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 expressing your concerns.

 I would also urge you to stay informed and be watchful. Online publications like 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 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

 —  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. 
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.

INEB Secretariat Office
666 Charoennakorn Road, Klongsan, 

Bangkok 10600 SIAM (Thailand)
Tel. (+66) 081 803 6442  
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All People Are Chosen, All Lands Are Holy: from an Interfaith Dialogue on Peace & Sustainability

 This is the text of a talk given on 1 November 2013 at the Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM) in Kuala Lumpur, at the start of the 2013 conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.  At IKIM there were presentations on interfaith relations by Dr. Azizan Baharuddin, Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, and myself.  I began, briefly, by acknowledging my appreciation for the other presenters, then leading a practice of breathing together for a few moments.  Key parts of this talk were developed from an essay I wrote in 2002, “Through a Glass Darkly: A Buddhist View of Israel & Palestine.”      

Petronas Tower, Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Tower, Kuala Lumpur


Lets begin by taking a few minutes to breathe silently together.  Please close your eyes and sit upright.  Take a long breath in and let it out slowly.  Take a few breaths like this.  When you are ready, just settle into a natural rhythm of breath.  In your mind you may reflect on my words, offer a simple prayer, or simply enjoy a feeling of peace, of being alive together.

The air we breathe is a fabric that weaves together all life on the planet. Everywhere, every moment every sentient being is breathing.  The air – clean or smoggy, steamy or cool – connects us and allows us to be together in a common physical activity, the motion of breath.  We breathe and we are breathed by forces that are beyond our understanding. Please just enjoy this common act of life.


Thank you for taking these few minutes to reflect and act together.  It is common, human activity that we need.


The essence of my talk today is a simple and challenging principle: All people are chosen; all lands are holy. Let me say that again: All people are chosen; all lands are holy.

I should say that I was born into a secular Jewish family in the United States. My grandparents and great grandparents fled religious repression, violence, and military conscription in eastern Europe one hundred years ago.  Over more than five thousand years going back to the earliest Hebrew scriptures, Jews carry with us the myth of the chosen people.  And then there is the myth of the holy land, a story that continues to bring great suffering to peoples of the Middle East.

I have never been able to accept these myths. Visions of chosen people and holy lands seduce us.  The obsessive nature of religious, ethnic, and national identity is not sustainable, nor does it lead to peace.

At an early age I set aside my religion of birth and began a search for spiritual teachings that fit with how I saw the world.  By the time I reached college, I had come to admire Buddhism.  In the simplest terms the Buddha explained: “I teach about suffering and the end of suffering.”  This teaching continues to inspire me.

Still, I carry two powerful models in mind.  In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we hear the voice of the prophets, preaching justice and righteousness in society, speaking truth to power.  In Buddhism we admire the Bodhisattva, who selflessly places the wellbeing of others before him or herself.  Two streams of faith from two sides of the world — Jewish elders and Buddha ancestors — converge in my heart.  They speak to each other and I try to listen.

When I consider that all lands are holy, two Zen Buddhist sayings come to mind. The first is: “There is no place in the world to spit.”  Every place is precious to those who live there.  Every place is the center of the world.  So, of course, there is no room for thoughtless actions that defile the land and poison the air and waters.  The path of peace is to take equal care of every place.

The second Zen saying that comes to mind is this: “If you create an understanding of holiness, you will succumb to all errors.” Just as all lands are holy, we can see that elevating one people splits the world in two. An exclusive holiness — my people, my religion, my nation — plants poisonous seeds of “us and them.” From such seeds war and hatred grow. In the name of what is holy, the soil of countless nations has absorbed the blood of crusaders, soldiers, defenders, martyrs, and other innocent people.

From a Buddhist perspective, our limited view, our self-centered attachment to these views is the source of suffering. Self-centeredness causes us to live at the expense of others. From this root we readily grow a kind of cultural or national self-centeredness, with individual suffering manifesting as policies of religious and ethnic intolerance, generation to generation, forging chains of suffering out of fear and anger. And we use violence to enforce this identity.

