Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Women Land: avowal and contradictions

In our junior school years, Burmese Socialist Government prescribed history textbooks for us that were flatter than the slate of a modern Apple’s proud product, the iPad Mini. Fearing the dividend to my knowledge of history delivered by these lovely minions of the government’s curriculum was distorted, I explored beyond the fences and intellectually wandered in different directions, learning a number of dense history books written by private historians.
 My interest at that time was the detailed history of Burma’s independence movements against the British Raj. It was particularly fascinating to read Thakin Lay Maung’s Burma’s Political History that narrated the story of Burma’s final separation from India in 1937. Burma had a general election in 1932 for its people to determine whether they were willing to remain as a province in India or become a separate nation. Some Buddhists, steeped in textual studies emphasized that the Buddha was an Indian and that our Burmese’s ancestors were related to the blood of the Buddha, Kshatriyas, the caste of India into which Buddhas are born, supported the vote that Burma remain a part of India. In opposition, the separatists’ campaign emphasized the distinct social status of Burmese women from their Indian and Chinese counterparts. If Burma were to remain with India, the superior social status of Burmese women, even a higher status than in the democratic West, would be downgraded. 
I felt proud to discover our nation had a distinct idea – that of the very high social status of women. “Burmese guys are gentlemen to treat their ladies as their equal”, I believed. I had brave Arab lady friends who were fighting for women’s rights in their doctrinaire nations. I often made them feel jealous by saying:” our Burmese housewives are exchequers in their married life. The guy has to give all his monthly income to the lady and she authorizes his daily expenses. The ladies are the higher sex in our tradition”. In my simple assumption, I thought the higher social role of Burmese women compared to Arabs-Muslims, Chinese-Confucians and Indians-Hindus was significantly correlated with our Buddhist tradition.
 A closer examination can reveal that this assumed correlation could be highly confounded with the inelastic military rule that generally laid down protective walls for its social classes. The change into a democratic system got rid of these walls and in the middle of last year, along with the response of Aung San Su Kyi to Wairathu’s proposal of restricting interfaith marriage of Buddhist women, “You can not treat women unfairly like that, ” the evidence of the fall of the military’s protective wall for the women became evident.
 In particular, when a large number of Buddhist monks become involved in the mass campaigns for supporting Wairathu’s proposal, it is a time to reconsider our assumption of the higher social status of Burmese women that we think it is being privileged from our Buddhist tradition.
 My observation is that this assumption is at the least inconsistent. The point raised by Ma Khin Lay, a former political prisoner and gender activist, illuminated this inconsistency, “ Burmese women were discriminated within our Buddhist tradition. We are not given access to the upper square of the pagodas as our male counterparts do,” she said in her recent interview with the Irrawaddy. In contrast, Chinese temples allow women equal access to any public place.
P Moe Ninn, the leading thinker of our colonial time, contrasted the married life of a Chinese wife and a Burmese wife in this way: “when Chinese husbands go back home from work, he does remember to purchase food to feed his wife and children; Burmese husbands, these would-be-Buddhas, getting drunk in coming back home, beat his poor wife for she does not know how to cook good food for him”.
In our ‘Buddhist’ tradition, “inferiority” of women was widely acknowledged. The Buddhist scriptures laid down a monastic rule that a female disciple can never be raised to the status of the Bhikkhu (venerable monk). This rule has become relaxed, in some ways, in Sri Lanka and Thailand but the State Sangha Council of Burma so far has enforced that no woman can be ordained as a Bhikkhu in Burma.
