Racism in Asia, Myanmar, and Monasteries

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Racism in Asia, Myanmar and Monasteries

I remember when I came to Sri Lanka, in 2007 and I met a monk who said he was from Slovenia. “Slovenia? What kind of country is that?” I told him that I had memorized the world map in school, but I didn’t remember any “Slovenia.” There happened to be a large world map in the other room and he called me over to see it. He pointed to his country and a bunch of other new countries a few centimeters away. At that time, I had been a monk for 6 years and I didn’t own a television when I was a layman before that either. I’ve been out of the real world for some time and I asked why they would do such a thing. He told me:

“You don’t understand. You come from America where there is a giant mix of people, languages and religions. You grew up with this stuff. You get along with each other. You don’t understand when there is one race that has/wants its own land, language and religion. They cannot live together with the others.”

He was educated in the USA and understood our mentality. He understood the mentality of his people too. We were in Sri Lanka when there was quite a big battle going on between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankans. It was a racial war with the same formula; the same religion, people, language and land. Asia definitely has lots of racism. They take pride in their own races no matter if they are a majority or a minority. As whities, we cannot easily tell the difference between Sri Lankan and a Tamil or a Chinese and Vietnamese person. However, they can. It is very easy for them and they like the distinctions and separations. (I am generalizing here, but it is very true as a whole).

As a white person, I have enjoyed a white privileged my whole life. Now I am part of a minority. As a monk in the Pa-auk world it sort of sucks to be white. You see, the Chinese stick together, the Koreans stick together and the Vietnamese stick together. The Thais and Laos also stick together. At Pa-auk Mawlamyine, they have the general meal line for everyone, but once you turn the corner, there is the Chinese only donation, the Vietnamese only donation and the Korean only donation. As we pass by, you get to know right away that the person in front is part of this club or that, and you are left out because the whities who leave their countries to meditate don’t play that game. The Asians play the game with their private kuties too. If you build a private kuti you can specify a racial preference for who can stay there when you are gone. One Singaporean kuti owner even went as far as to say.. “Malaysian or Singapore Chinese, but no PRC or Taiwan Chinese are allowed. (yack!) In Pa-auk Maymyo, they did away with this kuti racial privilege and there is only one kuti model for the whole place. If the kuti is private, the donor can stay there anytime. But once they leave, Pa-Auk admin gets to choose who stays there. They are learning but I’d bet the habit is still there when it is possible.

In the end though, I think about my white privilege that I grew up with. I am also still receiving a white privilege as a white monk. In Sri Lanka I am called a suddha-vahamsa (white-monk). “White” in the Sinhala and Pāḷi language implies “pure and clean.” That is sort of nice.. if you are white. The local monks despise this white privilege. I guess I would too..if I were Sri Lankan. In Sri Lanka or Burma, being a white monk makes us stand out and we are special. Although we are not special to the Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Sri lankans, etc, and invited to their private parties, we are special to the locals wherever we go. Perhaps we are better off in the long run. I am not sure why, but we are very special to the locals. It is easier to get around on our own because people volunteer to help us. It also helps if you follow vinaya (monk rules) and dress properly among other things. Many white monks follow vinaya. Perhaps that is it. But maybe it is because we represent and have given up the life that so many of them want for themselves themselves. It is respectable to them.

Believe it or not, the term Burma is a racist name for a country because it implies a country that is only of the Burmese race when there are several races like, Mon, Karin, Shan, Dawei, etc. Myanmar is the new name and the country has gone through many different struggles with racism. Sayadaw U Candima who is Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi’s right hand monk was kicked out of Medical school in the 80’s solely because he was ethnic Chinese when there was strong discrimination against them. That time of racism has ended, but in the end, we now have Sayadaw U Candima as the chief admin monk.

Myanmar seems to unilaterally not like the Rohingya people. I have asked around. I live in an Ethnic Nepalese monastery right now, yet for some reason, the Nepalese, Tamil, Chinese, Korean immigrants are OK and valid Myanmar citizens but the Rohingya are not because they are not citizens. “They are from Bangladesh,” is the usual answer.

I tell my friends how the American citizenship system works. If you are born in the USA, you are a citizen. A pregnant Mexican can come over on a tourist visa, give birth in the USA and the child will become a USA citizen. Even if she illegally comes through one of the many border tunnels that exist today (before the wall comes), born in the USA counts as a valid citizenship qualification. It is that simple and that baby can grow up and become our president too. The Myanmar people are surprised when I tell them this and maybe it puts a monkey wrench in the Rohingya situation. That is why when you ask a Myanmar person about the Rohingya, they will say it is “complicated” while the West thinks it is a simple matter.

I support harmony, compassion and loving-kindness. It is not “complicated.” It is simple.

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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.

One Comment

  1. Hmm… I think you’re painting an extremely, extremely – rosy/naive picture of how race is considered in the US.

    I would also point out that white people do not necessarily lose white privilege when they go to Asia and become minorities (a residual effect of colonization of those countries by white people in the past) – it’s a global phenomenon.

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