Verses 3-5 of the Dhammapada speak to this.

He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me

— for those who brood on this, violence isn’t stilled.

Violence is never stilled through violence, regardless.

Violence only ceases are stilled through love.

This is an unending truth.


With Buddhism and Islam prevalent in Southeast Asia, we have seen the rise of inter-communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka over the last decade. Our effort in this forum, at this conference, and in the mission of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists is to recognize our common humanity and our common right to life. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with recognition that “…the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

The enlightened center of Buddhism and the peaceful heart of Islam, along with the essence of many other religious traditions, are often lost in a world that is governed by global politics and multinational corporations. Where religion, the state, and economics join forces narrowness and prejudice readily arise.  This unholy alliance is more about power than faith.  In a religious state the religious community in power has the preponderance of power, resources, and weapons.  At this forum we begin with words, but peace and sustainability in Southeast Asia or anywhere across the globe depend on much more than words. We can talk about equality, generosity, and all kind of high-minded principles. But until we recognize that all people are chosen, that we are our brother’s brother and our sister’s sister, nothing fundamental will change.

Article 1o f the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:  All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 25 puts this in concrete terms:  Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”

We also recognize that sustainability is a global issue. Southeast Asia suffers from overpopulation and from global warming.  Agricultural output is threatened and fresh water is at a premium even as oceans rise and overrun low-lying coastal areas. The exponential rise of co2 from factories, energy production, and fossil-fuel-powered vehicles has destabilized weather patterns; unseasonable and cyclones, hurricanes, tornados, and floods rake across our continents.

These man-made crises will not just go away.  Nor will they be resolved by the actions or technology of any one nation.  If all beings are chosen in the sense that our deepest nature is enlightened being, we are also chosen together to face all the self-created

In one of his last books, my late teacher Robert Aitken Roshi wrote a Zen fable with talking animals.  The wise Owl and Brown Bear discuss the Buddha’s Eightfold Path Owl asks, “…where does Right Realization come in?”

Brown Bear said, “Right Views! Right Views!”

Owl said, “What are Right Views?”

Brown Bear said, “We’re in it together, and we don’t have much time.”

—   from Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird

We are all in this world together and we don’t have much time.  Even in the United States — a nation whose lands were stolen from indigenous people and tribes, and whose wealth was built on the backs of slaves shipped like cattle from Africa and worked to death on farms and in the fields — there are many of us from all religious and political traditions who know that our privilege and empire are not sustainable.

Today, we have begun with words, but words are not enough.  I hope that our efforts at this forum and in our meetings over the next few days will lead to dedicated and cooperative action.  Buddhist and Muslims, living in the same cities, farming the same lands, fishing the same rivers and seas, must work hand in hand.  As all people on this planet must.

If there are differences between us we must learn to respect and even treasure those differences, even those that seem to contradict our beliefs. This is the true variety of human creativity.  We have to do this carefully and kindly.  That will not be easy, but it is necessary if the world itself is to survive. Let us dedicate the next few days and the work that flows from these days to this common purpose.  Warm hand to warm hand.


 In our Buddhist traditions we end our meditation, prayers, and devotional services with what is called a dedication of merit. The particular form of this dedication varies, but it calls on us to offer our efforts and our abundance to all beings, not to hold these benefits for ourselves.  I’d like to close by sharing a dedication that we use at Berkeley Zen Center for our weekly peace service.  I hope this will find a resonance in your hearts here today.


Peace Dedication    (revised 10.2013)

With a deep desire for peace we have offered light, flowers, and incense, our words and prayers.  May the merit of these offerings reach everywhere  — to save all sentient beings in worlds of suffering and confusion; to encourage us to nourish compassion and selflessness; to end all wars; to avert the calamities of epidemic and famine, and the destructive forces of fire, water, wind, and earth; to rejoice in our different ways and faiths while recognizing the intimate connection of all life on this fragile planet.  May we together with all beings realize the path of peace and harmony.

