Overturning the Begging Bowl

As a former Buddhist monk, I bow down with the greatest respect and reverence to the thousands of Burmese monks who silently and respectfully walked the streets of cities and towns of Burma to communicate unequivocally their profound disapproval of the treatment of the citizens of the country by the military government.

I saw the picture of a senior monk in Rangoon with an upturned begging bowl leading a march with thousands of monks following in his steps. It was an extraordinary picture. Laypeople lined the streets as the ordained Sangha walked mindfully through the city offering the monks water to drink, throwing flower petals and bowing their heads with great respect. Nuns also joined the monks to express their solidarity.

It is hard to convey to Western laypeople the significance of the decision to join together and form a yatra (pilgrimage) of protest. Monks are supposed keep out of politics, keep away from demonstrations and only give teachings on mindfulness, metta, letting go, chanting, depths of meditation on calm (Samatha) and insight (Vipassana) and the preservation of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

The monks took the very, very rare step of “patam nikkujjana kamma” – overturning the begging bowl – namely a refusal to receive any kind of alms from the government and military. I recall the same decision was made 20 years ago in Burma when the government engaged in a merciless crackdown on fledgling democracy movement and attacked monks. The monks have sanctioned patam nikkhujjana kamma only on a handful of occasions in the past 2500 years of Buddhist history. It takes the most extreme circumstances to come to this collective decision.

The refusal to receive the four kinds of alms – food, clothing, shelter and medicine – signifies that that the donors are so morally corrupt that they cannot make any merit through giving to monasteries and monks.

In a deeply religious country, the overturning of the begging bowl will have deeply shocked some of the devout Buddhists in the regime. They will fear for the karmic results of their actions. Some officers and soldiers have already fled the army.

The military turned their rage on some of the monks. They forcibly disrobed some monks, beat them up, arrested, tortured and caused their disappearance. Any remaining credibility of the government and the army will have dissolved in the hearts of the Burmese people.

The ordained Sangha is the sacred treasure of Burma, the great refuge, the most precious ikon and symbol for religious devotion. Once army officers and soldiers literally laid hands on the monks they had violated the very foundation, raison d’etre, for Burmese society and culture. Nothing will be the same again in Burma, even if the regime continues in power.

Sangham Saranam Gacchami. I Take Refuge in the Sangha.

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