Sunday, October 24, 2010

There is No Such Thing as a Dead End: Two Burmese Monks Describe the Saffron Revolution

(U Pyinya Zawta, All Burma Monks Alliance)
"hatred is never appeased by hatred...only lovingkindness"
(U Pyinya Zawta, Burma, Buddhism and Non Violent Revolt, University of Toronto, Oct 18, 2010)

What makes a movement move? This is a question that has been with me ever since I attended the talk Buddism, Burma and Non-Violent Revolt at University of Toronto last week. I mean, it's an oddity that movements happen at all; since most of them begin with a dedication to the impossible, the implausible, and sometimes, what many would call, "the lost cause".

There was a hum of fluorescents that ran through the room on the 7th floor of University of Toronto's Oise building last Monday. The "Peace Lounge" sounded bright, animated by shuffling of feet, paper handouts, and pamphlets rustling...microphones humming, clipping, and then petering out. Across to my right were two batik room dividers, and then a row of volunteers flanked by tables of books and petition papers. As people took their seats, the cyclopic eye of a camera turned to a tall figure standing in front of a wall of windows.

 "Hello, it's good to see so many of you out".

Michael Stone delivered a warm welcome to the attentive group of 100 or so gathered in support of the event. Co-presented by Centre of Gravity Sangha, Amnesty International and Shambhala Toronto, the evening featured two Burmese monks, U Pyinya Zawta and U Agga Nyana who were invited to tell their stories about their experience in the Saffron Revolution of 2007. In addition to detailing the events associated the uprising, the event was intended to expose the continued plight of Buddhist monks amidst the sustained brutality of the military regime in Burma, as well as the difficulties faced by monks who have relocated to North America.

Thanking those assembled, Michael talked about the importance of getting real people and communities involved. He cited Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker entitled, "Small Change: the Revolution will not be Tweeted", in order to illustrate a growing sense of the shortcomings of social networks as pertains to disciplined, social engagement.  With a nod to Bernie Glassman and the First Symposium of Engaged Buddhism this past summer, he also cited the importance of the evening's talk as part of a larger dialogue on Buddhism as social action on North American soil; and reminded people that getting movements to "move" really depends on interdependence. On the heels of this brief introduction, Myanmar Coordinator for Amnesty International, Brian John, articulated a synopsis of the political context in Burma, and outlined Amnesty's determination to increase public awareness of the current military regime's long list of human rights violations.

These very human rights violations were detailed through the first-person narrative of two Burmese monks, as all eyes turned to  to U Pinya Zawta and U Agga Nyana. Both spoke of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military regime with a curious combination of softspoken intelligence and straight-talk. In a particularly moving moment, U Agga Nyana described the lasting influence of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's opposition politician, who is still living under house arrest, in saying:

"She is still in our hearts".
Zawta went on to detail the relationship that Burmese monks have developed with the people and communities that support their existence. Because the monastic structure in Burma relies upon begging for alms as the source of livelihood, monks are closely connected with the people that provide their door-to-door support. The ritual is one of creating support loops for the monasteries and infrastructures of Buddhist practice, but also a support structure that reinforces the ties between monks and lay people. Monks come to know the lives of the population intimately; and, with that, comes a knowledge of the difficult economic realities in the average Burmese household. 

Following Nyana, U Pyinya Zawta spoke to the role of meditation in overcoming the trauma of torture during his years in prison; as well as the years following his release in 2004. And then, as if to further nuance the realization that Buddhism is a practice of engagement, Zawta payed special attention to illustrating the importance of understanding the relationship between religion and politics in Burma.

Traditionally, monks in Burma do not vote in elections, they do not join political parties, nor do they intervene in political affairs. However, it is the role of the monk to meditate upon the self; and to extend the benefits of their meditation practice in the community by way of service. In Burma, Buddhist monks are instrumental the care of the community's social welfare. Not only are they the caretakers of  HIV patients; their assistance is critical in supporting the needs of small businesses.

So, the reach of the monk's practice is vast. Monastic networks are founded upon door-to-door attachments to the communities in which they practice. Given this, it's no wonder that the practice has proven disruptive to a military regime. That kind of engaged, deliberate, and strategic service is provocative. And it's precisely the kind of active practice that Gladwell says you can't muster through the detached, disembodied networks that social media provide. The most provocative kind of social action is that which hits the ground directly, and takes root through people who dare to care, and step into the shoes of those they serve. This kind of service is dangerous to the kind of military dictatorship that only manages its power through brutally stripping, destroying and destabilizing the population's trust in their communities. In a regime desperate to deplete socially engaged networks, disrobing monks that are held prisoner is an act, both symbolically and actively, intended to devalue the role of monks in the social fabric of Burma.

During the Q & A segment, a member of the Centre of Gravity Sangha, introduced himself as "Mike" and asked the following question to U Pyinya Zawta:

  "Did the ten years you spent in prison change your ideas about interdependence?"
 U Pyinya Zawta answered:
 "Yes, my belief grew stronger. not weaker. Monks mostly know about the dhamma, and are not often involved in the personal struggles faced by lay people on a daily basis. Yet, in prison, I had contact with people and their daily problems. That reaffirmed my committment to help; and my belief in the interdependence of all beings grew stronger".

Now, to most people, there's nothing about fighting a losing battle that seems like a win-win proposition; let alone fighting that battle from behind bars for ten years. That's a hard sell for most of us. But these monks look as if their practice has become second-nature;  a discipline of skillful action, stubbornly seated the present moment; the action undiminished and undeterred by considerations of outcome.

This is precisely what confounds and silences audiences who come out to listen to monks such as Zawta and Nyana, who have survived the Saffron Revolution. Despite torture, arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, extrajudicial executions, forced labour of their citizens, fallen friends, seized monasteries, and electoral laws designed to guarantee victory for the reigning dictatorship; they remain committed and solid. It's my best guess that the Burmese monks who served their communities despite violent retaliation, did so because there are no lost causes, and no dead ends.

To visit the All Burma Monks Alliance and read about their mission, please visit

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