If you think that Buddhist monks in Myanmar currently waging protests against the military powers are passive and peace loving, think again. After a monthlong protest, hundreds have been arrested while dozens of others have died or sustained serious injuries since the Burmese junta began its crackdown.
(After the crackdown on demonstrators in Yangon--which left at least nine dead and resulted in the arrest of hundreds of monks, Independent Television News reported today  that monks have largely disappeared from the streets.)
The monks' protest is not surprising in Southeast Asia, where Buddhist clerics and intellectuals have traditionally played important roles far beyond the spiritual life. Given the deepening poverty and an economic crisis that left many Burmese on the brink of starvation, including the monks who depend solely on alms to survive, it's surprising that it took them this long before taking action.
"Engaged Buddhism"--a term coined by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh --has long been the practice in the region. In Vietnam, the ruling class knows each time a Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze they'd better watch out. That was certainly true in 1963 when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in downtown Saigon to protest a crackdown on Buddhism. Unrest grew as civilian fear turned into anger, and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime fell soon afterward.
Buddhism through a Western lens can appear rosy for its messages of compassion, inner peace, and self-cultivation. In Asian societies Buddhism as an institution has a much broader political impact, comparable to those of Jesuit priests. Thich Nhat Hanh, taking his cue from Zen Buddhism (where Japanese Buddhist monks apply mindfulness to every action, be it drinking tea, shooting an arrow, or arranging flowers), saw engagement and activism as part of their Buddhist practice.
The prominent Thai social critic and activist Sulak Sivaraksa , author of Socially Engaged Buddhism, agreed with Hanh. "In making Buddhism more relevant for the contemporary world, it is important not to compromise on the essentials, such as the ethical precepts (sila)," he noted. "However, these ethical precepts need to be rethought in order to make sense of life in contemporary societies. Buddhists traditionally have lived in rather simple societies, largely agrarian."
But, when the society becomes much more complex, these simple interpretations of ethical norms don't work so well, he observed. "Social reality in the modern world has become much more complex and interconnected. We have to ask questions like these: Do we allow our tax money to go for armaments? Do we keep ourselves separate from the political realm and not challenge the government? Should we breed animals for consumption? If your society is unjust, exploitative, and violent, how do you respond?"
In northern Thailand a decade ago I witnessed Buddhist monks trying to save a forest, by tying sacred scarves around trees so that loggers (themselves devout Buddhists) wouldn't cut them down. It was the first time that I saw Buddhism as part of a grassroots environmental movement.
In Sri Lanka, some Buddhist monks have responded to the long civil war by forming a political party. They now hold seats in parliament and advocate military solutions to the Tamil Tigers insurgency. The Tamils are the largest minority and are Hindus and Christians in a largely Buddhist country. When a New York Times reporter asked Venerable Athuraliye Rathana, the monk who leads the National Heritage Party in Parliament, about Buddhist engagement in politics, he snapped: "Is politics polluted? Was Mao Zedong polluted? Was Mahatma Gandhi polluted?"
Engaged Buddhism continues to be the norm in Vietnam, where stepped-up arrests of outspoken Buddhist monks (and priests) were reported after President Bush visited the country and lifted it from the "country of particular concern" list. Today, Venerable Thich Quang Do, the leader of the outlawed Buddhist church--Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV)--has been under house arrest for, among other things, trying to help flood victims in the Mekong Delta. In a country where 80 percent of the population remains Buddhist, the communist party intends on keeping the lid on the one power center it sees as rivaling its own.
Unlike Vietnam, where wars have a way of disrupting religious lives, in Myanmar Buddhism has continued to thrive despite a junta that claims a communist ideology and a strong alliance to Communist China. Cracking down on pro-democracy protesters has been routine in Myanmar, but crackdowns on monks have been relatively rare.
A dozen years ago it was a serious crime to own a fax machine but these days monks can text-message one another and synchronize their protests and marches in Myanmar's major cities. Foreign media, too, are no longer kept outside of the borders, nor is Myanmar as isolated as it once was during the Cold War. China, considered the puppet leader of Myanmar is more vulnerable to foreign criticism now with its integrated foreign markets and its high stake in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing--which the pro-democracy movement and Buddhist activists are pushing to boycott.
The generals who run that country are themselves reportedly deeply religious, or at least superstitious, many having spent quite a bit of money to renovate temples and build new Buddha statues to accrue good karma. But Burmese monks recently refused to take alms from them and their families, turning their bowls upside down. For it is not Buddhism that is under threat in Myanmar, after all, but the ruling junta.