Active Non-Violence and More: Turning Wheel Media Interviews Alan Senauke

Active Non-Violence and More: TWM Interviews Alan Senauke

Have you ever wondered if non-violence is really enough in the face of corporate and political violence and pollution? Many Buddhists believe in non-violence and that all beings are Buddha. But does seeing Donald Trump as Buddha move the discussion forward, or does it just give him a pass to keep doing harm? To answer these questions, we’re posting a series of interviews with prominent BPF members, including this week’s talk withHozan Alan Senauke, BPF’s director from 1991 through 2002.  Stephen Crooms sat down with Alan recently to talk about Buddhism, non-violent resistance, and paths to change.

Stephen: In terms of Buddhist activism, I feel like a lot of times when we’re at a protest or at activist circles, we see “the bad guys.” We look at bankers or oil company executives, and we see these people who are doing wrong in the world, and I’m wondering what would be a Buddhist take on that. How do we look at compassion for people who are doing wrong? What’s the proper framework to look at them?

Alan: A non-dualistic perspective is to see all beings as Buddha. Now if you want to look at that through another lens, which is extremely important to me, is that MLK also had a non-dualistic way of looking at society. He was extremely critical of actions, and he knew where the actions came from but he was advocating with different language than you would use quite in Buddhism: a kind of unconditional acceptance of people, and not an acceptance of actions. So there’s a distinction between actions and people. And then that’s all very well and good, but how do you actually change people’s minds? How do you help people to see the larger context of their actions, and what may be distorted about that? I think that’s a radical assumption that all beings are Buddha or that it’s our challenge to love everyone. If you come to conflict or social difference with that in mind then you may act in a different way. It would lead you along a path that was generally non-violent, but what’s really important is that it does not mean the letting go of power.

Stephen: What do you mean?

Alan: People have this idea of nonviolence as— when I was growing up we heard a lot about passive resistance. But I’m talking about active non-violence, which means intervening in a way that interrupts an action. It may mean intervening in a way that brings the violence upon oneself, but not retaliating. So the power has two edges. First of all there has to be the internal power, which is something that we cultivate, you have to be trained. If I were to insult you, if you’re not trained in non-violence or non-reactivity, you’re going to do what you’re trained to do. You might insult me back, you might hit me or whatever.

Stephen: I’ll retaliate in some way.

Alan: You’ll retaliate how you were trained. So, the first thing to do is to cultivate the power and potentiality that you have to practice patience, to practice what is personal, what isn’t personal, and what might be useful to respond, to and what not. And all that calls for very careful discernment.

Stephen: Mindfulness.

Alan: Right. So that’s one place and then, you have to figure out what is in Buddhism called Upaya. Skilful means, which is another manifestation of power. What are the skilful means? If I’ve insulted you, what are the skilful means that you can bring to bear that help me see the impact of my actions or to help me change my mind. So there’s no distinction between inner and outer, but they’re both areas that we have to cultivate in ourselves. So, that’s non-violence means not without the use of power or force, but that force is doesn’t fall into the realm of coercion, manipulation retaliation, or physical violence.

Stephen: So what do you think would be some good examples of the correct way of going about this?

Alan: Well, if I’m going back historically, if we look at some of the campaigns in the fifties and sixties in the civil rights movement, they were quite brilliant. What they did was to aggregate the power of a community in opposition to a set of conditions or laws or whatever, that were oppressive and dehumanizing. They operated essentially locally, and there they always had an eye on a national constituency. And while there were victories in Montgomery, in Birmingham, in different places, those victories were also played out on the scale of a national perspective. Which ultimately led to changes in legislation, to some structural changes. It didn’t eradicate racism, as you may be aware…

Stephen: I heard.

Alan: But the change in consciousness is large, and in some places it doesn’t exist; there are backward places everywhere. But those were relatively successful nonviolent activities that had a large effect. I think the reason they worked, and the reason that later campaigns that King and others in the civil rights movement were not successful… my feeling is that [the successful campaigns] began in a spiritual context. They began in a community context; those things were sort of inseparable. So when King went to Chicago, he did not succeed. Because they were dealing with a community that was much more atomized, was not spiritually centered, was politically fragmented and he wasn’t able to have an effect there.

So leaping ahead, how change happens is mysterious. Right now we’re experiencing large change in Burma; there’s so many different threads, but essentially a non-violent movement is bringing the demise of a violent regime. [In the United States] I don’t know. I don’t think that the problem that my inability to articulate a Buddhist strategy for social change in America. I don’t think it’s a Buddhist failure. I think nobody has a strategy here. I don’t hear any Left strategy or progressive strategy. I mean nobody fucking knows what to do about the election; it looks like we’re able to count on the Republican party sort of tearing itself to pieces and so Obama, who generally I support, critically support, may very well win the election. But you know we’re gonna face another four years of complete stonewalling by the forces of reaction in this country, and I can’t see why it’s gonna be any different than the last four years. And I don’t see that the burst of energy and excitement around Occupy, which was really remarkable, once those places are no longer occupied, there’s not a basis for power. I mean that was real power; that was emotional power, intellectual power, image power, and it had to be shut down. You knew that was coming. So, I don’t know. I don’t have a particular encouraging vision.

