On the Buddhism Beat: Buddhism and activism on the screen and around the world

Without question, this week’s theme is “the movies”: A Tibetan filmmaker is sentenced to a long prison stretch for making a film about discontent within his homeland, a Hollywood star puts in a meaningful appearance at Bodh Gaya, a film festival becomes a flashpoint for U.S.-China tensions, and Burma VJ continues its awards season sweep.

There are also new developments related to the bhikkshuni ordination in Perth and the violence at Bat Nha Monastery. His Holiness the Dalai Lama also continues his many interesting world travels.  In addition, the city of Nara—a crucial point for the development of Buddhism in Japan—celebrates its 1,300th anniversary.


Over at Sujato’s Blog, the venerable offers an English translation of the transcript of the meeting “where Ajahn Brahm was expelled from [Wat Pa Phong] for helping perform a bhikkhuni ordination, as well as the Buddhist Society of Western Australia’s official response to allegations made by Wat Pah Pong. Shambhala Sun Space has previously reported about this incident.

In a related story, the Bangkok Post reports that “the forest monks of [Wat Pa Phong] want the Council of Elders and the Office of National Buddhism to impose stricter controls on Western monks to stop them from ordaining women. They also want the properties of Thai temples in the West to come under the ownership of the Thai Sangha to ensure complete control…[In addition, the Ecclesiastical Council] says it ‘wants [Bodhinyana Temple] back’. It claims [Ajahn Brahm’s temple] was built primarily with money donated by the Thai disciples of the late Luang Por Chah.”


On December 30th, Hla Hla Win, a broadcast journalist with the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was sentenced by the ruling military junta to twenty years in prison for violating Burma’s “Electronic Act,” which forbids the unauthorized use of electronic media.  Hla Win was arrested on assignment at Pakokku Township, Magwe Division, where she had just concluded interviews with Buddhist monks for a story about the second anniversary of the Saffron Revolution of 2007.  The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned her arrest and sentence.

Kyaw Zaw Lwin (who is also known as Nyi Nyi Aung), the Burmese-American imprisoned by the junta back in September, was formally charged with forgery for allegedly making up a national identity card, which carries maximum 7-year prison term. He was also charged with violating the currency act, that could put him in prison for another three years, said his lawyer Nyan Win.

The junta’s foreign minister Nyan Win “promised elections would be held this year and would be fair” during a recent dinner with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). State media added the caveat that citizens “remain vigilant at all times against dangers posed by neocolonialists” (meaning Western governments).

Al Jazeera English reports about international skepticism that the polls will “pave the way to democracy and change.”  In fact, aid groups are apparently preparing for an increased number of Burmese refugees into Thailand and China as a result of the elections.

Al Jazeera English also reports that “a foreign ministry employee and a retired army officer in [Burma] have been sentenced to death for allegedly leaking confidential details of a government visit to North Korea.”

The All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA), the organization that led the Saffron Revolution, has condemned their sentences and called for their release.

Voice of America reports:  “International monitors say sophisticated radios sold by an Australian firm are being used by Burma‘s military despite an Australian embargo against military sales to the east Asian nation.”

The Agence France-Presse is reporting that the junta “has increased basic salaries for low-paid civil servants, a government order said Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to stave off the effect of rising prices.”

The AFP also explores Burma’s flagging tourism industry and its relationship to human rights concerns.

The BBC profiles two Karen families in exile in the United Kingdom.


Both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, will be among the attendees at a three-day, international conference on “Buddhist Heritage” starting today.  The event is organized by the Gujarat government, and is being held at M. S. University, Vadodara.


The New York Times notes the 1,300th anniversary of the city of Nara:  “Built by the emperor Shomu, a convert to Buddhism, Nara played an important role in the spread of that religion in Japan, as evidenced by the ancient temples that still dot the city.”


Chinese state media reported this week that the country’s leaders have “pledged to increase investment in Tibet this year while keeping the restive region’s Buddhist monks on a tight leash.”

At the Gelug Monlam in Bodh Gaya, India, recently, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “There is no religious independence in Tibet and that is why I am still suffering the pain of being a refugee.”

On December 28th, a Chinese court in Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai, sentenced Tibetan filmmaker Dhongdup Wangchen to six years in prison on the charge of subversion.  Wangchen and Buddhist monk Jigme Gyatso are the two filmmakers behind the documentary Leaving Fear Behind. The film is about twenty ethnic Tibetans and their views on China and Tibet, and was filmed inside Tibet. Their footage was subsequently smuggled out of the country so that it could be seen worldwide. Before the Olympics in Beijing, the two were jailed by Chinese authorities. Gyatso was released from prison in 2008, but was tortured during interrogations.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office expressed “serious concerns” about human rights in China following Wangchen’s sentence and other recent incidents.

While we’re on the subject of other such incidents, a Chinese court has sentenced two Tibetan Buddhist nuns to up to three years in prison for their peaceful protest in Kardze.

Meanwhile, China formally told the Palm Springs International Film Festival this week that two Chinese films were being withdrawn from its program “in protest of the scheduled screening of [the documentary The Sun Behind the Clouds:  Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom].”  As the New York Times reports, “While Chinese officials told the festival’s director that the filmmakers themselves had decided to withdraw their state-financed works, many China experts believe that it is the state sending a message, rather than the individuals.” The controversy, though, only served to sell out all screenings of the film.

In a related story, the Washington Post reports: “The United States and China are headed for a rough patch in the early months of the new year as the White House appears set to sell a package of weapons to Taiwan and as President Obama plans to meet the Dalai Lama, U.S. officials and analysts said.”

Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has “played down friction between the United States and China, saying she thinks the countries have a ‘mature’ enough relationship to be able to handle differences of opinion.”

During aforementioned visit to Bodh Gaya, His Holiness the Dalai Lama launched a polio eradication drive in the village:

Movie star Richard Gere was also on hand to lead a candlelight vigil for Tibet through Bodh Gaya:

While in town, Gere also threw his support behind Tibetans for a Vegetarian Society–a non-profit public charitable trust dedicated to turning Bodh Gaya into a “vegetarian zone.”

Because of all the high profile visitors, security at the Gelugpa prayer festival was especially high this year.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is also set to address the First European Tibetan Youth Parliament to be held in Zurich, Switzerland, this April.

Phayul reports: “It is not just human rights activist in China whose GMail accounts were hacked, according to a New York Times report which said a Tibetan student of Stanford University, and an activist of Students for a Free Tibet, was asked by university officials in early January to contact Google as her GMail account had been hacked, indicating that Google was notifying activists whose e-mail accounts might have been compromised by hackers,’ even before it made public its threat to pull out.”

The Associated Press reports that “China has announced plans to build the world’s highest airport in Tibet by 2011, further accelerating investment into the restive Himalayan region.”


The followers of Thich Nhat Hanh who were recently expelled from Bat Nha Monastery have now been pressured to leave their temporary sanctuary at Phuoc Hue pagoda in Lam Dong province. Shambhala Sun Space has covered this conflict extensively.

In a letter to his Vietnamese disciples regarding all the recent troubles, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:  “Our country does not yet have true religious freedom, and the government tightly controls the Buddhist Church machinery…The Buddhist Church is helpless, unable to protect its own children. This is a truth clearly seen by everyone… In the case of Bat Nha and Phuoc Hue, government officials hired the mobs and worked together with them.”

Photo (detail) above via Google News.

Rev. Danny Fisher is Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He also blogs at http://www.dannyfisher.org. Keep coming back to SunSpace for more from Danny each week. And for daily news from the Buddhist world, join us at MahaSangha News.