Metta Sutta

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Bush Administration

There are new reports today that soldiers fired automatic weapons into crowds of protesters in Burma, killing several people.

[Update: The Buddhist Channel has hourly updates.]

Seth Mydans writes for the New York Times:

The government of Myanmar began a violent crackdown on Wednesday after tolerating more than a month of growing protests in cities around the country. Facing its most serious challenge since taking power in 1988, the ruling junta is attempting to contain the uprising by the tens of thousands of monks protesting economic hardships and the political repression of the military junta.

Security forces have clubbed and tear-gassed protesters, fired shots into the air, or according to an Associated Press report today, into a crowd, and arrested hundreds of the monks, who are at the heart of the demonstrations.

Then,

Government security forces in Myanmar cracked down for a second day today on nationwide protests, firing shots and tear gas, and raiding at least two Buddhist monasteries, where they beat and arrested dozens of monks, according to reports from the city of Yangon.

Further casualties were reported today, following at least half a dozen deaths on Wednesday.

Andy Sullivan has a good roundup of information. See also eyewitness accounts at Time.

The battle for Shwedagon began in ferocious noonday heat. The authorities had locked the gates of the pagoda, Rangoon’s most famous landmark, by mid-morning to prevent the monks who had led the weeklong demonstrations against Burma’s military rulers from gathering. Police and soldiers guarded the entrances. The eastern gate of Shwedagon is where thousands of monks would otherwise exit to start their march into downtown Rangoon. But today, hundreds of soldiers and riot police blocked their way.

By 12:30 p.m., hundreds of monks, students, and other Rangoon residents approached the police, stood in the road and began to pray. Then the soldiers and police began pulling monks from the crowd, targeting the leaders, striking both monks and ordinary people with canes. Several smoke bombs exploded and the riot police charged. The monks and others fought back with sticks and rocks. Many others ran, perhaps four or five of them bleeding from minor head wounds. A car was set alight — by the soldiers, some protesters claimed — and then there was the unmistakable crack of live ammunition: the soldiers were shooting into the air.

Then, later,

A pause came upon the battle. The monks regrouped at a nearby monastery to march downtown. But first came a chilling display of the people’s anger — and the monks’ moral influence. A man on a motorcycle rode up. Motorcycles have been banned in Rangoon for years, ever since — the story goes — the paranoid generals fear being shot by assassins riding one of them. Most people on motorcycles are therefore assumed to be spies.

Thus sensing an enemy, the mob pounced. The man was pulled off his bike and set upon by students and people armed with wooden sticks. “Beat him!” they cried. “Kill him!” Quickly, the monks intervened and ushered him away to the safety of a nearby monastery. The mob, however, set upon his motorbike with clubs and rocks, smashing it to bits.

Also in Time — this is something I didn’t know, but should have.

The junta that runs the country imposed a systematic name change several years ago, decreeing that Burma was to be called Myanmar and the capital Rangoon was to be Yangon. The opposition has never accepted these changes; neither has the U.S. government. TIME continues to use Burma and Rangoon.

Bullshit alert — this is from an editorial in today’s Washington Post,

The United States and the European Union acted with admirable cohesion and aggressiveness yesterday, calling for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and asking it to consider sanctions.

That’s “aggressiveness”? Excuse me while I mutter incoherently for a bit.

The Western governments issued a blunt joint statement that condemned the violence and told the Burmese generals they would be held individually accountable for their actions. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was eloquent: “The whole world is now watching Burma, and its illegitimate and repressive regime should know that the whole world is going to hold it to account,” he said. “The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over.”

The editorial goes on to blame China and Russia for blocking international action against the Burmese regime.

Yesterday, Russia and China prevented the Security Council even from condemning the violence against protesters. In effect, they are giving the regime a green light for brutal repression.

At the Guardian, Simon Tisdall also criticizes Russia and China, but says no one’s hands are clean.

Among western countries, Britain may be said to have prime responsibility as the former colonial power. But while regularly calling for democratic renewal, it has consistently rejected calls by Burmese exile groups and campaigners for tougher measures to isolate and weaken the junta.

As a result, an arms embargo and asset and travel restrictions on regime members have not been followed up by targeted economic and financial sanctions and trade and investment bans (such as those now being deployed against Iran).

Britain has increasingly taken refuge in the EU’s “common position” on Burma, as has also been the case in its policy towards Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, instead of showing a lead.

Since most EU member countries have few historical, economic or cultural ties with Burma, the result has been a minimalist European policy with scant impact on the generals.

