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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Buddhist Anarchism in Burma?

Editor: The following is an investigation into the ongoing political crisis and movement for democracy in Myanmar through the reportage of a blog, InsightMyanmar.org, written by an American Buddhist in Myanmar.

I don’t know the identity of all the owners of this blog and podcast. Their names are not published anywhere on the site that I can find. Joah McGee is listed as an author of the predecessor blog, BurmaDhamma.blogspot.com, and the guide to Buddhism in Burma, The Golden Path. I listened to the first podcast episode, introducing the podcast. It’s immediately apparent that the podcast host is an American Buddhist. He [unnamed, possibly Joah McGee]states that his goal for the podcast was to produce an audio companion to The Golden Path for foreign visitors and meditators interested in dhamma practice in Myanmar.

Joah has been publishing blogs on Buddhism in Myanmar since 2013. (The expulsion of the Rohingya by the Tatmadaw military began in 2012.) The podcast began on January 19, 2020, just before the start of the global coronavirus pandemic, although it was probably in preparation for many months before that.

InsightMyanmar.org early blog and podcast entries begin in 2020 with stories and conversations with Buddhist monks, mostly European or American and English-speaking, and their dhamma practice. It then turns to the immediate crisis of the pandemic, and then following the national elections and the military coup in February 2021, begins to cover the popular resistance to the violent regime of the Tatmadaw. The latest blog posts cover the ongoing democratic resistance in great detail.

My question about this blog, podcast, and especially the following post of May 6, 2021, is this: is the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar pushing the religious Buddhists, particularly the Burmese Sangha, towards more radical political positions? If so, and there seems to be some evidence of this, how will that affect the Sangha and the practice of Buddhism in Burma?

[Blog author]: Myanmar is basically a Buddhist country, no matter who the leadership happens to be, so shouldn’t monks and meditators stay out of worldly affairs and just focus on their Dhamma practice, accepting without resistance whatever reality happens to manifest? This is the question I posed to Ashin Sarana, referencing that some meditators [who] are currently espousing these kinds of views, and wondering where he stood on itU Sarana is also horrified to learn that some foreign practitioners buy into the argument that Buddhism can thrive no matter which ruler happens to be in power.

Ashin Sarana, European Buddhist monk, responds:

I believe that this is caused by lack of knowledge about history, because we need to understand the circumstances. So the idea that the military poses no threat to Buddhism, or that is basically that it is the same for the Buddhists whether there’s military or whether there’s democracy, is a very clear display of lack of knowledge about history, in Myanmar, and in other Buddhist countries as well. There’s a lot of historical knowledge that this person is missing. There are beautiful, detailed articles on 2007 revolution and 1988 revolution in Myanmar, and they contain very important details that show us why the military role is not appreciated.

[Blog author] Ashin Sarana is speaking out, and he’s prepared for the consequences. “I’m basically ready for everything,” the Czech monk tells us. “I’m ready that they will come and they will destroy property, I’m ready that they will arrest me, I’m ready that they will expel me.

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Editor: The blog’s shift toward radical politics continues with this recent post of May 6, 2021, advocating for the Burmese to adopt a Buddhist Anarchism. It was written by an “American Buddhist Anarchist” who is not living in Burma, but its ideology is clearly supported by the blog authors.

So then the question is this: how can a person espouse Buddhist Anarchism and at the same time, espouse deep loyalty to the Buddhist Sangha, which is a religious hierarchy? That is a question that might have to be posed and answered in an upcoming Engage Dharma podcast.

The article itself is a lucid explication of Buddhist Anarchism, and worth reading to the end.

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Today we received the following message and request to share this post, which we are doing. Enjoy!

I’ve really appreciated your coverage of the coup and revolutionary movement in Myanmar. I wrote this little essay in support from an anarchist perspective. If you like it, I’d appreciate you sharing it with your contacts who may also be interested, anarchist or not. Thanks for all the support you have been giving the movement. It is reaching people and helping build international support among meditators and engaged buddhist activists like myself.


To ensure that victory is achieved and peace is lasting, revolutionaries, especially those who are Buddhists, should consider these ideas.

Myanmar, also known as Burma: It is one of the world’s most devout Buddhist nations as well as one of the world’s most violent, home to the longest ongoing civil war in modern history. It is the birthplace of the modern insight meditation movement, which has planted roots all around the globe, spread the Dhamma and benefitted millions of lives at home and abroad. The insight meditation movement is itself a child of anti-colonial struggle, bringing true Dhamma to the people in order to protect the teachings in the face of Christian missionaries and British colonial influence. After winning independence from the colonizers and the military government multiple times, the people of Myanmar are once again fighting for dear life after the military coup which deposed the civilian government. 

