A Struggle for Authority
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Struggle for Authority

By Gustaaf Houtman Thursday, November 1, 2007

(Page 3 of 4)

Today, after eliminating so heavy-handedly all civil opposition, only monks remain with any sense of organizational independence—resulting in direct conflict. I am not sure how many monks are among those who have been quietly cremated by the regime recently, but The idea that the country can ever be governed or developed by an army so cruel and so out of touch with the people suggest to me that their position is becoming untenable. 

Q: But surely, secular politicians, such as Aung San, never approved of Buddhism as a political instrument?

A: Approving of Buddhism as a political instrument is one thing: understanding by means of Buddhist concepts how disorder arises and order may be established, and what kind of political intervention might be necessary, are another.

To proclaim that Buddhism here serves as a political instrument would be to grossly oversimplify what has been going on. In raising fuel prices to unaffordable levels, the regime has made it impossible for the laity to support Buddhist monastic practice and so has politicised Buddhism.

In his essay on "Various Kinds of Politics," Aung San describes how politics was invented by human beings so as to contain deterioration in the social order caused by the arising of mental defilements and selfish behaviour.

Here elimination of mental defilements by Buddhist practice is simply another way of resolving disorder. Indeed such practice is characterized as prior to politics: so the presence of successfully practicing monks are broadly seen as ensuring necessary conditions for people to respond to political measures. The first king was elected by the people for his good morality, concentration and understanding (indeed he was characterised as a Buddha-to-be), so that he could intervene wisely in any disorder that arises from our conditioned lives in loka or samsara (i.e. by helping contain the worst excesses produced by our mental imperfections that lock us into the cycle of rebirth).

Aung San looked at these notions and ended up defining politics as dealing specifically with loka and samsara, as is commonly done by Burmese speakers and political leaders generally (See, for example, the Burmese biography of Ne Win).

Aung San condemned selfishness in politics (in particular the magical variety of loki pyinya that top army echelons seek today) and was well aware of the critical role of the monastic order in stabilizing society.  This is why Aung San called for monks to preach unity and dispense metta as the 'highest form of politics."

This is indeed what the monks did on this occasion, namely to go out onto the streets reciting the Metta Sutta, sending loving-kindness to everyone, including soldiers. The Buddha recommended reciting the Metta Sutta en masse for situations in which peaceful Buddhist practice is threatened. So what the monks did was not a political protest, but simply a quiet and peaceful assertion of their right to return to the normalcy of their Buddhist practice without interference for the benefit of everyone.

Aung San said that monks work for the benefit of both this mundane existence (loki) and the supramundane (lokuttara), which makes nonsense of the regime’s recent threat against monks "interfering" in the loka affairs of ordinary laity: since their practice is now threatened, they have a perfect right, indeed a duty, to go onto the streets en masse reciting the Metta Sutta.

Q: You often refer to loka. How does this relate to politics?

A: Yes, it takes a narrative shift to understand why the realm of politics should be conceived of in the Burmese vernacular in terms of loka and samsara. Loka refers to conditioned existence in either a particular or a general sense.

The regime has been attempting to legitimate itself within, and demonstrate its control over loka largely by means of force, magic, numerology and the pretence of possessing some superior supernatural agency, which were all condemned by Aung San.

After 1988, the regime sought to play itself up as Buddhist and embarked on reconstructing pagodas all over the country, but particularly in Pagan—an army in defence of a holy land. However, any merit they have built up restoring pagodas has now been undone by the arrest, torture and, seemingly, the killing of monks, which constitute an enormous sin in Burmese society.

Q: You say the current junta has inadvertently politicized the monks by assuming it has a monopoly over loka?

A: Aung San Suu Kyi’s politics is often characterised as Buddhist, which is generally not a point made in relation to Aung San.

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