 The scholarly Buddhist literature demanded that girls should ask their patrons for permitting their marriage and accordingly, even her younger brother has his ‘Buddhist’ legitimacy in imposing the ban on her marriage with a person he doesn’t agree. Not surprisingly, Buddhist monks feel their legitimate role for taking part in current anti-miscegenation campaigns. In their formative education period, they have been ingrained to think women, being of inferior sex, seriously lack of the judgmental capability to choose what is right for her.
Perhaps, the strongest evidence of discrimination against women for their ‘poor’ judgmental ability was the rise of anti-miscegenation movements during the colonial period and their current resurgence in modern times. The popular literature published in 1930s had a number of discussions to condemn the ‘degenerative’ marriage of Burmese women to Indians. Most discussions had a similar theme that Kalars (Indians) were seducing Burmese women. Lacking capacity to resist the seduction, a Burmese woman chose to marry a Kalar. Her children were all half-caste, and these ‘impure’ children would degenerate the race and tradition.
During the colonial period, Buddhist monks were high-handed in treating women. They were used to wandering about, holding sticks with a hook in them to tear down the clothes of women in public places if they were not wearing ‘safely’ according to the Burmese tradition.
These colonial features offered us strong counterfactual evidence to the 1930s politicians’ claim of “freedom of Burmese Buddhist women”. While it might be true that Burmese women have enjoyed some equality status in their education and profession, the above examples demonstrate convincingly that they are not necessarily related to our Burmese ‘Buddhist tradition’ and Burmese women don’t have a real higher social status as many have been deluded to believe.
 In fact, our past sentiments against “Indianization” of Burma by the British made our anti-colonial politicians claim that Burmese women are much more equal compared to their Indian-Chinese peers. The alleged superiority of Burmese women had become their testament to claim to autonomy of Burma from India. It also reaffirmed anticolonial politicians a legitimate feeling for the particularity of the “Burmese Buddhist Tradition”. As evident, the claimed particular superiorities are fictional rather than practical accomplishments.
 The modern Burmese monks, following the similar fictional reasoning line, warrant their current anti-miscegenation movements to preserve their “particularly accomplished tradition” that ‘protects’ the freedom of Buddhist women. I found two imminent problems in this fictional superiority of our ‘race’ (Amyo), ‘religion’ (Batar), and ‘tradition’ (Sasana). The first problem is we are ignoring the real huge challenges in society, like the long-established discriminatory practices against women and pretend as if our Buddhist tradition has addressed all problems that our foreign societies are still struggling to achieve. The second problem is while modern Burma is a nation of diverse multi-ethnic groups, and it indeed is a country composed by considerably large groups of Indians (Kalars) and Chinese (Tayoke) migrants, we like to exclude these other groups in our socio-political scenarios solely based on the reason that we have a particular superior tradition compared to “bad” traditions of those people.
            During the decades of her house arrest, the military government launched numerous attacks on the Lady’s personal life. Their accusation was mainly based on her “woman-ness” and marriage to Michael Aris, a British Buddhist scholar from the University of Oxford. “Suu Kyi failed to safeguard her own race, after she has married a British foreigner. Not only her, but her future generation is the ones responsible for the ruination of our race and our tradition”. Currently, we can also observe Wirathu’s line of reasoning to retain the Article 59(f), has its consensus with the military’s past justification of protecting against the ‘unhealthy’ children’s ruination of our “superior” tradition.
 My conclusion is that we, the people of modern Burma, have imprisoned ourselves in the fictional accomplishments that the past anti-colonial politicians created and consequently we have failed to observe the real challenges of our imminent discriminatory practices. This fictionally accomplished  “tradition” has spoiled us in a sense that we fail to see our multi-racial and multi-traditional diversity as strengths of the nation. Instead we Burmese have come to mistrust all “other” people, or whoever is from a foreign tradition.