Stephen: I guess we can see examples in the past where skilful means have been used and people really have come to see the error of their ways, and it’s happening now, but if it were that easy to come up with a new one in each particular situation, the world would probably be in much better shape.

Alan: And it’s never been easy. And despite the fact that all beings are essentially Buddha, we’re beset with greed, anger, and delusion and unless we sort of tackle that in a personal and systemic way, it’s not gonna go away, and those forces will be really powerful.

Stephen: Moving on to another topic, what project are you excited to be working on right now?

Alan: Well, I have a small non-profit right now called the Clear View Project, and I would say that the emphasis has been working with Buddhists internationally, both learning from them, and offering whatever resources we might have that have evolved here in the West from Buddhist traditions; and in a sense returning some of what has been offered to us so generously over a long period of time back in situations where it can be of use. So in India for the last four or five years, I’m working with what was formerly called Untouchables, or Dalit. I’m working primarily in a school in Nagpur for Buddhist youth, which is a yearlong program that they have, and aside from going there each year I’ve been raising money and supporting students in this school. They learn about meditation. They learn how to do it, how to teach it, how to lead it; they also learn about the teachings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and about basically social thought and how to deconstruct various caste barriers that they encounter, which are still very high.

Stephen: I know [Dr. Ambedkar] was a Dalit that converted to Buddhism…

Alan: Right, he was a Dalit who was highly educated and highly involved in his community. He had decided somewhere in the 1930s, he said, “I was born Hindu, but I will not die Hindu.” So he literally went on an exploration of all the great religious traditions to see which tradition he thought was the best fit for the wide community of Untouchables. And he landed on Buddhism as a path that he saw as essentially rational, and also indigenously Indian. So in 1956, he converted in the presence of 400,000 people, and then turned around and converted them, and at the same time there were other mass conversions that went on in India at that time. And then three weeks later he was dead.

Stephen: So he went out with a bang.

Alan: Yeah. And, he left this incredible legacy, but this legacy was to some degree unfulfilled. There was very little contact with the outside wider Buddhist world for a variety of reasons. And so one of the things that I do working with the communities that are functioning there on a religious level and on a social level, I see myself as a kind of link to the wider Buddhist world, which is very meaningful to them. Also, since we have, to the extent that some of us have, privilege or access to resources, to try and make those resources accessible to them.

Stephen: So I was gonna ask about that. You said, Buddhism in the western world, in terms of transmitting that back to the place that it came from, what do you feel we have—

Alan: I didn’t say that—it’s an important distinction, I wasn’t saying transmitted, I meant repay.

Stephen: Yeah so what I meant was, we have resources, as Western Buddhists, that they don’t have access to?

Alan: Well, we have material resources that they don’t have access to, and in a place like India and also the work that I’m doing in Burma, there’s very little resources in the kind of education and training that people are craving… I think that we also have some intellectual resources and ways of thinking about Buddhism and modernity that are relevant and different from some of the traditional ways that Buddhism has manifested in different parts of Asia. And I think that by way of inviting a critical perspective that’s also something useful that we can offer, so long as that we are not consciously or unconsciously imposing privileged Western values on other cultures.

Stephen: Right, you might imagine neo-colonialist Buddhism.

Alan: Absolutely. It’s not even just neocolonialism. What you see here, to have a critical view of Buddhism, certainly in the United States, there’s just a relentless tide of commodification of anything of value of any social values. So you can see that having manifested in the civil rights movement, in the feminist movement, in the left. And of course it’s going to; it’s the American way. It’s going to manifest in Buddhism as well, so that’s not something that you wanna do. I really believe in, the people that I’m working with are grassroots people, not top level people. So that I think coming from the West we really have to be very tuned into that hazard. Even our magazines I mean, if you look at some of the major Buddhist magazines, it’s really interesting to see the same people on the cover; I mean, can they go an issue without an article about Thich Nhat Nanh? Or the Dalai Lama? It’s the establishment of personality and brand; there are hundreds of really strong grounded teachers, articulate, and most of them you don’t hear anything about.

Stephen: I have one final basic question. We’re doing this for new members to see who they’re getting involved with. So, why are you involved with BPF or Clear View Project? You could probably write a book on that.

Alan: I did write a book on that. [laughs] Because I feel like there is no way to be free without seeing the circumstances of everyone in the world. And because I feel a responsibility to help people see the places both in ourselves and in our world that they might not otherwise see. I feel that that is the responsibility that I’ve been given. They’re not very many people in the Buddhist world who have the perspective that I do. There are some. But I’ve had the opportunity to encounter people in a lot of different settings internationally—there are not many American Buddhists who are internationalists. There’s aren’t. They might relate to their particular tradition which comes from another country, but other than that, they’re not looking at Buddhism widely, and at the same time looking at the destructive effects of globalization, and also the other side, the opportunities of global connection. And that’s my responsibility and it’s also a responsibility to remind people here because we’re so self-obsessed.

