So why is the NRPG still attacking her and campaigning to convince people not to vote for her? The NRPG is ignoring the fact that her entire family is Buddhist, and carrying out a smear campaign centred on the fact she was married to a British citizen. The NRPG was founded with the aim of protecting Buddhism, not promoting racial discrimination or xenophobia. Yet its leader, Wirathu, has stated that the reason he will not vote for Suu Kyi is that she married a foreigner. In other words, he is against all foreigners, even if they are Buddhists. So a contradiction exists between the NRPG’s stated aim and its actions.

This raises a further question: Does the NRPG really want to preserve the Buddhist faith, or simply manipulate devoted Buddhists to act against the NLD party and its leader who married a foreigner? If the latter is so, the NRPG is not trying to protect Buddhism but simply attacking Buddhists who are foreigners. Unfortunately, it’s likely that many monks and Myanmar citizens fail to understand the NRPG’s true aim.’

Htun Aung Kyaw finishes with the following warning:

‘Though unlikely, there is still hope that key constitutional clauses like 59(f) may be amended. Without such changes, it’s possible that Myanmar will see a repeat of the popular uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Such an uprising would likely lead to one of two scenarios: the end of military rule, or the resurrection of another military dictatorship.’

One might add that movements such as ‘The Organisation for the Protection of National Race and Religion’ and the ‘National Religious Protection Group’ that are taking shape in recent months are nothing new in Burmese politics. For example in 1958 Ne Win launched the ‘Buddhism in Danger’ campaign intended to divert communist influence in the Buddhist Sangha (See The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, p. 119.