Forbidden prayer flags, zoning boards on the warpath, Buddhists guest-editing major newspapers! Oh, my!
Then there’s the more serious news of the week: continued unrest in Burma, increasing problems for the Chinese government because of the Tibet situation, and more shocking stories from post-war Sri Lanka. This week’s “On the Buddhism Beat” is rather extensive, but it has been a significant, utterly fascinating week in terms of news from the Buddhist world.
Take Bhutan, for example…
The Kingdom of Bhutan’s forestry department has warned Buddhist citizens not to cut down anymore trees to make poles for flying prayer flags. According to tradition, one should ideally erect 108 poles in order to fly prayer flags so that the dead will find their way to the Dharma in the next life. The problem, though, is that the forestry department calculates that at the current rate (165 trees cut down daily for the poles, with another 550 felled each day for other uses), Bhutan’s forest will be completely depleted within twenty years. Not only does this have environment implications, but it carries consequences in terms of Bhutan’s much-celebrated emphasis on “Gross National Happiness”: as the BBC reports, the kingdom’s constitution “stipulates that the country must have at least 60% forest cover.” In response to all of this, forestry officers are now limiting the number of prayer flag posts to 29 for each person. In addition, they hope to convince citizens to move toward the use of bamboo for the poles. (As the BBC further notes, however, previous efforts to make the switch to steel poles didn’t work.)
There’s a bit to say about Burma this week, starting with a noteworthy act of defiance. Within days of writing a scathing and widely read editorial for The Washington Post this week, Win Tin, the 80-year-old co-founder of Burma’s National League for Democracy, was taken from his home and detained by the country’s ruling military junta. The longest-serving political prisoner in Burma until he left Insein Prison last year, he was returned home after several hours of questioning.
In other NLD-related news, the political party is asking the junta for permission to reopen their offices ahead of the 2010 elections. Analysts believe the NLD will not present as big of a threat to the junta’s elections as “rising challenges from ethnic unrest.”
Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal team is finalizing their appeal of her recent criminal conviction for violating the terms of her house arrest by giving shelter to American John Yettaw. (Suu Kyi has spent 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest.) Her lawyers are currently seeking permission to consult with their client ahead of the appeal.
Radio Free Asia reports that U Awbasa, leader of the Exiled Burmese Buddhist Monks Association, is saying that Burma’s Buddhist monks, “are better organized since the military crackdown that killed unknown numbers [in the ‘Saffron Revolution’ of September 2007], with more prominent religious figures joining their movement.”
Human Rights Watch this week sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that the Obama administration should “promptly conclude its Burma policy review and adopt initiatives to make its policies on diplomacy, sanctions and humanitarian aid more effective.”
Two reports by the US-based NGO EarthRights International state that “energy giants Total and Chevron are propping up [the junta] with a gas project that has allowed the regime to stash nearly five billion dollars in Singaporean banks.” Total and two Singaporean banks have rejected the report.
The junta, which held a tour of the newly-secured Kokang region of the Shan state for diplomats and the media, said their troops were “acting on a tip-off from China when they seized an illegal arms factory last month, triggering several days of clashes with an ethnic militia that sent more than 30,000 refugees fleeing across the border into China.” This week, however, the Chinese government reiterated in the state media that they “never interferes in [Burma’s] internal affairs and would like to see [the country] resolve its issues through peaceful consultations.”
Shwe Gas Movement, a group of Burmese exiles in Bangladesh, India and Thailand, called on China this week to halt construction of oil and gas pipelines through their homeland, saying “foreign investors faced a ‘perfect storm’ of financial and security risks by doing business with the junta and highlighted reports of forced labor, forced relocation and extortion by government troops in the construction of a much smaller pipeline to Thailand.”
The Irrawaddy offered an effective deconstruction of the junta’s new constitution a few days back. It’s a must-read.
Also good is Time Magazine’s feature this week looking “inside Burma’s war.”
