Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Monk-y Business

(Photo: AP)

As mass demonstrations spread through Myanamar a good deal of the media’s focus has been on the Buddhists monks who have joined the regular citizens in their protests against new government policies.

The monks provide a great image, identically dressed in bright red robes, and their peaceful philosophy and manner serves as a dramatic counterpoint to the aggressiveness and oppressiveness of the ruling Junta.

The situation looks likely to result in a classic battle of democratic people-power versus despotism, peace and humility of the monks versus the arrogance and aggression of the military. Anyone with a soul will be rooting for the monks and the public to prevail.

But the monks notable participation isn't about freedom of expression and democracy or morality or social justice--it's about a change in economics that is going to hurt the monks directly.

"The protests, sparked by a doubling of petrol and diesel prices, and a fivefold rise in the price of cooking gas on August 15, tapped a deep well of anger in a country in economic crisis. Inflation runs at 40% and most people suffer economic hardship." ( The Guardian )

If the citizens can’t afford the essentials, how are they going to afford the alms that the monks rely-on to survive? Monks contribute next-to nothing to the general economy and the general economic welfare—what they get they keep to themselves--and they are supported in that by the general population.

So don't imagine that the monks are championing democracy, they've got a significant economic interest to protect.


teaghan's mom said...

i hope you're being ironic, because i don't see the monks driving around in ferraris and rolls royces, nor are they wearing robes designed by dolce & gabbana.

5th Estate said...


Nope , not ironic.
I'm sure they are expressing humanisitc sympathy for the dire straits these price rises will put the general population in --which are bad enough already. The monks themselves are going to have pay more too.
But isn't begging and the giving of alms basically a covenant of faith? If the regular citizens are so destitute that they can't afford the alms, doesn't that impact what amounts to a subsidy for the monks. (as well as screwing up the covenant).

If they do not need the food and the alms ( because they can farm their own and earn through business enough money to buy enough food etc), why beg, except for the ritual of the covenant?
Bhuddist monks are pacifists to the point of lethargy.

I;m not saying they aren't being brave in demonstrating, and presumably their presence is helpful for the rest of the protestors. But this is primarily an economic protest, for everyone.

The press have already focussed on the monks, and I think they are going to romanticize their participation. That may well servbe the common good, which is fine. But I detect the same kind of deference towards them that the press has for say the Pope--piety is assumed and the best intentions are projected onto them simply because of who they are perceived to be.

I don't see the monks doing much of anything most of the time except trying to reach spiritual enlightment. Still I guess they don't interfere all over the place either.

teaghan's mom said...

I should have guessed that a slash and burn, God-Save-The-Queen and all her billions of pounds imperialist Briton would misconstrue the quest for spiritual enlightenment as nothing more than an excuse to be lazy. I'd say that's the pot calling the kettle black, coming from you.

I'm not sure where you're getting your assumptions of who and what the monks are, so let me set some things straight for you: Buddhist Monks do not beg for alms. They accept donations in the form of food, services, goods, and yes, sometimes money. But the Buddhist monks are not lethargic - FAR from it. They serve an important purpose within their community where religion and spirituality are intertwined, not mutually exclusive. To most southeast Asian cultures and peoples, the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and perfect nothingness are the highest of goals. Much like American christians and their desire to go to heaven.

These monks provide a grounding point for the people in their community. They help within the community, give shelter and food to those that are without, educate an otherwise illiterate populace, farm and share the bounty of their harvests with the locals - all this and they live in poverty - even more so than the people they serve - in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. You mention the Pope - a man that lives so far from poverty that he's become indifferent to the plight of his sheep. I would like to see the Pope live the way these monks do - just for one day - or better yet - you should live like them for one day and maybe you'll change your callous, arrogant and self righteous mind.

KEvron said...

"you should live like them for one day and maybe you'll change your callous, arrogant and self righteous mind."

back atcha?


teaghan's mom said...

I think Mr 5th and I have been able to come to an agreeable conclusion to this argument. The issue has become moot, for now. ;)

Carl said...


You might be a little off base here.

Buddhist principles (dharma) are such that monks are forced to rely on handouts.

They aren't allowed to beg for them. Anything they take must be freely given.

Likewise, they are not permitted to engage in economicly constructive activity, at least not for profit (one's livelihood should not, directly or indirectly, harm another person...which is the very basis of the zero sum game that is capitalism) and materialist possessions are deeply frowned upon.

I get your point that there's a distinct economic impact involved, and I agree with that, particularly as you explain it. I'm just not sure it's as central as you make it appear to be.

KEvron said...

self-preservation is at the heart of all politics.


Elderta said...

I did read a piece somewhere (maybe BBC News) that said some monks walked down the street with their alms bowls upside down, which was a sign of 'spite' if you will, against the ruling regime. The article did specifically call them alms bowls, which are basically the same as donations.

I do understand your point, Brit, but might it be more like these monks, who are as effected by the 40% hike in petrol, are helping not only themselves, but the entire populace by their protests? So yes, it may be selfish in a way, I suppose, but still selfless as they put themselves on the front lines and are the first ones that were shot. As KEv said, self-preservation is at the heart of all politics.

I have read some awful stories leaking out of Burma after the Internet was shut down... and really, Myanmar is so wrapped up in their Buddhism, that if no national bad things happen to the country to express Buddha's anger (famine, flood, fire), the regime will feel that Buddha is not against them and continue their harsh regime. Karma is such a long way away when you're still alive!

I went to s small protest near the UN yesterday, led by monks with some speeches and chants. It was nice.

There will be a protest at the Burmese embassy Mondat at 12:30-1:00 also.

not_over_it said...

Alms are offered willingly to the big guy with the belly, they are not begged for, and if they aren't offered with an open heart, good intentions, and clear coinscience then they aren't worthy and won't be accepted.

The military offering alms at the point where the protest began would be like Pat Robertson screwing his mistress in the confessional as he asked for forgiveness for his sins.

teaghan's mom said...

Think of it. We are traveling on a planet revolving around the sun, in almost perfect symmetry. We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all, to feed everybody, clothe everybody, give every human on Earth a chance. We dwell instead on petty things. We kill each other. We build monuments to ourselves. What a waste of time.... Think of it. What a chance we have...."

Buckminster Fuller