Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Karmic Cycle Meets The Water Cycle In Myanmar

Unless you've been living underneath a rock recently, you've at least heard about the devastation wreaked on the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) by Cyclone Nargis starting in early May. And for a few weeks last Fall, Buddhist monks in Myanmar also made the top stories of world news for engaging in a massive uprising against the military junta there.  These two events, seemingly disconnected in secular consciousness, have come to be deeply connected in the minds of many living in and expatriated out of Myanmar. It is yet another instance in which we need some religious literacy regarding Buddhism and its cultural adaptations in order to understand world events and human responses to those events. 

First some background. There are a lot of complicated factors to this story and its coverage, and I won't pretend to cover them all. But I will say that although you would never know it from most European or American media, the world of politics and religion in Buddhism is as active with conflict and tension as any part of Islam or Christianity--we just don't hear about it much. I've been happy to see more attention being drawn to Buddhism in the media, although even some of the religion blogs have been very much behind the story on this one. I have my suspicions why, but I'll leave those for now.

What started ostensibly as a protest against extreme fuel price hikes (reverberating into every aspect of everyday Myanmar life) fast snowballed into a general democratic insurgency. What has made this insurgency different is that for the first time in many years, the Buddhist monkhood has gotten involved. Specifically, at an early protest, several hundred monks were arrested and beaten up, thus galvanzing the whole of the monkhood in defense of its historically protected institution

It is very important to understand that in the very devout Buddhism of Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, and other primarily Theravada influenced areas, monkhood is not what most Westernerns think of as 'Christian monkhood'. In these cultures, all adolescent and adult males are expected to spend at least some time in the monasteries--its a social location and a social vocation, not a lifelong career. While part of the monkhood, the monk has a favored socioreligious status that means that the monk separates from his family, and may even be venerated by the family elders and parents as a means of making spiritual merit. Monks in Myanmar also serve in the political bureaucracy--they are expected to offer services and rituals to both determine auspicious points (divination) for State functions, and also to legitimate the political rulers of the country through personal blessings. 

But as a result of the monks' protests, they have decided to no longer offer their services to the ruling junta. That is a very serious challenge, because the fundamental social ritual in Theravada Buddhism is called Dana--translated in English as sometimes as 'almsgiving,' 'giving,' 'cultivating generosity'--or my favorite - "merit-making."Laypersons give food and items to the monks in exchange for prayers, rituals, religious instructions and blessings. What the monks have been doing is to 'turn their offering bowls' over, so to speak, and refuse to either accept Dana from the rulers, or to offer their normal services--effectively excommunicating them from the cycle of reciprocity that undergirds sociopolitical lay Buddhism

This has driven the junta into a frenzy of paranoia, because being banned from Dana carries serious karmic consequences for future rebirths, and also foreshadows being rejected by Burmese history. The Myanmar junta likes to think of itself as the return of Burma's ancient warrior kings, so being rejected outright by the culture endangers its legacy. Some news outlets have portrayed this (and other devotionalisms) as 'superstition,' oblivious to the fact that auspiciousness, social correctness and stability are the key values in Burmese political and historical agency--not French Enlightenment rationality.

The Burmese junta are no doubt guilty of atrocities, but even the news outlets that otherwise have been covering this event well have made unsupportable distinctions between the "pure" Buddhism of everyday people and the mystic and "animist" and "superstitious" tainted Buddhism of the junta, ignoring the fact that just as other religions do everywhere, Buddhism in Burma adapted to incorporate pre-Buddhist traditions, and these are not separated among the quotidian and the elite.  For example, the public protests against the junta largely began from the most auspicious point in Myanmar--the Shwedagon Pagoda--a monumental stupa said to contain physical relics of four previous Buddhas, including the historical Buddha Sakyamuni. 

As in common in Asia, Myanmar Buddhism has integrated itself with local indigenous paganisms and polytheisms and magical practices, as in a set of shrines around the Pagoda devoted to non-Buddhist spirits. Moreover, even inside the shrine, the deterministic shadow of divination propels worshipers to seek particular planetary and animal-totem shrine depending on the types of merit requested and the time of the request. This, for example, is a planetary shrine for Jupiter.

Astrological Buddhist Shrine for Jupiter

The extent to which media outlets have discussed the religious aspect has varied widely. Given the superficial nature of most media treatments of Buddhism, we should expect to see some pics of saffron robes and marveling at the political involvement of people most Westerners automatically assume are "otherworldly." And that is largely what has happened. Sometimes, as in this article, actual experts and scholars are consulted and the information is translated into terms readily accessible to most. Of particular interest is the coverage of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi. At one point Kyi, who has been under house arrest for sometime now, was able to emerge and briefly participate in both chanting and dana with passing monks, thus making socioreligious merit and blessing for political transformation.

In the wake of the cyclonic devastation, many have suggested that the cyclone was karmic retribution for the government's historic crackdown, arrest, and torture of monks. For many Westerners, this is often unpalatable as a explanation or connection, but in Theravada Buddhism, karma is not meted out as selective punishment by some personal force.  Rather it is a simple moral homeostasis that is often complex, inefficient, and can do massive amounts of collateral damage in its own right. Literally, like the water cycle that many students learn about as children, the karmic cycle of samsara joins human and cosmic activity in a web of meaning whereby everything has its place and status. The concept of 'weather'' itself is even tied to a cultural meaning of karma. As before, the military junta sees itself as not only having a crisis of political legitimacy (every regime must take some care for its citizens) but also needing to monopolize whatever karmic merit that might be gained for humanitarian efforts.

For those more accustomed to Mahayana-influenced Buddhism, the concept of "compassion," is found in the way that Buddhist monks and nuns have opened up their stores of food, water, and temple shelter to those in need, even as the junta tries to monopolize the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Other missionary traditions, like Christianity, have found ample ways to demonstrate their ethics and abilities in this crisis. In places such as Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and the country of Japan, communities of Burmese, sometimes including Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists have been gathering for interfaith prayer, charity, and political advocacy services, bringing together missionary traditions that might not do so under other circumstances.

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