Buddhism used as a basis for prejudice and discrimination

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As reported in The Irrawaddy the NLD official Htin Lin Oo has been condemned for criticising the use of Buddhism in Burma to promote religious nationalism.

The Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union issued a statement saying that:

‘In the past, NLD was the party which all Burmese citizens relied upon, supported and respected. But deliberately offending people who do not support the NLD anymore for various reasons would lead to a great blow to the NLD’s image.’

In a speech lasting over two hours certain parts of Htin Lin Oo’s speech have become the object of criticism on social media. In one part he states:

‘Buddha is not Burmese, not Shan, not Karen—so if you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don’t believe in Buddhism.’

Htin Lin Oo has urged people to listen to the entire speech, seemingly aware of the offense he has caused to some monastics. However, it could be argued that such sentiments are badly needed in the religious debate within Burma.

The roots of intolerance and prejudice in Buddhism

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I had not intended for this article to appear again but some excellent and comprehensive editing by DVB’s Colin Hinshelwood have made the writing and ideas 100 percent clearer and better – and a different article in many ways.

Democratic Voice of Burma, 2nd August 2014

‘Violence related to Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Burma often leaves observers with a sense of bewilderment; many Buddhist practitioners have resorted to violent means in the name of what is essentially a peaceful religion. This contradiction is somewhat easier to understand when viewed from two angles – East and West.

For the Asian Buddhist, the idea that the teachings of the Buddha could ever lead to hostility is simply dismissed. Buddhism is airbrushed from the scenes of violence and in its place is left only a threat to the nation, a threat to the culture and a threat to the religion.

The Western observer tends to assume that those committing these acts are not ‘real’ Buddhists. The original teachings have mingled with culture to such an extent as to become unrecognisable – dig beneath the culture, to the text, and there the ‘real’ message of the Buddha will be found. For the West, Buddhism has to be separated from its cultural environment. This is out of necessity – for it is assumed that Buddhism is not a ‘religion’ at all. It is a pristine ‘other’, standing alone and somewhat aloof from the messiness of the masses.

For the Asian Buddhist, the West can never culturally understand Buddhism (the West is ‘foreign’ – modern and corrupt). Whereas for the Western Buddhist, it is precisely these cultural accretions that obscure the real teachings. The East is naïve and lacks sophistication. Both sides, East and West, seek authenticity in Buddhism.

Buddhism has portrayed itself, and been described by Western commentators, as the religion untainted by ‘religiousness’ (dogmatism, violence, fundamentalism). It is the religion of choice for the compassionate, modern individual. Many believe that Buddhism has a pure history in which misdemeanors, carnage, war and hostility has been committed by everyone — except the Buddhist. This is why the recent violence in Sri Lanka and Burma elicits such shock.

In seeking the origins of these hostilities, we shouldn’t turn to the core textual tradition, even though some Buddhist groups may refer to particular texts to support their own positions. In the fundamental ideas of the Pali Canon, or the early Sutras of the Mahāyāna tradition, the teachings of the Buddha are based on tolerance and compassion.

The roots of intolerance might be found in the reaction of one Buddhist group to another. For example, this sectarian attitude surfaced in the emergence of the Mahāyāna Buddhism. The Mahāyāna identified itself in opposition to what it termed ‘Hīnayāna’ Buddhist groups. Although Mahāyāna is often translated as ‘Great Vehicle’ and Hīnayāna as ‘Smaller Vehicle’ – the term ‘hīna’ actually means ‘inferior’, ‘low,’ ‘poor’, ‘miserable’, ‘vile’, or ‘contemptible’.

Evidence suggests that some Buddhist schools had uncompromising attitudes towards others. That intolerance was pronounced by the rise of Buddhism in the West (including the Asian ‘West’). There is an ongoing debate concerning which group is the most compassionate. The argument has been made that some Buddhist groups in Asia and elsewhere are using this ‘stick of compassion’ against Burmese Buddhists as a way of distancing the rest of the Buddhist world from the situation in Burma. Buddhist groups have long been vying for the claim of authenticity, an element of Buddhist history that could be at the heart of recent hostilities.

