There is some debate in Burma about proposed laws that would prohibit interfaith marriage. The laws have been proposed by members of the Burmese Buddhist Sangha. If passed, the laws would prohibit marriage between a Buddhist woman and a man of another faith, unless he ‘converts’ to Buddhism (I am not at all clear of how one ‘converts’ to Buddhism’).
The laws are being proposed on the premise that Buddhism is under threat from other religions. The ‘Interfaith Marriage Act’ is one of the ‘National Race and Religion Protection Bills’ that have been proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’ (OPNRR), headed by Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha. It is clear from the context of the monastic debate that the monks wish to prohibit marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men – it is then highly discriminatory with undertones of racism and Islamophobia.
There are a few obvious points that should be made about these proposed laws. Buddhism is a monastic tradition – it usually has little concern with secular affairs – and this historically most definitely includes marriage. It is commonplace in Buddhism to observe that there are no Buddhist marriage ceremonies. The monastics might in some ways ‘bless’ a couple after a secular marriage ceremony, and modern Buddhists might have replicated marriage ceremonies from other religions, but it can be stated quite categorically that the Buddhist monastic is not concerned with any type of marriage ceremony. It is this that makes the Burmese monastic debate such an odd phenomenon.
It needs to be stated that, traditionally, the Buddhist monastic is concerned with three things. First, the notion that all actions have consequences; that these actions are causing us to be reborn in an endless cycle of rebirths; and that, given the opportune conditions, the person should strive to end this cycle of rebirths which is pervaded by suffering. In short the monastic is concerned with Karma, Saṃsāra and Nibbāna.
What then is the concern of the monastic with laws prohibiting marriage between different religions? It seems to me that these are the questions that need to be asked by those protesting against the bills proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’. It is reported that some of the monks are disagreeing with various organisations who dare opposed to the Interfaith Marriage Bill, calling overseas NGO’s ‘traitors‘ for their opposition. Clearly, this secular rhetoric is startling in that monastics are debating issues outside of their usual supramundane narrative of traditional Buddhist discourse. The mundane world (lokiya), of secular affairs has become disjointed and mixed with the supramundane world (lokuttara) of Buddhist preaching.