My post “Is the Buddha really a Warmonger” came to be as a result of several posts, articles, and television news spots that I had read or watched recently. They all had the same focuses:
1) A overly simplistic totally one sided view of the situation in Myanmar (Burma) in favor of the Rohingya Muslims.
2) No coverage of the history of how the situation got to this point such as:
A. The discrimination of the Rohingya early on by the Burmese government.
B. The bombing by the Rohingya of Buddhist temples, religious sites, and government buildings where numerous innocent Burmese civilians, men, women, and children who happened to be Buddhist were killed or maimed.
C. How the Burmese Military terrorized its own citizens for decades and were the ones mainly responsible for the current persecution of the Rohingya.
D. They blamed Aung San Suu Kyi for not putting a stop to the persecution without mentioning the fact that she is in charge of a fledgling government that just recently escaped the total control of the Burmese military. If she chooses to go against the military she may wind up with another coup putting all people living in Burma (including the Rohingya) back under the control of the tyrannical Burmese military.
E. There main point was simply to point out that Buddhist were engaged in killing and therefore just as bad as every other religion. They seemed almost giddy to be able to proclaim that the last religion not to be associated with violence could now be proclaimed to be guilty of this very crime. That all religions were guilty of hypocrisy and therefore all not only bad but the cause of all the worlds’ conflicts.
Even though I am a Buddhist I did not try to defend the Buddhist in Burma or Buddhism in general from this criticism. What I attempted to do is give the other side of the story (there is usually two you know) that they were leaving out in these articles. Showing what had happened to the Burmese at the hand of the Rohingya did not justify any of the horrible acts that are being committed against the Rohingya, it just put the situation into context. There are reasons for things to be in the state they are although these reasons are not excuses. Then I proceeded to show that both sides were guilty of atrocities and that both were wrong for carrying them out. Lastly I tried to show that the traits of FEAR, ANGER, HATRED and VIOLENCE were traits of HUMAN NATURE and did not belong specifically to any of the religions they were criticizing, in particular Buddhism. That these situations around the world are never so simple. In fact a common thread of almost all religions is to minimize or eliminate these very traits and to recognize the importance of treating others as you would treat yourself.
One of the people who had read this post went on to read one of my older posts “Politics, Oh the tangled web we weave”. In their comments they agreed with some of what I had said about the Rohingya situation. They included a quote from the older post on politics:
“Let me ask a question. Do you think that it is possible that if you are on the right, and you view all issues through that lens, that your position is based on reality? What about if you are on the left and you instantly agree with all views on the left but are immediately opposed to any idea on the right, is your position based in reality?”
Buddhistronin, Politics, Oh the tangled web we weave”
They went on to say that they were a Democratic Socialist and that they wished other Democratic Socialist would consider the arguments of the other side.
Definition of social democracy
1 : a political movement advocating a gradual and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by democratic means
2 : a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices
Definition according to Webster
Well it just so happened that I was on a trip when I read the comment. I had woke up about 2:00am and happened to look at my phone. This is when I saw the comment that they had made and so I started typing a long response (curse the inventor of that little touch screen keyboard!! ). I mentioned that I was not a fan of Socialism and that my personal view of it had started forming when I was in South Korea and visited the DMZ (demilitarized zone). There are all sorts of barriers from walls, fences, barbed wire as well as troops there and the main function is not to keep anyone out, but to keep their own people in! If we could only get every American to go there and see this same sight it, in my opinion, would radically change American politics. After I had most of the response typed I had a sudden realization. I could not send the response I had typed not because of any technical difficulty, which is usually the case, but because I was in a Communist country! I was traveling in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic! Since much of what I was writing was very critical of Communism and the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic itself I could actually be arrested for what I was saying.
So I deleted about half the message and then hit send. Unfortunately I didn’t re-read what I was sending and in the end it gave the impression to the recipient that what I was saying was that Socialism was the same as Communism which was not my intent. By the next morning when I was thinking about this some more I realized a link between the Posts on the Rohingya and the discussion about Socialism and Communism. So rather than just respond to the person who made the comment I decided to turn the response into a new post.
One of my main points in “Politics, Oh what a tangled web we weave” was that people tend to see the world through a lens of right or left. Right or left seems to be much more important these days than right or wrong! The problem is when they do this no matter how much sense an idea makes it will be vilified if it originates from the other side. In Buddhism the Buddha taught the concept f the Middle Way. This means that you do not find truth in the extremes, but that it lies somewhere in the middle of the opposites. If you view something consistently from one extreme or the other you are not seeing reality but something that is distorted. So in this post I do not claim that right or left is the correct one but that what is best for the people is somewhere in the middle. We just have to be willing to throw away our partisan lenses to be able to see and idea for the benefit it provides and not where or with whom it originated.
