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Not all Buddhists agree with Sitagu Sayadaw’s militant message

Home > Asia Pacific > South East Asia > Myanmar

By Jacob Goldberg, Coconuts, Nov. 2, 2017

Yangon, Myanmar -- Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist leader gave a speech on Monday in which he urged hundreds of military officers to not to fear the sinfulness of taking human life. Despite building a reputation on his interfaith and humanitarian activities, Sitagu Sayadaw has long made excuses for the military’s abuses against Rohingya Muslims. This week, critics said the monk veered into promoting genocide.

<< Sitagu Sayadaw prepares for a speech to military officers on October 30, 2017. Photo: Facebook / Venerable Ashin Nyanissara (Sitagu/Thegon Sayadaw)

During his speech, which was delivered at a military base in Kayin State and broadcast live in Myanmar to over 250,000 viewers, Sitagu Sayadaw shared a parable about an ancient Sri Lankan king who was assured by Buddhist clerics that the countless Hindus he had killed only added up to one and a half lives.

“Don’t worry King, it’s a little bit of sin. Don’t worry,” Sitagu Sayadaw said. “Even though you killed millions of people, they were only one and a half real human beings.”

The monk distanced himself from the characters in the story, saying: “I’m not saying that, monks from Sri Lanka said that.” But he then added: “Our soldiers should bear [this story] in mind.”

The monk’s support for Myanmar’s government and military in the face of international accusations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya have compounded the public admiration he has enjoyed for years. Earlier this year, he was awarded the title “Honorable, Excellent, and Great Teacher of Country and State” by the government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

But Sitagu Sayadaw’s stature and erudition have not been enough to protect him from the ire of some Myanmar Buddhists, who believe his coziness with the military is drawing him away from the principles of Buddhism.

“This was a shocking speech,” said Thet Swe Win, director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony, an interfaith organization. “It was totally against the Buddhism I understood. Buddha teaches about love, kindness, and compassion to every human being, regardless of race and religion, and also teaches that killing is a sin. But this speech said killing non-Buddhist people is not a sin.”

He went on: “It’s like mixing up religion up with the army. It’s kind of saying the army is here to protect race and religion, and it encourages them to kill people from different religions. I condemn this kind of speech.”

Thet Swe Win compared the message of Sitagu Sayadaw’s speech to the doctrines of the so-called Islamic State.

“ISIS also says killing non-Muslims is not a sin.”

Khin Zaw Win, director of the policy think-tank Tampadipa Institute, made similar comparisons in his reaction to the speech, which he shared on Facebook.

“It’s utterly irresponsible of a senior monk to preach such things. It reminds me of bishops who fought in the Crusades and the medieval practice of selling indulgences and absolution.”

In another post, he said: “It’s sad, but there might soon be a Burmese equivalent of ‘Sieg Heil!’ What happened to democracy?”

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University of Toronto researchers unravel mysteries of ancient Buddhist manuscripts

Home > Archaeology

Utoronto.ca, Oct 26, 2017

Toronto, Canada -- Along the Old Silk Road – the ancient network of trade routes that once linked China and the West – is a complex of roughly 500 rock-cut caves carved into the cliffs above the Daquan River.

Two manuscripts from the Dunhuang cave library (image courtesy of the International Dunhuang Project)

The caves, known as the Mogao cave complex, are located near the oasis town of Dunhuang, perched at the edge of the Gobi Desert in what is now northwest China. Up until the disintegration of the Mongol empire in the 14th century, traders, pilgrims and other travellers would stop at this hub of commerce and religion to secure provisions, pray for the journey ahead, or give thanks for their survival. This was before Islam conquered the region and sea routes began to dominate China’s trade with the outside world. Adorned with Buddhist statuary and frescoes, the individual cave shrines, which date back to the fourth century CE, were active sites of Buddhist study and worship for more than 1,000 years. The major cave chapels were sponsored by local patrons: eminent monks and nuns, the ruling elite and foreign dignitaries – even Chinese emperors. Other caves are thought to have been commissioned by travelling merchants, military officers and lay Buddhist societies. Monks would visit at regular intervals to pay homage to the Buddhas, and members of the local Buddhist community would commemorate important Buddhist ritual days at the site. Hundreds of years later, one can still see iron hooks in the ceilings where banners once hung, and soot marks from the oil lamps that burned brightly on the altars during the annual rites.

One of the caves, now referred to as cave 17, or the “library cave,” originally served as a mortuary for an eminent local monk named Hong Bian. As memory of Hong Bian grew distant, locals began storing Buddhist manuscripts and ritual paraphernalia in the chamber, until it was sealed, likely sometime in the early 11th century.

