Monday, December 07, 2009

A Different Take on Myanmar and Thailand--and Gorgeous Indian Music!

I am sitting in my hotel room watching Sunday's football highlights [thank you, God, for ESPN in Australia], and I just heard Drew Brees say, "I believe in karma--what goes around comes around; maybe now it's our turn." Funny.
Before I get into my day, I want to make sure to thank John Spangler, who, while he was helping me with fonts and things via email, made the mistake of saying that if I had "a picture or two" that I wanted to post, I could send it to him and he would post it for me. Well, that was all the camel needed to get her nose under the tent [as my grandmother used to say--what a great image!]--and since then, I have emailed John multiple pictures & he has dutifully posted every one. So, if you have appreciated the pictures, thank Pastor Spangler!!
I think that one of the most common perceptions of Buddhism in the West is that it is a thorough-going non-violent religion. Many people, I think, who become enamored of Buddhism do so because, unlike Islam or Christianity, for example, Buddhism does not seem to have periods of violence in its history. Certainly, there is a large measure of truth in that statement, but I heard a presentation today that persuasively challenged that conventional wisdom. The presentation was on "Religious Conflict and Persecution: The Cases of Myanmar, Thailand and Iran." It was the first speaker, Dr. Helen James, who spoke about Myanmar and Thailand, arguing that Buddhism is the de facto state religion in both countries; and that, contrary to the perception in the West, both governments are oppressive, both governments use Buddhism to legitimize their own ends, and historically, Buddhists in both countries have been associated with violence, particularly against the minority Muslim populations--either directly or indirectly.
This, I must admit, came as a shock to me: Myanmar, of course, is a military dictatorship, but Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, and is widely believed to be democratic in sensibilities. I asked Dr. James specifically in the Q & A time on what grounds she linked Thailand and Myanmar, and what the role of Buddhism was in both countries; and her answer was unequivocal. She was emphatic that the Western dualist construct of Thailand as peaceful & democratic, and Myanmar as oppressive is false. Not only from her research, but also from her years of living in Thailand extensively off and on since the 1960s, she is convinced that the two countries have much more in common than is typically assumed; and actually, both governments perpetrate the same type of violence. Sadly, Buddhists have been complicit in both. In her view, the main reason for the misconception is that since the Cold War, the United States has cultivated Thailand as an ally, and we like our allies to have the veneer of democracy, whether that accords with reality or not. Now, of course, currently, Buddhist monks are in the forefront of the resistance movement to the regime in Myanmar--I don't want to downplay their role in that. However, as is usually the case, things are more complicated in reality than they seem on the surface, especially when you start talking about violence against women, and state-sponsored discrimination, including gender discrimination within Buddhism itself.
The other presenter in this session was Dr. Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, a Bahá'í , who spoke about the oppression Bahá'ís have experienced in Iran, where they are the largest minority group. This is ironic, given that Iran is where the religion was founded in the mid 19th century by the prophet Bahá'u'lláh. She argued that particularly since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, there has been a concerted effort to wipe out the Bahá'í, not only in Iran, but even abroad: people have been killed, shrines have been razed, students have been dismissed from universities, etc.
One of the really enlightening, enjoyable things about this Parliament is the way it has created space for people to dialogue on both sides of religious issues--and mostly, I am happy to say, this has been done very politely, even if intently. This happened in the Q & A time this morning, when a man from Iran stood up to challenge Dr. Mobini-Kesheh, arguing, first, that Bahá'í is not a real religion, because Bahá'u'lláh was not a genuine prophet [That is very interesting in and of itself, right? Who gets to say whether a religion is genuine or not?]; and second, Bahá'ís simply have not experienced oppression in Iran--those claims are false. This raises the issue of whose testimony is trustworthy, and whose stories get to be told. He questioned her respectfully, and she answered respectfully.

By the way, if you don't know what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, you should. [It has been referred to here more times than I can count.] It was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, and among the many relevant articles for people of faith working for peace and justice in the world, Article 18 is of particular importance. It reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

I ended my day, as has become my custom, with an Indian artistic performance, again rooted in the worship of Hindu deities. Today, it was two different performances: the first was an ensemble that featured the classical vocalist Manjiri Kelkar, her harmonium player, Suyog Kundalkar [who was introduced as "the best harmonium player in India], and her tabla player, Milind Hingane. She sang sacred music from north India. This is a picture of the trio, and another picture of me and Mr. Kundalkar. The second was the flautist Dr. Natesan Ramani, his son, the flautist Thiagarajan, and the mridangam player, Ramadas. They played Carnatac music, which comes from south India. Both performances were gorgeous--extraordinarily skillful and technical, very different from anything you hear in the West.
Let me close this post with my favorite quote from the day. It's from a presentation on "Returning to Right Relations between Christians and Indigenous Peoples." The presenter was Caleb Oladipo, a professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. He lifted up very powerfully the importance of community for indigenous people, and the need for Christians to learn from them a more holistic way of thinking. In that context, he even quoted the one of the refrains of the 2003 ELCA National Youth Gathering: "I am because we are." [Ubuntu! Remember?] He also made a statement I am still pondering. He said that the fundamental ontological problem of the Western missionary enterprise was that they were convinced that "God had not proceeded the missionaries." [Incidentally, this was in response to a retired Catholic priest who was one of those European ministers sent to "bring God" to the Aborigines; and confessed that he is ashamed now of the enthusiasm and ignorance with which he undertook that work.]
Anyway, here's the quote: in the course of his talk, he identified one of the key problems in the West right now as "The incessant desire for pleasure without responsibility." Hard to argue with that.
Until tomorrow…

Kristin Johnston Largen

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