— Hozan Alan Senauke

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Some Thoughts About Engaged Buddhism and Wrong Mindfulness

An Interview with Hozan Alan Senauke by John Malkin, March 2013


What is the interaction between practices like meditation and social change? 

When I began an activist path I did not see any interaction. I wasn’t practicing Buddhism then and I had pretty much turned away from Judaism, the religion I was born into. Judaism and Christianity have very strong social justice components that have always existed within them. But I was very assertively a secular person; I wasn’t interested in religion. 

When I became interested in Buddhism there was not this thing that we would now call “Engaged Buddhism.” In Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh was creating something by this name. This was done by taking Buddhism out of the monastic life and temple life into the streets to help people.  Related to this, in the United States there was a key essay written by beat poet Gary Snyder that talked about what he was then calling Buddhist Anarchism. A lot of what Gary had to say right from the beginning had to do with a way of looking at Buddhism that remains completely relevant today. At that point I still didn‘t see the connection, but Gary had it really integrated.
In “Buddhist Anarchism” Snyder says, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the self/void. We need both.”   Robert Aitken Roshi was fond of the anarchist vision too. 

I’ve studied anarchist literature to a limited extent. Robert Aitken really studied it very thoroughly.  In fact he gave his library of anarchist books to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, when I was there. He drew the idea of “building the new within the shell of the old” from the Wobblies (the IWW, an international industrial labor union). In a sense you can see this idea in the early Buddhist sangha, in the community. The Buddha drew models of self-organization, direct democracy, of collective and consensus decision-making, and he created a community that grew and grew in the course of his lifetime and afterwards. You could say that the early Buddhist sangha was deeply democratic. And it wasn’t a representative body. Each person had to take responsibility for him or herself, and they’d come to decisions collectively and collaboratively. I think there is some parallel there. 

When you worked at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship you had a sign with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness must be engaged.” Mindfulness has now been brought into many different realms of our culture, and that seems generally beneficial. But I recently saw an article about mindfulness being used by the US military. This seems like an odd combination. 

I think it’s true that all Buddhism is engaged, because the precepts and teachings are about how we are all in relation to everyone and in relation to everything around us. That by definition is “engaged.”  When the Buddha was teaching in North India 2500 years ago, the reality of peoples’ lives was almost completely socially determined by gender, caste, occupation, and the tribe they were born into. Basically, where you were born was where you stayed, in a geographic as well as social sense. In that context, what the Buddha taught was something that we might see as a kind of radical individualism. He taught that ones actual position in the world and ones value in it is not based on birth but on ones actions. Each of us has to take responsibility for our actions as an individual.

Fast-forward to the pervasive individualism of today’s so-called developed world. The greatest threat to Buddhism, or any progressive movement, is that it can be turned into a commodity and sold on the “free” market. We are constantly being sold this commodity of individualism. I think that if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering while advocating “freedom” — the freedom to chose Product A or Product B, which differ in little more than the color of their packaging. Racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression certainly affect individuals, but they have to be addressed simultaneously as structures of suffering. Engaged Buddhism arises exactly at the intersection of individual responsibility and individual participation in the creation of systems of suffering. 

The problem you raise about mindfulness is important. I feel there is a risk of mindfulness being seen as a technology, presented as a technique, and sold back to us as an up-to-date self-improvement project. I’m concerned that mindfulness is being commodified, branded, and marketed. 

Certainly mindfulness is good for society. Mindfulness programs are being seeded in hospitals, schools, and prisons, difficult settings where they are much-needed.  Mindfulness is also being mainstreamed as a valuable psychological tool.  But I worry about it being brought into corporate and military contexts.  If I think about the products of many corporations and the destructive methods of our military, with its modern weaponry and inevitable violence. Is this what the Buddha meant when he spoke of Right Mindfulness?

