Thursday, 4 December 2014

Tracing Accusations of Burmese Buddhist "Fatalism"

A recent post questioned why the New York Times' lead reporter in Myanmar would use a derogatory and uninformed term when describing the attitude of a Burmese Buddhist man whom he seems to be praising in the overall article; as well as why the author is inserting what is clearly a subjective view into an objective news story. Again, the original article can be found here, and the quote in question is here: 

"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.'"


Of course, the term in question is Mr. Fuller's assumption that Khin Myint Maung shows an example of "only Buddhist fatalism." There is a history of 19th century Western authors using this term to incorrectly paint a bleak picture of the Buddha's teachings (often those that did it were Christian missionaries or British colonialists). The other incorrect term used at the time was to refer to the Buddha as "nihilist." Both of these terms were employed because writers grossly misunderstood the teachings and how they were followed-- accusations of Buddhist "fatalism" arose from a misunderstanding of the concept of kamma (karma), and accusations of Buddhist "nihilism" came from misunderstanding the concept of nibbana (nirvana). Today, it is considered offensive to use these terms when describing Theravada Buddhists, for it represents an antiquated perspective when the Buddha was depicted as a pessimistic figure (and this was often done so in order to promote either British colonial governance or the Christian religion). Additionally, as pointed out in the previous post, there is not a trace of truth to either of these terms ("nihilist" or "fatalist") that can be found when combing through the pantheon of the Buddha's teachings. If anything, his teachings are radically opposed to these concepts, and speak against them in almost every sutta.

Mr. Fuller has not yet explained why he chose to use this offensive word in an objective news story on the cover of the Sunday New York Times. Those that are also interested in his reasoning are encouraged to write him here. One also has to add that it is extremely concerning that an author holding these discriminatory views would be assigned to cover Myanmar for the Times, and one can only wonder how holding these views affects his reporting on the many other "news" stories he files on Myanmar for the paper.

The post has also been receiving its share of comments. Wtin Tut noted:

Thank you for your reply to the usual simplistic or should I say simple-minded comment about Buddhism. It seems to be the norm for Myanmar or anything related to the country. Many views are still no deeper than a bottle cap.

Ma Thanegi, a noted author and former political prisoner, also quipped that Thomas Fuller "did not know that greed and anger are the 2 first defilements and the last, ignorance is what he has. I don't think people like him could ever understand that we don't go arounding hating and being angry with rich people.  You know the Burmese proverb 'one can bear the sufferings of poverty but not of wealth.  ဆင္းရဲ တဲ့ ဒါဏ္ ကိုခံနိုင္တယ္ ခ်မ္းသာ တဲ့ ဒါဏ္ ကို မခံနိုင္ဘူး"

In reading Ma Thanegi's words, one recalls another local author described something of Burmese country life in his Collected Works: “These simple people, they do not want to go ride in a motorcar like the town folks. They do not want to have Bachelor of Arts or Master of Arts degrees like their counterparts in towns. They do not desire to become teachers or barristers. No inclination to spend time at cinemas or adorn themselves in gold and jewels. To become a wife of a government official? No, that would not even cross their minds. They are content to ride a bumpy ox-cart along a dusty trail. That, for them, is a highway in heaven! The screeches from the wheels constantly grinding against the axles are the sounds of angels’ harps to them.” Of course, reporters like Mr. Fuller may accuse this writer as yet another example of "Burmese Buddhist fatalism" for their lack of worldly desires.

Now let us take a moment to examine this accusation of "Burmese Buddhist fatalism" in more detail and in some historical context. We can first turn to a work by William Charles Bertrand in 1911, called "Christian Missions in Burma". He writes:

"They gather in groups to recite the law or listen to a hpongyi [Buddhist monk] reading it, they build little sand pagodas in front of their houses or offer candles and flowers to the image of the Buddha; occasionally the whole city, at a given time at night, has been lit up with bonfires in every compound, and has broken out into a great din made by the beating of gongs and tin pots and similar kinds of music. Crowds from the Chinese or Hindu quarters have passed along in weird torchlight processions, in order by these means to scare away the plague devil. At the same time—so does careless fatalism alternate with panic—they fail to take the simplest sanitary precautions; and I had an instance the other day of a man finding a dead rat in his house, and bringing it out in his hands, though expressly warned of the folly of so doing. Within two days he and his wife were dead of plague."

