April 19, 2013

Buddha Buzz: A Rough Week for Monks

Alex Caring-Lobel

It's been a rough week for Buddhist monks. I'm afraid that, if you're still holding on to any bit of romanticism regarding Buddhist monks, young or old, this week's news will crush it. It's been a devastating week news-wise, and it looks like the Buddhist world is no exception.

On Saturday, The Hindustan Times reported that three Bhutanese Buddhist monks and a driver were charged with gangraping a 14-year-old girl in Kalimpong—a hilly, historically religious center for Buddhism in the Darjeeling district of India. The monks, all 20 or 21 years old, allegedly coerced her into a van and forced her to drink fruit juice laced with drugs. She was later dumped at the same roadside of her abduction, where some people saw her crying and took her home to her parents, who subsequently filed a complaint with the police. Kunal Agarwal, the Superintendent of Police of Darjeeeling, claims that all four perpetrators have confessed their crime.

In an article for The Daily Beast, Kapil Komireddi exposes the continuing religious and ethnic intolerance of Sinhalese Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka. In a previous Buddha Buzz, we reported that the group that calls itself the "Buddhist Strength Force" was rallying in the country's capital against the Islamic halal system of meat certification. Now they've taken on Muslim garb, calling for the abolition of virtually every kind of women's clothing. Apparently, the Sri Lankan sangha would like to see the Muslim population of their country naked and hungry.

"Saffron-robed Buddhist monks, having designated themselves the defenders of the Sinhala majority," Komireddi writes, "sniff the air each morning for the scent of fresh offence—and follow it to one minority community or another."

We've seen the same rhetoric of defense of Buddhist people, culture, and principles to justify violence along ethnic and religious lines in Burma, where the ultranationalist "969" movement has quickly risen in prominence. The Guardian recently interviewed Wirathu, the leader of the group, who has come to be known as the "Burmese Bin Laden"—a strange epithet for an Islamophobe, but perhaps fitting:


Burmese dissident and political activist Maung Zarni wrote about just this in the current issue of Tricycle.

[Buddhism] has proven itself indisposed to guard against overarching societal prejudices and their ultranationalist proponents, those Burmese who vociferously profess their adherence to Buddhist faith, practice religious rituals and patronize Buddhist institutions, and then proceed to commit unspeakable atrocities against anyone they imagine to be an enemy of Buddhism, the Buddhist state, Buddhist wealth, Buddhist women, and Buddhist land.

Amid ongoing ethno-religious unrest in Burma, its president Thein Sein will be visiting New York on Monday to receive the International Crisis Group's top honor at its annual In Pursuit of Peace Award dinner, to the ire of many Burmese and human rights activists. Once a prominent member of the brutal military junta, the former general has recently garnered praise for enacting sweeping political and economic "post-junta" reform. On the issue of Buddhist-Muslim violence in the Rakhine state, he has said that it "has nothing to do with race or religion."

Many readers have commented on Tricycle's coverage of Buddhist-led violence in Burma, objecting in one way or another that those monastic perpetrators were not really Buddhist. In The New York Times, Yangon-based journalist Swe Win grapples with that issue:

Five years ago, when Myanmar was still under military rule, some Western and Chinese friends asked me how there could be such oppression in a country where Buddhism, which preaches nonviolence, is the predominant religion.

I was in self-imposed exile at the time, studying journalism at the University of Hong Kong, and I would answer that the country’s military leaders were immoral, Buddhists in name only. I would also point out that Myanmar’s pre-colonial monarchical rulers — they, too, nominally Buddhist — also had committed great crimes. In other words, nothing was wrong with the religion itself; the problem was with the politicians who were flouting it.

I can’t give such answers any more — not since the recent deadly attacks by Buddhists against Muslims in Meikhtila, a city in central Myanmar with no history of sectarian violence. Reports that monks instigated some of those burnings, beatings and killings suggest a much deeper problem than unprincipled state officials.

Read the excellent article in its entirety, here.



The town of Kalimpong (Wikimedia Commons/Anuj Kumar Pradhan).

Barack Obama and Burmese President Thein Sein shake hands during their meeting in Rangoon (Reuters).

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davidscottlewis's picture

I'm glad to see fair and honest news aggregation in "Buddha Buzz."

I believe it's important for people to separate the tenets of faith -- be it Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, name your "ism" -- from those who in theory practice said faith. Nothing wrong with Buddhism, Christianity or Judaism; perhaps a lot wrong with Buddhists, Christians and Jews supposedly practicing their faith.

On the positive side, faith-based practices seem to enhance and extend one's life. A Stanford anthropologist noted this in a piece that appeared over the past few days in The New York Times. It was specifically about observations of Christian practice, but should (for the most part) equally apply to practicing Buddhism.


mahakala's picture

It seems hard to reconcile ideas of "buddhist" practice with the insistent adherence and staunch attachment to the identity and ideology that has grown around the original institutionalization of practices (seemingly at the behest of Ananda, if we look closely at the Pali Canon). Also, since we only have the written records of people listening to Guatama (set down centuries after he died), rather than his writings themselves - we must take that consideration into account... unless we are thinking in terms of the "holiest of holy" ideas about "the word of God" and so forth, as in the way fundamentalist religious people regard their various bibles and saviors, whatever they may be.