Right Mindfulness might mean looking at the actual function of a system — a company, a prison, an army — beyond the mental ease that someone within that system feels. Of course everyone in any place has the right to be at ease and to live without overt oppression. But I think that an Engaged Buddhist perspective has to examine the function of any given system. That’s the larger, often neglected, view of the modern mindfulness “movement.”

When you look around at systems of suffering, what calls loudly for change? 

Can we recognize that we live in a system that wants to make the world safe for multinational corporations. I don’t know what the most effective way to engage with that system is, but we are right in the middle of it. And we are privileged by it. I spend time in other countries and I’m constantly brought face to face with my own privilege. It’s something I wrestle with. We all need to wrestle with this because it’s not sustainable. Multinational corporations are not creating a system of sustainability. The world is dying.

As I said above, when I consider the Buddha’s ethical precepts, they are all about relationship. I’ve boiled them down to one vow, in its prohibitory and affirmative form: I vow not to live at the expense of other beings, but to cherish life. This might be a grandiose and impossible vow, but it’s surely worth the effort.

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Burma Unbound?


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

                                                                        — Dhammapada, 5


Religious and ethnic confrontation in Burma challenge cherished ideas of Buddhism and religious tolerance. This week, two days of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Lashio — the largest town in Burma’s Shan State, near the Chinese border — have left a mosque, an orphanage, and many shops destroyed by Buddhist-identified mobs roaming the streets on motorcycles. Three hundred Muslims have taken refuge in a local Buddhist temple, thousands have fled, and the count of dead and injured is still not clear.

In March there were similar riots in Meikitla, in central Burma, south of Mandalay, which left forty-four people dead, and thousands of homes consumed in flames.  Last year’s conflict in Burma’s western Rakhine state, also saw thousands of homes destroyed and roughly a hundred thousand people displaced — mostly Muslims — in ethnic violence between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas.

To make matters worse, on May 25 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. 

Coverage of this proposed Muslim population limit in the Washington Post cites a cautiously-nuanced position of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi:

“If true, this is against the law,” said Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suu Kyi has faced criticism for failing to defend the Rohingya following two waves of deadly sectarian violence last year. She told reporters Monday that she had not heard details of the latest measure but, if it exists, “It is discriminatory and also violates human rights.”

Undoubtedly there has been violence on both sides. This week’s rioting in Lashio began when a Muslim man attacked a Buddhist woman shopkeeper. But in each of these instances the preponderance of organized reaction seems to be Buddhist-identified, often with leadership from monks, and with response from the government and the Burmese army only after damage has been done. Local people often describe the military as standing by and just watching as the destruction unfolds.

The roots of this conflict are hard to untangle. They go back decades to the period of British colonial occupation and before. But the current conflict also speaks to a scarcity of land and economic resources that manifests as communal hostility.  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 agent of social order in Burma?

Considering the Rohingyas in Rakhine state, they have lived in Burma in Rakhine state for generations, if not for several hundred years. The former military regime’s 1984 law excluded them from among the nation’s 135 recognized ethnicities, denying the Rohingyas citizenship and basic rights.  Neighboring Bangladesh, a predominantly Islamic country, also denies citizenship to Rohingyas presently living within its own borders.  It is not surprising that the United Nations views the Rohingyas as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”

Burma, or Myanmar, is still in a delicate transition to democracy after fifty years of military dictatorship. The current 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 ethnic and religious enclaves when soviet-style dictatorship ended.  I hope for better in Burma.  And 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. 

Although we have seen the rise of so-called Buddhist nationalism in Burma, with organizations like “969” spreading fear and hatred, and prominent monks like Ven. Wirathu preaching against a far-fetched Muslim mission to take over the country, there are countless open-minded citizens and monks who simply desire peace and harmony. May they have the courage to speak out.

