Time’s cover epitomizes Buddhism’s failure

Editorial, The Buddhist Channel, June 24, 2013

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Many never saw this coming, especially for those professing a faith which advocate teachings such that killing even a mosquito brings bad karma.

Buddhists the world over can only gasp with astonishment when Time Magazine decided to “honor” a Buddhist by plastering him on its hallowed cover. U Wirathu, a monk from Burma became that face, and together with it a headline that says “The face of Buddhist terror”.

“Buddhist” above “terror”. When and how did it come to this?

Many will decry this as a sweeping statement. Isn’t this merely a Burmese issue? Why tarnish all Buddhists when the problem is specifically Burmese and its perpetrator a twisted monk – who labels himself Burmese Bin laden - with mind engulfed in narrow nationalism?

And yet the crass labeling by Time magazine is sweeping. With its global outreach, that stigma will stay, whether Buddhists of Burmese origin or not.

Make no mistake. Wirathu is a nationalist. What he advocates is nothing more than nationalist ranting. As a monk however, his ranting carry consequences far beyond his “sermons”, especially when they are hateful and inflammatory.

His story bears the consequence of a failed political system, and local politicians who have failed to play their role constructively. As Burma experience upheavals while transforming itself from closed dictatorship to a more open form of capitalistic system, cracks in social harmony is bound to surface.

What’s unfortunate is that the faith which originated from Buddha is dragged into this imbroglio.

Burmese monks, being an integral part of society, have a history of commanding civil disobedience. In the 1930s, the Saya San rebellion against colonial Britain led to the massacre of 1,000 locals. The rebel leader, Saya San – an ex-monk – was later hanged. More recently, in 2007, the saffron revolution captured the world’s attention when thousands of monks led marches condemning Burma’s military junta.

Depending on which side you were on, the rebelling monks was regarded either as heroes (in the eye of the world against the dictatorial government) or troublemakers (in the eyes of the British). Yet, in those conflicts history have bestowed upon the monks as up-righting justice, rising up against all odds to face over-whelming tyranny.

At times Buddhist tenets were invoked, such as in the 2007 saffron marches when monks chanted the “Metta Sutta” (discourse on loving kindness) and invoke ideals of “ahimsa”, non-violence.

At no time were these conflicts deemed as “religious”.  Until recently, Buddhism as a global faith had escaped being branded as one which had been involved in “holy wars”.

Burmese nationalists may not agree, but once you license an extremist like Wirathu to stoke social tensions between groups of different faiths and advocating for violence against a specific religious community, there is no avoiding branding the confrontation as religious.

The question is how and why did it come to this? As a monk of 29 years, didn’t any of the Buddha Dharma ever rubbed into his consciousness?

How could he even utter hate filled speeches when every morning he dispenses the five precepts to devotees offering “dana”, two of which advocates the training to “abstain from taking life” and “false speech” (which includes lying, gossiping, harsh speech and defamation)?

The answer could simply be this: Buddhism has become culture and custom of a people, and the Buddha a mere symbol of faith of one who happens to be born into. When Buddhism is regarded as such, and when the community feels endangered because seen and unseen forces are perceived to be threatening their way of life, the response is only natural: fight back.

What is happening to Burma could also be seen in Sri Lanka where the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization Bodu Bala Sena has organized various campaigns against the country's minority Muslim and Christian communities. Like their Burmese counterparts, they have said that their actions were needed to protect the country's “Sinhalese-Buddhist character”.

While blame could be portioned off to the British (of which both Sri Lanka and Burma were colonial states) for messing up the demography in the first place and leaving behind a messed up legacy, to subjugate minorities to violence demonstrates the failure of using Buddhist teachings to resolve issues.

In resolving Burma’s conundrum (and to a certain extent Sri Lanka’s as well), the Sangha needs to reaffirm basic Buddhist tenets, and implore followers to keep faith in the Buddha Dhamma. Blind nationalism without heeding the consequences of negative actions and bad karma will only bring destruction.

It will not be wise to allow sycophants like U Wirathu to create a Wahabbi like off-shoot while justifying it as some form of mutated Buddhist movement.

Great Burmese teachers such as Mahasi Sayadaw have taught and brought true Buddhism outside of Burma. It was Burmese masters who popularized Vipassana, which in turn spawned a revolution in mindful practices, especially in the west.

As such it is a great irony that Burma which is seen as one of the world’s great Dharma protector has produced a son so anti-thesis to its core philosophy and ideals.

Clearly, Buddhism’s transformative powers can only happen when the powers to be are inclusive, accommodating and open. This requires a stable polity, sustainable economic development, trust in the country’s constitution and the rule of law.

There is no short cut other than having all parties doing the right things right.