Blasphemy and offence in Burmese Buddhism

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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.

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