Problems with the very idea of a Buddhist Nation and a Buddhist Race

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One of the ways in which we may explore notions of nation, race and religion in the Buddhist context is in terms of ‘class’ (vara), and ‘caste’ (jāti). In the Vasala-sutta the Buddha clearly states that an outcaste is not an outcaste nor a Brahmin a Brahmin because of birth, but because of their actions and conduct. One’s birth is not important, how one acts is.

‘Whosoever is angry, harbors hatred, and is reluctant to speak well of others (discredits the good of others), perverted in views, deceitful — know him as an outcaste.’

(kodhano upanābhi ca pāpamakkhī ca yo naro,
vipannadi
ṭṭhi māyāvī taṃ jaññā vasalo iti)

[…]

‘Not by birth is one an outcaste; not by birth is one a brahmin. By action one becomes an outcaste, by action one becomes a brahmin.’

(na jaccā vasalo hoti na jaccā hoti brāhmaṇo,
kammanā vasalo hoti kammanā hoti brāhma
ṇo)

It seems to me that this is one approach that we might take when we seek in Buddhism answers to questions related to national and ethnic identity. It is part of the debate of what I have termed ethnocentric Buddhism and how it is shaped and critiqued in Buddhist culture.

In the following is a translation of the opinions of a Burmese Buddhist monk, Venerable Candima, relating to these questions, and using this approach as a Buddhist response to counter extreme views within the Burmese Buddhist Sangha. Such extreme views in the above example are clearly described as ‘perverted in views’ (vipanna-diṭṭhi). In fact, to be led astray in extreme views and opinions is a common theme throughout Buddhist history, and a major hindrance on the Buddhist path.

 

Nationalism and Buddhism

‘Nationalism and Buddhism are in fact totally different. For example, the Buddha and Devadatta are of the same Kshatriya (warrior or ‘royal’) class. But when the Buddha chose his two chief disciples he chose Ashin Moggallana and Ashin Sariputta who are both of the Brahmin class instead of Ashin Devadatta, who was of the same class and his cousin. The Lord Buddha never considered race and nationality important, he only considered the importance of the three virtues – ethical conduct, concentration and wisdom (sīla, samādhi, paññā)

There is no teaching (dhamma) of the Buddha in which he advises us to be proud about our race and nationality, or to cling to nationalistic ideas. Buddhism is for everyone living in the 31 planes of existence (bhūmi). In contrast, nationalism is only for one race or nationality. The two of them shouldn’t be mixed at all. There is no reason for the Buddha, who sees ultimate reality, to preach about these things or to preach about being attached to one’s race or religion. Such things are concerned with corrupt thoughts based on the ‘self’, ‘being’ and the ‘viewpoint of the individual’.

In Myanmar (Burma) there are lots of Venerable Monks in the Sangha who are learning and practicing the Dhamma. Even though these monks do not like all these things about extreme nationalism and disagree with the  Safeguarding National Identity Law, which has nothing to do with the Sangha. They are trying to not get involved in current issues.

Observing these monks who are putting all their effort and might into the Safeguarding National Identity Law is like seeing them making the original situation of an unstable Burma even worse. It does not help in any way by adding more conflict to destabilize a country already suffering from ethnic/civil war and poverty. In a way they are pushing Burma towards the deep hell of poverty and violence.

Indeed, the  Safeguarding National Identity Law must be serving and benefiting the power-grabbing military generals who only care about remaining in control.’

 

အမ်ိဳးသားေရး၀ါဒ နဲ႔ ဗုဒၶ၀ါဒ
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အမ်ိဳးသားေရး၀ါဒ နဲ႔ ဗုဒၶ၀ါဒဟာ ေျဖာင့္ေျဖာင့္ႀကီး ဆန္႔က်င္ပါတယ္။ ဥပမာ – ေဂါတမဗုဒၶ နဲ႔ ရွင္ေဒ၀ဒတၱ တုုိ႔ဟာ သာကီဝင္မင္းမ်ိဳးမွ ဆင္းသက္လာသူမ်ား ျဖစ္ၾကပါတယ္။ ဒါေပမယ့္ ဗုုဒၶဘုုရားရွင္က အဂၢသာဝကႏွစ္ပါးကုုိ ေရြးခ်ယ္ရာမွာ ရွင္ေဒဝဒတ္ကုုိ မေရြးခ်ယ္ဘဲ ျဗဟၼဏအႏြယ္မွ လာတဲ့ ရွင္သာရိပုုတၱရာ နဲ႔ ရွင္ေမာဂၢလာန္ တုုိ႔ကုုိသာ ေရြးခ်ယ္ခဲ့ပါတယ္။ ျမတ္စြာဘုုရားရွင္ဟာ အမ်ိဳးအႏြယ္ကုုိ မၾကည့္ပါဘူး။ သီလ သမာဓိ ပညာ ဆုုိတဲ့ အရည္အခ်င္းကုုိသာ ၾကည့္ပါတယ္။

