“I have found what is vast and empty, the unborn. It is what I’ve longed for. I am a true daughter of the Buddha, always finding joy in peace.”
“It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation, its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up… for some of us our love for the world is so passionate that we cannot ask it to wait until we are enlightened.”
In 1987 when I was twenty, two years before my first meditation retreat, I was in Burma on a seven-day visa. One day, in a large brick stupa, out of cultural respect I knelt down for three prostrations in front of a gold-leafed Buddha statue. I shut my eyes and sat in silence for a moment, noticing the breeze and a quiet happiness I didn’t fully understand. Suddenly I looked up, surprised to see a young Burmese man standing over me. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asked with such appreciation in his voice that my cheeks flushed at his misperception. “No, only a tourist,” I replied.
Now, ten years later I plan to return to Burma, but this time as a Buddhist. Since 1989 I have practiced ten days to three months each year in an intensive style requiring long periods of solitude and continual mindfulness. The Burmese teacher who carries this lineage has a monastery in Burma. I want to go there to practice under his guidance for an extended period of time.
For years I have had visions of practicing in Burma to honor the tradition that has changed my life. I want to join generation after generation of practitioners who have done vipassana practice, stemming from a lineage that goes back 2,500 years to the Buddha.
In Burma, the dhamma is embedded in the people’s psyches, in the architecture, in the land. I want to sit in the middle of that. In Burma, pagodas are more common than cars. Incense commingles with exhaust. Brown-robed monks ride on buses, wait on street corners, fill the thousands of monasteries. I’ve heard stories of Burmese college students who spend their summer vacations in the monastery and reach the first stage of enlightenment in three months. Third stage monks do lifelong meditation practice in hidden caves in upper Burma. Burmese housewives become arahants (fully enlightened) by diligently noting as they change diapers and cook moehinga (fish noodle soup).
For years my commitment to practice intensively in monastic-style, three-month retreats seemed at odds with my commitment to practice political activism. In 1994 I joined the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE). My work with BASE has allowed me to merge what for me used to be two polarized worlds. These days I can no longer imagine one without the other. This Buddhist Peace Fellowship program combines service and activism with Buddhist practice. Twice weekly and at monthly retreats I gather with others from various Buddhist backgrounds in a BASE group to examine the contradictions and contributions of Buddhist activist practice. We explore how Buddhist practice informs our work in such settings as a homeless shelter, an urban community garden, and a sea turtle action group. Together we do dhamma study and retreats, as well as anti-racism workshops, despair and empowerment work, nonviolence training and sometimes civil disobedience. Often we simply come together to figure out how to maintain an open heart in the midst of the world’s suffering.
In the spirit of further study and inquiry, my next step is a trip to Asia. The itinerary: six months meditating in a Burmese monastery, and six months studying the work of older and more experienced socially engaged Buddhist activists, movements, and development programs. I am searching for a finer balance of contemplation and action.
“If you found out you could get enlightened by practicing in hell, would you go there?” Theo asks.
Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by military dictatorships that have maintained a policy of strict isolationism from the rest of the world, sending the country into severe economic collapse. Burma was once known as the “rice bowl of Asia” and now is on par with Ethiopia and Chad. Currently, under the governance of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Burmese people are subject to routine disappearances, murder, arrest and torture. They are forced into labor camps to “contribute” to the building of roads and bridges, and they have few economic, political, or personal rights. Despite a compulsory education law, almost 40 percent of children never enroll in school and instead must work for substandard wages.
At a BASE meeting, Sarah, a longtime human rights activist, sits me down. “Are you kidding? Burma?! Going there is giving your tacit approval to a fascist government and rampant abuse of human rights.” “But I’m not going to give any money to SLORC, only when I pay for the taxi ride into town or for a hostel for a night.” “Doesn’t matter,” she says. “Look at the hypocrisy! You’re going to present yourself to other Buddhist movements in Asia as someone who cares about social justice? You’ll have just spent six months in Burma!”
“Who isn’t a hypocrite?” says Keith, who runs a performance space in my neighborhood. We are hiking down a ravine to get to an isolated beach, and we have lots of time to argue. “When you practice in America you are doing the exact same thing, giving tacit approval to a government that’s having way more of a repressive impact worldwide than the Burmese government on its people. Look at the effect of the American media. Think of all the foreign governments the U.S. government has helped to overthrow (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile…), the fascist regimes to whom we’ve sent funding, not to mention weapons.” Both Sarah and Keith send my mind reeling. I am trying to sort through the nuances of this complicated situation to come to a deeper understanding. Yet these questions are hard ones and I can only sit with these conflicting voices that echo the ones inside my head.