The Buddha set up a system that today would fall on the side of Socialism. He created a framework that relied on a symbiotic relationship of all of those involved. He had to create an environment where the monks could focus 24/7 on their individual spiritual development. Well if you need to worry about money, clothing, or food you cannot really do this. So in the Buddhist community when the lay members come to the Temple they would donate money for the building of the monasteries and for the robes that the monks wore. The monks would go on their begging rounds to get food. They walk from house to house and briefly stand a wait a distance from the home. If the lay member wants to, and can afford to, give some food they will come out and put it in the monks bowl. In return the monk will recite some sutta or Buddhist teaching that will help the lay person in their own spiritual development. Since the lay member lives a normal life they can work a job and earn money but at the same time learn the Buddha’s Dharma from the monks. The monk can now focus all of his time to his Buddhist practice and does not have to worry about the day to day problems of family life and earning a living. One thing to notice is that this whole system is voluntary on all sides. Nobody is compelled to do anything against his will. This Socialist setup worked because everyone involved had the same belief system and the same goals.
In my series “Politics, Oh the tangled web we weave” instead of arguing that left or right is the better option I am arguing that to think that one or the other is the only correct one is a delusion. One simple reason for this is that they both suffer from one of the Buddha’s teachings, that of Impermanence. I was born in 1962 and both of my parents were Democrats (Generally considered left). The truth is that they would not even recognize the Democratic party of today. The very same can be said about the Republicans (Generally considered right). Throughout time what these parties represent, and the ideas of left and right, have been under such constant change that to make a claim that a political idea is truly right or left is a difficult claim to prove. The Democrats of today are portrayed as the party that looks out for minorities. The Republicans are portrayed as anti-minority or at the very least not very concerned with minority issues. But wait a minute wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, the one who set the slaves free, a Republican? Weren’t the Democrats on the side of the slave owners and against Abolition? Weird huh?
The problem with left and right is that they do not exist on a flat line. In reality they form a circle. If you keep going around in one direction you will start to go the other way! The following is not a totally accurate model and is based on the American system but I am using it just to illustrate a point. If you start at the center (middle) and follow the left around the circle you pass through Democrats, Progressive Democrats, Socialism and then to Communism. To the right we have Republicans, Conservativism, and eventually we arrive at Fascism. The point of this overly simplified model is that there is something common when you follow either the right or the left to its extreme. The more you go in either direction from the center the more freedom you lose and the less important your individual existence is. There is not a huge difference living under Fascism or under Communism. Remember the Nazi’s were the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.
As I was writing this I looked up the Webster definition of communism and after the definition was this fitting quote:
On one side stood Hitler, fascism, the myth of German supremacy; on the other side stood Stalin, communism, and the international proletarian revolution. —Anne Applebaum, New York Review of Books, 25 Oct. 2007
Ask anybody who the most evil man to ever live was and they will surely respond with the name Adolf Hitler. History is very skewed in this respect. Did Hitler commit atrocities? Yes of course he and his Nazi government was responsible for killing some 6 million civilian Jews. Of course that is evil! But what is not taught so freely in our history classes is the following:
The Bolshevik revolution , 9 to 20 million people killed
When Stalin took control, 20 – 40 million people killed
Mao’s take over of China, 40 to 60 million people killed
Those numbers are huge! Why are the range of numbers so broad? It is because the very Communist governments that are responsible for the killing control the numbers! Since they want to control the perception of their governments they will not give out accurate numbers and others have to come up with estimations.
In Laos, the country that I was traveling in, there is repression of human rights and we have a similar situation that is going on in Burma with the persecution of the Hmong people.
“The rights to freedom of expression,
association and peaceful assembly
remained severely restricted. State control
of media and civil society was tightened as
Laos hosted international meetings.
Repression of human rights defenders
continued. Two prisoners of conscience
were released in March after being held for
almost 17 years.”
Amnesty International, 2017
There was no love lost between the new communist Lao government and the Hmong People. Immediately the communists were determined to eliminate all the Hmong people. They are still suffering the consequences of backing the losing side in the Vietnam War to this day. Persecution is a daily reality and many Hmong live in fear of arbitrary arrest and torture while experiencing abject poverty. Their lands are being stolen and exploited with gold mining, illegal logging, over building of dams, flooding the land and the reduction of wildlife and fisheries.
It is apparent the Lao Government is intent upon committing genocide against its Hmong population and its neighbors are complicit in this vile objective. When Hmong people seek refuge in other countries they are in danger. Vietnam and Thailand have agreements with the Laotian government to detain and aid the forceful repatriation of Hmong refugees.