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

30 May 2013




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Zen and War

In the first half of the 20th Century Japan waged wars in which it committed atrocities rivaling those of the Nazis during World War II. Brian Victoria’s book Zen At War was published in 1998, detailing how Japanese Buddhist monks and their religious organizations actively encouraged and participated in Japan’s expansionist wars. They donated money and materials, preached a doctrine of “Imperial Way Buddhism,” and even marched and fought alongside the military.

 Zen and War features contemporary Zen Buddhist teachers speaking of their wartime predecessors’ collaboration for the first time on film.  The impetus for this film came from Ina Buitendijk, a Dutch woman whose husband suffered severely under Japanese internment in Asia during the war.  As a Zen Buddhist practitioner she wrote letters to Zen monastic centers, asking how Buddhist monks could have been involved in warfare.  Leading Zen masters wrote back to her sympathetically, acknowledging the suffering at the heart of her question.

I was asked by my friend, Zen teacher Mitra Bishop, along with Ina Buitendijk, and Shodo Harada Roshi to produce a U.S. dvd of the Dutch version from The Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation (BOS).  With their permission this video is now available from Clear View Project.  It is very well done by BOS, an excellent educational tool for study and discussion of how Buddhism can go astray and how we might prevent that from happening.  Proceeds support Clear View’s work in Burma and India.

It can be ordered, along with other books & cds, from Clear View’s new e-commerce page. Thanks for your support. 





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Tangled Up in Blue: Zen Practice and Depression (edited version)

Right now I can’t read too good

Don’t send me no more letters, no

Not unless you mail them from

Desolation Row

— from “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan

 It starts with dread.  In a distant city, on top of the covers in a two-star hotel, ceiling fan humming and circling slowly, mosquito net shrouding the bed.  Or driving alone on the late night interstate, rolling by strip malls and chain stores.  Or walking down an everyday street, feeling empty inside. Dread has a physical quality — a dead weight on my chest and shoulders, a gnawing sensation in my stomach. Nausea.  A wish to jump out of my skin.

Within these sensation there is loneliness, despair, and the certainty of ceaseless separation.  The dread is that my life will be like this from now on, and that it always has been like this and I have been so disconnected that I didn’t even notice.  If I am far from home, I fear I might die there, alone. I imagine myself home in bed, watching television, as if that would provide the absent intimacy. I think through the necessary steps that would have me on a homebound flight within hours. I have a plan, and that provides me with the illusion of a way out. The dread can last for three or four days, or months. And even though there is nothing objectively “wrong” with the circumstances of my life — things can actually be going well — I feel as if a curtain had been pulled back on the ugly workings of my life, and it is not worth living another day.  It feels like the end of the line, and the line continues.

Millions of us suffer in this way. We yearn for wholeness and accomplishment.  I have had plenty of that in my life: two wonderful children, a happy marriage, many old friends, respect in the Buddhist world, writing published, music recorded, and so on. Despite repeated admonitions about “gaining mind,” the suffering of depression simultaneously suggests the dream of self-fulfillment and the impossibility of that dream.

I don’t usually talk about my depression.  Nor do most people who suffer this way, whether or not they are Buddhists.  For Buddhist practitioners all those hours and weeks and years of meditation are supposed to lead to happiness and equanimity. Depression feels like a kind of failure.  To admit depression is to suggest that Buddhist practice doesn’t always “work.”  Recently someone in my community said: “You’re the last person I’d think of as depressed.”  I have become skilled at keeping it hidden.


 Consider a bright young man in his late twenties, well-educated and physically healthy.  His mother died when he was an infant. For most of his life he had not left his family’s house.  He had all the advantages of a privileged background — good clothes, delicious food, doting servants.  He married a beautiful young woman from a similar background, and became the father of a son.  But all of this seemed empty to him.  He found no happiness. So he left his comfortable home, his wife and son and friends, without any particular goal beyond relieving himself of the fatalistic gloom that settled over him like a cloud. For six years he tried every meditation technology and trendy diet available. At last he sat down under a tree, determined to wake.  There he encountered great sensual temptations. But he gave up, let go, and everything turned out right.

