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Interview published on the Ploughshares Journal blog (January 27, 2022) with American poet Ravi Shankar on his memoir “Correctional” – https://blog.pshares.org/my-hope-is-this-book-is-not-simply-a-literary-artefact-and-that-it-is-used-for-more-than-my-own-personal-redemption-an-interview-with-ravi-shankar/?fbclid=IwAR3SP4Vr0dwh38bLGw-DlZPVP2wOXKMV4DmI28vfg7XNGv6tQy8xgx3-7Z8

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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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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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In 1995 to 1996 Alan Clements, an American former monk in the Burmese Buddhist tradition, entered Burma to record dialogues with the lately-freed democracy icon and legitimate leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi. These dialogues were published as the “The Voice of Hope” in 1997, reissued in 2008. Today, in October 2010, Daw Suu Kyi is once again incarcarated under house-arrest, with her imminent release slated for mid-November. I spoke with Clements about Daw Suu Kyi’s significance not only for the Burmese democracy movement but also her contribution to the turn towards a global freedom movement grounded in Buddhist and secular values of non-violence, the mutual tolerance and respect of dialogue over armed conflict, the rights to free expression, assembly and self-determination. Clements is currently engaged in a project (www.useyourliberty) to restore up to 50 hours of documentary audio and video footage of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Burmese pro-democracy colleagues, previously thought lost but recently recovered from Burma. His website is www.worlddharma.org.

Paris – L.A. Dec. 14, 2009

MARTIN KOVAN: Alan, as we speak Aung San Suu Kyi [ASSK] is going into the first months of her fifteenth year of incarceration under the military regime in Burma. At the same time Foreign Policy magazine this year named her 26th in a list of a hundred of the world’s “top thinkers”, for “being a living symbol of hope in a dark place.” We’ve heard that kind of appraisal of ASSK for many years now, since she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and though increasingly people all around the world are aware of her, and despite the efforts of Obama’s administration during 2009, this appraisal hasn’t necessarily translated into decisive international policy. Alan, you’ve known her personally, you’ve co-authored a well-known book with her, The Voice of Hope, re-issued in 2008. Maybe you can offer us a different kind of insight into her dedication to democratic freedom in Burma?

ALAN CLEMENTS: Martin, my personal experience of being with her for a period of six months in 1995 and 1996, soon after her first release following her first six years of incarceration, was as a friend of Burma, having been a Buddhist monk there, a friend of her principal mentor U Tin U, who was once the general of the army, ironically, under the dictator Ne Win who imprisoned her. Upon U Tin U’s release he became a monk in the monastery in Rangoon where I lived – the Mahasi Sayadaw Center. And, ironically, as I tried to study and practice some understanding of the nature of my own mind, ie. the pursuit of enlightenment, I was getting a tutorial, if you will, on the psychology of dictatorship and totalitarianism from the general himself.

KOVAN: U Tin U was a full general?

CLEMENTS: Yes, the head of the army. And he makes this archetypal transformation from ‘natural born killer’ to Gandhian freedom fighter, and mentor of ASSK. So it was through him that I was respectfully introduced to her. So I came to her from the dhamma, the nature of experiential Buddhist practice put into dynamic action, as we see today in Burma. So my experience of her is as a ‘dharma-sister’, if you will, someone whose being, her voice, her expression, her thought, are integral to her understanding of the qualities of consciousness that are most responsible for the liberation of the human mind from fear, anger and greed. And that’s why she calls her struggle for democracy in Burma as a revolution first and foremost of the human heart, or a revolution in her words, of the spirit.

So my experience of her is really the exploration of what informs this remarkably courageous non-violent struggle: why is non-violence preferable to armed struggle? What is the value of metta, of loving-kindness, in confronting military injustice and so on? I became acquainted with the psyche of a Buddhist-informed revolutionary. Now within that she’s very human: perhaps one of the most unpretentious human beings I’ve ever met, remarkably joyous in the midst of this inferno of hell in Burma with 50 million people in her country held like slaves by this dictatorship. You have this woman who’s enjoying, in a strange kind of way, her own sovereignty as an independent entity, yet inseparably connected to her, and as a ‘global mother.’ She has a deep relatedness, it seems to me, to the archetypal feminine, who’s able to nurture differences rather than destroy and fight against those differences. She wants to talk about the differences, and  – I can’t say that I embody it – but I love it as an ideal: let’s talk not kill, let’s be kind not be cruel. Let’s elevate, rather than denigrate. That’s her message to the generals, that’s her message to the world: if we can’t heal the divisions of our own inner being, how can we expect to heal the divisions in our politics and in our racial understanding? So, she comes from a ‘one world’ model, Martin, and I think that’s a very important message in today’s world, where we’re teetering on the brink of “just war.”

KOVAN: Insofar as you approach her from your Buddhist background, and she obviously could respond to that as a Buddhist herself, you also describe her as somebody invested with profound human qualities that embody in one person – as you say, a ‘one world’ figure – not merely a Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired resistance, but one who can speak from its secular basis as well.


KOVAN: Obviously religious figures such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama [HHDL] were doing similar things in that late-80s period as well, but like Nelson Mandela with whom she is often compared, she managed to touch a universal chord that continues to resonate also with Western people. How would you elaborate on that particular connection with the ‘Western’ consciousness, or the Western ethical conscience, and that larger symbol that she embodies that we respond to so deeply?

