Should Buddhists care that other Buddhists persecute Muslims?

This morning’s story in the New York Times about more Buddhist riots against Muslims in Burma includes some interesting points—

  • a brave Buddhist monk confronted the rioters;
  • the people fomenting Buddhist hatred against Muslims may really be trying to slow down or derail the moves towards democracy in Burma (aka Myanmar);
  • the victims of these riots are not Rohingya, but ethnic Chinese; and
  • these riots may have been directed at disrupting a visit by Aung San Suu Kyi to Mandalay.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the Nobel laureate who was imprisoned for almost 20 years by the military dictators of Burma. (Since they are the ones who changed the name of the country to “Myanmar,” I persist in using “Burma.”)  Her release was one step in the transition from military rule to democracy.  But only a step.  She still cannot run for president in the pending elections because of a provision in the military’s constitution barring any candidate for president from having close family members who “owe allegiance to a foreign power.”  Her two sons are British.  In fact, their father died in Britain while Aung San Suu Kyi was in prison.

The fact that she probably could have left Burma to see her husband before he died may help explain her behavior during the current Buddhist-Muslim turmoil.  She didn’t want to leave Burma because she feared that the military would never let her back into the country.  Although there are many positive motives that might be attributed to her remaining, such as devotion to the cause of democracy in Burma, her desire to become president of the country, certainly played a large role in her decision not to be with her husband before he died.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Aung San Suu Kyi presented herself explicitly as a Buddhist, giving an analysis of the First Noble Truth, dukkha.  Yet, she has not spoken out against the current persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority with origins in Bangla Desh.  She has been criticized for her silence.  I myself have lost respect for her because of her silence.  I wish she acted more like Nelson Mandela who acted against the prejudices of his constituents, though to be fair he was already president when he did so.  (See the movie Invictus.)

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has directed American public attention to the plight of the Rohingya in columns and in a frightening documentary, which includes a Buddhist monk comparing the Rohingya to catfish.  Kristof aims to get the American government to do more to stop what is going on.  He also is very careful to dissociate the extremist monks from most Buddhists and from Buddhism as a religion.

Although some international Buddhist leaders spoke out in 2012 against the persecution of the Rohingya, there has apparently been little follow-up action.  One prominent American Buddhist, Jack Kornfield, even led “pilgrimage” to Burma about a year after signing the statement.  While I understand the strategic importance of not worsening the situation by outsiders’ lecturing the Burmese Buddhists, particularly Western outsiders, I do not sense that Buddhists worldwide feel enough shame about what is being done in the name of Buddhism in Burma.  Or whatever other feelings required to take action.

When I have raised the issue of Buddhist shame in Buddhist forums, I have been met with all sorts of defenses and denials—

  • these people are not real Buddhists;
  • despite Western perceptions, all Buddhists are not pacifists;
  • Buddhists have no moral superiority (implying, therefore, no greater moral responsibility?);
  • whether these rioters are Buddhist or not doesn’t matter as long as they’re condemned;
  • we should be more concerned about America’s inaction;
  • why should Buddhists be ashamed if Pope Francis or leaders of other religions don’t speak up;
  • why pick on the Buddhists in Burma when the Buddhists of Sri Lanka slaughtered the Hindu Tamils and are now also attacking Muslims;
  • Buddhists in Burma have made war on other ethnic minorities, like the Karen;
  • why blame Burmese Buddhists when it’s the government of Myanmar which is responsible?

I should note quickly that the people raising these points are not indifferent to what is happening.  They want to help to stop the persecution of the Rohingya, indeed all persecution of ethnic and religious minorities by Buddhists and by others.  And they do take what actions are available to us.

What they are resisting is feeling ashamed to be Buddhist when these crimes are being committed in the name of Buddhism.  There are good reasons to free ourselves of shame and not to use shame as a reason for action.  But those reasons have nothing to do with the defenses listed above.

First, we learn in Buddhist practice that resistance to pain or other emotions doesn’t work.  We are just grasping onto our selves more and more as we resist.  We learn to face our pain.  As this blog has discussed, shame and fear involve pain and disturbance.  One of the distinguishing features of shame is the feeling that we are under the eye of another.  As Buddhists we can pretend that other people are not looking at us in light of what Buddhists are doing in Burma.  But we know that pretending is just another way of attaching to ourselves, or at least to the selves we’d like to be.  In brief, I would argue that as Buddhists we should face up to the shame of what is being done in the name of Buddhism.  Not deny our shame, but be present with these feelings.  Be present with others implicit in the feeling of shame.  By letting go of our selves we can open to greater compassion and lovingkindness.

Second, we also learn in Buddhist practice to see through dualisms.  Some use the Buddhist/non-Buddhist dualism as an excuse for violence against Muslims.  As we saw above, some use the Buddhist/non-Buddhist dualism to dissociate themselves from this violence. If we face up to our shame, we see that it too arises from the Buddhist/non-Buddhist dualism, both by including us in the same category as the extremists and by creating the other under whose gaze we feel ashamed.  If we just deny that we feel or should feel ashamed about violence against Muslims by people who call themselves Buddhist in the name of Buddhism, we miss an opportunity to explore the dualisms in calling ourselves “Buddhist” or saying that we adhere to something called “Buddhism.”  If we become free of such dualisms, we can better practice the teachings of the Buddha.

Shame should not be our motive for doing what we can to help the Rohingya and other Muslim victims in Burma or Sri Lanka.  Shame will not be our motive for action if we face up to our feelings and thereby free ourselves of attachment and dualism.  With the help of how the Buddha teaches us to practice, we can open to loving and helping our fellow human beings.  To deny shame is just to close ourselves off


One Comment

  1. “What they are resisting is feeling ashamed to be Buddhist when these crimes are being committed in the name of Buddhism”

    Don’t think you can paint with that broad of a brush or can categorically attribute a single, or any precise, emotion, to anyone else’s reaction to any given situation. I generally agree with your assessment of the situation in Myanmar, but OTOH I think you over intellectualize the editorial content. I generally approach it all from a much more visceral level. I hate to resort to a FB meme, but I will anyhow:

    Buddhist, Smohist – I could not care less – it is just a word like “glass” so you can describe the thing you drink water out of – FWIW, I am not even sure what a Buddhist actually is or means since the title represents no coherent, definitive object or philosophy – from the Theravada to Pure Land what is a Buddhist anyway?

    Am I ashamed of what is happening in Myanmar? You betcha, but not because I wear the title Buddhist —- today—–, but because I am a human being and forever am amazed as to what heights and depths of behavior the human animal can commit to. As in regards to Myanmar specifically, I am ashamed that the Western Governments are cozying up to its government for overtly political reasons with no demands being made for recognition, increase trade etc. I am also disgusted by Sri Lanka, Israel’s bombing of Gaza, the treatment of Chelsa Manning, The USA’s Middle East actions etc.- in general any activity that offends my sense of morality (as subjective as that may be – check the meme). Being appalled at the inhumanities that people commit upon each other on an almost daily basis is not an issue of being “morally superior” because of the Buddha’s teachings or by my acceptance or rejection of them – it is because I myself am human.

    FWIW, although it appears sorta outta vogue, I fully support the concept of a socially active Buddhist and can not see how it could be otherwise, but that too is my subjective interpretation of how I read the material .

    “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience.
    The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”
    –The White Rose 1942, The Fourth Pamphlet

    Thanks, Mark. I tried to avoid the trap of telling someone how to feel, but may not avoided stepping into it. We agree on what to do, perhaps just not on how to get there. Practice is the important thing.

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