SLORC refuses to negotiate with pro-democracy forces and immediately squelches any opposition. On August 8, 1988, over 200,000 people assembled for a nonviolent demonstration organized by students from Rangoon University. At midnight troops fired into the crowd and by the third day had killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Students fled to the border areas and have been living there since. Hundreds were arrested and remain political prisoners today.
“What’s a personal boycott going to do?” my friend Lia asks as we stir huge vats of spaghetti in the homeless men’s shelter kitchen. “C’mon, it’s not like you’re the Coca-Cola Company taking a stand. One person not going to Burma is probably not going to make a difference. It depends on your motivation. Can you go there with a clarity of vision? Can you help? Report back? You are a writer, activist, organizer, maybe you can make a bigger difference as a witness.”
I sit with Alan, director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, in his study. We navigate between babysitting and talking. Alan responds, “Actually, a personal boycott means something to me and it might to the larger world, too. I’m clear that I’m not going to Burma until the generals are no longer in power.” As we talk, Alan’s three year old son rushes in naked wearing his father’s glasses and baseball cap. “Look, I’m Daddy!” the toddler shouts, diffusing the seriousness of the moment. Alan perseveres: “But if you choose to go, what responsibilities then flow from the choice? That’s the Bodhisattva vow. How can we rededicate the merit of our actions? How can we take the fruits of our practice and what we witnessed first hand and then give back to Burma?”
More than 350 monasteries have been raided under SLORC’s rule, and more than 3,000 monks and novices have been arrested. Currently, at least 200 monks are jailed in Insein prison in Rangoon. They are refused medical treatment and many are dying. These monks have had robes, dhamma-names and practices taken from them. But, even though there is no breakfast served to them, they refuse to eat an evening meal. Despite imprisonment, illness and death of their fellows, they still try to uphold the rules of conduct for monks.
I remember, at twenty-two, sitting at one of my first dhamma talks with a teacher in Thailand. He said that one must create a continuity of mindfulness to observe the three characteristics of anicca (impermanence), anatta (no permanent, lasting self) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). At some point the mind opens to the profundity of seeing reality exactly as it is and the only thing it can do is deeply let go. In spite of the damp heat that stuck my journal pages together, I furiously scribbled notes.
Then, depending on the stage one is at, different mental factors get uprooted. With full enlightenment one is actually living with a mind where factors like ill-will and conceit are permanently gone from one’s consciousness. Could this happen to me? Could it happen in Burma?
Sometimes when I imagine changing the world, I picture how people will love me for it. The greediness and conceit of my mind can shock me. And I look at my anger and ill-will—toward inept political leaders, policies that ignore the poor, global consumerism. What if I could develop real compassion for the members of SLORC? What if my work as an activist was motivated purely by the intention to end suffering of all sentient beings? No hatred, no greed, no self-aggrandizement. It’s a stunning thought.
Theo, who used to be a monk, urges me: “Your own liberation is far more important than boycotting a government. Think of how many more people you could benefit by practicing there, reaching some stage of enlightenment, and then returning to your life here with a free mind.”
I think of the teachers I consider to have enlightened minds. It doesn’t matter what I bring to them: my craziness, neediness, trips. They just respond with the same loving compassionate thereness. Certainly I’ve tried to woo them, get them to admit how well I’m practicing, tried to really annoy them. These teachers seem only to care about one thing: that I find freedom. Everything else is superfluous.
I have become obsessed with the question of Burma. On one hand I wonder: Will I have any equanimity? Can I practice for my own liberation in relative peace and safety when thousands of Burmese have been killed by SLORC? When only party members have adequate food and housing? When mothers are afraid to let their sons leave the city for fear of their being kidnapped into the army? When rape is a military strategy?
On the other hand, I consider the benefits, perhaps even for the Burmese people. My friend Simon who travels each year to practice in Burma says, “The Sayadaws want Westerners there.” He assures me, “The Burmese people want it too. They are incredibly inspired by Westerners practicing there. It deepens their faith. When their religion is being systematically eradicated, when they are living in poverty and fear, it’s a gift for them to see a Westerner there. Perhaps you are actually preserving the dhamma by going there, practicing, and returning to the West.”
All the voices are converging on the question of Burma. Burma is where my political and spiritual beliefs strive for reconciliation. Living with the confusion of a mind that flip-flops from day to day is painful. Yet Burma is my koan. I am learning to sit with this struggle that slowly unveils a deepening commitment to all sides of myself.
In the monastery where I want to practice, rooms have toilets, tiles and running water. Few non-party people in Burma have such conveniences. Can I meditate in Burma, watching my mind in the midst of my privilege with the knowledge of poverty and oppression, prisons and torture outside the monastery’s walls? Is this going to break my heart? “But it should,” says Misha. She spent several months in Guatemala living with the families of the disappeared. “Let it break your heart.”
Burma statistics are from Free Burma Coalition, United States State Department Report on Human Rights in Burma, and Buddhist Relief Mission.