| Engaged: Thich Nhat Hanh in Hanoi
Photo: Kerstin Duell
It would seem that an event with the United Nations logo plastered all over it should inherently try to be representative. As such, it seemed logical to assume that all of the various strands of Buddhism would be represented at the recent UN-sponsored conference for the Buddhist holiday of Vesak. This, however, proved far from the case. Indeed, top priority seemed instead to have been given to avoiding what can be referred to as ‘Angry Monk Syndrome’.
Immediately upon arriving at the United Nations Day of Vesak Conference, held on 14-17 May in Hanoi, it became apparent that there were very few Burmese or Tibetan monks in attendance. After tracking down one of the few Tibetan monks in the vicinity, I asked him whether this was so. He nonchalantly said, “Yeah, it’s very political. I’m here as a teacher, not as a lama.” He said that he teaches occasionally in the US, and that he is a personal student of the most famous Buddhist to not be invited to the conference, the Dalai Lama. Accounts differ here, of course: members of the International Organizing Committee, which put together the conference, claimed that an invitation had indeed been sent to the Dalai Lama’s office, but his representatives say that no invitation was ever received.
The rumour was that Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, had lobbied very hard to get the Dalai Lama invited. Indeed, the conference would have come close to being a genuinely global event if the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh had been in attendance together. The fact that Thich Nhat Hanh himself was at the Hanoi conference at all was significant, though. After all, it was only in 2005, after four decades in exile, that Thich Nhat Hanh had returned to Vietnam.
Upon my return from the conference, I offered to show some photographs to a Tibetan monk whom I will call Lama Tenzin. He wanted to know whether there were many Tibetans at the conference, and became slightly impatient as I searched through my 700 or so pictures. When I finally showed him a photo of one Tibetan teacher at the conference, a monk named Lama Gangchen Rinpoche, who had presented a paper at the ‘War, Conflict and Reconciliation’ panel, Lama Tenzin almost spit on my computer screen. “He supports Dorje Shugden!” he said.
There is a schism in Tibetan Buddhist theology with regards to the issue of the deity called Dorje Shugden. The overwhelming majority of Tibetan monks support the Dalai Lama, who has publicly disallowed the propitiation of this deity. But there are a few groups that refuse to take his direction regarding the appropriate way to relate to Dorje Shugden. Indeed, many of them vilify the Dalai Lama at press conferences, and on their temple websites; in a recent court case in Delhi, followers of Dorje Shugden even accuse the Dalai Lama of violating their religious freedom. It seems that Lama Gangchen is one of the most prominent of the monks to disobey the Dalai Lama on this issue.
So why had Lama Gangchen been one of those invited to Hanoi, amidst such an obvious deficit of Tibetan monks? A hint on the matter might be provided on the TibetInfoNet website, which suggests the political issues that could be involved. According to information on the site, supporting Shugden – and thus becoming a ‘splittist’ within Gelugpa Buddhism, the sect headed by the Dalai Lama – is seen by some as an excellent career move. “The rush in championing the Shugden cause gives those cadres supporting it privileged access to funds and enhances their personal stature,” the site states. “In a recently publicised letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, Communist Party veteran Phuntsog Wangyal spoke of these cadres as people who ‘make a living, are promoted and become rich by opposing splittism.’ ” The worship of Shugden has become a kind of counter-issue: just as activists follow the Olympic torch from site to site, proponents of Shugden follow the Dalai Lama from venue to venue, shouting that he is an enemy of human rights. To understand this surreal political display, we have to understand the larger dynamics of Angry Monk Syndrome, or AMS.
AMS and colonial history
Opportunistic scrambles for political power and overt displays of anger appear particularly unseemly when they are connected with Buddhism, in large part due to the idea that Buddhism is more ‘detached’ or other-worldly than other faiths. This high standard is in part because Buddhism has a system of inter-locking doctrines and practices designed to guard against seduction by commercial and political cooptation, but it is also a side-effect of Orientalist idealisation. In both realistic and unrealistic ways, then, Buddhists are expected to embody detachment and spiritual values. The period from mid-2007 to mid-2008 has, however, been marked by numerous outbreaks of AMS, which causes discomfort at many levels. For authoritarian regimes who wish to avoid meddlesome human-rights issues when bargaining with other countries, such outbreaks can be extremely inconvenient.
