Tuesday, August 09, 2005
When studying Buddhism, it can be very easy to identify with those cultures in which the practice is actively cultivated, and to consider those countries as the "good guys." Unfortunately, current events often get in the way of this kind of delusional romanticism.
Leaving aside the historical role of Zen in the Japanese aggression during the 20th Century, one need only consider the political situation in Myanmar. According to the 1974 Constitution, Buddhism is the official religion, and an estimated 89% of the population practices Buddhism. However, the Constitution has been suspended since September 18, 1988, when the latest junta took power, and there have been no elections since 1990. There are numerous documented human rights violations, and several million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled to seek work and asylum elsewhere. More than 160,000 Burmese live in refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh, while hundreds of thousands of other Burmese work and reside illegally in other countries in the region.
Things are somewhat better in Thailand, where Theravadan Buddhism is the official religion and is practiced by about 95% of the people. However, one need only consider the tragedy at Tak Bai to realize how out of control things can get even there.
Which brings me to consider some of the heartbreak in Sri Lanka I've read recently about. The country has suffered a civil war for over 20 years, and the secessionist Tamil Tigers have been innovators in terroristic tactics. They were the first to develop the sort of explosive suicide vests favored by Palestinian terrorists, and refined the technique of using speedboats as bombs which was later employed in 2000 against the U.S.S. Cole by Al Qaeda (and which foreshadowed the use of airliners as bombs as witnessed on 9/11).
Although it can be argued that the Tigers are secular nationalists rebelling against the Buddhist establishment, it was that very Buddhist government that passed a law in 1956 proclaiming Sinhalese as the sole official language. That proclamation alienated the Tamil minority, and in the resulting unrest, Buddhist mobs beat newly restive Tamils (some of them to death), set their houses on fire and ransacked their businesses. This,of course, served only to further radicalize elements of the Tamil community, resulting in escalating cycles of violence and retaliation. By 1983, the country descended into a wave of anti-Tamil violence so extreme that observers reached back to the horrors that accompanied India's partition for a fitting comparison. As many as 2,000 Tamils were hacked, bludgeoned, torched or beaten and kicked to death by mobs. Criminals were allowed to slaughter dozens of Tamil political prisoners in their jail cells. The country has been at war with itself ever since.
Even in the presence of great enlightenment, suffering seems to be an essential human condition. Nietzsche, analyzing Buddhism's appeal to its early audience, spoke of "races grown kindly, gentle, overintellectual who feel pain too easily." Modern history seems to provide a compelling antithesis to Nietzche's analysis.