Some places and people suffer sorrow on top of sorrow. I am thinking of Burma. Forty-six years of military dictatorship have replaced abundance with desperate poverty. Using weapons of fear and brutality, the junta has treated Burma’s people like so much old furniture, broken and discarded. The inspiring democracy movement of last September and October has been crushed . . . for now. Prisons are full, and monasteries, where red-robed monks bravely conspired to oppose the regime, remain empty with military vehicles blocking their front gates. Then Cyclone Nargis, a storm whose like had never before come to Burma, cut across the Irrawaddy Delta, killing at least 130,000, leaving tens of thousands unaccounted for, and forcing 1.4 million into urgent need of food, medicine and shelter. Sorrow on top of sorrow, insult piled on insult. And now Burma, with all its urgencies and emergencies, is again fading from the headlines.
Why such tragedies have happened is beyond me. I have studied Burmese history and stretched my notions of karma. The SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) junta bears a central responsibility, of course. In the cyclone’s aftermath, it held the world’s best intentions at arm’s length, allowing tens of thousands of Burmese to perish needlessly. All along, the junta has suppressed democracy, undeveloped agriculture, traded Burma’s natural resources for weapons, and murdered, imprisoned and brutalized its own citizens. I see it, the world sees it. I just can’t comprehend such calculated neglect.
But my question turns inward. As a Western Buddhist, what is my connection to Burma, what is my responsibility? Three points come quickly to mind. First is the bottomless debt of gratitude we owe to Burmese teachers who worked so hard to bring us the Dhamma. Even though I am of the Zen persuasion, I bow to our Burmese teachers, at once so peaceful and passionate: Sayagyi U Ba Khin, S. N. Goenka, Mahasi Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Pandita, Rina Sircar, U Lakkhana, Sayadaw U Silananda and others. These wise men and women poured their hearts into us that we might become vessels of the Dhamma, transmitting ancient teachings of peace and awakening to future generations in the West. They had no trouble finding good students in Burma, but they understood that we needed their help here, where we risked being consumed by our own materialism. So they responded. We can repay this debt by making the Dhamma our own, finding forms that fit our culture, honoring our Burmese teachers. We can also repay them by keeping Burma in our mind’s eye, offering material aid wherever and however we can. We reach out to Burma as our Burmese elders reached out to us. This is just and proper.
The second point is compassion. Over two million people have been displaced by Cyclone Nargis. Here in the U.S. we remember the impact of Katrina, which in 2005 tore through the Gulf Coast much as Nargis attacked the Irrawaddy. Donations to Katrina victims from the international community—including poor Asian nations like Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Cambodia—were humbling given the wealth of America. But this is the essence of generosity, dana: simply responding appropriately to need as it arises.
While the U.S. government and other well-intentioned countries and international agencies were effectively blocked from delivering aid, thousands of individuals in the U.S. continue to give millions of dollars of aid to the cyclone’s victims. Grassroots organizations here are creatively linked with Burmese in-country, who are better able to get into the flood-torn communities, carrying food, water, clothing and medicine to people who had little to begin with and have now lost everything. Sayadaw U Pandita wrote, “Compassion must lead to action. Furthermore, wisdom is required so that action may bear useful fruit.” This is compassion in action.
My third point is a matter of speculation on which intelligent people might disagree. Weather patterns around the globe are changing radically. Tropical seas are quickly warming. High-altitude jet streams are shifting. In the U.S. we have had a season of unprecedented floods and tornadoes. Cyclone Nargis is part of this pattern. A U.S.-based meteorologist called Nargis “one of those once-in-every-500-years kind of things.”
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a respected Indian environmental monitoring group, sees Cyclone Nargis as an effect of global warming, a sign of things to come. Sunita Narain of CSE said, “The victims of these cyclones are climate change victims, and their plight should remind the rich world that it is doing too little to contain its greenhouse gas emissions.” He added that large-scale polluters bear responsibility for what is happening in Burma.
If this is true, then our connection to Burma runs deeper than appreciation and compassion. It is a matter of dependent origination—“because there is this, that arises”—cause and effect. Could it be that the cyclone’s devastation arises from developing nations’ voracious addiction to fossil fuels, which causes global warming, rising sea levels and new weather patterns? Along with global warming, could it be that China, India, Thailand and the West’s hunger for Burma’s oil and natural gas is precisely what allows Burma’s generals the economic leverage to stay in power? If our national habits of consumption contribute to Burma’s hardships, then what are we to do?
Here are a few suggestions:
◆ Remember the suffering of Burma in your practice. This might include special services, metta practices and dedicated periods of meditation.
◆ Make a donation to an organization supporting cyclone victims, political prisoners and exiles.
◆ Join with the All Burma Monks Alliance, the International Burmese Monks Organization and other activists inside and outside Burma to urge the U.N. Security Council to act: calling for free delivery of necessary aid and supplies to all those affected by the cyclone, demanding freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi and all those locked away in Burma’s prisons, and urging the SPDC to engage in dialogue about the present and future well-being of Burma with representatives of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party. We can contact our elected representatives with these concerns; we can write directly to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may have more ideas of how to help Burma’s people. If so, please share them with friends and sangha.
Like the Burmese, dedicated to a path of political and spiritual liberation for so many years, we have to take the long view. In some translations, the practice of right mindfulness, sammᾱ sati, is seen as “right recollection.” So, because we are bound up with the fate of Burma, we remember it day by day. And with our friends half a world away, we have to cultivate khanti, the perfection of patience—bearing the unbearable—until Burma emerges from its long life among nations in the shadow.
Donations for Burma relief are still urgently needed. Tax-deductible gifts can be made through the BPF/Clear View Project (www.clearviewproject.org) or through the Foundation for the People of Burma (www.foundationburma.org).