Stephen: Individualism.

Alan: Yeah, remind us, hey this actually came from someplace. So it’s sort of a multi-faceted sense of responsibility.

© 2012 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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Winter 2014 Fundraising

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6 December 2014

Dear Friends,

 I am running late with this year’s fundraising letter, having just returned from four weeks in Asia. It was a rich trip—though not always easy—with visits to Tamil Nadu, Nagpur, and Mumbai in India and to Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Northern Shan State in Burma. I have much to report and I’ll post about my travels on the Clear View website and blog in the coming days. But I will be brief here.

 As always, we need your help to sustain and expand our giving in Burma, India, and elsewhere. During 2014 Clear View has been able to donate nearly $15,000 to a variety of projects in Asia and in the U.S. In modest ways we have been supporting schools, training programs, meditation centers, and clinics for the last seven years. Some of these are small one-time projects. Some are larger, more ambitious efforts in which our support is pooled with others.

 Clear View is intentionally personal and small in scale. My effort is to build friendship, to encourage, and connect friends to other friends with deeper pockets. Throughout my life and work this has been my networking strategy. For 2015 I am highlighting three Buddhist-based projects I just visited in Asia.

 • Nagaloka/Nagarjuna Training Institute in Nagpur, India: Clear View has been supporting Nagaloka for the last five years. Nagaloka/NTI is a kind of second home for me. It is joyful to practice with, learn from, and teach the young NTI students, Dalit Buddhists from poor rural areas across India hewing to the radical social vision of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Please see their website: http://www.nagaloka.org

 • Sakya Hostels in Chennai, India: These hostels were organized for displaced or orphaned Dalit children after 2004’s devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami. Ten years on they are going strong, with separate facilities for young boys and girls, offering room, board, and love as students attend local schools. They are loosely in the same network as Nagaloka, with independent funding and structure.

 • Sasana Hitakari nunnery and school in Lashio, Burma:  Just now emerging from fifty years of dictatorship, Burma’s education and social welfare systems depend on the monastic and community resources of nuns and monks. With more than 400 students Sasana Hitakari, in northern Shan state where armed hostilities are ongoing, uses a progressive “child-centered learning” model to educate children for a new world while preserving Buddhist values of service and cooperation. Walking through the bright, open schoolrooms, I found myself thinking, “I’d like to have gone to a school like this.”

There is much more I could say, more I would like to share. But for now, simply: please put a check to us in the mail today: CVP, 1933 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94703.  Or donate at “Give to Clear View”  We deeply appreciate your friendship and support. And we welcome your thoughts and comments.

Warmly, in peace, 

Alan

Alan

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RIGHT ANGER AND THE PATH TO THE END OF CASTE by Hozan Alan Senauke

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And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
                                                                                                 —Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

Earlier this year Buddhist Peace Fellowship invited several teachers to offer engaged Buddhist commentaries on the Four Noble Truths. These Truths, the Buddha’s great discovery, can be characterized in this way:

1. What is the Nature of Suffering?
2. What is the Cause of Suffering?
3. What is the End of Suffering?
4. What is the Path to the End of Suffering?

But they can also serve as a broader tool for social analysis:

1. What is the problem?
2. What is its source or cause?
3. What is its purpose? Or, what would its end look like?
4. How do we get there?

For this series I chose to draw on my experience with India’s new Buddhists. This movement grows from the work of the visionary 20th Century leader B. R. Ambedkar, and continues as a modern and transformative force among India’s former “untouchables.” In this fourth essay in the series, I would like to consider the Path, and propose an as yet un-named element of the path: Right Anger.

This notion — Right Anger — will leave some Buddhist shaking their heads in disbelief, but consider recent news from India. The October 15 Times of India reported the following from India’s northern Bihar state.

In a barbaric incident, a group of four upper caste men on Wednesday burned alive a Mahadalit boy just because the latter’s goat had entered the agricultural field of one of the assailants.

The incident occurred at village Mohanpur under Karakat police station in Rohtas district on Wednesday afternoon when a village strongman, Kumkum Singh, and his three associates forcibly entered the house of one Jiut Ram and set the latter’s 15-year old son, Sai Ram, afire after pouring kerosene oil on him from a can. The boy’s only crime was that his goat entered the farm of Singh a few hours earlier. The boy was earlier thrashed black and blue by Singh and his associates. The boy somehow managed to run away to his home, but the assailants followed him.
                Bikramganj SDPO Ashok Kumar Das said the victim had sustained 90% burn injuries. He was rushed to Bikramganj for treatment, but died soon after being admitted to a government hospital.

