Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Asia's angry monk syndrome

July 9, 2008

By Megawati Wijaya
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
July 9, 2008

SINGAPORE - From Sri Lanka to South Korea, from Tibet to Myanmar,
Asia's Buddhist clergy are in unprecedented numbers exerting their
moral authority onto politics, abandoning their detachment from
worldly events and giving rise to what at least one academic has
referred to as a region-wide "angry monk syndrome".

Agitated ascetics made global headlines last year during Myanmar's
"Saffron Revolution", where in their thousands they took to the
streets to protest against the military government's policies and
perceived mistreatment of clergy members. At the height of the
unrest, monks dropped the symbolic gauntlet by overturning their alms
bowls and refused to accept donations from government officials and
their family members.

This year, over 300 Tibetan monks marched in protest in Lhasa in
commemoration of the 49th anniversary of an uprising against Chinese
rule and to air more modern complaints and grievances, including
calls for the release of monks detained last year after the Dalai
Lama was awarded a congressional medal of honor by the United States,
for the withdrawal of all troops and security personnel from their
monasteries and the re-instatement of monks expelled from monasteries
for their failure of "patriotic education" exams that required them
to denounce the Dalai Lama.

And over the weekend, thousands of Buddhist monks joined South Korean
citizens in candlelight rallies in front of Seoul's city hall to
protest the government's controversial decision in April to resume
imports of beef from the United States, which protestors believe
could be tainted with mad cow disease. The usually apolitical monks'
involvement in the rallies exerted additional pressure on the
government to review the unpopular decision.

While each monk protest is unique in its demands and character,
Buddhist clergymen are making their political voices heard in
unprecedented ways and increasing numbers across the region. In the
process they are often bringing the Sangha out of detached isolation
and directly into the cut-and-thrust of everyday politics. The
growing images of Buddhist monks leading political protests cuts a
sharp contrast to the cliched calm and serene robe-wearing ascetic
meditating in the pursuit of otherworldly enlightenment.

John Whalen-Bridge, co-editor of a series of books on Buddhism,
refers to the growing phenomenon as "angry monk syndrome", a flip way
of referring to the clergy's departure from the pursuit of equanimity
and raised-fist involvement in the call for political change and
economic justice. Politically active monks are not an entirely new
phenomenon. Western observers will likely recall the images of
Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, who, in protest against the
corruption and repression of the South Vietnamese government,
self-immolated himself in June 1963.

Lesser known is the violent role aggrieved ascetics played during the
Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), when Chinese monks abandoned their
commitment to non-violence for reasons of patriotism. Certain monks
at the time even cited Buddhist scriptures to justify killing their
Japanese enemies. On the other side of the battlefield, Zen priests
were similarly conspicuous as aggressive and visible defenders of
imperial Japan and its nationalistic policies.

Monks were also in the forefront of protests in colonial Burma before
the country now known as Myanmar won independence from Britain in
1948. After independence, monks were actively involved in the
nationwide uprisings against the military junta-led government in
1988, which were eventually crushed by soldiers. There are accounts
of monks sharpening bicycle tire spokes and launching them at
soldiers during that violent melee.

The recent surge in monk-led political ferment, usually towards the
aim of giving voice to the often silent majority, seems to signal a
political reawakening of Asia's Buddhist clergy. Well-organized and
in most instances peacefully executed, the protests have provided a
resounding reaffirmation to the Sangha's social relevance in modern
times. It is also a potentially profound political trend, in that
monks tend to speak out on behalf of the politically oppressed and
economically downtrodden.

That's the majority of the population in many authoritarian-run
countries with substantial Buddhist populations. In Myanmar and
Vietnam, for instance, monks have led the moral charge against their
respective abusive and repressive governments. In more economically
advanced Thailand and South Korea, politicized monks are highlighting
the gross inequalities and rampant corruption that has accompanied
rapid economic growth.

MIDDLE-WAY PROTESTS

What do these scattered protests say about the Sangha's contemporary
mindset? Pattana Kitiarsa, an associate professor in the department
of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore,
believes the Sangha's role has frequently been misunderstood in
historical and modern context.

