Buddhism Is Not a Democracy Movement

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Ian Buruma has a Sunday L.A. Times piece boldly asserting that while religious devotion can sometimes provoke violence, it can also "be a force for good." Exhibit A is the Burmese monk protest. I'm not going to quibble with the sentiment, but using Burmese monks as proof of religion's awesome power to do good is really, really weird.

The State Peace and Development Council derives its legitimacy from public support for Buddhism, and in recent years has leaned even more heavily on approving pronouncements from prominent religious officials. Theravada Buddhism is the establishment religion under a repressive military regime. No actual Burma scholars dispute this, as far as I know. Anyone with doubts should check out the military's propaganda paper, which is a dual attempt to showcase the devotion of military officials and advocate peaceful, Buddhist complacency on the part of the Burmese. It adopts the tone of an authoritarian yoga instructor for a reason.

The monks, known as the sangha, regularly accept extravagant and highly publicized gifts from well placed military officials; this is a desperately poor country filled with gilded gold pagodas. The rebuilding of Buddhist shrines can be a public project, with villagers force to participate. Monks have in the past refused to perform ceremonies for NLD members. It's difficult to define complicity when everyone may be acting out of fear, but you can't call a religion that confers legitimacy on a bunch of thugs (and advocates passivism in response) entirely helpful.

Yes, the Burmese monks have a history of peaceful protest, as in 1990 and 1962. But you wouldn't want to define the monks by these protests any more than you would a pope by his opposition to communism. It's rather more complicated than that.

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  1. I suppose that if someone there doesn’t like the way things are, he could be a good little Buddhist and just immolate his little self.

  2. Pointing out the positive force of religion is not the same as condoning everything religious institutions do, just as libertarians would refuse to define capitalism by corporate raiding, exploitation of vulnerable workers, the displacement of labor with capital, etc. Social institutions are always “complicated,” but I find it bizarre and frustrating that libertarians tend to only recognize the complicated realities of the world when it comes to other philosophies and not their own.

    I would also disagree with KH — the pope’s opposition to communism isn’t the ONLY relevant thing about the papacy, but it’s pretty important. Religion is complicated, but I find it odd that KH is tempering enthusiasm about the role of religion in advocating human rights at a time where they HAVE been the leaders of such a positive movement. I suppose we should support global freedom, but only if it’s advocated by drug-using, beer-swilling, free-loving atheistic Americans. Although, again, someone should explain the hypocrisy of so many articles talking about the good of consumerism and then having the stones to criticize “solid gold pagodas.” Are we saying these pagodas were built on the backs of the poor, anymore than was that 60″ flatscreen hanging in someone’s living room?

  3. Are we saying these pagodas were built on the backs of the poor, anymore than was that 60″ flatscreen hanging in someone’s living room?

    oh c’mon now.

    really.

  4. Come on now, really, what? That’s the hypocrisy I’m talking about — all the smooth talking rebel libertarians that can’t see the “complicated” world around them. It’s all good talking about hypocrisy when it’s Democrats or religious fundamentalists, but nobody seems too bothered when it’s libertarian fundamentalism being preached.

  5. Yes, I would make a distinction between an illegitimate government building extravagant religious shrines with money confiscated from the poor and an American buying a nice television.

  6. Where does the notion that the monks are protesting for more democracy come from? The monks joined the latest round of protests after the junta raised fuel prices. With the commoners spending more on gas, there were fewer “alms” to be dropped into the monks begging bowls. The parasite class monks are protesting because the government is getting in the way of their free ride.

  7. …but nobody seems too bothered when it’s libertarian fundamentalism being preached.

    That’s because you’re obviously a half-witted idiot who seems to enjoy putting his ignorance of free-market economics on display for all to see.

  8. Are we saying these pagodas were built on the backs of the poor, anymore than was that 60″ flatscreen hanging in someone’s living room?

    Yes, that’s precisely what “we” are saying, because the pagodas were built on the backs of the poor, and the flatscreen was not.

  9. The only one making an absolutist argument here about religion as a force for good or evil is Howley.

    NYT: Religion is sometimes a force for evil in politics, but it is sometimes a force for good.

    Howley: That’s not true! Religion can be a force for evil in poliitics, too.

  10. NYT: Religion is sometimes a force for evil in politics, but it is sometimes a force for good.

    Howley: That’s not true! Religion can be a force for evil in poliitics, too.

    joe –

    I didn’t get that from what KH said:

    I’m not going to quibble with the sentiment, but using Burmese monks as proof of religion’s awesome power to do good is really, really weird.