Buddhist monks and nuns are supposed to do more than behave well. They are expected to personify perfection, or at least a more humanly attainable sort of superiority. They are expected to carry the burden of a discipline that most of us enjoy knowing about, but could hardly begin to sustain. This equanimity, achieved through rigorous practice, is believed to allow the individual – and a society – to triumph over gross emotions such as power-hunger, greed, jealousy and rage. Monks, to be sure, must embody these qualities even more than ordinary individuals; and undoubtedly, the ability to overcome anger in everyday life is one of the hallmarks of a Buddhist monk. An angry monk, on the other hand, is inherently in the wrong.
The Hollywood comedy Anger Management, from 2003, played on this belief for laughs, such that the lead actor’s incredibly annoying character forces a Buddhist monk to lose his temper in a most un-Buddhist manner. The not-so-subtle theme of the movie is that anger is good for you, that you need to ‘get in touch’ with your anger. But as this film ridiculed Buddhism’s radical scepticism towards anger, the Dalai Lama has consistently denied – contrary to the Western notion – that it is better to ‘vent’. “Some Western psychologists say that we should not repress our anger but express it – that we should practice anger!” he once stated derisively. Hollywood and the Dalai Lama can agree to disagree, but there is something more important at stake when we consider the figure of the Buddhist monk as a symbol of a certain type of political protester. The activist puts his or her body on the line as a kind of wager, as if to bet on the enduring truth that would survive any harm done to the body of the non-violent actor.
| By his own rules: Lama Gangchen in Hanoi
Photo: Kerstin Duell
AMS is not a common term, to be sure. But the idea behind it does have a very specific history: where one finds colonial and authoritarian repression, there shall AMS be. We find it in odd corners of English literature. George Orwell got in touch with his own colonial frustration in the essay “Shooting an Elephant”, especially when he
was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.
After reading such lines, one cannot help but wonder why Orwell was so angry. But he proceeds to tell us explicitly that
the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
AMS sightings, we learn from Orwell, go back at least to 1936.
In an article called “How Buddhism Became a Force for Political Activism”, the journalist Andrew Higgins claims that the Burmese uprisings of 2007 were a rupture of sorts with the past. “The vanguard role of monks in the Burmese protests,” he writes, “underscores a curious turn for a creed often associated with quiet contemplation.” Higgins is certainly half right: no widely accepted Buddhist teachings encourage the expression of anger in the way that contemporary Western psychotherapists or filmmakers regularly do. But he is wrong to suppose that the contradiction between Buddhist ideals and the realities of worldly engagement arose only in recent decades.
Certainly one of the most iconic images of the 20th century was that of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk in Saigon who set himself alight on 11 June 1963, in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese authorities. After Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph received wide international attention, US Attorney General Robert F Kennedy stated that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” It could still be asked, though, whether Thich Quang Duc should actually be considered an angry monk, since the iconic image that he created through his act of martyrdom actually yields no traces of personal anger. For instance, senior US journalist David Halberstam wrote that as “he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
In order to answer this question, we need to understand the idea behind ‘Engaged Buddhism’, which Thich Nhat Hanh has coined to describe the interpretation of Buddhism as a path of mindful social action. He argues that Buddhism, properly understood, teaches that in general we act unskilfully (in ways that lead to suffering and violence) precisely because we believe that the ‘self’ is limited by our own skin (at the individual level) or a nation’s borders (at a much larger level). For Thich Nhat Hanh, a person or community whose practice is authentic will make progress toward a realisation of ‘interbeing’, which he defines as an appreciative understanding of the way one’s apparently separate self is actually radically intertwined with other selves.
