Friday, January 14, 2005

Boycotting the World's Buddhist Summit in Rangoon

On the World's Buddhist Summit in Rangoon - by Zarni, Free Burma Coalition

Seeking legitimacy and acceptance trhough the eyes of the international Buddhist community, persuing personal merit for afterlife according to Buddhist faith, putting on display Buddhism as an ideological foundation, and appealing to the Buddhist Order and 'masses,' and last not least, in keeping with the political tradition of the rulers in the predominantly Buddhist Burma, the State Peace and Development Council is hosting the World Buddhist Summit.

Though not entirely a Buddhist Synod, the event is of historical significance to the rulers in Burma.Historically speaking, the Fifth and Sixth Buddhist Synods throughout the history of Buddhism were hosted in Burma, patronized by King Mindon and Premier U Nu, the country's second last monarch and the last democratically elected Prime Minister respectively in 1860's ( exact year?) and 1950's.

The former was a relatively gentle and politically enlightened devout Buddhist who supported the limited establishment of other religious faiths, especially Christianity throughout the country, including in Mandalay, the seat of his kingdom. Mindon's modern counterpart - the late U Nu - was both confused about the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy and blatant in his attempt to manipulate Buddhism in order to keep the traditional, mainstream Buddhist masses on his side politically - i.e., seeking their votes. He tried to formalize the predominance of Buddhism by seeking to declare Buddhism the state's relgion.

Mindon's Synod resulted in the building of Kuthodaw - a massive collection of Buddhist shrines which housed the entire Buddhist canon laboriously inscribed in hundreds of marble tablets - at the foot of Mandalay Hill, a walking distance from his palace. The logic behind this project was to preserve permanently the philosophy of impernamence on durable marble stones - instead of paper or palm leafs.

In contrast,U Nu's emotional mixing of politics and religion eventually led to the emergence of a serious crack within his political establishment, which included predominantly Christian minorities such as the Kachin and the Chin. In hosting the Sixth Buddhist Synod at the height of the Cold War and in the midst of Burma's Communist armed revolt supported by Beijing, U Nu used partly Washington's funding to build a massive man-made cave named Kabar-aye - World Peace - in the 1950s. It was a radical departure from the tradition of progressive secular nationalists led by the late Aung San who admired Western political tradition of strict separation of church and state, especially the French version.

In today's Burma, the NLD and SPDC feel they could not afford not to appeal to the Buddhist Order and the Buddhist masses. To the dismay of many archaelogical conservationists, the generals have been renovating ancient temples in Pagan, the birth place of modern Burma, at least from the perspective of the dominant Burmese, including repainting and redecorating the exteriors of 900 years' old temples and pagodas and re-doing the touches on the frescos on the walls and ceilings of the temples that were contemporary with Kublai Khan's reign in what is now China.

Of course, beyond discursive level, the NLD leaders are no match for the generals who can patronize - and "defend" - Buddhism through reward and punishment of the Buddhist Order. The imprint of Buddhism - at least the cultural/day-to-day brand - on the masses and elite alike is so strong that it is inconceivable that political secularism which a liberal democracy calls for can emerge, in the foreseeable future.

But one shouldn't expect otherwise, given the fact that Burma has been suffering from the negative impact of years of first self-isolation policies and now the NLD-initiated, externally imposed isolation by the liberal West which attempts to block any type of healthy and essential intellectual and cultural exchanges between the Burmese philosophical/religious communities and the larger world.

While well-meaning and well-intentioning, pro-isolationist policies will deprive the entire society and civilization of any and all opportunities to engage in the global ideological, philosophical and cultural currents. Both the NLD and its overzealous supporters internationally call for isolating the already culturally and intellectually isolated society at large, thus doing a serious disservice to the emergence of an open society - their own self-professed goal.

It is well-documented that the junta has cracked down on politically involved members of the Buddhist Order whenever they come to pose a serious threat. For instance, in the early 1990's, the monks in the heartlands of Burma - Mandalay, Pakok-ku, etc. evoked the Buddhist scripture to deprive members of the state security forces and their family members the opportunity to make merits and participate in important religious rituals such as funeral rites. Hundreds of monks in Mandalay were herded off on army trucks bound for interrogation centers and many were subsequently disrobed and thrown behind bars.

But nothing positive can come out of boycotting the summit, especially the major beneficiaries would not be the generals, in spite of their ostensibly Buddhist behavior during the opening and closing ceremonies, but those members of Burmese Buddhist communities who get themselves exposed to contemporary schools of Buddhist thought not easily accessible to them under the politically backward situation in Burma.

It is therefore still possible that holding Buddhist summits - or for that matter, any summit - may benefit the participants by allowing them to learn from international participants who may espouse and practice more progressive versions of Buddhism such as "Engaged Buddhism," a redundancy, which is popular in Thailand and with Western peaceniks and the Taiwanese version of more gender-sensitive Buddhism which permits full-ordination of women as equally respect-worthy female monks.

Of course, Gotama Buddha, or Gotama the Enlightened, who founded this immensely powerful philosophical system which escapes successfully the dangerous sin of binary, Black-and-White thinking in "the liberal West," would be pained by the public manipulation of his No-Self Doctrine by men and women of tremendous egos, either civilians or men on the horseback, democrats or autocrats, in Burma.

Further, he would also be at a loss trying to figure out why the Buddhist masses in Burma are not thinking for themselves or sheepishly following the leaders, authoritarian or otherwise.

Or Gotama the Enlightened may simply feel vidicated that the fundamental tenet of his teachings - all life is suffering - has been borne out, once again, by the prevailing realities on the ground for the inhabitants of Burma, regardless of their religious, political and ethnic backgrounds.