From Burma to Tibet, from Thailand to Sri Lanka, more and more Buddhists are taking to the streets and supporting increasingly assertive political movements, in contrast to the usual image of Buddhism as “Asia’s quietest religion,” writes Christian Cary in Newsweek (March 1).
The recent protests in Tibet and across the Tibetan diaspora that erupted from March 10 seem to confirm such an assessment: while the Chinese security agencies were “mentally prepared” for some form of Tibetan activism in the months preceding the Beijing Olympics, the widespread nature of this activism has been a matter of surprise, explains Indian intelligence expert B. Raman in an analysis published by the Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies (March 14). Interviewed by Newsweek, Prof. Jim Holt (Bowdoin College) analyzes the rise of activist Buddhism as “an instance of the wider politicization of religion worldwide.”
But the magazine remarks that there are several forms of Buddhism, and that apolitical forms continue to flourish along with other expressions of that tradition. Other forms find a middle way, supporting specific issues while avoiding general politics. Despite the impression that there is unity among contemporary Buddhism, there is a difference between the “very local” and the “very national” dimensions of the religion, writes Thomas Borchert (University of Vermont) in Religion Compass (September), a new online academic journal.
While international ties among Buddhist institutions have been growing, as evidenced by international Buddhist gatherings, the significance of different nation states in relation to Buddhism should not be overlooked: similarly to other religions, Buddhism is “marked by a tension between the transnational and the national.” The most well-known case of Buddhist social activism was the massive protests of Buddhist monks and laypeople in Myanmar (Burma) last fall. But since then, there has been a government clampdown on freedoms, as well as a paradoxical reassertion of military support for Buddhism, something that will make religious-based democratic reform difficult.
The e-newsletter Sightings (Feb. 14) notes that the same Buddhist monks doing the protesting against the military ironically need the government, even if it is a tyrannical one, to transmit and legitimate their teachings and practices, known as Sasana. These texts and rituals affirm the existence of a multi-tiered cosmos in which sentient beings are born, die and are reborn. The junta adheres to a kingship model whereby the lay government plays an active role in promoting the persistence of the Sasana (including funding lay and monastic meditation centers and the publication of Buddhist texts), even if a large number of monks dissent and protest against it.
Jason Carbine writes that “monastic transmissions of the Sasana have been conducive to sustaining military rule in Myanmar, and hence to the violence the military perpetuates, precisely because those transmissions laud and often depend upon lay governments (even repressive juntas) that support them as representatives of the Sasana.”
Yet the demonstrations of a few months ago demonstrated that the military support for the Sasana can also contribute to the “strengthening of a powerful enemy: the monkhood itself, motivated by compassion for the suffering of the Burmese people and by the perception that its way of life is under severe attack.”
Carbine concludes that if these efforts to challenge and reject the role of the junta’s claim that it is a good sponsor of the Sasana (and its own legitimating roles in transmission of these teachings and practices) can be sustained by the dissident monks and their lay supporters, and can “help encourage massive defections from the armed forces, they may finally open the door to the change so many have sought.”
(Sightings, http://marty-center.uchicago.edu; Religion Compass, http://www.blackwell-compass. com/subject/religion/; Chennai Centre for Chinese Studies, http://www.c3sindia.org)