Archive for the ‘Burma material’ Category

Short interview with Counterpoint program host Amanda Vanstone on killing and Buddhism, in Myanmar, and in state-sanctioned warfare (December 5th): https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/counterpoint/counterpoint/14110658

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Literary review published in Mascara Literary Review, Issue 22 (June, 2018):


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poem, published in PERIL MAGAZINE, Melbourne, April 3, 2017:


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An interview with Ya Noya (Prague).

For Buddhism, the life of any sentient being is considered as irreplaceably valuable. Particularly, the Buddhist First Precept is to refrain from killing any living being; and more generally, ahimsa means to refrain from violence of any kind – of body, speech and mind. However in certain cases the Buddha also appears to take into account other factors and values. Ahimsa is not quite as simple as it might seem, and the Mahāyāna tradition with its aspiration to universal altruism makes the issue of killing more nuanced than simply following a rule: for the Buddha, the motivation or intention behind action is still more significant. At the same time, this factor of “intention” (cetanā) should never be used to justify acts of killing, even though it might help understand them more deeply, when they occur.

In this interview Martin Kovan discusses with independent researcher Ya Noya the themes of killing, suicide and self-immolation in Buddhism, considering their theoretical background and manifestations in Theravādan Burma and Mahāyānist Tibet.

Melbourne, Singapore – Prague, September 2013 – March 2014.
Published in Czech translation, on the Respekt blog: http://kovan.blog.respekt.ihned.cz/c1-61819930-etika-zabijeni-sebevrazda-a-altruismus-v-buddhismu

Monks walking to Dorje Rinchen’s home to offer prayers after his self-immolation. October 2012. | Photo: savetibet.org

Monks walking to Dorje Rinchen’s home to offer prayers after his self-immolation. October 2012. | Photo: savetibet.org

Mahāyānist Tibet and Theravādan Burma

YA NOYA: Martin, you have investigated – already for several years – some ethical issues and their manifestations in Tibetan and Burmese Buddhist contexts, in recent years with a focus on the theory of sanctioned killing and since late 2012, extended by a consideration of religious-political self-immolations in Tibet and the West. Could you make some initial general comparison between these two contexts? You have suggested you are not so focused on anthropology or history; however you observe the current situation and you have spent much time in Western Tibetan Buddhist environments and among exiles from Burma. So let’s make this Q&A as the starting point (to which we can relate later) before we turn more to the consideration of Buddhist ethics and philosophy, which is your main professional focus.

MARTIN KOVAN: Yes, sure. I think one of the basic initial distinctions to be made between the Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist cases is that the Theravāda is essentially self-centric with regard to the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice: i.e. personal enlightenment is the primary motivator as well as end of all Buddhist action in this life. For the Tibetan Mahāyāna, on the other hand, the entire focus is directed from the beginning to universal-collective compassion and salvation, or enlightenment.

This would potentially explain how not a single Tibetan monastic case exists of religiously motivated lethal violence directed toward the Chinese oppressor, unlike recent Burmese-monastics who have been indirectly implicated in violence against Muslims in the form of hate-speech and racial vilification. The Tibetan Buddhist self-immolations are reflexive not just formally (as suicide) but often morally also: they exhort Tibetans to greater degrees of empowerment, but also selflessness. They do not directly blame or shame the Chinese wrong-doer: if anything they express a wish for the enlightenment (comparatively-speaking) of the invader. That is quite a radical difference from the entire Burmese Buddhist mind-set, which is a compassionate (metta and karuna) but not explicitly universalised one (bodhicitta).

And in fact we find that the nationalist Burmese ‘monks’ see themselves as justified in their violence toward the Muslim ‘other’. It is very unlikely Tibetan (Mahāyāna) Buddhists would ever religiously justify violence toward the (Chinese) other because universal compassion rules that out. That does not modify the historical fact that a Tibetan resistance army fought in the 1950s with the blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and that in this case Tibetan Buddhist identity was willing to endorse armed violence. But that historical contingency does not alter the theoretical case, that willed aggression in Buddhism is not religiously justified (unlike for example Holy War in Christianity and Islam). One could simply say that armed aggression is a pragmatic response that for any Buddhist culture is regrettable. In any case I think it could be claimed today that the Tibetan sense of nationalism is based more on cultural identity (especially as Mahāyāna Buddhists) rather than the political sense of a separate nation as such. Until the invasion of 1959, Tibet wasn’t primarily concerned about its status as a nation-state: its Dalai Lamas were essentially spiritual rulers, rather than heroic, offensively military ones, as we see historically in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, for example.

In the corresponding period of Burmese history, the Burmese kings were great, warlike warriors who were concerned with preserving Burmese hegemony in the face of incursions from its neighbours (especially Thailand). Generally, I think it can be said that the Theravāda of Burma (and Thailand) is grounded in political, reflexive nationalism; the Mahāyāna of Tibet, on the other hand, has always been grounded on a religious compassionate identity where freedom was always universalised, rather than focussed on a nation-state for its own political sake. Many (if not most) Tibetans today seek conciliation and peaceful co-existence with secular Chinese communism. Burmese Buddhist extremists on the other hand seek the expulsion of Islam from Burma precisely because their racialised Buddhism is self-centric, and in that sense much more psychologically reified. (Reification is an important concept in Buddhist thought. It means when a process, a thought or an impermanent series of feelings or perceptions are construed as a single or substantial thing, when in reality they do not exist like that.)

That is, their religious identity is built into their ethnic identity, which is built into their personal-social cultural conditioning. Tibetans aren’t protesting in Tibet because they want to aggrandize their Tibetanness, but because their basic rights as sovereign individuals and as a society, rather than a race, are being abused. For them it is not an ethnic issue per se; for the Burmese Buddhists on the other hand, it is (in fact exclusively) an ethnocentric issue.

Burmese religious arguments in support of a Buddhist-homogenous homeland are a pretext; Muslims have been living in Burma for a very long time, with Hindus and Christians, in generally peaceful conditions. Burmese Buddhist nationalism is racial prejudice, no doubt exacerbated by acts of violence committed from both sides. But for someone of the moral stature of Aung San Suu Kyi to suggest in late-2013, after still another year marked by appalling ethnic violence, that the Burmese Buddhist fear is a response to a perceived global Muslim push for supremacy, and to thus indirectly justify the violence, is quite dangerous.

Her words, however unintended, potentially give ballast to ethnocentric claims of Burmese Buddhists – the last thing they should feel empowered to maintain in the very critical current circumstances in Rakhine state, as elsewhere in Burma. The misconstrual of the moral imperative, on both sides of this conflict, is doubly unfortunate because it will take a long time, now, for the possibility of any reconciliation, and the last thing the world needs now is another Israel – Palestine.

YA NOYA: How much could different geographical conditions, considering the isolated Tibetan plateau, play a role?

MARTIN: That’s an interesting question, and some anthropologists are considering it. Certainly Tibet’s vast size, altitude and sheer remoteness from its neighbours (given the Himalayan range) make it isolated from almost anywhere but China. This is of advantage to China, and the officials of the CPC (Communist Party of China) no doubt enjoy the looming threat their occupation of Tibet still represents for India. Burma on the other hand has for centuries been a cultural and religious nexus of Indic, Muslim, Buddhist, Chinese and (not to forget) Anglo-European influence, with a welter of racial convergences included in that: a much more volatile mix. I think the background of geo-cultural and political conditions make a difference to the Burmese and Tibetan cases, respectively, but it would require analysis to more precisely define it.

Killing, suicide and sacrifice in Buddhist contexts

Tibetans hand in knives and wild animals pelts to be destroyed as a gesture of non-violence, eastern Tibet. | Photo: savetibet.org.

Tibetans hand in knives and wild animals pelts to be destroyed as a gesture of non-violence, eastern Tibet. | Photo: savetibet.org.

YA NOYA: As you said, HH Dalai Lama is a religious and monastic leader of Tibet, and though now in “political retirement”, still wields influence. Since 1988 instead of full independence he upholds the so called Middle Way Approach (i.e. originally suzerainty; and since about 2005 only cultural and religious autonomy within China – moreso in the TAR than in the Eastern part where the most fighting took place in the beginning of the Chinese occupation and where the majority of recent self-immolations have occurred).

Anyway, the history of Tibet is quite manifold. We can find Tibetan emperors, including the so-called ‘three religious kings’ who were assimilated into the three religious protectors. The specificity of terrain supported the existence of competitors and rivals of the ruler, the fragmentation of Tibet and power; and there were several influential Buddhist lineages active (incl. Sakya, Jonang, Kagyu). The Great Fifth Dalai Lama (17th century) is known for unifying the Tibetan heartland under the control of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, after defeating the rival Kagyu and Jonang lineages and the secular ruler (the Tsangpa prince) in a prolonged civil war. There is different information about it. According to the 14th HHDL, some monasteries were closed by the Great 5th DL because of supporting the previous ruler, i.e. because of political reasons, but on the other hand he passed laws ensuring the freedom of religion.

Burmese kings were not monastic, but considered themselves to be lay Buddhists. They were warriors fighting for their own hegemony or defending their land. We could also mention Burmese junta dictators presenting themselves as Buddhist leaders supported by some senior monks.