CLEMENTS: Well, it’s interesting how one finds within someone something to identify with, that inspires something in you to look more deeply or to be more alive in the values that you consider to be your dharma or your spirituality. For me ASSK touches upon qualities that I can identify with that are trans-monastic, trans-renunciatory.’ She’s revisioning, without even knowing it I think, the entire motif of the bodhisattva model of how this mosaic of energies called the paramis (or paramitas in Sanskrit), how these energetics of love, compassion, tranquillity, of energy, poise and patience could be brought forward to define the emotional landscape of who we are right now in this deep intersubjectivity. She’s relating from that place of revolution that ‘consciousness is the forefront of the so-called battle’ because ‘I’m not going to hit you, I’m not going to use a gun, I’m not a believer in that. I’m believing in the interface of consciousness with consciousness.’ She’s Oxford educated, a Burmese national with a tremendous literary background and Buddhist-rooted understanding, in a culture with thirteen different major ethnicities, who speak perhaps up to 170 different dialects, primarily Buddhist but not only Buddhist – there’s Muslims, there’s Sikhs, Catholics, Baptists, atheists, and animists. So we have this rich tapestry of languages and ethnicities, religions and diversities of styles of behavior, and she’s coming through this as a woman who’s not wearing the flag of religious nationalism, no matter how refined that may be. She’s saying ‘I’m a woman, a person, and these timeless principles are not anyone’s alone.’ Metta isn’t Buddhist, any more than compassion is Christian. So she’s taken it out of the vessel, and she’s saying revolution is first and foremost of the spirit, where one takes responsibility for their own state of mind, and there can be no lasting change in society without first and foremost a change of consciousness. That to me is a very inspiring place to identify with her as both a spiritual person and as a political leader because she’s melding in a unique way radically contemporary spiritual truths, simple as they may be, and harsh, intense political realities. And she’s not afraid of that, of merging the spirit with politics. She draws that remarkably beautiful distinction that consciousness is inseparable from the basis of civilized society. She has a working experiential understanding in other words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a type of secular template for the dharma. That’s pretty unique.

KOVAN: Could it be that it’s so unique – to be challenging by exactly those qualities a current of geopolitical, but also religious, misguidedness – that in a way it could be too threatening? I ask the question because it almost seems as if international leaders who respect her at the same time have to hold the gauntlet of nonviolence she offers at arm’s distance. She demands a personal integrity that challenges some of the deepest egoism endemic to leadership or vested interest generally.

CLEMENTS: She could be ahead of her time, there’s no doubt about it. But she stands as a diamond in the midst of whatever this world is that we see, however we interpret it – of course in Burma it’s a totalitarian nightmare. So her luminosity is very beautifully juxtaposed there. Is it too much for the world to see this light? I don’t think so. My sense is that she’s so sincere, I think that’s the scalding fire, if you will, the burning light that’s too much for some predator-patriarchal models that are driven by uniform and testosterone, money and might. And how do you throw the cool water of intimacy on the reptilian consciousness of violence?

KOVAN: A saint’s task. But turning the focus a little back on the ‘Western’ experience, she seems to represent a lot for Western consciousness and yet what strikes me in a general way is that many people don’t seem to be so aware of ASSK.

CLEMENTS: Yes, true.

KOVAN: Perhaps this is more of a question about the Western sense of engagement, but why do you think it might be that at the same time that she’s held in such esteem, vast numbers of educated people don’t really know what’s going on in Burma?

CLEMENTS: Again, that’s an interesting point. To go from obscurity to household name – that psychology and that elevation requires, I guess, a person-to-person transmission of importance in how one brings that larger world into your own personal relationships: ASSK as a name, as a person, what she stands for, what would that define, Burma as a country, what it stands for, and so on. Perhaps it took the “Free Mandela” concert, in ’88, twenty-four years into his incarceration, for people to see this worldwide, and all of a sudden ‘Nelson Mandela’ was a name previously never known to a lot of people. There’s a way in which ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ has to become something more than an iconic symbol by understanding that this name is connected to a body and this body’s connected to a people and this people is connected obviously to a nation. Another simple way to understand, for example, is with Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth which presented to the world the urgency of understanding global climate change, and to some extent empowered people to become agents of positive change, to understand how they could participate in no longer being part of the problem but being part of the solution.

And ASSK for me, not that she’s the only one, but she stands pretty high in the pantheon of people in the world who represent not just global human rights, and bringing them to the forefront of the international stage, but also embodies the living essence of freedom, because it’s juxtaposed with one of the most harsh and brutal military regimes in the modern era. She’s existing in the context of a remarkably repressive circumstance, and she’s saying ‘no’ to violence and ‘yes’ to love. She’s saying ‘no’ to cruelty and ‘yes’ to freedom, and she’s saying ‘you are part of the solution, you’re not the enemy, I refuse to demonise you.’ And those types of deeply embedded personal mnemonics that define the dharma, or ontology of liberation, the personal experience of being at that core level, those are remarkably threatening to people. Intimacy is threatening to people at times, sharing is threatening at times. And to me that’s a remarkable gift that she’s bringing to the forefront for all of us to check into and play with, download, associate with. ‘Wow – there’s a person who says freedom is more important than fear. There’s an alternative to division and militarization.’

So we can identify with and tap into this woman as a leader in taking something as pedantic as ‘global human rights’ – what does that mean to me as a human being, here and now? That’s one of the qualities that she brings into focus for people in her country, and also in my presence, Martin, which was: what is freedom, here, and now, with you, not with me alone? She has a deep relatedness to the contextual understanding of freedom as a process, not as the usual mistranslation of Eastern understanding or of Buddhism of ‘my freedom’ as somehow a vacuum from the innate relatedness to life and others’ freedom.

KOVAN: Alan that’s a real illumination of where she stands and also of what you’ve experienced in your personal encounter with ASSK. But it would seem at the same time that unless we are in some way able to meet that, on an individual, a collective, on a national and international level at the same time, then perhaps the situation in Burma itself remains at something of a standstill. Now when you speak of ASSK holding to a practice of non-violence, it’s difficult to see how even President Obama with all of his extraordinary achievement thus far is able to engage with ASSK on that level: he supports capital punishment and he’s willing to fight a just war. How do we as Western democracies take into our own psychic economy, so to speak, what ASSK is offering?

