Burma: Buddhism and Power
A look inside the spiritual culture of Burma, exploring the meaning of monks taking to the streets there in September, the way in which religion and military rule are intertwined, and how Buddhism remains a force in and beyond the current crisis.
Ingrid Jordt is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, former Buddhist nun, and author of Burma's Mass Lay Meditation Movement.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we’ll explore the inner world of Burmese history, spirituality, and politics. The crisis that began there in September has pitted a military regime against monks and monasteries. Yet even the ruling generals are patrons of these monasteries. Eighty-nine percent of the population is Buddhist and an estimated 3 percent of Burmese males are monks at any given time.
MS. INGRID JORDT: What they’ve tried to do is they’ve tried to morally re-armor their society, you could say, and do this without the government. The government has had to follow, which is why they’ve had to engage in this discourse of virtuous legitimacy in Buddhist terms.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: In September, shaven heads and robes of orange and crimson filled the streets of Rangoon as Buddhist monks marched in defiance of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. This hour, we’ll explore the inner world of Burmese history, spirituality, and politics, what the sight of those monks meant to the Burmese people themselves, how religion and military rule are intertwined, and how Buddhism remains a force in and beyond the current crisis.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Burma — Buddhism and Power.”
Buddhism has been at the heart of Burmese culture and government for centuries. It began to take root as early as the third century B.C.E., merging with animist and tribal traditions in this Southeast Asian land bounded by mountains and sharing borders with both India and China. In the 11th century, the first king of a unified Burma led a flowering of Buddhism in the region.
And after the British colonial occupation of Burma from 1886 to 1948, Prime Minister U Nu attempted to transform his country into a modern, democratic nation-state along Buddhist lines. But the military staged a coup d’état in 1962 and has been in power now for nearly half a century. In that time, the people of this land, once known as the Rice Bowl of Asia, have been vastly impoverished by their own government.
A new round of massive price hikes sparked the September demonstrations by monks. The government responded by killing, imprisoning, or torturing thousands and by emptying monasteries. Yet even the ruling generals and other societal elites are patrons of these monasteries. Eighty-nine percent of the population is Buddhist. And an estimated 3 percent of Burmese males are monks at any given time.
MS. JORDT: What they’ve tried to do is they’ve tried to morally re-armor their society, you could say, and do this without the government. The government has had to follow, which is why they’ve had to engage in this discourse of virtuous legitimacy in Buddhist terms.
MS. TIPPETT: My guest this hour, Ingrid Jordt, has rare perspective on recent events in Burma. She studied anthropology at Harvard, then moved to Burma to study Buddhism. She was ordained and spent several years there as a nun. Her Burmese spiritual teacher now counsels Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected prime minister in a free election in Burma in 1990, though she was never allowed by the military to assume office.
Ingrid Jordt returned to Burma as an anthropological field worker and was there as the previous popular uprising of 1988 came to a head. Along the way, she befriended the legendary post-independence leader U Nu. Ingrid Jordt lived in and studied the large central monastery he founded to make Buddhist practice accessible to people from all walks of life. That project is a key, she says, to understanding Burma today.
MS. JORDT: And part of the project was to create a place, an institution where lay people could meditate for enlightenment. Now, this was a little bit of a departure from the traditional practices where monks were the ones who would depart for the forest. Here, the idea was that we would have people from all walks of life see for themselves, at firsthand, what the teachings of the Buddha were.
MS. TIPPETT: Was it unusual for you, as an American, to become a nun at that large monastery?
MS. JORDT: I think that the way that you’re treated in a context like that is not really first as an American. I remember thinking how the organizational committee there used to always try and work out who I must have been in the last life as a member of their committee in the 1950s. And for them, the idea was that it was self-evident that I had been a Burmese Buddhist in the past life.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. JORDT: And that I had now come back because I had this strong connection here.
MS. TIPPETT: And what I’ve read is that it’s quite common in Burma that people take up monastic orders temporarily for a limited period of time.
MS. JORDT: That’s right. You can go in and out of the order because the purpose is to be cultivating your own virtue. When summer vacation comes around, you’ll see that the monasteries fill up with children. And during the 1980s, it became popular for women to also take temporary ordination. This was sort of precipitated by a famous Burmese movie star who decided to ordain. And then it became all the rage through the…
MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean, I think it’s probably worth mentioning there are different schools of Buddhism. And, and the dominant form in Burma is Theravada Buddhism, which is kind of classical, traditional Buddhism, which does have a stress on enlightenment through conduct and attained by personal effort. I don’t know, is that the way you would say it?