Then in 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu opened up the cave, and discovered what would turn out to be the largest cache of medieval manuscripts in Eurasia – some 60,000 manuscripts, many fragments, as well as fine portable paintings and dozens of statues and banners dating mostly from the ninth, 10th and early 11th centuries. Included were secular documents as well as works of history, poetry and religion – primarily Buddhism, but also Daoism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism, often written on the backs of recycled manuscripts. A few years later, Wang Yuanlu began selling the manuscripts to Western scholar-explorers, who carried off hoards of artefacts. The artefacts were then scattered around the world – to London, Delhi, Paris and St. Petersburg. One piece – a 10th-century woodblock print of a Buddhist prayer sheet – eventually made its way into the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) collection, in an exchange with the British Museum. All the manuscript collections are being digitized by the International Dunhuang Project, housed at the British Library, and can be freely accessed online, a boon to scholars.

What was the purpose of the Dunhuang cave library? Was it a sacred waste disposal site? After all, one couldn’t simply discard Buddhist scriptures without risking karmic retribution. And why was cave 17 sealed? Was it because of a threat of an Islamic invasion? These are just some of the mysteries and theories – some since debunked – that have fascinated archaeologists and scholars for more than 100 years.

Amanda Goodman, an assistant professor of Chinese Buddhism at U of T’s department for the study of religion, has a simpler theory: “I think it was an unofficial archive of a small group of local monastics who had a large number of documents that needed to be stored, possibly for repair or to be used to replenish local libraries. Hong Bian’s memorial chapel had fallen into disrepair and the materials just kept accumulating… kind of like your proverbial kitchen drawer. At a certain point, it just filled up and they sealed it.”

We may never know for sure. The first European archaeologist-explorer to visit the site neither knew Chinese nor understood the indigenous archiving system used to organize the manuscripts found in cave 17.

“The traditional Chinese way of classifying things is not A-Z, but rather uses an archaic system for numbering manuscripts, which were further grouped by genre or status, such as ‘damaged’ or ‘pristine’,” explains Goodman. “But in their excitement, the first wave of explorers removed the cloth wrappers used to bundle the manuscripts, to disastrous effect. We’ll probably never have a definitive answer as to why the contents of cave 17 came to be stored together.”

As for when? Scholars guess it was around the year 1003 CE, give or take five years, based on the fact that the most recent documents are from the early 11th century.

Goodman, who is affiliated with U of T’s newly launched Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies, is the only Dunhuang specialist in Canada studying this special cache of manuscripts. Supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada, and with a small team of graduate research assistants, she is working on Chinese Buddhist ritual manuscripts from the 10th century, identifying, dating, translating and studying them, as she prepares a book, appropriately titled Buddhism from the Margins.

Goodman’s focus is not on the formal or official canonical texts recovered from Dunhuang, but on the “messy manuscripts,” and especially ritual miscellanies, that found their way to London, Paris and Beijing. She is looking at the working or practical canons, including liturgical books, primers, prayer sheets and personal notebooks, which give a clearer picture of what Buddhist study and practice actually looked like at this remote outpost. Tracing distinctive reading marks and scribal conventions, she examines manuscripts cobbled together on recycled slave documents, divorce decrees and other scrap paper (paper was a rare commodity). She looks under corrections that cover up errors like old-fashioned white-out.

“I love the messiness of the manuscripts, and try to find meaning in that messiness,” she says.

These fascinating texts give evidence to an extraordinary cross-fertilization of cultures and religions that occurred during this period in the region.

“There is a significant corpus of bilingual, even multilingual manuscripts,” says Goodman. “To read these texts, you need to know Chinese and Tibetan as well as Khotanese and Uyghur: The scribe or copyist would begin by writing down a prayer in Khotanese, but when you flip the page, you find a Tibetan prayer followed by lengthy tracts written in Chinese. There are also sketches and diagrams scattered throughout these particular manuscripts. What these texts show is that there was significant interaction, in particular between the local Tibetans and Chinese, in the 10th century, and that these Buddhist communities were engaged in a sophisticated conversation with each other.”

In fact, 12 different linguistic groups, including Hebrew, are represented at the site, which makes having a multilingual research team critical to reading both the source texts and the rich body of scholarship – in English, French, Chinese and Japanese – that has been produced in recent years.

One of Goodman’s research assistants is PhD student Annie Heckman, a specialist in French and Tibetan languages who had an active studio and teaching practice in art at Chicago’s DePaul University before deciding to go back to graduate school to pursue Buddhist studies. U of T’s community of Buddhist scholars and the opportunity to work with Goodman on the project were major motivators for Heckman to make the move to Toronto. In addition to reviewing the contemporary French-language materials about mandala sketches at Dunhuang, she is establishing the contents and bibliographical history of Tibetan-language texts that appear as excerpts in ritual manuals.

“This work helps us get a sense of the impact of certain texts over time, allows us to grasp their significance in later Tibetan contexts, and may perhaps lend more insight into how and why they were used in ritual contexts at Dunhuang,” Heckman says.

The ritual texts that the team is studying also give evidence to “hybrid” regional traditions that are markedly different from the Buddhism practised in elite urban monasteries. Goodman explains, “The Tibetan and Chinese ritual materials are pretty parallel in terms of the rituals they are using: If you follow the traditional story of Buddhism you wouldn’t think that Chinese Buddhists of 980 CE were doing the same things as Tibetan Buddhists at that time, but they clearly were at Dunhuang. They were exchanging ideas and texts and mixing indigenous Chinese material like seals that trap demons with Tibetan Buddhist visualization techniques, using every ritual technology at their disposal.”