CLEMENTS: Yes, a very interesting point. I have looked at President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech a number of times since he’s delivered it. I praised his speech in that he was honest with himself and the world. I’ve been wanting that declaration of reality from him. He is of course saying as Commander in Chief that, essentially, Gandhi cannot be a President, Luther King cannot be a President. King can be a civil-rights movement leader. ASSK essentially by inference here cannot be a prime minister or president. One must understand that being human today in the world, and perhaps as far as we can see into the future, requires someone who is willing to pull the gun, if not, support people who do pull the gun, if not pull the switch on those who commit crimes, if not – who knows – shoot a nuke? I don’t know where it ends, when you take the ideology of a just so-called war. He’s selling ideologies rather than being accountable as a leader, and I think in his position as an honourable man wanting to restore America’s image to the world, that there’s a way to do that and it’s to be accountable for misdeeds, to be accountable for deceptions, to be accountable for misguided behaviours. ASSK in my brief experience with her, is a lady of integrity – she’s the first to admit her own faults. She’s basically standing firm in the position of an honest attempt at deep dialogue with her adversaries. Now, I would only assume that Obama in one year went from ‘deep dialogue as ambitious challenge to dictatorship,’ to a rallying call that ‘I’m willing to kill in the name of our needs.’ Well, what about going another step or two deeper into ‘Hey, it’s not easy to negotiate with the leaders of Al Qaeda’, anymore than it would’ve been easy to negotiate with the leaders of the Third Reich. But nonetheless, we can’t constantly fall back on those…stratospheric examples, when in fact there is a way to dialogue in Afghanistan, there is a way to dialogue in Pakistan, there is a way to dialogue with the Palestinians and the Israelis, and there is a way of dialoguing with the American people and the Republicans and the Democrats and there is a way of dialoguing with your own consciousness. And I think that that is the missing element in American politics and global politics that ASSK brings: she brings a respect for the nature of understanding human consciousness. The other day I was watching a Bill Moyers special from forty-five years ago, back when President Johnson was taking over as president after Kennedy’s assassination, and he was pondering, in Bill Moyers’s profoundly put-together hour-piece, what it was like for President Johnson to consider the build-up and the invasion ultimately of Vietnam. Obviously it was in comparison prior to President Obama’s decision to send in 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. We get to hear him speak to his principal advisors about ‘should we invade, should we build up, should we pull out?’

And I’m sure it’s the same dialogue that President Obama had with all of his advisors giving him the pros and cons of either staying in Iraq, or leaving Afghanistan, or committing more troops there. But my point is, you thought that there would have been some insight into this dialogue but it was just so black and white: either we look weak and pull out, or we go in and it’s a merciless no-win situation. When are we ever going to learn from history, in other words, that there is an alternative to military solutions? Military solutions would work if their stated goals were met. But they’re not met in Iraq, they’re not met after eight years in Afghanistan, and gazillions of dollars are spent while Americans are going broke by the second, homes are in for closures, people are being evicted from their homes and can’t pay the rent, people are sleeping in their cars, the highways are filled with motels with families in rooms 2, 3, 4 and 5, and all the while we’re sending more troops into a decimated, blown-apart country of Afghanistan – for a hundred Al Qaeda? It’s at a really kind of farcical and almost Monty Python level where Al Qaeda isn’t in the dust of Afghanistan – they’re in the internet system worldwide. 9/11 hatched from within America, not from the dustbowl of Afghanistan.

KOVAN: The eternally unreachable enemy. But if we could just bring that back to the Burmese context for a moment, because I think it relates to what you’re saying. The Burmese junta themselves defend their policy by virtue of preserving order within Burma against the ‘internecine nationalist struggles’ of ethnic minorities. What do you think would be the political reality of a liberated Burma with that apparent level of internal conflict? Theoretically ASSK herself and the NLD party would have to face internal Burmese conflict, so again we’re dealing with this tension between political and ethnocentric realities and Buddhist-inspired social redemption. There’s obviously a dichotomy there between historical-political appearances and ethical-spiritual aspirations.

CLEMENTS: It’s not really an accurate portrait of Burma’s political landscape. The reality is that the regime with its 500,000 soldiers are committing degrees of mass-killing, if not ethnic-cleansing, in a lot of the ethnic areas around the borders with their neighbouring countries, whether it be the border of Thailand or China or Bangladesh and Malaysia, and even in the north with the Kachins, where they border Tibet. You’ve got a killing machine there that is by and large just going through villages at will and destroying life as we know it, and one asks why? It’s for no other reason than an embedded legacy of some form of ethnocentricity and moha, or ignorance, that’s led and fed by the banality of a propaganda and indoctrination system in that country based on ‘if you don’t kill you get killed, if you kill you get fed, if you kill you get fed and your parents can eat as well.’ It’s this cycle of aggressive authoritarianism playing itself out at a very reptilian, lethal level. It’s not really about rivalries of ethnic groups, that’s an ancient scapegoat for a central regime that feeds on killing.