MS. JORDT: That’s right. What I think, though, that is the interesting thing U Nu had made it a decree that, that one person from every village should come and meditate at the meditation center, so that he could spread these teachings. And they would be a paid salary to come during this time. He also required that all of the ministers in his cabinet should meditate to a certain degree of insight, if they were to remain cabinet members. He wanted people to have a very high level of virtue.
And he also, and this is really remarkable for us I think, he also made it so that people who were in prison for crimes, if they should practice meditation and attain enlightenment, that they should be released from prison because they would no longer be a threat to society. And so there was this tradition of practicing meditation in prisons. And I think that if we look today, we see that that same tradition is being carried on by the political prisoners and the…
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MS. JORDT: Yes, in prison today that they are still defiantly undertaking their own path to freedom even while the government has tried to strip them of every other part of freedom that you could have living in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: How did you know U Nu?
MS. JORDT: U Nu I met in the United States when he came to a Northern Illinois university to open a Burma studies group. And we immediately connected and spent a lot of time talking during the week that he was there. And later then, when I went back to Burma, I also spent time with him there. One of the things people don’t realize about U Nu and his view of, he felt that he was at a unique point in history, the halfway time in what is predicted to be the 5,000 years of the Buddhist dispensation. And he therefore felt that he was at a watershed point to be able to offer the teachings to the world.
And so he, of course, created this Sixth Buddhist Council, which was to review the accuracy of the text. And this went on for two years and involved the other countries of South and Southeast Asia. But one of the things he also did is he spread his enthusiasm and his philosophy of Buddhism with other world leaders. And I’m right now looking at the collected papers of the writings between Ben-Gurion and U Nu.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh.
MS. JORDT: And they had a remarkable friendship that resulted in Ben-Gurion actually traveling to Burma and staying in U Nu’s house and meditating for a month.
MS. TIPPETT: I’ve never heard this story anywhere.
MS. JORDT: Yeah. It’s, it hasn’t been out there as something that people know. But it’s a remarkable understanding about both of those men who were working very hard to understand how to build a nation-state in the context of a civilizational religion.
MS. TIPPETT: Anthropologist and former Burmese Buddhist nun Ingrid Jordt. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re seeking to understand the cultural and spiritual background to recent events in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
The generals who seized power from Prime Minister U Nu in 1962 tried initially to establish a secular, socialist state. But eventually, they sought to identify themselves with Burmese traditions linking Buddhism and governance. This can be traced back to the strain of Buddhism that first entered Burma through the legacy of the third century B.C.E. Indian ruler Ashoka. After an early reign marked by war and rampage, Ashoka adopted Buddhism and established a philosophy and practice of benevolent, enlightened kingship.
My guest, Ingrid Jordt, has recently published a study of the mass lay meditation movement that is unique to Burma, based on her time there as a nun and an anthropologist. She says that ancient Buddhist ideas about moral and political rule influence even the generals of today. Their public patronage of monasteries only intensified after they massacred some 3,000 people in the wake of Burma’s last popular uprising, which was lead by students in 1988. I asked Ingrid Jordt about this.
MS. TIPPETT: A lot of people look at the fact there is a relationship between the government and Buddhism in Burma. And, let me see, this is a line from a journalist. And I think this is a pretty standard way of analyzing it, that the current military government endorses a very conservative form of Buddhism to legitimize their highly repressive regime. In your work, you know, I sense that you are saying it’s just more complicated than that, you know, when you hear a statement like that. Take that apart for me, open it up and help the rest of us understand the bigger picture there.
MS. JORDT: Yeah. Yeah. What I’ve wanted to draw out is that the military rulers, dictators have not been using Buddhism as a way of mystifying a people who are ready to just gullibly be mystified by the theater of Buddhist presentation that the regime is doing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. JORDT: I think that what is more important to ask is why this regime felt compelled to define their legitimacy in Buddhist moral terms. And if you ask the question that way, what you find is that the laity and the sangha, the monks, have had a very strong effect, a very strong ability to define what the terms of political legitimacy would be in Burma. And I think that we can see this because there was a period in which there was a socialist government that was put into place by Ne Win, who effected the first, the bloodless coup against U Nu. And…
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. 1962, right?
