Saturday, March 1, 2008

Compassionate Confrontation

CULTURE, Irrawaddy Magazine, MARCH, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.3

Compassionate Confrontation


For the Buddhist principle of loving-kindness to work in the world of Burmese politics, it must be combined with skillful means

In “The Eight Victories of Buddha,” a Burmese song that extols the Enlightened one’s conquest of ill will and anger through metta, or loving-kindness, we learn how Angulimala, a legendary psychopath of Buddhist lore, was literally stopped in his tracks by compassion.

Angulimala was a ruthless killer who was about to slay his mother to complete his garland of 1,000 fingers (each one taken from a different victim), until the Buddha stepped in to prevent this act of matricide, which would have condemned Angulimala to millennia in hell. Enraged, the mass murderer turned his fury on the Buddha.

Even with his formidable speed, however, Angulimala could not overtake his new nemesis. He ran at him like the madman he was, but still could not catch the Buddha, who simply walked on, calm and serene.

Exhausted and furious at his failure, Angulimala screamed at the Buddha to stop. In a quiet voice, the Buddha told his would-be attacker that he had already stopped—he had stopped killing and harming living beings, and now it was time for him, Angulimala, to do likewise.

Angulimala was so struck by these words that there and then he threw away his weapons and became a disciple of the Buddha.

This dramatic tale is familiar to almost every Burmese Buddhist as an illustration of the power of metta, the first of the four brahma vihara (byama so in Burmese), the “heavenly abodes” or divine states of mind. It is also the most powerful, since it supports the other three—compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Metta, usually rendered as “loving-kindness” in English, is a strong wish for the well-being and happiness of all living things. A mind with metta is inclusive and nondiscriminatory and has the power to transform any situation. This is what the Buddha taught and exemplified.

As the Burmese monks who participated in last September’s protests demonstrated, metta is not an attitude of passive acquiescence. Metta does not accept evil, but confronts it directly with a force that is its exact opposite.

In times of trouble, the revered Sangha, or community of monks, cannot merely insulate itself from the suffering of ordinary people. The monks who protested in Burma showed that they are not just peace lovers, but peacemakers. They did not stop at praying for the benefit of the Burmese people, but took to the streets to oppose the malice manifested in the exclusionary politics of military domination.

Monks—from Kachin State in the north to Mon State in the south, and from Arakan State in the west to Karen State in the east—chanted the “Metta Sutta”, the discourse on loving-kindness, as they marched through the streets in the thousands. As growing numbers of ordinary citizens joined them, they invoked the words of the Buddha: “May you be free from all danger. May your anger cease. May your heart and mind enjoy peace and serenity.”

Aung San Suu Kyi once observed that without metta, it can be difficult to achieve freedom from fear: “If there is a lack of metta, it may be a lack in yourself or in those around you, so you feel insecure. And insecurity leads to fear.”

And fear, all too often, leads to violence. The regime clearly saw the “metta movement” as a threat to their hold on power and reacted with deadly force, killing dozens of protestors and imprisoning hundreds of others. They even raided several monasteries in their efforts to eradicate the movement.

But the leaders of the movement remain unbowed in spirit. U Gambira, one of the monks who spearheaded last September’s uprising, once told this author that Burma’s monks would continue their struggle to uphold the Dhamma for the sake of the people, no matter what the consequences for themselves. Since then, U Gambira has joined countless others in Burma’s gulag.

Other monks inside Burma have vowed to honor U Gambira’s pledge. Although they realize their movement has lost much of its momentum since the regime’s crackdown, they insist that it remains their duty to bring the ethics of metta back into Burmese politics. Failing to do so, they say, would be a betrayal of the truth of the Dhamma propounded by the Buddha.

Of course, conviction alone will not achieve victory in the struggle between metta and military might. Wisdom is also needed.

The Buddha’s teachings emphasize the need to balance metta with wisdom. Both are essential qualities in a leader, who must make decisions for the benefit of all.

While wisdom identifies the ultimate good towards which we must strive, as well as the means of achieving this goal, metta provides the energizing strength needed to help us realize our highest aspirations.

Buddhists sometimes refer to upaya, or skillful means, when considering which actions to take. This concept is more closely associated with Mahayana Buddhism than with the Theravada tradition which prevails in Burma, but it is also a part of the Burmese cultural lexicon. Under the principle of upaya, a Buddhist practitioner may use any means necessary to help ease people’s suffering and introduce them to the Dhamma.

Although the politics of compassionate confrontation is based on persuasion rather than coercion, the Burmese metta movement may want to apply this principle of upaya, so that when they say to the modern Angulimalas in the military regime, “It is time for you to stop,” they will listen.

Min Zin is a US-based Burmese journalist.

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