Here, Bertrand applies a loose definition of Burmese Buddhist fatalism-- to him, it is in some strange and undefined mixture of poor hygiene, listening to a Dhamma Discourse by a monk, honoring shrines of the Buddha, and some (non-Burmese, non-Buddhist) "Chinese or Hindu" rituals happening in the same quarter. Hardly a scholarly examination of the Abhidhamma treatises governing kamma! Then, in 1901 John Nisbet wrote this in "Burma under British Rule and Before":

When attacked by cholera, the Burman resigns himself to fate, whereas the native of India vows to dedicate some offering to his gods if they aid him in recovering. Shortly after my first arrival in Burma one of my Indian servants was attacked with cholera. Throughout the whole time I was dosing him with brandy and chloro-dyne he kept vowing that if his life were spared he would offer up a kid as a sacrifice to one of his gods. A day or two after he had recovered he duly came and asked for an advance of pay, in order to buy a kid for the purpose of fulfilling the vow he had made whilst stricken with the black disease. He got the money ; he bought the kid ; and he faithfully performed his vow. But as he afterwards prepared a savoury stew with the sacrifice, and ate it with the assistance of a few friends, the transaction was after all no dead loss or pure waste of money. With the Burman it is different, because he is a fatalist in such matters.

Here, Nisbet seems to actually praise the Indian Hindu for his propitiation of his many gods, and ridicule the Burmese Buddhist for doing nothing (however, we don't know the entire circumstance of the story, and the "doing nothing" that Nisbet observed may be a similar subjective misunderstanding that Thomas Fuller exhibited just a couple weeks ago in regards to Khin Myint Maung). Also, while Hindus may attribute the happenings on earth to the whims and desires of the gods, Burmese remember the Buddha's discourses that we alone are responsible for our life, and we are constantly planting the seeds of greater happiness or suffering. The Burmese Buddhist would not run around trying to appease a dozens gods, but rather accept the given reality without greed, anger, nor delusion, striving for non-attachment, and attempting to see things clearly and use any event as a lesson for further spiritual growth. Here is another excerpt from Nisbet:

Being fatalists to a very great extent, the Burmese duly recognize the destructive currents of life, which bear away human creatures. These fatal influences (Awga), fourfold in number, are caused by the currents of libidinous desire, of life's vicissitudes, of personal contact, and of ignorance and folly. In addition to the many other dangers with which the Burman's pilgrimage through the present state of existence is beset, he is exposed to the malignant influences of the three great evil periods {Kat), in which famine, pestilence, and slaughter are rife. Five kinds of enemies {Yan) have also to be contended against, viz., rulers of all sorts (including the sun and the moon, ruling the day and the night), water, fire, thieves, and ill-wishers. If a cultivator's rice fields have been parched by drought or destroyed by inundation, he will usually describe his misfortunes as caused by " the five enemies." There are four different kinds of fire {Tezaw) in the body, only one of which is beneficent, the fire [Dat) that prevents corruption even as salt prevents flesh from becoming tainted. The remaining three are malignant, including the fire (Than-dabbana) arising from sorrow and causing the body to waste as if it were burned, the fire (Daka) producing infirmity and decay, and the stomachic fire [Pdsaga), that consumes the food partaken of. Finally, human beings have five great masters or tyrants [Man) in their animal constitution (Kaitda Man), in their subjection to the operations of the four causes (actions, mind, season, and food : Abithingdya Man), in passion [Kilethd Man), in death [Missic Man), and in the chief of the evil spirits {Dewaputta, the Man Nat).

In this excerpt, we cannot even attempt to show the misunderstandings of Nisbet, so convoluted is his attempt to bend Buddhist scriptures towards his intention of proving a Buddhist fatalism. We can only shrug our heads and hope that current Western writers show more sense.