Even beyond disputes between differing factions of Buddhism, there is a broader sense of religious superiority. The notion of the superiority of Buddhism is often based upon a supposed scientific resemblance and methodology; Buddhism is better because it is viewed as scientific, rational. Because it is perceived as ‘better’, Buddhists go to war, discriminate against others, take Buddhism to be essential to national identity, and do things that we might find completely contrary to the Buddha’s teachings.

There is an historic pride in the fundamental goodness of the Dhamma which causes conflict and hostility. There are enough teachings in the Buddhist Canon that warn against these attitudes, but there are also many examples in Buddhist history where a strong sense of pride in one’s own tradition is supported. It is precisely where an attitude in which the most compassionate, the most Buddhist, the most traditional are valued – that intolerance in Buddhist culture comes into focus.’

Conference: Decades of State-sponsored Destruction of Myanmar’s Rohingya

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Not ‘directly’ related to Buddhist Studies, but an important conference:

‘Decades of State-sponsored Destruction  of Myanmar’s Rohingya’

Programme available here.

A LSE Public Event
co-sponsored by
LSE Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit
&
Burmese Rohingya Organization – United Kingdom

– See more at: http://www.maungzarni.net/2014/04/invitation-lse-conference-on-decades-of.html#sthash.ZWWPjR6N.dpuf

Dr Zarni
Co-conveners:
Dr Zarni, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE & the Centre for Democracy and Elections, University of Malaya
Tun Khin, President, Burmese Rohingya Organization-UK (BROUK)

– See more at: http://www.maungzarni.net/2014/04/invitation-lse-conference-on-decades-of.html#sthash.y4QcDCFO.dpuf

Co-conveners:
Dr Zarni, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE & the Centre for Democracy and Elections, University of Malaya
Tun Khin, President, Burmese Rohingya Organization-UK (BROUK)

– See more at: http://www.maungzarni.net/2014/04/invitation-lse-conference-on-decades-of.html#sthash.y4QcDCFO.dpuf

Co-conveners:
Dr Zarni, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE & the Centre for Democracy and Elections, University of Malaya
Tun Khin, President, Burmese Rohingya Organization-UK (BROUK)

– See more at: http://www.maungzarni.net/2014/04/invitation-lse-conference-on-decades-of.html#sthash.y4QcDCFO.dpuf

Co-conveners:
Dr Zarni, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE & the Centre for Democracy and Elections, University of Malaya
Tun Khin, President, Burmese Rohingya Organization-UK (BROUK)

– See more at: http://www.maungzarni.net/2014/04/invitation-lse-conference-on-decades-of.html#sthash.y4QcDCFO.dpuf

A LSE Public Event co-sponsored by LSE Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit & Burmese Rohingya Organization – United Kingdom

Co-conveners:
Dr Zarni, Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE & the Centre for Democracy and Elections, University of Malaya
Tun Khin, President, Burmese Rohingya Organization-UK (BROUK)

 

 

Ethnocentric Buddhism: A new theme in Burmese Buddhism

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An article I wrote, published in the Democratic Voice of Burma, 5 April 2014:

Paul Fuller: ‘Ethnocentric Buddhism: A new theme in Burmese Buddhism’

Some excellent debate on this article has followed my original one in the Democratic Voice of Burma. First, Danny Fisher offers some ideas on whether the term ‘etnocentric Buddhism’ captures the severity of the actions by Buddhists against minority groups in an article titled ‘Ethnocentric Buddhism?’  Then Justin Whitaker has written an excellent summary of some of the issues under consideration ‘Ethnocentric Buddhism Continued…’ and offers some insightful ideas of his own about these issues.

I’m very grateful to both Danny and Justin.

‘A new alliance is beginning to take shape in South and Southeast Asia with the news that the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) has invited Wirathu, leader of the 969 movement in Burma, to visit them in Sri Lanka.

