Successful workshop organized at the Asia Alinyaung Monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Division on 20. – 21. February 2015. 60 monks and 15 lay Buddhists from all over Myanmar came together to address religious freedom issues and the place of religious minorities in Buddhist majority states. The workshop was organized by the Buddhist Federation of Norway (BFN) in cooperation with the Tampadipa Institute and the Asia Alinyaung Monastery.
Ambitious aim. The aim of the workshop “Towards a Buddhist understanding of religious minority rights” was to address questions related to tolerance, freedom of religion or belief and religious pluralism from a Buddhist point of view. Given increasing levels of intra-religious tension in the region, there seems to be a need to affirm Buddhist views on religious pluralism.
The agenda of the workshop included discussions on three important sources, or “pillars” for how to deal with religious pluralism: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed by Burma in 1948) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966, not signed by Burma), both of which where distributed in their Burmese translations to the participants. The task at hand was to discuss these documents from the point of view of the Dhamma. The third and last “pillar” for discussion was the edicts of Emperor Asoka, with special emphasis on Rock Edict 12, where Asoka favours the growth in the essentials of ALL religions/sects (pasamdani). One of the participating monks read out loud the Burmese translations of Rock Edict 12.
The aim of the workshop was to discuss the principles found in these sources, not historical details. Which actions – and for what reasons – are considered to be dhamma, or adhamma, kusala or akusala? Five major issues were discussed: a) freedom to self-determination (in terms of changing one’s religion and in marriage), b) freedom of expression (right and wrong speech, hate speech and freedom of speech), c) human equality d) cultural diversity and religious pluralism, and e) Buddhist perspectives on human rights.
The President of the Buddhist Federation, Mr. Egil Lothe, gave a historical introduction of religious freedom issues in Norway, and how that country has moved from very limited freedom of religion to a system of state support and protection of religious minority groups, including the Buddhist Federation.
Challenging topic, fruitful discussion. Buddhist monks raised various positions and perspectives on the issues at stake. To some monks the very title of the seminar represented a challenge as it could be read as questioning Buddhist practice in this regard. In their view, there was full freedom of religion for religious minorities in Myanmar, and no discrimination against religious minorities. Thus, Buddhism is in accordance with Article 18 of the ICCPR. On the contrary, these monks argued, other religions put restrictions on Buddhism. For example, Buddhism allows anyone to marry Buddhists, while other religions put restrictions on interreligious marriages. It was pointed out that demanding a Buddhist woman to change her religion when marrying a non-Buddhist man implied a violation of the woman’s right to religious freedom.
The situation in Rakhine was not the topic of the workshop, but was brought into the discussion by several of the monks themselves, pointing out that who is a minority and who is a majority depends on the region one looks at. Buddhists constitute the majority in four states only, while Muslims are the majority in so many countries. In Rakhine, the Buddhists are the minority. Also, the changing religious demography of the region is clearly of great concern to many monks, but the need to distinguish between the situation in Rakhine from the situation elsewhere in the country was also expressed.
In a discussion on equality between humans, certain monks argued with reference to the situation in Rakhine that many people think wrongly about equality and that one has to distinguish between host and guests: the immigrant and the citizen are not equal. Yes, these monks pointed out, we have equality among citizens, but not with illegal immigrants. Also, relating to the discussion on human equality, it was pointed out that due to the effects of kamma humans were not born equal. Others again referred to the “vipassana point of view” in which you will see another human being as a human being regardless of distinction; there is no man, no woman, no ethnicity; it is only interdependent origin, it is only a mental phenomenon.
The question about right speech, hate speech and freedom of expression brought about a great deal of discussion and comments among the participants. With reference to the Vaca Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, monks referred to what defines right speech in Buddhism, namely that it is spoken at the right time, in truth, affectionately, beneficially and in a mind of good-will. An interesting discussion took form when one monk raised the relational aspect of speech: what might be seen as good from a majority point of view, might be ill and untruthful from a minority point of view. Others responded to this by saying that truth does not depend on minority or majority perspective.
The notion of Buddhist right speech thus implies certain kinds of restrictions, but the question then is to what extent wrong speech should be punishable. On this issue some argued that one has to follow whatever is the law of the state, while others pointed out that the law could be wrong and that the Buddha said that everyone may say what they want, but that they inevitably would suffer the consequences of their actions. Others in turn pointed to the fact that while right and wrong speech is clearly defined in the Pali canon, freedom of expression is not.
Moreover, with reference to the Kalama Sutta, the Buddhist principle of critical thinking and refusal of blind faith, was highlighted, and it was argued that Buddhism can tolerate and endure harsh criticism. Nonetheless, while some argued that Buddhist doctrines emphasize non-dogmatism and tolerance of other religions (for example as expressed in the Upali Sutta), others again emphasized that the Buddha, while certainly showing deep tolerance, also claimed that Buddhism represented the superior path to liberation, pointing to Buddhism´s ultimate truth claim. By implication, Buddhism´s tolerance is not limitless. The implications of this position, was, however, a point open to debate among the participants.
At the workshop discussions on Buddhism and religious freedom, human equality, freedom of expression and religious minority rights were held in minor groups and then later presented in plenum. The groups made posters in order to express and clearly explain their points of view. These posters are posted in their Burmese originals at this website, together with their English translations.
Ways forward. Reaching a joint conclusion was not the aim of this workshop, but rather to foster a respectful discussion among Buddhists on how one is to deal with religious pluralism. While not necessarily sharing each other´s points of view, the participants joined in a shared concern for addressing issues of religious pluralism and freedom of religion based on the Dhamma. The monks and lay people generally accepted the UDHR as expressing good universal values, but pointed out that human rights and Dhamma exist at different levels of truth: Dhamma expresses eternal values of ultimate truth (lokottara), while human rights are good tools for regulating human behavior in this world (laukika). Buddhism is not concerned with laws in this world, but the Dhamma is compatible with human rights. Ways forward were suggested, the most important being to share the ideas of this workshop not only to fellow Buddhists, but to members of other religious communities as well. Many expressed the importance of religious leaders of various communities to meet and discuss these issues. Also, many supported the idea of having a Buddhist statement in favour of religious pluralism and cultural diversity.
Finally, there was a clear interest expressed in holding similar workshops in their monasteries, or at monastic teaching institutions.