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Aggression, Retaliatory Behavior, and the Buddhist Sangha

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While everyone supports the need for change in Myanmar, there seems to be a "disconnect" in the reasoning of some people who have attempted to justify or just ignore behavior that is contrary to the Buddha-dharma, beginning with members of the Sangha who took hostages and set cars on fire in Pakokku [1], an overt act of retaliatory aggression clearly meant as intimidation and unbecoming of the spirit of the Buddhist tradition, then the most recent reports that some members of the Sangha are stockpiling firearms for their next encounter with military junta [2].

Most notable in all of this is the continued attempt to compare such aggressive behavior to an incident mentioned in the Parinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, where the Buddha is said to have stood in the middle of a river to stop two warring kingdoms who were about to fight over the supply of water.

I don't remember the Parinibbana Sutta mentioning any aggressive behavior by the Buddha, nor was it a protest or demonstration, but intervention in and of itself alone. When members of the laity don't know the difference between a peaceful demonstration and aggressive behavior it is sad enough, but when this appears within the Sangha it becomes even a greater tragedy.

Demonstrations can bring about reform, but real reform only exists when dialogue is pursued by all involved parties, not by one party attempting to intimidate the other, where demonstrations are typically the result of passion and intervention is typically the result of true compassion, not the mundane variety.

For all intents and purposes, any governmental administration would be an improvement to what's currently in place within Myanmar, but if someone believes that aggressive and/or retaliatory behavior will somehow solve all of their problems, then they're in for a very rude awakening and might be in need of "Buddhism 101" as a refresher course:

"He abused me, he beat me,
he defeated me, he robbed me,"
in those who harbour such thoughts
hatred will never cease.

"He abused me, he beat me,
he defeated me, he robbed me,"
in those who do not harbour such thoughts
hatred will cease.

The verses above are from the Dhammapada, a collection of profound wisdom for a confused world. Just as hatred does not cease through hatred, the same can be said that aggression does not cease through aggression, but only creates more suffering and hostility.

An example of this can be found within the Ghandian non-violent Satyagraha movement, where they refuse to inflict injury on others and must be willing to shoulder any sacrifice or suffering of the struggle they have initiated, rather than pushing such sacrifice or suffering onto their opponent, always providing a face-saving "way out" for their opponent.

It should also be noted that this was the path taken by Martin Luther King, apparently possessing a degree of wisdom which is lost to many activists today, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike.

Without doubt, the economic problems and fuel prices which set off the unrest in Myanmar are related to the State Peace and Development Council, but very few people are looking at the cause of it or the realities that would have to be faced by any government, democratic or otherwise.

These matters were brought up by Dr. Alfred Oehlers, a respected security analyst of Asian-Pacific studies [3]:

"First, most of the gas contracts were negotiated some time ago and probably have much lower locked-in prices than those prevailing today. These lower gas prices cannot compensate for the higher spot prices for diesel.

"Second, revenues are not always obtained in such sales. Sources indicate that the deal with Petronas, for example, involves the SPDC bartering its share of gas production for diesel from the Malaysian company on pre-agreed terms, without any money being exchanged.

"Third, it should also be remembered that though revenues may be obtained from gas sales, expenditure on refined gas products are a drain on such income and can diminish what is available for diesel imports. It is a great irony that while Burma sells unrefined natural gas to neighboring countries, due to lack of capacity to purify such gas domestically, it must import refined gas products at substantially higher prices.

"What we have currently is a conjuncture of these structural characteristics and circumstances that make it impossible to sustain subsidies at the previous level. Rising imports of diesel, gasoline and gas products at escalating prices cannot be paid for from existing gas revenues. Nor can an already weak state budget, depleted by projects such as a new capital, absorb such rising costs. The only solution is to slash the subsidies and raise fuel prices."

Does this excuse the ongoing oppression and behavior of the State Peace and Development Council? No, but on the other hand there isn't any excuse for the lack of objectivity either, especially when addressing the issues that caused the price hikes in the first place. It is always easier to look for a scapegoat than it is to find a solution.

Maybe the best summation of the events unfolding in Myanmar was offered by Matt Milligan in his blog Buddhologie: that (i) yes the monks are doing a good thing, (ii) the monks have a right to voice their opinion and strive for democracy for an oppressed people, but (iii) the monks are not entirely innocent. Why are they (probably) not entirely innocent? Well, they are choosing now, as opposed to last year, or the year before that, or the year before that, and so on, to protest. The fact is, they have been sustained by the Burmese government for decades and live quite comfortably compared to the rest of the population.

Taking into account the realities that face Myanmar and its ever growing dependency on diesel imports, who will be blamed for the suffering after the current regime is gone? What happens when the economy gets even worse than it already is? If history is any indicator, we can expect to see not only much more suffering, but also the decline of the institutionalized Sangha in Myanmar if retaliatory behavior begins to spread among its members, though this appears to have been an isolated incidents and hopefully won't happen again.

Within the Buddhist tradition, one does not fight aggression with aggression, no sooner than one fights fire with fire --- one fights aggression through open dialogue and compassionate intervention in total equanimity, even after one has been abused or mistreated.

Of equal concern should be the fact that the Burmese Sangha showed that it possessed the strength and support to lead these demonstrations in the first place, then likewise it should also have had the strength and support to pursue the greater path of intervention --- to enter the river as the Buddha is said to have done so many centuries ago, to find solutions and work with the people and the current regime to transform Myanmar into a free and productive society, doing so in accord with the spirit of the noble Sangha and not the political agendas of the pro-democracy movement.

To say otherwise, or believe that everything has reached the "point of no return", is to deny the power of the Dharma to transform ourselves and others.

And what will happen the first time a monk points a gun and pulls the trigger?

It will be the shot heard around the world, not only bringing about the end of the institutionalized Sangha within Myanmar, but also sending shockwaves through the international Buddhist community as whole, which begs only one question... When will we recognize that the greatest threat to Buddhism is not outside of the institution, but might actually be within?

[1] Monks Take Officials Hostage for hours in Upper Burma Standoff,4818,0,0,1,0

[2] Monks with guns? Burma's younger activists get bolder,7147,0,0,1,0

[3] Behind Burma's Fuel Price Rise


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A respected teacher of dialects from the Mahabodhi Sunyata in Tarragona, Spain, the Ven. J.M. Dharmakara Boda is executive director of the Mahabodhi Maitri Mandala in America and a member of the Buddhist Brotherhood Assembly of Bangladesh.
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Aggression, Retaliatory Behavior, and the Buddhist Sangha