Sitagu Sayadaw in Iran

sitagu

Sitagu Sayadaw arrived in Tehran on 29th December at the invitation of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of the Iranian government:

Sitagu Sayadawgyi has arrived at Teheran, Iran at the invitation of Islamic Culture and Relations Organization of Iran government for the purpose of exchanging views between Buddhism and Islam last night.

Today, Dec 29, the meeting between Buddhist leaders and Islamic Leaders met at the head quarter of Islamic Culture center and Sitagu Sayadawgyi delivered a keynote speech on regarding multilateral dialogue between Buddhism and Islam. After morning secession, Sitagu Sayadawgyi was interviewed by several Iranian Television Networks.

In many ways this is positive news that the most prominent Sayadaw in Burma has undertaken such a visit to explore ways to open dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims.

More on this story with the headline ‘Muslim, Buddhist Thinkers Condemn Violence, Extremism‘.

Advertisements

Myanmar Detains 3 for Allegedly Offending the Buddha

Burmesemonks

A short article by Voice of America’s Gabrielle Paluch which appeared on December 15th. Thanks to Garielle for the interview which forms part of her excellent article.

Last week, Yangon’s V Gastro Bar displayed a flier on its Facebook page depicting Buddha in vibrant, neon colors, wearing large DJ headphones, next to the words “Buddha.bar.” It promoted discounted drinks and electronic music.

Authorities in Myanmar, also known as Burma, took note. They arrested the bar’s general manager, New Zealand native Philip Blackwood, and his two Myanmar business partners, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin. The men now face charges under a law that outlaws words or images that deliberately offend religion.

The three, who are being held without bail, face fines and a jail term of up to two years. Days after being detained, they have yet to find legal representation because of the case’s sensitivity. Blackwood is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.

Rights groups say the law in question, Section 295 of the penal code, is unjust. It was the second most frequently used law to charge political prisoners in the past, according to “Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners,” a 2009 report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Phil Robertson, the rights group’s Asia director, said the law is so broadly and vaguely written that it can be easily abused by authorities or religious extremists, and the government should consider changing it.

“Unfortunately, the practice and defense of religion has gone to a more extreme stage in Burma, and what we can see is the willingness of the government to misuse provisions of law that are broadly drafted to take advantage of that,” Robertson said. “What we’re also seeing is the effective criminalization of expression of views that go against some of the more extreme forms of Buddhism that are promulgated by the likes of the [anti-Muslim] 969 Movement and the mabatha.”

The mabatha is a newly formed organization of monks, who refer to themselves collectively as the Organization to Protect Race and Religion and are becoming increasingly influential.

Robertson points out that the organization has used Section 295 to justify discriminatory practices against Muslims, whom they regard as a threat to Buddhism.

Hours after V Gastro Bar’s Buddha flier appeared on Facebook, the image had been shared several thousand times on social media. It since has been removed from the original page, replaced with an apology.

Perspectives differ

While international observers have been perplexed by the outrage on social media, Buddhism scholar Dr. Paul Fuller of Britain’s Bath Spa University said Asian Buddhists take a different approach to Buddha images than Buddhists in the west.

Although outside Asia it is not uncommon for Buddha images to be used as fashion accessories or garden ornaments, such displays could be considered blasphemous in Myanmar.

“I think we’re seeing it more and more because these fundamentalist Buddhist movements are fostering a sense of Buddhist identity tied in with national identity,” Fuller said. “Buddhism has always had a very privileged place within the western romantic understanding. Maybe it’s time we see it for what it is – a religion with all its dark sides as well.”

Several other prosecutions under Myanmar’s restrictive 295 law have garnered attention this year.

Earlier this month, opposition party National League for Democracy member Htin Lin Oo faced prosecution under Section 295 for giving a speech in which he condemned prejudice and racial discrimination in the name of Buddhism.

In an excerpt of the speech shared widely on social media, he is shown saying, “If you want to be an extreme nationalist, if you love to maintain your race so much, don’t be Buddhist.”

Earlier this year, Canadian tourist Jason Polley was deported from Myanmar when a monk in Upper Burma photographed tattoos of Buddha on his leg and shared the images on Facebook, sparking outrage. Polley was not formally charged with criminal offenses.