Finally, the BBC’s Ko Ko Aung meets Pao rebel leader Khun Thurein. The Pao are one of the many ethnic minorities in Burma, and the Pao National Liberation Army (a force that is a mere one-hundred men strong) is determined to keep the junta from eradicating them.
Engaged Buddhist hero A.T. Ariyaratne recently joined with Christians in Sri Lanka to salute the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta on the twelfth anniversary of her death. He was quoted as saying, “If the Buddha were to judge the life and work of the Catholic nun Mother Teresa, he would tell us that her heart was one of loving-kindness, which turned into compassionate action, in to karuna. Mother Teresa offered a free joy, the muditha, and lived with equanimity, in upekkha. She was a manifestation of divinity that took on human form, because these four attributes are qualities of divinity.” Ariyaratne, of course, is the he is the founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement–the largest NGO in Sri Lanka. The organization is dedicated to the “sustainable empowerment” of rural Sri Lankans “through self-help and collective support, to non-violence and peace.” Today, Sarvodaya’s 1,500 person staff benefits 15,000 villages in 34 districts throughout Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government this week also said “it has sent nearly 10,000 war-displaced people back to their villages in the island nation’s north and east, four months after the military won a 25-year-old war with Tamil Tiger separatists.” At the same time, officials expelled UNICEF spokesman James Elder from the country after he publicly expressed concerns about treatment of the displaced.
First, congratulations to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who received Slovakia’s Jan Langos Award in Bratislava this week!
In addition, His Holiness will have the honor of serving as guest editor for the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, September 26th, which is very cool indeed. Ten cents of every paper purchase that day will go to the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.
His Holiness visited this week with members of the Global Tibetan Professionals Network as well.
Following his controversial trip to Taiwan, His Holiness also agitated China again this week by voicing support for Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whom he will soon see in Prague at an impending conference on human rights in Asia.
China is further unhappy about His Holiness’ upcoming trip to Arunachal Pradesh state in India—a territory China lays claim upon.
Senior officials from the Obama Administration met with Tibetan premier Samdhong Rinpoche and special envoy Lodi Gyari this week, ahead of the President’s upcoming meeting with His Holiness.
The UK’s Junior Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis made the first ever trip to Tibet by a British government official this week, and called for “greater autonomy” in the region.
According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), Kalden, a monk from Drepung Monastery has died from torture in a Chinese detention center in Lhasa. Kalden was one of 300 monks from Drepung arrested last March on their way to a protest of Chinese rule in downtown Lhasa.
In happier news, the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA), which was one of the first NGOs organized by Tibetans in exile, celebrated its 25th anniversary this week with a gala at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala.
Finally, the leadership of Students for a Free Tibet is changing: longtime executive director Lhadon Tethong will be stepping down on November 1st. SFT International’s Board of Directors has unanimously selected Deputy Director Tenzin Dorjee (“Tendor”) to succeed her.
THE UNITED STATES
The Utica Zoning Board of Appeals has denied a variance to allow a tall statue of Quan Am to be installed at the Dao Trang Minh Dang Quang Temple in New York. The temple community paid $40,000 to buy the statue (and others) from Vietnam, but it’s too big according to zoning board records.
Another Vietnamese Buddhist temple, this one in Arizona, just received a permit from the Phoenix City Council to resume their Sunday worship services. The large congregation is currently meeting in a one-family home in the city’s North Chandler neighborhood, but they’re now looking for a larger space.
Elsewhere in Arizona, a professor of existential philosophy and other Buddhist practitioners are preparing for a three-year retreat in the middle of the desert.
Lastly, Wat Lao Thepnimith, a Lao-American Buddhist temple in Fort Worth, is struggling to rebuild after a devastating fire on their property.
During their recent tour of four European countries, a special delegation from the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha (led by the Most Venerable Thich Thanh Phong) organized “a grand ceremony” in Berlin to mark the Vu Lan religious festival.
The Executive Council of the Vietnamese Buddhist Sangha also held a requiem at the Can Tho Bridge for the forty people killed and eighty injured during its construction in 2007.