ျမတ္စြာဘုုရားရဲ႕ တရားေတာ္မွာ အမ်ိဳးမာန္၊ အမ်ိဳးစြဲ ထားဖို႔ ေဟာခဲ့တဲ့ တရား မပါဝင္ပါဘူး။ ဗုဒၶရဲ႕ ၀ါဒက (၃၁) ဘုုံမွာ ရွိၾကတဲ့ သတၱဝါအားလုုံးနဲ႔ သက္ဆိုင္ပါတယ္။ အမ်ိဳးသားေရး၀ါဒက လူမ်ိဳးတမ်ိဳးနဲ႔သာ သက္ဆိုင္ပါတယ္။ ဗုဒၶ၀ါဒ နဲ႔ အမ်ိဳးသားေရး၀ါဒကုုိ မေရာေထြးသင့္ပါဘူး။

ရုုပ္နာမ္ ပရမတ္ကုုိ ထြင္းေဖါက္ျမင္ေတာ္မူတဲ့ ဘုုရားရွင္အေနနဲ႔ အဝိဇၨာဖုုံးတဲ့ ပုုဂၢိဳလ္ သတၱဝါ ပညတ္အျမင္အေပၚ အေျခခံတဲ့ လူမ်ိဳးစြဲ ဘာသာစြဲကုုိ ေဟာရန္ အေၾကာင္းမရွိပါဘူး။

ျမန္မာႏုုိင္ငံမွာ ပရိယတ္နဲ႔ ပဋိပတ္အလုုပ္ကုုိသာ အားထုုတ္ေနေတာ္မူၾကတဲ့ ဆရာေတာ္ သံဃာေတာ္ မ်ားစြာ ရွိၾကပါတယ္။ ထုုိဆရာေတာ္ သံဃာေတာ္မ်ားဟာ ရဟန္းသဃာမ်ားနဲ႔ လားလားမွ် မသက္ဆုုိင္တဲ့ မ်ိဳးေစာင့္ဥပေဒကုုိ မႀကိဳက္ေပမယ့္ ရွဳတ္ရွဳတ္ရွက္ရွက္ ကိစၥေတြမွာ ဝင္မပါခ်င္တာေၾကာင့္သာ ကင္းကင္းရွင္းရွင္း ေနေတာ္မူၾကတာပါ။

မ်ိဳးေစာင့္ဥပေဒအတြက္ သဲသဲမဲမဲ ႀကိဳးပမ္းေနၾကတဲ့ ရဟန္းသံဃာ တခ်ိဳ႕ကုုိ ျမင္ရေတာ့ ႏူရာဝဲစြဲ လဲရာ သူခုုိးေထာင္း ဆုုိသလုုိ မၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းႏုုိင္တဲ့ ျမန္မာႏုုိင္ငံကုုိ ပုုိၿပီး မၿငိမ္းခ်မ္းေအာင္ ဆင္းရဲတြင္း နက္သထက္ နက္ေအာင္ တြန္းပုုိ႔ေနသလုုိပါပဲ။

မ်ိဳးေစာင့္ဥပေဒဆုုိတာ ထုုိင္ခုုံၿမဲေရး ပဓာနတရား လက္ကုုိင္ထားၾကတဲ့ စစ္ဝါဒီတစ္စုုအတြက္ေတာ့ အႀကိဳက္ေတြ႕မယ့္ ဥပေဒျဖစ္မွာ ေသခ်ာပါတယ္။

အရွင္စႏၵိမာ (မြန္စိန္ေတာရ)

 

 

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Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhist Identity

awirathunation

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.

 

‘Burmese’, ‘Bamar’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Buddhism’

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aBuddhist-flag-with-dharma-wheel

In a study summarised by Poll Finds Burmese Public Linking Citizenship to Buddhism’ it is reported how Burmese equate being Burmese or ‘Myanmar’ with being Buddhist. The study was done by the ‘Myanmar Egress’ a Rangoon based organisation and has been published as ‘Citizenship in Myanmar: Contemporary Debates and Challenges in Light of the Reform Process’.

The report is based upon a survey of over 2000 Burmese form across the country. The basic conclusions are that ‘a very large number of respondents within the Buddhist ethnic groups—i.e. not only Bamar respondents, equate citizenship with religion.’

A ‘Bamar, Buddhist’ responded: ‘Myanmar is Buddhist and patriotic,’ while a ‘Rohingya, Muslim’ stated: ‘[Myanmar is] “The person who is Buddhist.”‘

A spokesperson for Myanmar Egress suggests that ‘This religious nationalism, if not dealt with carefully, could serve to alienate other groups with a different religious identity.’

On race, religion and gender: A progressive Burmese Buddhist perspective

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Opinion: An article by May Oo Lwin

‘Our Burmese people should think about political, religious and social issues in a progressive, modern and sympathetic way. It is disturbing to see abusive, homophobic and racist news and comments that have recently been circulated and shared, mainly through social media.

