Burma: A monk's reflection

by Bhikkhu Gavesako, The Buddhist Channel, Oct 1, 2007

Bodhinyanarama, New Zealand -- In the last several days, we have seen reports from Burma showing brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks and nuns chanting the Metta Sutta, asking for social justice and a fair political system.

Many people are wondering now: How can such a thing happen in a country which is supposed to be devoutly Buddhist and a staunch guardian of the scriptural teachings of the Theravada tradition? Aren't monks supposed to be detached from worldly matters and not involved in politics?

As a matter of fact, monks have played a significant role in Burmese history for centuries. The kings have patronised the Sangha and received religious legitimation of their secular power in return.

But this royal patronage has been a mixed blessing for the Sangha: although monks have obtained material support from the rulers, they were also subject to their willful orders all the time. Sometimes the kings used their authority to purge the monastic order and restore its purity (according to their understanding of the concept), and they appointed selected monks as the Sangharajas or "Sangha rulers" to control and administer all the monks in the country, supervised by royal officials at the local level. Anyone who disobeyed was disrobed by force.

Senior monks acted as advisors for the king, but in some cases they became the object of his anger and were killed. Different factions also tried to win the king's favour and his support.

Although we may sometimes read about the "great Buddhist kings of the  past" in idealized nationalistic accounts of Burmese history, in reality most of them were cruel and despotic rulers always intent on military campaigns, decimating their neighbours and enslaving the population, forcefully drafting their own people into the army.

They would wage war on other kingdoms in order to get for themselves Buddhist sacred objects (such as relics, scriptures or statues) thought to possess special power. Then they built magnificent religious monuments using slave labour to demonstrate the strength of their empire. In all this, they did not follow the actual Buddhist teachings, but rather used Buddhist icons and symbols to legitimize their absolute right to rule. A righteous king should be possessed of moral qualities such as gentleness (maddava), non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihimsa), tolerance (khanti) and uprightness (avirodhana).

"At such time, monks, as rulers are unrighteous (adhammika), their ministers are unrighteous, priests and householders are also unrighteous." (AN ii,74)

So the current situation is nothing new to Burma. Lacking the qualities of charity (dana), honesty (ajjava) and willingness to sacrifice (pariccaga), the current military junta mismanaged the country and then used Buddhist symbols -- imitating the model of previous kings -- to manifest to everybody that it has an absolute power and therefore the right to rule. The Buddha describes the mental process which gives rise to such corrupt behaviour and its inevitable results:

"Craving is dependent on feeling,
seeking is dependent on craving,
acquisition is dependent on seeking,
ascertainment is dependent on acquisition,
desire and passion is dependent on ascertainment,
attachment is dependent on desire and passion,
possessiveness is dependent on attachment,
stinginess is dependent on possessiveness,
defensiveness is dependent on stinginess,
and because of defensiveness, dependent on defensiveness, various
evil, unskillful things arise: the taking up of sticks and knives;
conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and
lies." (DN 15)

"A bad man, monks, is possessed of bad states of mind, he associates
with bad men, he thinks as do bad men, he advises as do bad men, he
speaks as do bad men, he acts as do bad men, he has the views of bad
men, he gives gifts as do bad men... And how, monks, does a bad man
act as do bad men? In this case, a bad man is one who kills creatures,
who takes what has not been given, who enjoys himself wrongly." (MN

"He is malevolent in mind, corrupt in thought and purpose, and thinks:
'Let these beings be killed or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed
or may they not exist.'" (MN 41)

"There is the case where a woman or man is a killer of living beings,
brutal, bloody-handed, given to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to
living beings. Through having adopted & carried out such actions, on
the break-up of the body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane
of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell. If, on
the break-up of the body, after death — instead of reappearing in the
plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, hell —
he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is short-lived wherever
reborn. There is the case where a woman or man is one who harms beings
with his/her fists, with clods, with sticks, or with knives. Through
having adopted & carried out such actions, on the break-up of the
body, after death, he/she reappears in the plane of deprivation... If
instead he/she comes to the human state, then he/she is sickly
wherever reborn." (MN 135)

"Comparing oneself with others in such terms as 'Just as I am so are
they, just as they are so am I' one should neither kill nor cause
others to kill." (Snp v.705)

"When embraced,
the rod of violence
breeds danger and fear:
Look at people quarreling.
I will tell of how
I experienced
Seeing people floundering
like fish in small puddles,
competing with one another --
as I saw this,
fear came into me.
The world was entirely
without substance.
All the directions
were knocked out of line.
Wanting a haven for myself,
I saw nothing that wasn't laid claim to.
Seeing nothing in the end
but competition,
I felt discontent.
And then I saw
an arrow here,
so very hard to see,
embedded in the heart.
Overcome by this arrow
you run in all directions.
But simply on pulling it out
you don't run,
you don't sink...
Whatever things are tied down in the world,
you shouldn't be set on them.
Having totally penetrated
sensual pleasures,
sensual passions,
you should train for your own
Unbinding." (Snp IV.15)

"I see in the world
people with wealth
who, from delusion,
don't make a gift
of the treasure they've gained.
Greedy, they stash it away,
hoping for even more
sensual pleasures.