This is the early life of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is an inspiring story, but one can hear it as the description of someone suffering from chronic depression. I am not a prince, there are some parallels with my own life, growing up with privilege in a prosperous suburb.  By all accounts, the Buddha’s suffering fell away when he awakened under the bodhi tree.  Did he really arrive at a place where he was always happy, never anxious?  That is what we are asked to believe, but I wonder?


 As for me, after nearly thirty years of meditation, I haven’t seen cosmic light shows or transcendental visions of reality. I don’t claim enlightenment. This is not to say I do not feel changed or even free at times.  Freedom is momentary.  I appreciate it for what it is. I just don’t stay there, and that is okay with me.    That’s a loaded word — “stay.”  In terms of the law of anicca or impermanence, one does not stay anywhere.  But I digress.

What I mean to say is that given my propensity towards depression — biochemical, hereditary, or karmic — the settledness of meditation, the sense of relief in simply sitting down, may be as good as it gets for me.  There is a phrase I love from the 13th century Zen Master Dogen: “When Dharma fills your body and mind, you realize that something is missing.” The very incompleteness of our being, actions, aspirations is a manifestation of Buddhanature itself. Everything is broken.  No regrets.


 Over the years I have tried various ways to “deal with” (that means get rid of) depression.  I have done talk therapy and acupuncture.  I’ve sampled organic remedies like St. John’s Wort, SAM-e, homeopathy, and Vitamin D.  I have been on and off a modest dose of Prozac.  Actually Prozac seemed to work for a while.  When I began to take it, twenty years ago — on the advice of my therapist — it was as if a dark cloud that had always circled my head just disappeared.  It was a great relief.  But the relief seemed to be only temporary.

So, I return to what I trust, meditation — and to that other reliable remedy: friendship. Actually, the two are not unrelated.  Meditation is not a cure, but if I can sit down in a quiet space and follow my breath, the weight of depression lifts while I am sitting. If sitting is not possible, I take a long walk. Either way I have bridged the internal disconnect; I am, for this time, friendly towards myself.

The power of friendship multiplies when extended beyond oneself. I recall E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End: “Only connect…” In the darkest moments, when I feel least able to do so, I know this is necessary and true.  So I leave my room and seek a friend.  In depression, friendship is an alkahest, the alchemist’s universal solvent that brings forth light and energy.  It’s the best remedy.

Depression has its own gift: the ability to identify with people in pain. Their suffering is something I understand. In my life as a Zen priest I talk to people all the time. I can’t count the number of people who have told me about depression and the pain of isolation and loneliness. I am moved by their honesty and their predicament. They suffer as I have suffered; I am like them.


 I was about thirteen when I became aware of depression. Fifty years ago. My parents were in the midst of a difficult divorce.  I had just completed my bar mitzvah, a ritual that had been drained of all meaning by five dreadful years of compulsory Hebrew school. Then my mother kept the all the cash from my bar mitzvah gifts to pay for the reception.  Times could be hard even in the suburbs.

I was finishing eight grade at a WASPish private day school where I had no friends. For nearly a year I got out of school early every Friday to attend Hebrew school.  After the bar mitzvah I didn’t tell the private school, and kept leaving early each week.  For some months I didn’t mention this to my mother either.  The school bus dropped me in the center of town, by myself.  I would go to the movies alone, eat well-done French fries, and walk home.  Now it sounds like a teenage adventure, but with each passing week I felt more desolate.  I couldn’t stand the private school, I couldn’t go home, and I dreaded being alone.  So finally I confessed. In a rare moment of mother-son intimacy (at least rare in my experience), my mother calmly explained that I was depressed, and that this was only natural after all the anxiety of divorce, the buildup and letdown of my bar mitzvah, and new vistas of puberty.  She spoke to me gently, conveying a sense that she knew what she was talking about from her own experience.  I am sure she did.

