An eleventh-century Burmese king honored his conversion to Theravada Buddhism by building Pagan, an imposing city containing 13,000 templesand pagodas on the fertile plains of the Irrawaddy River. Slaves constructed this spectacular homage to the teachings of the Buddha.

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In the late twentieth century, a Burmese dictator commands a military government that tortures, murders, and impoverishes its own people. The general, the soldiers, and the victims are all Buddhists.

For these many centuries, abuse and warfare have existed side by side with Buddhist teachings. What is the role of Buddhism in the tragedy of Burma? Is there any way the teachings of the Buddha can put an end to the cycles of violence? Burma’s past is not remarkably worse than that of other nations, but the centrality of Buddhism, with its emphasis on nonviolence and compassion, makes the situation in Burma difficult to comprehend.

As we sort through these questions, our Western perspective imposes biases and misunderstandings. We can see Asian Buddhism only from the vantage point of outsiders. Furthermore, we in the West surely cannot cast stones but must scrutinize the historical impact of Western religions with the same rigor we apply to Buddhism in Asia. Nonetheless, if we are concerned about the transmission of the dharma to societies in the twenty-first century, we might try to understand, albeit with humility, this paradox of a Buddhist nation in self-inflicted agony.

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