Sayadaw U Pandita (1921–2016) was one of the great meditation masters of the last century. Heir to the famed Mahasi Sayadaw (1904–1982), U Pandita trained some of the best-known Western Buddhist teachers. In his final interview (“The Best Remedy”), conducted a few months before his death, U Pandita spoke to his longtime student Alan Clements of “the dhamma of reconciliation” in a nation that had endured decades of brutal totalitarian rule and continues to experience severe internal conflict to this day.
Some of the Burmese master’s answers may strike readers as unsatisfying, even disconcerting. When asked about the threat of terrorism, for instance, U Pandita responds, “An ordinary, external enemy can’t debase you. If he or she kills you, it’s only in one lifetime. The internal enemies kill a being lifetime after lifetime.”
It’s the urgent need to deal with the enemies in one’s own mind—anger, greed, and delusion—that U Pandita insistently returns to; he offers little advice concerning social or political action in the face of gross injustice or violence from without. When asked about accountability, in fact, he answers by offering advice to the perpetrators: “Those who have done wrong should correct it by dhamma means.” They should repent, he says, and ask for forgiveness. They too—and perhaps especially—must cultivate positive qualities in their own minds. There is no talk of, say, collective resistance or courts.
It’s true that monastic tradition has kept monks from politics and aggressive advocacy. We can also consider the fact that in Burma’s history, those who spoke out risked bringing ruin upon themselves. Yet U Pandita’s emphasis on taming the mind is entirely true to the teachings, bearing out the internal logic of a traditional understanding of karma and rebirth. The teachings offer at best only the seeds of social and political theory or a concomitant course of collective action. As the Zen priest and psychologist Seth Zuiho Segall writes in an exploration of Buddhist ethics (“A More Enlightened Way of Being”), “the Buddha preached a gospel of personal virtue rather than one of collective political participation and social action, and although he treated persons from all castes equably and abjured violence, he never advocated the abolition of the caste system or the disbanding of armies.” It was not timidity that kept U Pandita out of the realm of conventional social or political action: it was the historical bent of the teachings themselves.
Traditional Buddhist ethics rest on a worldview inconsistent with those of non-Buddhist cultures or, for that matter, with prevailing modern thought. For a significant number of contemporary Buddhists, Segall writes, “rebirth is not a compelling basis for their spiritual and moral lives” and rarely enters into their moral calculus. What’s more, in the absence of a belief in rebirth the very goal of practice can shift from nirvana—freedom from the cycle of birth and death—to the experience of full spiritual flourishing in this life. It is no surprise, then, that U Pandita’s “just one lifetime” is so jarring to the modern ear, or that Segall sees a need to adapt Buddhist ethics to a framework relevant to contemporary life.
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