Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand


At the British Museum, London, from 2nd October 2014 – 11th January 2015:

Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand

Featuring objects from the 18th century to the present, this exhibition shows the variety of religious practices in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, and how Buddhism, spirit worship, divination and other activities interact.

Western views of Buddhism in the 19th and early 20th centuries presented it as an austere, monolithic religion focused on meditation and nirvana, the escape from the cycles of rebirth. In reality, practitioners in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand have long sought to improve their lives through a fusion of overlapping activities such as spirit worship, divination, numerology and homage to the Buddha. People select these rituals according to their personal needs to cope with everyday life, to form individual spiritual pathways to felicitous rebirths or to strive for nirvana.

This exhibition draws on the strengths of the British Museum’s mainland Southeast Asian holdings, primarily Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand – countries that have a long history of interaction and share some fundamental religious beliefs and practices. Objects range from model stupas (Buddhist relic mounds), silver, banners, textiles and images of the Buddha to popular posters, glass paintings and mass-produced, stamped cloths with protective diagrams (yantra), reflecting the many outlets for religious expression. The show explores how the various beliefs, revealed in lively daily practices, comprise the main religious systems in the region.

Ban Ki Moon Comments on Buddhist Extremism

Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has commented upon Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka and Burma. He stated that Buddhist groups in these countries are:

Being swept up by a rising tide of extremist sentiment against other groups…This betrays the peaceful teachings of the founder, Lord Buddha.

In commenting on the situation in Burma and conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim communities he argued that it threatens the transition to democracy:

The country’s leaders must speak out against divisive incitement…They must promote interfaith harmony. And they must stand against impunity for provocations and violence.

These are some of the strongest statements by a world leader about the situation in the two Buddhist countries.

He was speaking at 6th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) forum in Bali, Indonesia.

The speech in full is the following:

Thank you for your strong commitment and participation in this very important initiative of the United Nations.

I am honoured to address this Sixth Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations under the leadership of President Yudhoyono and I thank President and the Government and people of Indonesia for their hospitality warm, welcome and the excellent success of this meeting.

This country, Indonesia, is home to a quarter of a billion people representing a thousand separate ethnic groups living wisely, harmoniously, side-by-side resolving all differences of opinion through dialogue. Therefore it is most fitting that this Alliance of Civilizations is taking place in this country, Indonesia.

I am inspired by Indonesia’s motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” or “Unity in Diversity.” This is the main theme of the Alliance of Civilizations.

Our differences should not divide us – they should forge our collective prosperity and strength.

The United Nations was born from tragic experience and lessons we learned from the Second World War: that countries must join forces for peace. And we have learned that this is true not just for governments – but for all of our society.

Unity in diversity is more than a slogan – it is a way of life and it is the way to peace.

I see many disasters in today’s world.

The natural calamities are heart-breaking.

What is most saddening in many ways, these man-made tragedies are even worse.

Too many of our world’s worst crises are driven by those who exploit fear for power.

Too many societies are fracturing along cultural, religious or ethnic lines.

Wars begin in people’s minds – and the way to peace is also through people’s hearts.

The Alliance of Civilizations was created to reach the hearts and minds of people and build bridges to peace.

I applaud High Representative Ambassador Al-Nasser for working with many grassroots groups around the world.

Under his leadership, the Alliance is making a difference on the ground.

It is helping Pakistani university students take the lead in healing sectarian divisions.

It is supporting theatre by Kenyan citizens to prevent young people from joining terrorist movements.

It is encouraging Muslim-Christian volunteerism in Mindanao.

In Israel-Palestine, the Alliance works to join families from both sides who have lost loved ones in the conflict.  By having a dialogue with each other, they challenge their leaders to do the same.

We are all here to help the Alliance of Civilizations expand its valuable work of addressing the sources of conflict and planting new seeds of peace.  I welcome its commitment to promoting interreligious and intercultural dialogue. These are essential tools to preventing and resolving conflicts.  I count on your support for efforts by the Alliance and by the entire United Nations system.

We have much work ahead of us across a landscape of tension.  Far too often, identities define boundaries that lead to fighting.

Intercommunal violence in the Central African Republic has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Nearly half the country’s population – two and a half million people – need help to survive.

The newest member of the UN, South Sudan, gained independence with great hope. I myself participated in the independence ceremony. But a power struggle degenerated into ethnic violence that has killed thousands of civilians and [left] many millions of displaced people.