There is clearly a new phenomenon emerging and a new term is needed to describe precisely what is happening on the ground with this collection of new Buddhist alliances. There has been much talk of “Buddhist terror”, “extremist Buddhism” and most famously, “the face of Buddhist terror”, however these headlines are sensationalist. A more subtle and nuanced description is needed, focusing upon key features of this new phenomenon in Buddhism taking shape in Burma and other parts of the world, notably Sri Lanka.

There have been those who have commented upon the supposed use of Buddhism by the National Religious Protection Group (NRPG), a group headed by Wirathu, a vanguard leader of ultra-nationalism in Burma. It has also been suggested that the ruling party in Burma, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) are manipulating notions of Burmese identity with those of Buddhist identity. However, there is no clear consideration of these elements from the historical perspective of Buddhist ideas.

“Ethnocentric Buddhism” is a term I have begun to use to describe a particular phenomenon in the history of Buddhism, although I suspect it is not a recent one. The term points to the notion that Buddhist identity is intrinsically linked to national identity. It also denotes the idea that other factors will be apparent in creating Buddhist and national identity in different Buddhist cultures. For example, in Thailand there is the idea of “nation, religion and monarch” (chat-sasana-phramahakasat) and in Burma “nation, language and religion” (amyo-barthar-tharthanar). In both of these examples the idea of the Buddhist religion (sasana/tharthanar) is linked to other factors in the formation of national and cultural identity. Further, in both cases the defence of one’s religion is linked to these other themes of national identity — to defend one is to defend the other.

There are a number of possible factors and ideas that could shape the formation of an ethnocentric type of Buddhism in a given country. Not all of these ideas are available in each cultural context. Some are available across Buddhist Asia, some confined to a particular area, or would have been used during different historical periods. There is the idea of the “true dharma” existing in one particular place and of that location preserving this true version of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, in Sri Lanka after the transmission of Buddhism, some aspects of the Pali Canon would be considered to preserve the essential word of the Buddha. Later, national identity could be built around this idea together with other texts being used and composed together with Buddhist symbols, the tooth relic for example, creating the notion of a direct lineage to the Buddha.

This is clearly linked to the idea of a particular text containing the essential teaching of the Buddha. The so called “Lotus-sutra (SaddharmaPundarika-sutra) is the best know example, but there are many others. The Abhidhamma could be said to serve a similar purpose in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism. The notion of the decline of the Dharma in its various manifestations (mappō, for example) is clear — the teachings last a set period of time and this lends itself to an urgency for a given people to preserve and defend the teachings of the Buddha. There is the idea that Buddhism is threatened and that there is a very real need to uphold Buddhism because of this threat. The teachings can be corrupted. The idea that the teachings can be corrupted is written into the Buddhist narrative DNA.

This in turn gives rise to a natural sense of  “Buddhist nationalism”. What is essential to the tradition is emphasized and “Buddhist fundamentalism” comes to the fore when the “other” is polarised as a threat to the future of Buddhism. In turn Buddhism is linked to ethnicity — a particular ethnic group is under threat and have the need and the necessity to preserve the teachings of the Buddha. Other ethnic groups, unless they come under the control of the dominant Buddhist group are a threat. Movements like the so-called 969 movement in Burma and the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka exemplify some of these ideas.

A possible Islamophobic Buddhism and the Buddhist Defence League are other examples. Unlike in “protestant Buddhism”, where the laity have enhanced importance, the monastics, with all of their symbolic importance are again at the top of the hierarchy of ethnocentric Buddhism. The traditional hierarchical nature of Buddhist culture is returned. The monastics cannot be questioned in their symbolic roles as the direct link between the layperson and the overcoming of dukkha. Once again the aspiration is to one day be reborn, when one can go from home to homelessness and renounce society. This will only be possible if the monastics of the present preserve the Dharma for that future rebirth.