MS. JORDT: In 1962. And the first thing he did was to remove all of the vestiges of Buddhist, all the Buddhist trappings from the bureaucracy and from any of the institutions of the state. And he realized, in the mid-’70s, that his attempt to gain political legitimacy by declaring Burma now a socialist country, that it didn’t have cache with the people. It didn’t work. Because during that time, when he had his hands off of Buddhism, the relationships between the laity and the sangha became especially strong. And the mass lay meditation movement completely took off at that time.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. JORDT: That was when suddenly people were practicing like they never had before. And so what the regime realized was that they were missing out on a big piece of social life that they weren’t controlling.
MS. TIPPETT: So gradually, the government of Ne Win did incorporate patronage of the monasteries, is that correct? And relationships with religious communities into their, kind of, public profile? I mean, I don’t know. Maybe that’s not…
MS. JORDT: Well, I would, I would describe it this way. I’ll tell it you first in a joke. When we talk about having television sets that are black and white, in Burma they joked their television sets are green and gold. And the reason they say green and gold is because all the military dressed in their military khaki uniforms are always making offerings to the temples, to golden pagodas.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. JORDT: This is broadcasted everyday, two and three hours. We have pictures of the generals making donations. And what this is supposed to show is that, you know, of course, that there are legitimate supporters of the religion. But for the ordinary citizen, they’re not fooled by this. And in fact, the water pouring ceremony that is done after a donation, traditionally, is called taking bribes. The reason being that when these military men make donations, it’s not often, even their own money that they are donating. But what happens is that the military head is the one who is supposed to get all of the merits for these acts of donation.
MS. TIPPETT: For the effort of others.
MS. JORDT: That’s right. And this is not insignificant because they are still making merit. They are still getting benefit.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, you’ve said that there’s, that the debate internally in Burma centers around this idea of sincerity, that there’s a notion in Buddhism of right intention and that, it sounds to me, I mean, you’re, you’re kind of moving towards that now in the way you describe internal discussions, is that people don’t necessarily dismiss the idea that there might be some right intention going on.
MS. JORDT: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Is that right or that something is really happening just in the act of, of those…
MS. JORDT: That’s the best way to put it, Krista, is that something is happening, even if you have wrong intention. And I’d like to give you a small story that will illustrate this. It’s something that happened in 1988 when I was there during the demonstrations. At that time, I happened to be staying with someone who was the doctor of Sein Lwin, who was also known as the Butcher of Rangoon because he’d killed so many people in that previous spring in Rangoon. And he, running up to the time before the big demonstrations, he was going around town in a very formal way, making offerings to monasteries, and he was meeting with astrologers.
And on his street, he had military people close the street down and shutter the windows of all of the houses on the street. And he dressed up in the full regalia of a Burmese Buddhist king. And these costumes are hundreds of pounds, they’re huge, or a hundred pounds, I should say. It’s, and he, he stepped seven steps outside of his house and he waited for a sign. And the rumor in Yangon was that there was an unseasonable clap of thunder. And this was a sign that surely he would come to power. So this was a rumor that was going around…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. JORDT: …and he did come to power. But he only stayed in power for 17 days. And where did he go after? He went to the Mahasi Yeiktha, and he…
MS. TIPPETT: To the monastery. To the…
MS. JORDT: To the monastery for meditation. And because he was a VIP, he stayed in the VIP room, which was also the foreign male yogis’ center. And I had a friend, a Swedish friend, who was there meditating at the same time. And he said that he watched as Sein Lwin would undertake with complete devotion his meditation, and he would take mosquitoes out from underneath his mosquito net and release them with the gentlest of care.
And so what I think this shows us is that there is a kind of balancing of your merit book that is going on, a kind of calculus where you could kill enough people to be called the Butcher of Rangoon, and then the next moment, you can be trying to make up for all your bad deeds by undertaking pious acts.
MS. TIPPETT: When you also tell the story in your book that you once found yourself in the office of a man who simultaneously held the titles of director of home and religious affairs and director of military intelligence…
MS. JORDT: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: …That juxtaposition that’s kind of mind-boggling. From the outside, I mean, is it mind-boggling for people inside Burma as well?