ASSK is a remarkably unifying figure, and she’s not just playing partisan politics within the NLD, she’s deeply inviting. I know this from direct experience of having been with her and her principal colleagues, that they know the heart of the Burmese people, and it’s no mystery why they won something like 89% of the popular vote back in the May 1990 elections, which included vast numbers of the ethnic minorities of the country, other than the majority of Burmans. And having lived and travelled, Martin, through a number of the different ethnic regions to see and to speak with the Mons and the Shans and the Karens, and to other remote areas in the north and areas bordering the Bangladesh area and even down in the south, I’ve spoken to many, many people, leaders of these ethnic groups and even leaders of the ethnic armies. I was even there at the formation of the alliance of the NCGUB, the National Alliance of the Government of all the United Ethnicities back in 1990, and they really do have a unified hand-in-hand approach, they just want to be given basic rights, basic respect for religion and autonomy but they don’t want to be having to deal with a genocidal army that for the last twenty-one years has just been laying ruin to their men, women, children, livestock and crops. So it’s like, really, give peace a chance, and let’s see what a nation that has been brutalized by incessant war can do. From 1962 until the modern moment we have a country that’s been progressively run down socially, politically, environmentally, spiritually, on every level imaginable to the point now where one of the largest standing armies in the world does one thing: oppress, kill, torture, rape its own people. And one asks, why?

Why? One has to look psychologically at some of the reasons for this collective national trauma in being so brutalized. I would only say in the simplest of terms, as an American speaking here, that my country goes into a great amnesia about its own roots while at the same time projecting its own terror onto other people and attacks, whereas the Burmese invert their trauma and seem to attack their own people. But it does point to the same issue that ASSK raises over and over and over again, to come back to her – when will the cycle of violence ever end? Unless we ourselves interrupt that cycle in our own heart and mind, how can there ever be lasting change? And she’s asked the question: is non-violence a spiritual principle or is it a political tactic? And she says ‘it’s just smart. It may be the slowest thing in the long run, but those who see us take power by the gun, they’ll eventually differ with us because human minds differ with one another and they’ll assume that since we did it, they can do it. So we have to set an example, someone has to put down the gun first. And it may not be in my lifetime that we see democracy in our country but I must stay true to the principle that it’s far preferable to talk than to kill.’ That’s it, and she’s saying it in ways that aren’t so Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim, she’s not speaking from being a Burmese Buddhist, she’s speaking from just being a woman, she’s saying this is just practical good sense.

KOVAN: Alan, I think it would be fair to say that of all of the world leaders currently visible to us, HHDL is perhaps the only other figure who apart from his religious affiliation is essentially saying the same thing. And yet I think it could fairly be said of both of them that despite the power and depth, which has obviously been recognized also in their Nobel Prizes and elsewhere, of what they’re saying, both Burmese and Tibetan contexts remain seemingly intractable, dogged by a paralysis that requires just as much explication as the kind of misguidedness that you’ve just been describing. Let’s summarise what we’re talking about: the London-based Burma Justice Committee recently publicized the crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese junta: regular forced displacements, forced labour, routine torture, sexual violence including systematic rape, extrajudicial killings. These are very clear now, the Harvard Law School report Crimes in Burma has stated categorically that already-existing U.N. documents are sufficient to hold the Burmese junta accountable for their actions. But we all know that, much as in the case of Tibet, the U.N. Security Council has been compromised in any really decisive response to these problems. I know that unpicking the politics of the U.N. is not an easy thing to ask, but could you give your particular take on that problem?

CLEMENTS: How do we engage epic tyranny and expect Stone Age consciousness to think in terms of how we relate to the Declaration of Human Rights and further, how we empower our own sense of consciousness as ‘true conscience’? How do we get through to these generals in other words, to these men who are intractable, so to speak?

KOVAN: Concretely, what in fact do we do if we can’t get through to them, which seems to be the case at the moment?

CLEMENTS: Well, this is my belief of what can be done. It’s a twofold form of activism or leadership – call it the “cash method” and the “conscience method.” Cash and conscience. If I were to just simply do the “cash method” first, obviously if you belong to Al Qaeda today or if you’re connected to the Bin Laden family or have some links to terrorism, you will find yourself in jail, ASAP, your money gone, your home gone, your family lost, whatever – they track you to the penny. Now, obviously the U.N. is an honourable body, and even Pol Pot managed to get a seat for the Khmer Rouge there. So we’ve got the U.S. ambassador for Burma there, but Burma wants to play on the international landscape, they want to be respected, rather than just be the international pariah that they are. However, they are not an army, they’re men dressed in uniform and there’s a lot of them. But they’re called ‘a government.’ Let’s call them by their true name – they’re a terrorist organization that terrorizes their own people. Now if we were to apply “terrorist organization” to Burma very much like Americans once did to the ANC, then Mandela, despite being the moral hero that he is in the world, was once a terrorist according to the world.

OK, point taken? The Burmese regime is not a ‘regime’, it’s not a junta, it’s not a government. They’re a bunch of men who act like serial killers and if you took the top five of them and put them on the streets of L.A. they’d be a street-gang and they’d be given capital punishment, under Obama, because they’ve killed so many people. But because they’re a so-called government, men in uniform, we talk to them as if they’re civilized human beings. Rather, dealing with the cash issue, they should be treated as terrorists, and in doing so not to demonise them so much as to take away their blood – which is money. So I would offer an international re-labelling of who they are, in as much as it becomes law that all of their money, wherever it’s found in the banks of Switzerland or Singapore or China, or perhaps even in America – I don’t know where they keep their money, but it’s certainly not in Burma – that it be tagged, noted and confiscated. Absolutely dry up their dollars. So that’s one method. Two methods is – who’s giving them the guns? And this is again a big problem because America exports more guns than all countries in the world combined, and yet we’re the most civilized nation. Who’s giving the guns to the regime in Burma, and whose money is paying for it? Guns and cash. Take the guns out of their hands, they have no enemies, they’re only killing their own people. Take the cash out of their hands, and they’ll go –  Humpty Dumpty came falling down. Two good reasons.

KOVAN: But insofar as foreign countries – you’ve just named a few, we can also name India, Russia, and Thailand to some degree – have vested interests in arms, in military trade, in oil and gas extraction, in nuclear power infrastructure, and commercial trade, taking away the Burmese terroristic cash also means taking away a large economic investment for the West as well.

