Although — for reasons I went on and on about in the Wisdom of Doubt series — I object to using the words faith and religion as synonyms, I still liked this op ed by Sam Leith in The Telegraph — “The power of faith against the bullet.”
This – these monks staring down the guns – presents a problem for a militant secularist in the Dawkins or Hitchens mould. I don’t mean that it has any bearing on the argument about whether there is or is not a God. Buddhist monks don’t worship anything resembling the God on whom the Dawkins guns are trained in any case; and the fact that they stare down the guns doesn’t make a difference to whether or not what they believe is true.
BTW, this week, while much of the world’s attention was riveted on the monks of Burma, the great blowhard Christopher Hitchens appeared at the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” site, ranting about “The Subtle, Lethal Poison of Religion.”
So much for Hitchens. Here’s more Leith:
But stare down those guns they do – and their behaviour does have a strong bearing on the question of whether religious belief “poisons everything”, as Hitchens puts it. I’d submit, as an irreligious bystander, that one of the things that helps those monks hold the line is faith. The form that their resistance takes is shaped by that faith – and it is uniquely powerful.
The monks’ action is a demonstration of faith, but not belief. In religion — including Christianity, IMO — belief and faith are two different things, although this is a point lost on fundies and atheists alike.
They can’t be written off as “terrorists” or “communists”. They are not a rival faction seeking power. They can’t be co-opted into a fight. That is their strength against a regime that has only repressive force at its disposal.
If someone’s shooting at you, or throwing rocks at you, it’s not very long before the rights and wrongs of the original dispute get entirely lost amid the fighting. But if someone’s sitting patiently in the street, unarmed, daring you to shoot him dead … One of the reports from Burma has soldiers in tears. Early reports also suggested that more shots have been fired into the air than into the crowds.
In Burma, and in much of southeast Asia, it is customary for a young man to spend at least a few months as a monk before taking up his adult activities as a husband, father, and worker. It’s probable some of those soldiers have been monks themselves. I believe there was some hope soldiers would switch sides and join the monks, but I haven’t heard this has happened.
But what does this say about the nexus of political power and moral authority? They can’t be written off as “terrorists” or “communists”. They are not a rival faction seeking power. They can’t be co-opted into a fight. Religionists in America have waged an all-out campaign to get political power, and along the way they’ve proved themselves to be as morally frail and corruptible as any other human, “believer” or not. The monks of Burma renunciate power, and that renunciation is the source of their power.
That renunciation is also true religious faith. Religionists who seek political power in order to carry out some doctrinal agenda are demonstrating their own faithlessness.
I am encouraged by the fact that many of these soldiers will themselves be Buddhists; that they are facing crowds of fellow citizens who are also Buddhists; and that they know those fellow citizens are also prepared to take a bullet for their basic freedoms.
That reminds me of a Zen story, although a relatively modern one, taking place when the Japanese were overrunning Korea in the 1930s. Japanese soldiers entered a Korean Zen monastery and found most of the monks gone. But the abbot remained, sitting like an iron lotus in the zendo. The officer in charge drew his sword, walked up to the abbot, and said, “I could run you through without blinking an eye!” The abbot roared back, “I can be run through without blinking an eye!” The soldiers left the old man alone. I believe that really happened.
That suggests that a tipping point might be reached. It suggests that – as Patti Smith puts it – they might “get ’em like Gandhi; get ’em with the numbers”. Small flowers crack concrete.
Here’s the bad news — the tipping point may be postponed. The Buddhist Channel reports that monks are locked into their monasteries.
Thousands of monks had provided the backbone of the protests, but they were besieged in their monasteries, penned in by locked gates and barbed wire surrounding the compounds in the two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Troops stood guard outside and blocked nearby roads to keep the clergymen isolated.
The monks remained inside their monasteries late Saturday morning (Sept 29) with troops remaining on guard outside and blocking nearby roads. The streets of the two Yangon and Mandalay were quiet.
Many Yangon residents seemed pessimistic over the crackdown, fearing it fatally weakened a movement that began nearly six weeks ago as small protests over fuel price hikes and grew into demonstrations by tens of thousands demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.
The corralling of monks was a serious blow. They carry high moral authority in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 54 million people and the protests had mushroomed when the clergymen joined in.
“The monks are the ones who give us courage. I don’t think that we have any more hope to win,” said a young woman who had taken part in a huge demonstration Thursday that broke up when troops shot protesters. She said she had not seen her boyfriend and feared he was arrested.
The monks themselves have not given up hope.
At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most important Buddhist temple, about 300 armed policemen and soldiers sat around the compound eating snacks while keeping an eye on the monks.
“I’m not afraid of the soldiers. We live and then we die,” said one monk. “We will win this time because the international community is putting a lot of pressure.”
Condemnation of the junta has been strong around the world. On Friday, people protested outside Myanmar embassies in Australia, Britain, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.
The Tao Teh Ching says nothing is softer or weaker than water, yet water wears down what is hard and strong. Whatever happens in the next few days, the monks of Burma will, eventually, prevail.