Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Buddha in Modern Myanmar

On the Democratic Voice of Burma, Dr. Paul Fuller has reported on a fascinating developing story in Myanmar, about a New Zealander, Philip Blackwood, who was arrested for using the image of a Buddha wearing headphones in a trance-like state to promote his new bar. Mr. Blackwood, along with Burmese partners Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, have been charged under blasphemy law. Additionally, monks from the ma-ba-tha movement (meaning the "Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion") have protested these images for being highly offensive and inappropriate. 

This story hits so many themes and and cultural attitudes that disentangling them may pose a challenge. On one side, many Burmese Buddhists, Western meditators, and most readers of this blog would also share in being offended and disgusted at seeing a Buddha image shown to be rolling in sensual entertainment (e.g. rave music) and even worse, advertising and encouraging people in a deeply Buddhist country to come to a bar whose main purpose is the distribution of intoxicants (e.g., beer and other alcohol). These acts so oppose the Buddha's teachings, as well as Myanmar's conservative values, that it is highly shocking and inappropriate that a Buddha image would be used in this way. Few meditators would condone such an appropriation and many would protest the image with a goal in mind of having it removed. 

But on the other hand, the values of freedom and individual choice are so cherished in Western life that many of these same meditators would feel something unpleasant upon hearing that the government would wade deep into religious territory, let alone by imprisoning individuals who are merely engaged in artistic impression-- no matter how disgusting their choice of artistic impression may be. In this vein, one can easily compare Myanmar locking up Mr. Blackwell with Muslim governments that harass writers and cartoonists who portray Mohammad in ways that they disagree with.

This may essentially be a question of "How far is too far?" This is a question that Myanmar especially must grapple with as it moves into a free society, and a question that every society must evaluate at at each stage of its history. For Western meditators, it may be especially tricky, for two forces oppose each other-- the force of the Dhamma, the devotion towards the Buddha, and the preservation of all his teachings and practices; and the force of safeguarding individual rights of expression, religion, opinion, and choices.

Interestingly, this is a dynamic that most Western monastics and yogis who live in Myanmar have to negotiate in some way or the other. An example from the life of one European monk illustrates this issue in a rather drastic way. He was living deep in the forest, under the protection of his Sayadaw. Here, "protection" has a many-fold meaning: his Sayadaw ensured his health, nourishment, shelter, meditation instruction, visa, as well as the greater spiritual protection to practice the Dhamma. The monk had great faith in this Sayadaw, and had renounced his entire life in Europe in order to learn under him. 

After about a year into his stay, the monk had requested to meet some friends a day car trip away from his forest retreat and the Sayadaw accepted. However, when the day came to leave, the Sayadaw changed his mind and refused to give the monk his passport, and did not offer to take him in his car-- the only way to leave the forest. The monk was torn along these very lines described above. The "dhammic" and "Buddhist" part of his being sought to take this as another moment for practice. To observe the mind as it rolled in frustration, to accept the wisdom of his Sayadaw in whom he had faith, and to submit to the instruction of a superior as he continued to make the Path is highest aspiration. However, the "Western" part of his upbringing felt a need to stand up to what was essentially a broken promise, to insist that the passport was his property and to protest against the justice (and illegality) of it not being given to him on demand, and to find a productive way to communicate his frustration with the Sayadaw so that their relationship could be maintained. Which side to follow? For many meditators reading about Mr. Blackwell, a similar dynamic may come into play.

Dr. Fuller does not so much get into this discussion in his article, but rather focuses on the power of the Buddha image itself, such as when he writes: 

"The power of Buddhist sacred objects is part of what has been termed “apotropaic Buddhism”. This idea is often ignored in the modern understanding of Buddhism. The term “apotropaic” refers to object, texts and teachings that are regarded as having protective and even magical qualities. An image of the Buddha (which in a way is not simply an image, but is the Buddha, a surrogate Buddha, as it were), has the power to protect and avert danger....And this is where the offence caused by the DJ-like Buddha image is lost on those producing such an image. The images are not only offensive to certain sensibilities but are primarily dangerous and inauspicious. The modern Buddhist might emphasise those parts of the Buddha’s teaching that focus upon notions of freeing the mind of all forms of attachment, including attachment to sacred objects, but miss other important aspects of Buddhism that emphasise the protective power of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha."

While it is good that he tries to explain the offense caused to what may be a primarily Western readership at DVB, what is missing from this description is the absolute devotion and respect shown to monks and the Buddha throughout Myanmar. For a Westerner to really understand the level of shock and offense that Mr Blackwell's poorly thought out image must have caused, one needs to see the spotless pagodas, the monks' alms rounds at 4 am on each and every morning through villages and cities across the country, the daily offerings made at Buddha statues in one's home or at pagodas or at monasteries, the huge dana given to Buddha statues from a people that are considered some of the poorest in the world, the way these Buddha images are kept clean and immaculate even in a country without a proper refuse system, etc. The first thing any Burmese Buddhist will do upon moving into a new home is build their shrine room and then maintain its sanctity. There is no level of devotion or respect that can be found in any Western country as a comparison, and it goes into the very heart of the Burmese Buddhist to see this Teacher portrayed so inappropriately in their very city. Again, this may not mean that imprisoning the perpetrator is the correct response, but a clearer understanding must be made of how shocking this portrayal would be. For many Westerners who may believe that they understand the Buddha's teachings, Dr. Fuller gives voice to them by noting that "those using an image of the Buddha in a commercial way stress part of the teachings of Buddhism in which “letting go” and non-attachment are the central focus and then assume that the use of an image will not be offensive because the Buddhist is not attached to such things." This is a very superficial and Western-centric way to view the faith, and one that entirely ignores and dismisses the Burmese Buddhist attitude. 

Elsewhere, Dr. Fuller writes: "Therefore, on the one hand, the manipulation of the Buddha image is harmless and surely the Buddha, being free from all attachment would not have taken any offence. In another sense the Buddha was not simply an ordinary person but someone who had strived for thousands of lifetimes generating ethical actions so that one day he could become a Buddha."

The Buddha was certainly no ordinary person, and this gets at the heart of the dynamic between "honoring those who are worthy of respect," while finding the line where individual freedoms may be maintained.

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