These various ideologies and the identities they generate, even in terms of nationalism, political affiliation, religious leanings, and so forth and so on are often no different than sports fans cheering on their favorite teams. Its competitive from the get-go. This aspect of "belief" has much more to do with strengthening the public respect for a particular identity than it does with somehow living up to the ideology itself. It is no different than the same divisive struggle for superiority that has been occurring for eons, first in the natural world of food and shelter, then onto the abstract world of money and safety.

It is such an incredibly basic extrapolation to derive these kinds of horrific situations from the inner world of human mind and deposit their seeds into the outer world of human activity. It is perhaps too incredibly basic for people to realize just how much their attachment to their own identity creates endless conditions for its reinforcement, both negatively and positively. From what little I understand about "buddhist" practices, this is a specific issue that is to be addressed directly - and not blindly ignored in a willful attempt to "win" a superior position. So in this particular sense, you could certainly say these monks were not "buddhist"... along with many, many, many others who claim to be so.

There is no degradation of dharma, nor can there ever be... just as there is no "golden age" right around the corner. The whining and complaining about comparative states of respect regarding a particular identity or ideology will never be able to drown out the whining and complaining of dukkha itself, from which it has arisen. However, these kinds of "GO TEAM!" attitudes regarding collective identity will blend in quite well with the rest of the ridiculous tableau of authoritarian nonsense that passes for "order" in human society. There is a problem with not recognizing the forest for the trees, as always. When you begin with an idea of "me > world" or "me < world", conflict is inevitable.

These issues surrounding identity and the concept of the self and its motivational parameters have been thoroughly investigated in "buddhism", from what little I understand about it. So there certainly is a giant, glaring "red flag" being hoisted about by countless "buddhists" - which can be truly baffling when taken at face value. But, going deeper we encounter the same dynamics that have been with us since civilization began, and therefore we cannot be surprised about it. In ancient times, politics and religion were the same thing - at least at the public level. They both have to do with arranging the laws by which society is told to operate, and they help define the culture itself. There have also been many great cultural wars, ideological struggles and so forth, most of them littered with untold suffering, death and destruction.

This is not new. The institutions that people put in place are still maintained by people - and these institutions do not ascend into an ideal realm simply by virtue of their own treatises on "purity", no matter how much conceptual abstraction is piled on. Identity, both collective and otherwise, as well as all the institutions they beget - all of this begins and ends in people themselves. Especially in terms of learning languages, learning names, learning boundaries, learning definitions and all the rest of the concepts and symbols we use - it is an intimate part of humanity. Most people are carried away by this abstraction on a constant and continual basis, with no recognition of its source... or its destination.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni predicted a decline in his teachings as a time when “quarrels and disputes prevail, and the pure Law is obscured and lost.” Buddhism loses its effectiveness and delusion increases among its practitioners. This degeneration of Buddhism becomes reflected in society as general confusion, loss of direction and constant conflict.

rioss's picture

Human beings will be human beings which is a sad commentary about the state of being human. A certain percentage of humans are immoral, violent, intolerant, and discriminatory regardless of culture, nationality, or religion. On the other hand, there are those who are moral, peaceful, tolerant, and accepting regardless of culture, nationality, or religion. There are people who are at one extreme or the other and then there are all the ones in the middle some who lean more to one extreme and others who lean to the other extreme. And then maybe nobody is ever constant in their ability to maintain one extreme or the other. Cruel sadistic people perform acts of kindness and kind loving people act with shocking intolerance and hatred.

Most shocking is when people like myself who try and be kind, loving, tolerant, and moral are accused of the opposite. No, I haven't murdered, raped, or intentionally tried to do harm, but am accused of doing something intolerant or harmful just the same. This really scrambles and confuses my mind.

While I've identified as a Buddhist for many years, and feel that Buddhist philosophy and moral principles are more conducive to the moral principles and conduct I want to demonstrate in my life, I know that all human beings as a lot are a scrambled and confused group of beings.

Dolgyal's picture

Regarding the alleged gang rape in the Kalimpong area, a picture of the four young suspects booked in the police station show at least the three 'monks' among them were dressed in civilian clothes. Even the mental image of robed sangha committing this act is disturbing. The social climate at this time in India is very hostile to the crime of gang rape, they can expect harsh punishment if found guilty. Another tarnish on the reputation of modern buddhist monks, who abuse the respect afforded them by their costume.


lindamason819's picture

seems these people are bound to the delusional concept of 'country'

Dolgyal's picture

It has always seemed to me that it is much easier for one to dismiss the 'delusional concept' of country when you in fact comfortably enjoy one, that is: you are not stateless, or a refugee, or an illegal immigrant.
I don't think the newspapers ought to have reported the suspects' nationality– to stir up ethnic prejudice is irresponsible. I am very familiar with the environs of Darjeeling and Kalimpong: although more homogenous in ethnic makeup these days, they have been model multicultural and diverse Himalayan towns.