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?”