Burma’s struggle isn’t between Buddhists and their opponents but between different kinds of Buddhists. The monastic establishment’s complicity in the generals’ Buddhist dictatorship  shows the need to reform Buddhism, freeing it from practices that oppose its essential teachings

Thought for the Day 14/4/2012

David Cameron’s moving meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday evoked memories of her epic struggle and symbolised the hope that Burma may really be changing. The Prime Minister called her inspirational, and so, we may add, are her colleagues and the young Buddhist monks who led the 2008 protests.

But  I sometimes feel uneasy about the coverage of these developments. The Burmese struggle can be depicted as a battle between benign, non-violent Buddhists and evil, unprincipled despots. That fits Buddhism’s romanticized popular image and it’s good publicity in a way; but it’s also unrealistic and sentimental. We forget that the Burmese generals are devout Buddhists themselves. Their corrupt, thuggish regime has ruled in the name of Buddhism and often been supported by the Buddhist establishment. This struggle isn’t between Buddhists and their opponents but between different kinds of Buddhists.

The ruling generals adopted a leading role in Burma’s religious life: building huge Buddhist monuments, giving generously to monasteries and fitting themselves to the archetype of the Dharmaraja, the righteous king who upholds virtue and religion. All this, according to the traditional way of thinking, gained them karmic merit and will help them to a better rebirth. Monastic organisations were silenced and controlled by the government. Some monks understandably acquiesced for fear of arrest and torture, perhaps believing that their true role lay outside the public sphere. But many worked with the regime, actively legitimizing their rule, and in return Buddhist institutions were handsomely rewarded.

On the other side, the opposition finds in Buddhist teachings a critique of military rule and a rationale for democracy and non-violence. Aung San Suu Kyi says that Buddhist practice gave her a moral compass and inner strength. She has long argued that Buddhism could help the Burmese shake off their fear, and she echoed that yesterday in speaking of the ‘revolution of the spirit’ at work in the country.

Among other things, the Burmese struggle is about what Buddhism should look like in the modern world. I believe that Buddhism’s radical and original teachings have much to offer, but Burma shows the urgent need to reform much traditional Buddhism: the kind that entwines its teachings with ways of thinking that can end up legitimizing tyranny. The alternative offered by Aung San Suu Kyi and others shows that its teachings remain relevant to the most difficult situations, but only if we as Buddhists can look honestly at our beliefs, discard time-honoured practices if they are flawed and take our stand on Buddhism’s essential principles.


My next Thought for the Day talks will be April 25 and May 5

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist Politics