CLEMENTS: All I can say is that in order to be an activist or a leader in some way, maybe I’m naïve, but – you have to personalize something, it’s like, OK, the Burmese people are ‘my father.’ Well, it’s not cool to give money and guns to a neighbor who’s going to chop off the legs of my Dad. There’s got to be some distinction here between complicity with murder and sanity of economic civilization. I mean for God’s sake in America, I don’t know about the EU or other countries around the world, but if someone says that you’re complicit with a drug sale, you can go to jail (laughs). These people are complicit with genocide! When does it become a crime against humanity to sell weapons to a regime that’s known for ethnic cleansing?

To me, this is where ASSK comes in, and I think we’re at this edge of evolution where – these words are so preposterous, I hear myself speaking with you, and as I know you to be a learned man, these are preposterous simplicities that we’re talking about. We’re dealing with a level of evolution or the lack of evolution, where we have to see that we’re confronting the archetypal issue: can we co-exist in the world without killing eachother, or sell weapons to support those who kill people who are distant from us for the sake of our own economic needs? And so that’s one level. The other level is internal – let me just get to this one. There’s an internal way to drop this regime to its knees. This is my belief, it’s been time-tested to stop work. In America there’s no need to stop work because everyone’s forced to stop work today. But in Burma, you’re a slave to the regime, I mean some people who do work only make a hundred dollars a year. And when you think about the generals living with billion dollar bank-accounts in mansions with multiple Mercedes Benz and private planes and jewels and so on and so forth, it’s a disparity that’s insane.

My point is that the people of Burma don’t have a whole lot left to lose. And it wouldn’t be surprising to me if someone were to coordinate a collective stop-work order that was done on a progressive basis so that rather than marching on the streets where the regime is known to kill – even monks as we know, and nuns – people could stay indoors and stop working so that once a month on, say the full moon next month, everyone in the country who believes in freedom and democracy doesn’t go to work that day. The next month, on the new moon and the full moon, those two days of the month, no-one goes to work. On the third month, on the quarter-moon, the new moon and the full moon, three days of the month, and we work into twelve months and twelve days of the month. Or, twenty-four days of the month or all thirty days of the month til eventually the whole nation has stopped work and I wouldn’t even be surprised by the sixth month that even the military’s not showing up to pay homage to their ridiculous leaders. And it may even be that the leaders themselves weep, because they no longer have any life because no-one’s projecting anything into them anymore: there’s no money and there’s no more power and Humpty Dumpty was just a balloon that got deflated. It’s possible.

I want Burma to be victorious, just as Mandela and de Klerk shared the Peace Prize, I would weep with joy for this planet, for my daughter’s future and her children’s future, should she have children. That a man like Than Shwe – and he’s not just Than Shwe, but any man, that that place in my heart too, that finds hope through the endeavour of crossing over the divisions of my own duality, can hold hands and break bread and drink wine and dance with the opposition. Because I know that I can’t live without you. We can’t kill everyone off because of that which we see in others but don’t want to recognize in ourselves. So the time has come where ASSK is a living model and there are other ones in the world, who are basically saying the heart is filled with dualities as we know, but I’m not afraid of integrating those dualities and I’m going to include you too, I’m going to reclaim my projection. And take responsibility for my mind and my fear and my anger and say listen, ‘I want you as my friend.’ To me that’s a method that we need to follow. You know, it’s one thing to have a poster of ASSK on your wall. It’s another thing to know something about her, it’s another thing to know what she stands for, it’s another thing to embody what she stands for, it’s another thing to embody what she stands for and communicate that embodiment naturally to others. That’s the process that we’re looking at here – is how to take your poster of her off your wall, and how to take the icon off your psyche of ‘over there.’

KOVAN: But it appears that a lot of people prefer the icon. I live in Paris and in October just in front of the town hall a large number of French intellectuals, writers and cultural celebrities sat holding a candle-lit vigil in front of a large portrait of ASSK. I at least had to ask myself how many of them had driven there in cars or taxis with gas pumped from Total gas-company pumps, that has come directly from highly lucrative trade with the Burmese regime.

CLEMENTS: Well, this is the imperfection of the human existence – that all of us are complicit in this big, strange inter-relatedness called equal doses of ignorance and wisdom, pleasure and pain. I think we are playing at a new edge here where if we can lay down the gun and give peace a chance, it may be that we breathe something innovative into this collective, physical, cyclical Gaia-sphere we’re in – who knows? I just think that the static and the hell of predatory narcissism using guns just has to stop for awhile. That’s all. And I think that’s what ASSK is advocating, and it can be done in Burma. It can be done, if enough people say, yes we can. It did for Obama. Everyone in the world now has someone larger than Obama to admire, and that’s ASSK and she’s just again one person who represents the felt reality of global human rights, that I think is the oxygen of our present-day survival and the future of life. Everyone knows as well that the pollution in Shanghai affects the quality of air in Paris, but we do not know that the oppression of a political prisoner in Burma affects the quality of your life in Paris. That’s the the experiential edge that we’re trying to talk to here. What is that?

I was just watching some of the video footage [of my conversations with ASSK] that was smuggled out of Burma the other day and one of her mentors was commenting, actually at her house – I forgot this – that a woman back in  ’95 who had simply put flowers on ASSK’s mothers’ grave in Rangoon, was given a five-year prison term. So one looks at how lethal and maniacal this regime is – how do you get through to this? Is it the teachings of the more refined level of bodhisattvic activity, where you go into deep khanti as a dharma where patience, and the determination within that patience, of non-retribution is your energetic mantra and you just wait, and sit, and wait and sit, and play the old game that ‘give them enough rope that they’ll hang themselves’? How much of the world has to come into play here, like people you spoke of in Paris, where they walk to the vigil rather than drive, or they refuse to buy petrol, they do their homework first to see the interrelatedness of their own complicity with the killing-machine? So we need to do our homework on the deep root level of how our existence is interconnected to the economy of the world, and to rid ourselves as much as possible of how we’re unconsciously using dollars, unknowingly, to support oppression in our own home or elsewhere. And then to do the actions that really may make a difference.