Three days later, India’s Business Standard provided further context for a wave of caste-based atrocities in Bihar, which is among the poorest states in India. The atrocities include arson gang-rape and murder, crimes which often go uncharged and unpunished.

Mahadalits, the poorest of the socially marginalised in Bihar, have been targeted by powerful feudal forces which have the full support of opposition BJP to defame and destabilize the government led by Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit himself, the head of the organisation meant for the community’s welfare has said.
“It is unfortunate but true that suddenly there are reports of a rise in atrocities against Mahadalits in Bihar. Mahadalits have become soft target of powerful feudal forces with the backing of BJP to defame and embarrass the state’s first Mahadalit chief minister,” Bihar Mahadalit Commission chairman Uday Kumar told IANS in an interview.
“The powerful feudal forces are not ready to digest the fact that a Mahadalit is the chief minister,” he added.

You can read such stories every day on the back pages of India’s newspapers. Anger is a completely understandable response. The anger of those directly victimized by caste violence, and the anger of those who care about the rights and well-being of all people. But such stories are nothing new. A June 2014 op-ed in the New York Times speaks to the vulnerability of Dalit women.

For much of India’s history the lower castes, especially the Dalits (once known as untouchables), have been routinely raped by the landowning upper castes…An analysis of Uttar Pradesh’s crime statistics for 2007 by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties showed that 90 percent of rape victims in 2007 were Dalit women.

Though women are targeted on the basis of gender and caste, for more than two thousand years men, women, and children have been victimized as the lowest of the low within a rigid and violent hierarchical system that, despite constitutional and legal protections, still sees a quarter of India’s population as less than human.

India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) documents crimes against Dalits and Tribal Peoples — those most grievously oppressed — in their own category. These crimes are vastly under-reported, “but even so the figures for 2012 are revealing: 651 cases of murder, 3,855 cases where people were hurt, 1,576 cases of rape, 490 cases of kidnapping and abduction, and 214 cases of arson.”

Again, anger simply arises and it calls out for further examination. Is anger by definition a “defilement,” a manifestation of delusion? Or might it be at once the cause and the fruit of other aspects of the Eightfold Path? In Pali, each step on the Path — samma ditthi or right view, samma sankappa or right intention, samma vaca or right speech, and so on — is characterized by the word samma, which is conventionally translated as “right” (though never as “righteous”). Samma has a rich range of meanings including: proper, complete, thorough, full. In this case we might have this newly compounded term samma kodha, which means something like proper or appropriate anger. That is, anger at violence, oppression, and injustice which suffering beings impose on other beings. For Dr. Ambedkar and for the movement that has emerged from his work, anger may very well serve to point the way to refuge in the Buddha’s way, and to all the other steps along the path.

In Healing Anger, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s commentary on the 8th Century India sage Shantideva’s teachings of patience, anger is contrasted with hatred.

…“anger” as it is understood in English, can be positive in very special circumstances. These occur when anger is motivated by compassion or when it acts as an impetus or catalyst for positive action. In such rare circumstances anger can be positive whereas hatred can never be positive.

In the accounts above, in what we see taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Bay Area killing of Oscar Grant, in the caste, race, and religious violence that thousands and thousands face every day, what is the right response, the liberative impulse? We must have a moral response, one that provides refuge all beings, low and high. In his essay “Buddha and the Future of His Religion,” Dr. Ambedkar writes:

It is not enough for religion to consist of a moral code, but its moral code must recognize the fundamental tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity. Unless a religion recognizes these three fundamental principles of social life, religion will be doomed.

A striking example, which turns on the very notion of patience, is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Written by Dr. King to Birmingham’s “moderate” clergy in April of 1963, in the midst of a bitterly contested campaign of nonviolent protest against segregation, I can think of no clearer expression of Right Anger. In the passage below, Dr. King succinctly lays out his method.*

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In accounts from India, in what we see taking place in Ferguson, Missouri, in the Bay Area killing of Oscar Grant, in the caste, race, and religious violence that thousands and thousands face every day, what is the right response, the liberative impulse? We must have a moral response, one that provides refuge all beings. In his essay “Buddha and the Future of His Religion,” Dr. Ambedkar writes:

It is not enough for religion to consist of a moral code, but its moral code must recognize the fundamental tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity. Unless a religion recognizes these three fundamental principles of social life, religion will be doomed.

The Buddhist precepts speak our moral code, flowing from and leading to liberty, equality, and fraternity. The precepts’ instruction regarding anger is not to suppress it or pretend that our anger doesn’t come up. The instruction is not to “harbor” anger and ill-will. Our awareness of anger allows us to turn and put it to use. This is the transformative power of the Buddha’s precepts. When we see violence, harm, and evil, then anger readily rises. This is where the rest of the Eightfold Path comes in. Instead of retaliating in anger, returning violence for violence, we practice Right Anger, using the Path’s tools for understanding and inquiry — right view, right resolve, right mindfulness, and right concentration — in order to engage in the liberative work of right effort, right action, right speech, and right livelihood. The path is complete. May all beings be free.