MS. JORDT: No. No. I think that we’re a little bit preoccupied with the classification of where the secular and where the religious should, you know, find their borders with each other. But I think that we need to look at the entire context in which political legitimacy is made there, and understand that the actions by the junta, of course, are cynical. And people aren’t oblivious or naïve to that. But at the same time, they do believe that by having access to the sangha, by having the ability to make these great donations, to refurbish the pagodas, to be able to give to the monasteries, in fact, causally keeps them in power. That’s why the actions in the recent period are so alarming and why I think that the regime has really turned the corner.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me what you mean by that. What’s different that’s happened now?
MS. JORDT: I think that, in as much as since ’88, 1988, the military junta has tried to secure its legitimacy in Buddhist terms. They have really put so much effort into looking like virtuous kings or virtuous rulers, that once you’ve shed the blood of a monk, once you have gone to their monasteries and taken the heads off of their Buddhist statues to raid them of their jewels and to imprison the lay supporters and the, even the young monks, five years, young little apprentice monks, to take them all and to put them into these detention centers are said to be…
MS. TIPPETT: Are you talking about now?
MS. JORDT: Right now.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. The monks who took to the streets in September were turning their alms bowls over. What did that mean, not just to the rulers, but to the Burmese people who were watching it?
MS. JORDT: One thing that I’d like to just clear up is a hard assumption that this was a political act. And of course, it has political ramifications and, of course, in some sense, some might say that it’s just purely political. But I think that one has to recognize that within the Buddhist sangha, there is only one act that is permitted by their rules of conduct, and that is patta-nikkujjana-kamma, the turning over of the bowl. And it’s the proper response of the sangha as the penultimate rebuke of laity when they threaten the teachings of the Buddha or threatened to split the sangha. And so, in a sense, by turning over the bowl, they were rebuking the very foundations of the way in which this regime was trying to claim it had the moral authority to rule. And I think that that makes it more difficult after this crisis settles down in whatever way. It will make it impossible for them to return to the everyday forms of legitimacy, making, and seeking that they had been doing.
MS. TIPPETT: Monks have been killed before and tortured and imprisoned by the government. Didn’t some of that happen also in 1990 after Aung San Suu Kyi won the election and was denied power?
MS. JORDT: That’s exactly right. One hundred thirty monasteries were raided and at least 300 monks were forcibly disrobed. They were arrested, they were imprisoned, they were tortured. At that time, and this is, again, I come back to, it’s not that people accepted that at this time. But I also think that the fact that we have more information flowing out of the country, and therefore also back into the country, that that has made a big difference. I think that more people have seen, in a very visceral, visual way, what took place. And that’s going to make it very difficult to just claim that there were some monks who were being political, and therefore were, had now made themselves ineligible to be members of the sangha.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MS. JORDT: In other words, the military spun the discussion of which monks were, were being involved in a way that made them look like that they were what they call men in yellow robes, not really monks, fake monks. So that discourse was going on. But I also would like to point out, and this is interesting, in 1990, when they turned the bowl over, there were two monks that were shot and two civilians because they wouldn’t accept the alms. The monks were refusing to accept the alms of the military and as I said, all of these kinds of arrests and so on.
But a remarkable thing happened: The wives of many of the military men refused to cook for them until they would apologize to the sangha, because they were also cut off. They were also cut off from the sangha from being able to offer them each day.
MS. TIPPETT: Did they apologize?
MS. JORDT: I don’t think they did.
MS. TIPPETT: Anthropologist and former Burmese Buddhist nun Ingrid Jordt. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, how Buddhism and power in Burma also dramatically intersect with indigenous practices such as astrology. Also, how a Buddhist sensibility might suggest novel responses for foreign citizens and governments to recent events in Burma. The limited images coming out of Burma range from inspirational to shocking. We’ve selected photos from the September protests and its aftermath for you to view at speakingoffaith.org.
And we’re continuing to make my unedited conversations available as MP3s through our podcast and Web site. Here’s your chance to hear what was cut from my interview with Ingrid Jordt. Discover more and share your reactions at speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Burma — Buddhism and Power.” We’re exploring the inner world of Burmese history, spirituality, and politics to understand the crisis that has pitted monks and monasteries against a military regime.