            A saying by Confucius is “ how can I talk with such a person who claims himself as superior-minded but he does not want to speak in the same table with the person in poor clothes?” I think our democratic reform process has to overcome this psychological barrier of condescending the others that Confucius alerted.  We shall no longer be moonlighting by making our avowal of superior accomplishments in our tradition and retaining the contradictions of our prominent discriminatory ailments. We shall drop our infatuation for the fictional achievements and we need to develop an extensively inclusive socio-political tradition in Burma.

         [Please check out the abridged version at ]

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Apology of Burmakin IX

updated on Feb 18, 2014 for better explanation.

Evil wishes
In Samyutta Nikaya, I find an excellent story reference in regard to the controversial issue of whether Buddhist monks should take political action and side with any political group. The story is as follows:

In Rajagaha, Ven. Ananda was wandering with a large group of Bikkhus and he came to meet with Ven. Kassapa who was dwelling there. By that time, thirty pupils of Ven. Ananda had returned to the lower life (To my understanding, they offended the Parajika Monastic Code and were no longer monks).

The senior one, Ven. Kassapa, inspiring to shame upon the junior one, Ven. Ananda, asked his junior: "Ananda, why Buddha laid down the rule that Bikkhus should not take meals among families in groups of more than three? "

Ven. Ananda, who seemed to be rather old at that time (meaning he had mastered most of Buddha's direct teachings) replied: " They are three reasons:(1) not to form evil wishes, (2) (sequentially) form a faction and create a schism in the Sangha, and (3) not to menace families".

Ven. Kassapa said "you youngster, didn't know your measure yet (though you learned from Buddha, you don't know what to observe) ".

Ven. Ananda was disappointed and snapped to his senior: "I have grey hair on my head, Sir. Why you called me (this hoary guy) ‘this youngster’?"

Ven. Kassapa asserted: " this youngster - wandered with such a large faction of Bikkhus."

The inclusion of the intense terms such as “evil” and  “schism” indicated Buddha was serious in imposing this limit of the number of monks allowable for wandering together in groups. It does not sound like a father’s flummoxed concern upon the potential party brawls of his boisterous Bikkhu sons. Rather, it looks like a military martinet’s bureaucratic rule for the prevention of moral depravity regularly arisen from clamorous group mechanisms.

I am curious “why group mechanisms become a critical issue for Buddha?” As far as I can look for the reason from his teachings, Buddha found group morality too unimportant to be justified. In many places of Pali Canon, I see that Buddha rejected any moral justification grounded in group affiliation. This rejection can be significantly observed in the Vasettha Sutta, “A mercenary is someone who is just skilled in warfare. I (Buddha) can’t pay my regard to this warfare person as a Brahmin; a priest is someone who is just skilled in priest craft. I can’t pay my regard to this priest-craft person as a Brahmin”.

So which ground of moral justification did Buddha authorize? The answer is Buddha will approve only individual conscience. I discover in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta which has its signification in recording Buddha’s final words, “Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth”.

I have noted earlier that all three reasons shall be interpreted in relation to group mechanism. Another useful caveat in interpreting the text is I should not take mere literal meaning of words in these sentences. So evil wishes in the Number 1 sentence is “evil wishes arisen from group mechanisms”.

Ordinary wishes such as longing to visit Miami on my vacation or imagination to win the Mega Million lottery will not be named by our compassionate Buddha as evil wishes. Don’t forget the text should be always viewed from the angle of group mechanisms. My conclusion is by ‘evil wishes’ Buddha indicated insistent greedy wishes of people immersed in their group’s lust.

Groups’ wishes are marked as “evil” because they are evil in nature. An interesting point is they are also marked as “wishes” that normally occurr to either individuals or to groups. So why we do not like to call individuals’ wishes as evil, too.

I think the answer lies in the fact that collective thoughts and inspirations of a group can be readily authorized just by the significance of that particular group. In other words, groups have some imminent power to justify their morals while individuals are lacking of such magnificent power.

Especially, when a particular collection of people has significant authority or privileged social status in society, their thoughts and inspirations are often regarded as the big Truth by that society. Should collective wishes and social authority of particular groups justify what are morals, this will be the end of the Truth.

It will not be tempting for us to accept ‘state morality’, ‘military morality’, or any special interest group’s morality as the Sangha's morality. Nor there is any charming validity for us in insistent slogans of Burmese monks, ‘People must protect Burmese morality, Buddhism morality, and Buddhist society’s morality’. While these claims are evil wishes from reflections of their group ego, the monks deluded themselves the group morals are bigger morals than anything else with their obsessed worship of the group’s affiliation and government’s authority. Buddha was clear in directing us to choose the right things by our own self-conscience and this instruction is completely opposite to the current claims of Buddhist monks who are relentlessly urging “we must do the chosen right things”.