A king who, by force,
has conquered the world
and rules over the earth
to the edge of the sea,
dissatisfied with the ocean's near shore,
longs for the ocean's
far shore as well.

Kings & others
-- plenty of people --
go to death with craving
unabated. Unsated,
they leave the body behind,
having not had enough
of the world's sensual pleasures. ...

His heirs take over his wealth,
while the being goes on,
in line with his kamma.
No wealth at all
follows the dead one --
not children, wives,
dominion, or riches. ...

Just as an evil thief
caught at the break-in
is destroyed
by his own act,
so evil people
-- after dying, in the next world --
are destroyed
by their own acts." (Thag 16.4)

The military rulers have committed many acts of violence against the general population, especially ethnic minorities, and now they turned their weapons also against the monks. At the same time they appeal to the "religious duties" of the Sangha: they should focus exclusively on the study and practice of the scriptural teachings (divorced from real life) and perform the required rituals (to legitimize the regime), not get involved in any activities that challenge the status quo.

Many of the young monks who were marching in the streets are sons of poor
families who are getting an education through the monastic system, so they are acutely aware of the hard economic situation of ordinary people and their families. "Overturning the bowl" (patta-nikkujjana-kamma) is a symbolic phrase signifying the refusal to accept offerings from a particular person, and thus having nothing
to do with them, which seems pefectly justified in this case.

"The bowl may be overturned for a lay follower endowed with (any of)
eight qualities: He/she strives for the monks' material loss, strives
for the monks' detriment, strives for the monks' non-residence,
insults and reviles monks, causes monks to split from monks, speaks in
dispraise of the Buddha, speaks in dispraise of the Dhamma, speaks in
dispraise of the Sangha. I allow that the bowl be overturned for a lay
follower endowed with (any of) these eight qualities." (Cv. V.20.3)

This will of course make the generals angry with the monks, because it exposes the fallacy of their claim to be practising Buddhism and deprives them of the source of political legitimization.

A Buddhist is someone who has faith in the principle of kamma -- "there are fruits and results of good and bad actions" -- which the military leaders and their hired thugs obviously don't pay any attention to. They try to use the monastic hierarchy (senior monks appointed by them and provided with appropriate status symbols) to suppress the dissenting movement, but formal acts of the Sangha such as this cannot be controlled from the top.

The procedure is that the monks' community meets and agrees to the statement, which -- in a motion and proclamation -- explains the person's wrong doing and announces that the community is overturning its bowl to him/her. The local community should then inform other communities that they, too, are not to accept alms or offerings from the household of that person, who should also be informed about it. It is an attempt to make them mend their ways, and if they do so, the Sangha can decide to turn its bowl upright again.

But it can happen that the worldly powers, having been humiliated, feel no scruples or shame and instead continue in their abusive behaviour towards the monks.

There is a story from the time of the Buddha, when someone from the royal court in Kosambi bore grudge against him and hired rogues to revile him publicly in the street, using coarse language. When the monks were collecting alms food in the morning, words of abuse were hurled at them by these people. So Ananda approached the Buddha and suggested that it might be better to leave the town and go somewhere else.

The Buddha replied:

"But suppose, Ananda, that we are ill-treated and abused in the next place we go, what shall we do then?"
"Then we shall go to some other place," said Ananda.
"And if we are reviled in that new place too, what shall we do then?"
"Then we shall go to some other place," replied Ananda.
"No, Ananda, that is not the proper way. Wherever a difficulty arises,
right there it should be resolved. Only then should one move. I am
like a battle elephant who patiently endures the arrows that are shot
from all directions. In the same way, I will endure these abusive
words. This will only continue for seven days and then the people will
know." (Dhammapada Commentary)

A similar case happened when the Brahman Akkosaka ("Insulter") Bharadvaja, angered and displeased, went to the Buddha and, on arrival, insulted and cursed him with rude, harsh words.

When this was said, the Blessed One said to him: "What do you think, Brahman: Do friends and colleagues, relatives and kinsmen come to you as guests?"
"Yes, Master Gotama, sometimes friends and colleagues, relatives and kinsmen come to me as guests."

"And what do you think: Do you serve them with staple and non-staple
foods and delicacies?"

