Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Burmese Alms-Boycott: Theory and Practice of the Pattanikujjana in Buddhist Non-Violent Resistance

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Burmese Alms-Boycott: Theory and Practice of the Pattanikujjana in Buddhist Non-Violent Resistance

Article excerpt

Text and Theory

In 2001 the scholar of Engaged Buddhism Christopher Queen suggested that "most Buddhists today, including those who are socially and politically engaged, are loath to challenge leaders, governments, and institutions that have the power to inflict or relieve social suffering" (15). Where Queen emphasizes a political quietism that is still truer of the Buddhist sangha, as renunciants, only six years after his comment (3) the world witnessed in the Saffron Revolution of Burma an example of Buddhist monastic defiance of power that must surely reconfigure Queen's generally valid conclusion.

In the texts and traditions of Theravada Buddhism, it is not often that the idea, and especially an act, of defiance is valorized as a worthy one. There is renunciation, repudiation and denial, but these are generally denials of the self from the pitfalls of samsaric attachment. They are not condemnations of those things per se, but a self-imposed removal from them. It could almost be said that Theravada Buddhism, in particular, grounds itself on a systematic series of such denials: of worldly life, of the entrapments of greed, desire, power, hatred, wealth, gain, blame. Then on a more subtle level, there is also a resistance to the reifying tendency of the mind to misconstrue the nature of the self as inherently existing.

The Buddhist adept chooses not to engage with these externalized forms of craving. The onus is always returned onto the responsibility, control and denial of the egoic self, not an elimination of its misleading worldly objects. By extension, the Theravada sangha is disallowed any direct political actions or judgments. Buddhism is therefore (ostensibly) quietist: its judgments are made reflexively; it leaves the option of mutual coexistence on the existential table. Buddhism never had its Inquisition (so far as the written and other record allows us to believe). The Buddha's first concern was to understand and end suffering by interrogating deluded notions of the self, rather than the deluded structures of social organization that self gives rise to. The site for transformation, or even redemption, is "in here," rather than "out there."

Yet there are, striking for their comparative rarity, instances of the extension of self-denial, to a denial of the other. Yet just as strikingly, such denials maintain the quietism of the general relation to the civil polity by grounding themselves, almost always, in non-violence. (4) Perhaps the most spectacular Buddhist example in recent times of such an extension into civil resistance can be seen in the so-called Saffron Revolution of August-September 2007. (5)

That it should, in addition, act against one of the most heinous totalitarian dictatorships of the last century is something contemporary Buddhist studies, and Buddhist identity more generally, has to come to grips with. It is a demonstration of ethical force that would seem to have all but disappeared in most forms of modern Buddhist self-representation. Considering this example in some depth will be the main focus of this paper.

It will also consider in more ethical-philosophical terms what such defiance amounts to. What I want to do initially is explore the origins and context of the act the Burmese monks actually carried out, designated with the Pali term pattanikujjana kamma (6)--the turning over the alms-bowl to refuse the food offerings, medicine, shelter or "noble rice" of a lay-benefactor, who is also denied the traditional ritual services of birth, death and marriage. (7) The contemporary Burmese monk-scholar Ashin Nayaka defines it--the Burmese is thabeik hmauk--as "literally meaning 'holding onto truth, self-reliance and self-mortification.'" (8) The resonance with Gandhian satyagraha is apparent here, even where it is fortuitous.

The Pattanikujjana Sutta appears in the Auguttara Nikaya, sutta 87:7 of the Eights, and in the Vinaya (in the Cullavagga, V, 20) where it is also framed as a legally-binding agreement that holds the consenting sangha to a collective action, until it might be revoked. …

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