I was transfixed by the news from Rangoon in September — pictures and headlines juxtaposing the gentlest of traditions and the harshest of regimes. But as often happens when religion enters the headlines, the spiritual and intellectual content of Burmese Buddhism was only briefly touched upon, and was then quickly subsumed by political analysis. The news from Burma has now yielded to a more predictable flow of interviews with people who've been tortured, imprisoned, and dispossessed. That is part of the reality of what is happening, but it does not help us understand what brought those monks onto the streets and what Buddhism means to the people there.
After some searching, I found a trusted guide through those questions. Ingrid Jordt is a Harvard-trained anthropologist who spent several years in Burma as an ordained nun in a large central monastery for meditation. The Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha was founded by Burma's first prime minister, U Nu, who sought to build a modern nation state along Buddhist lines after independence from the British Empire. Ingrid Jordt later befriended U Nu, and gained access to government and religious leaders when she conducted anthropological field work. She was in Burma on the eve of the last round of popular uprisings in 1988. Her Burmese spiritual teacher became a spiritual adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected prime minister in a free election in 1990 but was never allowed by the military to take office.
In a precise and gentle manner that seems perfectly matched to the subject at hand, Ingrid Jordt opens up some of the realities and mysteries of Burmese history, politics, and culture. For example, Buddhism has been at the heart of Burmese culture and governance for two millennia. Yet simply to call Burma a Buddhist nation obscures the syncretistic nature of Burmese spirituality, which always mingled Buddhist insights with animist and tribal practices. Astrology and numerology decisively influenced the actions of both military rulers and student protesters in the 1988 uprising, which led to the massacre of thousands.
At the same time, these protests led to a new embrace of Buddhist ritual on the part of the military regime, which had tried to make an historic break between Burmese culture and Buddhist governance. A Western sensibility catches on this fact and dismisses it as cynical. But Ingrid Jordt insists that even the most hollow religious ritual of the ruling generals has been a testament to the enduring centrality of Buddhism in Burmese life.
The recent history of Burma, as she describes it, is that of a people who have sought to "re-armor" their society from below — without and in spite of their political leaders.
This conversation and the ideas it raises are just another reminder to me that when seeing other peoples and cultures, especially where religion is involved with its intricate ties to human identity, we cannot rely on the ingrained instincts of our eyes, ears, and minds.
Ingrid Jordt is now more cut off from her friends in Burma than ever before; she has become, like most Americans, a remote and ostensibly helpless observer. Yet, from the depths of the spirituality she learned in Burma, she offers insights that might subtly transform the way we consume news of faraway tragedy, in Burma and elsewhere — and how we might respond as empowered citizens of other nations.
The Theravada Buddhism that so defines Burmese culture is intensely focused on mental discipline — drawing ever deeper into the Buddhist straight embrace of reality, its wise acknowledgement of the fact of suffering, and of the transience of all earthly forms. Ingrid Jordt's Burmese spiritual teacher counsels that even the "the four sublime states of mature emotion" — of which compassion is a key — have "near enemies." Sorrow is a near enemy of compassion; anger is a near enemy of righteous indignation. Outrage and sorrow, of course, are common and valid human reactions to the news flow of tragic stories. But untempered sorrow and outrage can lead us to a sense of helplessness that becomes apathy, or to actions that simply perpetuate cycles of violence.
Ingrid Jordt proposes that we ponder this as human beings, as world citizens. How can we hold on to compassion in the face of what is happening in Burma — letting it lead us towards deeper understanding and a renewable, informed activism over time? In this way, perhaps, as the headlines from Burma wane, it need not also disappear from the world's imagination.