"Buddhism and Buddhist monks are often stereotyped as peace-loving,
world-rejecting, calm, serene and poised," he said. "However, when
monks become or choose to become worldly-engaged actors, they have
put themselves in a familiar position of expressing, communicating,
acting, or dealing with the mundane world."

To be sure, individual monks have stood out for their political and
social postures. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has long promoted
so-called "socially engaged Buddhism", which advocates the
application of Buddhist principles towards resolving social,
environmental and political problems. His grassroots relief
organization helped to rebuild bombed villages, re-establish schools
and medical centers, resettle homeless villagers, and organize
agricultural co-operatives during the Vietnam War, but he was later
exiled due to his non-violent anti-war activities.

The jet-setting Dalai Lama, head of Tibet's government-in-exile and
winner of the Nobel Peace prize for his non-violent approach to
political struggle, is an individual monk of that same
socially-engaged mold. As is Taiwan's Buddhist nun, teacher and
philanthropist, Cheng Yen, whose Tzu-Chi Foundation is one of the
island-state's largest charity organizations with offices in over 30
countries around the world, undertaking activities as wide-ranging as
disaster relief, environmental protection and bone marrow donations

While globally recognized Buddhist leaders have helped to spawn a
worldwide movement of engaged Buddhism, recent developments show that
the movement is transcending mere individuals and taking on mass
proportions. Internationalized and well-informed monks are joining
forces in ever larger numbers to launch mass protests against their
respective governments and perceived unjust economic actors.

But does this growing, often political, mass movement contradict the
Buddha's teaching to eschew worldly matters and abide in equanimity?

Geshe Jangchup Choeden, a Tibetan Buddhist monk-teacher from the
Gaden Shartse monastery in India, says that according to ancient
scriptures the "ideal" monk is disciplined and refrains from all
actions which might bring him into conflict with the clergy's
devotees. But, he asks, "Is it possible to have an ideal monk in the
modern world? How essential is the ideal monk in times or at places
when and where they are needed to take actions against injustice or
for the well-being of the people?"

Whether Myanmar's protesting monks, who mobilized en masse last year
against a military regime notorious for its human rights abuses and
entrenched corruption, lived up to this ideal is definitely
debatable. The government accused many of the robed demonstration
leaders as "fake" monks and assaulted and jailed many of them and
their followers. Other monks were confined by security forces to
their monasteries.

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks are clearly taking sides amid the
country's deeply polarized and increasingly violent ethnic- and
religion-based politics. There they have their own political parties,
sit in parliament, and are the strongest supporter of the Sinhalese
Buddhist government's campaign to militarily obliterate the mostly
Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group.

Academic Kitiarsa points to the diverse upbringings, educational
backgrounds and monastic practices for varied monk responses. "In
reality, there has never been one singular monk. Only Buddha himself
is considered a model monk," he said. "Monks in the 21st century
could be militants, activists, magicians, forest-dwelling world
renouncers. All these monks wish to have their voices heard in their own ways."

That was clearly the case when Tibetan monks wept and cried out
"Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!" when Western media members
visited Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet's holiest shrines, during a
government-managed press tour in March. These extraordinary scenes
helped to keep the government's recent security crackdown and
continued occupation of Tibet in international headlines ahead of
Beijing's hosting of the Summer Olympic Games in August.

There are concurrent worldly risks that the socially engaged movement
is in certain instances being manipulated for narrow political
purposes. In South Korea, for instance, where monks have been on the
vanguard of the street protests against US beef imports, the
demonstrations are now increasingly being driven by liberal opponents
of President Lee Myung-bak's new conservative government.

But in countries like Myanmar or places like Tibet, where the moral
argument against the prevailing political order is more obvious,
monks are in increasing numbers straying from the past middle path of
loving kindness towards what some see as a more socially-engaged path
towards enlightenment. "There is nothing wrong or undesirable with
the Sangha protesting out of their compassion for humanity," said
Choeden. "But once their aims are achieved, they should get back as
soon as possible to their purpose and avoid drifting into the ways of
the world."

Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based freelance journalist. She may be
contacted at megawati.wijaya@gmail.com.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank