I wrote the following comments on this post on Facebook by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: Racist Nationalist Buddhism: A Challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi
. I was going to mention it to you on Facebook but was reminded of this thread. So I'll share it here instead:
I think rather than be too quick to point a finger at others, this rings as a timely reminder for us aspiring Buddhists in so-called liberal 'secular' democracies (many of whom have inherited the precious Three Jewels from the lineages of Burma) to take pause and reflect on the 'blindspots' and limitations of our own outlooks. To be sure, the issue of racist nationalist Buddhism is a very real one and has to be interrogated. Aung San Suu Kyi herself was a target of racist nationalist rhetoric. For example, in a 1996 article in The New Light of Burma, the SLORC (what the military regime was called then) evoked the great virtues of the brahma-viharas to question her 'authenticity' (quoted in Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, p. 319):'WE Myanmar have Byamaso Taya the four cardinal virtues or sublime states of mind. These, namely metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha are so deep profound that they can not be defined by such little words as love or kindness...
However deep and profound they [brahma-vihara practices] are to us, they may not be so for those who have forsaken their own lineage and origin, having a high opinion only of foreigners and taking them as their spouses.
Aliens may perhaps be able to understand and practise the essence of metta and karuna but they have no terminology to exactly define mudita. So we gradually came to realize that those who speak the Western tongue only with relish would not understand the meaning of mudita. As people without mudita are surrounding Daw Suu Kyi who had wrested back the party leadership position on the grounds that party backing was needed in politics, it must be said it is, in a way, natural to gradually become devoid of the four Byamaso Tayas.’
Put as the article by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship also points out, perhaps we have been too caught up in the drama between the military regime and ‘The Lady’, so widely publicized by the media. How many of us can claim to have a sound understanding of the history of Buma, the role of Buddhism in its transition from British colony to statehood, and the inter-involvement of the state, monastic authorities, and laypeople in the construction of a sociopolitical reality informed by a historically contingent and culturally specific interpretation of the role of kingship within Buddhist cosmology?
Unlike what we've been conditioned to think, such sociopolitical understandings and arrangements do not fit comfortably within neither the ‘religious’ nor ‘secular’. In fact, such a distinction between religious/secular (which btw is not unproblematic and must continued to be investigated) may perhaps even be irrelevant in such non-Western lifeworlds as Burma. And if so, how might this impact on the way we conceptualize and articulate our concerns about democracy, or the lack thereof, in places like Burma?
I think an important starting point for our reflection is to keep in mind that even as the military regime appropriated certain Buddhist ideals to legitimize their authority, segments of the population were themselves also actively cultivating certain Buddhist ideals through their participation in mass lay meditation movements associated with likes of Mahasi Sayadaw, for example. In other words, it is not a straightforward case of the people being ‘duped’ by ‘religion’ as such, nor should this be regarded as a case of Buddhism being adulterated by 'cultural accretions', for these 'cultural accretions' are what animate Buddhism, allowing those of us following Burmese lineages of practice to inherit the Three Jewels. There is no space to elaborate this in detail here, suffice to say that the book Burma's Mass Lay Meditation Movement
elucidates how it is difficult to unambiguously project our taken for granted model of state-religion-politics onto the Burmese context. What I'd like to invite everyone to consider then is:
1.) The challenges facing Burma ought not be regarded as a straightforward issue of religion ‘contaminating’ politics. To assume so is to universalize what is in fact a historically contingent Western-influenced worldview, and also to overlook and deny the agency of the Burmese people.
2.) What, then, might we be taking for granted—what might we be ‘blindsided’ to—when we take current so-called liberal ‘secular’ arrangements between state-religion-politics as ‘universal’? Or more precisely, how might Buddhist understandings offer us a new vantage point to rethink current arrangements?
3.) On a more personal level of our Buddhist practice, perhaps we ought to keep in mind that since at least the middle of the twentieth century, many, many Burmese—from politicians to monks to laypeople—have diligently cultivated meditation practice in the many meditation centres established in the country. That is to say, the Burmese have taken it upon themselves the responsibility to cultivate insight—to test for themselves—the Buddha's teachings. This is what the book examines. However, as the book points out, many Burmese Buddhists would accept certain aspects of Buddhist cosmology and also perform certain activities which some of us 'Western Buddhists' practicing in the same lineages (Mahasi, U Ba Khin, etc) might dismiss as unnecessary or superflous, or even regard as anathema, to the Buddha's teachings. In accepting what we reject, are these Burmese Buddhist less informed, less knowledgable about 'proper' Buddhist teachings than we are? But aren't they—or those participating in the mass lay meditation movement at least (which is quite sizeable!)—as committed as we are, if not more, to 'testing' the teachings for themselves? Haven't they be doing that for many decades? Who's got it 'right', us or them? This is no easy way to resolve this tension and I don't think there could be a determinative answer. What I wish to draw attention to is merely: if we do not exercise circumspection and be critically reflexive about how we make evaluations about what is 'proper' to Buddhism, to what extent would we be able to honour and cultivate the brahma-viharas, especially mudita, sympathetic joy? How might we go about disproving the Burmese spokesperson quoted above who claimed that 'aliens' would not be able to fully appreciate mudita?