Finally, we have "The Story of Burma" by E.G. Harmer, who wrote:

For the first year or two after the annexation, as this brief sketch of the era of dacoity has already shown, the settlement of the country was hindered by the circumstance that gang-robbery enjoyed a recognized status. Again and again, when the deputy commissioners were touring their districts, they discovered that the villagers continued to pay blackmail as listlessly as ever. It was a weary task to put a backbone into these fatalists. But the English officers were stubborn men. They appointed the best of the local men as Burmese magistrates, and gave them the power to order a whipping, or to sentence up to six months' imprisonment. And year by year they pegged away, until at length the peace-loving Burman came to understand that the English raj* meant justice for the strong, protection for the weak, and one law for all.

In other words, the Burmese owe a great debt to the white man for annexing their country and bringing civilization and the rule of law to a land that, due to its Buddhist fatalist attitude, obviously knew none before (tongue firmly in cheek here).

Thankfully, not all Westerners fell into this trap. Notably, British chemist Allan Bennett, who spent many years in Ceylon and Burma, responded to this characterization in "Religion of Burma". He wrote:

Teaching as it does that the character and destiny of any being are, with one exception, absolutely determined for any given moment, and are the necessary resultants of the long line of mental doings which constitute his whole past, Buddhism appears at first sight to teach fatalism, determinism, pure and simple. But it is an equally prominent part of Buddhist doctrine that, however determinate, for the present moment, is the Kamma, the character and destiny of a given being, yet that being may, if he has but wisdom and knows how to utilise it, alter his whole future in whatever direction pleases him. In other words an intelligent being, such as man, is, for the immediate moment, ruled by his destiny; he is bound by all the forces of his past to react in a definite fashion to any given set of circumstances that may arise. But over the future he is himself ruler—within very wide limits indeed; he can, if he have knowledge, so profoundly alter, by dint of culture, his own character, as to produce results obviously manifest even in the short span of this life. This circumstance is, of course, at the root of all education; and the life of a George Stephenson is a living example of the profound effect on character and destiny which a man can bring about by dint of mental culture. Thus we may put the Buddhist position as to the free will or predestination discussion by saying that a man is determined for the immediate present, but that he has choice as to his way in life as regards the future.
Can we mould the life we have so as to make tomorrow's vision nobler, greater, and truer than the life we lead to-day? It is in the answer to this question that the complement to the half-truth of which I have spoken appears—the understanding so lacking in this Buddhist land, which changes this fatality of Kamma into a power whereby each man may change, not his own destiny alone, but even, in less degree, that of all the world, For that answer is in the affirmative. We may, the Dhamma tells us, so far modify the cause of this our life, the power of Kamma itself, that even in this existence our destiny, our environment may all be changed. "It is," The Master tells us in the Pitaka, "it is through not-knowing and not-understanding that we have lived so long in this great ocean of existence, both you and I." And if "not knowing and not understanding" be indeed the source of all this suffering life, then, by Right Knowledge and Eight Understanding we may in all things change the life we live. The change is, not only substituting a brighter, nobler, grander life for the petty path we tread, but even passing beyond the veil which hides from us the Light Eternal, and entering into the Truth which reigns beyond all life. Only by knowing and by understanding! In all our life we see how true it is, this Teaching of The Master; by knowing and by understanding, if but rightly we apply our knowledge, we may command whatever power we in ignorance obeyed; we may turn every force of Nature to our service; and we may find in each universal law the means to escape from its domination.

And with these beautiful words, we say, "enough said."

1 comment:

  1. Yes I agree that the last part is filled with beautiful words indeed. And such ignorance above. The understanding of Karma is necessary to the understanding of al things Buddhist. Emptiness also plays a large part of this. How one situation can be viewed in totally different ways depending on your point of view. The knowledge of this enables us to let go of our reactions towards what might be considered as bad news. To be in control of ones immediate and later future is what’s important. Forever planting seeds to ripen whether they be good or bad. Good deeds planting good prosperous times ahead, and bad deeds of jealousy, gossip, hate and general bad intention creating the same but much worse to come to you at a later date. To be in control of your fate is truly a wondrous thing. This is why Myanmar is regularly voted the most generous and giving country in the world. Their true understanding of Karma.