October 25, 2007
The Public Face of Buddhism
— John C. Holt
When most of us in North America think about Buddhist monks, the image we are likely to conjure is one of ochre-robed contemplatives engaged in the quietude of meditation. But in fact, there has been a debate within the Buddhist sangha (monastic community) over the past two millennia regarding the question of how the Buddhist monastic vocation might best be realized. This debate has been especially apparent in the Theravada tradition that has been dominant in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. On the one hand, vipassanadhura monks epitomize the Buddhist monastic ideal as a quest for enlightenment or nirvana through the reclusive practice of meditation, usually within remote forest hermitages. These are the monks who seem to have most captured the Western imagination. On the other hand, granthadhura monks, inspired by the Buddha's summons to "wander for the welfare of the many" in order to assuage the existential condition of dukkha ("unsatisfactoriness," "suffering") in this world of samsara, are far more likely to be encountered within the context of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist societies. These monks, involved as they are in a variety of social issues and activities within their communities, are the public face of Buddhism.
Monks of both persuasions continue to be supported by the Buddhist laity,
as they have been throughout history. And there are cogent scriptural
warrants for each found within Buddhist sutras. But it is the latter model
that has gained increasing prominence in the twentieth century, as various
members of the sangha have aligned themselves with political movements
throughout South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, one of the arresting images
I still remember vividly from the 1960s during the years of the Vietnam
War, one that originally piqued my own curiosity about Buddhism, was the
self-immolation of a protesting Buddhist monk in the streets of Saigon.
In these last few weeks of September and early October, Burmese Theravada monks have dared to express publicly their profound disapproval with the manner in which Myanmar's military junta has been the source of great dukkha for the people of Burma. While the images of violence that reached us here in the West were very disturbing, the actual violence that occurred in Yangon (Rangoon) and in other cities across the country, especially violence against monks, has been even more disturbing to most Burmese; for, while monks are symbols of the Buddha's dhamma (teaching, truth, law), they are also regarded as embodiments of what is valued most in Theravada societies.
In times of great social, economic and political change, monks are often seen as the defenders of the country's indigenous moral and cultural traditions. This is certainly why some Sinhalese voters recently elected nine Buddhist monks to parliament in Sri Lanka. It is also why, during the Second Indo-China War, Pathet Lao leaders in Laos sought to infiltrate the sangha to convince its respected monks of its cause in fighting the Americans. Indeed, enlisting the support of the sangha has become a political sine qua non for all aspiring political players in this region of the world. Before colonialism, the sangha legitimated Buddhist kingship in these countries, as it does still in Thailand today. Contemporary politicos always seek, in one manner or another, to gain a similar legitimacy by winning support from members of the sangha. By attacking peacefully demonstrating members of the sangha violently in public, the Burmese political junta has crossed a threshold, one that has evaporated any modicum of legitimacy that it may have previously enjoyed. Were Burma democratic, then the military junta would have committed political suicide by its dastardly acts.
Aside from the military, the sangha is the only other nation-wide institution in Burma. While it is unlikely that the sangha will join with armed resistance groups representing other ethnic minorities in Burma, it is now clear from these recent events that the Burmese junta is isolated from the rest of Burmese society. It can only hold on to power by means of naked aggression against its own people, and against the moral and cultural values that the sangha embodies. By its actions, the junta has declared that it is now at war with Burmese culture itself.
John C. Holt (Ph.D. 1977) is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College. He has been named the Divinity School's 2007 Alumnus of the Year. The Alumnus of the Year Address, in which Dr. Holt will lecture on "The Spirit(s) of the Place: Buddhism and the Religious Culture of Laos," will be held next Thursday, November 1, at 4pm in the Swift Lecture Hall.
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