Recovering (From) Faith: Buddhist Monks


I watched an amazing movie last week called Burma VJ. It’s expired off of Netflix right now but maybe it’ll come back or if you have another way to see it, you should totally watch it. It’s about the political uprising in Burma several years back led by Buddhist monks, entirely filmed by this underground group of camera-men, who have spent the last couple decades filming their repressive government and then smuggling tapes out of the country because, as the leader said at one point in the film, he feels like it’s really important that people not forget about them, that they know what’s going on.

I totally spent most of this movie crying, which is probably partly about me and how prone I’ve been to crying lately (possibly more on that on Friday if you’re super lucky) but also because it’s a genuinely amazing and heartbreaking story. Not because it worked – it didn’t. Burma is still under repressive military rule. Many of those monks disappeared, some bodies were found and many more were not. But to watch the footage of the couple of weeks before everything fell apart. Thousands of monks, walking barefoot through the country, holding up their alms bowls upside-down to show they would not be accepting money from the generals. As they described the beginning of this protest, the man explained that the monks are not typically political. Normally they don’t comment on these things. But there have been times throughout the history of the country, when they felt that the people were being oppressed beyond bearing, when things were at a breaking point, when they would step forward. And people began to join them. It was slow at first. Everyone was so afraid. Everyone had been so frightened for so long. But they watched these men walk through the streets and you could actually see hope start to form. And slowly they started to join them. And pretty soon it was thousands and thousands of people marching with them, begging for change, begging for freedom.

I could not help wondering what that would be like. I grew up being told I was a soldier. War imagery is super common in evangelical Christianity. I mean, they always hasten to add that we don’t condone violence, that Jesus didn’t condone violence. But it’s still us versus them. And politics are so much a part of that. They are the most a part of that. There is no point where you are staying out of politics until you feel people are oppressed beyond what they can bear. It is not about the oppression of people at all (unless the people being “oppressed” are you and yours). It is about attacking and claiming land and staking territory.

And here are these monks. Thousands of monks, marching through the streets and they are chanting a demonstration chant with all of these hungry, beaten people begging for hope.

May all the beings living to the east, all beings of the universe be free.
Free from fear, free from all distress, free from poverty.
May they have peace in their hearts.

I cried and cried. I’ve been to a few demonstrations in my life. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve been to religiously themed things. I’ve never heard anything like that. Sometimes there was prayers for peace but of course the problem with being Christian is the belief that no one has peace without our God. To wish for them to is kind-of blasphemous. We don’t want them to have peace, if they have peace, they’ll never find Jesus and obviously it would be cruel of us to not want them to find Jesus. We can feed them, we can give them clothing and shelter but none of it matters as much as Jesus. And here are these beautiful Buddhist monks, who must know exactly the dangers they are walking into. They are chanting for peace and freedom with no quantifiers, no exceptions.

People are capable of more beautiful things than I can wrap my mind around, much more bravery than I can comprehend. If I ever claim a faith again, I would want it to look like that.


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