So far her team has transcribed about a dozen ritual texts that appear on composite manuscripts as movable textual units; one can actually see how individual copyists were moving ritual units around or dropping them from liturgical sequences.

Heckman describes the process of working on Goodman’s project as “unravelling a mystery over time, combining different language capacities to put together the pieces of an ever-growing puzzle.”

Much like the provenance of the caves themselves, Heckman’s ability to decipher the mysteries of the mantras discovered there has been made possible in part because of the spirit of philanthropy that animates Buddhism. Her work is supported by the Phool Maya Chen Scholarship in Buddhist Studies. “When I first received news that I was awarded the scholarship, I felt welcomed into a community of committed scholars, and that my years of study were being recognized through the generosity of our donors,” says Heckman.

“Not only does the scholarship take away some of the material pressures I face as a student, it allows me to devote several hours a day to Tibetan readings, which has been of tremendous benefit to advancing the project, and to take on its challenging questions with even greater energy.”

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Lord Buddha Would Have Helped Rohingya Muslims, Says Dalai Lama

Home > Issues

The Quint, 11 September, 2017

Dharmsala, India -- In the wake of violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state in which the Rohingya Muslims have been targeted, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Sunday said that Lord Buddha "would have definitely helped" the Rohingyas and that he felt "very sad" about the violence.

"Those people..you see..sort of harassing some Muslims. Then they should remember, Buddha, in such circumstances, would have definitely helped those poor Muslims," Dalai Lama told reporters.

"So still, I feel that..So very sad..very sad," he added.

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Ex-Miss Korea wins Buddhist prize

By Yoon Ja-young, The Korea Times, Sept 29, 2017

Seoul, South Korea -- A former Miss Korea, Keum Na-na, won this year's Buddhist Prize by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, along with three other participants, on Buddha's Birthday.

<< Keum Na-na

The Jogye Order noted Keum's contributions to enhancing public awareness of Buddhism, by discussing how Buddhist teachings helped her through numerous media interviews, speeches and books.

Known for possessing both "brains and beauty," she has become a role model for many youths.

She came to the fore when she received the Miss Korea crown in 2002 while she was attending medical school at Kyungpook National University.

She also made headlines when she enrolled in Harvard two years later, giving up a comfortable life guaranteed for medical students here in favor of new challenges.

She received her bachelor's degree in biology from Harvard University, graduating cum laude. She went on to get her master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University, and recently got a Ph.D. at Harvard University School of Public Health. She also received an award for her outstanding performance as a teaching assistant at Harvard University.

Her continuous march forward to take on new challenges is depicted in her essay books, including the bestseller "Na-na's Neverending Story."

The Jogye Order also selected badminton player Lee Yong-dae, poet Jeong Sang-seok and lawyer Ahn Dong-il, as Buddhist Prize winners of this year.

Lee, one of the world's top badminton stars in the men's and mixed doubles, won various medals at international games, including a gold medal in mixed doubles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After announcing his retirement from the national team last year, he has been playing in professional leagues. The 28-year-old has been actively participating in Buddhist events, helping the Jogye Order spread Buddhism.

Jeong, who has cerebral palsy, is one of most widely known Buddhist poets in the country. Despite physical hardships, he has been giving hope and courage to society through his poems.

The Jogye Order also noted Ahn's contributions to the order, serving as its legal adviser since 1994.

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Maha Nayaka, Buddhist organization express reservations

Daily Mirror, Sept 29, 2017

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Maha Nayaka of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya Venerable Kotugoda Dhammawasa Thera and the Buddha Sasana Karya Sadaaka Mandalaya, a leading Buddhist organization, has opposed certain sections of the Interim Report on the new Constitution that was presented by the steering committee of the Constitutional Assembly recently.

A statement issued by the organization said the report has suggested the inclusion of "Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is a free, sovereign and Independent Republic (aekiya rajya/orumiththa nadu) consisting of the institutions of the Centre and the provinces which shall exercise power as laid down in the Constitution’ when defining the nature of State.

However, it said the Tamil word ‘orumiththa nadu’ means united. The organization said this could be an attempt to achieve federalism. Additionally, it said it was opposed to an alternate section being included in the report on the status of Buddhism in the country.

Accordingly, the organization said it is opposed to the wording that had been included which states that other faiths would not be discriminated against while giving the foremost place to Buddhism. “It is not clear as to this applies in this situation when other religions are not subjected to discrimination even now".

The statement has been signed by Venerable Maha Nayaka of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya Kotugoda Dhammawasa Thera, Venerable Welihitiyawe Kusaladhamma Thera, Venerable Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera, President, All Ceylon Buddhist Congress Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara and Jagath Sumathipala along with a host of other monks and laymen.

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