In recent decades during the time of the junta in Burma some resistance fighters’ army conjoined “Buddhist” and “army” in its title. Their members considered their armed fight as justified, as one said, “fighting with Mara, who embodies delusions”.

In eastern Tibet, there lived proud and devoted lay Buddhists, who were also warriors occasionally fighting between clans or protecting people against invaders or bandits. Later they joined together against the Chinese army, and in 1957 in Lhasa established the Tibetan armed resistance Chushi Gangdruk movement (and they organised the ceremony for the long life of HHDL, offering him a golden throne). They controlled the territory of Western Tibet; and heavily fought in eastern Tibet. These warriors were instrumental in the escape of HHDL from Tibet. Despite his beliefs of non-violence, H.H. Dalai Lama (before entering India) paid honour to the Chushi Gangdruk for their fight for his protection and that of the Buddhist nation.

There is information, in the time of the resistance, of monks in Tibet also joining the armed fight, when facing real disaster or after the monasteries were destroyed. They disrobed or sometimes even did not, probably because of urgency and lack of time. Monasteries incl. those in Lhasa stocked arms for the Tibetans, they were important centres. However there is also info about earlier fights between powerful monasteries in Lhasa (candidates for the regent, provisional ruler of Tibet), where monks killed each other.

Looking at these phenomena just from the view of the fundamental Buddhist commitment not to kill any living being (i.e. The First Precept), one can be confused, surprised or even become disillusioned because of this apparent discrepancy.

You have been studying the theme of killing in the Buddhist context for some time, including canonical texts. Do you have some explanation which would help us to get a handle on this issue and avoid that disillusion, more consciously? For example concerning religious texts, I know of “holy fight or war” mentioned in the Hindu Bhagavadgíta (the Kurukshetra War); and in Buddhism, about wrathful (or terrifying) bodhisattvas (deities), and some violent deeds of Milarepa in his youth.

MARTIN: The problematic you point to is a large and complex one. Yes, it is textually and normatively the case that the First Buddhist Precept and Eightfold Path proscribing killing (as well as the Vinaya, and Pali commentaries of Buddhaghosa and others) all emphasise the central concern for universal non-violence ie. with regard to human and non-human sentient beings. But this also includes, more deeply, the non-violence of speech, and mental acts: the willed allowance for thoughts of hatred, aggression or violence is for Buddhist psychology no worse in principle than violent acts themselves (however, the thought carried out into an act, accrues worse karma than the thought alone).

So non-violence is not just a normative ethical principle, it is a deeply-embedded psychological model for the relation between the subjective willed thought (cetana, or intention) of an individual and the intersubjective, interdependent world of human and other sentient, as well as non-sentient, beings. (So that the wilfully aggressive mind-set that allows for ecological destruction is also a form of violence that has serious effect not just for human beings, but all sentient creatures, and the biosphere itself.)

Having said that, we now need to make two further distinctions: from this 1) ideal normative basis (in the scriptures and centuries of commentaries) of universal non-violence, there is to be distinguished 2) the ways in which real people, native Buddhists who have been a part of the long historical trajectory of ‘Buddhism’ as a religion, have interpreted its norms and put them into practice: in other words, Buddhist cultural anthropology. Starting with Emperor Ashoka, perhaps, you have the archetypal figure of violence redeemed in a true embrace of the dharma: the conquering warlike king who became a peace-loving Buddhist patriarch. And this is interesting because Buddhism is then seen not just as an ideal norm we should automatically live up to, but as intersecting with the existential reality of samsara – the wheel of suffering – or what actually is; and showing that the buddhadharma wins through (at least in this case of Ashoka).

We also need to distinguish the dimension of 1) ideal norms, and then their 2) fallible instantiation in history, with 3) the politics of nation-building and the defense of national and sovereign identity built into that: and that has universally involved war and violence, subjugation and oppression, either with regard to an internal populace (as in Burma) or an external one (as in Tibet). At this point the Buddhist principles of ahimsa and compassion and so on are relevant to what is only a nominally ‘Buddhist’ civilisation. (For those interested a good recent text to consult here is an anthology called Buddhist Warfare (ed. M. Jerryson, O.U.P., 2010) which offers a good selection of analyses of Buddhist-historical violence. Also, scholars such as Ian Harris and Julianne Schober look at recent S.E. Asian Buddhist contexts.)

Every case is quite unique. Yes, the Burmese regime is ‘Buddhist’ by virtue of cultural identity, but we need to scale that claim to what their actual practice demonstrates. Similarly with the Burmese monk Wirathu and his associates. They are ‘Buddhist’ but only in a weak sense. So you see there is a calibration of scale we need to apply to really see these distinctions in the right proportion. You could represent the ‘Buddhist spectrum’ all the way from the well-known social and political leadership of people like Thich Nhat Hanh, Maha Ghosananda (Cambodia), and A.T. Ariyaratne (in Sri Lanka) to HHDL and Dr. Ambedkar and more recently U Gambira in Burma and then on to leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi (a devout Buddhist, but also, it seems, an ethnocentrically-inclined Burman Buddhist) and then on all the way down to the 969 Buddhist-nationalist extremists who are inciting hatred through racial hate-speech in Burma. Now clearly they are all manifesting within samsara very different grades of Buddhist ethical norms.

With regard to the canonical textual record, there is some very interesting scholarship by scholars like Rupert Gethin, Martin Delhey and Stephen Jenkins, that interested people should consult. The very broad picture is that all other-directed violence is proscribed, but that some exception in the Mahāyāna appears to be possible for highly-realised beings, ie. Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Given their apparently superior insight into causation, selflessness and intersubjective karmas, they have some possibility of using violence skilfully (as upaya) when there is simply no other choice given a critical situation.

So in those rare, esoteric cases involving Buddhas and bodhisattvas, some rationalisation of compassionate violence is theorised. But it must be recalled that this is NOT normative, and not relevant to unenlightened individuals; there is no such thing in Buddhism as a Holy War, as jihad, or any religiously-sanctioned ‘divine’ aggression (the notion of ‘divine’ is itself not really relevant in non-theist Buddhism). In the example you offer in the Bhagavadgita, the frame there is again not merely ethico-political, but soteriological (ie. regarding religious salvation): Krishna gives Arjuna the advice to fight, because in the Hindu framework of karma and the dharma (also means “duty” in the Hindu Vedic context) of the manifest self in Maya, even fighting a (more or less justified) war can be an access to non-dual, and so ‘divinely’ sanctioned insight. For Hindu non-dual soteriology, the real issue is not with violence per se (in the world of Maya everything is illusion!) it is with not properly doing one’s spiritual and worldly duty. As in many other things, the Buddha challenged many of these notions of the Brahmanic ‘status quo’. I would be careful to subsume Buddhist approaches to the problem of violence into (what we now call) Hindu ones. They are two quite distinct traditions within even ancient Indic civilisation.

You also have to remember that in the ancient Indian context, including the Buddhist one, you are dealing with existential categories and possibilities that are foreign to us now, especially in the West. We are attracted to Buddhism because of its general rationality but, despite what I just said, there is still a lot of the old Vedic Indian consciousness mixed into the early Buddhist view (that indeed the Buddha is constantly arguing against: eg. violence to animals in animal-sacrifice, psychological violence in the caste-system, against women, and so on). The Buddha is really a tremendous rebel in that sense, in what he is trying to reject; much as Socrates in Greece in the same period is rejecting blind social prejudices, unsophisticated aggressive argumentation etc. It is precisely Reason that wins out in both Socratic and Buddhist discourse in the end, in roughly the same historical epoch.

So, generally, in other words, the Buddhist picture, as elsewhere, is large and complex and not univocal. It is not as if there is simply one rule and everyone should obey it, and if they fail to we should become disillusioned with Buddhism itself: that doesn’t really make sense. It is that the ethical norms of Buddhism are options to raise the standard for humanity at large, and now we see in empirical terms how well (Buddhist) humanity has been able to raise itself and realise the freedom of dharma in this realm of samsara. If there is Buddhist violence, that just shows (sadly) how badly real human beings are keeping the standard, and betraying their own ethical commitments.

As for Milarepa and his famous “black magic” acts in his youth when he avenged his family by killing members of another clan, you might also recall that when he later met the dharma his guru Marpa made him build and unbuild hundreds of stone towers for twelve years as mental purification, so they say, for the negative karma of those acts. So just because Milarepa killed in his wayward pre-Buddhist youth does not suggest Buddhism makes allowances for killing – it doesn’t.

I think it is well known that the wrathful deities in Tantric Buddhism are symbolic personifications of mental energies intended to defeat the spiritual enemy, namely self-cherishing and ignorance, not to suggest there are idols in Tibetan Buddhism to encourage murderous passion. People who think otherwise are simply uninformed and probably havn’t bothered to make serious enquiries (like the early European colonial explorers who first reached Tibet).

There are in fact other, more genuinely serious issues, such as Shugden protector worship that has become politicised and very regrettably led to murders within monastic Tibetan Buddhism. This has been publicised and fiercely debated, which I won’t talk about here. These are largely cultural-anthropological issues, and while important in their own right, can often confuse trying to initially understand the normative claims that underlie Buddhist practice.

