‘Engaged Buddhism’ in Myanmar

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A report on Sayadaw U Ottamasa’s meditation centre on the outskirts of Yangon has appeared in Frontline Myanmar.

It’s a well written article by Kyaw Phone Kyaw titled ‘A Sayadaw’s Sanctuary for the Needy’. A brief biography of the Sayadaw is available on Dhamma Web with more details available here. As an example of engaged Buddhism in Myanmar the Sayadaw’s activies have become very popular.

As Kyaw reports:

There is nothing unusual about a monk establishing a meditation centre in Myanmar and they can be found throughout the country, but the Thabarwa Center, established by the Venerable Sayadaw U Ottamasara in 2008 when he was aged 39, is very unusual indeed.

The centre, in Yangon’s outer southeastern Thanlyin Township, is a refuge for hundreds of needy people who are encouraged to meditate, as well as being a retreat for yogis, as lay meditators are known in Myanmar.

Membership of the centre is open to anyone and hosts many residents, many of whom have no home to call their own and will live there for the rest of their lives. Their food, health care and accommodation are provided free of charge.

The centre’s website contains more details.

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Off the Cushion: EPISODE #7: “When Does Ethnocentric Buddhism Become Buddhist Terror?”

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I had the pleasure in taking part in an episode of the excellent Rev. Danny Fisher’s ‘Off the Cushion’ series. Episode 7 is on the topic of “When Does Ethnocentric Buddhism Become Buddhist Terror?”

This week, as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for his second visit to Burma, we look at the escalating violence against Rohingya Muslims by Burmese Buddhists in the country. Dr. Paul Fuller talks to us about his proposed term for understanding this phenomenon: “Ethnocentric Buddhism.” In addition, Myra Dahgaypaw, Campaigns Coordinator for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, pulls back the curtain on the much-discussed 969 Movement and its leader U Wirathu. Plus: United to End Genocide’s Director of Policy and Government Relations, Daniel P. Sullivan, tells us about the #JustSayTheirName campaign and how it might help stop this conflict.

A very big thank you for Danny for inviting me to contribute. I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to consider some of these ideas with Myra Dahgaypaw and Daniel P. Sullivan.

U Wirathu: ‘There is a jihad against Buddhist monks’

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As reported by Al Jazeera the controversial Burmese Buddhist monk U Wirathu addressed 5000 monks and laymen in a packed sports stadium in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Sunday 28 September.

In his usual rhetoric he argued that Buddhists are being threatened by Muslims and he suggested a possible a union between the Sri Lankan Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and the Burmese 969 movement:

To protect and defend the threatened Buddhist the world over, my 969 movement will join hands with the BBS…Buddhists are facing a serious threat today from jihadist groups…The patience of Buddhists is seen as a weakness. Buddhist temples have been destroyed. There is a jihad against Buddhist monks.

The wider issue being considered by the Sangha convention is the proposal to create a ‘Sinhala Buddhist State’ and Buddhist monks and Hindu representatives from several countries were due to take part.

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What will U Wirathu say in Sri Lanka?

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In an excellent article in the Democratic Voice of Burma Alex Bookbinder reports on the visit of the Burmese Nationalist monk U Wirathu (prominent in the Burmese nationalist and anti-Muslim ‘969’ movement) to the the ‘Buddhist Power Force’ (Bodu Bala Sena) in Sri Lanka. He is due to give a keynote speech on Sunday 28th September to an audience affiliated to nationalist Buddhist sympathies in Sri Lanka.

On the one hand, a Theravada Buddhist monk visiting and giving a lecture in a fellow Theravada Buddhist country, between which there have been stong religious ties for centuries,  should not deserve the most obscure footnote in Buddhist history. However, given the so-called 969 movements anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the similar arguments  by the Bodu Bala Sena, eyebrows will be raised. Are these monastics planning political participation:

In contrast to Burma, where monks are constitutionally barred from running for public office, a group of Sri Lankan monks formed the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or National Heritage Party, to contest parliamentary elections in 2004. The JHU was a vocal supporter of Rajapaksa’s no-holds-barred assault against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, which ended the country’s 26-year civil war amid international condemnation and allegations of war crimes.