In Myanmar, polarization is threatening the democratic transition. The country’s leaders must speak out against divisive incitement. They must promote interfaith harmony. And they must stand against impunity for provocations and violence.

It is critical to resolve the issue of status and citizenship of the minority Muslim community in Rakhine State, commonly known as the Rohingyas.

I am alarmed by the rising level of attacks in Sri Lanka against religious minorities. The Government and faith leaders must respond and ensure the safety and security of all communities.

In both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, I am concerned that Buddhist communities are being swept up by a rising tide of extremist sentiment against other groups.

This betrays the peaceful teachings of the founder, Lord Buddha.

Calls to violence in the name of religions violate their true principles.

All major faiths value peace and tolerance.

The Quran clearly states that there should be no compulsion in the religion.

That is why I am especially outraged by the reports from Iraq of brutal killing of civilians by ISIL. Whole communities that had lived for generations in Northern Iraq are being forced to flee or face death just for their religious beliefs. We cannot allow communities to be threatened by atrocity crimes because of who they are, because of what they believe.

I welcome the recent open-ended ceasefire in the Middle East following 50 days of profound human suffering and widespread destruction. Any violations would be utterly irresponsible. Civilians on both sides – Palestinians and Israelis – need this chance to resume their lives without fear. A sustainable ceasefire is also essential to facilitate humanitarian relief and early recovery efforts for the suffering people in Gaza.

I remain hopeful that the extended ceasefire will open the way for a political process, which is the only way to achieve lasting peace. The parties must live up to their responsibilities to secure peace through mutual respect as well as an end to economic strangulation of Gaza and the nearly half century of occupation.  More suffering, siege conditions and military action will only hurt innocent civilians, empower extremists on all sides, and undermine the safety of our world.

In all cases and all regions, our response must aim at extremists as well as those who enable them with weapons and other forms of support.

Dangerous, divisive leaders are not only found in conflict zones.

In Europe, North America and elsewhere, we see cynical political exploitations of religious differences – and rising Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech.

In decades past, it might take weeks or months to get reports on atrocities. Today – because of the advancing state of professional media and citizen journalists – they are aired in real-time.

Our challenge is to act on the information we receive. My Rights Up Front initiative aims to mobilize the United Nations quickly in response to abuses.

The UN works around the clock and around the world to usher in a more peaceful future.

Our human rights experts document violations.

Our disarmament teams destroy deadly weapons.

Our peacekeepers patrol demilitarized zones.

I thank the United Nations staff for their dedication in dealing with the consequences of conflicts.

They know from experience that it is better to prevent problems than to fix them.

It is not enough to identify crimes, silence guns and separate warring parties. We must work to strengthen prevention and build the foundations of lasting peace.

Earlier this month at the United Nations, I had the opportunity of meeting a brave young girl, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. She was a very brave young teenager who survived a terrorist attack simply because she wanted to study. Now she has become a global champion of education.  

We met with some 500 young people at the United Nations in the General Assembly Hall together with the General Assembly President to mark 500 days until the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. It was quite meaningful event marking the MDG deadline 500 days before.

Malala Yousafzai stressed that everyone is equal – and that everyone can be a peacemaker or human rights defender.

As she said: “We are all the same and everyone can make a difference.”

Let us make and renew our resolve to strengthen the Alliance of Civilization so it can do its job of resisting the forces of dehumanization and brutality – and strengthening the power of our common humanity. And let us work together on the basis of our principles of the United Nations Charter and the Alliance of Civilizations with this power. Let us work together to make this world better where everybody can live with human dignity.

Thank you very much.



Man deported from Burma for having a tattoo of the Buddha


In a similar story to the British tourist deported from Sri Lanka in April a Canadian tourist has been deported from Burma after being pictured on Social Media with a tattoo of the Buddha on his leg.

The man was deported to Thailand on Sunday 3rd August. An official from the immigration Department commented: ‘We told him that the tattoos may cause unnecessary trouble.’

Other reports say he was counselled by the authorities who pointed out the offensiveness of the tattoo.

The fact that the Buddha was depicted on the leg seems to have caused particular offense. In most parts of Asia the lower part of the body is considered particularly inauspicious in a religious context.

There is a strong tradition of young men having tattoos in Burma but this is more to show their lack of fear and masculinity and no religious images would usually be used.