My guest, Ingrid Jordt, has studied the dynamics between the military junta and the lay meditation movement that was set in motion by the last democratic prime minister of Burma, U Nu. Ingrid Jordt has lived and worked in Burma both as a nun and as an anthropologist. She was also in Burma in the period leading to the violent repression of a 1988 uprising involving students, monks and citizens.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, as you said, it’s very important when people in the West are watching something like this by way of just headlines and pictures to realize that, as you said, the borders between the sacred and the secular are drawn differently in other cultures. I also think, as I’ve been reading about Burma and as I listen to you, it’s not just Buddhism that’s at play in Burma. It’s — there’s a mix of animistic and indigenous traditions, right? And I mean, I don’t know, what we would call superstition.
MS. JORDT: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And I don’t know if that’s the right word because it sounds demeaning. But, for example, you talked about the Butcher of Rangoon.
MS. JORDT: Sein Lwin, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Who walked out and waited for the lightning to strike. And then this was quite amazing for me to read it, that General Ne Win — who was the leader who took over from the original prime minister, created the military government — that the August 1988 protests actually were sparked when he, tell me if this is right, decided to invalidate currency notes that were not divisible by nine.
MS. JORDT: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And the people’s lifesavings were wiped away.
MS. JORDT: That’s right. Nine was an auspicious number. And so his astrologer had told him that this was, and it’s not just that government, this regime also changed as we’ve spoken about changing the name. Another reason they changed the name was that astrologer said that Burma was an inauspicious name for this regime to keep. And that if they change their name to Myanmar, that the bad karma would follow the old name and then you’d be able to have a new take on things.
MS. TIPPETT: But even the demonstrators in 1988 staged that on August 8th, 1988, 8-8-88, because they imparted meaning to the number eight.
MS. JORDT: It’s true. And I have to say, it was funny when I asked people at the time when I was there at that time in ’88. It was during the Reagan era. And they said, they completely scoffed and said, ‘Well, Nancy Reagan is listening to — reading her horoscope every day. So I don’t know why you’re making a special point about us using astrology.’
MS. TIPPETT: But, yeah. And then I also think, when you said a moment ago, and I mean, this is very serious, that there’s a cynicism that people have about the regime, the military junta, paying respects and donating and funding religious activities. And there’s a sense that even though their intentions maybe false and a knowledge that they don’t live up to standards of virtue, that in that act of doing something, something redemptive still happens. And to me, you know, I don’t know then where the line between Buddhism and cultural, again, this word superstition is coming to mind.
MS. JORDT: I think, yeah. I think that, you know, superstition is not fine enough grained. I think a better way to think of it is if you consider the cosmology of this civilization in which Buddhism asserts the law of dharma, the law of truth, the way things are, the law of causality, of moral truth, and the idea of that the things that you do will create the causal conditions for bringing about your future existences because the law of karma asserts that you haven’t removed the conditions which keep you cycling through some sorrow, the world of existence, the cycles of existence. The laws of causality then can be played with in different ways. And one way in Burma is through the weiksa or the wizards.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. JORDT: And these sort of are the dark side of the dharma sometimes using alchemy or using astrology trying to…
MS. TIPPETT: And that is a school of Buddhism where it’s a lineage?
MS. JORDT: It’s not a school of Buddhism. It’s more a kind of practical arts that tries to draw on the principles of causality. And so, and of course, it’s syncratic, it’s a blend with other kinds of animist practices which have been on the ground in Burma — beliefs about spirits attached to place. And all of these traditions or these forms of knowledge emerge in various spheres, and they crossover.
So a Buddhist may also be concerned about things like the auspiciousness of numbers or the auspiciousness of their names and so on. But also, these military people have also gone about trying to secure their power also through this kind of wizarding process as well. So not just using the dharma, not just using the sangha and the sasana as a means for trying to secure the terms of their own power.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think it’s important to point out right now in our conversation that this tradition is also very meaningful for you.
MS. JORDT: Yeah. For me, it’s a very logical approach or philosophy to trying to understand what has always been, I think, the orienting question in my life, which is how do we know things and how do we know truth. And the ways of practicing meditation are directed at having us explore the only place that we come into contact with the world, which is through our six sense doors.
And so, for me, first analyzing the very perceptive tools that we use to form concepts about the world to make sense of the world, to determine when something is true or not true. I felt that that had to be investigated at the most fundamental level. And meditation permitted that.
