“Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops killed 10 Rohingya men”

That is the start of the recent Reuters investigative story, released late last week. Two of the journalists involved spent months in prison for their work, a testament to the cost of seeking out truth in this still quite brutal military dictatorship (with its veneer of democratic rule).

“At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers” according to the Reuters story, which “draws for the first time on interviews with Buddhist villagers who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims.”

To many American Buddhists who are unaware of the fraught history of Buddhism in general and that of Burma/Myanmar of the last 75 years, this may come as a shock. Indeed, nearly every time I teach Buddhism, this issue is raised: if the first precept of Buddhist lay practice is to avoid killing, how do they [Burmese Buddhists] do this?

Responses to Burma Killing

A number of strategies might be used to answer this. One employed by many, both in Asia and outside of it, is to deem these murderous Buddhists as non-Buddhists. “No real Buddhist would ever do that.” This strategy is old and popular enough that it has it’s own place in the list of logical fallacies, called “No true Scotsman.” Religious practitioners and scholars wrangle deeply about just what makes a person a “Buddhist,” so it is fair to say that it’s a contested category. How about a young Burmese soldier who was educated by monks, taught the basics of Buddhism and its practice, but never really took it seriously and is now happy to take part in the killing of Rohingya? Is he a Buddhist? How about the Westerner who took part enthusiastically in college, joining a local Shambala, Triratna, Zen, or Vipassana group for weekly gatherings but slowly losing interest and participation and now, ten years later, has no particular Buddhist practice? Is she a Buddhist?

Other strategies can be more difficult to unravel. Denial is common enough. One can dismiss this as “fake news” and simply ignore it – although the cognitive dissonance of seeing stories like this year after year after year would hopefully sink in and lead to a reappraisal of what is real and what is fake news. Deflection is similar, thinking there must be more to the story. Indeed, there often is, but is there possibly enough to outweigh the importance of the story itself? Doubt can be useful as a means for digging deeper into the situation, and presenting one’s new findings and understandings to others. Bud doubt is malignant when it is offered only to stop discussion and investigation.

The Shwedagon Pagoda, copyright Justin Whitaker 2011

A third direction one can take is to see and accept the ambiguity of Buddhist expressions of their religion (or philosophy, if that is how they wish to take it). This can be difficult for Westerners converting to Buddhism (and other religions), as there seems to be a phenomenon of new converts to try t0 “be the best” version of whatever their religion prescribes. I encountered this myself when I had the stark realization that my first meditation teacher owned a laptop: this was a machine. (imagine voice of outrage) Made in CHINA! Perhaps by CHILDREN! And at what cost to the environment! And he calls himself a Buddhist! (end mock voice of outrage)

It seems to me that this third way is best. But it takes a bit of “letting go” of idealized visions of Buddhism, or at least Buddhists. Buddhists may all – or nearly all – affirm the lofty ideals of the 5 precepts or the bodhisattva vows or the lengthy lists of rules for monk and nuns. However, many fail in one way or another and this, to me, is a sign of a struggling Buddhist, which is most Buddhists. It is not a justification for excommunication (or being deemed ‘non-Buddhist’ by whatever self-appointed authorities happen to be at hand).

Appropriate Action

Responding appropriately to this ongoing tragedy presents difficulties. On the one hand we may fall into the extreme of thinking this problem rests fully on our shoulders and that we must. act. now. And everyone else must. Now. I cannot say this kind of enthusiasm is completely useless, but it does burn energy quickly and leads to burn-out just as fast. It also has the potential to create the kind of flame and friction that hurts others who would be sympathetic and even helpful.

On the other hand, one can see their place in the universe of things as too tiny, too helpless and hopeless. Here, everything simply overwhelms. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle blast a constant stream of images of violence, talking heads yelling at one another, dire predictions by pundits, meandering half-answers by politicians, sympathy from celebrities, and on and on and on. With all of these people apparently confused or at least in sharp disagreement, it is hard to know what the average person can do. It’s easy to abandon responsibility to the activist musicians or Bill Gates or whoever our hero-politician is today.

Somewhere in the middle of these lies an acknowledgement and appreciation of our finitude and yet an equal acknowledgement and appreciation of our ability to act.

The Buddha’s ethical teachings stress intention, time and again, as well as seeing clearly one’s own mind and experience. Outcomes or consequences are often far too complex and beyond our control and as far as we know, the Buddha never suggested any kind of calculous for best results of one’s actions. A discourse the Buddha gave to his son Rahula (MN 61), when he was 7, comes close. But intention, or good will, alone is not enough. As Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

According to the Buddhist outlook, goodness of will must be translated into concrete courses of action. It must be regulated by specific principles of right conduct, principles which, though flexible in their application, possess normative validity independently of any historical culture or existing scheme of values, entirely by virtue of their relation to a universal law of moral retribution and their place in the timeless path of practice leading to deliverance from suffering and the samsaric round.

Bodhi later adds:

Every moment of morally significant action, therefore, confronts us with the call for a decision, with the necessity for choice. Choice must work within the gamut of options open to the will, and these options, despite their great differences of qualitative character, necessarily fall into one of two classes according to their ethical nature — into the wholesome or the unwholesome. The one leads to progress, the other to decline.

Thence progress or decline depends entirely upon our choice, and not upon any external agency whether conceived in spiritualistic or materialistic garb.

Or again, each moment of action may be compared to a crossroad at which we stand, a forked road one side of which leads to a city of bliss and the other to a swampland of misery and despair. The two roads stand, fixed and silent, awaiting our choice, and only our decision determines whether we shall reach the one destination or the other.

In a sense it really is that simple. Of course just how you act will be complex and completely unique to your own circumstances. You can read more about ways to act from my recent post on Buddhists supporting the Rohingya. You can read and share posts like this with friends still actively caught in denial. You can support teachers and organizations urging awareness and action, including Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Jack Kornfield, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Pema Chödrön, Joseph Goldstein, and about two hundred others. Check out this Burma Task Force document (.pdf) with calls to action for this month and March.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take action. Perhaps that action is a break for self-care. Perhaps it is a small but meaningful contribution to organizations bringing change. Or forming a small circle of friends to discuss and work on local solutions to similar issues. Really, the options are endless.

Start with something small, move forward from there.

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