South Korean Buddhist blasphemy?

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As reported by the Asian Correspondent a comedy sketch from a South Korean TV has been heavily criticised by Thai Buddhists who perceived the satire of the Thai’s love of Korean pop music as highly offensive. The parody evokes sensitivity to gender roles and the sanctity of what appears to be an image of the Buddha in Buddhist culture. As is often the case with issues of blasphemy free speech and the protection of religious sensibilities are central to the discussion.

The video….depicts two buffoonish Thai monks, before taking a dig at Thailand’s love of K-Pop. The Facebook video clocked up 14 million ‘likes’ before it was removed.

Later in the video one of the monks, a woman, is seen slapping a man made to appear like the Buddha image over the head. It is strictly forbidden for women to make any contact with Buddhist monks in Thailand.

Many Thais expressed their outrage in the comments on the Facebook post, calling the skit “bad-mannered”, “stupid”, and other things we won’t republish here. While angry Thais argued that their, or any, religion should not be made fun of, Korean commenters hit back saying Thai people should respect their freedom of expression.

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

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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.

In 30 countries, heads of state must belong to a certain religion

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As reported by the Pew Research Center 30 countries in the world require their heads of state to have a particular religious affiliation, they must belong to a particular religious group.ii

Two countries, Bhutan and Thailand (both monarchies), require their head of state to be Buddhist. While in Burma the president is ‘prohibited form being a member of a religious order’.

There are other interesting findings:

‘More than half of the countries with religion-related restrictions on their heads of state (17) maintain that the office must be held by a Muslim. In Jordan, for example, the heir to the throne must be a Muslim child of Muslim parents. In Tunisia, any Muslim male or female voter born in the country may qualify as a candidate for president. Malaysia, Pakistan and Mauritania also restrict their heads of state to Muslim citizens.’

While ceremonial religious duties are required in other countries:

In addition to the 30 countries in this analysis, another 19 nations have religious requirements for ceremonial monarchs who serve as their heads of state. Sixteen of these, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Commonwealth of Nations with Queen Elizabeth II – also known as the Defender of the Faith – as their head of state. The other countries in this category are Denmark, Norway and Sweden.’

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Buddhist monks caught riding on broomsticks

 

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As reported in the Bangkok Post two Buddhist monks were caught on camera over the weekend pretending to fly, and seemingly race (or play Quidditch in the style of Harry Potter), on broomsticks. It is reported that the monks were pictured during a break from sweeping the temple grounds. The picture has since gone viral.

There is not much to add to the image aside from the suggestion that some find their conduct to be inappropriate. Going through the 227 rules of the Pātimokkha  (which govern the monastic discipline of the monks) it is difficult to see which rule is being broken. However, 26 of the minor rules (the 75 sekhiya rules) do suggest moderation, decorum and etiquette in monastic behaviour. For example: ‘To behave decorously when going to inhabited areas'(susaṃvuto antaraghare gamissāmīti sikkhā karaṇīyā). I imagine it is a question of the decorum of flying on a broomstick.

The Phuket News has reported that the National Office of Buddhism in Thailand are investigating the antics of the monks in the picture. Its director, Nopparat Benjawattananan is quoted as saying that the monks in the picture ‘acted inappropriately and lack discipline. The organization will identify them. They deserve punishment.’

Director Nopparat Benjawattananan
Director Nopparat Benjawattananan

 

Thailand looks to arrest Buddhist monk for insurrection

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Following on from the story about Monks and Protest in Thailand, Luang Pu Buddha Issara is again in the news this time with authorities seeking to arrest him. Police have asked a criminal court to authorize the arrest of Luang Pu Buddha Issara. The story is reported by the Religion News Service and also states that The National Office of Buddhism maintains that by leading protests he has violated the Buddhist Monk Act.

Nopparat Benjawatananun, director general of the National Office of Buddhism stated that

‘It is clearly stated by law, that if any monk is charged for criminal offense, and if the court denies his bail, he must be defrocked at any time.’  .

It is argued that his actions, particularly in protesting to stop people from voting in the recent elections violates monastic discipline. Clearly the argument is that in leading a  violent uprising against the government goes against the Buddhist monastic code. In Buddhist terms he would be breaking the third pārājika offence of the pāṭimokkha. There are four offences for which a monk can be expelled from the monastic community and one assumes that is felt that Luang Pu Buddha Issara is breaking the third which states that a monk should not ‘intentionally killing a human being’;

3. ‘Should any bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (thus): “My good man, what use is this wretched, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life,” or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in communion.’ 

Ethnocentric Buddhism

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‘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 phenomenon. 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, 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 defense 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.

a. 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 there 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) 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 SaddharmaPundarîka is the best know examples but there are many others. The Abhidhamma could be said to serve a similar purpose in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism.

b. The notion of the decline of the Dharma/Dhamma in its various manifestations (mappō, for example) – the teachings lasting a set period of time – lends itself to an urgency for a given people to preserve and defend the teachings of the Buddha.

c. Buddhism is threatened. 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 in which the ‘other’ is polarized as a threat to the future of Buddhism.

d. 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 Islamaphobic Buddhism and the ‘Buddhist Defense League are other examples

e. 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 lay person 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.

f. 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 and it could increasing be argued that there is little reason to suppose that it has not 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.

The picture shown is the symbol of the Burmese 969 movement. It is based on the Buddhist flag designed by J.R. de Silva and Colonel Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon in 1880. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress. Superimposed on it are the Burmese numbers ‘969’.

An excellent summary of the 969 movement is by Kyaw Zwa Moe in the Irawaddy. Alex Bookbinder in The Atlantic and Carlos Sardiña Galache in the South Asia Globe suggest, among other things, the numerological influence on the movement. Much useful material can be found on Maung Zarni’s Blog.

More on Buddhist Monks and Protest in Thailand

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More reports are emerging of Thai Buddhist monks involved in political protest and the problems this can cause.

Luang Pu Buddha Issara protests against Thaksin and the so-called Red Shirts:

‘The government, which is run by the Shinawatra family – the brother and sister – has no morality or ethics. They are corrupt and they allow corruption to happen. They lie everyday.’

And, in a telling statement:

‘The religious domain has a duty to tell the secular domain what to do – and what not to do’.

However, Nopparat Benjawattantnun, director-general of Office of National Buddhism, disagrees that a monk should be politically active stating that, ‘monks cannot get involved with politics’.

Sathien Wipornmaha, secretary of the Buddhist Association of Thailand goes as far to say that

‘Monks can have personal feelings but political expression is banned according to Sangha regulations,’  and that Buddha Issara is ‘destroys the image of Buddhism.’

Duncan McCargo of the University of Leeds comments:

‘Although in theory monks are apolitical, in practice when you start to really scrutinise what’s going on beneath the surface, you discover there is all kind of politics,..What is unusual here is a prominent monk who is not only playing a supporting role or a legitimising role, but who is actually in the middle of a stage…It’s an unusually overt role for a monk to play.’

The full report can be read here.

See also here.