**I encourage you to read the whole text of King’s letter and browse through his collected writing at: 
< http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/resources/article/annotated_letter_from_birmingham/&gt;
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In Memory of Nancy Jo McClellan / Seiu Shinshu 1942 – 2014

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Our good friend Nancy McClellan—Seiu Shinshu/Gentle Rain Deep Resolve—passed away peacefully early on the morning of October 8 at Elmwood Care Center in Berkeley. A small circle of friends and teachers were at her bedside shortly after she passed. We set up a simple altar and chanted the Heart Sutra as we circumambulated Nancy’s body. We also had an opportunity to speak to her on this occasion of transition and closed with the Pali refuges. In the zendo that morning we sounded the densho bell 108 times to support Nancy on her journey into the unknown.

On Friday afternoon, September 19, after helping on the grounds following a wedding at BZC, Nancy was assaulted as she went to her car, which was parked on Russell Street at the corner of Otis, right across from the Zen center. What appears to have been an unsuccessful carjacking escalated quickly in violence. Despite the rapid response of Berkeley police and an emergency medical team, Nancy did not regain consciousness after the incident. She received wonderful care at Highland Hospital, and was visited by many friends over the two weeks there. Her assailant was apprehended by the police shortly after the attack and awaits trial on murder charges in Alameda County court in Oakland.

Anyone coming to BZC was likely to know Nancy. She was funny and deeply creative individual, able to catch any of us, or herself, off balance at a given moment and then be able to laugh. Whether or not one knew her personally—I find it very hard to write in the past tense—all of us around BZC enjoyed the fruits of her ceaseless work in our gardens over many years. She poured her practice and passion into our grounds—planting, weeding, pruning, watering, nurturing. It was not unusual to see Nancy mowing the lawns as the dark of evening fell.

She was also a painter (with an MFA from SF Art Institute), writer and actor, involved with improvisational theater over many years. She had a great photographic eye as well. See Nancy’s Flickr site.

A memorial ceremony, open to all of Nancy’s friends and family, will be scheduled in the near future. Meanwhile, all of us at BZC mourn Nancy’s passing, and we struggle to understand what we might learn from this moment even as we mourn.

Gate, Gate
Paragate,
Parasamgate
Bodhi Svaha!

—Hozan Alan Senauke

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Alan’s New Book — Heirs To Ambedkar: The Rebirth of Engaged Buddhism in India

 

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While many people know of Buddhism as part of India’s past, it may well be India’s future. The Buddhist movement inspired by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the 1950s has taken root as an “engaged Buddhist” uprising among millions in the 21st century. Heirs To Ambedkar draws from Alan Senauke’s experience with and commitment to this movement. Since young people are the future of our world, the focus here is on the students of Nagaloka/Nagarjuna Training Institute, creating a generation of gifted Buddhist activists.

Dr. Ambedkar’s Buddhist revolution, which Alan Senauke so perceptively describes as “hidden in plain sight”, is now transforming the lives of millions of Dalits, and at the same time strengthening the ethical foundations of Indian democracy.    It also has implications for all Buddhists and social activists throughout the world.

                                                                                                                          — Dh. Lokamitra

 
Available for $15 postpaid in the U.S. from Clear View Press, 1933 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA 94703 U.S.A   And, along with other Clear View books, music, and video from  <clearviewproduct.com>                                                                                                           If you have questions or difficulty with the website, please email me directly at: alan@clearviewproject.org
 

 

 

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The Fire This Time: Religious Violence in Burma

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred only is hatred appeased.  This is an unending truth.

— Dhammapada, 5

 

On February 27, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was ordered to close all its long-established clinics in Myanmar/Burma. They were accused of giving preferential treatment to Muslin Rohingya people. This was in response to statements by MSF about what they saw as ongoing and systematic attacks on Rohingyas in vulnerable communities of Burma’s western Rakhine state. According to U.N. documents the latest of these attacks — in Du Chee Yar Tan village this January — left forty-eight Rohingya dead, mostly women and children, at the hands of Buddhist-based rioters and state security forces. MSF, with numerous clinics in the area, publicly reported that they had treated at least twenty-two victims.  The government of Myanmar has denied claims of these abuses, asserting that the U.N. and MSF’s facts and figures were “totally wrong.”

After negotiations the government stepped back a little, allowing MSF to continue its HIV/AIDS work and other activities in Kachin and Shan states, as well as in the Yangon region. Rakhine state remains off limits to MSF, despite the pressing needs of thousands from all religions and ethnicities who depend on their clinics.

Before going much further I should say that nothing I write can convey the complexity of issues or the passion and fear that fires both sides. From my distant vantage point in the U.S., I know that I can’t see the whole picture, which includes colonial history, geopolitics, along with regional and ethnic tensions within modern Myanmar.