This is where I think, again coming back to what I was saying earlier about taking down the icon, taking the poster off the wall, no longer projecting the image of ASSK at your concert, Bono: let us hear her speak, don’t speak for her anymore. Let us hear her song…to “I’m staying, I’m not walking on.” Let us hear her talk, free her voice. Let us hear her voice of hope become a voice of hope by freeing her voice. It’s like the Dalai Lama being locked away in a dungeon in the Potala Palace and only every now and again maybe a word is eked out. I’m not bringing any kind of glory to myself in this case, but I had a very rare opportunity, I don’t know why it happened, back in ’95 and ’96, to spend six months with her and her colleagues and at the same time tape it, and although we couldn’t smuggle the tapes out the transcripts got out, and I look back fifteen years later now that these things have been smuggled out and it’s like having de Klerk let me spend six months with Mandela, eighteen years into his incarceration!

And this book, The Voice of Hope, it should’ve been called The Text of Hope. But if people who saw her words heard her speak them, I think we would have an immediate inspiration far beyond the vigils, the posters, and the beautiful things that people sing and dance to. And it’s that voice that the regime wants to silence. My job, my duty, my love right now is to free her voice. She may not be free – but to free her voice. What will she say to the world?

KOVAN: It’s a great aspiration, and the parallel with the Dalai Lama is again very interesting because we have someone who in all other senses is in a similar position except that he is free, and we can thankfully hear what he has to say. I wonder if you could comment on that parallel between where ASSK is and where HHDL is in what he’s able to do with his freedom? In a way ASSK’s incarceration acts as a kind of concentration or a magnification of her integrity in a way that perhaps for the Dalai Lama gets diffused in a kind of global, media-driven, celebritised diffusion of what’s existentially at stake here.

CLEMENTS: They’re both deeply committed to not just the power of non-aggression but transformation through consciousness, transformation through the understanding of human inter-relatedness in a peaceful way, politics through a deep understanding of the constituents of consciousness for peaceful co-existence. Those ontological architectures, those foundations must become the new templates of education in school, the university and politics. Just as we wouldn’t tolerate malfunctioning software in our Word files, we can’t afford too many more malfunctioning political leaders that don’t work within the template of deep co-existence through time-tested ways. These aren’t a new form of socialized politics but allow for deep individuality and uniqueness at the same time, so that human rights are not only safe-guarded and protected but they’re also liberated from the box of sectarianism and dogma, and we have a huge celebration of originality on earth. I think those templates could be so well learned, that my sense is me, little ordinary me, has even learnt it some degree. I’ve seen mentors of mine, like ASSK’s mentor U Tin U, who was a natural-born killer, the son of a dictator, general of an army, make the archetypal transformation on his own, unprompted, to go from killer to apostle of peace. So we’ve really got examples of Angulimala, the serial killer of Buddhist myth who became a saint.

KOVAN: But let’s be concrete, U Tin U made that in the context of a religious tradition, namely the Buddhist tradition, and certainly in Burma that tradition is  –

CLEMENTS: From my understanding he made it in the context of deep introspection within his own psyche and soul.

KOVAN: Yes, but culturally and in terms of the container which he required in order to consolidate that initial interior existential leap, so to speak, was the monastery, was the respected role of the ordained monk in Burmese society, similarly with the Tibetan context as well –

CLEMENTS: No, no – he became a meditator, not a monk, first. Someone threw in his prison cell, it’s worthy of note, when he was alone there, and taken off the pedestal as general of the army, a little meditation book written by the Mahasi Sayadaw who was, as you know, one of the great teachers of Satthipatthana [a sutta on meditation] in the world, and he practiced meditation based upon this little instruction book. As a result of that he had very positive experiences in prison, in solitary, he said he could see somewhat objectively – his anger for example was different from his own being.

KOVAN: I think that’s a really good point. I’m emphasizing the ways in which a potential freedom from, for example, his previous history, or on a national level a previous self-image which has ceased to serve a country, generally requires some form of at least culturally or intellectually understood liberation. And I think a lot of the time through history, for example in the era of the Civil Rights Movement it was definitely Martin Luther King’s Christian-influenced ahimsa, definitely in India there was old Hindu, Jain and other extra-Hindu traditions which were inspiring Gandhi, and I think in the context of ASSK she is not making explicit but nevertheless refers most profoundly to Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist ethics.


KOVAN: So the question is, when we look at a Western ability to resonate with that depth of transformation that you describe in U Tin U, how perhaps are we from our side sabotaged by a lack of that kind of deep cultural context?

CLEMENTS: It’s because I think we still see the constellation of ‘the Bull’ on the stars rather than seeing the stars and the points of luminosity themselves. I think in the case of ASSK and U Tin U, I don’t detect in my dialogues with them that they’re relating to Buddhism as a supportive structure of being. Rather they’re relating to understandings that have brought them into direct experiential relationship with the ever-present nature of Thisness that we’re in, this large sphere of inter-related consciousness that everyone inhabits. For example, ASSK and U Tin U, rather than relying on Buddhist dogma to be compassionate, relate more from the simplicity of the Shantideva insight of putting oneself in the body of another to understand the nature of compassion. And so to do that on a felt-reality level more and more, to actually pause and inhabit such a presence with another requires a deep level of stopping and facilitating entry into something other than your own narcissism, to feel potentially another person’s pain as that of your family or yourself. That was U Tin U’s transformation, he began to see how arbitrarily distant he was from the innate understanding of our inter-relatedness. It wasn’t a projection of karma – ‘if I kill therefore I’ll find some future lifetime in hell.’ He actually dropped into a felt experience – ubuntu or bodhisattva direct experience. And so I think that’s the thing we get hung-up on, we think of these mystical teachings in the West as coming from ‘the East,’ but to take them way out of the container of ‘East’ and ‘religion’, and to introduce the basic metaphysics of Interbeing, to use a Thich Nhat Hanh phrase, I think that is where education needs to be going today.

