By Kevin Stoda
I was impressed to note that on Wednesday October 31, 2007 once again over one-hundred monks took a brave stand against the Burmese Military dictatorship, which has reigned in the country called Myanmar for many decades.
The march occurred in the town of Pukokku in central highlands of Burma. These monks marched in the streets of their town demanding justice for the citizens of the land--and especially for the treatment of Buddhist monks.
This march was a surprise to the horrible Myanmar military as following the late September 2007 violent and deadly crackdown on the Buddhist monk-led demonstrations in their country, the nation’s military elite had first occupied many monasteries and then either arrested many monks or had many of them dispersed to either their homes or to other parts of the land—many going into exile.Several centers of learning and education in the country have since been closed. According to the BBC, “Some monasteries linked to the protests are virtually empty, with only a few monks and the abbot remaining inside.”Worse, a BBC report continues, “Monks who have escaped across the border to Thailand have described being locked up and prevented from going out into the streets to beg for alms, as is their custom. One said he and fellow monks were forced to survive only on the food given as alms by the military, an added humiliation given that monks had declared they would refuse to accept gifts from soldiers. Burmese Buddhist leaders abroad have spoken of their fear that the very survival of Burmese Buddhism is now under threat.” Over the past decade, Thai military authorities, although permitting a great number of refugee camps on that nation’s border, have never really joined any world-wide effort to isolate and force the collapse of the Burmese military fraternity.
Meanwhile, there has been talk among leading monks abroad and in Burma of plans to set up a new Sangha, a community of monks.
As in any faith, the orthodox message is usually in the hands of such community and faithfulness over time is what propels a religious growth and roots in any society. The “Sangha” is such a community within Bhuddism
As in any faith, the orthodox message is usually in the hands of a particularly devout community and faithfulness over time. This community, called “Sangha”, needs to be appreciated by any westerner concerned with events in Burma and elsewhere in China and Southeast Asia.
Historically, “[m]embers of the Sangha were indispensable in the spread and preservation of the Buddha's message, both during his lifetime and long after his death, down to the present time. They act as the principal guardians of the faith. Without the Sangha the religion could not endure and prosper. This is evident from the fact that even in the areas where Buddhism was introduced earlier, if the Sangha were not well established, the religion would soon die out. Thanks to the Sangha, the world now has relatively convenient access to the Buddha's teachings and can still enjoy the fruit of the Buddha's enlightenment.”
One of the great worries concerning the current great forced-dispersal of Buddhist leaders and monks in and across borders of Burma is that much of the social network that takes care of the poor in the country--and in refugee areas across the border--will be greatly hindered and neglected.
This concerns me greatly as, although I am not Buddhist, I sometimes distribute charity to Myanmar via Buddhist charities or through other charity organizations that are monitored or supported by Buddhists efforts and volunteers in the region of Burma.
The disruption to the social infrastructure by the regime’s recent crackdown on Buddhist activism can be understood by looking at the role that the Sangha has increasingly played in South Asia, especially in Burma, Thailand and Laos.
Although a Buddhist monk’s role in society is primarily related to prayer and meditation, “With the passage of time the role of the Sangha has expanded more and more into social concerns. Not only do monks teach Dhamma, they also perform ceremonies for the laity, especially at important events connected with life (such as births, weddings, and deaths). Their counsel is sought in family or communal disputes, their presence is considered auspicious at the opening ceremony of a new business . . . .”
Moreover, looking at developments in Burma’s more historically peaceful neighbor, we see that in “early Thailand, not only were monasteries seats of religious learning, even secular subjects were taught there until just before the introduction of the modern education system. Monks represented not only spiritual leadership in religious affairs, but also intellectual leadership in society, for they were usually the best educated sector of society. Because of the trust and confidence the community places in them, they are also looked up to for leadership in certain communal activities, especially in rural areas, where monks and laity enjoy closer bond and cooperation.”
Even if Buddhist monks do not run a particular public or private school themselves, they have often aided in providing land or assistance in setting up schools.
Through various manipulations of Quisling-like leaders, the military in Burma has tried again and again to manipulate the Sangha there.
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