A Thousand Lives Away: Buddhism in Contemporary Burma
By Winston J. King, forward by Edward Conze.
Reissued by Asian Humanities Press: Fremont, California, 1990,
238 pp., paper, $15.95.

I arrived in Burma a few days short of a day that was being hyped around the world as the Harmonic Convergence, in 1987. And while harmony did appear to be breaking out around the world, Burma was experiencing anything but. The military government, in order to regain control of what was essentially a completely blackmarket economy, declared several denominations of currency as good as wallpaper. The effect of that decision led the population to organize against those in power, and the results are still being felt. The monastic community involved itself heavily for the first time in political action. The elections, which invalidated the military’s claim of support, were summarily ignored, and the opposition as well as large numbers of monks have been imprisoned and tortured.

Against this background, the reissue of Winston L. King’s book, A Thousand Lives Away: Buddhism In Contemporary Burma, the result of two years’ residence in Rangoon from 1958-60, is timely, for it examines the then nascent stirrings of interest in secular affairs within the monastic community.

The reissue permits a look at the interplay between the religious and political communities, and investigates a new development in Burmese Buddhism—its worldwide missionizing and the establishment of traditional temples where lay people are taught the techniques of Vipassana meditation.

King spends a lot of time up front explaining the doctrine of annica (impermanence), anatta (egolessness), and dukkha (suffering) for those new to Buddhist teachings. But even for the initiated, this review becomes important as King then attempts to show how these doctrines both reinforce and conflict with less orthodox Burmese practices. As an outsider, King objectively views the varieties of Burmese Buddhism, from the popular worship of nats (pre-Buddhist animistic gods recast in the Burmese Buddhist cosmology) to the Theravadan orthodoxy of the Burmese monasticism. His analysis of the relationship between various popular, devotional practices, and the training of the monastics, as well as his examination of the tensions between popular cosmology and that of the “purer” Buddhism, offers instructive insights into the flexibility of Buddhism.

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