MS. TIPPETT: Anthropologist and former Burmese Buddhist nun Ingrid Jordt. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Burma — Buddhism and Power.”
MS. TIPPETT: I spent time behind the Iron Curtain, you know, in the old Soviet Union and East Germany, and a lot of the descriptions of life in Burma and the network of informants just reminds me so vividly of those places. But what I hear is that unlike those places where the oppression was etched on people’s faces — it was in the air — I hear that Burma is still nevertheless a place where people go and say it’s lovely. And the people seem so happy that there’s a peacefulness. And I’ve wondered, I guess, whether those very virtues of Buddhism that help people live contemplatively and with an equanimity and a compassion, you know, facing suffering and sorrow head on — which is what Buddhists do, what meditation helps people do — and also seeing it as transient, in some way, also enables this oppression to go on because people don’t struggle against it.
Now, I want to say that and not be seeming to make a judgment call between whether, you know, perhaps it’s a wonderful gift for them that they have these methods of staying sane. I don’t know. I’m kind of struggling with a big question.
MS. JORDT: No. I — there are two questions there. One has to do with apathy and the question about revolt.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MS. JORDT: And the other question has to do with how do you maintain a kind of equanimity in the face of oppressive and violent, a most violent regime. And one has to remember that the people are very close to the monks, and the monks continually give discourses to the laity. And the kinds of discourses that they’re giving them are discourses having to do with finding the mental strength, the mental states that they can cultivate in order to be in relationship to whatever hardship comes up in their life. And that if their karma is to receive all the suffering, then their salvation is being able to be in relationship to that suffering with patience, with fortitude, with compassion, with loving kindness. And that that’s where you cultivate your freedom, and that it’s really where we all cultivate our freedom, is in our relationship to life, not the things that are given to us in life.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. JORDT: And so many times, people would say with patience, we can forbear. With patience, you know, we can undertake all of the suffering. It reminds me because I’ve been thinking a lot about our own response here in the West, where we feel that we — that that kind of suffering is very far away. And we may often feel that apathetic ourselves, what can we do about it. And I’ve been wondering how we can make a difference. You know, it’s interesting that at this time in our history, we have more governments that are crushing their own people than we have governments fighting other governments. And I think that we need to consider the ways in which we can bring about peaceful change in these kinds of situations in remote…
MS. TIPPETT: We put in societies within…
MS. JORDT: Yeah, to promote peaceful change within countries where oppressive rulers terrorize their citizens. Because I think that the ways that we’ve thought we needed to approach them — waiting for armies, United Nations armies, or waiting for someone else to come and do the hard work that will always be violent — which inevitably just promotes another wave of grievances and blood deaths…
MS. TIPPETT: And chaos and violence.
MS. JORDT: And so I’m feeling that we need to find new strategies. And the ways that the Burmese have undertaken the everyday strategies to everyday life and everyday suffering, I think draw on a number of — a cultivation of the number of key mental states. And one of them is compassion. And compassion is known in Buddhism as one of the four sublime states of mature emotion. And with compassion, a person feels inclined to show special kindness to those who suffer. Compassion permits us to perceive pain and torment and suffering in another living being.
But the thing that’s interesting, and this is something that my Burmese monk teacher said to me, is that with a mental state, any mental state that’s wholesome, but with a mental state such as compassion, there’s always a near enemy to compassion. And the near enemy of compassion is sorrow. What’s interesting about sorrow is that you’re unable to do anything on behalf of another person’s suffering. And compassion, on the other hand, allows you to feel that there is something that can be done. And so I feel that we need to cultivate here in the West — if we talk about apathy — our own mental states; if we feel outrage, that we realize that that response will create anger and only more hatred and violence.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’re saying we recognize our outrage also as akin to another possible reaction.
MS. JORDT: What I’m saying, if our response to the crisis in Burma today as outrage, then we’re responding with anger. And if we feel disappointment and hopelessness, then the response is sorrow and pity and apathy again. But if we have compassion and if we choose to cultivate mental states of truly the understanding of what it means that another being is suffering the way that they are in Burma, then I think it we’ll undertake a kind of renewed activism toward making the case of Burma something that just doesn’t disappear off the newswaves because we have also become apathetic.
MS. TIPPETT: And you know, and I think part of that problem is that it is so far away. I wonder what in these days, as you’ve been watching all that and having these thoughts, you know what, people have you been remembering, what experiences have been going through your mind that you might want to share, to give the rest of us some other pictures as we ponder our response?
MS. JORDT: Over the years, I, in the times that I’ve spent in Burma, I’ve watched how fearful people are. There is, it’s very difficult to take action in a place where you really, you really are being watched at every moment and you’re, you can easily disappear in the night. And I’ve watched how people have instead turned to a kind of elevation of their way of being in the world to say that they are, in a sense, pursuing their life in a way that is meant to cultivate the very highest aspects of their humanity. I read recently in South Okkalapa, in Yangon, where they went in to the monasteries and they bludgeoned the monks, they beat them, they hit their heads against the wall, they destroyed the monastery, and they took away the lay — kappiyas — monks’ attendants.
And in that part of Yangon, they staged a small protest. They turned off their lights for 15 minutes. That moved me so much because the whole idea of plunging yourself into darkness as the last moment, the last thing that you can do to resist a regime that’s going to use all of its force against you. And yet you’ll still resist giving them any piece of legitimacy; you’ll still cry out that someone will see, that someone will notice. That kind of courage is something that’s so rare, something that we can’t fully appreciate because we don’t live with that total oppressive environment.’
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MS. TIPPETT: You know you were talking about people gaining inner freedom, but I think a Western reaction would be, you know, the only way to freedom is to rise up. And I think maybe people here would feel hopeless, like even that kind of gesture couldn’t make a difference.
MS. JORDT: One thing I would like them to know is that the monks’ actions are not a bald-faced political action from their perspective, that is. The reason is that’s important, I think, is that we need to see what it is that they’re trying to accomplish. When I write about the mass lay meditation movement, I’m talking about a movement that has attempted to build society, a moral society from the grassroots up. Mahasi Yeiktha claims to have over a million people who’ve practiced and experience enlightenment.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s the center you went to.
MS. JORDT: Yes and the idea of practicing for enlightenment is in the words of U Pandita. The ultimate gift that you can give to another person because you give them the freedom from fear. So what they have tried to do is they have tried to morally re-armor their society, you can say, and do this without the government. The government has had to follow, which is why they’ve had to engage in this discourse of virtuous legitimacy in Buddhist terms. And that those words, Freedom from Fear, would be the title of Aung San Suu Kyi’s book.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that is really helpful because I think just beginning to understand that — to look for that — could change the way even governments formulated ideas about how outsiders could support meaningful change in Burma.
MS. JORDT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I think also to realize that the demonstrations that we see, they’re not even in the first instance, the first instance, an appeal for democracy; they’re first an appeal for humanity.
The monks are undertaking this because they have so much compassion for the people who are starving and who can’t even make offerings to the monks, which means of course that the monks are starving. There are monks who can’t even eat even one meal a day. You know, just a little skimming of the water off of the top of the rice gruel is all they can get. And so there, you know, in a country that has so many rich natural resources, that was at the time of independence was considered to be the rice bowl of Asia. To have it be so destroyed economically to the enlargement of the general zone, luxurious lifestyle is completely immoral. And in the eyes of the Burmese and in the eyes of the monks, you know, it can’t stand anymore. This is first, you know, against the regime.
And the second part about it being a cry for democracy is that, and we saw this very beautifully and symbolically demonstrated in the early demonstrations in September and late September, when the monks filed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and stopped there and chanted loving kindness meditation. And she came out and was permitted to stand at the gate and pay homage to the sanghas. And in that moment, they were symbolically conferring their legitimacy to her as the true leader of Burma. And in that sense, you find where the apolitical acts of monks can become political assertions for legitimacy that play in other arenas.
MS. TIPPETT: Ingrid Jordt is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She’s the author of Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement: Buddhism and the Cultural Construction of Power.
In closing, some words of the Burmese spiritual and political leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
READER: “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. … It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice, and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.”
MS. TIPPETT: In editing my conversation with Ingrid Jordt, we had to leave out stories about her personal relationship with Prime Minister U Nu, the real distinction between the country names Burma and Myanmar, and the Buddhist insights that formed her there. Download my unedited interview with her and hear what was cut at our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
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The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Shiraz Janjua. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.