All Buddhists Must Speak Out About Myanmar… Right?

I got an interesting question from one of my patrons over at Pateron and it went like this:

Whenever there is an Islamist terror attack, Muslims are criticized if they do not renounce such actions. Does the Buddhist community have an obligation to speak out about the persecution of the Rohingya people?

In case you’re unaware, the Rohingya people are Muslims who live in Myanmar. According to the Council on Foreign Relations website’s page, The Roshingya Crisis, “Discriminatory policies of Myanmar’s government since the late 1970s have compelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya to flee their homes in the predominantly Buddhist country.” There are numerous reports of violence and some are calling this an example of “ethnic cleansing.” The Myanmar government refuses to grant citizenship to the Roshingya people even though they have been in Myanmar since the 15th century.

A number of prominent Buddhists in the West already have spoken out about this crisis. Alan Senauke of the Berkeley Zen Center wrote an article about it that was published in Lion’s Roar entitled Statement: Myanmar’s Buddhist Leaders Must Take a Stand Against Ethnic Cleansing.

This was an open letter signed by about a zillion prominent Buddhist teachers, mostly from the US. No one asked me to sign, but if they had I would have done so. I suspect the reason I was never asked to sign is because some of the Buddhist teachers who signed the letter don’t consider me legitimate. But that’s another story.

Or maybe it isn’t.

Those Buddhist teachers not considering me legit is meaningless. But the fact that some Buddhists do not consider other Buddhists to be real Buddhists is important.

For example, a lot of Buddhists in Asia do not consider Japanese Buddhism to be real Buddhism. Many of them disagree with the way Japanese Buddhist monks are generally not required to take a vow of celibacy. They say this is evidence that Japanese Buddhism is lax in its discipline. They also don’t like the skeptical nature of Japanese Buddhism, which often tends to doubt things many Buddhists in the rest of Asia take as key points of the faith — such as rebirth/reincarnation or the supernatural powers of Buddha.

Since much of Buddhism came to the West through Japan, and since Westerners tend to be skeptical of such things anyhow, these tendencies have increased in the forms of Buddhism practiced in the US, Europe, and elsewhere outside of Asia.  

So, Buddhists in Myanmar would be likely to react to criticism of them by American and European Buddhists by saying something like, “Who cares? Those people aren’t even real Buddhists anyway!”

Frankly speaking, most Western Buddhists probably feel the same way about the types of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar. Of course, you’d never get them to admit that in a million years. But ask them how they feel in general about Buddhism practiced as a religion with a fixed belief system and a large emphasis on the supernatural. Ask them how they feel about Buddhists who would engage in discrimination against their non-Buddhist neighbors.

The point of saying that Muslims must speak out about Islamic terrorism, or that Buddhists must speak out about Buddhist ethnic cleansing, is that we feel that the “good Muslims” and “good Buddhists” can shame the “bad Muslims” and “bad Buddhists.” Those Muslims and Buddhists are supposed to feel ashamed that their own people do not approve of their actions.

But if you already don’t think of the folks who criticize you as “your own people” then that’s not gonna work. It’s as if a group of Catholics started criticizing the actions of some Southern Baptists as being “un-Christian.” Lots of those Southern Baptists already think of Catholics as non-Christians anyhow. The criticism might actually backfire since it might tend to prove to those Southern Baptists that they are right because those non-Christian Catholics hate what they’re doing. There is the same problem in saying that Muslims must speak out about Islamic terrorism. Islam is no more of a single monolithic faith than Christianity or Buddhism.

Of course, another way of looking at the charge that “all Buddhists must speak out” would be to say that people in general need to be aware of this stuff, and Buddhists are more likely than non-Buddhists to be concerned about it, therefore Buddhists ought to take the lead in trying to get more people to be aware of the problem. This makes perfect sense to me. Though I still think we Western Buddhists need to also be mindful of the way our criticism might be perceived.

I’m also uncomfortable with the notion of saying that Buddhists must speak out. The same as I am with the notion that Muslims must speak out, or Christians must speak out, etc. etc. What if the Buddhist in question feels that by speaking out they will only make matters worse? You can’t assume that just because someone doesn’t speak out about some issue it means they don’t care. Maybe they do care very deeply, but they feel that speaking out isn’t the best thing to do. Or maybe they disagree with the specific consensus that others have come to and do not wish to join in, even though they are also deeply concerned.

I mean, not everyone who failed to put on a pink pussy hat and join in the Women’s March last weekend is a misogynist. Maybe they don’t think the organizers of the Women’s March speak for them. Or maybe they just don’t like big crowds and silly hats. Same deal here.

In the end, I think it’s up to individual Buddhists to decide how they feel about matters like what’s going on in Myanmar and then decide how — or even if — they want to express those feelings. It’s not for me to say they must do what I feel that I must do.

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