And then there’s us:

The US has imposed sanctions and White House said this week that additional punitive measures would be taken. But the Bush administration’s decision to put Burma on its list of “rogue states”, and make it a target of its global democracy promotion campaign, may have been counter-productive.

Neighbouring states, including those of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) are embarrassed by the antics of Burma’s tinpot dictators.

But they are even more strongly averse to any appearance of being bullied or coerced by the most unpopular US administration in living memory. Washington’s leverage in the region is at low ebb, partly because of its own mistakes and hubris and partly because of the rising influence of China and India.

And the United Nations:

Attempts by Asean itself to modify the Burmese regime’s behaviour have been little short of pathetic, undermined by the important trade links countries such as Thailand and Malaysia maintain with Rangoon.

Yet the record on Burma of the UN itself, the home of the “international community” and its ostensible executive arm, is little better.

It has allowed the generals to obstruct, patronise and humiliate a succession of its envoys, some of who simply quit in disgust. Even now, the current envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, is unsure of being allowed into the country.

As Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International in the UK, pointed out this week, international law, including a range of treaties and covenants on human rights, torture, displaced persons and freedom of information and movement, is being grossly flouted in Burma as it is in many other parts of the world.

Western countries, particularly the US in the conduct of its “war on terror” and its occupation of Iraq, have become increasingly – and objectionably – tolerant of such abuses since 9/11.

Western governments are right to condemn the repression in Burma. But for the most part, their actions, inaction and indifference have strengthened the generals – and they should take their share of the blame for what is happening now.

Joerg Wolf at Atlantic Review calls the WaPo editorial a “lame self-congratulation editorial on democracy promotion” –

The West — in particular the United States — likes to portray itself as the promoter of democracy and human rights around the world, but there was no support for the democracy movement in Myanmar/Burma. And that is good. The monks and democracy activists would be discredited, if they received support from abroad. Democracy has to come from within. The West should not exaggerate its contribution. Calling for a Security Council session is easy. Getting Chinese and Russian support for a UN resolution is more difficult and the West has failed in this regard.

Besides, rather than just threatening the regime with more sanctions, it might be more sensible to offer economic aid on the condition that the regime starts democratization in addition to the threats. Providing incentives and threats is better than only threats. Past sanctions did not work. Providing incentives might not work either, but it is always worthwhile to extend an olive branch.

See also this editorial from the Los Angeles Times and this BBC video.

* * *

For me, it’s particularly moving to hear (from Andy Sullivan) that the protesting monks of Burma chant the Metta Sutta (sutra of loving-kindness) as they march.

This is the way of those who are skilled and peaceful, who seek the good and follow the path:

May they be able and upright, straightforward, of gentle speech and not proud.
May they be content and easy wherever they are.
May they be unburdened, with their senses calm.
May they be wise and not arrogant.
May they live without desire for the possessions of others.
May they do no harm to any living being.

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.
All living beings, whether weak or strong, old or young, man or woman, smart or foolish, healthy or disabled, seen or unseen, near or distant, born or to be born, may they all be happy.

Let no one deceive or despise another being, whatever their status.
Let no one by anger or hatred wish harm to another.

As parents watch over their children, willing to risk their own lives to protect them, so with a boundless heart may we cherish every living being, bathing the entire world with unobstructed and unconditional loving-kindness.

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, in each moment may we remain mindful of this heart and this way of living that is the best in all the world.

You’ve got to admit, that’s a step up from “Buck Fush.”

I’m accused sometimes of being opposed to protesting and direct action, most recently by this guy, because I’ve criticized the way some protesters conduct themselves. I’m not against protesting; I’m against protests that are as serious as sideshow carnivals. I’ve had it with people dressing up in silly, often vulgar, costumes to call attention to themselves. I’m tired of participating in antiwar protests in which large numbers of people are pushing opinions, many of which I do not share, on issues other than the war. I’m weary of aging adolescents who still think “Buck Fush” is clever. See Protesting 101, and also this vintage post from the late, great Steve Gilliard, who described standard leftie protest behavior as “the spoiled child, tone deaf approach to politics.”

For guidance on how to protest, study Gandhi, study Martin Luther King, study the Burmese monks. This is how it’s done.

The Metta Sutta (or sutra of loving kindness) is from the Tipitaka, or Pali Canon, which is the oldest collection of teachings of the Buddha. The many texts within the Tipitaka are said to be the actual words of the historical Buddha as memorized and chanted by monks until it was written down three or four centuries after the Buddha’s death (ca. 483 BCE). Of course, it’s possible that what the monks chanted was inaccurate, just as it’s possible the historical Buddha was nothing like the way he is remembered. But it’s good stuff, anyway, so in a way it doesn’t matter who said it.