Blasphemy and offence in Burmese Buddhism

555x530xbuddha-sitting1.jpg.pagespeed.ic.GEmcXtLQVb

Published in the Democratic Voice of Burma, 14 December, 2014.

It has been widely reported that a New Zealand citizen, Philip Blackwood, has caused offence by using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in the style of a DJ in a trance-like state. This image was used as part of a promotion for a bar in Rangoon.

He and two Burmese citizens, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, have also been detained. The three managers of the VGastro Bar in Bahan Township have been charged under articles 295 and 295(a) of the Burmese Penal Code.

Monks from the ma-ba-tha movement (The Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion) expressed outrage at what they perceived to be the misuse of an image of the Buddha. Some of the confusion in the reporting of this story is that blasphemy is not an idea usually associated with Buddhism. However, once we consider the idea of blasphemy being a credible and even prevalent notion in Buddhist culture, our understanding of this issue might be clearer.

There are a number of questions that arise from a consideration of these and similar episodes in Buddhist countries. There are also variations on this theme. For example in March 2014 Buddhist nationalists expressed fury at what they understood as the misuse of a Buddhist flag. Its handling was taken as an insult.

The Buddhist flag (sometimes called the sāsana flag) was designed by J.R. de Silva and Col. Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880. One could say it is in 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. As is well known, often superimposed on the flag are the Burmese numbers “969”, expressing part of Burmese nationalist ideals of nation and religion.

I would like to consider some of these episodes in which some sort of insult is thought to have been made against Buddhism. The offence caused to Buddhism through a perceived misuse of the sāsana flag does not so easily fit into this discussion. I cite the example so as to draw attention to different levels and types of sacred objects available to us when considering blasphemous acts in the Burmese Buddhist context.

Articles 295 and 295(a) of the penal code under which the three have been charged read, respectively: “Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class”; and “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.

If we want to find a textual basis for these laws and the idea of blasphemy in the Buddhist tradition, one could begin with the “Five acts with immediate karmic effect” (ānantarika-kamma), often simply termed the “Five heinous crimes”. These are killing one’s mother, father or an arahant (enlightened one), wounding a Buddha, or creating a schism in the Sangha (Buddhist monkhood). A manipulated computer graphic of the Buddha cannot be considered as a “heinous” act.

Moving closer to recent events, a related idea is that of the sanctity of the image of the Buddha and other sacred objects in Buddhism. It is often assumed in modern manifestations of Buddhism that the sanctity and holiness of the image of the Buddha is a cultural accretion and one that is not essential to the practice of Buddhism. In this understanding of the Buddhist path, nothing should become an object of attachment. The material culture and religious objects of Buddhism have no real sacred value. If they were to become an object of attachment then the images would be a manifestation of greed and suffering. One cannot, in effect, insult a Buddhist. On a certain level, such an understanding is perfectly reasonable and can be justified.

The textual basis for such ideas is a famous passage from the Brahmajāla-sutta where the following is stated: “If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, 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.”

There appears to be a relatively clear-cut message here: to become angry at misrepresentations of any type towards the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will be an obstacle for those who take displeasure. Anger would distort the minds of those taking offence and this is far worse than the objects causing offence. This is all well and good as far as it goes. The Buddha certainly did teach a moderate path in which greed, hatred and delusion are the real problems. Those offending the sacred objects of Buddhism, such as images of the Buddha, should not cause anger to arise.

That the image of the Buddha is sacred and has very real power appears to be lost in the form of Buddhism practiced in modern, urban Asian and Western cities. The power of Buddhist sacred objects is part of what has been termed “apotropaic Buddhism”. This idea is often ignored in the modern understanding of Buddhism. The term “apotropaic” refers to object, texts and teachings that are regarded as having protective and even magical qualities. An image of the Buddha (which in a way is not simply an image, but is the Buddha, a surrogate Buddha, as it were), has the power to protect and avert danger.

And this is where the offence caused by the DJ-like Buddha image is lost on those producing such an image. The images are not only offensive to certain sensibilities but are primarily dangerous and inauspicious. The modern Buddhist might emphasise those parts of the Buddha’s teaching that focus upon notions of freeing the mind of all forms of attachment, including attachment to sacred objects, but miss other important aspects of Buddhism that emphasise the protective power of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha.