The two contexts (theoretical and empirical) should be understood separately and not replace the other. Unfortunately in a lot of popular discussion this is just what happens and it leads to a lot of confusion (so that when for example TIME Magazine labels U Wirathu ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ a lot of people think there really is some Buddhist theoretical basis for terrorist acts, when in truth there isn’t).

YA NOYA: Is killing (including suicide, i.e. killing of oneself) in some cases justified in sayings by the Buddha or in commentaries?

MARTIN: No, killing is not justified, but it is rationalised to some degree, in very exceptional cases in the Mahāyāna, and with regard to suicide, in some very rare cases in the Theravada record. (We have to be careful here to disambiguate killing of others from suicide; there are many Buddhists and Buddhist scholars who are careful to say, with good reason, that they are not the same thing, both in the Buddhist-textual record, and more philosophically. Also, the East Asian Mahāyānist valorisation of self-immolation is not evident in the Tibetan Mahāyāna.)

I think we also need to be careful here in assuming ethical categories that are not explicit or even implicit in Buddhist thinking: for example, justification and permissibility. A lot of Western Buddhist scholars spend a lot of time trying to work out what is “permissible” in Buddhism and what isn’t. Answering that is very easy: look at the Five (or Ten) Precepts, read the Vinaya texts, and the various rules for institutional behaviour.

But Buddhism also recognises that life is messy and large, we aren’t all ordained, and that the messiness of life is precisely that theatre in which karmas of freedom, and of bondage, get worked out. There are roughly three aspects to this to identify. Obviously it’s horrendous when someone goes crazy in the USA or Norway and shoots seventy or more people: that’s tragic. It is simply deeply unfortunate when someone is so dominated by an afflicted mind. Clearly the conceptual category “permissible” is inappropriate here, so that such killing is neither justifiable nor non-justifiable: it is simply regrettable. (Of course, as I suggest below, there are cases where justification has an ethically relevant and central discursive role to play: in euthanasia and assisted suicide perhaps most obviously. But that is not to say that justification per se is always the first determinant for ethical reasoning. My sense is rather that it tends to come after the fact, as a form of rationalisation, for actions which are undertaken, or not, for other more primary reasons. Even in euthanasia, the first ethical rationale involves a complex of issues surrounding personal will, the degree of suffering, and a synergistic interplay of compassionate and empathetic motives which don’t in themselves find authority in an epistemic notion of justification. Justification belongs to a cognitivist paradigm, and it may be that in the cases under discussion here a non-cognitivist discourse, is, in the first instance, primary.)

In general, however, the Buddhist position in a psychological sense is very simple: 1) where the mind is defiled by afflictions, and killing results, it is terrible evidence of samsara. Where the mind is relatively undefiled, killing is less likely to take place, and should also, normatively, be avoided. There is also simply accidental or unintended killing, for which Buddhist ethics generally finds only an instrumental rather than ethical blame. That is, there are certainly ill-effects or negative consequences to any act of killing (by an unenlightened mind) including unintended acts, but these are more or less dependent on the degree of clear intention involved. In Buddhism ethics is determined by moral intention: the desire to inflict pain, blame or suffering; where there is no such intention, such acts are determined by reference to a certain natural causal determinism, in this case that of the degree of suffering involved in their recipients. For example, even enlightened beings accidentally step on ants, but theoretically that does not accrue negative karmic effect for them because their minds are otherwise absolutely undefiled, and have understood selflessness (anattā).

There will also be cases 2) where killing isn’t easily avoidable (we can all imagine many such cases), and then also it is regrettable that life (or our karma) has us in that situation. Even there, though, there are very interesting ethical (and religious) ways of looking at that circumstance. Of course, all violence is regrettable, because it perpetuates suffering, but very interesting cognitive-volitional-ethical complexes are going on there too, that deserve attention. (My early essay “Violence and (non-)Resistance …” looked at Burmese monks who disrobed to fight in Burma, and tried to articulate the metaphysical and ethical subtleties involved in that.)

And there are also 3) situations, for example in so-called “justified” war (or political contestation that has become violent, as in Egypt, Libya and Syria recently) where a certain righteous element is included in the motivation (not merely justification) for violence: these are all mixed cases. Such righteousness is not purely subjective or emotional: it can be informed by a deep moral impartiality and sense of justice, as in resistance movements all through history, so it is morally complex in that sense. You can have a father in Syria who has deep compassion, who loves his family, who wants a peaceful Syria for his family and people, but who feels that engaged violent combat against the Assad regime is now the only solution. So Buddhist ethics recognises his motivation might be very high, even pure, but his means of achieving it is not so pure, not so high.

The only contexts in which killing is, in general, conceivably justifiable are in cases such as euthanasia, protest or religious suicide (such as self-immolation), pre-emptive war, counter-terrorism, or ideological terrorism, and Buddhist ethics has differently explicit things to say about each one, where it has addressed them (many of these issues are still under Buddhist theorisation). Personally, I have come to the conclusion that there is only a single possible justification for the willed killing of a living being. (That is, even that context is negligible.) This is where people (such as those lost at sea or in desert) in an extreme survival context need to kill an animal or a dying or near-dead human companion, in order themselves to survive, and that human companion is willing to be killed purely for that reason. And this is completely contingent on those involved: there is no moral imperative or obligation here. (I don’t think this case is comparable to euthanasia or assisted suicide for reasons I won’t go into here.) Also, religious or protest suicide escapes the category of justification because it is antinomian and supererogatory, respectively, and even if valorisable as an act of transcendental or political profundity, is not thereby justified because of that, if justification implies a form of cognitive closure. (I think that distinction is a subtle but important one.) Otherwise, for me, all killing of a healthy living being is never justified in Buddhist ethics, because all other forms of that kind of intentional killing are fundamentally delusional. (I am speaking most centrally of war combat, terrorism, counter-terrorism, capital punishment, retributive homicide and sanctioned assassination.) If we value things like rational coherence and epistemic integrity, as a self-conscious society, it simply makes no sense to kill for the usual range of reasons that humans find to justify it: they are delusions on the level of cognitive pathology.

This was in part Gandhi’s great, enormous civilizational achievement: he demonstrated that you can have a pure motivation (for universal freedom, justice, and equity) that can be expressed without violence, just with the force of truth (satyagraha), and be successful. And we have seen that Gandhi’s ethical revolution has had effect not just in India, but all over the world.

Not all these examples are purely Buddhist, but it is interesting that at their heights, Hindu, Buddhist and also Christian ethics converge at this point, so that you can have leaders like Gandhi, HHDL and Martin Luther King all converging in some historical, ethical sense, that is relevant to everybody, and transcendent to religion per se: this could be seen, from a Buddhist perspective, as a ‘world dharma’, a global truth.

It is interesting that there are few very well-known examples of a global Muslim or Judaic achievement that joins the others; hopefully many great Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis are patiently working to bring Islamic and Judaic ethics to that high level which exists in their traditions, but unfortunately they are not known by the public at large. Let’s also hope Pope Francis continues to lift the standard of Christian ethics and brings that tradition into the 21st century with a new face.

YA NOYA: How are the Buddhist texts and reality conjoined, how do they relate to each other, particularly in terms of suicide and self-immolations?

MARTIN: The issue of suicide is very interesting, because it is different from killing as homicide, in ways that are often not recognised, even in academic analyses (my recent ethical-philosophical research has been concerned with this issue).

Again, you mention texts. Let’s say a quick word about texts. There are all kinds of (Buddhist) texts, so it’s not as if ‘Buddhist texts’ as such encode an absolute (especially in Buddhism, unlike for eg. theistic religions) authority or truth. They are cultural products, specific to a particular time and place: they are contingent. Texts are, after all, simply a part of ‘reality’, they are not outside it, and in some cases might not have more authority.

In early Buddhism there was even a very self-conscious hermeneutic concern about how the really authoritative texts could be identified. And they soon had to admit some texts were philosophically definitive (nitartha) and others less so (neyartha); that the Buddha had taught depending on the ability of his hearers (upaya); that different teachings were legitimately applicable to different kinds of students, etc. So you have this 1) hermeneutic issue that soon becomes a 2) dialectical issue: the value of different teachings is context-dependent. They even suggest that the highest teachings might be detrimental or even dangerous to the student who is unready for them. Logically, that sounds counterintuitive, but we can see how it might be the case.

So we have to consider this more 3-dimensional dialectical, shifting model of Buddhist ethics rather than a static one-rule-for-everyone. For a start, there are no ‘rules’ as such, no commandments, as you have in the Judaeo-Christian traditions. Buddhist ethics are heuristic guidelines for different people at different stages of the path. Secondly, different guidelines will apply differently to different people given their specific situation.

