SINGAPORE - From Sri Lanka to South Korea, from Tibet to Myanmar, Asia's
Buddhist clergy are in unprecedented numbers exerting their moral authority
onto politics, abandoning their detachment from worldly events and giving rise
to what at least one academic has referred to as a region-wide "angry monk
Agitated ascetics made global headlines last year during Myanmar's "Saffron
Revolution", where in their thousands they took to the streets to protest
against the military government's policies and perceived mistreatment of clergy
members. At the height of the unrest, monks dropped the symbolic gauntlet by
overturning their alms bowls and refused to accept donations from
government officials and their family members.
This year, over 300 Tibetan monks marched in protest in Lhasa in commemoration
of the 49th anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule and to air more
modern complaints and grievances, including calls for the release of monks
detained last year after the Dalai Lama was awarded a congressional medal of
honor by the United States, for the withdrawal of all troops and security
personnel from their monasteries and the re-instatement of monks expelled from
monasteries for their failure of "patriotic education" exams that required them
to denounce the Dalai Lama.
And over the weekend, thousands of Buddhist monks joined South Korean citizens
in candlelight rallies in front of Seoul's city hall to protest the
government's controversial decision in April to resume imports of beef from the
United States, which protestors believe could be tainted with mad cow disease.
The usually apolitical monks' involvement in the rallies exerted additional
pressure on the government to review the unpopular decision.
While each monk protest is unique in its demands and character, Buddhist
clergymen are making their political voices heard in unprecedented ways and
increasing numbers across the region. In the process they are often bringing
the Sangha out of detached isolation and directly into the cut-and-thrust of
everyday politics. The growing images of Buddhist monks leading political
protests cuts a sharp contrast to the cliched calm and serene robe-wearing
ascetic meditating in the pursuit of otherworldly enlightenment.
John Whalen-Bridge, co-editor of a series of books on Buddhism, refers to the
growing phenomenon as "angry monk syndrome", a flip way of referring to the
clergy's departure from the pursuit of equanimity and raised-fist involvement
in the call for political change and economic justice. Politically active monks
are not an entirely new phenomenon. Western observers will likely recall the
images of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, who, in protest against the
corruption and repression of the South Vietnamese government, self-immolated
himself in June 1963.
Lesser known is the violent role aggrieved ascetics played during the
Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), when Chinese monks abandoned their commitment to
non-violence for reasons of patriotism. Certain monks at the time even cited
Buddhist scriptures to justify killing their Japanese enemies. On the other
side of the battlefield, Zen priests were similarly conspicuous as aggressive
and visible defenders of imperial Japan and its nationalistic policies.
Monks were also in the forefront of protests in colonial Burma before the
country now known as Myanmar won independence from Britain in 1948. After
independence, monks were actively involved in the nationwide uprisings against
the military junta-led government in 1988, which were eventually crushed by
soldiers. There are accounts of monks sharpening bicycle tire spokes and
launching them at soldiers during that violent melee.
The recent surge in monk-led political ferment, usually towards the aim of
giving voice to the often silent majority, seems to signal a political
reawakening of Asia's Buddhist clergy. Well-organized and in most instances
peacefully executed, the protests have provided a resounding reaffirmation to
the Sangha's social relevance in modern times. It is also a potentially
profound political trend, in that monks tend to speak out on behalf of the
politically oppressed and economically downtrodden.
That's the majority of the population in many authoritarian-run countries with
substantial Buddhist populations. In Myanmar and Vietnam, for instance, monks
have led the moral charge against their respective abusive and repressive
governments. In more economically advanced Thailand and South Korea,
politicized monks are highlighting the gross inequalities and rampant
corruption that has accompanied rapid economic growth.
What do these scattered protests say about the Sangha's contemporary mindset?
Pattana Kitiarsa, an associate professor in the department of Southeast Asian
Studies at the National University of Singapore, believes the Sangha's role has
frequently been misunderstood in historical and modern context.
