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The role of the Buddhist monk in Burma’s civil society; a past and present engagement

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Monk-hood is a noble way of being. A status placed at the third highest spiritual order after the Buddha and Dhamma. Monk-hood is unconditionally sought for peaceful shelter in its’ less preoccupied vocational and day-to-day work activities. Its’ ultimate goal is for the monk to practice Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, and it is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal truth. It is purely a non-sectarian technique which aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and results in the highest happiness of full liberation. The story of the monk from Burma/Myanmar over the past ten years has been displayed to the world as terror or violence to the non-Buddhist community. The Buddha’s students (the monks) are divided into different disciplines as history revealed 2500 years ago, after the passing of the founding father, Buddha Gotama.

The teachings of Buddha is simply advocated for the personal attainment of enlightenment or ‘Nirvana’ in pali text. However, the monks of Burma/Myanmar have been engaging with civil society for the early foundation of the south-east Asia civilization. This author only uses the words such as ‘Buddha’, ‘dhamma’ and ‘monk’ (Sang-gha), instead of the Buddhist religion.

A monk crosses the Sangkhale River on the wooden bridge.
A monk crosses the Sangkhale River on the Mon wooden bridge.
The word ‘pari-yatti’, in Pali could be translated as a guidance to the teaching of the Buddha rather than a specific religion to each race, region and place. Senior monks led by the formal institution of State Sang-gha Council (State Sang-gha Nayaka) are appointed by the nine institutions (Gine – koe – gine, in Burmese) for the administration of the Buddha’s teaching and practicing (meditation) in the country. The formal guidance of the State Sang-gha Council should not be ignored under the current manual.

Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnects and conditions the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. A monk regardless of age and gender is obliged to seek a peaceful life thought out in meditating as a daily routine either by self-determination or in a designed monastery in the forest. A student of Buddhist teachings S. N Goena, the pioneer Vipassana teacher to the western world reflected on the principle of living in a peaceful way to one’s self and others in day-to-day life.

The first monks arrived to the lower lands of Burma (as known as – Remonyadeca) in early 500 BC, or after the eight years of the Buddha’s enlightenment to Suvana –bhumi, the golden land of the people in the lower lands of current Burma. The Mon kings and royal families offered alarm to the Buddha and his follower monks. Nine hundred years after the Buddha’s passing, the first Mon/Pali text was translated for the students of the Buddha’s dhamma or monks. According to Rev. Palita, a Mon monk scholar and historian, Mahatera Buddhagosa was the first student monk whom learned the Pariyatti text from Sri Lanka. She returned to Remonyadeca, the capital city of the Mon people when he wrote the text from Pali (Magadha text) to Mon language.

The teachings of the Buddha was formally offered to the monks and laypeople in early 7th A.D but the flourishing of the teachings spread to upper and central Burma in late 11th A.D. By the late, 15th and early 16th A.D, the Burmese text were successfully translated and printed for the formal teaching to a novice, monk and layperson. In fact, the Burman (Bah-ma race) were occupied fully by Pali text and the teachings of the Buddha’s dhamma thought to be of assistance to the Mon, Sri Lanka and Pyu’s scholars. The role of monks in the early civilizations of Burma were formally appointed by the Kings or Queens in each era. It was formally approved by the Privy Council for the formation of the Monk’s Supreme Council in the late 17th A.D, after the dying powers of the King in Buddha’s teaching institution. The last Monk Scholar, The Venerable Ledi Sayadaw (1846 – 1923) was one of those among the Buddhist scholars who published a Burmese text for the laypeople and students.

A Buddhist dominated society, Burma was despaired in the late 18th A.D after the British invaded the country, only to regain its liberation (independence) in the mid 19th A.D (4th January 1948). Buddhist monks and laymen formed their first association under British rule, calling it the ‘Young Man Buddhist Association’ in Rangoon (Yangon) in early 1920 but the united front from this association finally forced the British to leave the country after twenty years of social, cultural and political campaigning for greater liberation of the Buddhist society under Christian oppression. Racial and religious conflicts have been deepening in the country for over 70 years, even after the country gained independence. Nationalist monks and laypeople hold the view that non–Buddhist social, cultural and political forces should be contained or marginalised when it threatens local social, cultural and community norms. News of Burma has been spread to all over the world by Time Magazine, Washington Post, CNN and other global media outlets. However, the foundation of the teaching and learning of the Buddha’s dhamma have been mainly practiced in the country except by a proportion of the nationalist monks and laypeople engaging with political affairs directly or indirectly at large.

Monday, 09 January 2017, AFP reported that ”hardline Buddhist nationalists stopped a Muslim religious ceremony in Yangon, yesterday, witnesses and organisers said, as religious tensions continue to summer amid a bloody military campaign in northern Rakhine State”. Dozens of people, led by a handful of monks, marched to Yangon’s YMCA to shut down a service marking the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Buddhist hardliners have sought to restrict Muslim worship in recent years, and last year saw prayer halls ransacked in Bago Region and in Hpakant, Kachin State. Muslim communities have also felt pressure over observing traditional ceremonies, such as the ritual slaughter of cattle during the Eid al-Adha festival. According to the State Counsellor’s Office Information Committee, 19 Muslim villagers have been killed by violent attackers since October 4. Many of the deceased were found to have previously cooperated with government officials investigating the attacks on border guard posts. The story of racial violence portrays that nationalist Buddhist monks and laypeople have committed human rights abuses by the standard set under the universal declaration of human rights charter. On 29 January, an armed man by name of U Kyi Lin killed U Ko Ni, a Muslim legal scholar in Yangon International Airport. The story shocked the world.

The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace, this is the purpose of a monk or a layperson of Buddhist faith as the ultimate goal for life beyond social, cultural and political activities.

The story of the monk from Burma/Myanmar over the past ten years has been displayed to the world as terror or violence to the non-Buddhist community. The Buddha’s students (the monks) are divided into different discipline as history revealed 2500 years ago, after the passing of the founding father, Buddha Gotama based on its tradition and leadership of the Buddhist institution in each community.

A proportion of Buddhist – nationalist monks or laypeople may be engaging in racial conflict, violence and abuse to other human beings. However, the ultimate goal of a traditional Buddhist monk or layman is that he, or she, seeks the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the extinction of suffering and the truth to the path leading to the extinction of suffering. It is known as the four noble truths in the pali text. A layman Buddhist meditation teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899 – 9971) paved the way to the western scholar, reader and meditation student after his own student, S. N. Goenka opened over 360 meditation courses around the world by the end of 1991 a few years before he passed away.

Past events must be observed with the full information sourced. A monk is a noble being, as placed at the third higher order in the spiritual world. The story of our monks and laypeople shouldn’t be based on the truths of our own fate but rather the rules that the Buddha outlined for us must be observed unconditionally. After learning over 20-30 years of Pariyatti (the teaching of the Buddha), our monks and laypeople will be enjoy at least peace within when we observe our own rules and our own principles of self-awareness.

We only engage with social, cultural and political affairs when the teaching of the Buddha is invited to us. The monk is part of civil society for peace, harmony and liberation for all forms of suffering internally, emotionally and nationally. This is the story that I am willing to share with the western world.

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