"Yes, sometimes I serve them with staple and non-staple foods and delicacies."
"And if they don't accept them, to whom do those foods belong?"
"If they don't accept them, Master Gotama, those foods are all mine."
"In the same way, Brahman, that with which you have insulted me, who
is not insulting; that with which you have taunted me, who is not
taunting; that with which you have berated me, who is not berating:
that I don't accept from you. It's all yours, Brahman. It's all yours.
"Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting, returns taunts to one
who is taunting, returns a berating to one who is berating, is said to
be eating together, sharing company, with that person. But I am
neither eating together nor sharing your company, Brahman. It's all
yours. It's all yours." (SN VII.2)

So in a way, the Buddha turned his bowl upside down to the brahman and did not receive his "offerings". As we can see from the following passages, these are the occasions for cultivating spiritual strength and even gaining insight into the nature of the body, because one's awareness is firmly in the present moment due to having been threatened.

"It doesn't matter
whether he thinks,
'He's forbearing
out of fear of me.'
One's own true good
is the foremost good.
Nothing better
than patience
is found.
Whoever, when strong,
is forbearing
to one who is weak:
that's the foremost patience.
The weak must constantly endure.
They call that strength
no strength at all:
whoever's strength
is the strength of a fool.
There's no reproach
for one who is strong,
guarding -- guarded by -- Dhamma.
You make things worse
when you flare up
at someone who's angry.
Whoever doesn't flare up
at someone who's angry
wins a battle hard to win.
You live for the good of both
-- your own, the other's --
when, knowing the other's provoked,
you mindfully grow calm.
When you work the cure of both
-- your own, the other's --
those who think you a fool
know nothing of Dhamma." (SN XI.5)

"Monks, when liberation of the mind by friendliness (metta) is
ardently practiced, developed, unrelentingly resorted to, used as
one's vehicle, made the foundation of one's life, fully established,
well consolidated and perfected, then these eleven blessings may be
expected. What eleven?

One sleeps happily; one wakes happily; one does not suffer bad dreams;
one is dear to human beings; one is dear to non-human beings; the gods
protect one; no fire or poison or weapon harms one; one's mind gets
quickly concentrated; the expression of one's face is serene; one dies
unperturbed; and even if one fails to attain higher states, one will
at least reach the state of the Brahma world." (AN 11.16)

"Having killed what
do you sleep in ease?
Having killed what
do you not grieve?
Of the slaying
of what one thing
does Gotama approve?"

"Having killed anger
you sleep in ease.
Having killed anger
you do not grieve.
The noble ones praise
the slaying of anger
-- with its honeyed crest
& poison root --
for having killed it
you do not grieve." (SN 1.71)

"Monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may
address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh,
beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner
hate. Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They
may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address
you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They may address you in a
beneficial way or an unbeneficial way. They may address you with a
mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train
yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil
words. We will remain sympathetic to that person's welfare, with a
mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him
with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we
will keep pervading the entire world with an awareness imbued with
good will -- abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility,
free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves." (MN 21)

"Now if other people insult, malign, exasperate, & harass a monk, he
discerns that 'A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen
within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what?
Dependent on contact.' And he sees that contact is inconstant, feeling
is inconstant, perception is inconstant, consciousness is inconstant.
His mind, with the [earth] element as its object/support, leaps up,
grows confident, steadfast, & released.
And if other people attack the monk in ways that are undesirable,
displeasing, & disagreeable -- through contact with fists, contact
with stones, contact with sticks, or contact with knives -- the monk
discerns that 'This body is of such a nature contacts with fists come,
contacts with stones come, contacts with sticks come, & contacts with
knives come. Now the Blessed One has said, in his exhortation of the
simile of the saw, 'Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up
savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let
his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding.' So
my persistence will be aroused &
untiring, my mindfulness established & unconfused, my body calm &
unaroused, my mind centered & unified. And now let contact with fists
come to this body, let contact with stones, with sticks, with knives
come to this body, for this is how the Buddha's bidding is done." (MN

"Well then, Punna. Now that I have instructed you with a brief
instruction, in which country are you going to live?"
"Lord, there is a country called Sunaparanta. I am going to live there."
"Punna, the Sunaparanta people are fierce. They are rough. If they
insult and ridicule you, what will you think?"
"If they insult and ridicule me, I will think, 'These Sunaparanta
people are civilized, very civilized, in that they don't hit me with
their hands.' That is what I will think, O Blessed One. That is what I
will think, O One Well-gone."
"But if they hit you with their hands, what will you think?"
"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very
civilized, in that they don't hit me with a clod'..."
"But if they hit you with a clod...?"
"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very
civilized, in that they don't hit me with a stick'..."
"But if they hit you with a stick...?"
"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very
civilized, in that they don't hit me with a knife'..."
"But if they hit you with a knife...?"
"...I will think, 'These Sunaparanta people are civilized, very
civilized, in that they don't take my life with a sharp knife'..."
"But if they take your life with a sharp knife...?"
"If they take my life with a sharp knife, I will think, 'there are
disciples of the Blessed One who -- horrified, humiliated, and
disgusted by the body and by life -- have sought for an assassin, but
here I have met my assassin without searching for him.' That is what I
will think, Blessed One."
"Good, Punna, very good. Possessing such calm and self-control you are
fit to dwell among the Sunaparantans. Now it is time to do as you see
fit." (SN XXXV.88)