The current movement is winning. It is winning because it is very decentralized, leaderless and anti-authoritarian and employs a diversity of tactics to resisting the regime. The military can beat, kill, imprison and terrorize the people, but they cannot terrorize a leaderless , decentralized movement. The movement is also hard to destroy because it uses many tactics to meet its goals and supports itself. While the youth are risking their lives protesting in the streets, a massive movement of mutual aid, from trash collection to COVID relief to supporting government workers on strike, has taken form. Society is organizing itself in defense against the government’s terrorism, and it it is running things better than a corrupt government ruled by elites ever has or could. 

Anarchism is a political philosophy which opposes domination and violence. Anarchists believe that the greatest sources of violence in the world are governments, with their militaries, police, prisons and discriminatory laws, and capitalism, which exploits, abuses and commodifies people, forcing them to work for a wage just to survive and giving the greatest benefits to those who work the least. The goal of anarchists  is to bring about a liberated society through the process of social revolution. They advocate doing this by educating themselves and others to understand the situation they live in, imagining how to change it, and then organizing in social movements to challenge oppressive systems, so that they can be replaced with a more peaceful and just way of governing ourselves and making a living.

Buddhist anarchists are anarchists who believe that living according to anarchist values and advocating for anarchist goals is the best way to live according to the ethical prescriptions of the Buddha: to practice non-violence, generosity, compassion and right livelihood. Some buddhist anarchists may also pray or meditate both for their own liberation from suffering and for the liberation of all beings. Buddhist anarchists believe that complying with the unjust rules of society makes it almost impossible to follow the Buddha’s dhamma. Just to survive in this world we have to exploit, to cheat, to steal, to gain at someone else’s expense, and thus suffer the negative consequences of our actions. But Buddhist anarchists also believe that we can and must change the world so that every single person is free to work out his or her kamma and his or her liberation. Under the current system very few people have the time, the money or the education to lead an ethical life, much less pursue liberation. The world must be changed for the dhamma to live. We cannot put this off until a future life or force this responsibility on others. As the American Black Panther activist Assata Shakur once said, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Some demands of Buddhist Anarchists:

  • The Buddhist Sangha must resist the corrupting influence of the government. For the preservation of the true Buddha Dhamma, Buddhists must insist on a firm separation of Sangha and State, demanding that the government not institute a state religion, and ultimately must be abolished. If this is not done, the sangha will continue to be corrupted by and complicit in the violence of the government and the people will lose their faith in true Dhamma.
  • Stop persecution of religious and ethnic minorities by Buddhist leaders and government. Educate and organize the people against racism and xenophobic propaganda.
  • Defund, disarm and disband the Military and Police. As long as these institutions of violence exist, conflict over power will continue and the people will not be free to govern themselves peacefully. They call the people’s self-defence violence, but they call their violence the law.
  • The protest movement must be decentralized: leaders may arise, but leaders can easily become politicians who act for only their own benefit. Leaders must come from the grassroots and stay with the grassroots. By joining or compromising with the state, they make the movement weaker by redirecting people’s energy to preserving the status quo. By investing too much hope in single leaders, the movement becomes vulnerable to repression. The government only has to kill, arrest or silence enough of the leaders for the movement to become uncoordinated and fragmented. The way the leaderless protests have been fighting now, from the streets to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), is what has allowed them to survive such severe repression.
  • The Sangha (monastics and laypeople) must make an effort to start mutual aid programs for people struggling during and after the revolution and redistribute its excess wealth to the people. When the Sangha becomes too separate from the people and obsessed with gathering wealth and donations without giving anything in return, the people lose faith and the true dharma is lost. Laypeople and monastics should keep in mind that making merit is an act of generosity and social solidarity for the collective good, not just for one’s own benefit or for one’s family. The merit earned by sharing wealth and practicing the true Dhamma is vastly greater than merit earned in self-centered giving and hoarding.
  • The struggle for democracy must be for a true democracy and against the state. The endless cycle of coups and elections can only be ended by rejecting the quest for control of the state and giving all power back to the people themselves. Instead of electing members of the elite classes to represent them, the people can organize communes, where each person has a vote that counts equally, from the village level up to the town, the district, and the nation to govern themselves and realize actual liberation and peace. This way, most conflicts can be solved with dialogue not violence, and there will be no need for a central military or police force to protect the people, who are well fed, supplied and capable of protecting themselves. The anarchist-inspired system of Democratic Confederalism adopted by the people of Rojava, a region in Syria which has been plagued by similar conflicts since the end of colonization, might be a helpful example for ending inter-ethnic conflict and supplant the government’s tyranny with democratic autonomy for all minorities.
  • Buddhist anarchists demand the end of capitalism and economic exploitation. One cannot live a right livelihood by exploiting others’ labour, be it a worker in a field, a factory or an office, or a wife, daughter or mother’s labor in the home. Only when every person has their needs met can we freely contribute our work to society as equals. Workers should organize labor unions and cooperatives, strike for better treatment and in protest of the regime along with the rest of society. Anarchists advocate that workers launch a General Strike of all workers, stopping production, transportation, administration and communication industries to paralyze the system non-violently topple the government. Ordinary soldiers are also exploited by their superiors, and should be encouraged to defect and disobey orders from their commanders and instead protect and side with the people.
  • Buddhist anarchists support the people’s movement by advocating for particular methods of protest and organization: direct action, direct democracy, direct insight, education, mutual-aid, solidarity, and non-violence.
    • Direct action: taking action to win freedom without the approval of governments, ministers, representatives or religious higher-ups.
    • Direct democracy: Every single person gets an equal say in political decisions and no person or group gets to dictate policy for another. Decisions are made from the bottom up centering those most affected by them.
    • Direct insight: Using Buddhist meditation and study to understand one’s own mind. By directly perceiving one’s own suffering and seeing through delusions, Buddhist anarchists are able to bring deep wisdom and compassion from their own hearts and into the streets. Meditation practice can help reduce the stress of protesting and organizing and help activists maintain a peaceful mind in the midst of struggle.
    • Education: Buddhist anarchists can form study groups to analyze their situation, expand their knowledge, define their political ideas and plan their liberation. This is more than just reading books or practicing Dhamma. As a study group buddhist anarchists can bring new ideas, debate and teach one another while developing a collective theory which is appropriate for their situation. These study groups can also go on to form the core of social organizations, media collectives, mutual aid societies, feminist collectives, unions, protest medics or meditation groups and can bring in new members and help them learn, free their minds and radicalize themselves.
    • Mutual aid: a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions without relying on governments, large charities or wealthy donors. It is also very much like the Buddha’s principle of dana, or generosity, one of the great perfections to be cultivated on the way to enlightenment.
    • Solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all. We are all bound up in each other’s suffering. We are all bound up in each other’s liberation. The people must see past their divisions and unite around common needs and ideals. When one workplace goes on strike, everyone else joins in. When one town rises up in protest, the whole country joins in. When anarchists in one part of the world are struggling, anarchists everywhere support them.
    • Federalism: Rather than having orders handed down from a central organization, the people can join together as autonomous groups and form democratic federations to make decisions and support each other while respecting each group and person’s freedom.
    • Non-violence: Buddhist anarchists will refrain from taking life and organize to prevent violence against others. Non-violence does not mean being polite. Buddhist anarchists do not reject the use of non-lethal force in cases of self-defense against oppression, and advocate strategic sabotage of private and state property, such as police vehicles, weapons, industrial machinery, roads, government buildings and so on. They will oppose police brutality, ethnic violence, domestic violence and try to create a society which reduces violence at all levels of organization. The sangha’s historic commitment to non-violence can inspire the people as a whole to reject the violence of the regime and build a peaceful society.
    • These are just a few suggestions. We are writing from the international anarchist and Buddhist communities to the people of Myanmar. We are not there in the streets  with you, but we wish to extend our warmest greetings of solidarity and support for your movement. We hope that these ideas will be encouraging and help you develop a living Buddhist anarchism in Myanmar which is relevant to your needs in this urgent time. If you read this and have suggestions, requests or criticisms please contact me and if you liked it make sure to share this with a friend. We call on other international anarchists and engaged buddhists to support the people’s struggle in Myanmar with material donations, writing and solidarity actions in protest of the regime.For the endless Saffron Revolution. May all beings be free.In solidarity,An American Buddhist Anarchist

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This entry was posted on 2021/05/21 by .

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I do Tai Chi with Paul Read, the Teapot Monk, @ 21st Century Tai Chi Academy https://www.21stcenturytaichi.com/academy/89szm

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