Neither side is right in its emphasis upon these two aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, and there needs to be sensitivity on both sides.

Those using an image of the Buddha in a commercial way stress part of the teachings of Buddhism in which “letting go” and non-attachment are the central focus and then assume that the use of an image will not be offensive because the Buddhist is not attached to such things.

Most traditional Buddhists do not practice in this way. For them the stress is on protective and auspicious acts. Images, texts and chanting are partly concerned with averting danger. Primarily it is the Buddha (and images of Him), because of His great meritorious and ethical deeds, who accomplishes this.

Therefore, on the one hand, the manipulation of the Buddha image is harmless and surely the Buddha, being free from all attachment would not have taken any offence. In another sense the Buddha was not simply an ordinary person but someone who had strived for thousands of lifetimes generating ethical actions so that one day he could become a Buddha.

From an early point in Buddhist history His ethical actions were considered to have generated powerful qualities and it is this aspect of Buddhism which needs to be appreciated when considering the reaction to the use of the image of the Buddha in what is considered to be an inappropriate way. At the same time, those taking offence might also be prompted to reflect on the centrality of the idea of non-attachment and understand that their resentment is a hindrance upon the Buddhist path.

 

Dr Paul Fuller has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK. His research interests include early Indian Buddhist philosophy and the Buddhist ideas of Aung San Suu Kyi. His book, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism: The Point of View (Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism, 2004) explores the textual basis of discrimination and attachment in the Pali Canon.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.

Listen – Zen Buddhism on BBC Radio 4

Zen

With some excellent guests ‘In Our Time’ on Zen Buddhism from BBC Radio 4 is well worth listening to.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zen. It’s often thought of as a form of Buddhism that emphasises the practice of meditation over any particular set of beliefs. In fact Zen belongs to a particular intellectual tradition within Buddhism that took root in China in the 6th century AD. It spread to Japan in the early Middle Ages, where Zen practitioners set up religious institutions like temples, monasteries and universities that remain important today.

GUESTS

Tim Barrett, Emeritus Professor in the Department of the Study of Religions at SOAS, University of London

Lucia Dolce, Numata Reader in Japanese Buddhism at SOAS, University of London

Eric Greene, Lecturer in East Asian Religions at the University of Bristol

There is even a useful short bibliography on Zen Buddhism:

William Bodiford, Soto Zen in Medieval Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 1993)

Robert E. Buswell, The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea (Princeton University Press, 1992)

Bernard Faure, Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 1993)

Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 1991)

Steven Heine, Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice (Oxford University Press, 2008)

John McRae, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (University of California Press, 2004)

Morten Schlütter, How Zen Became Zen: The Dispute over Enlightenment and the Formation of Chan Buddhism in Song-Dynasty China (University of Hawaii Press, 2008)

Brian Victoria, Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997)

Albert Welter, The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy: The Development of Chan’s Records of Sayings Literature (Oxford University Press, 2008)

‘Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Monks’

I don’t know much about the makers of this short report, ‘Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Monks’ but it contains some excellent interviews. The one with U Wirathu is worth quoting:

Our religion is not the only thing under threat, the whole country is. Just as they established Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the 2010s they’re stepping up efforts to establish an Islamic State in Burma. So the whole country is now under threat, not only our faith.

These rather chilling sentiments are followed by more passive and reasonable voices from within the Burmese Buddhist Sangha.

Burmese parliament to debate religion laws

myanmar-monks-interfaith-marriage-story-top

As reported in Mizzima (‘Myanmar parliament to debate controversial religion laws‘) a set of laws proposed by Buddhist monks have been accepted by the Burmese President, Thein Sein, and will now be debated by the Burmese parliament in the new year.

The draft legislation has been proposed by a group led by Buddhist monks known as Mabatha (Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion) and has many controversial elements:

A draft of the marriage bill was published in Myanmar language state media on December 3, laying out a web of rules governing marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths.

Couples would have to apply to local authorities, and the woman’s parents if she is under 20, and a notice would be displayed publicly announcing the engagement. Only if there were no objections could the nuptials take place.

The penalty for non-compliance would be two years in prison.

The religious conversion draft, published earlier this year, would also require anyone wanting to change religion to seek a slew of bureaucratic permissions.

As I have stated before:

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.