In the story of the arahant Adhimutta, he was surrounded by bandits who were threatening to kill him. The bandit chief was surprised to see no trembling and fear in him. Adhimutta explains why he has no fear:

"There are no painful mental states, chieftain,
in one without longing.
In one whose fetters are ended,
all fears are overcome.
With the ending of [craving]
the guide to becoming,
when phenomena are seen
for what they are,
then just as in the laying down of a burden,
there's no fear in death.

I've lived well the holy life,
well-developed the path.
Death holds no fear for me.
It's like the end of a disease.

I've lived well the holy life,
well-developed the path,
seen states of becoming
as devoid of allure,
like poison spit out
after it's drunk.

One gone to the far shore
without clinging
without effluent
his task completed,
welcomes the ending of life,
as if freed from a place of execution.
Having attained the supreme Rightness,
unconcerned with all the world,
as if released from a burning house,
he doesn't sorrow at death.

Whatever's compounded,
wherever a state of becoming's obtained,
all that has no one in charge:
so says the Great Seer.
Whoever discerns this,
as taught by the Awakened One,
would no more grasp hold of any state of becoming
than he would a hot iron ball.
I have no 'I was,'
no 'I will be.'
Fabrications will simply go out of existence.
What's to lament there in that?
For one who sees, as it actually is,
the pure arising of phenomena,
the pure series of fabrications,
there's no fear.
When seeing the world with discernment
as on a par with grass & twigs,
finding no 'mine-ness,'
thinking, 'There's nothing of mine,'
he feels no sorrow.
Dissatisfied with this carcass,
I'm unconcerned with becoming.
This body will break up
and there will not be another.
Do as you like with this carcass.
From that I will feel
neither hatred nor love." (Thag 16.8)

The nun Upacala also describes the dangers inherent in existence and
her motivation for transcending the round of rebirth:

"For one who is born there is death;
the cutting-off of hands and feet,
slaughter, bonds and calamity.
One who is born goes to pain." (Thig 191)

"May I never lie
with my head cracked open
again." (Thag 2.16)

"Furthermore, the monk living in the wilderness reminds himself of
this: I am now living alone in the wilderness. While I am living alone
in the wilderness, I might meet up with youths on their way to
committing a crime or on their way back. They might take my life. That
would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction
for me. So let me make an effort for the attaining of the
as-yet-unattained, the reaching of the as-yet-unreached, the
realization of the as-yet-unrealized.
This is the fourth future danger that is just enough, when considered,
for a monk living in the wilderness -- heedful, ardent, and resolute
-- to live for the attaining of the as-yet-unattained, the reaching of
the as-yet-unreached, the realization of the as-yet-unrealized." (AN

"Furthermore, the monk reminds himself of this: At present people are
in harmony, on friendly terms, without quarreling, like milk mixed
with water, viewing one another with eyes of affection. The time will
come, though, when there is danger and an invasion of savage tribes.
Taking power, they will surround the countryside. When there is
danger, people will congregate where it is safe. There they will live
packed and crowded together. When one is living packed and crowded
together, it is not easy to pay attention to the Buddha's teachings.
It is not easy to reside in isolated forest or wilderness dwellings.
Before this unwelcome, disagreeable, displeasing thing happens, let me
first make an effort for the attaining of the as-yet-unattained, the
reaching of the as-yet-unreached, the realization of the
as-yet-unrealized, so that -- endowed with that Dhamma -- I will live
in peace even when there is danger.
This is the fourth future danger that is just enough, when considered,
for a monk -- heedful, ardent, and resolute -- to live for the
attaining of the as-yet-unattained, the reaching of the
as-yet-unreached, the realization of the as-yet-unrealized." (AN 5.78)

Or as Sariputta puts it, we are in a situation with little choice:

"On both sides there is death, not non-death, either afterwards or before; enter
on the way; do not perish. Let not the opportunity pass you by." (Thag. 1004)

There is an urgent task to be done for those walking the path to liberation. These reflections can help us keep our goal in mind and "not let the moment (for practice) slip by". To be living in a "suitable country" (patirupa desa) is considered to be one of the highest blessings. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be living in freedom from fear and oppression should not forget that other people -- our friends in birth, aging, sickness and death -- are suffering at the same time, and we should do what we can to promote their freedom, too.

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