In Buddha’s days, Devadatta who created schism of Sangha colluded with the State and thus their Bikkhu team received sumptuous feasts of donations from the authorities. Such earnings are completely impure for a Buddhist monk because a monk is entitled to his earning only by his non blame-worthy livelihood. If Sanghas’ earning for their living come by their collusion with the authority or by serving as instruments for the State or a particular group, the term ‘Sangha’ (free man, non-member to any household) becomes completely meaningless. There is also a tendency of infinite transgression and one day the corrupted Bikkhus will say, “the military morality and Bikkhu morality are the One for they both are intended for the well-being of society”.

I guess Buddha made these points in relation to Devadatta’s corruption with the state. These points have a much broader social scope than apparent control of undisciplined monks. If we see the order of the points, the concern for schism comes before the concern for families. Buddha, who is well versed in Dharma, would not randomize his points so I think Buddha’s ultimate is concern is for the benefits of society (families).

The story line of Devadatta leads me to think Buddha was prescient about the involvement of political actions of the separated Bikkhu sect in many schism cases. The Lord’s concern is not for a party brawl of drunken monks, which will be fun to be recorded on their iPhones rather than threat to the families. The political aims of Bikkhus menace families because the political power is almost always the abusive power.

Political actions of monks always menace the families. Doing political actions means monks side with at least one particular political group that is vying for the power. And those in the power are thieves and robbers. I don't want to prototype Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand but this is inconvenient reality. The current political institutions in those countries are formed by particular factions, which use their incumbent political power to plunder the property of others and manage (steal) the nation’s resources to their best advantages. That is also the main reason why these countries face numerous social conflicts from time to time.

Frederick Bastiat, the liberal thinker of the famous Parable of the Broken Window, thought that politics is an alternative cycle of the haves and the have-nots in their struggle for gaining the property i.e., once a particular group gains the power, they formulate the laws to their most advantages. Indeed, Bastiat's finding is still strongly valid for today, not only for national politics but also for global politics. Thomas Pooge, a German philosopher and human rights activist, observed global institutions are mere instruments of the top-tier nations (social class) to formulate the rules that give their class the most advantages at the expense of the disadvantaged others.

Bastiat criticized all governments of every nation on earth, including slavery-ridden America, "their making Law is for legal plunder". Politically motivated monks will need to rightly understand any political authority they are supporting is inclined to steal and plunder many other peoples’ rights and property. Benefiting the incumbent political group in power always means the plundered group (victim group) is menaced. Benefiting a non-incumbent political group also means the incumbent group in power is menaced.

The monks who take part in political actions need to answer the moral dilemma: the Monastic Code for their rule of conduct vs. supporting a big authority, which is always big enough for menacing many families. So far, I don’t find any validity in various kinds of complex justifications these violent monk groups have made.

My final advice is as a sincere Sangha, no monk shall side politically with any incumbent politician, opposition parties or even civilians. Any kind of political collusion leads to menacing the potential victims or already suffering victims who are afraid of their property and their lives being taken. Strictly speaking from the standpoint of Buddhist monastic tradition which meticulously inhibits a plunder or killing under any guise or any kind of involvement, politically inspired monks are very liable to breach 2nd and 3rd Parajika offenses of The Buddhist Monastic code.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reading Identity and Violence on Burma (2)

Amartya Sen’s original work from Identity and violence: The illusion of destiny. Penguin Books India, 2007; pp. 74-77:

