May 10, 2013

Buddha Buzz: Marijuana-filled Buddhas, HHDL speak out on Burma, and some good ol' Buddhist Americana

Alex Caring-Lobel

Earlier this week US Customs and Border Protection officials seized nearly 600 lbs of pot inside a shipment of Buddha statues and other religious figurines. Officials at the El Paso US-Mexico crossing discovered the narcotics—and an alternate explanation for the Buddha's contented grin—with the help of an irreverent, drug-sniffing dog. No arrests have been made.

In last week's Buddha Buzz we reported on the Buddhist temple sex-tape scandal that has engulfed the second-largest Cambodian-American community in the US. Although whereabouts of the monk depicted in the tape remain unknown, a statement has surfaced—received by The Cambodia Daily—in which Ven. Nhem Kimteng confirms his identity in the video but denies that it shows him breaking his vow of celibacy in the local pagoda with Maya Men. Men is a fellow community leader who is currently suing five men for illegally producing and distributing the video. She testified that the videotape shows her and Ven. Nhem Kimteng "rocking back and forth" and nothing more, eliciting laughter in the Superior Court of Lowell, Massachussets.

Six Muslim men have been charged over the death of a Buddhist monk in the outbreak of sectarian violence in Meiktila, Burma, that occurred back in March. The rioting left at least 43 people—nearly all of them Muslims—dead. The murdered monk—the only Buddhist death that was reported—was allegedly knocked down from his motorbike and then beaten and killed. Those charged risk facing the death penalty. 

The outbreak of violence in the central town of Meiktila was almost entirely directed at the Muslim minority, resulting in the displacement of about 12,000 people in addition to the nearly 125,000 Rohingya and other Muslims of Rakhine State displaced in the fall of last year. The BBC received footage filmed by the police that depicts "young Muslim men being chased from their burning homes and hacked with machetes." A monk even brought a machete to the neck of an Associated Press photographer, who defused the situation by offering to him the memory card containing photos he snapped of the violence. No Buddhists have been charged for their participation in the recent violence.

The Dalai Lama responded to Buddhist-led violence in Burma on Tuesday, condemning the attacks on Muslims and offering his prayers. He has previously expressed his humanitarian concerns to fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and even expressed his confidence in the leader. Not all share his optimism. Some have suggested that the Dalai Lama visit the country in an effort to resolve the ongoing ethno-religious conflict, but Burma, with its close political and economic ties to China, remains off limits to the exiled leader.

 (A quick HHDL aside: Portland, Oregon police responded to investigate a suspicious package sent to the religious leader this week in advance of his talk at the University of Portland. The package's contents proved completely benign but nevertheless mysterious: a baseball with a request for the Dalai Lama to autograph it.)

Some good news came from Burma this week with the distribution of The Irrawaddy magazine, which hit Burmese newsstands on Tuesday for the first time. First published in 1993 by Burmese activists living in exile, the publication, based in Bangkok, distinguished itself with trenchant political and social commentary with a primary focus on Burma and its immediate environs. Reforms to press laws have allowed the magazine to be distributed inside Burma for the first time and for its staff to even open up a bureau within the country's borders, as it has in Rangoon—the commercial center and former capital. Check out their website here.



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Jim Spencer's picture

One of my coworkers is a former Burmese Resistance fighter, and according to him, a lot of the violence going on in Burma is not based on religion, but a lack of housing and other essential resources. He says that the Muslims are refugees from other countries that are competing for the same necessities that the native Burmese are wanting, therefore the violence begins. It is more xenophobic than religious in nature, my friend Myint says. He says that if the refugees were Christian instead of Muslim, or even ethnic Buddhists from another country, the violence would still be happening. Many of the refugees cannot find work or are refused work, regardless of their religious affiliation, and therefore have no money and no food for their families. These desperate people end up turning to crime to survive, and bring down the wrath of the locals upon themselves. The problem is far more deep than what is reported in the Western media.

Myint also says that religion in Burma is broken, to use his terms. He says that the Burmese Buddhists, for the most part, treat Buddhism in the same manner that folk here that call themselves Christian yet never step foot in a church do. Young men join monasteries because there is no work and they can live off of the generosity of others, he says, instead of joining because they want to "change their minds", as he says. This is much of the reason that there are violent monks.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

It's absolutely true that Burma's Buddhist majority has, as of recently, had an extremely fraught relationship with virtually all religious minorities. The state military is currently engaged in conflict with Kachin Christians, and has also been engaged in conflict with other minority Buddhist groups.

A prejudice against the religion of Islam rooted in a fear of Islamicization has, however, shown to be significant. Wirathu, the monk-leader of the Buddhist ultra-nationalist movement in Burma and violence against Muslims, harps on the threat of imminent Islamicization, as you can see in a video I ran on a previous Buddha Buzz. Also, beginning just in March, large-scale violence has begun to be directed at various Muslim groups rather than solely the Rohingya, who suffered loss of life and massive displacement last fall.

Most important is that these Muslims, or at least the Rohingya, aren't refugees for the most part. Most of them have lived in Burma for many generations. Nevertheless, Burmese ultra-nationalists refer to them as Bengali refugees. This is an nationalistic ideological position that doesn't reflect the real history of the Rohingya in Burma. It is on these grounds that they are denied citizenship and left to be relegated to the (unofficial) status of refugees in their own country.

Many of the past resistance fighters have come out against the Muslim minority, just as the monks who led the "Saffron Revolution" now lead the Buddhist ultra-nationalist movement. Once the greatest threat to the regime, the sangha is now its greatest asset. This is due to the clever positioning of the reform government. You can read more about this in our feature from the previous issue of Tricycle.

More recently I did an interview with the author of that feature that delved deeper into the causes and conditions of the recent violence and the origins of longstanding Burmese racism.

I think what your friend said about the Buddhist monks in Burma is spot on. As the founder and editor of The Irrawaddy observed a few weeks ago, the sangha shares the same recruitment pool as the military.

Jim Spencer's picture

There is a man in my neighborhood with mental health issues that occasionally stands at the top of a high hill in the park behind our house at sunrise and cries, "Allah! Allah!" with an impressively booming voice. I told my Burmese friend about this guy and his response was that I should look out for him because Muslims are all crazy. He said that Islam is a religion of peace but the followers are all violent. He has referred to the Muslims in his country as Bengali refugees a couple of times.

It is sad to see that the person who corrected my misguided perceptions of Theravada Buddhism, to the point that I have adopted the practices of Theravada after falling away from Rinzai Zen (a topic covered elsewhere on this site), harbors such hatred for Muslims.

Thanks for the extra information.

Jim Spencer's picture

FYI - I don't think all Muslims are crazy.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Why did the drug smugglers get caught with only 600 lbs.of pot at the border? They didn't have a Greater Vehicle.

millshersee's picture

Does that drug-sniffing dog have the Buddha nature?