April 12, 2013

Buddha Buzz: The Burmese Holocaust and the Anti-Sexual Abuse Fork Test

Emma Varvaloucas

Awful news continues to pour out of Burma, where Vice is now reporting that Muslim Rohingya women are being kept hostage in military camps as sex slaves. Since the Rohingya are not considered to be citizens of Burma and therefore have no legal rights, it's not likely that there will be government action to free these women (<--the understatement of the century). According to the Vice article, by journalist Assed Baig, local villagers who live around the camps are "aware that women are being kept as prisoners but are too scared to speak out."

Though the one person who everyone did expect to speak out about the plight of the Rohingya, human rights champion Aung San Suu Kyi, is remaining stunningly silent, Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey, the former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations, called attention to what is increasingly being called the genocide in Burma this week on the Huffington Post. As I wrote on Buddha Buzz two weeks ago, the situation in Burma is beginning to sound more and more Holocaust-esque:

Burma monk Saydaw Wirathu says to BBC that the "kalar" (a derogatory term for Muslims) must be plucked out of society like a bad seed, regardless that they are part of the same Myanmar ethnic fabric. Now, thousands have been killed and/or forced to flee age-old homes. In one central town of Myanmar a whole city section was burnt down. In just one incident, 20 young Muslim children were killed and dismembered, (as reported by Buddhist town residents/witnesses). In Burma's major cities Muslim businesses are boycotted at the urging of Wirathu and associates' orchestrated campaign. In a form of reverse "Yellow Star of David" campaign reminiscent of the Nazi pogrom against Jews, Buddhist owned businesses are marked with a form of label denied to those owned/managed by Muslims to facilitate the boycott and efforts to force out the Muslims. Myanmar government officials, police and ample military have largely stood back as the riots and killings escalated. To the contrary, there are credible reports of complicity and that the campaign is effectively sponsored by the dictatorial junta to rationalize its hold upon absolute power along ethnic labels and fears of the "other." It does remind a bit of the start of the Holocaust and more recently the ethnic cleansing/genocide campaigns in the former Yugoslavia.

Burma

And like in the Holocaust, a few brave people are taking action to protect their neighbors: The Irrawaddy had a small announcement on Tuesday that a Burmese monk had been arrested for smuggling a group of Rohingya Muslims, disguised as Buddhist monks, out of the conflict area and into Rangoon. The Rohingya men were arrested as well, for traveling without proper documentation. (Again, since the Rohingya are not legally citizens, they are not allowed to travel between townships without special permission.) There's been a slew of articles recently about the violence in Burma, although I'm sad to say that the comment section of most of them has been barraged by anti-Muslim vitriol. Here are some notable ones: The Irrawaddy, on how the Burmese government declined to stop sales of anti-Muslim propaganda; The Atlantic, on the numerological origins of the 969 campaign (Buddhist merchants are encouraged to post 969 stickers on their stores, stalls, and taxicabs, and the populace is instructed to avoid non-969 retailers); and Reuters, on the Muslims who are living in Burma with the daily fear that they might be attacked or worse.

For those baffled by how ultra-nationalist Buddhists have garnered favor in Burma, Burmese dissident Maung Zarni demystifies the Buddhist-led genocide by examining the historical conditions that led to it in his feature in the current issue and our blog interview with him.

In another news story that doesn't seem to be resolving itself anytime soon, meditation teacher Anushka Fernandopulle has posted about the Sasaki scandal on the Huffington Post (background on that here). She offers advice on how to deal with a spiritual teacher who is crossing your boundaries and using his (or her, to be fair) "deep realizations and awakenings" as an excuse to do it:

Sometimes it helps to keep it simple: consider whether the behavior of the teacher would be acceptable if the setting was any generic workplace. Let's start with the premise that a spiritual community should meet the minimal standards for human interaction upheld at a restaurant or retail store. For example, if you were a customer at Foot Locker, would it be OK if this teacher groped your breasts while you tried on tennis shoes? Ignore any sophisticated talk of emptiness or not-self and consider: if this teacher pressured you to massage their penis when they delivered your lunch at The Olive Garden, would this be something that you might complain about? Could they be fired over this behavior? Since the answer is yes, then honor your instincts, try to make it stop, and get out of there, regardless of what anyone else says.

Let's continue to keep it simple. If the teacher is using the language of ultimate reality to justify his behavior, and people say he is exempt from the precepts because he is so free and awakened, you can also perform a basic test using a fork. For instance, if he says something like "You are not a woman, I am not a man, it is all emptiness" while sticking his hand up your shirt and groping your breasts (paraphrase of an actual occurrence in above scandal), see how he responds to "This is not a fork, this is not your eye" while you move a fork quickly towards his face. Notice his reaction. This should be an equivalent and equally valid exercise for him.

Hearing this good advice is like hearing dharma from an especially gifted teacher: Clear. Simple. And, I imagine, effective. Make sure to bring your own utensils to your next extended retreat!

Speaking of extended retreats, scholar Justin Whitaker of the American Buddhist Perspective blog has a great interview up this week with a group of retreatants who embarked upon a one-year retreat on March 31. It's an interesting read for any practitioner, but especially for those of us who have ever considered retreating for any substantial period of time, only to be stalled by worries of how our family/friends/boss/personal universe would react. The retreatants seem to have received only loving support and understanding for their decision to go off the grid for an entire year. If only we could all be surrounded by such dharma-sympathetic folks!

It's cold and rainy here in NYC, but I hope that wherever you are, your weekend is filled with sunlight and lots of time for practice. As a reward for making it all the way to the end of Buddha Buzz, here's an emotional but uplifting video from Upworthy, reminding us that inward change is always possible.

 

Image: An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe on June 10, 2012. (Reuters).

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Kenneth Daly's picture

Ross Douthat's New York Times article about what is being done in Burma in the name of Buddhism reminds us again of the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, and other Buddhists who call themselves teachers. Obama Success, or Global Shame? http://nyti.ms/1txLiME We should not be making "pilgrimages" to Burma unless it is to bear witness as Douthat does, and he is not Buddhist. The argument that the people committing these crimes are not Buddhist is self-serving.