All of this is relevant to the issue of self-immolations as well (as I discuss in my recent essays). It is clear that for the Vinaya, killing (of others) is proscribed, but suicide is equivocal. The Buddha condemned the mass-suicide of monks (before he taught the Satipatthana Sutta about meditation and mindfulness). On the other hand he seems to have excused some old and very sick monk-yogis like Channa and Vakkali who decide to take their own lives: he speaks about them as enlightened arhats, so he explicitly declares (because they have achieved Nibbana) they are not to be censured. So then the textual commentaries argue about these two positions; and contemporary scholars as well. I accept both positions as relevant to the discussion, and again, I don’t think the ‘permissibility’ of suicide is an ethical category relevant to the case. Doesn’t it sound a bit absurd to have an ethical teaching that says ‘Yes, sure, it’s OK to suicide, go ahead!’ Also, ‘non-permissability’ is odd here, as if there should be a moral law against suicide. There are many things in human life that occur in which many of our normative or common-sense categories are not completely relevant.

Of course it is, like homicide, regrettable when someone suicides, because it implies great suffering, but it isn’t something to be morally condemned; rather, at least, understood. You then need to look at the actual context, the reasons, and above all, the motivation. HHDL continues to reiterate this issue of cetanā (intention) that is so central to Buddhist psychology. It is not only the kind of act itself that is of first importance, but the quality, motivation and complex of mental factors that determine it. So Buddhist ethics goes a bit deeper than mere judgement of an act per se; it wants to understand what constitutes the act, what makes the act fully what it is, not just how it appears to us externally.

YA NOYA: Is there any difference between Buddhist Theravāda and Mahāyāna texts, concerning killing and suicide?

MARTIN: Yes, there is. The Theravāda is generally consistent in its proscribing of all acts of violence, in the Pali suttas, and in the Vinaya (code for monks and nuns). However, the Pali suttas, and their later commentaries, also include stories (such as that of Channa and Vakkali mentioned above) that seem to undermine the univocity of Theravāda ethics.

In the Mahāyāna the ambiguity is much stronger, because you have the advent of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are active in samsara, which means they have to play by samsara’s rules of the game, even where their motivation, and understanding of cause and effect, changes the deeper structure of those rules.

There are multiple ontological levels going on at any one time or event: the 1) social dimension, where norms and ethical principles apply (indeed these are intrinsically social categories); then you also have the level of 2) individual, personal psychology, where norms still apply, but where motivation is very significant; then you have a dimension of 3) comparatively impersonal dharmic processes where events are occurring due to defiled elements of mind, motivation and personal-collective karma, irrespective of the personal will. So there are differently calibrated discourses that apply to each of these levels. A lot of this theory is only implicit in Buddhist texts, and needs to be researched much more deeply.

YA NOYA: Channa was considered by the Buddha someone who “will not be born again”, as an arhat. An arhat is free from desire, hate or fear, and ignorance. As Keown mentions, from the point of view of early Buddhism, the suicide of an arhat can mean that he has completed what had to, so then can leave life. Such action will not produce any further consequences (compared to the action of someone with deluded mind). On the other hand, the altruistic actions informed by the bodhicitta of the bodhisattva can generate positive consequences, right? Or are these two examples so different that they are not well comparable; because of the different (Theravāda and Mahāyāna) concepts they relate to?

MARTIN: Being an Arhat means that all defilements have been purified, the Four Noble Truths fully ascertained, and the insight into dependent-arising and selflessness of the person fully apprehended. So neither positive nor negative merit then occurs. The Arhat is by definition free from the possibility of accruing any more karma of any kind (though there may be residual karma still left after attaining Nibbana). Where the Arhat manifests altruism it is for the benefit of the unenlightened (who have the positive merit to receive the Arhat’s compassion). But Nibbana means that life is not anymore regulated with karma, but with dhammic reality, or truth. My feeling is that the Buddha exonerates Channa because of this wisdom dimension: once awakened, the dichotomy between life and death breaks down. Life is for the purpose of awakening; once awakened, there is no personal need for embodied life: for the Arhat, the ‘Deathless’, the wisdom-insight has broken down the illusion of the samsaric cycle of life-and-death, so karma isn’t relevant anymore. (However, nor should this be seen as a justification for suicide. It is just a way of understanding some of the heterogeneous record about suicide in Buddhism.)

On the other hand, the motivation of the bodhisattva is already, from the beginning of the Mahāyāna path, based on universal altruism – a compassion for all sentient and even non-sentient beings (such as plants and insects). The major revolution of thinking in the Mahayana is that instead of being focussed solely on individual salvation, universal altruism becomes a means not only to reduce the unnecessary suffering of other beings, but also more importantly help them “on the way” to achieve their own insight. The bodhisattva achieves a level of compassionate wisdom (bodhicitta, which includes the apprehension of emptiness) that can much more effectively do that than even the Arhat with his/her high attainment. That is quite a radical difference and introduces a whole new ethic into Buddhism: and as we have said earlier, we can see those differences played out socially, politically, even nationally, between Theravada and Mahayana countries, such as Burma and Tibet.

YA NOYA: In your essay, when studying the difference between suicide and killing others, you mention the Western approach which usually looks at these things objectively i.e. “what happened” (here a body was killled), instead of subjectively, i.e. exploring state of mind and motivation. You suggest, in the Buddhist approach, especially in case of suicide, the subjective view is apparently more stressed or even considered as decisive, compared to the Western one. Anyway, you suggest four main factors (dimensions) interacting in an act of political or protest suicide; and it seems a potentially very helpful concept for comprehension and any redemptive or liberation process. Would you briefly mention for readers these general dimensions and then consider their (general) potential for redemption or finding solutions?

MARTIN: In Buddhist metaphysics every event is causally linked to any number of related or proximal events or causes and conditions. So in a recent essay I suggest that with regard to self-immolation, or protest suicide, at least four dialectical elements are involved that have to be all taken into consideration, rather than simply one (eg. ‘is suicide itself, bad or good or whatever?’) which is what people tend to do when this kind of event occur. My view is that value-judgments around sacrificial phenomena are neither inherent with reference to the acts as such, nor to their interpretation, but occupy a dynamic middle ground as a dependent-arising among the suicidal agent (the actor), the act itself, its ethical witness, and the social polity. These factors are potential conductors of redemptive social-spiritual transformation; and society either engages them, or fails to engage. If we aspire to understand such phenomena, we cannot look at any of these four separately. All these factors together are conductors of redemptive social-spiritual transformation; and the society either engages them, or fails to.

As a society, anything is possible depending where our priorities lie. We can be galvanized and even inspired by such events, or we can ignore them and just maintain the status quo. It is up to us, finally. I am not judging the outcome in any absolute sense, except to point to what kind of relation to suffering (collectively or personally) it leaves us in. If the suicides of 127+1 Tibetan Buddhists can inspire some deeper reflection, and action, on the specific conditions of suffering, that seems to me very profound. If it can’t, it is still profound, even if only to demonstrate how oblivious we can also be to the fact of suffering in a larger sense.

YA NOYA: In your piece about intentional killing you explain there are some fallacious assumptions, regarding what killers (as agents of killing) assume when they kill and what the reality is; and also why such killing cannot fulfil their expectations. Would you explain these phenomena?

MARTIN: I will briefly say that my research focuses on how the metaphysical constitution of mind and body is deeply misunderstood in the act of killing. Killing is not wrong purely because we feel morally bad about it. We feel bad about it because it instantiates a fundamental cognitive misapprehension of our metaphysical structure.

In acts of killing humans try to get at dimensions of the person, that are not ontologically accessible through the body. The body is an abused proxy, a substitute, for functions that are not actually physical. It is what in analytic philosophy is called a “category mistake,” in this case a particularly sad existential, not just semantic, one. I have a little slogan I like to use: “You can kill 10 million mosquitoes, but you can’t thereby eradicate that which in a single mosquito you are averse to.” All you can do is kill mosquitoes, but the problem is not solved. Similarly, you can kill ten thousand terrorists, but that will not make an iota of difference to the dimension of the terrorist that you are averse to. That will require other means, which is where Buddhist metaphysics (and ethics) comes in.

Altruism and non-duality

Tibetan monks commemorate the Tibetan Uprising with peaceful religious rituals. | Photo: savetibet.org .

Tibetan monks commemorate the Tibetan Uprising with peaceful religious rituals. | Photo: savetibet.org .

YA NOYA: In your recent essays, what do you mean by non-dual in relation to altruistic self-immolations? And how does it relate to, or what difference is there, if any, compared with dependent arising?

MARTIN: In Buddhist philosophy, the non-dual signifies the fact of emptiness, that nothing exists entirely independently. Every object, action and event is related to others, proximally and more distantly. Everything (for Mahāyāna metaphysics) is inter-related in some way. That is dependent-arising; something can only exist with causes and conditions. But then more deeply you realise that if everything is dependent on everything else, then everything is a cause, and a condition, for everything else, which finally means, at the deepest level of apprehension, that ‘cause’ and ‘condition’ are empty concepts: they only apply to a certain, provisional level of analysis. That apprehension enters into the ‘non-dual’ condition, where no ‘subject ‘and ‘object’ really exists to condition eachother, but everything is already ‘not-two.’

And there is a psycho-ethical side to this: when you realise that your feeling of ‘me’ or your built-up, egoic self is a kind of cognitive illusion, then you realise that all others are you, just as you are all others. This is ontology, fundamental metaphysics, the Buddha’s central proposition, of anatta: that there is no intrinsic self of any kind. It literally doesn’t make sense to act purely for yourself, because ‘yourself’ is a relative illusion. Santideva makes this central in his text Bodhicaryavatara.

