How should people living in relative freedom and safety respond to terrible events happening in far-off lands? Admittedly, this is a #FirstWorldProblem, but for many well-intentioned people, there seems little more to do than to click the Facebook “share” button, mumble about how horrific it is, and perhaps give a small financial donation.
Further, how is the Buddhist practitioner to respond to a tragedy across the world? Or more specifically, the current crisis in Myanmar, the birthplace of the modern mindfulness and vipassana movement, following the February 1 military coup? Since many meditators have some connection to this land of dharma, be it direct or indirect, how at this moment can a debt of gratitude toward this spiritual home be repaid?
Since the coup, I have seen three general types of spiritual bypass surrounding the crisis in Myanmar.
The first kind uses ostensible Buddhist wisdom as a cover. As author Clyde Ford describes it in an episode of the Insight Myanmar Podcast, it’s the attitude that: “All we really need is to have more metta and everything will be right in the world, so let me just do my metta practice and I’m not going to worry about anything else.”
The problem is not the words themselves, but the intention behind them. Inaction or disengagement are very different from compassionate detachment. A mature practitioner is able to be very engaged while remaining detached from the outcome.
We have two wonderful examples in my post-coup interviews with Daw Viranani and Sayalay Chandadhka. Both Buddhist nuns stress the value of metta, to oneself and to all others, above all else. Both reference the role of karma and encourage the practitioner to seek a balanced mind. However, neither gives any indication that it is a simple matter of checking a box on our meditation checklist, while remaining disengaged. On the contrary, both engage deeply with the very messy and uncomfortable issues of the current reality in Myanmar, and both acknowledge that one’s personality and circumstances will dictate the degree and form of engagement. Their message is to generate metta and be empathetically engaged in whatever way feels right to the individual, while trying to stay detached from the outcome.
This first type of spiritual bypass rests on maintaining apparent equanimity in the face of challenges. However, equanimity is not apathy. Many teachers try to clarify this distinction because it is so easy to mistake apathy, a sign of spiritual bypass, for equanimity, a sign of spiritual growth. (See this video by Bhante Suddhaso at Empty Cloud Monastery.) Disengagement shows apathy; detachment shows equanimity.
The tendency to sidestep worldly challenges is even apparent in some Western monastics living in Myanmar today. Several days after the coup, one monk wrote on social media, “No need to worry about us. We are fine in our far away mountain monastery bubble. Monks should not get involved in politics and should have more important things to do.” Here, this monk creates a false binary choice: Either a monk marches in the street or lives a contemplative life. It is a trap to use one’s privileged status to avoid compassionately interacting with the plight of those without that privilege. Thankfully, other Western monks connected to Myanmar have not fallen into this trap, which is evident from my recent interview with Bhikkhu Mokkhita, who revealed his own personal sacrifice and risk-taking to do all he could for the Burmese people at this time.
The second kind of spiritual bypass I’ve seen recently is based on the assertion that Buddhist practice will survive in a Buddhist country, regardless of the government or what happens there.
This was best expressed by one Burmese meditator on social media: “Buddhism was founded, grew and thrived under the governments of emperors and kings who were much more autocratic than the current military rulers of Myanmar. Therefore, as far as Buddhism is concerned, I do not see any problem whether Myanmar is governed by the Tatmadaw [military] or the NLD [National League for Democracy]. Members of the Myanmar military are themselves Buddhists. The coup has nothing to do with suppressing Buddhism. Buddhism is not in any way threatened in Myanmar. There is no suppression of Buddhism or any religious freedom there.”
Buddhism may have survived, but did not always “thrive” under autocratic rulers in Myanmar. Many Burmese kings were guided by Hindu and animist advisors, or driven by superstition. There are stories of mad Buddhist kings who actually tried to murder monks; some kings who used the sangha and a host of associated Buddhist doctrines to advance their own petty missions and egoism; or those who interfered with the monkhood to fit their own personal and political agendas.
In more contemporary times, we’ve seen the military regime promote the causes of nationalist monks, arrest more progressive monks, or make it harder for more progressive teachers to teach. In an interview I did with monk Thabarwa Sayadaw in February last year, he noted how the stability and growth of his center in Myanmar was made possible only by the societal freedoms that came after the 2012 reforms that permitted journalists to publish their work without first submitting it to state censors. When I spoke with frontline protester Chit Tun this March, he spoke about the many monasteries that had long languished in poverty, unable to get donations or serve their communities, because the military would not allow their actual condition to be reported. All of this only covers recent history, since the 1990s. Go back a little further, and you have a country whose Buddhist masters are totally cut off from the outside world, with foreign monastics and yogis unable to enter, and the great teachers, such as Sayagyi U Ba Khin, unable to venture outside the country’s borders. The ability of traditions to grow and spread was stunted, and access to them cut off.
In this present crisis, there have been videos on social media claiming that the military dressed up lay people as monks to provoke the population—a position repeated by former monk and activist Inda Aung Soe on an episode of my podcast in February this year.
No, it has clearly not all been sunshine and roses for the sasana (teachings of the Buddha) in Myanmar, neither over the long arc of history, nor in more recent times. The reality is that the sasana is not secure just because it exists in Myanmar. This sentiment was perhaps put best during my interview with Ashin Sarana, who responded to this claim by remarking, “The idea that the military poses no threat to Buddhism, or that it is basically the same for the Buddhists whether there’s military or whether there’s democracy, is a very clear display of lack of knowledge about history, in Myanmar, and in other Buddhist countries as well.”
The third type of spiritual bypass I’ve encountered hides behind devotion to seeing the path maintained in the world above all else, whether or not that be in Myanmar. To paraphrase it: “Access to Buddhist practice and qualified teachers can now be found the world over. So while the current situation in Myanmar is sad, we have no real fear about the survival of dharma teachings, however bad it is there.”
A bypassing statement like this completely misperceives the richness, breadth and complexity of dharma practice in the Golden Land, instead privileging one’s own, perhaps Western, and perhaps even watered-down version of Buddhist community and practice. It seems to conclude—shockingly, and without any basis in fact—that by now, all the important elements of dharma practice have emigrated out of the Golden Land.
All of these forms of spiritual bypass serve only to make inaction and disengagement palatable, leading one away from acting positively in the world for the direct benefit of other beings. To me, this perspective is not what the Buddha taught at all, especially for lay followers, who, by definition, are choosing not to leave the worldly life.
The Burmese people and the health of the sasana in the Golden Land need more from us than concern, and if we are truly grateful for the treasures we have received from the Golden Land—in whatever form—we will transform that concern into some kind of action, whether great or small.
So, what to do?
Here are some suggestions for how a practitioner can get involved. I don’t intend for this list to seem like a prescriptive series of instructions, nor do I want these options to limit the creativity of what others may think of in addition to what’s here. These are merely some of the ways I’ve found to be of service:
- Offer moral support. It’s free, easy, and can only take a minute. When I ask Burmese friends how we can be of most assistance to them, this is consistently the first thing mentioned: just to be a friend.
- Stay informed. Bear witness to the horrors now taking place by reading news, listening to podcasts, subscribing to newsletters, etc. The step before one can truly help is to first understand the issue.
- Volunteer. A variety of organizations have either become formed, or were already existing and transformed their mission in order to respond to this crisis, and many are seriously understaffed and overwhelmed by the workload. Write some of these and ask how you can help.
- Contribute in kind. If you’re an artist, use your talents to support the democracy movement. If you’re a lawyer or accountant, see if any nonprofits can use free advising. If you’re in tech, check out how your knowledge of anything from building websites to cyber security can be of use now. If you’re a meditation teacher, yoga instructor, or therapist, see how you can help people suffering with trauma. Any of your skills can find a proper use at this moment.
- Take action. Sign or create a petition, talk to your local representatives, join or organize a protest, or reach out to local media.
- Contribute financially. This doesn’t only mean giving yourself, but also supporting the overall fundraising effort by eliciting your local community and online networks. To see where our own donation funds have been used through our nonprofit Better Burma, please read here.
- Send metta, thoughts, prayers, and good wishes. Direct your spiritual energy toward the pain and suffering that people in the Golden Land are now experiencing as often as possible.
While I am not suggesting that any one of these will tip the balance toward the cause of freedom, it is also very true that every little action counts, now more than ever. This is becoming a war of attrition, with each side trying to starve the other out of resources, funds, medicine and food, morale, communication, and access. Any small contribution that continues to feed the side of the people is a valuable support that helps to maintain their momentum.
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