    Here’s what I’m seeing:

    NYT: Religion is sometimes a force for evil in politics, but it is sometimes a force for good. These Burmese monks are an example of the latter!

    Howley: Why are you using these Burmese monks as an example of religion doing good? That doesn’t make sense.

  11. The only one making an absolutist argument here about religion as a force for good or evil is Howley.

    NYT: Religion is sometimes a force for evil in politics, but it is sometimes a force for good.

    Howley: That’s not true! Religion can be a force for evil in poliitics, too.

    LOL…yes, joe, I think you nailed it.

    I also noted with amusement that Ms. Howley considers the idea that religion can be used as a force for good to be a “bold assertion”, as if the idea had never even crossed her mind.

  12. I also noted with amusement that Ms. Howley considers the idea that religion can be used as a force for good to be a “bold assertion”, as if the idea had never even crossed her mind.

    Your blog is the Center for Advanced… what, again, Dan? Oh, yes. Sarcasm.

  13. Jake, you’re probably right but this is Reason we’re talking about.

  14. The parasite class monks are protesting because the government is getting in the way of their free ride.

    Wow, parasitic class monks. Illiterate J, would you include ALL religious clergy in that category? Just wondering.

  15. If only America had a popular crypto-religious movement which advocated passive deference to an elite expert class….

    We could call them Democrats.

  16. There are quite a few different sects of Buddhism. Not all are passive. The monk-centerend, Hinayana schools are more easily corrupted by secular power.

    Various Buddhist sects in Japan united with the Shitoist government in World War II, and were instrumental in some of their believers causing hell and destruction in Korea, China, and throughout Asia. Other Buddhist schools protested both the war and the government intrusion into religion, and were persecuted for their efforts.

  17. If only America had a popular crypto-religious movement which advocated passive deference to an elite expert class….

    We could call them Democrats.

    We have an explicitly religious movement we demands passive submission to an elite expert class.

    We call them Republicans.

  18. J sub D:

    (off-topic) How was it like not having a government for 4 hours last night? That would be quite an experience. Don’t tell me you were asleep and was not out actually celebrating!

  19. Jake Boone,

    If you had finished Howley’s argument, you’ll see why I’m right.

    She argues that the Monks cannot be seen as being a positive political force, because of other things they have done to be a negative political force.

  20. I think the argument is “calling the monks a force for good is an overstatement, when what they’re doing is simply helping to clean up the mess they helped make (with innocent people getting killed in the process).”

    At the end of all this, at best, the monks have returned their karma from negative numbers (from propping up the government) to a zero state (from helping get rid of it again). Of course, that’s without counting the impoverished, maimed, and dead between now and then.

  21. This piece seems to take a very weird monolithic and zero-sum view of the situation. First of all, there are a variety of different factions within the Burmese religious institution. It’s true that many senior religious officials have been involved in legitimizing the regime through the acceptance of gifts, etc. Do you really think that those are the same monks who were leading protests in the streets last week, or who have previously organized in protest? There’s a dynamic between junior and senior clergy, rural and urban monks, etc. that is not immediately visible to the casual observer; a similar situation exists in Cambodia where “the sangha” is simultaneously involved in shoring up an oppressive regime through the same forms of legitimization taking place in Burma, protesting government corruption, running AIDS hospices for the dying, and condemning AIDS victims as suffering because of their own karma.

    Secondly, I don’t see how you can really see the corruption that is being discussed as countering or being balanced out by the monks recent actions. Can religion be a force for good? Sure- it happened last week when the Burmese monks made use of their respected position in society to offer lay followers some measure of protection in protesting an illegal, tyrannical regime. The fact that corruption existed in the sangha as well during last week, last month, or the last century doesn’t change the fact that what happened last week was clearly a case of a religious organization using its influence to try and improve the lives of a people living under a despotic military regime. We’re not revoking Mother Theresa’s Nobel prize because the Catholic Church helped the Nazis; why should we discount the contributions of the monks who lead last week’s protest because corrupt elements also exist within the Burmese sangha?

  22. I’m paraphrasing here. If someqne recalls the qriginal quote and who coined it, I’d appreciate your sharing.

    It is not difficult to convince an evil man do evil. It takes religion to convince a good man to do evil.

    I’d add “a great cause” (communinism, nationalism, etc.) to religion here.

  23. How was it like not having a government for 4 hours last night?

    I slept right through it, but I awoke feeling unusually well rested.

  24. I slept right through it, but I awoke feeling unusually well rested.

    Good to hear that ­čśë

  25. nobody seems too bothered when it’s libertarian fundamentalism being preached.