The people that died during these Communist takeovers were killed mainly for just speaking out or disagreeing with the Communist leaders. In the cause of the Hmong it was because they were on the wrong side (according to the Lao government) of the Vietnam war. Strange, have you heard anything about the persecution of the Hmong in the western media lately? Ask yourself why Hitler’s name is always first to come to people’s minds when asked the question of the most evil person? It is clear that Chairman Mao wins the Mr. Evil contest hands down. One reason is that the people that are very in favor of these types of governments do not want you to know the truth. It is because the “ideals” of Socialism are so appealing to so many of them. Even though these facts of the atrocities are out there these people think that the problem is not with the form of government it I just that these specific governments have implemented it wrong. Oh course when they implement it these very same things will not occur. What could be wrong with Communist/Socialist ideals that appeal so much to so many of these people that they are willing to ignore history? If you think this is not true just remember the Comments of Anita Dunn, Obama’s White House Communications Director:
“Two of my favorite political philosophers, Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa – not often coupled with each together, but the two people that I turn to most.”
In order to maintain a Communist government you have to systematically remove the individual rights of its people. The people have to lose their rights to freedom of speech and expression, they have to lose their rights to peacefully assemble, they have to lose their rights to own property, they lose the right to due process, they have to lose the right to vote their conscious, and they have to lose their right to defend themselves against an oppressive tyrannical government. Do these things sound familiar? These are all rights that Democracies have to some degree or another. In Communism/Socialism you have to give up the notion of the individual in favor of society as a whole. Remember Spock in Star Trek “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. That sounds nice doesn’t it? Well if Communism is so great why does it always involve so much violence in order to make it work? Why do you need to give up all your individual rights? Why have the two largest Communist countries (China, Russia) had to adopt Capitalist policies in order to survive?
Well what about Socialist Democrats? Are they the same as Communist? No not at all. They cause the change from Democracy to Socialism using peaceful means right? So that’s OK isn’t it? People are voting for these changes. The problem is that the change from Democracy to Socialism means in simple terms a slow transfer of your individual rights to the government! Once you give these rights up you do not have a means to get them back! So in some ways this slow hand over of your rights can be more dangerous because many people are unaware that it is even happening until their rights are already gone. You are trans-versing that circle toward Communism and once you have lost your rights and means to defend yourself if the government decides to become Communist you have no way to stop it.
My whole contention is that Socialist policies can be fine in and of themselves. A good idea that helps people in some way is a good idea. We should not view it through that left/right lens. What I am against is the giving up of individual rights in order to implement the policies. If in a free Democratic society we create a system such as Social Security (which is Socialist in nature) that is fine because as a free Society, if it turns out that this policy does not work, we have the power to change it. Under a Socialist or Communist Government you do not. The government decides what your rights are. Governments have proven time and time again that they do not know better than their citizens. However imperfect a Democracy is it is the best option that anyone has devised to date.
What I realized in when I could not hit the send button to respond to a comment on my blog turns out to be related to the problem in Burma. I could not express my distaste for Communism because in the country I was currently in I did not have that right of free speech. I think the average westerner does not in any way appreciate what not having that right means. The current popularity of Socialism/Communism in the west reflects this fact. I do not think that the vast majority of people who are for these forms of government realize exactly what they will be giving up. You cannot become Socilist/Communist and think that you are only going to get the ideal, the good parts! The reason that Socialist and Communist governments fail is not due to the ideal that they represent. Just like in Burma the ideals that Buddhism represents have to be carried out by people, by human beings. So these governments are subject to the same problem. They fail because of HUMAN NATURE. As FEAR, ANGER, HATRED, and VIOLENCE are all traits of human nature so is GREED, CORRUPTION, and the DESIRE FOR POWER. Whenever all of a society’s power is placed in the hands of an individual or small group of people (relative to the population) bad things will happen. It is just HUMAN NATURE that we cannot handle responsibly that kind of power over others. So instead of the ideals of equality that Socialism and Communism espouse you end up with a few being very very rich with all the power and the rest of the population being relatively equally poor and powerless.
Doesn’t Buddhism teach that we should have compassion for all and should give up the idea of a self-centered self. Yes it does. But the difference is that it is not forced, it is all voluntary. We study the nature of the small “self” so that we can see the truth of how we are interrelated to everything else. Once we realize this we will naturally have the compassion and desire to help our fellow beings on this planet. We act compassionately due to our own realization of the truth. To harm another being is to harm ourselves. This process cannot be forced and has to happen on it’s own in it’s own time. Does this mean that since Socialism/Communism and Buddhism fail to reach their ideal that we should avoid Buddhism as well? No because Buddhism presents a POSSIBILITY of a cure to FEAR, ANGER, HATRED, and VIOLENCE, GREED, CORUPTION, and the DESIRE FOR POWER. Once you realize the fallacy of the small self-centered “self” these traits are simultaneously overcome. You will not need to be forced to do anything. In my post “What is Kongo Zen….” Doshin So points out that they way to change a society is to change what is in the individuals heart and it will naturally radiate outwardly and change society as a whole. For a society is nothing more than a group of individuals living together with a common purpose. So next time you go to hit that send button take a moment to realize how important the ability to do just that is and how bad things would be if you could not.