There are some heated arguments concerning the controversial issues to do with so called ‘illegal immigrants’ inside just one particular part of Burma because of their race, religion and ethnicity.

It make me wonder how ‘Internally Displaced People’ (IDPs), refugees, and (so called) ‘illegal immigrants’ of our own ethnic Burmese people around the boarders of Burma are being treated in the bordering countries. Are they also being labeled and abused as ‘illegal immigrants’?  I hope they are being treated with dignity and I wish we could treat our IDPs in a similar way.

The most ironic thing is that some of these strong, discriminatory opinions come from people themselves who are expats, immigrants in other countries, people who were once either refugees or asylum seekers in their adopted countries.

I would also like to make some comments regarding the proposed inter-racial, inter-faith laws and bills which ‘supposedly’ have the aim of protecting Burmese women and Burmese Buddhism. I hope people realize just how much more our Burmese women will be oppressed lacking a voice, indeed lacking any freedom and in turn being deprived of any basic rights to chose their future.

Finally, there was an outpouring of condemnation, verbal abuse and extremely disturbing comments on the first ever public celebration of the 10 year anniversary of a gay couple in Burma. Soon after this news was reported, lots of people are happy that the couple are being investigated and calling for the ancient colonial-era law to be used to imprison the poor couple. They are a couple who are in love with each other, wanting to celebrate their commitment publicly in front of friends and family. They want to empower the ‘silenced and shamed’ members of our population. Just because they are both men it doesn’t mean they should be condemned, cursed and be treated with hostility and contempt. It is a fact that homosexuality exists everywhere, and that includes Burma. People from countries all over the world have been trying to change such discriminatory attitudes. When we talk about these dramatic changes going on in Burma towards democratic culture, it is essential to also change, adapt and make progress with our mental culture. Our attitudes on ethnicity, racial and religious discrimination (particularly Islamophobia), gender and homosexuality must be examined and changed.

Racism, homophobia and religious intolerance cannot be part of a new, democratic Burma. If we really want our country to move forward and to transform into a democratic Burma we do not simply need material progress but psychological adaptation as well. Political change will mean nothing if we do not also change our attitudes and educate our people. We are not in any way going forward when some of us are encouraging any kind of ‘hate speech’ whether directed at other peoples religious beliefs, race, gender or sexuality.’

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

aParliament-returns-bills

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.

NLD MP begs forgiveness of monks for his writings on Facebook

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In a story published by Eleven Media it is reported that Lower House National League for Democracy MP Min Thu has apologised  to members of the Burmese Buddhist Sangha for remarks that he made on his Facebook page. He had posted the story ‘Nay Pyi Taw, where some monks are meddling in the situation’ It claimed that monks from Yamethin, Ottara and Dekkhina Districts had been taken to Naypyidaw by car to a ceremony in support of anti-interracial marriage law at Uppatasanti Pagoda.

‘The Sayadaw secretary from Yamethin Township, the Sangha Maha Nayaka committee, and the Sayadaw chairperson from Lewe Township were being led by the nose…Under the pretext of anti-Islamism, some monks did not understand that the movements are intended to oppose the NLD and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And it seemed that they became like the Ayatollah, the late Iranian religious leader that they don’t like. This [celebration] was timed to coincide with a plan to remove monasteries by using forest laws’ claimed Min Thu in his Facebook post.

In his apology he asked for forgiveness for his comments ‘that undermined the dignity of Sangha members and were an affront to parents, elders and teachers, and even his own belief in Buddhism.’ He added that ‘I made such an apology because of my belief in Buddhism. It came from my own religious conviction.’

In a separate development President Thein Sein expressed his support for laws banning marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men.

This is one of four laws being drafted by the Organisation for Protection of Nation, Race and Religion (OPNRR): the Faith Conversion Bill; the Marriage Bill, the Monogamy Law; and the Population Control Law.

‘The interfaith marriage bill, if enacted, would mean a non-Buddhist man who wants to marry a Buddhist must convert to her faith, or face a 10-year jail sentence.

The text would not apply restrictions to marriages between Buddhist men and non-Buddhist women.

The draft laws could be presented to parliament for a vote as early as next month.’

U Wirathu on amending the Burmese constitution

As reported by Khun Ba Thar in the Democratic Voice of Burma with the headline ‘Amending 59(f) will allow foreigners to exploit ‘simple’ Burmese, says Wirathu’, U Wirathu was interviewed by Win Tin, a veteran of the National League for Democracy. In discussing the controversial Article 59(f) which prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi becoming president due to her two children being UK citizens. U Wirathu states that:

‘I too wish to see Article 59(f) amended — I am absolutely in support of [Suu Kyi]…But it will ultimately allow those who are not ethnic nationalities to exploit the Burmese people who are simple and naïve. Our people are not ready for this kind of deceit — they don’t have high enough intelligence.’

He goes on to suggest that a better role for Aung San Suu Kyi would be as a ‘ringleader’ who could influence the president.