    I’m not. Libertarian fundamentalism is pretty much a toothless lion, accept for the odd shooting of insane mountain men. A libertarian fundamentalist who seizes power only to divolve it back to the people is unlikely. A rhetorician who speaks about libertarian values in an effort to obtain power, only to renege is a much more likely scenario (see the Republican party).

    In a sense a libertarian fundamentalist leader is as unlikely as a philosopher king.

    Libertarianism is the manna of the party that’s out of power. It’s also the last resort of rogues who believe local government will protect their ability to disinfranchise people (or some other abuse) where the federal government has thwarted them. Mostly, they’re just seeking to protect their power in a way that’s fundamentally opposed to liberty.

  26. The modern American equivalent of gold-domed padogas wouldn’t bee 60” plasma TVs which were freely bought as a voluntary transaction, built by people being paid for their time and labor.

    The correct analogy would be to a giant corporate welfare stadium. A huge complex built by confiscated (“tax”) money on the land of the poor through eminent domain.

  27. The division of the Burmese military that shot at these monks was made up from a non-Buddhist ethnic minority with long history of persecution by Buddhists. It appears that the military intentionally placed this particular unit there because unlike Buddhist soldiers they do not hesitate to kill monks. (And just so you know that I’m not anti-Buddhist: I am an atheistic Buddhist of Asian descent.)

  28. I am an atheistic Buddhist of Asian descent.

    Overheard in a Belfast pub –

    1st speaker – “I’m an atheist.”
    2nd speaker – “Yes, but are you a catholic atheist or a protestant atheist?”

  29. Cesar, the stadium b/s is a MUCH better analogy.

  30. Kerry Howley — perhaps you should reread your link about the “solid gold pagodas” — they’re gilded. All the mined gold existing in the entire world wouldn’t be enough to build a solid gold pagoda of that size.

  31. nobody seems too bothered when it’s libertarian fundamentalism being preached.

    Care to define “libertarian fundamentalism”? Do you mean it as someone who likes liberty a bit too much for your tastes, someone who you feel needs a taste of the whip to bring them back into line?

  32. Cesar, the stadium b/s is a MUCH better analogy.

    Not really, because publicly funded stadia are infrastructure built with the consent of the public.

  33. Whoops, thanks prolefeed.

  34. Officially Religious Persons – priests, monks, imams, whatever – in politics always make me nervous.

    When they are supporting (or supported by) the government, they generally act oppressively.

    When they are opposing the government, they tend to be highly interventionist, demanding that the government “do something”.

    I applaud the Burmese monks’ opposition to the junta, but only insofar as they are individuals opposed to repression. I would be concerned if they had any interest in shaping a post-junta government.

  35. Does all this portend the rise of Buddhofascism?

  36. “We’re not revoking Mother Theresa’s Nobel prize because the Catholic Church helped the Nazis . . .”

    Those crafty Catholics! The Nazis were under the impression that their interests were adverse to the interests of the Catholic Church given the Pope’s anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (http://tinyurl.com/cr0f), the preaching of neo-paganism in the SS and Hitler Youth, and the publication by Nazi authors of anti-Catholic cartoons (https://reason.com/blog/show/122728.html#795807) and anti-Catholic books (http://tinyurl.com/38wy7e). Yet all this time, unbeknownst to the Nazis themselves, the Church was on their side!

  37. Does all this portend the rise of Buddhofascism?

    Will it be related to Zensunni wanderers?

  38. You’re right Dan T. A temple is where the faithful go to worship that which does not measurably affect their lives. In Myanmar (Burma) they are funded by the government with money forcibly extracted from the citizens. OTOH, stadia in the US are different because ???

  39. thoreau,

    What are you, some sort of Fremen apologist?

  40. In Myanmar (Burma) they are funded by the government with money forcibly extracted from the citizens. OTOH, stadia in the US are different because ???

    Because when a city, for example, decides to build a stadium, the decision is made by leaders elected by the residents of that city. Those leaders are entrusted to decide how much tax to charge and what to do with that revenue. Often times, cities decide that they want to invest in infrastructure such as arenas and stadiums – top cities understand that they need to have a place where large numbers of people can gather to attend cultural events.

  41. And which stadiums allow large numbers of people to gather without paying to get in? And who gets this revenue? Surely the taxpayers?

  42. DAN T. AGAIN SPEAKS THE TRUTH. SOON, AFTER THE URKOBOLD BECOMES THE SOLE ELECTED OFFICIAL OF TAINTSVILLE, FLORIDA, HE WILL DECIDE TO SPEND THE CITIZENS’ TAX DOLLARS ON A COLOSSAL STATUE OF THE URKOBOLD. FOR THE PEOPLE.