It is ironic that in war, itself, we actually recognise this insofar as soldiers are willing to go out and die for others: war is not purely bad, it is actually quite paradoxical. Humans fight wars because they value their particular collectivity; but they value the collectivity because they realise, in some subliminal sense, that everyone is everyone else. This is the implicit metaphysics of war and conflict: that we only fight because we actually value the whole of who we are, rather than the mere ‘me’. That makes sense: if we were concerned purely about ‘myself’ we wouldn’t bother fighting, we would just run away into the forest or the mountains to look after ourselves (maybe with one or two good friends)!

And in fact this recognition becomes explicit in the Mahāyāna: act on behalf of the whole, not as a means but as an end in itself (as Kant said). Every being seeks happiness, just as you do; and an altruistic act is such that all beings achieve the same happiness, and not suffering. And the self-immolations in Tibet, and elsewhere, recognise that universal call. They make a very great gesture of self-sacrifice in recognition of that understanding, with the goal that others may understand it also, and see that all beings seek happiness. They are willing to sacrifice their own happiness, like many religious martyrs through history, in order to serve that of others.

But in that service they find great fulfilment and achievement as well. Let’s recall that many Tibetan self-immolators have expressed great pride and honour in their act (read the testimonies of Lama Sobha, and many others). We in the West don’t seem to have that same sense of honour anymore, despite exceptions such as Jan Palach and others. Can anyone imagine someone self-immolating in Prague today, or London, or New York? Not likely.

So naturally in the West, as usual, we project our cultural norms on other cultures and believe we know best. But maybe we don’t. Perhaps (regarding our dealings with the CPC especially) we need to learn something that these Tibetan martyrs have to teach us, that we have culturally forgotten in our great capitalist amnesia of comfort and self-entitlement.

YA NOYA: Are the virtues of the bodhisattva purely her intrinsic ones, or is his behaviour a matter of response to an environment and its current conditions? Does a bodhisattva somehow depend on others, i.e. does she attain the state of bodhisattva contingently through them?

MARTIN: This is a quite esoteric question of Mahayanist theory. From what I’ve said already, all beings identifiable in this manifest realm are dependent-arisings, without exception. Concrete, and abstract objects, such as values, all exist in dependence on other things. Virtues don’t really make sense sitting alone in a void, do they? So yes, bodhisattvic virtues functionally require the contexts and real-life situations in order to be virtuously enacted (they need also this dimension of active enablement, they are wasted if they remain only potential).

That is the whole point of the bodhisattva, that she refers her acts to this suffering realm of samsara. The meaning is mutually-defining: suffering is salved by great wisdom-compassion; great wisdom-compassion (the bodhisattva’s bodhicitta) is exercised on suffering. As the Heart Sutra says: emptiness is form, form is emptiness. To exercise that understanding is to become a bodhisattva; to fully understand that reality is to be a Buddha.

About karma

YA NOYA: This might be a sensitive question, because we are neither Burmese nor Tibetans. With respect to them I would ask, have you noticed among Tibetans or others that they would discuss karma in the context of the problems in Tibet, or Burma? In a document about his life, the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is quoted as saying: “A beautiful country is a dream-like illusion it’s senseless to cling to it. Unless the inner forces of negative emotions are conquered, strife against outer enemies will never end.” I assume he said that when already in exile. Have you noticed this approach in the Tibetan diaspora; i.e. awareness of the inner forces of suffering? What is your view about it?

MARTIN: The quote from Dilgo Khyentse is interesting, and it points to some of the deep metaphysical tension that Tibetan Buddhism faces in lived-life: you can say a country is a ‘dream-like illusion’ (and I agree with him) but what do you do when your neighbours invade it? Is the invasion also a dream-like illusion, or do you have to do something about it? What would Dilgo Khyentse do if he saw Chinese troops in 1950 attacking Tibetan villages, or his own family? Would he fight that “illusion” or would he just smile at it? If he fought, how would he fight? How would he decide what he would do and what he wouldn’t do? And so on. At this point Buddhist values and metaphysics hit the rockface of sheer samsara and the outcomes are very spontaneous and authentic, and probably, quite diverse.

Personally, I haven’t come across much explicit discussion of karma or testimony from Tibetans regarding the situation of Tibet, though obviously karma is central to the Tibetan, and Burmese, mind-set generally. However, it is important to distinguish the social-political issues from metaphysical ones. So for example, karma might be the Buddhist-metaphysical explanation for all (or a specific form) of suffering, but that doesn’t invalidate the wish for social-religious-cultural autonomy that Tibetans deserve. That is, a metaphysical explanation does not necessarily modify an ethical-political issue; it just adds a new layer of explanation that might or might not be relevant. Sometimes a metaphysical perspective just confuses things, makes it worse; sometimes it can be genuinely helpful. It depends on the context.

I don’t include very much discussion of karma in my own analyses, because it is usually not very helpful in concrete terms: it is essentially a metaphysical doctrine, of great interest, rather than a properly ethical one. (I am not averse to the ideas of karma or rebirth, but I don’t find them conceptually crucial to my analyses.)

We could say a lot more about that, but again, that would take us away from the central issues and why they are important. I am interested in discussing ethical-philosophical issues in open dialogue with all and any interlocutors, including non-Buddhists, in terms that are both nuanced and context-sensitive but also more than academic, and not already religious. I believe it is entirely possible (and preferable) to think and reason in Buddhist-ethical terms without having to rely in a strong sense on a belief in karma theory.

The 969 movement

YA NOYA: In your essay you also study the attitudes in society in which we generally have a tendency to run away from, or destroy, the real problem, “kill it”, instead of facing it constructively. Above you shared your view on the social and Buddhist environment in Burma. Recently we hear a lot about the Buddhist monk Wirathu and the 969 movement spreading quite extremist attitudes, instigating fear of Islam. How do you look at it, concerning the topics we have focused on?

MARTIN: The 969 Buddhist movement is a social, ethnocentric and religious phenomenon instigated by a minority of ethnically Burman Buddhist monks, encouraging exclusive trade and social relations between Burman Buddhists within Burma, which ostracizes Muslim business and social groups. However disingenuous, it claims in fact not to be violently or extremist anti-Muslim, just pro-Buddhist. It is an ostensibly political-religious movement that also carries unacceptable overtones (more or less explicit, though these are denied) of racist intolerance and prejudice.

Obviously the extreme violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State and central Burma (Meiktila) and other regional centres (even in the far north) in 2012 – 2013 are proof of the worst of these exclusionary policies. The worst victims are the Muslim Rohingya who are even denied Burmese citizenship, so that while other Burmese Muslims have some legal protection, the Rohingya don’t even have that, and have therefore been scapegoated in terms that risk genocidal conditions into the future.

YA NOYA: In the autumn, the Buddhist council in Burma issued a directive “banning the formation of 969-based monks’ networks and prohibiting use of the movement’s emblem as a symbol for Buddhism”. On the other hand, the extremist monks were not disrobed; no action towards them was suggested. Would you like to make any comment?

MARTIN: In a sense it is a healthy compromise: the government via the Buddhist council is expressing some strong disfavour of Buddhist extremism, which will palliate Western concerns, but at the same time maintaining the status quo by not seriously addressing the ‘heresy’ of so-called “Buddhist” extremism. It is a replay of the usual government strategy: give enough concessions to avoid critical scrutiny, but do it in an only a semi-serious way.

More charitably, it is leaving room for reform within the sangha itself, and letting things improve more gently. We will see what proves to be the truth. The fact is hate-speech is still common in the extreme sangha, and Muslims, especially Rohingya, are still being killed. (If not by Buddhists, then out at sea where they are forced to escape on dangerous sea-voyages to Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand.)

In fact, in recent weeks this fear has again been confirmed in the brutal murder on January 14th, 2014, of at least 48 Rohingya men, women and children by local Buddhists in a village in Arakan state. Reports confirm that U Wirathu very recently travelled to this same village to teach Buddhists that they were justified in being “sons of the soil” and could drive out the Muslim usurper. I believe it is time for Wirathu to be formally disrobed from the Theravāda monastic institution: he does not represent authentic Buddhist values in a way that can still qualify him as “Buddhist.” Just because someone wears a robe doesn’t mean they are who they say they are, and he has been hiding behind the purity of the robe to push divisive and destructive social agendas for far too long.

For now, thank you for your sharing, time and patience.

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An interview with Overland Journal‘s David Brun accompanying a longer essay (The Year of Great Burning) which briefly discusses the political and ethical nexus shared by the (to date) 112 Tibetan self-immolations between 2009 and 2013, the single Western self-immolation in solidarity with those, and the more general context for Buddhist non-violent, and sacrificial, resistance including the decades-long movement for democracy in Burma.


Please tell us about your field of study – how did you find yourself researching the Tibetan resistance?