Finally, linking many of these ideas is that of an emerging sense that blasphemy is being committed against Buddhism. Blasphemy is not usually an idea associated with Buddhism but it is coming to prominence in what I am terming ethnocentric Buddhism. It could increasingly be argued that it has indeed been a component, an often prominent one, in other historical periods and might be linked to textual ideas of the sanctity of the Buddha and his tradition.

All of these factors are giving rise to this new phenomenon in Buddhism. We should not term it “Buddhist terror” or “the face of Buddhist terror” but attempt to understand this phenomenon on its own terms in the history of Buddhist doctrine and Buddhist practice.’

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.

 

‘Buddhist Fury: violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar’

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An event was held at the Central European University’s School of Public policy in Budapest titled ‘Buddhist Fury: violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar‘ where academics sought to question the reasons underlying anti-Muslim rhetoric in the two countries.

Richard Reoch, President of Shambala, argued what he considers to the reasons for the conflict in both countries:

‘It comes down to three factors. Emotion, culture and identity.’

The conference also questioned Aung San Su Kyi’s lack of response to the conflict in Burma. Dr Richard Horsey commented that she ‘had used her political capital on other unpopular causes, there is no reason she cannot speak up for the Rohingya.’

In both countries extremist and ethnocentric Buddhist groups are using various tactics to promote conflict with the Muslim community which includes promoting Islamophobic language.

Those taking part included: Dr Alan Keenan, Richard Reoch, Assed Baig andRichard Horsey

More details of the conference can be found here.

The Organisation for the Protection ( ေစာင့္ေရွာက္ေရး) of National Race (အမ်ိဳး) and Religion (ဘာသာသာသနာ) – OPNRR

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It is being widely reported that (and as previously considered), ‘The Organisation for the Protection of National Race and Religion’ (OPNRR) is having four bills in the form of draft legislation presented to parliament.

Headed by the Buddhist monk Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha the four bills are the Faith Conversion Bill; the Marriage Bill; the Monogamy Bill; and the Population Control Bill.

In an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma former political prisoner Htet Myat stated that:

‘The aim of the race protection laws was to address problems in Arakan State. I cannot accept these bills. I would like to say, frankly, that these bills are unnecessary. What we are seeing today is reminiscent of the 1960′s; They are trying to make Buddhism the national religion.

But these laws will prohibit the rights of women in Burma. When I read the meeting minutes of the monks who proposed the bills, I realised that not only does it prohibit women’s rights but also abuses the right to freedom of religion. I think at this moment, we don’t need this in our country. There is no such threat against Buddhism. I believe that the bills should not be approved at this time. I can’t accept this legislation.’

He went on to state his misgivings about the four bills and the repercussions for Aung San Suu Kyi:

‘I think there are movements to launch propaganda against Aung San Suu Kyi, to prevent her from becoming President in the 2015 elections. The monks who proposed these bills are also organising against the amendment of Article 59 (f) [which disqualifies Suu Kyi for presidency]. It is co-incident with the submission of these bills. The election is only one year away. I am very suspicious about these moves.’

Each of the bills will be dealt with by a different ministry in Burma:the religious conversion law by the Religious Affairs Ministry; the marriage and monogamy laws by the Union Supreme Court and the population control law to the Immigration and Population Ministry.

Lower House MP Nan Sae Hwa spoke in favour of the bills:

‘We really need laws related to monogamy and marriage as our country is based on Buddhism. We welcome the laws. But they are not necessary for other religions. They are only for Buddhists. I think members of other religions will not object to the laws because they already have some. This cannot lead to religious discrimination, either.’

Aung San Suu Kyi herself has simply stated that she supports the legislation going trough parliament in the correct way and has not indicated her opinion on the content of the draft bills:

‘I support the speaker’s message [Thura Shwe Mann]. This is in line with the law and suitable for the needs of our nation. Parliament has to make its review depending on the reply from the government. We need to seek consultation from the related ministries to decide whether it is important to promulgate those laws.’

See also the report in The Irrawaddy on 7 March 2014 titled Thein Sein Orders Commission, Court to Draft ‘Protection of Religion’ Law.