Burma’s Monks: Ethics is not confined to Books and Temples

By Farish A Noor
The Other Malaysia

By now the international community is fully aware of the recent developments in Burma, a country that has been under military rule and isolated from the rest of the globe since 1963. The images of Burmese Buddhist monks taking to the streets and defying the armed might of the Burmese junta and its security apparatus reminds us of familiar scenes dating back to the 1980s, and echo the democratic revolutions we have seen elsewhere in Asia, including China, since then.

While the fate of Burma and her people hang in the balance, the protest of the monks — many of whom happen to come from ordinary Burmese families with scant political protection themselves — teaches us a vital lesson and is a model for many progressive theologians and religious activists to follow. It is sometimes said that in the post-Enlightenment age we live in there is little concern for religion and that religion has no place in society. Worst still, the political instrumentalisation of religion for clearly divisive and sectarian ends has further added scepticism for many who believe that religion is best kept out of politics and the public domain, where it has often been abused. (A view that many would concur with). Unfortunately today any talk of religious ethics is often met with images of Bible-thumping evangelists talking of holy wars and moral crusades, angry bearded fanatics burning books and nosey neighbours spying on what the people next door are doing. Are religion and ethics destined to remain forever trapped in the nonsensical and pointless debate over who is holier and who wears his or her religion on the sleeves? Has religion nothing to say on pressing issues of the day such as fundamental political rights and liberties, democracy and rule of law?

The problem faced by many progressive theologians today is having to translate ethics and morality into modern public life without falling into the numerous pitfalls that lie before it: More often than not when morality makes an appearance in the public political domain it is at the behest of right-wing conservatives who merely wish to use ethics and morality as yet another means of domesticating society and controlling the masses. Then
there are the political elites who have turned religious ethics into a mere ideology, fit only for vote-winning and the demonisation of other communities deemed ‘deviant’, ‘infidels’ and ‘Others’. What is needed now is a new vocabulary of religious ethics that takes ethics into the public domain of the present, addressing issues of today and speaking the language of ordinary people living in the 21st century.

Religion, if it is to be real and relevant, cannot be trapped in the myth of some pristine golden age of the past. The morality of religion is not to be found in temples, mosques or churches; or in books and tomes that have been left to rot in libraries of monasteries. One does not find God’s ethics in outdated rituals and empty religious praxis, any more than in the length of
beards, the size of turbans and the cut of one’s holy robes…

As the South African theologian Prof. Farid Esack once wrote, the real mission of religion and faith today is to be a living, dynamic force of social change and transformation, with the capacity of making the world a better, safer and more equal place for all. This is what he refers to as the ‘Prophetic mission’ of all divine ideas, and it has to be remembered that Prophets were seldom Kings or Presidents, but themselves marginal figures who stood on the margins to represent the downtrodden, disempowered and voiceless. Religious ethics, Prof Esack argues, does not and should not be an appendage to power, but must rather speak up to power and its abuses. By speaking up for the people of Burma who have suffered so much under military rule for so long, the monks of Burma are doing precisely that: living up to the Prophetic mission of Buddhism and showing that ethics and morals are out there in the streets and in demonstrations.

For all who profess to be progressive theologians, the events in Burma are of common concern and importance. What is happening in Burma right now is not just important for the country, but it is also important for Buddhism, and all other religions by extension. It proves that religion can have a meaningful impact when its ethics are translated into a real-life context and ethics is something acted out in the public domain, rather than discussed in an abstract manner. One is not good simply because one thinks so, but to be good, to be moral and ethical, requires moral and ethical action as well. The monks of Burma are not prepared to kill for anything or anyone, but they seem willing to die at least for a cause that resonates with the people of the country as a whole. The simple gesture of taking to the streets and standing their ground before the bayonets and tanks of the military junta sends out a clear message to the regime installed in Burma today: Namely that while the army has the guns and tanks it is the people who now command the moral high ground.

With little save the threat of violence to stand on, the army in Burma must realise that it has lost all credibility not only in the eyes of the world but more crucially for their own people as well. And by taking the stand that they have and keeping to it, the monks of Burma have shown us that religion can also be a living dynamic force that has relevance in the here-and-now, and that ethics is not something to be confined to books and locked in the sacred precinct of temples.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 9:01 am

    Dr. Noor is making very sound points here but he does not propose anything other than an intellectual way to move forward. Not concrete ones. This contribution is important of course but frankly, in Malaysian context, the issue of mixing political and religion is the other spectrum not at this end and this article provide fodder to those who victimize religion not harness it usefully.

    Perhaps Dr. Noor still have a lot of faith in his politico-religo community. He is really a bit idealistic. A good trait in intellectual, but not practical..

  2. #2 by RealWorld on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 9:09 am

    Looking at the situation in Burma, we should be thankful that we are Malaysians.

    We should be proud as yesterday we just went to space. This shows that Malaysia can achieve anything.

  3. #3 by megaman on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 9:50 am

    Hi RealWorld,

    Anyone with enough millions can go to space nowadays …

    The issue is do we have a proper space program to create our own satellites, rockets and finally locally-trained astronauts ?

    We can send dozens of astronauts into space. No problems. But at the end of the day, what’s the contributions of such efforts to the Msian society at large other than a publicity stunt ?