I’ve been around Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan diaspora, in Australia, India, the US and Europe, for more than a decade now, so it’s been in my experience a while. My gravitation back to the academy has been partly about wanting to formalise the raw, contested, difficult, uncertain nature of a lot of the territory of social resistance, especially where it intersects with more spiritual or metaphysical concerns, as it centrally does in Buddhist non-violence. This got me into the Burmese context post-2007 and the Saffron Revolution, and only since the last year or so when the surge of Tibetan immolations really consolidated the latest phase of resistance, focussed on the larger Tibetan circumstance itself. It was a terrible fortuity that a Western monk, Ven Tunden, and someone I actually knew, a few months ago magnified and crystallised a lot of the issues that interest me, in his own sacrifice. A terrible, great gift – to a world that barely knows it.

You mentioned traveling in Burma and some of its bordering countries as part of your research on political prisoners. Would you care to speak a little more of this experience and how it might have contributed to writing this essay?

I’d been writing about Burma for some years but it wasn’t until actually going there for the 2010 election and being with the people themselves that the full nature of their experience began to come clear. And that was breathtaking, shocking, inspiring and deeply unsettling in terms especially, again, of how it reconfigured for me the frequently squandered privilege of so-called first world democracy. My own involvement was minimal yet crucially tied to Western privilege. It was only in my last 24 hours inside Burma that I faced the surveillance of regime security and those hours viscerally communicated a very distant echo of what I witnessed in my Burmese friends. Even then I was always, categorically, immune from abuse in a way they never could be.

There are few things that permanently change your entire worldview but being in Burma has for me been one of them. It was hard to fathom the depth of selflessness and commitment with which political prisoners not merely (when lucky) survived literally unthinkable ordeals of dehumanisation, but were able to return from that limbo to speak with unimpeachable authority of what it means to resist pathological power in non-theoretical, even transcendental terms. (The same absolute value is manifest in the Tibetan acts as well, except that their witness is precisely their mortal death.) They blew all the boundaries of Northern bourgeois entitlement and the ethos of myopic self-interest it normalises. (Ven Tunden’s immolation similarly confronts that whole superstructure.) I haven’t been more inspired anywhere than by those activists who give us all reason to be grateful for their demonstration of what it means to give unconditionally (rather than take, conditionally) in ethical-political, and ultimately human-spiritual, terms. At the same time, that victory is bittersweet, vulnerable to the reciprocal recognition it needs to really take cultural root – as I point to in the essay. My essay tries to pick up on how that recognition might contribute to a wider culture of honouring the extreme but generally marginalised gestures that, it seems to me, keep the global witness to (authentic, rather than economically-mediated) freedom alive. In that affirmative sense, there are no ultimate political or economic boundaries, and they remind us of that by joining hands with others who are doing the same – or trying to – across the world. Of course, the majority of them are anonymous. So that a Tibetan monastic, a jailed Burmese journalist, and Ven Tunden, are the same, powerfully bonded, universal archetype, even in their obscurity.

Are self-immolations openly discussed in the Tibetan Buddhist community or is the topic shied away from?

It’s not a question with an easy answer because variable contexts result in different sorts of exposures of trust. It probably really depends on the nature of the discussants and who and what they represent. Some are naturally cautious and others are firebrands. Most generally keep to the counsel of the Dalai Lama who only qualifiedly praises the immolations and hopes they’ll soon end. Many are concerned for their tenuous security in places like India, but even countries like Australia, where complicit Chinese surveillance and faux-PR propaganda compromise effective activism. (China is good friends with everyone, after all, especially loyal Tibetan subjects. Not to mention its willing Australian bedfellows.) Psychologically, there is clearly a mixed blessing of pride and shame that makes sharing opinion extremely charged, especially with such a proud but generous people as the Tibetans are. They give everything they have, but not their honour, and the self-immolations could be seen as both admissions of despair, and, again, a transcendental freedom – by virtue of the whole superstructure of karma, awakening, nirvanic supersedence of ‘this suffering realm of samsara’. So failing some cultural initiation into that mythic-religious mindset, they are careful in how they project a certain self-representation: martyrs only on their own terms, and not that of geopolitical expediency. They want their rightful autonomy, not indifferent charity. Respect, not pity. Political commitment, not rhetorical self-exoneration.

Are you planning on turning this essay into a larger work?

It definitely grows beyond my expectations. Last year I finished writing a novella on the Burmese experience, which proved to be a deep-sea dive in getting much more deeply under the psychic skin of the same events. I’m hoping to return to Burma to check out how Western promises are turning out for the people on the ground and the NGOs and other grass-roots organisations trying to serve real needs. So far I can see a few KFCs are sprouting up in Rangoon which, the dictatorship notwithstanding, only three years ago was one of the most enchantingly decrepit, atmospheric and captivating cities in the world. The free world is already changing all that. But, of course, everyone wants KFC, whether they do or not, and democracy (especially US-style paternalist democracy) always comes with the most pernicious price.


(published online April 3, 2013)

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This essay presents a general and critical historical survey of the Burmese Buddhist alms-boycott (pattanikujjana) between 1990 and 2007. It details the Pāli textual and ethical constitution of the boycott and its instantiation in modern Burmese history, particularly the Saffron Revolution of 2007. It also suggests a metaethical reading that considers Buddhist metaphysics as constitutive of that conflict. Non-violent resistance is contextualized as a soteriologically transcendent (“nibbanic”) project in the common life of believing Buddhists—even those who, military regime and martyred monastics alike, defend a fidelity to Theravāda Buddhism from dual divides of a political and humanistic fence. Presented to the International Association of Buddhist Studies (IABS) conference, Taiwan, June 20-25, 2011. First published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, April, 2012: http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2012/04/16/the-burmese-alms-boycott/

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An interview with one of the central Buddhist-monk leaders of the 2007 Saffron Revolution of Burma, and his colleague Ashin Kovida, conducted in Mae Sot at the Best Friend Library, March 2011. We discussed the nature of the post-2007, and post 2010-election, resistance movement, what kinds of response to current conditions the movement is taking, and how it might be maintained in the long-term. The Best Friend Library, with a sister-branch in Chiang Mai, and formerly many more in Burma itself, is a buzzing hive of cultural, educational and social activity for young Burmese activists and refugees, Western aid workers and volunteers, and visitors from all over the world. Its Peace Cafe near the heart of the Burmese market has weekly film-screenings and discussions hosted by Garrett Kostin. At the heart of both places is the calm, twinkling presence of King Zero, also known as Ashin Issariya, and Ashin Kovida, both committed to bringing freedom and reconciliation to all Burmese, including those who continue to oppress them. They are at the rockface of nonviolent resistance in the world today, not least for their persistence, courage and sheer endurance in the face of what seem often intractable odds.

My interview with them can be read here: http://ashin-kovidach.blogspot.sg/2012/05/pen-is-sharper-than-sword-martin-kovan.html

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 The beautiful Sagaing Hills, an area some thirty kilometres out of Mandalay in central Burma, is home to a rich diversity of Buddhist retreat culture. There are hundreds of monasteries and nunneries, lay-retreat meditation centers, colleges and other educational institutions to be found there, housed in quiet hermitages, attractive old colonial outposts and more modern monastic facilities. There are innumerable examples of the typically golden-spired Burmese pagodas rising up out of the rich green foliage of the hills, that themselves border and rise away from the tranquil broad banks of the Irrawaddy River.

view of the Irawaddy

It is a remarkably serene, limpid place, only the occasional sound of amplified Buddhist chanting joining the atmosphere of repose and ease that imbues the life here. Sagaing is the Burmese equivalent of Indian ashrama culture, where many Burmese come after retirement to devote themselves to matters of the spirit, and a personal discipline in Buddhist study, meditation and ethical living. The often beautifully elegant pagodas, monastery temples and shrines are testimony to this culture; the people likewise, monastic and lay, move along the roads with a calm and gentle eye – even the numerous street denizens of dogs and cats suggest a life of renunciation from strife and discord.

I.B.E.C. main building

Beyond the dirt roads of a small village and rising high above the outlying area into the topmost of the range of the Sagaing hills, is the newly-developed International Institute of Buddhist Education (IBEC). Initiated in 2006, the new monastic and secular educational institution now houses nearly one hundred young monks, a new and impressive central teaching and administrative building (see attached photos), a library, classrooms, several outbuildings and an eating and cooking area. Its principal director is the Venerable Ashin Sobhita, a young but already highly respected Burmese senior monk who with eight other monk colleagues has been a guiding force for the establishment of IBEC since its founding.

Venerable Ashin Sobhita and monks

Many of the young monks who have come there have sought refuge from broken families, poverty and the vagaries of life under a totalitarian state regime. Their ages range from five to twenty years old. Many are orphans and others simply seeking a better educational prospect than the public schools often too expensive for their means. At IBEC the educational curriculum includes the secular national curriculum of the sciences, Burmese, English language, history and mathematics, as well as the Buddhist training program. This latter consists essentially of two main areas: Priyati, or the text-based study of the Pāli language in which the corpus of Theravada Buddhism (of Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand) is written. This includes a thorough oral and aural training in the suttas, or original sacred texts of the Buddha, in the vinaya or monastic codes of discipline for Theravada monks (and nuns), and the abhidhamma, or more technical philosophical and psychological treatises analyzing the nature of mind, consciousness, emotions and samsaric ignorance, and the Buddhist path to awakening from such ignorance. All three of these areas of study constitute the three traditional ‘baskets’ of Theravada (indeed all Buddhist) study, the tripitaka.