KOVAN: Having clarified that insight, I wonder if you could tie that back into the more general nature of the Saffron Revolution of August 2007, when potentially dogmatized Buddhist monastics themselves were able to make that felt leap themselves and take to the streets in a way that went beyond what would be expected of a traditional Burmese Buddhist context. Are you seeing the same thing playing out on a much larger cultural level in that sense as well?

CLEMENTS: You know that’s a very interesting question, because when I met ASSK back in ’95 and ‘96, at that time the monks and nuns weren’t playing such an active role as we saw in 2007 when they led a nation-wide uprising that most people refer to as the Saffron Revolution. She said that, ‘If only the monks and nuns would just simply stand up for an hour then the country would probably have democracy.’ And it’s really about seeing as she said that all people are inter-related – it may sound like an obvious statement, but this brings up an issue for me. My personal edge – not so much edge but my ‘desire system’, my ‘dharma desire system,’ my cetana or my intention, is to understand deep inter-relatedness, deep intersubjectivity, deep objectivity, deep inter-related mindfulness. Who are we? Why are we? Where are we…going? And I find the experiential methodology for that untraversed dharma in our cosmos – and I’m assuming it’s an open universe rather than a sealed one – is that it feels better in more sacred, less violent conditions.

I think ASSK and the people of Burma, and not just them alone, are offering the adventure of caring – caring for a universe that’s miraculous, mysterious and maddening, that can either be an adventure or a transcendence of a hell. If you need the fiction of a heaven, maybe there is one, but maybe there’s something along the way that’s the journey itself. And that journey seems best to be satisfied by caring for the welfare and happiness of others. It’s one thing to constantly look at your own ‘Now,’ but to see that that shared presence is a deeply inter-related one is another: that another person’s mind and body and feelings, knowingly and unknowingly affect our own interior worlds, just like the oxygen does to our own quality of clarity and cognition and biological integrity. ASSK’s offering an invitation to this deep inter-relatedness and so to me the operative word here is solidarity to a dharma beyond our nation, our sect, our tradition, our club, our guru, our teacher, our book, our best culture, or whatever it is. This solidarity to me is very vital and very important, non-violent human rights elevating into something new that’s never been done before. A freedom that’s larger than our own sense of nirvana.

That possibility, that hope is in the courage to care about a new frontier, and therein lies the solidarity where Buddhists are the most basic, foundational space we can coalesce around: Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, Buddhist secular lay society in Burma. Where are the Buddhist monks and nuns and the Buddhists in the world to align in solidarity with the Buddhists in Burma, and Tibet? That to me is the labour union for this cause. How can we best support our fellow Buddhists in need? I mean, there was once a Cambodia that had a Buddhist infrastructure – it’s all been decimated. The Dalai Lama himself, what ten, twelve years ago, Martin, said we have maybe two years left, or there’ll be no Tibet to save: it’s 2010, on the cusp, how many more times can we say these things?

KOVAN: What’s fascinating there Alan is that everything you’re describing is a description of something that already exists. I mean, a kind of technocentric perspective would suggest that we do live in a virtual world already, we have a form of communications whereby people can communicate online about anything at all. It’s analogical to what you’re describing as an ethical virtuality, a trans-Buddhist global recognition of the other which is immediate, direct, it doesn’t need to be mediated by the institutions of religion or of politics or of other forms of Church. And yet what we find is that that level of intersubjectivity lacks, at least on the analogy of the internet, a kind of ‘deep ethics’ so to speak. The kind of thing you’re proposing is a deep focus, it’s a real discipline too, because it requires not just a personal ‘trawling of the soul’ but a collective trawling of the collective social soul.

CLEMENTS: Our Buddhist family is being sodomised and killed, raped in a genocide. If we just stop for a minute, drop beyond the language as much as we can, not trying to be too melodramatic here, and do a moment of deep inter-related felt reality of a political prisoner – just one. One political prisoner alone in a cell who perhaps has just been beaten badly for chanting the Metta Sutta, which is now outlawed in Burma. OK, how does our dharma inter-relate with this defrocked nun, of whom there are a number in Burmese prisons, what can we do? And that’s my mother, that’s the Buddha, that’s Yasodhara, that’s Maitreya’s wife, that’s the archetypal Buddha Mother, the archetypal Allah Mother, that’s God’s mother. Call it what you will to get into deep intimacy with, but that’s our blood and our soul and our oxygen. That’s the dharma of today, that’s ‘the Now,’ that’s the meditation of tomorrow. What will be that which allows us access into that cell, into that girl’s heart as family and take action on a day-to-day level that isn’t politically varnished with patience (laughs) and all the kind of things that we need to do, and pragmatisms and compromises? So calling all Buddhists, calling on all dharma people – the word ‘dharma’ is almost ubiquitous, it’s almost a ‘trance’ concept – you’re entranced by a concept that should free you! Do we have a collective awakening here that sees things bigger than ‘my breath,’ bigger than my network, bigger than my sangha, bigger than my tithing’?

KOVAN: It strikes me Alan that you’re speaking also as somebody who has actually seen firsthand the horrific realities that you’re speaking of both in Burma and in Yugoslavia during the Balkan War of ‘94 – ’95. And that the kind of more than symbolic intimacy which you’re describing is a kind of depth that people can respond to or from when they have actually seen what you have seen.

