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Buddhist Chaplain: Monks a symbol of courage

BY JOANNA LINZER, Yale Herald, Oct 12, 2007

New York, USA -- Buddhism has recently drawn international attention due to the protest of the repression of the military regime currently in power in Burma by a group of Burmese monks. Bruce Blair, TC ’81, Yale’s first-ever Buddhist Chaplain, spoke with the Herald about the spiritual implications of their actions in Myanmar.

Bruce Blair, Yale’s first Buddhist Chaplain, speaks about spirituality in the struggle of Burmese monks.

Yale Herald: As Buddhist Chaplain, what were your initial reactions to the actions of the monks in Burma?

Bruce Blair: The teachings of Dharma give a particular opening or way of seeing possibility that isn’t available in other arenas. There’s something about seeing the futility and the perniciousness of violence as leading to more violence in a way that almost reminds me of a physics problem set. It’s like a proof, where violence leads to more violence and the only way to appease violence is with love—not love in some sugar-sweet or sugar-coated way, but in a way that is born out of the acts of genuine courage and humanity that were exhibited in Burma. There’s a way in which the monks were doing their job by not retaliating against the Junta.

One concern I have as Buddhist chaplain is that it’s an unspeakable horror for monks to be violated, and for violence to be done. But at the same time, it’s nothing new to history. These horrible events are always new, because if it’s now, it’s new.

It’s not as if we don’t know what that’s about here at Yale; it’s not as if it’s something that’s just over there. It’s a tricky thing because there’s a danger in making it a world away as if we have nothing to do with it. But that kind of violence is not an everyday reality here.

YH: Did the monks’ highly publicized reaction to the regime in Burma have its intended effect? In that sense, were these actions spiritually “right” according to Buddhist principles?

BB: I don’t feel in any way qualified to speak to whether what anyone else does is “better.” What they’re doing is in accord with the most essential tenants of the Buddhist tradition. There is something very disturbing about seeing monks injured—you just don’t shoot monks, in the same way you don’t shoot at women and children. The notion that the monks did not accept alms from the military is very loud. Part of a life according to Buddhist precepts and practices has to do with allowing for real questioning, and then listening. Often in our culture we ask questions we already know the answer to because it’s risky, and it’s embarrassing if you don’t know the answer. There’s a way in which we don’t ask real questions unless we’re really encouraged to.

YH:  How can Yale students, as well as our country as a whole, react to the monks’ actions in Burma?

BB: I think the most important thing is to ask, “What can I do?” Sometimes if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s better to do nothing than to do harm. Sometimes when we want to protest, we do not stop to ask who we’re protesting for: Are we doing that for ourselves to feel better? Or can we truly attend to others in a way that can be useful? That’s where the Buddhist tenets of truth, tone, and timeliness come into play. We can try to demonstrate our humanity by responding with the same dignity and respect that the monks have exhibited, so that it’s no more an act of retaliation on our part than on theirs.

On the other hand, we should not simply dismiss the regime’s injustice. We can make our response something that can be useful and can be heard. The Buddhist community here found it appropriate to chant. This response has a purpose, some of which is explicit and others of which is less understood. Chanting is a way of making noise to express sutra or mantra, but it’s really a way of listening, of focusing one’s attention to a situation. I think that it’s important that the monks in Burma know they’re not alone, that they’re not strange and they’re not strangers. When we show solidarity with what the monks believe matters, the world notices that the monks matter to the people at Yale.

YH: When have you seen the importance of this solidarity?

BB: When I was an undergrad, we protested apartheid. And I remember wondering at the time whether our activism was really making a difference, or whether it was just for our own self-satisfaction. But then we got thank-you notes from the ANC, from their headquarters in exile in Mozambique. I thought: “They knew about this? They knew that we got arrested!” It’s easy to forget here that it’s not just the silly things we do on campus that get into the press. What students and faculty consider important here gets heard all over the place. What we do here may very well be heard in the hearts of members of the Junta as well as the monks.

YH: What else can the Yale student body learn about Buddhism that might help us understand Burma’s situation?

BB: The historical Buddha was the son of a warlord, the grandson of a warlord, and he grew up in this long legacy of warlords—so he was a warrior. I wonder what it was about that experience that gave him cause to do something different. Nonviolence comes out of an experience that is deeply rooted in violence. This doesn’t happen very often. This reaction to violence is like a very blessed virus. It allows the monks in Burma to respond to the violence in their society.

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