Along with this category of priyati, goes the study of pripati, the practical aspect of meditation and devotional ritual which puts the more theoretical study of priyati into a dynamic context of self-enquiry, ethical relations with others and especially the teacher. In pripati also the monk develops a personal faith and devotional symbiosis with the symbol of the Lord Buddha, such that all his efforts and studies gain the added blessing of the richness of 2,500 years of Buddhist tradition inspired by its great founder. The Theravada in Burma, as elsewhere, is thus eminently pragmatic and rational in its philosophical orientation, as well as being steeped in values of respect, humility and selflessness.
All the monks live together, sleep, eat and wash in common quarters, their only personal possessions being usually a tin trunk which designates their sleeping-space on the floor of one of the buildings, holding only their robes, books, study-materials and Buddhist ritual objects. The monks appear to live happily and comfortably in this traditional Buddhist manner. There is a lot of laughter, a lot of time for outdoor sports, or indoor reading during the hot hours of midday, as well as personal consultation with their teacher. Every morning and evening – a feature comparatively unique here, and not commonly practiced in the Tibetan monastic schedule for example – all the monks gather in an assembly for 45-minute sessions of meditation. Here, as in their more theoretical study, they follow the essential twofold practice of both samatha, and vipassana meditation methods, involving a foundation in mental calm-abiding, or equanimity, followed by analytic or insight, depth-meditation practices, respectively. Their teachers are always on hand to guide and supervise their practice. IBEC functions as a remarkably inter-dependent community of Buddhist enquiry and training, the intention for the Buddhist goals of awakening to wisdom and compassion that has its earliest beginnings in the first Buddhist sangha.

The secular educational component is also strong at IBEC, and some half-dozen trained, and often quite young, teachers live on the premises in their own dwellings, some distance from the central monastery buildings. Many of these teachers have received their education in Rangoon or Mandalay or other large cities, but prefer to live in the semi-retreat conditions of Sagaing in order to pursue their own Buddhist interest. Indeed, the entire institution functions as a Buddhist refuge for both monastic and lay interests; some teachers are part-time professionals who come to spend a shorter period living on the site and offering their expertise, whether it be English-language teaching, IT training or technical know-how. Some of them might be local people, educated but suffering personal travails that demand they seek some ‘time out’ from urban pressures.

Many others, and there have been at least a dozen teaching volunteers as well as newly-ordained monks and nuns, are Western travelers who come to appreciate the unusual and idyllic possibilities somewhere like IBEC, and its surrounding context, offers someone who in the West has perhaps less choice of lifestyle, and at a much higher cost. Those who come to IBEC as volunteer teachers receive food and board, along with the other resident teachers, at no cost. Several of the Western teachers have been able to ordain at IBEC as monks and nuns in the Theravada tradition, for shorter or longer periods, and with the full support of the resident sangha. Mandalay is only an hour or less away, so some volunteers also combine their experience at IBEC with commitments they might have in the city. The flexible ease of options at IBEC appears to work excellently for all concerned.

Venerable Sobhita hopes to add further extensions to the existing housing and teaching buildings on the site, as well as computer-lab and multimedia facilities for seminars, conferences and seasonal retreat services offered by IBEC in the future. He envisions IBEC and similar Buddhist institutions as offering an alternative to the state-run educational system, often limited in its scope and too expensive for poorer and disadvantaged people, and for developing a genuinely global and tolerant perspective on other religious faiths.

He also sees IBEC as being able to foster an ethical expertise in being able to train sangha and lay-people alike for many of the social and political challenges that face Burma as well as the world at large. He welcomes visits and/or donations to IBEC from anyone with a sincere interest in Theravada Buddhist teachings, and especially those who seek other possibilities of life in environs unlike those they know in the urban megalopoli of the East and the West.

Sagaing is a quiet, idyllic place where it is easy to forget the troubles of the greater world, yet where better to start the work Venerable Sobhita describes? And it would seem that the training and environment for Buddhist attainment could realistically be achieved here, where such an authentic example of the intentional Buddhist life flourishes so richly.

The website of I.B.E.C. can be found at: https://www.ibecmyanmar.edu.mm/, as well as further contact for visit, retreat or donation enquiries.

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In early March 2002, Khin Zaw, pictured, stepped on a landmine while working as a hunter in the Wawlay Nyaing forest some four hours outside of the small Karen town of Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border. He lost his right leg, and with it any viable means of livelihood, and for eight years has lived exclusively from begging in the streets of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Myawaddy is the site of recent (and decades-long) armed conflict between the Burmese military and a coalition of Karen independence fighters, including breakaway factions of the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) and the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). This more recent fighting of the past two months has killed many and resulted in a continuing exodus of more than 20,000 refugees from threatened villages into the Thai border town of Mae Sot, from where many are sent in short order back into Burma.

Among many of these refugees, in addition, are landmine victims, many non-combatants or farmers, or, like Khin Zaw, itinerant hunters pressed to work in dangerous areas to support, as he did, his family in the city. From that date in early-March, Khin Zaw has in fact not seen his wife and two children, now in their mid-teens, still living in Yangon. He has never been able to afford the ticket that far, and nor would his compromised physical condition permit him to find or be offered work in Burma – nor anywhere else. The stigma attached to the forced abandonment of his family and livelihood in Burma is palpable, and has in large part kept Khin Zaw from maintaining strong ties with his family in Burma. Nor does he have contact with brothers and sisters still living there.

While speaking with Khin Zaw, who I met begging on the main tourist strip of Chiang Mai (as he does seven days a week for four hours a day) discussion of his family introduces the only real moment of discomfort, clouds of pain overshadowing his otherwise warm, usually smiling face. Khin Zaw is learning English, when he can afford it, in Chiang Mai, but his friend and fluent English speaker Ajong offers to translate for us. They are both open and friendly, softly-spoken and tactful men, with an intelligent modesty of manner that seems to come naturally to many Burmese. It is a three-way conversation that illumines for me perhaps only some of the legal and socio-economic complexity lying behind the lives of Burmese illegal refugees in northern Thailand, though on the evidence it would seem Khin Zaw’s story is emblematic of many here, and in Mae Sot further south. As the conditions which have given rise to it are ongoing and critical, it seems equally as critical to bring awareness of such conditions to a wider audience. Khin Zaw expressed a happy willingness to tell me his story, and I am honoured to relate it here on his behalf.

When he stepped on the landmine, he relates, he was living alone but had work friends nearby who were able to carry him bodily through the jungle across the border into Thailand. The accident occurred at one in the afternoon, and they arrived at the Thai border town at nine that night, where the Mae Sot Hospital immediately took him into intensive care. Khin Zaw tells how he was largely unconscious during the journey and with the great loss of blood came very close to dying; were it not for the prompt and incredible service of his two friends, he would not have survived. He stayed in Mae Sot some three months in recovery, without cost, before being released into the general community. Dr. Synthia Maung from the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot claims that 60 to 70 per cent of landmine victims who make their way there are civilians, many women and children. As an accident victim Khin Zaw could not be classified as a refugee, and nor did any of the NGO operations and their representatives approach him for economic or further social support. He relied exclusively on Burmese friends, until they too were unable to support him, and he felt he couldn’t expect more from their hospitality. So he returned, largely by necessity, to Myawaddy, and took up again in Wawlay district with his old workmates. But unable to work, having little longterm incentive to stay there either, and unable to reach his family in distant Yangon, he did as many do in his situation, and sought refuge in Chiang Mai, further north in Thailand.

But this is where the more intractable of Khin Zaw’s troubles began. As an illegal alien in Thailand, Khin Zaw, along with thousands of others seeking refuge from the fighting in Karen and Shan states, as well as the oppression in Burma generally, is constantly at risk of deportation. Indeed in the eight years since his accident he has been arrested nine times, imprisoned at length each time, and sent back into Burma at Tachilek, a crossover point for many refugees (and other travelers alike) linking to Mai Sai on the Thai side of the border. He is not entitled to a passport, or a visa for Thai residence, and in view of his injury, a work-permit. On every occasion of his arrests, the first in 2004, he has been forced to spend up to a month in jail each time, and most recently three and a half months, before the inevitable deportation to Tachilek. Altogether his periods of incarceration, an innocent victim of an illegally-planted landmine, have amounted to roughly nine months.

On each occasion also he has had to pay Thai police 5,000 Baht (c. US$165) in order to secure his release. Once across the border at Tachilek, which he soon leaves to return to Chiang Mai, he is ordered by Burmese soldiers to relinquish any valuables he might still have – whatever cash he carries, a watch, clothes-items, mobile-phone. His only saving-grace on the Burmese side of the border is that as an ethnic Burmese (Bamar), Khin Zaw is spared the beatings he has regularly seen meted out as a matter of course to his less-privileged, usually Shan (or other ethnic nationality) fellow-countrymen. It’s hardly surprising that under these conditions he chooses to risk again the uncertainty of life in Thailand, than remain in the effectively closed society of life under the military regime in Burma. He says that he loves his country dearly, but can’t live under those conditions. It is hard enough under most conditions available to him, as a handicapped man, but those in Burma make the suffering still worse.

