Book Reviews

Spring 1992

Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton with Yi Wu. —Sam Hamill

The Lion-Dog of Buddhist Asia, by Elsie P. Mitchell. — Deborah Sommer

Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, by Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A.F. Thurman —Dean Rolston

Beneath A Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich —William Kistler

Freedom From Fear and Other Writings, by Aung San Suu Kyi —Nicholas Dawidoff

New Mahayana: Buddhism for a Post-Modern World, by Akizuki Ryomin —Sherry Chayat

Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery, by Kenneth G. Zysk —Eliot Tokar

Aung San Suu Kyi Edited by Michael Aris
Penguin: New York, 1991.368 pp. $12.00 (paperback)


JULY 20 is Martyrs' Day in Burma, and to most Burmese it is a time to honor the memory of one man in particular, Aung San, the slight, brooding idealist who guided his country to independence from Great Britain only to be gunned down by machine-gun wielding thugs hired by a political rival. That was in 1947. Burma has yet to really recover.

On July 20, 1989, a middle-aged woman, beautiful and grave, awoke in a house beside a large lake in the capital city of Rangoon. She had returned from Oxford, England, in March 1988, to care for her dying mother. Now she was attending to the whole country. In England she was the mother of two young boys, the wife of an Oxford scholar and the author of an eclectic handful of mostly academic articles. Since returning to Burma, she had given over 1,000 speeches and restored hope to a once spirited and spiritual country. Burma has always been a mysterious place, and the tens of thousands of Burmese who gathered to hear her denounce the incompetence and cruelty of Ne Win, the cunning despot who has run the Burmese government since 1962, saw something truly magical in this woman. In Aung San Suu Kyi, only two years old in 1947, they saw her father.

"I COULD NOT as my father's daughter remain indifferent to what was going on," she once explained, and now on July 20, as she set off to lay wreaths at the foot of a statue of her father, she found that she could not leave her mother's house. Ne Win had deployed his soldiers all over Rangoon and had sent a clutch of them to confine Aung San Suu Kyi. They still do. In May 1990 the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party Aung San Suu Kyi had founded, swept 392 of the 485 seats contested in a long-awaited national election. Aung San Suu Kyi was, in effect, the popularly chosen leader of Burma. No matter, Ne Win and General Saw Maung's State Order and Restoration Council (SLORC) has yet to relinquish power; and it requires implausible optimism to think that a government that has murdered unarmed children and monks, fired into lines of peacefully protesting students, raped young women and kidnapped hundreds of young men for slave service, will suddenly relinquish power anytime soon.

One of the reasons Ne Win and his cohorts have persisted so successfully in a country whose economy they have ruined is that for most of the world Burma has always been a puzzle. It is on the one hand a serene lighthearted mostly Buddhist nation where people will go to great lengths not to crush a beetle wandering on the footpath, a land of golden and white pagodas, a place full of dazzle and spire. On the other hand, it is suspicious, isolationist, murky and obtuse. Jealous of its perceived cultural distinctiveness, Burma has retreated into itself. With few exceptions, kalah (Westerners) are unwelcome there, and so are their ideas. Such efforts to prevent the corrosion of a traditional culture are commendable, but also risky; if the world doesn't know you, it can't help you.

IN HER POLITICAL WRITINGS, Aung San Suu Kyi rejects such extremism. Her political persona is grounded in Buddhist precepts, and her writing laced with references to ancient Burmese religious poetry and prayer. In an essay entitled "The Quest for Democracy," she sets forth the ten duties of a Buddhist king and then concludes that "traditional values serve both to justify and to decipher popular expectations of democratic government." At another point she writes, "To provide the people with the protective coolness of peace and security, rulers must observe the teachings of the Buddha. " Yet her strategy for nonviolent resistance has also been influenced by her Oxford classes in economics and by her interest in two very modern men, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is that enlightened distillation—along with her steely resolve and considerable bravery—that led the Nobel Committee to award her its 1991 Peace Prize.

FREEDOM FROM FEAR, the collection of writings by and about Aung San Suu Kyi was edited in a fortnight by her husband, Michael Aris—who hasn't seen his wife in over two years—and published by Penguin shortly after her selection as the Nobel Peace Prize recipient was announced. It has many of the qualities of a scrap book. The first portion of the volume (roughly half its text) contains four of Aung San Suu Kyi'-s articles written before she ever seriously contemplated politics, including one about the father she never really knew. Each of these pieces features thorough research and, alas, less than stirring prose. Pushing through them does, however, allow the reader the excitation of watching a gifted person suddenly assume her vocational destiny. For the second section, a sometimes quite inspiring selection of political essays, speeches, and letters, often works in vibrant contrast to the earlier writings. They even reveal a dry wit, something not previously much in evidence.

The third portion of the book contains appreciations by old friends and by Western Burma scholars. For those who haven't yet read Bertil Lintner, this is probably just as good a place to start. And that's the most salutary aspect of Freedom from Fear. Many more people were murdered by government soldiers during the Burmese student demonstrations in early August 1988 than would die in Tienanmen Square in Beijing ten months later. It's time the world heard more about that and more about the terror that is now endemic to life in Burma. "Fear is not the state of civilized man" writes Aung San Suu Kyi, the rare person in today's Burma who knows that.

Nicholas Dawidoff spent the year of 1989 in Thailand as a Luce Scholar and is working on a biography of Moe Berg for Pantheon Books.

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