I have avoided writing about Burma because ... well, because I really don't have anything substantive to add to the discussion. How do you comment on a train wreck?
I have followed it closely. Yesterday I received an email describing eyewitness accounts of murder and suppression which led me to see if I could find any reports substantiating it. The problem is that the military has gotten the country under its thumb again--in the chaos of open protests, it's easier to see and record wrongdoing. When the streets are quiet, not so much. Still, incredibly grim dispatches are trickling out. The Irrawaddy reports on monastery raids, the Australian Herald Sun on murders at the monasteries, and the Times details reports of gulags. In short: it's very bad.
Tomorrow, a European site has a blog for Burma day, and I'll post something then in solidarity with the repressed citizens there, but I thought I'd mention something that touches me personally. I am a practicing Buddhist, and my community here in Oregon is connected to monasteries in India--over the past few years I've visited one in West Bengal three times. Tibetans practice a different flavor of Buddhism, but the monks look a lot alike--they shave their heads and wear red robes. I suspect that for many in my community, watching the scenes of monks pouring into the streets provoked a strange feeling of familial recognition.
There are a number of ways a person might respond to a human disaster like this, and I feel unqualified to talk about those that happen in Iraq or Darfur or Guantanamo Bay. But as a Buddhist, I may have some religiously-relevant insight to share.
According to Buddhist philosophy, self-centeredness is the foundation for suffering. This isn't a moral idea--it's not a condemnation of selfishness. Rather, the experience of suffering comes from this self-centeredness--when we're only trying to protect our turf and advance our agenda, it leads inevitably to unsatisfactory experience. One antidote is to begin to recognize our interconnectivity with other beings.
All phenomena exist by virtue of multiple causes and specific conditions--this isn't a woo-woo kind of concept so much as basic physics. Everything we do becomes a cause and further condition that affects the people around us. In the face of very intense situations, we almost inevitably slide into a place where our minds and actions become negative causes--we get angry or possibly even violent. When one is feeling calm and knows that his behavior will affect others he cares for, it's hard to imagine committing an act of violence. Rather, violence arises from a deep level of suffering and confusion--we are only capable these things when lose our composure and dehumanize each other. The loss of the recognition of our interconnectivity abets our ability to commit grave acts.
There are a lot of video clips online, but one that affected me was one where a soldier was beating a monk with a bamboo cane. He was a young soldier in his early twenties, no doubt an easily influenced young person who was deeply conflicted in that moment. Watching it, I remembered that it was not the monk who was principally in need of clear thinking in that moment, it was the soldier, who had become so overcome by the situation that he was capable of beating a monk.
And therein lies the positive side to all of this:t we can affect people and events in a positive way, too, even from a distant place. The power of compassion is a profound thing and the ultimate antidote to confusion. For Buddhists, the best response to the situation in Burma is to try to keep a clear mind and extend compassion to all of those who are suffering--especially those who are inflicting violence. Even in America, we can do a lot of good by not dehumanizing the repressors, which creates a general feeling of mistrust and hatred. The circumstances that brought the junta to the place where they could commit these atrocities must have been profound, and they, too, are worthy of our compassion. If we could hold such a view, our response would be a positive cause and create conditions that might yield long-lasting good.
I have some confidence that the monks would agree that unbounded compassion must be the first step in helping change things in Burma.
[Update: Seeing this post through the eyes of Andrew Sullivan's readers (thanks for the link, AS!), it occurs to me to add one thing. Buddhism does not encourage blissful inaction. It encourages mindfulness in all action, whether it's meditation or nonviolent demonstration on the streets of Rangoon. It encourages action from a place of clarity and compassion rather than emotional reaction. Mindfulness is the first thing, action the second. My post was really about the precursor to action, not a suggestion of what the action should be. Maybe I'll give that a shot today.]