***

Seven years ago the junta’s harsh economic measures brought a daring movement into the streets of Burma’s towns and cities. That movement came to be called the “Saffron Revolution.” Many thousands of Burmese joined the tide of protest, led by monks and nuns who stood up to the armed troops of an entrenched military dictatorship. The vision of a river of robed monastics and stark images of courageous confrontations of activists and soldiers are still clear in my mind. It was inspiring to see Buddhist monks and nuns take the lead and bear great risk for the sake of their nation.

Inspiring as it was, the Saffron Revolution was crushed by the junta’s armed forces in the late days of September 2007.  Monasteries were emptied, with police cordons set up at their gates. Thousands of monks, nuns, and supporters were thrown into prisons or disappeared.  An unknown number were killed. According to some reports, crematoriums on the outskirts of Yangon were operating night and day. When I visited Yangon with a small witness delegation in December of that year, we saw for ourselves the silent streets, empty monasteries, and the look of fear on people’s faces.

The Buddhist-led Saffron Revolution opened the world’s eyes to the plight of Burma. Images of brutality, violence, and murder — smuggled out at great risk — raised the stakes between the junta and citizenry. The whole nation — citizens and junta alike — was shamed by these images.  That shame deepened the following year when Cyclone Nargis tore across southern Burma, leaving more than 150,000 dead, and large areas of population and agricultural devastated.  The junta’s sluggish response and resistance to outside humanitarian relief drove the death toll higher. Once again, Burma was shamed before itself and the world.

In the spring of 2011 a flawed but nonetheless significant election seemed to set the course for a period of liberalization after fifty years of direct oppression. Many of us were heartened by this change and by the return of Nobel-laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to active political life.  In time almost all of the thousands of known political prisoners, many of them monks and nuns, were released, rededicating themselves to the building of a free society.

These changes, tentative as they seemed, were hopeful signs, acknowledged by the wide community of nations and by international non-governmental organizations ready to help with resources and training. On my visits to Burma I could feel a burden of fear lifting and the sense that a future was possible. Although there was still active fighting between government troops and rebel forces in Shan and Kachin states, it was possible to imagine an end to internal violence after so many years.

But in May of 2012 the rape and murder of a woman in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, touched off violence between groups of ethnically Buddhist Rakhine people and local communities of Muslim Rohingyas. Hundreds were killed, dozens of villages looted and burned, many Rohingyas fled to hastily-constructed camps. The population of these camps is now approaching 200,000, out of an estimated population of 750,000 Muslims in Rakhine State.

 ***

Over the last two years voices and acts of intolerance in Burma have been regularly in the news.  As have the government’s denials of discrimination or responsibility.  Burma’s minister of religious affairs Sann Sint, a lieutenant general in the former junta, justified a boycott of Muslim businesses led by monks. “We are now practicing market economics,” he said. “Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers.”

In May of 2013 authorities in Rakhine state announced a policy imposing a two-child limit on Muslim Rohingya families in two western townships, reinforcing the perception of ethnic cleansing in Burma. This alarming policy is the only known legal restriction of its kind today against a specific religious group.

According to the June 14, 2013 edition of The Irrawaddy, “About 200 senior Buddhist monks convening in Rangoon on Thursday have begun drafting a religious law that would put restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men.”

In July the international edition of Time magazine added fuel to the fire with a cover photo of the fundamentalist Burmese monk Wirathu, calling him “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”  President Thein Sein’s office released a statement about Wirathu and his fundamentalist 969 movement, saying 969 “is just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha.”

Anti-Islamic violence has spread to other areas of the country. March 2013 riots in Meikitla, in central Burma south of Mandalay, left forty-four people dead and thousands of homes consumed by flames. Later, two days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio — the largest town in Burma’s Shan State, near the Chinese border — left a mosque, an orphanage, and many shops destroyed by Buddhist-identified mobs roaming the streets on motorcycles.

Undoubtedly there has been violence on both sides. But in each of these instances the preponderance of organized reaction seems to be Buddhist-identified, often with leadership from monks, and with minimal response from the government and the Burmese army only after damage has been done. Local people describe the military as standing by and watching as the destruction unfolds.

This conflict has tangled roots going back decades to the British colonial occupation and years before. But the current tensions also speak to contention over scarce agricultural land and economic resources that manifests as communal hostility. Rakhine State, an independent kingdom for several thousand years, was only absorbed into a greater Burma at the end of the 18th Century, then ceded to the British only forty years later. Under the military dictatorship, the Rakhine State was exploited by the generals for its rich natural resources and labor. In the north it was pressed by an ever-expanding “Bengali” population of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. It is no surprise that Rakhine fear of “Bengalis” and suspicion of outsiders is evident. 

