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Monk's words stir the spirit of Myanmar's resistance

by Paul Watson, Los Angeles Time, January 14, 2008

Cloaked in allegory and drawing on history, his lectures give Buddhists hope after a bloody crackdown by generals

Sagaing, Myanmar -- In one of his most talked-about lectures, Buddhist monk Ashin Nyanissara tells the legend of a king who ruled more than 2,500 years ago. The king believed that spitting on a hermit brought him good fortune.

At first, it worked like a charm, but before long his realm was annihilated under a rain of fire, spears and knives.

Today's audiences easily find the hidden message: The assault by Myanmar's military government on monks leading protests last fall looks like a modern version of the ancient monarch's abuse. And they hope the ruling generals will suffer the same fate.

In the recent crackdown, many monks were beaten and defrocked in prison. Human rights activists say several monks were among the 31 people the United Nations says were killed by the government.

It was a traumatic wound to a mainly Buddhist society, one that forced a lot of soul searching among people who practice one of the oldest forms of the religion, which emphasizes critical thought and reasoning over blind faith.

The stern-faced Nyanissara, a 70-year-old monk in owlish glasses and a maroon robe, is able to stare down generals with chests full of medals by stepping carefully through the minefield that makes free speech lethal here.

Shielding himself with allegory, he crisscrosses the country giving lectures that draw on history and legend to remind people that rotten regimes have fallen before. As the generals try to crush the last remnants of resistance, he is cautiously keeping the fire alive.

But he knows it isn't the first time in 45 years of military rule that the government has attacked monks who challenged its absolute authority. In at least four previous crackdowns, dating back to 1965, the military rounded up thousands of monks, killing some, defrocking others, while closing monasteries and seizing property.

Each time, the brutal repression outraged many people, but in the end they felt powerless to do anything about it, the crises passed, and the generals continued to oppress with an iron fist.

It's the nature of any government's leaders to "strongly test their political power. They don't want to lose it," he said in a recent interview at the International Buddhist Academy, which he founded in this riverside town whose forested hills the faithful believe Buddha walked on his path to enlightenment.

"But in any faith, when politics and religion come into competition, religious leaders always defeat anything. Religion is the leader. Jesus Christ was killed, but which was more powerful? Religion or politics?"

The institute sits in a valley beneath the Sagaing Hills, where hundreds of golden spires, called stupas, rise like spiritual beacons from monasteries and pagodas that dot the hillsides, 12 miles southwest of Mandalay.

The first monks to demonstrate against the government last year took to the streets in Pakokku, 60 miles southwest of Sagaing. Still trapped in the latest cycle of political turmoil, many of Myanmar's people are looking to Nyanissara for more than spiritual guidance.

At midday recently, he had just returned from addressing hundreds of the faithful in a village pagoda and was hurrying to leave for an afternoon lecture, a daily routine that keeps him constantly on the move to meet the demand for his wisdom.

Barefoot in a corridor of the university where student monks and nuns are trained for missionary work, the monk ran a disposable razor over his tonsured head and down across his face and neck, removing the faintest midday stubble as he spoke.

Then, flanked by young aides and walking as straight and sure-footed as a man half his age, the monk got into his black sport utility vehicle, which sped on a 110-mile journey to his next stop.

Nyanissara draws large, rapt audiences wherever he goes, whether they are poor villagers crowded into small monasteries or city residents sitting in orderly rows on a side street.

On a recent night, a few thousand people filled a street in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, sitting quietly as they waited for the monk to arrive.

When he emerged from his SUV, people bowed their heads to the ground as he made his way to a stage, where he sat cross-legged on a gilded chair as big as a throne.

In large public gatherings such as these, when the generals' spies lurk in the audience and listen for any hint of trouble, his lectures are often built around the same lesson: Cruel rulers create bad karma. And they will suffer for what they have done.

That's a moral not easily shrugged off by a government whose leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, is intensely superstitious: He consults astrologers to make important decisions.

The ruling generals also churn out propaganda images portraying themselves as devoted Buddhists, receiving the blessing of sympathetic monks. If their faith is true, they know their actions will determine their next life in reincarnation's endless cycle of death and rebirth.

"They have to be afraid they'll be coming back as cockroaches," wisecracked one Western envoy.

Several of Nyanissara's lectures have been burned onto DVDs, with titles such as "Last Days of Empire." The generals have arrested people caught selling them, but they are still widely available across Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"The DVDs are very popular," the Western diplomat said. "A lot of people have mentioned watching them, or knowing of them."

To most people here, the pain of seeing monks beaten up in the streets is more than just an insult to religious faith. To many, it's as if the military had harmed their own family, and the anger does not ease quickly.

Almost any Buddhist with a son has watched with pride as his head is shaved to make him a novice monk in an initiation ceremony called shin-pyu, a moment as life-defining as a baptism, christening or bar mitzvah.

It is a religious duty for Buddhist boys to become novice monks from age 7, and most in Myanmar answer the calling, Nyanissara said.

Just as Buddha left his own family to seek enlightenment, they live in a monastery for a few weeks, during which they are allowed to have only eight possessions: a robe, a belt, footwear, a razor, an umbrella, a glass for water, a begging bowl and a filter to make sure no living thing slips into their food to be eaten.

"They learn morality and how to pay respect to their elders, and Buddhist monks too," said U Kondala, abbot of a monastery with a library of 16th century copies of Buddha's laws and philosophy, handwritten on palm fronds folded like Chinese fans. "After understanding the ways of the Buddha, they are more polite and clever, and consider the welfare of other people."

Novices return to normal life with a profound respect for monks who were their teachers. When thousands joined protest marches last fall, their chants gave comfort to people who had known them since childhood.

"All of the monks who came out of the monasteries into the streets only recited verses from the teachings of the Buddha," Kondala said. "The people are suffering, they are getting poorer and poorer, so the monks wanted to protect them against any danger."

Nyanissara said the region surrounding Sagaing is now home to one out of every 10 of Myanmar's 400,000 monks, robed legions that listen carefully to his lectures to see the right path ahead.

"It's a very big army," the monk said, and he laughed a little. But he wasn't smiling.

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