As was discussed in the first chapter, this book is especially concerned with the conceptual framework within which these confrontations are seen and understood, and how the demands of public action are interpreted. A confusing role is played here by the reliance on a single categorization of the people of the world. The confusion adds to the flammability of the world in which we live. The problem I am referring to is much more subtle than the crude and abusive views that have been expressed about other cultures by people in the West, like the irrepressible Lieutenant General William Boykin of the U.S. Army (whose claim that the Christian God was “bigger than” the Islamic God was discussed in the first chapter). It is easy to see the obtuseness and inanity of views of this kind.
What, however, can be seen as a bigger and more general problem (despite the absence of the grossness of vilification) are the possibly terrible consequences of classifying people in terms of singular affiliations woven around exclusively religious identities. This is especially critical for understanding the nature and dynamics of global violence and terrorism in the contemporary world. The religious partitioning of the world produces a deeply misleading understanding of the people across the world and the diverse relations between them, and it also has the effect of magnifying one particular distinction between one person and another to the exclusion of all other important concerns.
In dealing with what is called “Islamic terrorism,” there have been debates on whether being a Muslim demands some kind of strongly confrontational militancy, or whether, as many world leaders have argued in a warm— and even inspiring— way, a “true Muslim” must be a tolerant individual. The denial of the necessity of a confrontational reading of Islam is certainly appropriate and extremely important today, and Tony Blair in particular deserves much applause for what he has done in this respect. But in the context of Blair’s frequent invoking of “the moderate and true voice of Islam,” we have to ask whether it is at all possible— or necessary— to define a “true Muslim” in terms of political and social beliefs about confrontation and tolerance, on which different Muslims have historically taken, as was discussed earlier, very different positions. The effect of this religion-centered political approach, and of the institutional policies it has generated (with frequent announcements of the kind, to cite one example, “the government is meeting Muslim leaders in the next vital stage designed to cement a united front”), has been to bolster and strengthen the voice of religious authorities while downgrading the importance of nonreligious institutions and movements.
The difficulty with acting on the presumption of a singular identity— that of religion— is not, of course, a special problem applying only to Muslims. It would also apply to any attempt to understand the political views and social judgments of people who happen to be Christian, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Sikh, by relying mainly— or only— on what their alleged religious leaders declare as spokesmen for their “flocks.” The singular classification gives a commanding voice to the “establishment” figures in the respective religious hierarchy while other perspectives are relatively downgraded and eclipsed.
There is concern— and some astonishment— today that despite attempts to bring in the religious establishment of Muslims and other non-Christian groups into dialogues about global peace and local calm, religious fundamentalism and militant recruitment have continued to flourish even in Western countries. And yet this should not have come as a surprise. Trying to recruit religious leaders and clerics in support of political causes, along with trying to redefine the religions involved in terms of political and social attitudes, downplays the significance of nonreligious values people can and do have in their appropriate domain, whether or not they are religious.
The efforts to recruit the mullahs and the clergy to play a role outside the immediate province of religion could, of course, make some difference in what is preached in mosques or temples. But it also downgrades the civic initiatives people who happen to be Muslim by religion can and do undertake (along with others) to deal with what are essentially political and social problems. Further, it also heightens the sense of distance between members of different religious communities by playing up their religious differences in particular, often at the cost of other identities (including that of being a citizen of the country in question), which could have had a more uniting role. Should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics or other leaders of the religious community to communicate with the prime minister of his country, who has been particularly keen to speak through the religious leaders?

Streamlining Sen’s ideas:

Republicans in US, no matter how artificially indolent or artlessly clever are they, find themselves elegant to quote their deified President Ronald Regan’s words of his inaugural address in 1981, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. Congruent with Regan’s thoughts, the historical words of Buddha overtly declared to we followers, “monks (being infatuated with greed, arrogance and especially sumptuousness), are real problem-makers to besmirch my teachings (Buddha’s Sarsana)”, implicitly informing us if we know who definitely are stirring the gamut of these troubles against our peace and wisdom, we shall not be that gullible to impress these trouble-makers as our saviors from nasty medleys that these jaded bedlams are relentlessly creating for us.
Ironically, while Buddha disparaged monks as incorrigible disfigurers of his reputation, he never assumed his teachings (Sarsana) would ever have come under some threat of elimination in any quagmire situation. “Unperturbed and no-hold-barred, my Brahmin”, Siddhartha Gautama announced to Subhuti, who was his most erstwhile friend to be met after his enlightenment and his latest real-time streamliner to be taught before his death, “as long as there are individuals who love to follow the practices of my teachings, for sure, our loving earth will never be bereft of the Enlightened”. Buddha is the kind of person the philosopher of Open Society and its enemies will admire: “If you really like to live in a true republic, never love any the classified, love everybody in your surroundings”, Karl Popper expressed his abhorrence against Plato’s Republic by exposing hypocrisy of plutocracy and nativism that his great predecessor’s archetype was popularizing to deceive new coming generations of navies. Never ever attempted to exclusively endorse his own creed, nor having any proclivity to appraise even his closest disciples as the classified, Buddha can safely be described as one of the earliest individualistic liberal stars known to an open earth. Simpatico with the open society advocate Popper who intolerantly despised hegemony of pompous philosopher kings, Buddha did not see any necessity of tolerance for the role of “the Sanga-the collected, the classified, the blessed” as being beneficial for the propagation of his simple teachings, but the Lord envisioned “the Sanga-the individuals, the ordinary, the cursed” as the staunchest apologists who by themselves barring none are honing in on his Open Land.
Of course, this clear hermeneutic interpretation of Buddha’s words will barely be any fun to the colluded 969 monks of Burma. Nonetheless, these Burmese bourgeois will claim current problems of our society are too imminent so the Biblical principles of Buddha are at the least, temporarily inapplicable to the current myriad of out social situations and our people must be pragmatic and expedient in landing our inevitable duties of struggles and exercising our right of defense for sustaining our creed. Let us agree with them their proclaimed plethora of challenges are prevailing our more and more globalized society, terrorists’ threat; perilous social situations of Buddhist women; loss of natives’ rights in their own land, but as they said let us be duly pragmatic to ask ourselves and these hero monks, “are the duties for ameliorating our fundamental social problems belonging to the shoulders of the monks? If so what duties our laymen’s shoulders are for?”
Political and social problems are but the mundane affairs to be addressed by ordinary civilians and are not the obligations that bind supermen hermits to serve as enlightened jigsaw-solvers cum their noblest myth. If I am not prototyping spuriously, we clearly know mythical monks usually are not self-experiential with mishmashes of our societal life full of unpredictable and many incomprehensible clamor and turmoil. If they are not self-experiential, how can they say their understanding of our situation is pellucid? How they do are feeling the severity of pain and affliction as we laymen do? The literal knowledge of the complex non-religious civilian world, that the mythical classified might possess by hearing or reading, is by no means, a serious match to our civvies’ capabilities of developing individual insights to discriminate the depths and shallows of our problems, breeding our cleverness to winnow the chaff from the wheat, and bearing our learned tactfulness for manipulating our own affairs. For all those kinds of maturity, only we the unclassified, outsiders (in those mysterious persons’ blatant views) and crackpots are self-reliant partisans to combat unsteady blows of turmoil and tribulation that are too regular or not unexpected.
 Turning back to my hermeneutics, Teacher Buddha himself did not see monks’ wisdom as much useful for sympathizing with myriad-minded individual experiences. That thought rendered Buddha to hypothesize that even in their subject of so-called mastery of metaphysics, his monks can barely find skillful means that fit rightly to soothe diversely difficult individual situations. Buddhist hermeneutics interpretations which publicly undermine the role of monks even for the major impacts on one unknowable other’s spiritual enlightenment, will willingly agree with the viewpoint from our current Apollonian pragmatic analysis that  suggests the role of these earnest and callow monks in taking the challenges of scrambled social affairs of various undergirds is trivial at large.
             To that end, a policy that dramatizes sorcerer monks should participate in social affairs for acting as bellwethers for directing their herds is an absolutely malign misconception. On top of that, such anachronistic placement of peddling religious power in front of our general social affairs eclipses the need for development of open society in Burma, which will open its doors to welcome numerous diverse social characters to be all-too inclusive, barring none. Having no will to hide for condemning such obtuse and inane nepotism towards the religion’s guys flamboyantly meddling with social affairs, the writer of the Declaration of Independence of America, Thomas Jefferson, famously wrote his comments for Spanish nations in one of his sincerely polite, humble letters,  "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes".