Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Freedoms and Dhamma: Where are the Lines?


In addition to diplomatic and consular sections, foreign embassies often play cultural roles in their host country, offering everything from film festivals to featured speakers to art exhibits. This month, the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar had an event of the latter kind planned. This “Insight Out” virtual art installation featured young local voices commenting on the issues of the day. In the curator’s words, “each painting tells a story about the young artist’s view of the world around them.” Prior to the exhibition, they posted one drawing online entitled “Air Pollution by Factories” which depicted just this. In it, the historical Buddha sits in a meditative pose with a gas mask over his face, as noxious air ominously fills the sky behind him. The artist, who was thankfully anonymous as his life and safety are now endangered, described his drawing this way: “Factories cause air pollution and worsen the ongoing deforestation that is threatening the health of the people and the environment. We must take responsibility for the causes of environmental pollution.”

The reaction was swift and brutal. An immediate outpouring of anger flooded the US Embassy’s social media account and phone lines, prompting them to immediately remove the image and even go so far as to apologize for having posted it. Not leaving well enough alone, Sayadaw U Parmaukha initiated a lawsuit against U.S. Ambassador Scott Marciel and the anonymous artist. What is one to make of this?

While referencing anything related to the Buddha in Myanmar risks touching a third rail, this current incident must be seen in a different category from past ones. Let us review some of these. In 2014, a New Zealander and two Burmese partners promoted their new nightclub with a decal of the Buddha wearing headphones—a degrading art choice for which it is difficult to give the benefit of the doubt, although few meditators would have supported the two and a half years jail sentence that was handed out as a result. Then there are the annual forced deportations of foreign backpackers who are found to have Buddha tattoos on their skin. While some (though admittedly not all) may acquire the body art through a genuine inspiration of the Buddha, it is considered highly offensive to affix the Buddha’s image to your person in Myanmar, and so those who have already done so are recommended to cover those parts of their body when in country (although ironically enough, many foreign meditators often take issue with those strings of cheap blinking lights ubiquitously placed around pagoda Buddha images in Myanmar, reminding the extent to which the conventional reality dictates preferences). It is unclear which deportations occurred as a result of foreigners refusing to cover these tattoos, and which occurred in spite of that attempt. Then in 2016, a Dutch tourist unplugged the speakers to an all-night Buddhist chanting occurring near his Mandalay hotel, which brought arrest despite the fact that it was the monastery who was violating noise ordinance laws.

Which brings us to the present day, and there are two ways to examine this case. First involves the content of the artwork and the subsequent reaction it engendered. Unlike previous incidents, even the most nationalistic, nativist, ethnocentric Bamar Buddhist cannot make a case that this drawing was in the slightest of ways a criticism or mockery of the Buddha and his teachings. Rather, it shocks us with the scene that were the Buddha to return to the Golden Land today, the wanton environmental neglect and industrial expansion that has taken place in the last ten years has so poisoned the air that even the Enlightened One could not sit peacefully in meditation. To be fair, for many Burmese the subtle meaning implied by the artist was not the point, rather they found it distasteful that the Buddha image was used in any manner whatsoever than purely devotional or religious (interestingly enough, actual depictions of the Buddha as a human figure was itself seen as inappropriate in an earlier era, showing just how much tastes and conventions change over the years). In any case, viewers of any art piece are just as entitled to their opinions and beliefs as the artist who created it. In a world of increasing freedoms, it is not only artists who have a right to express their vision, but also observers who have a right to criticize that vision and even ignore or boycott it altogether.

This brings us to the second way to examine what just happened. The overwhelming reaction taking place today is not limited to a statement of “I don’t like this artwork, I don’t think it is good, and I don’t want to see it.” Rather, what is being expressed is akin to “This kind of artwork should not be produced.” From such a statement arises a multitude of questions which are not readily answered. If the opinion is that this art should simply not exist in this world, then we are approaching a legalistic view governing the rights of artists in expressing their vision, the rights of publishers in releasing them, and even the rights of an audience in consuming it. So let’s follow this argument to its conclusion. If this art should not exist in the world, which is the view being expressed by this outrage, that infers that freedom of expression and consumption needs to be severely limited. Who is it that would determine those limits? Just years after Myanmar’s official state censor resigned his position, an angry mob is enraged over the free speech they have been allowed and agitating that it again become restricted. Then, after the limits of what is and is not permissible is specified, what becomes the penalty for breaking this new law? For example, if this sort of depiction of the Buddha was made to be illegal, what punishment does the artist deserve were he to press forward and produce his art anyway? Because a rule is not a rule if there is no consequence for disregarding it. And what punishment shall be meted out to the supporters and consumers of the art?

It is not uncommon in human history that the most enthusiastic (and with it, aggressive and violent) enforcers of religion also happen to be inadequate followers of their prophet’s central tenants. While this certainly doesn’t characterize everyone here, one cannot fail to notice that when perusing the personal Facebook profiles of those most enraged by the recent offenses, one finds the usual mixture of nightclub fun, drunken interludes, bikini posturing, recreational drug use, and other such relatively innocuous activities that most youth engage in (and these days, post online) everywhere in the world. Nothing wrong about this at all, however it does cause for some confusion when many of those promoting the outrage are openly breaking many of the five basic precepts that all lay Buddhists are instructed to follow.

Yet it would be incorrect to claim this is a complete picture of contemporary Buddhism in Myanmar. For although seemingly unknown to much of the foreign media, who prefer to focus on this violent breakaway of Burmese Buddhism, modern Myanmar is indeed filled with a large sector of highly-disciplined monastics who are lovingly cared for by lay supporters, and who train their mind daily to seek the path of full liberation from suffering as promised by the Buddha. These spiritual aspirants don’t have the time (or ignorance) to unleash such anger, and their quiet wisdom and reflection rarely makes waves beyond their small forest huts. That these are the real protectors of the faith gets lost in the cacophony of religious zealots and the Western media that then reacts to them.

I am lucky to have taken human form in this life and luckier still to have found a way to have heard the teachings of the Buddha. I want to live in a world where I can practice towards this path of liberation from suffering. But I also want to live in a world where we can have an artistic vanguard that challenges the blind spots of society and pushes me into uncomfortable places where I must confront unpleasant truths—is this not the very role of Buddhist meditation itself, which pushes me towards a realization that the most fundamental concept I believe, that the “I” exists, is actually a fallacy? And yet I also want to live in a world where any segment of the population is able to say, “I don't like this art and it is unskillful for all the following ways. I will boycott the exhibition and use my influence to encourage others to also do so.”

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