What’s Up With … the Buddist Monks in Myanmar?

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(RNS) Pictures of Buddhist monks shaking their fists at riot police in Myanmar (formerly Burma) have landed on the front pages of U.S. newspapers and scrambled some Western stereotypes. These are not the blissed-out meditators of America’s imagination. Generally pacifistic, but far from passive, Buddhists have a long history of social activism in Asia. Monks held court with ancient Tibetan kings, and in Japan, lay Soka Gakkai Buddhists bankrolled their own political party. “I think we misperceive Buddhism as a sort of stereotypically quietistic and world-renouncing religion, which has never been the case,” said Donald K. Swearer, a visiting professor of Buddhist studies at Harvard Divinity School. In Myanmar, many young men join the monkhood, which counts some 400,000 members, for a short time and maintain close ties to mainstream society. As society’s moral exemplars, they work to alleviate the suffering of others. That’s why they took to the streets in droves last month to protest rising fuel prices. Dissident groups in Myanmar say some 200 protesters have been killed, according to The Associated Press, and more than 4,000 have been rounded up and imprisoned. When Buddhism was imported to the the West, Americans favored a more individualized Buddhism, concentrating on meditation and personal discipline. The rising profiles of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn have sparked a more socially engaged Buddhism in the West. The California-based Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which works on a host of causes, including an end to the war in Iraq, now counts 30 chapters and 4,000 members. KRE/JM END RNS

Editors: RNS-WHATS-UP is a new occasional feature by Religion News Service explaining the news behind the news.

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