Interbeing is an approximate translation of the classical Buddhist notion of paticca samuppada. Thich Nhat Hanh’s promotion of ‘interbeing’ as an ideal worthy of aspiration reconfigures the idea of ‘enlightenment’ in ways that are clearly social and even political. His interpretation can partly be understood as a modernist attempt to reverse Buddhism’s historical ‘quietism’ – though it should be noted that Thich Nhat Hanh draws on a number of classical Buddhist texts to firm up his claim that Engaged Buddhism is indeed part of the authentic stream of Buddhism, and not a modern digression. In any event, Thich Nhat Hanh denies that Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was in any way an impulsive expression of the ‘afflictive’ emotion – such as depression or rage – with which we would generally associate such an action. This interpretation is certainly strongly reinforced by the visual and verbal documentation provided by both Halberstam and Browne.
Others have portrayed the issue very differently. Neo-conservative historian Mark Moyar, for instance, has argued that the actions of many of the monks who helped to topple the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem were actually taking part in relatively mundane struggles for worldly power, working the triangle of Washington DC, Hanoi and Saigon to their personal advantage. Moyar frequently portrays such figures as anything but peacemakers. “A mob consisting of militant Buddhists and other protesters hurled rocks at policemen and hit them with clubs,” he writes.
| Thich Quang Duc, Saigon, 1963
By Malcolm Browne.
Despite what white folks in Europe and America might think, monks have often been a politically instrumental force in South and Southeast Asian countries. For instance, there has been a higher tolerance for anger during the most recent protests, such as the monks protesting against the military junta in Burma during the fall of 2007, and the global protests that shadowed the Olympic torch relay during the spring of 2008. And yet, the image of the ‘ideal monk’ – otherworldly and always happy – seems to prevail. This image is a rhetorical source of power, but one that can also function as something of a semiotic trap. In a magazine article from 2006 on the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra noted that it is “the fate of great spiritual leaders to be both lighthouses and lightning rods.” As many commentators do, Chopra placed most of his emphasis on the former: “[The Dalai Lama’s] visits bring out throngs of people. What they crave is his presence and his peacefulness. He travels the globe to remind us of our better selves.”
Take note of how hagiographic images such as Chopra’s eventually become a kind of ideological cudgel. If such a person presumes to make any sort of material difference in the world, then the ‘ideal monk’ becomes something more like a hypocrite, since he has supposedly renounced worldly activity but simultaneously attempts to accrue worldly power through religious activities. One attack, then, is to say that an ‘ideal monk’ such as the Dalai Lama should have nothing to do with politics; but the other horn of the dilemma asserts that the Dalai Lama is anything but an ideal monk. Ideal or not, however, it is nevertheless a fact that protesting, enraged Burmese and Tibetan monks have been making the news in recent months.
A better way to avoid AMS
For authoritarian regimes destabilised by protesting monks, there are three ways to avoid Angry Monk Syndrome. First, you can have a horrible disaster, one so bad that the issues that had given rise to the anger in the first place will seem properly secondary. Monks can resist colonial authority (as in Orwell’s Burma) or authoritarian repression (as in Diem’s Vietnam or the Burma of today), but the anger is constantly measured against the rhetorical constraints. Consider how quickly the Tibetan movement had to change its tack after the Sichuan earthquake. In the wake of 70,000 deaths, after all, it would have been extremely unseemly to continue to express public anger in the way that had been done during the previous two months. The earthquake immediately put the monks’ anger on the backburner.
Second, you can censor and exclude. A good example of this could perhaps be deciding not to include Tibetan monks at the Vesak Day conference unless they were associated with Chinese-orchestrated attempts to subvert the Dalai Lama’s considerable international prestige. The cost of this strategy, of course, is that in so doing one is merely managing the symptom – and, in the process, badly damaging one’s own credibility.
Third, you can experiment with actual dialogue. It is important to note, however, that this will often require more than the mere power-plays of a secure power elite. Under various circumstances, it will also call for a different sort of rhetoric – for the skills of an artist or a poet or a musician. In this, I recall a particular moment from the Vesak conference, which potentially taught me a most lasting lesson. Thich Nhat Hanh had come onto the stage with a delegation of some 400 students. They proceeded to perform a beautifully arranged religious chant, one that sounded like a well-conducted musical performance.
