Burma Through a Buddhist Lens

The monks of Myanmar move mountains through faith

To the people, they are courageous political activists. To the government, they are conniving political agitators. They have suffered unspeakable cruelty at the hands of a military regime while refraining from exhibiting similar violence. Slowly though, they are changing the tide, armed with nothing but their faith and perseverance. Many people today are quick to blame religion for being the root of all wars and bloodshed in the history of mankind. Certainly the history books offer plenty of evidence to support that observation. But the Buddhist monks of Burma, through their unprecedented protests and now victimization, show that perhaps religion and faith in general are not always the root of war, but rather, when placed in certain political contexts and with forgiveness at its core, they become the seeds of positive change.

Burma, which was re-named Myanmar in 1989, many years after the military Junta seized power, is a small country that sits between Thailand, India, and China. The religious landscape is centered around Buddhism. Approximately, 90% of the Burmese population are Buddhist with Muslims and Christians making up 4% respectively. The indelible footprint of the country’s mainstream religion can be seen with every Buddhist temple and shrine that stands amidst the trees. According to one Buddhist scholar, there are more than 60,000 buddhist monasteries, and more than 400,000 Buddhist monks within the borders of Burma.

A Gift to the Giver

These monks have always been highly revered by both the Burmese government and general public. Renouncing all material possessions, they live a life of simplicity and follow as best they can all the teachings of the Buddha. The monks are not allowed to work or earn money and are therefore forced to beg, becoming fully dependent on donations from their community for food and other necessities. However, the opportunity to donate to a monk is seen more as a gift to the giver than the actual gift is to the monk. In return for the material and financial support, the monks give back to their communities through running monastery schools, hospitals and orphanages.

“The mission of Buddhism is to work and speak for suffering people and the welfare of many out of compassion for the world,” says Ven. Ashin Nayaka, a Buddhist Monk of more than 26 years and visiting scholar to Columbia University. He says that Buddhism is centered around truth, self-reliance, and self-modification. And it’s these central principles that are driving the persecuted Burmese monks now. Staying in close contact with the monks in Burma, Ven. Nayaka, a native of Burma himself, is an active player in the struggle taking place in his homeland.

Years of Oppression and Poverty

“When Buddhist monks lead in any strike, people are ready to support,” said Ven. Ashin Nayaka. The monks started refusing donations from members of the government, turning their black shiny bowls upside
down in defiance.”

It all began in mid-August when the military government that rules Burma announced a steep price hike in fuel. This action proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After years of suffering oppression and immense poverty, the Burmese people rose up in defiance. They took to the streets in protest of the government. Many protesters were arrested and jailed. A month later however, the citizen protests gained considerable momentum when thousands of Burmese monks began to lead the peaceful marches, transforming the struggle into a religious strike that began to be known as the “Saffron Revolution.”

“When Buddhist monks lead in any strike, people are ready to support,” said Ven. Nayaka citing the moral authority of monks. The monks started refusing donations from members of the government, turning their black shiny bowls upside down in defiance. In a Buddhist society where all members of the government are Buddhist as well, the refusal of the monks to take donations from the government was seen as a slap in the face and a questioning of the government’s legitimacy of faith.

However, the Buddhist monk and scholar maintains that all can be made right with a simple apology. According to Ven. Nayaka, the monks began protesting to request a governmental apology, a reduction in fuel prices, and the release of political prisoners. They are requests that have yet to be met.