  43. And which stadiums allow large numbers of people to gather without paying to get in? And who gets this revenue? Surely the taxpayers?

    Hey, Dan T. beleives in unfettered democracy. Let’s all vote to take money from, or disenfranchise the ________________.

  44. I have a cunning plan.

  45. It’s difficult to define complicity when everyone may be acting out of fear, but you can’t call a religion that confers legitimacy on a bunch of thugs (and advocates passivism in response) entirely helpful.

    Jesus, this is the quote of the year, on this blog, at this moment.

    Because when a city, for example, decides to build a stadium, the decision is made by leaders elected by the residents of that city.

    Mmm, not so fast, Dan T. A measure was brought up before the people because the leaders didn’t trust themselves to spend the money without explicit approval of the people. To wit:

    On March 30, 1994, King County executive, Gary Locke, got nervous about the Mariners. He figured if he didn’t help them build a new stadium, they would move on to greener pastures, even though Seattle is pretty green. The task force recommended that the public help fund the stadium and suggest a sales tax increase of 0.1%. In September 1995, this measure was voted down. On October 14, 1995, a special session of the Washington State legislature was called and approved a new funding package. This deal consisted of a credit against state sales tax, Washington Lottery funds, a 0.3% restaurant and bar tax, special license plates, and a stadium admission tax. The King County Council voted to approve this measure and created the Public Facilities District which would oversee construction. On March 8, 1997, construction officially began and the park opened July 15, 1999.

    So, what we gots here is a leadership which wanted explicit approval from the public, and when they didn’t get it, they said “eff you beatches, we’re gonna do it anyway”. I guess that’s “leadership”.

  46. “…top cities understand that they need to have a place where large numbers of people can gather to attend cultural events.”

    Nuremburg had one of those.

  47. Speaking as a Seattleite, you may notice that the next team that tried the stadium trick, the Seattle Supersonics, got shut down hard.

    And what about the monks? Isn’t there something more positive to be said about a bunch of people getting shot down for a peaceful demonstration of their liberties than “they’re not all that?”

    Could we at least wait until the generals have finished clubbing them to death before we start talking smack about them?

  48. The government there sucks so much that I support the monks even if any revolution sponsored by them would result in a government that sucks only somewhat less.

    That goes for Burma as well as for Seattle ?.

  49. top cities understand that they need to have a place where large numbers of people can gather to attend cultural events.

    Yep, Ford Field, since opening, has hosted, Eminem, The Rolling Stones, Louis Farrakhan, Wrestlemania and the Detroit Lions, among some other things too insipid to remember. With the POSSIBLE exception of the Stones, I don’t detect a lot of culture here. Meanwhile, the publicly owned Pontiac Silverdome and Tiger Stadium remain without tenants. Tiger Stadium is a rotting eyesore that makes me ill every time I see it.

  50. Speaking as a Seattleite, you may notice that the next team that tried the stadium trick, the Seattle Supersonics, got shut down hard.

    Dannyk, it ain’t over yet. There’s always time for another “special” session.

    And frankly, had the Sonics done it as opposed to the Mariner’s, it would have been much cheaper. Basketball stadiums cost less than baseball stadiums with retracting roofs.

  51. Yep, Ford Field, since opening, has hosted, Eminem, The Rolling Stones, Louis Farrakhan, Wrestlemania and the Detroit Lions, among some other things too insipid to remember. With the POSSIBLE exception of the Stones, I don’t detect a lot of culture here.

    Those are all cultural events (with the possible exception of Farrakhan which might fall under a different classification). Just because something is not your cup of tea doesn’t mean that others aren’t able to enjoy it.

  52. Dan T | October 1, 2007, 4:46pm | #

    well spake…

    [keed keed]

  53. Mad Max- exactly my point. The same church that (in some cases) spoke out against the Nazis went on to help them escape Europe during the post-war era. So were they good or bad? The answer is it’s a stupid question- you can’t make such sweeping generalizations about a sprawling, multi-national organization over the course of two decades.

    Just the same, the question “is Buddhism (or specifically the monastic institution) a positive or negative force in Burma” is ridiculous- it depends on who you ask, when, and about what. Buddhism helps create social cohesion in Burma. That’s good. But support for Buddhist institutions helps justify a tyrannical regime. That’s bad. Monks helped lead the campaign for independence from the British. That’s good. But Burmese governments have often preferred lavish spending on Buddhist monuments to investing in infrastructure and civil works. That’s bad. Any claim to be able to assemble these disparate anecdotes and come out with some wonderful sum that concisely expresses whether or not religion is a positive or negative force in Burma (or another country) is bizarre. One might as well ask whether language or tool use encouraged liberty or tyranny.

