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.