Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Arming the Saffron Revolution

What do you think of the idea of Burmese monks arming themselves and fighting a pitched battle against the ruling military junta? In a recent article from the Christian Science Monitor, "Monks with guns? Burma's younger activists get bolder", Anand Gopal writes that this is what a segment of younger Burmese monks are advocating in response to last year's crackdown in which dozens of peaceful protesters were killed and several hundred were detained or imprisoned. In response to a reposting of this article at The Buddhist Channel, Jeff Wilson wrote a reflection, "Monks with Guns?", at the Tricycle Editors Blog. His piece isn't a justification for these monk's to take up arms but it does offer an interesting historical context for this unfolding story. Many of the opinions expressed over this topic insist in absolute and no uncertain terms that these monks are wrong, that they don't follow the true Dharma, that the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha does not ever allow for violence. But is whether the monks are acting in what outsiders would an acceptably Buddhist fashion the issue of importance here, or is it the validity of the Buddha's teachings on such matters and the potential consequences of an armed monastic resistance for the people of Burma?

I wonder at times about the price of advocating non-violence at any cost when the advocates themselves live in an open and wealthy society and are more often than not in the ethnic majority. I am not suggesting insincerity on the part of such people - we can be just as dedicated to our values as the disenfranchised minorities - but I find it hard to personally judge or condemn the attitudes of these frustrated and grieving monks without having experienced the kind of inhuman brutality and disregard for life that some of them have witnessed their entire lives and which peaked one year ago. I am not being beaten and jailed, nor are my friends and family. I haven't suffered under that system my whole life, watching injustice after injustice. I can sign a petition, watch Jim Carrey or other celebrities plead for me to get involved, and then get up from the computer and go to bed without fear that government spies may have given up my location or that I will be abducted in the middle of the night by the police.

When it comes to topics such as abortion and other sensitive issues many Western-raised Buddhists, particularly those who feel they are on the correct side of an issue, are quick to emphasize the situation by situation angle for ethical judgments in Buddhism rather than a rigid code of moralistic prescriptions of "Thou shalts..." and "Thou shalt nots..." Don't try to paint us with your black and white brush. The world isn't like that! Is this really so different? Or do we just presume somehow that we know better and can tell when to apply one standard and when to apply another? I am not advocating or condoning violence by anyone, including these monks. I am not arguing on their behalf for you to support the idea of arming the Saffron Revolution. But I do get concerned sometimes by how we all can get so good at hearing and applying the Dharma in way that suits our own preferences.

Buddhist or no, this kind of judgment can mutate into a form of politically-fueled ethnocentrism, the gauging of one culture or society from the perspective or standards of another. Should we be more concerned about judging the "Buddhist-ness" of the monks who are expressing their despair and outrage or would our energy be better directed at campaigning, through educating the public and our elected officials, for a realistic and substantial approach to improving conditions on the ground for the people of Burma? And would the real tragedy be a violation of Buddhist beliefs or an even more vicious response against the monks and their supporters by the military government? If the monks do decide to arm themselves, will it be their "failure" alone, or will those of us sitting comfortably on the other side world, who failed to take action toward providing an alternative - a reason to hope - have some sense of responsibility? Interdependence in cause and effect. Isn't that another important Buddhist teaching?



  1. If one lives by the sword, one dies by the sword; nevertheless, when the kairos comes, one must do what one must do (at the cost of one's self).


  2. Hello Scott. Nice to see you.

    I also profess the value and the virtue of non-violence, but then the worst I ever had to put up with was teenage teasing and bullying. I admire those who can stand in the face of brutal inhumanity with serenity from a direct knowledge and experience anchored in true depth of being. I just don't presume that if I was faced with such a trial I would have the same courage and conviction. After all, even though you quote Christ, so many have found an excuse to pick the sword in His name.

    Be well.

  3. Oue. C'est ca. Moi, aussi. Je n'comprends pas. C'est bon, comme ca.

    I often ask this question at "bible study" and "adult discussion". I make my profession at these places that I trust. But, when push comes to shove, do I trust? I'm not sure. I've never been faced with it, nor have I been offered the opportunity - beyond a little "at the edge of the blade when venturing out of the bar or picking up someone at a very late hour in the desert". I think I trust now. I sure hope so. If not, life is still training me for it.


  4. Trust is one of the key meanings of faith which is sometimes twisted into blind loyalty or having the appearance of trustworthiness, and I suppose that personally that is where I sometimes suspect that is one of my limits: my capacity for faith - in myself and in the reality of the more expansive depth to our existence suggested by the various sacred traditions.


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