One wonders, too, whether we are seeing garden-variety religio-or ethno-centrism, a disease of group identity and privilege that is sadly endemic among humans? Is there also a perverse political motivation, in which the former military junta is “allowing” the violence so they can intervene and reassert their position as the preservers of social order in Burma?

Rohingyas have lived in Burma in Rakhine state for generations, and very likely for several hundred years, although the facts are hotly contested. The former military regime’s 1982 law excluded them from among the nation’s 135 recognized ethnicities, denying the Rohingyas citizenship and basic rights on the basis that they were in fact “Bengali,” having infiltrated Burma from the eastern region of the Indian Empire. Yet present day neighbor Bangladesh denies citizenship to Rohingyas living within its own borders.  In the background, of course, is a fear rooted in the historical sweep of Islam across Buddhist and Hindu India, and on across large portions of Southeast Asia.

The Rakhine State region, with natural gas reserves and a long shoreline on the Indian Ocean, is also at play in geopolitical tensions between China and India, each with its eye on Burma’s wealth and strategic location.  It is not surprising that the United Nations views the Rohingyas as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”

Myanmar/Burma is still in a delicate transition to democracy after fifty years of military dictatorship. The 2008 constitution reserves one quarter of the seats in both legislative bodies to delegates from the tatmadaw/military. It is hard to imagine Burma going back to its dark ages, yet within recent memory we can recall the dissolution Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into oppositional ethnic and religious enclaves when Soviet-style dictatorship ended.  One hopes against hope for better in Burma.  We look to the government of Burma, including President Thien Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to play an active and nonviolent role in resolving conflicts between Buddhists, Muslims, and all ethnic groups. Central to this resolution is a guarantee of citizenship, human, and religious rights to all Burma’s diverse inhabitants. So far their response has been evasive.  

At a press conference with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in early March of this year, Jim Brooke, editor of The Cambodia Daily asked her to address the plight of Burma’s Rohingya People.  Suu Kyi’s response was indirect to say the least. She said:

 In any society, when there are tensions between different communities, you have to first of all ensure security. People who are insecure will not be ready to sit down to talk to one another to sort out their problems. So if you ask me what the solution is to the problem in the Rakhine, I would say simply ‘I don’t know what the solution is completely, but one essential part of it is the establishment of the rule of law.’

 It seems to me that when the house is burning down, it’s not the time to discuss the fire department’s management policy. At the same time, one can understand Daw Suu’s vulnerable political position as parliamentary elections approach in 2015. Fundamentalist Buddhists have already begun to form alliances with the former junta generals to block Aung San Suu Kyi’s eligibility to stand for the Myanmar’s presidency.

 The views of many “progressive” Buddhists are defensive and locked down with regard to Muslims. This can also be seen as an artifact of a military dictatorship that dismantled an excellent education system in a successful effort to replace knowledge with fear, mistrust, and superstition. A friend recently returned from Myanmar, where she was evaluating a residential program in peacebuilding for Buddhist activists, reports that even voices of moderation, reflection, and dialogue are now being effectively silenced. 

 A monk in Sittwe, capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, told my friend:

 … Rakhine (people) do not like the talk of foreigners on human rights, and their suggestions to accept Muslims. The Rakhine           have too much fear and lack trust…. They fear Muslims will take over their land, and feel betrayed by foreigners who come to help Muslims and not them.

I don’t assume that the concerns of Rakhine Buddhist have no factual basis. Violence by individual Muslims is also part of the picture. But it might be that the fears and acts of Buddhists, the demonization of Rohingyas and of Muslims throughout Burma, are creating the very conditions they fear most, with an increasing internationalization of an organized and potentially violent Islamic pushback.  

Burma seems headed into a maelstrom of inter-communal conflict.  And this may very well fit the purposes of still-powerful generals and politicians whose vision is to create a strong nationalist entity with a Burmese Buddhist identity. Ethnic confrontation in Burma challenges many of our cherished ideas of a “peaceful” Buddhism and religious fellowship. We know that the Buddha’s teaching and example are profoundly nonviolent, but for those of us inside and outside Burma who may have idealized a Buddhist-based nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights there, violence in Rakhine State and elsewhere is a discouraging reality.

And this is not confined to Burma. A decade of conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand has left more than 6000 dead and 10,000 injured. In Sri Lanka, after the murderous suppression of a Hindu Tamil minority in the north by Singhalese Buddhist nationalist military, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have taken a center stage.  In the modern era we see again and again: where a national state and religious identity merge, nothing wholesome will emerge. 

I know there are countless open-minded citizens, monks, and nuns in Burma who desire peace and harmony among all religions and ethnicities. May they have the courage to speak out. And may they remember that what happens in the name of Buddhism affects how people around the world view this precious path that we strive to follow. Shakyamuni Buddha lived in a place and age of great diversity and change. He never taught fear. He never advocated violence. He did not hesitate to speak out for what was right and just.  I would hope that Buddhists of today, whether they are in Burma or the West, would hold themselves to the same high standard. May all beings live in safety and happiness.

