Contradictions In Action

Buddhism and Politics in BurmaPaula Green

Because of the excellent market for high-priced teak, Burma has the world's third highest deforestation rate. Thai companies buy logging concessions in Burma and clear-cut the forests, leaving no young trees to replenish the species. This causes massive erosion and additionally requires building roads that then facilitate assaults on ethnic villages. Japanese and Western companies purchase the teak from the Thais, which enables the Burmese military to buy more weapons.

The global political and economic community has been cautious in its criticisms, due to the economic rewards of Burma's exports. However, sufficient pressure forced elections in May of 1990. Despite government harassment, there was an unprecedented turnout. The National League for Democracy (NLD) opposed the military and won eighty-four percent of the vote. However, prior to the election, the NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest where she still remains. After the election, most of the duly elected officials and their supporters were jailed without trial. Many were sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.

What, then, is the place of Buddhism in this beleaguered country? How do we reconcile Buddhist ethics with Burma's history? Burma has 300,000 soldiers; it has 300,000 monks as well. Soldiers and monks are recruited from the same villages. Over the centuries Buddhism and militarism have always coexisted.

In the days before the British occupation, the Burmese sangha, or community of the ordained, and Burma's kings evolved a mutually beneficial system. The kings gave protection and support to the sangha, which in turn encouraged the villagers to be loyal to the rulers. It was the duty of the sangha to teach the ruler the Dasa Raja Dhamma (Ten Duties of the King). The villagers provided for the daily material needs of the sangha, which, in turn, cared for the spiritual well-being and educational requirements of the villagers.

These interrelationships offered security and continuity but did not challenge the rulers with the discrepancies between Buddhist teachings and military behavior. Although some few Buddhist monks question state-sanctioned violence, Burma is not a theocracy and religious leaders are not central to political concerns. Furthermore, a king or ruler who is Buddhist does not necessarily exhibit Buddha-like behavior. In fact, kings are more likely to have a stronger reciprocal obligation with their military than with the community of monks.

Buddhist teachings for villagers in Burma stressed dana, the generous giving of alms, and sila, ethical conduct. Village Buddhism shapes the life cycle and gives meaning to existence. The villagers put gold leaf on images of the Buddha, make offerings, and gain merit through good deeds. The actual practice of formal meditation, from which substantial transformation of consciousness arises, has not been emphasized in village life. Some contemporary monks note that the complete teachings of Buddhism must be practiced if violence and aggression are to be be uprooted.

With the arrival of colonialism, the king-monk-villager relationship, with all its merits and faults, was shattered. The British neither respected Buddhism nor understood its traditional interdependent sources of support. Western-style government-supported schools replaced the education offered by monks. Thus, the monks lost their power both as educators and as negotiators between the people and their rulers. Some sangha members, stripped thus of their traditional roles, found themselves allied and activated with the students in the quest for nationalism and freedom from British rule.

Such politicization of monks is rare in the history of Theravada Buddhism. Nevertheless, it was apparently accepted by many of the Burmese laity who cheered the attempt to oust the colonizers. One monk, U Wizaya, died in jail during a hunger strike in 1929. Another, U Ottama, strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, was convicted of incitement to rebellion and died in prison in 1939. This period paved the way for the present Ne Win era, when monks together with students and pro-democracy activists rally once more for freedom.

Still Buddhism survives. In the ancestral village temple, silent monks walk barefoot in the early morning collecting alms. In some few monasteries, intensive meditation practice is taught to a small number of Burmese and Westerners. Other monks are demonstrating, going to jail, refusing to accept alms from the military, developing their own forms of nonviolent resistance, and organizing with the students in Burma's border jungles under the name of the All Burma Young Monks Union. At the same time, the military government infiltrates the monasteries, discrediting monks who oppose state violence and elevating the status of those monks who cooperate with the regime. Ne Win's military is even building an elegant pagoda, ironically reminiscent of the pagodas in Pagan constructed by slaves nine centuries ago.

Buddhism in Burma has survived empires, colonialism, and war. However, Burmese Buddhism has not been any more triumphant than most other world religions in creating a nation-state based on its core teachings. Despite a 2,500-year presence of the dharma in Burma, the minds of rulers and warriors remain untamed, turning as always to rule through violence. Burma and Burmese Buddhism may have made some progress in the millennium since slaves built the monasteries, but in the long cycles of Burmese suffering, we still await a just Buddhist state.

Paula Green, director of Karuna Center, is a psychologist who teaches at Antioch New England. She is one of the editors of Psychology and Social Responsibility: Facing Global Challenges, which New York University Press will publish in 1992.

Image 1: Member of the All Burma Young Monks' Union, which participated in boycotts against the military regime. Courtesy of Christopher Coughlin.
Image 2: Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Courtesy of Sipa Press: Jeffery Aaronson.
Image 3: Monk reading newspaper outside Burmese wat. Courtesy of Bruno Barbey © Magnum. 
Image 4: Urban Monks seeking refuge in jungles along the Thai border. Courtesy of Christopher Coughlin.  

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