In beginning his subsequent teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh stated that we should all have an art of some sort. He began to tell a story, a rather simple one. (In the past, critics have become impatient – angry even – with this monk for his sometimes simplistic tone, similar to the way in which he invites small children to sit up front when he gives a talk.) In Hanoi, he spoke of a dysfunctional family, in which the father hated the son and the son hated the father. In hearing these words, my first thoughts were inevitably about my own family, of my own father and my own son. The lesson seemed clear: be mindful, love better. But then, I looked more carefully at the row of monks and nuns from Vietnam, and wondered whether they would face suspicion from the government, since any association with those Vietnamese who left after 1975 can be risky. Would they be punished due to their association with ‘Thay’, as he is called by his students?
Looking more carefully, I noticed those accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, sitting in the back rows of the stage. Many of these individuals were, like the monk himself, also returnees, Vietnamese who had left in 1975 rather than face re-education camps and possible death. I remembered my guide, who explained that “Those Vietnamese who left in 1975 hate us.” I realised that, against all odds and with great artistic subtlety, Thich Nhat Hanh was arranging a dialogue, under the most difficult of conditions, and was taking the opportunity to retell a version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In Thay’s telling, the son departs, and then the son returns. There has been hate, but there can be hate only because there is great misunderstanding. In general, anyone who tries to create such dialogue, such possibility for healing – in the Vietnam context and elsewhere – is inevitably forced to endure torrents of negativity. He did not look like an angry monk at all – sad and hopeful perhaps, but not angry. From watching Thich Nhat Hanh, you would not think that he liked to gamble. But it suddenly appeared to me that he was willing to gamble quite bravely.
Monks have always been part of the social world. In the Buddhist master narrative, a man leaves the world for a time but then returns to the world, to teach and to help. A few additional AMS spottings include Sri Lanka, Inner Mongolia, the endangered forests of Thailand and post-Pol Pot Cambodia. In these situations, members of the sangha show up, risk punishment, and eventually try to find a middle way between anger (enraged Buddhism) and quietism (being an ideal, smiling monk who cannot act).
After recently hearing several presentations on violence in Sri Lanka, I wanted to hear from Mahinda Deegalle, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and a senior lecturer in religion at Bath Spa University, in the UK. More specifically, I was interested in what conferences such as the United Nations Vesak Day could offer, if anything at all, to improve conditions in Sri Lanka. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends “deep listening” as a political practice; could this work in Sri Lanka, as well? Deegalle said that Sri Lankans are potentially interested in dialogue, but that they tend to be very suspicious of references to ‘inter-faith dialogue’, worried that conversion, not conversation, is actually the aim. “Sri Lankans at this time are not talking about reconciliation, because they have no agenda,” Deegalle said. “They are riding on their emotions.”
“Aren’t Buddhists supposed to specialise in calming emotions in just this kind of case?” I asked.
“Yes, that should be the case,” he responded vociferously. “But things have gotten pretty bad now – we have completely lost patience. As with the Israelis and the Palestinians, the situation between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Sri Lanka is so terrible that no listening is possible at the moment.” He pointed out that there were certain kinds of conversations that were simply not likely to take place in the home country, in the home monastery, but which can occur more easily abroad. In this way, such conferences do offer something. “These problems can only be resolved,” Deegalle said, “if you have less anger, less reaction.” Towards this end, Deegalle feels that it is quite useful for monks to have retreats, of sorts, from the oppressive reality of Sri Lanka’s on-going failure to handle its problems.
Evidently, to only have meetings in places where one is fully confident about freedom of speech will not solve the problem either. A thriving market economy can be as much of an obstacle as a state that fears an eruption of Angry Monk Syndrome. The state is going to attempt to guard its own prerogatives jealously, and it might be useful to debate which country is the best location for an event like the UNVD. At the conference, this matter was discussed, but the organising committee ultimately failed to agree on a subsequent site. One supposes that Hanoi and Bangkok are fighting over who will get to host the event next time. Hopefully, they will stick to Engaged Buddhism and refrain from Enraged Buddhism.
~ John Whalen-Bridge is a professor of English literature at the National University of Singapore.