An Open Letter to Ma Ba Tha

Top: Ma Ba Tha conference Bottom: Reaching out to Muslims to show loving-kindness
Top: Ma Ba Tha conference Bottom: Reaching out to Muslims to show loving-kindness

 

Recently, I was convinced to go to a “seminar on peace” this past Saturday. Some of you may have seen my picture on Facebook in regards to a Ma Ba Tha conference I attended. I was told that I should not pay attention to the negative press and that they are a peaceful organization and the gathering was about peace. I was also told that I might have the opportunity to tell the organization that they should work for peace with the Muslims instead of separation and hate. They should not blame the Muslims for the exponential decrease in monastic Buddhism in Myanmar (which I will speak about later). That chance to speak never came, and when I got there, I noticed that it was a three year anniversary celebration of the organization rather than a conference on peace. Once I was there I was stuck. I was the token Western monk, and my picture was taken hundreds times by just about anyone with a camera who saw me along with several professional photographers. When the first person took my picture, I smiled. I knew there was nothing I could do about it. If I resisted getting my picture taken, they would have a picture of a monk resisting getting his picture taken. There is a monk at Pa-Auk who doesn’t like his picture getting taken, and everyday pictures are taken of him not being happy about cameras which enhances his dislike for cameras. Contemplating the check-mate scenario I was in made me smile like a father who says to his child with a toy gun, “You got me!”

As we entered the room, the event with probably thousands of monks in addition to the many lay people, was not as bad as the press points them out to be. Nevertheless, they are an organization that promotes “Us and THEM” mottoes:

“THEY will destroy us”

“Do not associate with THEM”

“We must defend ourselves against THEM”

“We must protect ourselves from THEM”

and so on.

Do you get a feeling of peace when you hear these phrases?

Ok.. So much for “The Peace organization of Ma Ba Tha.” (“peace is in the name of the organization)

If I were to give a speech. It would be something like this*.

Here is my open letter to the “The Peace organization of Ma Ba Tha .”

It is true. When Muslims become the majority, it is likely that Buddhist will feel oppressed. It is natural for a majority to oppress the minority. It happens all of the time.. and it is not right.. but it happens. Currently, the Muslims are a minority in Myanmar and they are oppressed.

Second, The Muslims will become a majority in Myanmar just like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan, and other countries. It is unavoidable because Buddhism is going down.

When I started to venture outside of my usual monasteries (Pa-Auk or Vinaya friendly), I noticed that large monasteries were occupied by such a small number of monks. Often just two or three were in a monastery that once housed hundreds of monks. Sometimes there was only one monk. I asked my friend about the numbers I observed. He said that in his village there were 400 monks 20 years ago. Now there are 40. The monk who sits next to me in class gave me similar then and now ratios. His small village was ten monks and now there are only two and one of those is very old and will die soon. So we are looking at a ten to one ratio in 20 years. A 90% reduction in monastics. Gasp.. It is happening all over the world. Ireland is a famous Catholic country and they are having single digit ordinations per year for the whole country. One year there was nobody to ordain.

Are the Muslims responsible for this sharp decline in Buddhism? Why don’t people at “The Peace Organization of Ma Ba Tha” ask this question? Monastic life is the heart of the survival of Buddhism.

The Buddha created Vinaya (monastic rules) to protect Sangha (monastic community) and for Sangha to last for generations to come. Any scholar will confirm this was the the purpose for creating the rules and it mentioned in many if not all of the vinaya study books. The monasteries which follow strict rules of monks have been growing in population, while the “normal” monasteries have been shrinking. The Buddha was right and we can see it clearly with the Pa-Auk and Mahavihara monasteries and their respective populations.

My friend from Mon State explained further that he had ten siblings in his family and the whole village was like that. Families of 12 living under one roof makes sense if you do not use birth control. Ireland was once like that. However, nowadays, people use birth control as a way to gain higher financial status for their kids. They can afford better things for their children and send them to better schools. The schools that families of ten went to 20 years ago were in the monasteries. Now they go to private schools and compete so they can get good scores in the A-level exams and go to Universities, get a good job, and so forth. At the same time, Muslims are likely to still have ten kids and send their kids to the Mosque for schooling. They are doing the same practice that Buddhists followed twenty years ago. It is not as evil as Myanmar says because it was what Myanmar once did. So the numbers games are not working well for Myanmar Buddhist. How can we solve this problem?

Can we tell the Myanmar Buddhists: You must start having 10 kids each.

Can we tell the Myanmar Buddhists: You should not send your kids to Private Schools, to English Medium classes and they should learn at the monasteries. The Suttas, Dhammapada and Jataka stories are good for teaching kids.

Can we tell the Myanmar Buddhists: You should send your kids to become novice monks and miss precious regular school.

Sure we can tell them this, but it is not really right to expect this to happen. Currently, we might guess the Muslim to Buddhist ratio 20% of what the Muslims are producing. Then if we were to calculate that very few monks actually stay monks, we are in big trouble. If fifteen percent of novice monks actually remain monks until old age, this would be good, but this is an ambitious number. How many novice monks ordain and stay ordained all the way to the end of life? Very very few.

Very few children are joining monastic community now and the empty monasteries will yield more empty monasteries. Less exposure, will yield less interest and it will spiral. There will be less “respect learned before they can talk”. Kids will not be around to give almsfood to monks with their mothers. Things are spiraling downward and the future is grim.

Now let us assume the worse.

The Muslims will win because they have a record for winning.

Let us assume a 90% Muslim majority can happen in 200 years (or less). We can make history starting now. There are two options:

We can be friendly, promote loving-kindness, give help when needed, give help when not needed and be friendly and kind to our Muslim brothers.

Or

We can alienate them, oppress them and even fight them.

When they reach the 90% majority. They will look at the history. They will say:

“We are now a 90% majority. These Buddhists have alienated us, oppressed us and even hurt and fought us. Now we are a majority. What shall we do?”

Or they may say:

“We are now a majority. These Buddhists, have been friendly, promoted loving-kindness towards us. They have given help when needed, help when not needed. These Buddhist brothers have been our friends. What shall we do?”

Loving-kindness is the way of the Buddha.

Even if we lose our Buddhist Population, we have a choice:

1. We can lose the population, and lose our Buddhist values.

2. We can lose the population, but retain our Buddhist values.

Let us assume the worst that oppression will happen when the majority happens. Which is the best choice to follow?

If The Peace Organization of Ma Ba Tha really wants to protect Buddhism, it will have to retain its Buddhist values. One must have faith in the power of loving-kindness. Even if it does not work, we should remember “The Simile of the Saw” spoken by the Buddha.

In this sutta, there were robbers who were cutting off the limbs of their victim slowly with a saw. The Buddha told us that we should develop loving-kindness towards these thieves until the very end of our lives. This is the advice of our Lord Buddha and this is the way we shall protect Buddhism.

 

Muslim Imam serving rice at Pa-Auk Forest Monastery on behalf of U Subhuti's Family.
Muslim Imam serving rice at Pa-Auk Forest Monastery on behalf of U Subhuti’s Family.

*Note: Many numbers are assumed and not accurate, but it is enough to give the point across.

 

Article by Bhikkhu Subhuti

Bhikkhu Subhuti is an American Buddhist Monk with roots in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar Forest Traditions. He currently resides in Myanmar but his heart sometimes floats back to Kauai, HI where he spent six months in 2015.

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