CLEMENTS: That’s an interesting comment to me Martin. This is exactly the same argument as with people like President Obama, I’ve been advocating that prime ministers, priests, politicians and people of power, should do mandatory things as part of what they professionally encounter. Perhaps spiritual teachers, meditation and dharma teachers should be included: basic mandatory requirements. That’s where activists, and people like you and me and all of us out here who care, are trying to find new curriculums for human consciousness to reawaken to something that perhaps is already innate, or discover in tandem something that’s new. And that’s all we’re doing, reinventing practices – the Buddha offered practices, he didn’t offer ‘Buddhism.’ So we get a living architecture in the collective consciousness of, ‘Guess what, you can engage consciousness in its own environment and enhance its luminosity, its clarity, its understanding of its own environment.’ How can we care for our own family called Burmese Buddhist, Shan Buddhist, Shan Christians, Muslims, how can we care for life? In the same way we would do the environment – we have to begin to see it, we’ll be forced to see it as our oxygen for survival.

When I started speaking about Burma in 1990, we collected seven people in Berkeley. It was the first NGO in the world for Burma and now I’m here in Los Angeles today and there’s no less than 50 Hollywood celebrities who just can’t stop speaking ASSK’s name. I watched the U2 concert and ten million people are listening to the Edge and Bono speak about ASSK, bless their heart. So it’s come a long way in a short twenty years. No-one can rest until the child is rescued. There’s no happiness until Suu and 2,100 political prisoners who represent the global prisoner is liberated, and the people of Burma are liberated, and there’s health care for all and sanity among leaders and the war machine is relaxed and gone into the big slumber. We begin to see that thought experiments and emotional experiments of the heart are more important than putting out the fires of a projected hate. ASSK offers inspiration and guidance and I think the more leaders who get inspired, the latent inspiration in the heart will be activated and we’ll find them springing up all over the world. I think it’s really about how do we liberate ourselves from every little obstacle that we feel and get more into the business of how we support the saving of life. How quickly can we act to bring an end to human suffering? Again, the study of consciousness and the interplay of conscience with consciousness, is to me the edge of where the dharma is in my own life, and I love that.

I’m a believer that if we can get it right in Burma, that if the world could just stop and begin to have a dialogue of more and more turning towards non-military solutions to conflict, then there’s hope for our kids to have a future. ‘Cause there’s only so much more time that we’ve got before one of those little nukes that got built way back, gets into the hands of the wrong person and – or maybe the ‘right person’ and that “just war” becomes a nuclear just war. There’s no future with killing in other words. The guns get bigger, and bigger, and more destructive and how many times already can we blow up the earth? So it’s pretty much a no-brainer right now: de-escalating in language and energy and emissions is the only hope for survival of the planet. And if that’s not going to be the way then we really need to reinvent NASA and begin to build some kind of space-travel where people just go off like in a cosmic Noah’s Ark and hopefully lay nests somewhere where there’s a more peaceful civilization.

KOVAN: Well, that could prove the most realistic of them all – I hope not, but, who knows?

CLEMENTS: All avenues.

KOVAN: We’ve travelled quite a lot of territory ourselves, Alan, I just thought we might bring it to a close by your letting us know – you travel around the world speaking on behalf of Burmese democracy, on behalf of secular spirituality, could you tell us what you’ll be doing in 2010 vis-à-vis Burma and your own work?

CLEMENTS: It’ll be a continuation of what you’ve mentioned and what I’ve been doing – speaking on behalf of ASSK, freedom, political prisoners in Burma, the liberation of Burma, global human rights. But specifically, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve brought a team of people together to create a film based on smuggled audio and video tapes of my time in Burma with ASSK and her colleagues. We’re going to do a documentary film about revolution in action that frees her voice and the voices of the people and the voices of support for freedom in the world, to hopefully a new level of understanding so that we begin to hear and know and feel who is ASSK, where is Burma, what is Burma, why should we care, what can we do to help? Now.

Burma is a country that’s needing help, it can come from anyone in the world, it can come from even the regime that’s oppressing its own people. That right there – ‘show us a change of heart, I do not feel any need to demonise you. Give us an archetypal reason for hope.’ They have it in their hand, it’s possible that in Burma, with enough focus on elevating the status of their own repressed fear to a place of recognition where love may crack the surface of their own consciousness – it’s possible, Martin, we might have an example of archetypal redemption in Burma where comments like President Obama who’s saying that it’s impossible to negotiate or convince Al Qaeda leaders to lay down their arms – well maybe we see that…maybe, it’s not impossible.

KOVAN: And not even that that might well be the case, but simply that even saying that is already a shift of emphasis.

CLEMENTS: There you go. That’s what we’re talking to here, the shift of emphasis to a hope however small that dedicates to an endeavour, a shift in the greater context to just simply – less suffering. I think to go right back to the Buddha, one of the abiding beauties of that teaching is, and it was a life-saver for me, ‘Listen, If you’re born inevitably you’ll encounter circumstances of complexity and suffering – here’s a way to address that suffering, don’t hide, don’t fear, there’s hope, you can enter it and transform it. And with that transformation, if you can do it, others can do it and the absence of suffering is often the absence of pain, and in the absence of that kind of pain we get to live in the reality of dreams and make dreaming real.’

Copyright © 2009 Martin Kovan & Alan Clements

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This audio interview with Mike Kewley (in Paris, August 2010) from the eclectically superlative www.beingordinary.org, discusses some broad dimensions of Buddhist and ‘trans-Buddhist’ social awareness and daily-life practice with a view to collective social transformation. It considers how the dharma extends beyond a purely religiously-grounded ethical rationale, to embrace a larger secular spiritual vision as well, while still maintaining the deepest of Buddhist values – those of universal compassion, responsibility and non-violence:


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