—  Hozan Alan Senauke

Clear View Project

March 2014

 

Postscript: What Can I Do?

Many Buddhists and concerned people in the West want to know what we can do to be of help in this painful situation. Over the last two years I have organized and taken part in letter-writing campaigns to Myanmar’s government, the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department by citizens and Buddhist teachers from Asia and the West. So far, to no avail.  By long habit the government of Myanmar is relatively heedless of outside criticism, and they know that money from developed nations will continue to flow in their direction so long as Burma has resources to sell. 

 Nonetheless, we have to try. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield just returned from Burma and he suggests the following:

 …write or contact your congresspeople and the State Department, pressing the U.S. not to support major aid, business deals, and especially military collaboration with Burma unless the Burmese government stands up for human rights for all groups. Western Buddhist can write to Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs www.mora.gov.mm/ expressing your concerns.

 I would also urge you to stay informed and be watchful. Online publications like www.irrawaddy.org/ as well as conventional sources like the New York Times, and the BBC do a good job following this issue.

 I am encouraged by discussions that took place at last November’s conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists www.inebnetwork.org/ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Throughout the conference, Burmese Buddhists and Muslims held a daily dialogue behind closed doors, where they could begin to map out both differences and possible solutions. Growing from these discussions, a commission of inquiry has been organized by a recently-formed International Forum on Buddhist-Muslim Relations. This fact-finding commission plans to meet and collaborate with local civil-society bodies inside Myanmar. It will have three primary objectives:

1. to bring forth the facts of Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar;

2. to ascertain the causes of this conflict;

3. to develop resources and proposals for the establishment of inter-religious peace and harmony in Myanmar.

People of Burma and of the whole Southeast Asian region will need to solve these problems by their own agency.  I believe they can do this and they will need us to bear witness and lend support. In time we will be able to offer help.

As the situation evolves, I will do my best to keep you informed in these pages and on the Clear View Project website and blog www.clearviewproject.org.

 —  A.S.

 

 

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A Fact-Finding Commission — Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar

Here is the press release for an important initiative that came out of our INEB meeting in Malaysia two weeks ago.  The meeting itself had an ongoing focus on interfaith relations, particularly between Buddhists and Muslims in South and Southeast Asia.  We read about tensions between these communities in Burma/Myanmar, but issues are also at a flashpoint in Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.  
 
The challenge of organizing and staffing a truly open fact-finding commission is not going to be a simple or easy matter.  INEB and JUST, the sponsoring organizations, take this responsibility seriously, knowing that the well-being of our friends and allies inside Myanmar are at stake. 
 
If you have further questions, please direct them either to me or to the INEB office at the footer of this page.  As this initiative takes shape, I will provide further information. 
Peace, 
Hozan Alan Senauke
 
*****
 
 
 
Joint Press Release
International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)
International Movement for a Just World (JUST)
November 20, 2013
 
Towards the Creation of a Fact-Finding Commission
on Relations Between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar

 

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) concluded its biennial conference on November 4 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, our first such meeting in a Muslim-majority nation.  The conference theme — Inter-Faith Dialogue for Peace and Sustainability — points to the interdependence of Buddhists and Muslims throughout Southeast Asia.  A long history of harmonious relations across all the nations of this region has been challenged in recent years by inter-religious conflicts rooted in a complexity of economic, political, social, and cultural tensions. INEB’s mission is to respect the integrity of all religions and people, restoring harmony wherever possible.
 
A significant outcome of this unique gathering was the affirmation of the establishment of an international forum for Buddhist-Muslim relations, drawing from members of INEB and Malaysia-based International Movement for a Just World (JUST).   
 
At the close of the conference, a special session brought together Buddhist monks and laypeople, Muslims, and concerned friends from inside and outside Myanmar to consider conflicts and violence that have taken place inside that country over the last two years.  Participants in this session, including people of four religions and from interfaith partners inside Myanmar, called upon this interfaith forum to establish a fact-finding commission to examine relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar.
 
Collaborating with local civil-society bodies inside Myanmar, this fact-finding commission would have three objectives:
 
1. to bring forth the facts of Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar;
2. to ascertain the causes of this conflict;
3. to develop resources and proposals for the establishment of inter-religious peace and harmony in Myanmar.
 
Guided by these objectives, an open-minded interfaith group will research conditions inside Myanmar and offer advice and support for the restoration of inter-religious and inter-ethnic stability. Members of INEB see this work as the embodiment of our vision of peace and sustainability across the region and among all peoples.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
INTERNATIONAL NETWORK OF ENGAGED BUDDHISTS (INEB)

INEB Secretariat Office
666 Charoennakorn Road, Klongsan, 

Bangkok 10600 SIAM (Thailand)
Tel. (+66) 081 803 6442      
secretariat@inebnetwork.org           
www.inebnetwork.org
 
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________
 
 
 
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