Saturday, 22 November 2014

"Was the Buddha a Fatalist?" An Response To Thomas Fuller's New York Times Article


This morning, for its Sunday edition, Thomas Fuller wrote a cover page article on a famous Yangon traffic cop. While the article is interesting in how it describes the changing traffic situation in Yangon and one honest traffic cop's attempt to help new drivers, there is one quotation that many familiar with the Buddha's teachings might find highly offensive:

"The third of five children from a rice-farming family in a remote village three miles from the Bay of Bengal, [Khin Myint Maung] shows no resentment toward the wealth that flashes past, only Buddhist fatalism.

'Everyone has their own destiny,' he said during a break from directing traffic at the corner of Dhammazedi and Link Roads, his usual spot not far from Shwedagon Pagoda. 'The rich are rich because they did many good things in their past life. Everyone has their own place.'"

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The following response was prepared and sent to Mr. Fuller, and is shared here again for the benefit of others interesting in Burmese Buddhist practice:

"I would not be surprised to see such a use of the term 'Buddhist fatalism' if the article was dated 1914 rather than 2014, when Western writers wrote largely misguided descriptions of the faith, scarcely understanding any of the basic tenants of the Buddha's teachings. So much unneeded confusion has come from these Western writers claiming that Buddhism was fatalistic, and long responses have been written in response over the years demonstrating that nothing of the sort can be found within the pantheon of Buddhist scriptures. It is with great surprise that I find such a term in use on the front page of the New York Times today.

The fact that Khin Myint Maung believes that those who have gained riches is due to past acts of merit in no way correlates to your claim that it is an example of 'Buddhist fatalism.' To me, this is a sign that you have not understood the basic elements of the Buddha's teaching or the Burmese Buddhism that your subjects devoutly follow. In addition I have to tell you honestly that I find this extremely patronizing to write in an objective news article. That you find his quote was a sign of 'Buddhist fatalism' is in no way any objective fact, but rather an sign of your own limited opinion and perspective, and is not supported by any serious study of either the basic tenants of the faith or how it is seen in daily practice.

Using this term, 'Buddhist fatalism,' implies that Khin Myint Maung is a simplistic chap who allows inequality to flourish around him without developing more of the righteous injustice that you may think better suit his situation. 'Fatalistic' implies that the subject is doing nothing of any kind to improve his situation, that he believes his lot in life has been entirely pre-ordained, and that his future will be determined by forces greater than himself. Such an attitude completely contradicts every fabric of the Buddha's teachings, who clearly taught how to actively and intentionally follow a path of morality, generosity, and the development of mental factors leading to enlightenment. There is not a trace of fatalistic thinking, and quite the opposite is promoted, in that the actions one takes now directly affect one's future happiness or suffering. Most definitions of 'fatalism' completely contradict such a premise! 

Khin Myint Maung's quote is in acknowledgement of this truth, as far as I can see. His quote may be an example of 'Buddhist acceptance,' but in no way does it suggest 'Buddhist fatalism.' Although you may have been disappointed he was not more angry at the wealth of the cars going past him in comparison to his own relatively poor salary, this is in no way an example of fatalist thinking on his part, and it is incorrect to suggest that the Buddha's teaching themselves contain any fatalism therein, or that Burmese Buddhists follow such kinds of thinking either."