Note to this misguided person (I’m trying to be nice): The phrase “saffron robe” comes from a practice of the original order of monks. They were allowed only two possessions, a robe and a bowl. The robe had to be made from “pure cloth,” meaning cloth that no one else wanted. So they made their robes from cloth that had been used to wrap corpses. This cloth usually had an orange stain from the spices used to cover the odor of decomposition. Hence, “saffron robe.” As for the monks coming up with a better “game plan” — the same game plan worked pretty well for Gandhi. In the short run peaceful resistance looks ineffectual, but in the long run it often gets better results than insurgent warfare.

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9 Comments

  1. Dan  •  Sep 27, 2007 @12:03 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Saffron Robe name. I did not know that…

    Perhaps your headline on that section should have been: “Could you repeat your answer in the form of a question?”

  2. munen  •  Sep 27, 2007 @1:00 pm

    Thanks maha for these posts about Burma.

    I did my longest retreat there in ’99. 3 weeks of vipassana in the Sagaing Hills at the Kyaswa Monastery under Sayadaw U Lakkhana and Michele McDonald. Burma’s tradition of buddhist practice is amazing. (http://www.vipassanahawaii.org/?q=kyaswaretreat)

    I wish bush would really do more than make speeches. send our troops there where there really is an oppressive regime! 200billion more for war that was started because of a lie. uuuggghhhh!!!

    Thanks again for your clear and insightful posts maha!

    peace :)

  3. Daryl  •  Sep 27, 2007 @1:32 pm

    Kind of puts an end to any delusion of Bush “spreading freedom and democracy” around the globe. Apparently the Burmese junta didn’t get the memo.

    To paraphrase what George Will wrote before the Iraqi invasion,”If our sole reason for invading Iraq is to spread freedom and democracy then what next? On to Burma?”

  4. SamFromUtah  •  Sep 27, 2007 @1:38 pm

    …make it a target of its global democracy promotion campaign…

    Yikes. That’s about the most Orwellian name for a hit list I’ve ever heard.

  5. VJB  •  Sep 27, 2007 @2:32 pm

    Quite a while back I asked you, Maha, whether such a thing as a Buddhist fundamentalist could exist. You answered that some are sticklers about form and ritual. What I think we have here in the demonstrations in Burma is the best possible construction of the words ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘conservative’. I have not seen anything like this since Selma–orderly, sincere, showing the roots of belief. I wish the Metta Sutra could be the rallying chant here in our disputes. Makes our partisanship look pretty petty. (Might make some ‘conservative’ and neo-con heads explode, but in a constructive way, of course [fat chance]).

  6. Swami  •  Sep 27, 2007 @3:20 pm

    I wonder if the monks will use self immolation as a weapon against the junta? I don’t know about its overall effectiveness but it certainly grabs the world’s attention. Remembering back to the buddhist monks in Saigon in protest to the Vietnam war the tactic could be said to have been the original shock and awe with an externally non-violent bent.

    I wish them success in their quest for democracy. And Bush’s sanctions are just short of a joke..because something is better than nothing even when nothing is offered as something.

    Is freedom still on the march?

  7. maha  •  Sep 27, 2007 @3:46 pm

    I wonder if the monks will use self immolation as a weapon against the junta?

    That’s very unlikely. Suicide is very much outside the rules. The Vietnamese monk(s) (I think there was more than one, but I’m not sure) who self-immolated were Zen monks, and Zennies have a tradition of being outrageous, whereas the Burmese guys are Theravada, which is more traditional.

    On the other hand, I believe some time back a prominent Burmese monk starved himself to death in a hunger strike

  8. just my 2 cents  •  Sep 27, 2007 @5:41 pm

    suicide is a cause of bad hell rebirth as is killing any human, in fact somewhat worse — I surely don’t see suicide — even of the monks in viet nam — as a means to relieve all beings from suffering.
    then, the question is, how could Zen monks have done this?
    not the same as Theravadans who don’t have Mahayana vows

    in any event, we should all pray for these Burmese monks and pray for all the Burmese people

  9. Free Burma!  •  Oct 1, 2007 @10:09 am

    Free Burma!
    International Bloggers’ Day for Burma on the 4th of October

    International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.

    http://www.free-burma.org

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