In the fall of 2007, engaged Buddhism made the nightly news. Monks in Burma (Myanmar) were taking to the streets in defiance of the country’s military rulers. On September 24, a large demonstration in Rangoon included ten thousand monks robed in maroon, carrying multicolored flags and posters of the Buddha. The risks were real: the last time a pro-democracy movement challenged the ruling military junta, in 1988, thousands of people were killed. Though the Burmese sangha managed to retain a trace of autonomy, the jails are filled with monks.
Just a few weeks later, in Washington, D.C., the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. For that to happen, a bill (the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Congressional Gold Medal Act) had to pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the President, a rare event in the contentious capital. A photograph showed President Bush and the Dalai Lama sharing a laugh. Two days after the Dalai Lama’s visit, the White House declared that “monks have been beaten and killed” in Burma, and the United States imposed new sanctions against the military regime.
The crisis in Burma also prompted a demonstration in San Francisco on October 1, captured in the photograph below by Oren Sofer. I believe that this image sheds light on some promising developments in engaged Buddhism, and therefore merits a closer look.
First, the scene. The marchers, solemn and silent, are draped in makeshift maroon robes. They carry a wide banner featuring two large eyes; where we would expect to see the name of a group, the banner forgoes words entirely. The dignified monastic figure at the head of the march holds a bowl upside down. The setting is Western, urban, secular.
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, based in Berkeley, organized the march. The senior figure in the brown robe is Ven. Blanche Hartman, who served for seven years as abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center. Ven. Hartman is composed and resolute, almost fierce. Her unflinching gaze accords with the unflinching gaze of the banner above. Buddhist monastics have a limited number of things that can be used as symbolic props in a demonstration. So the Burmese monks and nuns showed their disapproval of the junta by turning over their bowls, a powerful gesture of refusing to accept alms. In San Francisco, Ven. Hartman turns her bowl over in a manner that is both a political and a Buddhist demonstration.
The iconic image on the banner, created by Mona Caron, echoes a well-known image from Bodhnath, a major Buddhist stupa in Nepal. At Bodhnath, the eyes are those of an ahistorical Buddha. The large dot in the center of the forehead, equivalent to a third eye, signifies nondual awareness, an attribute of enlightenment. The squiggle of a nose, a variant of the numeral one in Nepali, reinforces the theme of oneness. The banner modifies the original image to incorporate engaged Buddhism’s commitment to ecological integrity: the Buddha’s third eye is the Earth, and a partial image of the planet covers (or becomes) the lower half of the face. In Nepal, the same curved line is actually the top of the hemispherical stupa, which resembles nothing so much as… an overturned bowl.
In Southeast Asia, when a new Buddha figure is installed in a temple, there is a ceremony that culminates in the symbolic opening of the figure’s eyes. In spiritual terms, the Buddha comes to life. This big-eyed banner may signal something equally significant in the evolution of engaged Buddhism. It proclaims: “We have a fresh vision, and we’re moving forward with our eyes open.” The Buddha’s eyes become our eyes.
By chance, the banner’s nose squiggle is positioned directly above Ven. Hartman’s head, together forming a question mark. Even more surprising: the question mark seems apt. It recasts the picture as a kind of visual koan. How can the dharma be actualized now and in the future? Where is engaged Buddhism headed? What forms of engagement are meaningful for me? In Zen practice, the deeper the questioning, the greater the awakening. Can the same be said of social movements? Of societies?
THE MONKS IN Burma, the Dalai Lama in Washington, and the marchers in San Francisco concur on the fundamentals. In each case, nonviolence serves as a touchstone of authenticity and a code of conduct. This is more down-to-earth than it sounds. “Through violence, you may solve one problem,” the Dalai Lama says, “but you sow the seeds for another.” It may be too soon to assess the Dalai Lama’s legacy in geopolitical terms. Yet it is clear that he has become an exemplar of nonviolence on a world-historical scale. “He is a one-man warrior for peace. He is a one-man warrior for spirituality,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gushed. In other words, the Dalai Lama illustrates the force of truth, Gandhi’s satyagraha.
In all three events we find the interplay of East and West. Protesters in Burma use the Internet to alert Western media to their cause. President Bush praises a Tibetan monk as “a man of peace and reconciliation.” (Ironies noted.) In San Francisco the marchers dress in the manner of Asian monastics, are led by a woman, and adorn a Buddha with jewel-like views of the Earth. One of the few slogans seen on protest signs in the march is “May all beings be free.” Is that a Western or Asian aspiration? In the context of a pro-democracy movement, the slogan is a cry for universal political liberation. In a Buddhist context, it is a call for universal spiritual liberation, echoing metta practice and a bodhisattva vow: “All beings without number, I vow to liberate.” One perspective emphasizes freedom from oppression; the other, freedom from ignorance. Engaged Buddhism embraces both.
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship began three decades ago with a conversation on a porch in Hawaii. Its original goal was to “bring a Buddhist perspective to the peace movement, and the peace movement to the Buddhist community.” Progress has been made on both fronts. Now a broader task is emerging. According to Alan Senauke, BPF’s peacework coordinator, “The heart of BPF’s work is about creating the conditions for a more just and peaceful society.” Envisioning such societies is an important—and practical—part of the process. How can we achieve a peaceful future if we cannot imagine one?
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.