The Saffron Revolution: Lessons on a Conceptual-based Compassion

The Saffron Revolution: Lessons on a Conceptual-based Compassion

Originally posted by Upaya.

They chanted the Metta Sutta to give voice to the suffering of all beings represented by the suffering of the people of Burma. This would become the Saffron Revolution…..

On September 26, 2007, the monastic community in Burma lead a formidable protest against the military rulers, creating what would be an iconic moment for the people of Burma. Thousands of monks in their maroon and yellow robes marched through the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay holding aloft their alms bowls to signify their refusal to accept acts of generosity from the army.  They chanted the Metta Sutta to give voice to the suffering of all beings represented by the suffering of the people of Burma. This would become the Saffron Revolution – a spiritual strong-arming of a superstitious government who now could not buy their way out of the bad karma they had cultivated.

The monastic community inspired the people and garnered huge support globally. Unfortunately that support is likely to have tipped the balance of fear felt by the government from fear of a hell in the afterlife to a fear of being seen as weak in this one.  The army attacked leaving thousands dead and many monastics missing.  The video documentary Burma VJ captured powerful images of the marches in the streets, wide ribbons of maroon-robed monks walking resolutely into what they must have known would be a violent confrontation with the army.  Through the eyes of the videographers, we witnessed the dead and dying – lay and monastic – as well as the fear-ridden monks held captive in temples just before they disappeared.

The world watched helpless and enraged.  Politicians and well-known spiritual leaders spoke out.  The Dalai Lama announced solidarity with the monks and Thich Nhat Hanh instructed his monastics to wear their sanghati robes during a conference in California on mindfulness.  In the immediate aftermath of the Saffron Revolution, many organizations sprung into action.  There were Adopt a Monk programs, web-based posters, badges, and slogans, and numerous other ways to keep the momentum of the protest going as well as provide sanctuary for the monastic community.

On September 27th, I was interviewed by CBC Radio in six different sessions set to be released through the day.  The producer told me they wanted to get a feel of the spiritual implications of what the monks were trying to accomplish.  In a surreal moment, I watched myself rapidly Googling for updates as I waited for the next interviewer to call.  Much of the interviews were focused on the meaning of the protest but it was the last interviewer who asked the turning question:

CBC:  What happens next?  Do you have any hope that things will change for Burma?

A.    I have held hope for over 40 years.  I can’t imagine not holding to hope.  But what I hold hope for is a unified global movement that will change the conditions.

CBC:   But will it change?

A.   Everything changes.  There are two important tenets in Buddhism.  The first is impermanence.  This junta will come to an end.  Because all things are impermanent, it too is impermanent.  The second tenet is the interconnectedness of all things.  Technology is now such that the world can see into Burma and the Burmese people know that.  We now cannot turn our eyes away.  We must continue to keep looking so the junta knows they are being seen.  Through that interconnection of the global sangha and the people of Burma, change will come.

Three years later, I know many people have lost interest or have become discouraged by the apparent loss of momentum from the Saffron Revolution.  It should not be surprising yet we are challenged when we discover that passion too is impermanent.  Yet it is in that moment of realization that we have the opportunity to see that our passion fades because it is based in our conceptualizations.

The Saffron Revolution contained elements that heightened our experience of empathy.  The sights and sounds (and, for those close to the events, other senses) strongly activated our systems to respond with fear, compassion, and a desire to lessen the suffering of the monastics who had stepped into the battle zone.  But it was our minds that created the seeds of eventual disappointment by latching onto the idea that it was inconceivable for monastics to be brutalized.  Even practitioners who tended to be reserved about the role of the monastic community would speak to me in terms of how awful it was for peaceful (saintly, innocent) monks to be attacked.  Protests I attended fixed the conceptual mind on the sanctity of the Metta Sutta as the innocent violated.  Ultimately, once the pictures and sound bytes featuring the monastics faded, it became more difficult to sustain that passion for change.  It even became harder to remember that the violence and genocide was there before September 26, 2007, and continues to this day.  (For more information, the movie Total Denial made by the founders of EarthRights International and the inexhaustible work of Zoya Phan , author of Little Daughter, are powerful resources.)

This, I believe, is the enduring lesson of the Saffron Revolution.   If we focus on saving the monastics or preserving the right to chant the Metta Sutta, we miss the point: these are only conceptual pointers to what we are called to witness.  It takes events like the Saffron Revolution, the earthquake in Haiti, the tragedies in Rwanda or the very recent events in Ecuador to bring attention to the suffering of a people.  However, our conceptual mind is fickle.  For that reason, we cannot allow it to take charge and direct our compassionate action to an event-triggered suffering or a category of being who is suffering.

We must cultivate a deep vision to see under the drama into what is present and, therefore, what is needed. The adult and child, human and animal, vegetation and earth – all can be contained in this vision with equanimity.  It is through this non-conceptual vision that we will experience our Interbeing and our inter-responsibility for Life itself.

May all life everywhere, in all times, without category be free from suffering.

______________

Genju was born in Burma.  She and her family were accepted by Canada as “certified with identity” in 1965.  Because this was after the military takeover in 1963 and “nothing was happening” at that time in Burma, they have never fit into either category of refugee or immigrant.

Genju’s paternal grandmother was a cheroot-smoking, devout Buddhist who taught her that, especially when nothing is happening, it is a good thing to have a refuge. She is now a student of the Dharma via the Upaya Zen Center and the Upaya Chaplaincy Program.  She is also a shodo artist and lets her blog 108 Zen Books speak for her.

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