An abbot at a Buddhist temple in Bangladesh has a very simple reason for helping the Rohingya Muslims who fled for dear life from the atrocities they faced in Myanmar.
“The Buddha teaches compassion for all beings,” Sri Chayotisen Bhikkhu, the abbot of Rankut monastery, told Voice TV reporter Pannika Vanich. Then he recited to her the compassion prayer “Sabbe Satta Sukhi Hontu” that Buddhists know by heart. Yet many still let racist nationalism come before basic humanity.
“The Rohingya are Muslims. But above all, they are humans like all of us,” said the abbot. “The Buddha teaches we should be kind to all beings. So we’re helping the Rohingya.”
Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Rankut is a Theravada Buddhist temple in the town of Ramu where monks and Buddhist followers have been helping the dejected refugees fleeing the Myanmar violence reach the cramped, squalid Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar.
“What they’re doing to the Rohingya is atrocious,” said Prachun Barua, a Buddhist volunteer. “It’s a great sin for any Buddhist to do it. Those murderers definitely have no religion.”
This piece of news from Voice TV restores my hope in Theravada Buddhism. It reconfirms that what is happening with Myanmar Buddhism and the discrimination against Muslims in other Theravada Buddhist countries is but a tragic straying from the path.
When frenetic Islamophobia and ensuing bloodshed in our region all occur in Theravada Buddhist countries, when clerical authorities condone extremist monks inciting violence, and when their followers respond to the Rohingya’s horrific plight with hate, it is difficult not to wonder if there is something in the Theravada sect that supports oppressive power.
The Theravada sect abides by the old monastic disciplines set during the Buddha’s lifetime while the Mahayana sect allows the rules to be adapted to changing times and new needs. Theravada focuses on an individual’s spiritual purification to end one’s cycles of lifetimes. The Mahayana focuses on compassion in action by using one’s spiritual pursuits to rescue humanity from misery.
Being a Theravada Buddhist in a highly inequitable and hierarchical society, I am more than familiar with the standard response to the suffering of the less fortunate: Their plight results from their karma or bad deeds in past lives. Another refrain is the equanimity advice: Maintain inner calm when there is nothing you can do to help.
Few care that this is a distortion of Buddhism. Karma in Buddhism actually means the power to shape our future by our own actions here and now. And upekkha or equanimity is not about doing nothing. It’s about not being swayed by likes or dislikes in one’s acts of compassion while being aware of the truth of impermanence. Yet, the Thai interpretations of karma and upekkha are of passive resignation, not active change.
Why such narrow religious interpretations which end up perpetuating an oppressive system?
Buddhism teaches that all are equal in spiritual capacity to cleanse the minds of greed, anger and the attachment to “me and mine”. Why is it that Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand are fraught with racism and ethnic discrimination?
According to Vichak Panich, an advocate of Thai Buddhism reform, Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar reflects a dark side of a conservative Theravada Buddhist culture that turns a blind eye to violence against “others”.
“It’s not Theravada Buddhism as I know it. Yet, inevitably it raises questions about certain aspects of Theravada Buddhism which develop in that direction when it has become close to the centre of political power,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
“If Theravada Buddhism is what the Buddha practised, then it is based on simplicity. It sides with the downtrodden without rights and status. It turns its back on worldly powers. Should we then call Theravada Buddhism that embraces social status and worldly powers, which is what going on now, true Theravada Buddhism?
“The problem is not Theravada Buddhism,” he stressed. “The problem is Theravada Buddhism that has power.”
Indeed. The clergies in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand identify themselves with state power that is rooted in racial superiority and ultra-nationalism. As part of predominantly Buddhist societies, they see themselves as the true owners of their homelands and treat other races and creeds as outsiders, even invaders — enemies of the country who must be eradicated in the name of patriotism.
In short, their true religion is not Buddhism, it is racism.
Can ethnic and religious tensions in Thailand become as explosive as in Myanmar and Sri Lanka?
I personally believe it is unlikely, and — ironically enough — we have rogue monks and the corrupt, irrelevant clergy to thank for that.
While monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka still command strong respect and obedience from followers, this is no longer the case here. Decades of rife monastic misconduct and scandals at all levels have resulted in a critical decline of faith and trust in the clergy. So much so that Sangha reform is one area that the military junta used to rally public support when they staged the coup in 2014.
The clergy’s feudalistic hierarchy and autocratic system has made it the most conservative organisation in the country. This obsolete structure is not only unable to cleanse temple corruption, it breeds the disease itself. The public is angry. The clergy is indifferent as monks become wealthy from selling superstition — and temple corruption.
Declining faith is one of the reasons why the clergy’s consistent calls to make Buddhism the national religion to give monks more privileges and perks have always been met with a firm no, both by civilian and military governments.
Subsequently, local monks’ ethnic prejudices carry far less weight with the public and state authorities than their counterparts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The recent defrockment of an anti-Muslim hate preacher, former monk Apichart Punnajanto — though controversial due to the regime’s heavy-handedness — shows the military government is no longer hesitant to use force to stop hate monks from driving a wedge between Buddhists and Muslims in the face of clergy inertia.
The reinstatement of Pol Lt Col Pongporn Pramsaneh, much despised by the clergy for his efforts to clean up temple corruption, as director of the National Office of Buddhism, also shows the clergy has increasingly lost favour with the regime.
In a move to regain credibility, Phra Buddhacharn, a member of the Sangha Supreme Council, has issued an order to monks in 25 provinces under his jurisdiction prohibiting any criticism and behaviour that undermine national security and the nation-religion-monarchy national ideology. Any acts that incite violence are also banned.
Responding to public complaints, the elder also prohibits monks from acting “in deviation of sex at birth”, appearing in inappropriate venues, and using social media improperly.
Phra Promdilok, an elder who oversees monks in Bangkok, has also issued an order to tame widespread commercialisation of Buddhism by prohibiting the sale of amulets and other uses of religious images in all Bangkok temples.
It’s not clear if other members of the Sangha Council will follow suit. Even if they do, it will too be little, too late.
Moreover, telling monks to toe the state line simply endorses a repressive state policy. Punishing transsexuals while ignoring gay predators in the clergy reflects deep conservatism and smacks of misogyny. Concerned only with a “proper” image, the clergy fails to address sexual abuse in the clergy. And by ignoring temple corruption, those orders cannot save the clergy from further decline.
So what can?
Theravada Buddhism takes pride in staying true to the original Sangha. To regain trust, there is no short cut but returning to the original path of the order. This requires a return to a simple monastic life, an egalitarian structure based on years of ordination, not feudal rank; a devotion to spiritual purification, not wealth and power. It requires the moral courage to be on the side of compassion, not hate; of giving, not exploiting. It requires speaking up against injustice, not being its tool.
To be morally independent, the clergy need to be independent of the state which, more often than not, is the biggest oppressor. They need to be free of the state’s ultra-nationalist and racist nationalism in order to give loving kindness to all — including the Rohingya — as the Buddha teaches.
The order for monks to refrain from racist and hate speech does not come from a Buddhist principle of kind speech or compassion for other believers. It comes from the desire to appease the powers-that-be to maintain the status quo.
Power, in short, remains the goal. That’s why even when monks here chant the compassion prayer every day, most remain blind to the sufferings of the powerless, including the Rohingya Muslims.