Political participation by Buddhist monastics is an extremely divisive issue. Should a monk be devoted to escaping from the cycle of existences, of which politics is a part, or should social injustice be envisioned as the one of the causes of suffering, therefore making it a legitimate target of Buddhist doctrine? These questions are brought into sharp focus by the dialogue between the Burmese 969 movement and the Sri Lanka Bodu Bala Sena.

It will be of some interest what U Wirathu says in Sri Lanka.

Edit: ‘Ven. Ashin Wirathu from Myanmar will participate in the Bodu Bala Sena’s Maha Sangha Council meeting at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium at 1.00 p.m. today (Sunday 28t/09/14).’ Reported Here.

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And some film of U Wirathu’s arrival in Sri Lanka:

 

Sulak Sivaraksa on 9/11

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Sulak Sivaraksa gave a speech on Thursday at the University of Wisconsin on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Famous for his engaged Buddhist message that dismantles traditional Buddhist hierarchies, he gave his own unique perspective on the causes and consequences of the attacks.
Born in Bangkok in 1933 he received his primary and secondary education in Thailand before studying at at Lampeter in Wales and completing a Law degree in London. In 1961, at the age 28, he returned to Thailand.
One of his main ideas is Buddhism with a small ‘b’. Buddhism should be stripped of its ritual element to go back to, or to accentuate, a supposed simple core of Buddhism. This is away from the civic and militaristic use of Buddhism. For Sulak  the core of Buddhism is personal and social transformation. It’s teachings can be used to solve contemporary problems.

In his speech on 9/11 he states the following:

‘For peace, we need an authentic economic system…The current system is built on structural violence. The project to build a new economic system begins at this moment….

The post-colonial world needs to become modern, not Western…The capitalist global economic system has been built on imperialism. The West has been separated from its roots since Columbus discovered America by asserting superiority over the people living here, and the notion became to look forward without looking back….

I was from an elitist background with an English education who believed the poor should follow us…It is only when I stayed with the poor that I realized that we oppress them unknowingly and that we have much to learn from them.

We need to stop blaming the other party and instead need to start identifying our own rigid and self-righteous views…We need to pay attention to the other’s viewpoint with deep listening, even if the other person’s view is based on wrong notions. Only if we listen without interruption can we move toward clarity and peace…

The choice is not between violence and inactivity when attacked…There are several other options: dialogue, law, negotiations, and diplomacy.

The capitalist myth of individual emancipation is not equal to the ‘we’. The community is made of the individual and the people around the person. Only through realizing the suffering of others can peace arrive.
Young people will save the world from the American empire and make it into an American republic with a small r.’
This final statement echoing his famous message of Buddhism with a small ‘b’.

Monks Not Behaving Politically in Cambodia

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My students and I do not participate in politics. They already have politicians, and what I am doing is following the Buddha’s advice.

These are the words of Meas Sokhorn head monk of a central Phnong Peng temple in Cambodia. They follow threats that two members of his monastic community, Manh Sokreal and Nob Vanny, will be disrobed for taking part in political activities. The two are said to have invited land protestors into the temple grounds. It raises important issues about monastic involvement in politics and the interpretation of an offense entailing expulsion (pārājika) from the Buddhist monastic community. It is not at all clear how political activity would fit into this category of actions.

This is the latest of a series of political involvement by Cambodian monks, as reported in The Phnong Peng Post:

Last month, armed police raided the Wat Neak Vorn pagoda in Tuol Kork district after some of its monks attended an opposition demonstration that descended into violence at Freedom Park, while a week ago more than 100 monks turned out to protest at Sansam Kosal pagoda in Meanchey district after a Khmer Krom monk who took part in recent protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy was called to a meeting with district religious authorities.

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.’