There were reports in July that tattoos of the map of Burma on the lower part of the body could earn a three year sentence in prison.

Update: More details have appeared here.


Muslim Organization Makes Offerings to Mandalay Buddhist Monks


As reported in The Irrawaddy  a Muslim group in Mandalay, the Muslim Social Welfare Group of Mandalay have made offerings, dāna, to around fifty Buddhist monks at Ma Soe Yein Monastery.

The traditional offering of food and robes was intended to promote understanding and harmony between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay where recent riots have caused distrust between the two groups.

Sein Win of the Muslim group in Mandalay commented:

We especially thank the monks who stand for all people, and we would like to bring back the social harmony between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay.

Thein Tan, of the Mandalay Peace Making Committee described the offering:

Neither Buddhists nor Muslims began the recent riot. An outside organization intentionally caused the incidents and everyone knows that. But we are uniting through an event like this in order to ensure that we don’t misunderstand each other.


The Dalai Lama urges Buddhists to stop Islamophobia


On his 79th birthday, the Dalai Lama has urged Buddhists to end violence against Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka.

In words evoking lay meditation in the form of advising those involved in conflict to visualise an image of the Buddha, he suggested that:

‘I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime […] Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.’



Riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay


As  reported in the Democratic Voice of Burma and other news outlets riots have broken out in Mandalay between Buddhists and Muslims. They originated in a blog post by a blogger called Ko Di, a US resident who blogs with the name Thit Htoo Lwin:

‘The violence kicked off after a blogger, who writes under the name Thit Htoo Lwin (the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog), posted an article on 30 June accusing two Muslim owners of the Sun Teashop of raping a Buddhist woman, who he said was their maid…The story was picked up by several websites, and nationalist monk Wirathu posted it to his Facebook page.’ It has been reported that the wife of one of the accused Muslim men has said that they do not in fact have a maid. Whatever the facts behind the story, tensions are clearly high, rumours spread quickly on social media, and U Wirathu appears to have help spread the story on his very popular Facebook page.

The story itself originally appeared under the title ‘Sun Teashop owners, two Muslim brothers, raped a Buddhist maid’. The website is popular with Burmese and it seems that the story was completely fabricated. However, it quickly spread through social media. It is reported that Buddhist monks attempted to calm the rioting Buddhist crowd. Galoneni Sayadaw is reported to have said:

‘We tried our best, but they would not listen. Some of them were drunk and hard to control. Whatever happens to them depends only on their own behavior. We just don’t want to see Mandalay burn because of racial and religious hatred.’

It was reported on 2nd July that the the original blog post on the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog was taken down without explanation.

From M-Media:

‘It was not the first time of posting such fabricated news at Thit Htoo Lwin and it used to blog religious and racial hatred made-up stories and news, which might lead a sectarian conflict. For instance, on 18th Jun 2013, it posted fabricated false news, “Declaration of 2nd Jihad”, with a very clear intention of causing a sectarian conflict.

The founding blogger of the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog is believed to be living in the United States currently. He worked for several foreign-based Burmese Language broadcasts such as BBC, VOA, DVB from 1998 to 2006 according to Irrawady News Magazine’s interview with him.’

A great post has appeared on this entire episode by Kenneth Wong ‘Mandalay: From Mouse Clicks to Mob Rule in 24 Hours’

Hate speech, discrimination and unwholesome mental attitudes in Buddhism


There is the clear idea in Buddhism that certain mental attitudes should be encouraged. In the preaching by monastics to laypeople advice should be given about which states of mind are wholesome. These states of mind are a prerequisite for a Buddhist society to function upon Buddhist principles.


To put this in more straightforward terms, certain attitudes, such as discrimination, greed and hatred are condemned as leading to both destruction in this life and the next. Holding certain other mental attitudes is clearly described as being of great benefit. The mental attitude which proposes ‘actions have consequences’, acceptance of the law of karma, for example, is said to lead away from bodily, verbal and mental misconduct (M I 403, 06, 09). It is clear that an unwholesome action is one based upon greed, hatred and delusion, and a wholesome action on generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. A wholesome action is one that will lead towards good wholesome bodily, verbal and mental conduct (Apaṇṇaka-sutta, I 403, 06, 09). The reason for this is the following:


‘Because those good recluses and Brahmins see in unwholesome states the danger, degradation, and defilement, and they see in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation, the aspect of cleansing (vodāna).’[1]


It is explained that ‘wholesome’ (kusala) states ‘cleanse’ (vodāna) ‘unwholesome’ (akusala) states. The texts often refer to the hindrances of ‘craving’ (taṇhā) and ‘ignorance’ (avijjā). The former is overcome by calm, the latter by insight. These hindrances appear to suggest a certain dynamic found within early Buddhism. There are not two hindrances, craving and ignorance, which are overcome by calm or insight. Wisdom (paññā) eradicates all defilements. The texts seem fully aware of these distinctions, but do not see it as a dichotomy. In dealing with the soteriological problem, the aim is to overcome dukkha. This is not seen as either a wholly cognitive or affective problem and, therefore, neither calm nor insight are sufficient alone.


An explanation of this is found in a passage in the Nettippakaraṇa (Nett 160) which states that the suttas dealing with ‘defilement by craving’ (taṇhā-saṃkilesa) can be demonstrated by ‘craving for sensual desire, craving for being, and craving for non-being’ (kāma-taṇhāya bhava-taṇhāya vibhava-taṇhāya) andby the net of craving (see the Taṇhājālinī-sutta at A II 211-13). Those dealing with ‘defilement by views’ (diṭṭhi-saṃkilesa) can be demonstrated by ‘annihilationism and eternalism’ (uccheda-sassatena), by whatever one ‘adheres to by means of view, namely “only this is true, anything else is wrong”’,[2] and by ‘the sixty-two types of views, i.e., delusion’s net’.[3]


Cleansing (vodāna) from craving can be demonstrated by calm,[4] cleansing from views can be demonstrated by insight.[5] It is the same term ‘cleansing’ (vodāna) that we find in the Apaṇṇaka-sutta. The aim of the Buddhist path, in some respects, is to cleanse the mind of defilements. The Nettippakaraṇa explains elsewhere that cleansing is of three kinds; the defilement of craving is ‘purified’ (visujjhati) by calm, and this is the concentration khandha (samādhi-kkhandha); the defilement of views is purified by insight, and this is the wisdom khandha (paññā-kkhandha); the defilement of misconduct is purified by good conduct, and this is the virtue khandha (sīla-kkhandha).[6]


Cleansing is extinction free from the ‘corruptions’ (āsavas).[7] Both calm and insight cleanse ‘craving’ (taṇhā) and ‘delusion’ (in this case given as ‘wrong-views’, micchādiṭṭhi). The point seems to be that ‘cleansing’ consists of ‘purification’ (visujjhati), by calm, insight and good conduct. These three purifications constitute the three ‘aggregates’ (khandhas) of ‘virtue’ (sīla), ‘concentration’ (samādhi) and ‘wisdom’ (paññā).


Action and knowledge work together – they produce what is wholesome. Some mental attitudes defile the mind and produce unwholesome actions (and an unwholesome society). Some mental attitudes cleanse the mind and produce wholesome actions (and a wholesome society). It seems odd that, in this context, any Buddhist preaching can promote hatred and discrimination as these attitudes are completely condemned by the Buddha in the Pali Canon.



[1] passanti hi te bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ ādīnavaṃ okāraṃ saṅkilesaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ nekkhamme ānisaṃsaṃ vodānapakkhaṃ, M I 403, 406, 409.

[2] diṭṭhi-vasena abhinivisati idam eva saccaṃ mogham aññan ti, Nett 160.

[3] dvāsaṭṭhi diṭṭhi-gatāni moha-jālaṃ, Nett 112.

[4] taṇhā-vodāna-bhāgiyaṃ suttaṃ samathena niddisitabbaṃ, Nett 160.

[5] diṭṭhi-vodāna-bhāgiyaṃ suttaṃ vipassanāya niddisitabbaṃ, Nett 160.

[6] tayidaṃ vodānaṃ tividhaṃ: taṇhāsaṃkileso samathena visujjhati, so samatho samādhikkhandho. diṭṭhisaṃkileso vipassanāya visujjhati. sā vipassanā paññākkhandho. duccaritasaṃkileso sucaritena visujjhati, taṃ sucaritaṃ sīlakkhandho, Nett 96.

[7] parinibbanti anāsāvā ti idaṃ vodānaṃ, Nett 96; see also Nett 128.