  54. “51% of the people voted to kick the puppies of the other 49%? Oh well, I guess it must be right, I mean THEY VOTED FOR IT!”

  55. How was it like not having a government for 4 hours last night? That would be quite an experience.

    It was like staying at a Holiday Inn Express.

  56. Blaming the Burmese dictators on Buddhism or crediting for the current revolt would be like blaming (or crediting) electricity for the Bush administration. Burmese life is largely centered around Buddhism, very little for good or ill is without its influence.

    And before people get too upset about the gilded pavilion: gold is a lot cheaper in Burma than elsewhere, and putting a postage-sized piece of gold on a stupa (a typical bit of devotion for your average Burmese) costs less than a dime. When they really want to show devotion, they cover the floor of a temple with … linoleum.

    And if this gives you any smart ideas about arbitrage, be aware the Golden Triangle already has a large number of well-organized and well-armed smugglers.

  57. Buddhism Is Not a Democracy Movement

    Thank god* someone finally fucking said it.

    *there is no god.

  58. “Mad Max- exactly my point. The same church that (in some cases) spoke out against the Nazis went on to help them escape Europe during the post-war era.”

    I had at first believed that you had made a much broader claim about the Church helping the Nazix. If you’re just referring to those Nazis who got smuggled out of Europe (after taking refuge in Church buildings), then I confess I am not familiar with all the details. Perhaps this is analogous to the pre-eighteenth practice of giving sanctuary to criminals in holy places. It’s specifically analogous to the English practice of giving sanctuary to capital offenders in exchange for their leaving the country (just as these Nazi fugitives left for other continents). See

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13430a.htm

  59. “pre-eighteenth” should read “pre-eighteenth century”

  60. If you’re interested, the basics of the post-war smuggling operation are covered fairly well by this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_line

  61. Clay Collier,

    Thank you for that very interesting article.

    The clerics involved in these operations may have had impure motives – I don’t know. The same may be said of U.S. intelligence officers who assisted in these operations.

    The article mentions that the Americans may have helped the escape of alleged war-criminals from Communist clutches because of uneasiness about the quality of Communist “justice’ (an oxymore if ever there was one). There’s an allusion to Operation Keelhaul, where the U.S. sent POWs to Stalin to be murdered, and the American desire to minimize that sort of thing.

    If the Americans could have had humanitarian motives, the possibility of such motives on the part of Church officials should not be ruled out. Alleged war criminals whose purported crimes took part in then-Communist territory couldn’t be brought to justice, because there was no justice to bring them to – only the judicial lynchings organized by Communist authorities. If ever there was justification for the Church invoking de facto sanctuary to spare these people rigged trials and executions, this would be such a case.

    Not to deny that this was abused – I’m sure there were some legitimate courts in which some of the alleged war criminals could have been tried.

  62. Looking over my last response, I realize that I have made too many concessions to the spirit of political correcness. Why do I assume that there were impartial tribunals available to try these alleged war criminals who were being sought by the Communists? Those accused of atrocities against Jews could have been tried in Israel, but the Croatian fugitives assisted by Church officials were primarily accused of crimes against Serbs, not Jews. The Communist government of Yugoslavia was seeking them. Other fugitives were being sought by the Communist governments of the USSR, Poland, etc.

    Why on earth should I be apologetic about Church officials (and American intelligence agents) shielding these fugitives from Communist lynch mobs? If I were in Alabama in the 1890s, and a lynch mob demanded that I turn over a black person accused of murder, I pray I would have the courage to refuse, regardless of whether the black person was guilty or not. The key principle is not to surrender to lynch mobs.

  63. To be sure the first Republic was in Nepal right before the Buddha’s time. The Democratic Sangha would appeal the Buddha who like the republic claied no authoritative powers.

    There are many parallels between Buddhism and Jefferson’s Republic. I have a chapter on this in my book ‘Father and Son, East is West. Buddhist sources to Christianity’

    Such as Jefferson’s line in the Declaration of Independence stating that laws should not be changed for transient causes. The original reads:

    So long, O bhikkhus, as the brethren hold full and frequent assemblies, meeting in concord, rising in concord, and attending in concord to the affairs of the Sangha; so long as they, O bhikkhus, do not abrogate that which experience has proved to be good, and introduce nothing except such things as have been carefully tested.(Gospel of Buddha)

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