    A few more years, it would be forgotten and just a statistics or history in some dusty old records.

    Anyone still remember the details of the Msian team that climb Mount Everest ?
    Anyone still remember the details of the Msian sailor that tried to go around the world ?
    Anyone still remember the details of the Msian swimmer that tried to swim across the Penang strait ?
    etc etc etc ….

    What’s the point of spending millions for just a few lines of sentences in a dusty old record ???

    PLEAASSSEEEE RealWorld stop being so short-sighted …

    If the Malaysian astronaut is shot into with our own designed and built rocket by our own scientists and engineers and he is also trained locally by our team. I would be so damn proud that I would print 1 thousand T-Shirts that say “Malaysia BOLEH!” and distribute it for FREE …

  4. #4 by pwcheng on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 10:29 am

    RealWorld Says:
    October 11th, 2007 at 09: 09.30

    “Looking at the situation in Burma, we should be thankful that we are Malaysians”.

    Obviously you are a very simple minded person, a trait of the natives or sakai of the country. I see that you like to compare with the worst and keep away the best. How can Malaysia improve with your type of mentality, and that explains why the sakai is the same today as compared to 50 years ago.

    I am not sure of the purpose of the Malaysian going to space. Subsequently if it bears testimony that we can reap benefits from it, then we are doing the right thing and congrats to the government and the Malaysian in space but if they just stop short after the man returned to earth just for the sake of creating history, then it is another farce which is happening too often in Malaysia.

  5. #5 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 11:24 am

    When dictators are enthroned, be they Generals or civilians, supported by a system that perpetuate their power unfairly and cruelly to the detriment of the common people, it’s time the international community vex their influence beyond a mere whimper and help bring down corrupt, cruel and crazy regimes.

    What right have the Generals to any claim on power beyond their personal greed for filthy lucre and their mindless hold on those guns which they are only to happy to open fire with.

    Authoritarian and mindless regimes like Myanmar’s serve as a warning to peoples across the world not to take their democracy and system of representative government lightly.

    So, come next GE, Malaysians have a duty to dispose of BN too for their contemptible abuses of power.

  6. #6 by Jimm on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 12:08 pm

    In SEA, we are always closer than we thought.
    The power struggling that widely seen in this region reflects our present situation domestically. We have grown , learning well from IT advancement and networking with the right group.
    Malaysia, uniquely a well-transformed country that able to ‘capped’ most of their people in thinking ‘security’ and ‘status’. The idealogy from education point of view until the working society have well contended to ‘take care of your own self first’ policy. As so, “MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS” have been the priority culture that practices by all.
    This have brought about the country peace for the last 40 years or so.
    Is that good ??
    Well, it does provides a great advantage to the ruling government when things related to country affairs. So much opportunities can be created along the context of development.
    Sediments of racism and religion are the common ‘weapon’ applied to keep all Malaysian ‘stuck’ in their own small world and complete in the rat race to reclaimed their living ‘status’.
    So, MYOB have far inbedded in their thinking process daily.

    As for coming GE which supposedly to be very soon due to many factors that surfaced recently, BN have ‘prepared’ their victory drama well. Everything and those involved already placed their resources into action for the last two months and securing the confirmed results with all planned strategies in place.
    Do get angry with BN as they will win again. We can never bring them down in this kind of GE because they have done their homework too well.

    We all know that nothing last more than the 3rd generations in any trade because of changes. BN can be only waiting for the timing of self destruction to be wiped out. Most of those ‘old dogs’ are gearing up for the final dash with those ‘puppies’ yupping away with their smaller strides yet faster.

    At the end of this journey, they will ‘kill’ themselves over a mega dream that doesn’t really belong to them at the first place.

  7. #7 by shortie kiasu on Thursday, 11 October 2007 - 10:40 pm

    Senior Minister Mentor of Singapore had said it most aptly in the press about the military junta in Myannmar. The junta regime cannot last. Somehow they had lasted for the last continuous 45 years.

    May be the people there needs external assistance in whatever forms relevant and effective. God knows.

  8. #8 by Jamesy on Friday, 12 October 2007 - 9:07 am

    wildbil wrote in Burma Digest:

    Hi Farish Noor,

    Gone are:
    “Bible-thumping evangelists talking of holy wars and moral crusades, angry bearded fanatics burning books and nosey neighbours spying on what the people next door are doing.”

    Should be:
    “Quran-thumping Iman talking of holy wars and moral crusades, angry bearded fanatics burning books and nosey neighbours spying on what the people next door are doing.”

    Dare not to use the later?


    Well said.

  9. #9 by Jamesy on Friday, 12 October 2007 - 9:37 am

    Farish A Noor,

    Are you having some translation problem?

  10. #10 by Jamesy on Friday, 12 October 2007 - 2:00 pm

    Or is it some people are morally higher(holier) than others?

    Of course, “ethics may not be something to be confined to books and locked in the sacred precinct of temples”, but be careful, religious fanatics or religious police may used your statement to justify your “morally higher ground” in accordance to their whimps and fancies in the post-Enlightenment age.

    That, I would say, religion should be confined to Books and locked in Temples, Mosques and Churches.

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