Burma is one of only 17 countries that abstained from voting on a 2005 United Nations resolution to ban the use of landmines globally. The ruling SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), or its current manifestation in the nascent ‘government’ following the fraudulent elections of November 7, has similarly not acknowledged the Mine Ban Treaty. Recent figures on landmine accidents in Burma available from Landmine Monitor show a 90 per cent increase in 2007 from 2006 figures. The online Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reports that “In 2009 there were at least 262 new mine/explosive remnants of war (ERW) casualties in Myanmar…of the total, 259 casualties were civilians…In 2008, at least 213 civilian casualties (30 killed and 183 injured) were identified.” It adds that “Due to the lack of systematic data collection and varying sources of annual data, reporting does not reflect the full extent of mine/ERW incidents and casualties in the country. In 2009 the UN noted that many casualties remained unreported.” Other international monitoring organizations (such as Human Rights Watch) have also claimed that the Burmese military and insurgent armies using civilians to reconnoiter known landmine areas (known as minesweeping), acting effectively as mortal human shields, is prevalent as well. Other NGO workers, including Medecins Sans Frontiers, have withdrawn from working in Burma in part because of restrictions the government has placed on their access to landmine victims. The mines themselves are bought from, among other places, Italy and the U.S, and following Russia’s recent discontinuation of landmine use, Burma is now the sole non-participator in the aims of the global anti-landmine treaty.

Now 41 years, Khin Zaw remarried in Chiang Mai, and after a powerful conversion experience, became a Christian along with many of his fellow Burmese there. He speaks of the indubitable sense of the love of Christ, a direct emotional transference that he rarely felt in the more intellectual reasonings of his native Buddhism. He describes the doctrines of karma especially as too complicated and demanding to observe with real consistency, in contrast to the simple but deep faith in Christ that allows him to feel forgiven and purified whatever his current circumstance. Considering his consistent warmth and cheeriness, there is little doubt his Christian faith has given him much in pulling through the constant hardships of eight years.

I can only marvel at his resilience, as he lifts his carpet matting and crutches from his grubby spot on the street to catch a tuk-tuk home, after half a dozen ignore him as a social undesirable, an illegal, one of those of the social under-class in Thailand the local people tend  to avoid. It remains the case that no social support network can be relied upon by Khin Zaw in Chiang Mai, and even his church can’t afford supplements to his meagre earnings as a beggar – at most some 2000 Baht (US$66) a week. While I sit with him at his begging-post it is normal to watch long eddies of Western tourists and Thai party-goers pass him without notice, or for an occasional tourist flashing jewellery and cameras to stop and churlishly offer him a 20 Baht note (US 66 cents). Just around the corner the same tourist readily pays 400 – 600 Baht (US$13 – 20) to watch kick-boxing shows, or pay 170 Baht (US$6) for a drink. Such is life as usual in Chiang Mai, for Khin Zaw, and for those who pass him seemingly oblivious to this particular reality of the place and the time.

A day or so after our interview, Khin Zaw invites me to visit his church, and tells me he never fails to make it there every Sunday. I ask him how he gets there, and smiling expansively he says he takes a tuk-tuk. It costs him 100 Baht for the round journey, but he never resents the weekly cost. “I have faith,” he says, smiling. “You have to trust things will be ok”.


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In downtown Yangon, exactly a fortnite before the country’s national ‘democratic election’ is due to be contested, life appears much as usual. People lounge and relax for hours over slow nickle pots of tea in street tea-shops, children run and play among vehicles and the detritus of roadwork, monks – and nuns, in miraculously clean, pink tunics with tan shoulder robes and brown umbrellas – make alm’s rounds through the streets, barefoot and impassive amidst noise, rain or traffic. Yangon is a colourful, if shambolic city, alive with a human warmth and vibrancy that rarely betrays a much deeper discontent beneath its vital surface.

Yet cracks do show, as much in the difficulties of daily life as in the spoken admissions of people from all walks of life. While the shaky infrastructure of much of Yangon is little different from that of a city in a poor Indian state (Patna or Kolkata for example) other less obvious constraints of communication and movement belie a much deeper malaise conditioning much of life here. My guesthouse proprietor is required to report to the local police registry office to submit details of all his current guests, sometimes more than once a day, reporting any knowledge of their movements and activities. This is ironic considering many areas of the country are off-limits to travelers, and even non-Burmese ethnic nationalities alike, so that both visitors and locals are unable to travel as freely as the expectation that they do so might allow. Perhaps the most practically curtailing proof of unreasonable control however comes in all online communication where even mainstream e-mail sites require overseas server providers in order to allow for a few snatched moments of web access, usually at the cost of a lengthy process of proxy transfer. Sometimes there is no access at all, and then the extent of Burma’s isolation from the world beyond comes clear, with a chill of recognition: much could happen here that could go unknown by both local and international news providers, or only until it might be too late. It is only a matter of moments before the barricades and cordons can be drawn up and lines of armed military personnel prevent any kind of open communication at all.

In my short time here, without eliciting any discussion of the election, I’ve been confided to by many people eking out a living as tea-shop owners, guesthouse workers, booksellers, taxi-drivers and beggars. Many have made it clear that they hold little faith in the coming election, others, especially younger educated people, try to preserve some optimism that a reasonably democratic procedure might begin to institute the reforms they expect is their due in voting at all.

Few have suggested to me that a boycott of the election is the only course to follow, and while emphasizing their fidelity to Aung San Suu Kyi and the now heavily compromised former NLD party, they profess her political power to be at an all-time minimum, and her career effectively closed. Yet they say this with a wistfulness that makes it very clear that while her political currency appears to have passed its peak, their personal faith in and love for who she is and what she means to their national identity is as undying as ever. Younger people I have spoken to look to the Student 88 party as most likely to hold some kind of legitimacy in the democratic cause, at least one with some political negotiating power, even as they are certain the USDP will win the election outright and current Prime Minister Thein Sein become the new leader of Myanmar under its auspices. It is hard to disagree with them, and everything seems to be confirming it by the day. Yet even this morning an apparent show of protest by some monks near the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the arrest of two of them, challenges that foregone conclusion. In this election anything could happen, and the coming two weeks hold much more radical surprises in store.

Trading English books with a bookseller all of eighty years, speaking through his two remaining betel-stained teeth, nothing was mentioned of the election until I was about to take leave of him. Then he cannily grinned and said, ‘And you don’t know anything about the election, do you?’ I quickly grinned back and agreed, saying, ‘Nothing at all! In fact, I’ve forgotten about it! What is it?’ He slapped his knees and burst out into laughter, two friends joining in, all of us laughing in a happy defiance as I crossed the road. A nearby police official looked askance at us, but we kept on laughing. There was a feeling that no matter who might be observing, the local people preserve an integrity and conviction intact precisely through such defiance, however passing. The irony also was that the book I’d exchanged with the old bookseller was a collection of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short fiction: a great Russian writer repeatedly persecuted by Stalin’s Soviet regime, his life often threatened, until he had finally died in exile in Paris, obscure and largely unknown to the Russian reading public of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods. Yet his writing lives on, read now in English in Yangon. The old man shook my hand and thanked me and said he looked forward to reading the stories, brilliant parables of freedom eked out in unlikely places and through fragile human solidarities, just as it is in Burma today. In such ways the best of the human spirit survives, and triumphs in ways that Gen. Than Shwe and his minions seem deadened to, so great already is their loss.

Catching a taxi last night to the Shwedagon Pagoda to see the full-moon festival there, my driver (slightly drunk) told me almost as soon as I was inside how much he loved ‘Daw Suu Kyi’. By the time we arrived at the glittering golden stupa there were tears in his eyes, and he almost refused to accept my payment for the ride. Such is the warmth and faith of many of the Burmese people I have met here in only a short time. The overriding conclusion that can’t be avoided is that such a people deserve much better than the disrespect and humiliation the ruling regime mete out to them again and again in so many forms of curtailment of basic rights of expression, assembly, freedom of association and self-determination.

Two days ago I saw a man being led along Merchant Street, both his arms gripped hard by two black-uniformed military personnel on either side. The man was young, mild-faced and went passively; I don’t know what he had done that warranted his arrest, but he went almost willingly, as if he knew beforehand that it was only to be expected, had perhaps gone through the process before. I didn’t know if he had broken the law, or what passes for such in Burma, but it seemed certain that he, too, didn’t deserve to be led away, stallholders and bystanders craning their necks to see him go, to an unobserved interrogation, and perhaps many years in one of Burma’s notoriously inhumane prisons.

Life appears here to be business as usual, but deep beneath the surface a pride and strength of spirit speaks out loud, saying that the subjugation of fundamental freedom can only go so far, beyond which point everything will be risked to secure its eventual triumph. Perhaps this is the one thing in its people the ruling regime has failed to manouvre against, the one thing it will finally be unable to withstand. Whatever the election outcome in two weeks, the quest for genuine freedom isn’t over, and the election might only be its prelude. October 24, Yangon. Copyright © Martin Kovan
An edited version of this article was published in the online  journal The Irrawaddy on 28.X.2010, as “The Malaise Below the Surface”: http://www.irrawaddy.org/election/…/560-the-malaise-below-the-surface.html

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