Photo by Oren Sofer, Buddhist Peace Fellowship; Mural by Mona Caron
Photo by Oren Sofer, Buddhist Peace Fellowship; Mural by Mona Caron

Solidarity march for Burmese monks and nuns in San Francisco on October 1, 2007.

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.

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