Asia’s Growing Buddhist Activism

31 March 2008

[Source - Irrawaddy]

Tibetan monks hurling rocks in bloody protests against the Chinese and even Buddhist clergy peacefully massing against Burma’s military can strike jarring notes.

These scenes run counter to Buddhism’s philosophy of shunning politics and espousing loving-kindness toward even bitter enemies which the faith has adhered to—with some tumultuous exceptions—through the 2,500 years of its history.

But political activism and occasional eruptions of violence have become increasingly common in Asia’s Buddhist societies as they variously struggle against foreign domination, oppressive regimes, social injustice and even climate change.

The change has seen more monks and nuns moving out of the seclusion of their monasteries and into slums and rice paddies—and sometimes into streets filled with tear gas and gunfire.

“In modern times, preaching is not enough. Monks must act to improve society, to remove evil,” says Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a high-ranking lama.

“There is the responsibility of every individual, monks and lay people, to act for the betterment of society,” he told The Associated Press in Dharamsala, India, discussing protests, initiated by monks, in Tibet’s ancient capital of Lhasa and elsewhere this month.

In widespread protests over the past three weeks, angry crimson-robed monks—some charging helmeted troops and throwing rocks—have joined with ordinary citizens who unfurled Tibetan flags and demanded independence from China. Beijing’s official death toll from the rioting in Lhasa is 22, but the exiled government of the Dalai Lama says 140 Tibetans were killed there and in Tibetan communities in western China.

Bloodshed also stained last fall’s pro-democracy uprising in Burma, dubbed the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the robes of monks who led nonviolent protests against the country's oppressive military regime.

In Thailand, the Dharma Army, followers of a Buddhist sect, took part in street demonstrations which led to the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra two years ago.

In Sri Lanka, the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya party, led by monks, has pushed for use of brute force against the country’s Tamil rebels. Buddhist involvement in politics is nothing new in Sri Lanka—in 1959 a monk assassinated Prime Minister S.W. Bandaranaike amid public protests against a law that gave some protection to the Tamil language.

Indeed, the activism by monks reflects another side of Buddhist history. Despite the faith’s image of passivity, an aggressive strain has long existed, especially in the Mahayana school of Buddhism, practiced in Japan, Korea, China and Tibet.

Monks in Japan, the sohei, fought pitched battles with one another and secular clans for over 600 years until around 1600. China’s Shaolin Temple, a martial arts center to this day, was allowed to retain warrior monks from the 7th century by emperors who sometimes called on their services to put down rebellions and banditry.

In more recent times, the monk Saya San became a national hero in the 1930s in Burma by leading a revolt against the British colonials who hanged him after fielding 12,000 troops to suppress his peasant army.

The self-immolation of monk Thich Quang Duc in the streets of Saigon became one of the iconic images of protest against the Vietnam War.

Before China’s take-over of Tibet in 1959, warrior monks sometimes wielded more power—and weaponry—than the army. Lhasa’s Sera monastery, one of the hotbeds of the recent protests, was particularly noted for its elite fighters, the “dob dobs,” who in 1947 took part in a rebellion that took 300 lives.

“Use peaceful means where they are appropriate, but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means,” said the previous, now deceased Dalai Lama when Tibet fought the Chinese in the 1930s.

But Christopher Queen, an expert on Buddhism at Harvard University, noted that the new Buddhist activism also means some among the world’s 350 million faithful are expanding the traditional focus on individual spiritual liberation to attack problems that affect whole communities or nations such as poverty and the destruction of the environment.

Examples include Sri Lanka’s Sarvodaya Shramadana, or “Mundane Awakening,” movement which provides everything from safe drinking water to basic housing in more than 11,000 poor villages, and Buddhist groups in India that are fighting for the rights of “the untouchables,” or outcasts.

Loosely affiliated but global, originating at the grass roots rather than atop religious hierarchies and more muscular than meditative, this movement is widely known as Engaged Buddhism.

“Engaged Buddhists are looking at the social, economic, and political causes of human misery in the world and organizing to address them. The role of social service and activism is clearly growing in all parts of the Buddhist world,” Queen said in an interview.

Given the religion’s deeply rooted peaceful doctrine, scholars are doubtful that the new activism will spill over into terrorism or violence other than occasional spontaneous outbursts.

While not immune to spilling blood, Queen says “the Buddhist tradition is rightly known for the systematic practice of nonviolence.”

Proponents like to say that, unlike Christianity, Buddhists have not waged Crusades and burned heretics at the stake, tried to institute anything akin to today’s radical Islamic states or used force to spread their faith like Christians and Muslims.

Although one Chinese Communist Party leader called the Nobel Peace prize laureate “a wolf in monk’s clothes,” the Dalai Lama has decried the recent violence while supporting peoples' rights to peaceful protest.

“If (monks) want to fight, they have to disrobe and join the fighters,” Samdhong said.

Still, Tibetan Buddhist monks are regarded as perhaps the most potent and organized anti-regime force.

“Under China they came to be the only force that represents the interests of the community, of the nation,” said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University. “Monks and nuns have acquired this heroic status of representing the nation in its most difficult times.”


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