"Buddhism and Buddhist monks are often stereotyped as peace-loving,
world-rejecting, calm, serene and poised," he said. "However, when monks become
or choose to become worldly-engaged actors, they have put themselves in a
familiar position of expressing, communicating, acting, or dealing with the
To be sure, individual monks have stood out for their political and social
postures. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has long promoted so-called "socially
engaged Buddhism", which advocates the application of Buddhist principles
towards resolving social, environmental and political problems. His grassroots
relief organization helped to rebuild bombed villages, re-establish schools and
medical centers, resettle homeless villagers, and organize agricultural
co-operatives during the Vietnam War, but he was later exiled due to his
non-violent anti-war activities.
The jet-setting Dalai Lama, head of Tibet's government-in-exile and winner of
the Nobel Peace prize for his non-violent approach to political struggle, is an
individual monk of that same socially-engaged mold. As is Taiwan's Buddhist
nun, teacher and philanthropist, Cheng Yen, whose Tzu-Chi Foundation is one of
the island-state's largest charity organizations with offices in over 30
countries around the world, undertaking activities as wide-ranging as disaster
relief, environmental protection and bone marrow donations
While globally recognized Buddhist leaders have helped to spawn a worldwide
movement of engaged Buddhism, recent developments show that the movement is
transcending mere individuals and taking on mass proportions. Internationalized
and well-informed monks are joining forces in ever larger numbers to launch
mass protests against their respective governments and perceived unjust
But does this growing, often political, mass movement contradict the Buddha's
teaching to eschew worldly matters and abide in equanimity?
Geshe Jangchup Choeden, a Tibetan Buddhist monk-teacher from the Gaden Shartse
monastery in India, says that according to ancient scriptures the "ideal" monk
is disciplined and refrains from all actions which might bring him into
conflict with the clergy's devotees. But, he asks, "Is it possible to have an
ideal monk in the modern world? How essential is the ideal monk in times or at
places when and where they are needed to take actions against injustice or for
the well-being of the people?"
Whether Myanmar's protesting monks, who mobilized en masse last year against a
military regime notorious for its human rights abuses and entrenched
corruption, lived up to this ideal is definitely debatable. The government
accused many of the robed demonstration leaders as "fake" monks and assaulted
and jailed many of them and their followers. Other monks were confined by
security forces to their monasteries.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks are clearly taking sides amid the country's deeply
polarized and increasingly violent ethnic- and religion-based politics. There
they have their own political parties, sit in parliament, and are the strongest
supporter of the Sinhalese Buddhist government's campaign to militarily
obliterate the mostly Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist
Academic Kitiarsa points to the diverse upbringings, educational backgrounds
and monastic practices for varied monk responses. "In reality, there has never
been one singular monk. Only Buddha himself is considered a model monk," he
said. "Monks in the 21st century could be militants, activists, magicians,
forest-dwelling world renouncers. All these monks wish to have their voices
heard in their own ways."
That was clearly the case when Tibetan monks wept and cried out "Tibet is not
free! Tibet is not free!" when Western media members visited Jokhang Temple,
one of Tibet's holiest shrines, during a government-managed press tour in
March. These extraordinary scenes helped to keep the government's recent
security crackdown and continued occupation of Tibet in international headlines
ahead of Beijing's hosting of the Summer Olympic Games in August.
There are concurrent worldly risks that the socially engaged movement is in
certain instances being manipulated for narrow political purposes. In South
Korea, for instance, where monks have been on the vanguard of the street
protests against US beef imports, the demonstrations are now increasingly being
driven by liberal opponents of President Lee Myung-bak's new conservative
But in countries like Myanmar or places like Tibet, where the moral argument
against the prevailing political order is more obvious, monks are in increasing
numbers straying from the past middle path of loving kindness towards what some
see as a more socially-engaged path towards enlightenment. "There is nothing
wrong or undesirable with the Sangha protesting out of their compassion for
humanity," said Choeden. "But once their aims are achieved, they should get
back as soon as possible to their purpose and avoid drifting into the ways of
Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based freelance journalist. She may be
contacted at[email protected]