Now I had a name for what I was feeling, even though I had no idea what to do about it.  It would be another thirteen years before I saw my first psychotherapist, and even then depression was framed as a psychological matter — a symptom of unconscious issues, mostly centering on my parents — rather than a condition as much physical or biochemical as psychological.

All these years later I continue to live with this condition and its close companion — anxiety. One of the Buddha’s unique discoveries is the Wheel of Life, or Dependent Origination. The wheel rolls, from birth through death and on to successive lives. Anxiety is its fuel.  But we can also consider rebirth from moment to moment, and do our best to end the ceaseless spinning. Anxiety is linked to the fear (and certainty) of future non-existence, real doubt about my present existence/non-existence, fear of pain, sickness, debility.  Such anxiety leads to a kind of self-fulfilling depression.  How can I break the chain?


 I have to live with depression as a condition of my particular being.  Current medical research suggests that depression is hardwired in our brains.  In evolutionary terms the sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance of depression may have some survival benefit. So maybe depression is a good thing.  I might consider myself genetically selected to be a survivor…at least if I lived in the jungle.

But Buddhist practice is not directed toward a particular goal, not even survival. It is simply about being awake.   The path of practice leads right through our immediate life circumstances. The pangs of depression, or any pains — physical or mental — are vividly part of that life.  I’m not able to avoid unpleasant circumstances, but the question is: can I turn depression, or will I allow it to turn me? Long ago the Buddha showed us how to do this.  Each event of his awakened life — including illness, injury, temptation, betrayal, loss — was occasion for him to learn, then to share his understanding.  He didn’t try to change or avoid external conditions, and he wasn’t pushed around by circumstances.  He lived in community with his friends and he turned towards suffering.

There is a message in depression. Things in life are roiling. Change is afoot. After years of practice I know this is true even in the hard times. If I can bear it and see through it, depression becomes the harbinger of transformation.  Things are always in a state of change.  Only connect. With that kind of understanding all of life seems to be a fortunate accident. I am alive, so change is always possible, however unlikely it seems… What am I doing here on the planet?  Oh, I remember. I’m setting up shop in the saha realm, the world that must be endured, the land of samsara, which literally means wandering on.

The heart of Buddhist practice may be a matter of faith, in a dark night when faith is hard to find. My friends help me through the night. Night and day, depression and joy — there is really one whole, true life.  Practice gets me to what is true.  That’s where I want to live.



Early in 2013 I flew to India to visit and teach among Dalit Buddhist friends there.  Since our children have left home for work and college, my wife Laurie and I were able to travel together for the first time in more than twenty years.

As I wrote above, when traveling I usually have to endure several days of depression at the start of a journey.  This seems to be an unavoidable pathway to the present time and place.  I have wondered if this phenomenon was simply a matter of loneliness, since I almost always arrive alone.  But on this trip I was not alone.  Laurie was with me.  And the first five days were as hard as ever. I was not lonely, but in some way I was still alone to wrestle with the darkness.

I was grateful to be able to talk things over with Laurie.  Far from home, among the teeming streets, she was having trouble of her own adjusting to India, quite unlike mine.  The opportunity to talk about my difficulties was valuable perspective, but it did not make them go away. I felt distant from my body and mind, alienated and uncomfortable — what I take to be the meaning of the Buddha’s dukkha. In the morning it was hard to get out of bed.  In the day, even the sunlight seemed to hurt.  Then after about five days I woke up “normal.”  The weight had lifted and I was relieved to find myself home in body and mind.

So it was not really a matter of loneliness.  My depression seems to arise from a deeper displacement.  This is simply what I must live with.

­— Hozan Alan Senauke

“Tangled Up in Blue” originally appeared in Inquiring Mind Vol. 29 no. 1 (Fall 2012). Republished by permission. © 2013 by Inquiring Mind. http://www.

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