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American Buddhists Fail To Stand Up To Islamophobia

By Dr. Lawrence P. Rockwood

09 March, 2011

Dalai Lama Reviewing Indian Troops

I was recently participating in an action by a coalition of four Jewish groups protesting the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York City for not opposing Islamophobia. I wondered where are my fellow American Buddhists on this issue? During the demonstration I realized that American Jews on both sides of the issue of Muslims in America / Israel at least cannot deny the central role their co-religionist play in the conflict. That knowledge gave those American Jews around me an especially skillful role in the reconciliation between Muslims and non-Muslims. Does not the history of Buddhists-Muslim conflict provide a similar opportunity for American Buddhists?

Over the last decade, Bangladesh almost went to war a number of times against Burma. As military forces positioned and repositioned themselves in the jungles and waters along the Bangladesh / Burma border, American Buddhists and other spiritual seekers lined up to buy the latest book on compassion and wisdom by the Dalai Lama. How can book buying American Buddhists be tied to this far away and distant conflict? And in general, what is the relationship between my fellow American Buddhists to current wars as Buddhists and, in particular, as American Buddhists living in a post 9-11 world?

The near invasion of the Bangladesh military into Burma has many causes, one is the demand by Burmese Buddhist monks that the Hantha Mosque in Taungoo Burma be destroyed in "retaliation" for the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in March of 2001, six months before the attack by allies of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, on New York city. Not only was the mosque destroyed, 200 Muslims were killed and 11 other mosques were destroyed in anti-Muslim riots. It is not possible to validate this terrible slaughter and persecution, but the Burmese Buddhist leaders did just that.

The reason Mullah Muhammed Omer, the Taliban leader, ordered the destruction of the pre-Islamic Bamiyan Buddhas was in retaliation of the defeat of Islamic insurgents, Taliban volunteers among them, at the battle of Kargil in Kashmir in 1999. It is not possible to validate this terrible destruction of the sacred of Buddhism, but the Taliban did just that.

The battle of Kargil was a victory of the Indian Government in its more than half-century war against Muslim insurgents in Kashmir. It is not of concern here whether this is a just or unjust war, just that the combatants on the Indian side were ethnic Tibetan soldiers of the 45 year-old Special Frontier Force (SFF) of the Indian Army. The forces went into battle with the special rites or blessing of the Dalai Lama while the Tibetan Government in Exile provided much more material forms of support to include a military draft carried out by that government's official school system. And is not the concern of this article whether this war either just or unjust, only that troop blessing monk has not been the Dalai Lama sold to millions by Hollywood actor Richard Gere. Consequentially, the hundreds of millions donated to the Tibetan exile community by Americans is going to, rightly or wrongly, a community at war.

In 1998 this author interviewed an ethnic Tibetan deserter from the Indian Army who was treated as a pariah and even hunted down by his own ethnic community. Here was a man drafted by the Tibetan Government in Exile and then redrafted after six years in the military, a man whose very existence challenges the packaged image of the leader of that government in the West.

I cannot find any evidence there is such a thing as conscientious objector status in the SFF. The focus of controversy over the Force among members I interviewed in the Tibetan refugee community in Indian was the presence of ordained Buddhist monks among its officer corps. However, it must be noted, that, despite the traditional Buddhists rules for monks, there have been Tibetan monks in military formations for centuries, the ldas ldos. I found that concern over the presence of these monks in the Indian Army officer corps seems to depend on what school of Tibetan Buddhism one belongs.

After the 1999 conflict in Kargil, a Tibetan jawan wrote a famous song about the experience of being in the Frontier Forces. Maybe with this song the devotees of Tibetan culture in the west can finally appreciate a long secret part of that culture and a war they knew nothing about.

It is not the concern here whether the war that is being directly supported by the Dalai Lama and indirectly by American Buddhists such as Richard Gere is a just or unjust war, only their activities put food in the mouths of women and children on one side of a conflict and not on the other. However, you should not stop doing something just because it is not neutral and long you can see what others see.

The SFF was formed after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and approximately 10,000 serve in total in the Indian Army. The initial recruits into the SFF was from the Chu-She-Khang-Druk, a CIA trained guerilla army mostly from Kham (southeastern Tibet) who fought an unsuccessful war against the Communist occupation of their homeland that bled over into central Tibet triggering a max exodus of Tibetans including the Dalai Lama. After the United States pulled its support for the Tibetan insurgency against China as part of Nixon’s rapprochement with China, the CIA facilitated their integration into the Indian Army.

Above all it is not the concern here to ask American Buddhists to stop supporting the Dalai Lama or any other religious leader, just to be self-aware when they do so, that their chosen faith no more “free of war” than any other. The historical Buddha was a princely member of the warrior caste. He showed up on battlefields not as a combatant, but as a relative of those under arms. He later watched his relatives militarily annihilated by their enemies.

To make matters worse, on the 10th anniversary of the battle of Kargil, archeologists discovered a 7th centurry Buddha, of all places, at Kargil. This of course brings up the historical memory in all Buddhists that much of the Islamic southern asia was once Buddhist and that Islam supplantanted by force of arms. This memory finds expression in the 10th century Kalachakra Tantra, central to the Dalai Lama’s teaching, that contains a warning of such a Islamic invasion. However, every religion has has benifting by being adopted by conquorors, including Buddhism.

Even more incredibly, on 8 September 2008 archeologists searching through the ruble of a Buddha destroyed by the Taliban at Bamiyan in Afghanistan discovered a new Buddha at the site. I think Buddha will keep appearing on the field of battle as long as his followers need to discover that they are still part and parcel of the web of war. The newly discovered Buddha was a 62 foot reclining Buddha that represents that a Buddha, unlike Buddhists on the path of enlightenment, has escaped war and passed into nirvana.

On 9-11 a group a religious fundamentalists killed civilians who they rightly understood as not being neutral in the religious conflicts going on elsewhere in other parts of the world. These religious fanatics made the mistake of all bloodthirsty fanatics, conflating the lack of neutrality in their victims as a guilt worthy of slaughter. This particular group of butchers was not small group of Buddhists killing Muslims in Burma, but they just as well could have been. The butchers of Burma were not necessarily representative of their faith, neither were the butchers of 9-11.

The leader, Mullah Muhammed Omer, saw in the Buddhas of Bamiyan an entire religion that successfully attacked “his” people in Kashmir. Rather than individual members of another religion, the battle of Kargil was for him a battle of entire religions, entire peoples. There a statue of a Buddha, of an entire religion was a legitimate target. What is going on all over the United States in reference to mosques? What is a mosque a symbol of? What is ground zero the symbol of? You either think like Mullah Omer or you don’t.

It is not enough to be for peace, we must be compassionate and that means to be aware that the passion that fuels all war is our passion, not just as humans in general, but as Americans and Buddhists in particular as well. We share the anger, greed, of ignorance of the “other” participants in all wars, not only in our shared human nature, but also in what make us distinctive from others. Then as the Dalai Lama so beautifully says: “it is not enough to be compassionate, we must act” and act in the wisdom of those that know they are specific stakeholders for whom wars are fought.

The Dalai Lama should be respected for what he is, not for what we think he is. He has heroically stood up to denominational intolerance between Tibetan Buddhists, especially against my own tradition, the Nyingmapa. I personally do not agree with the critics of the Dalai Lama in the Islamic world or, for that matter, in China. However, I can appreciate the consternation of his critics when they see Hollywood actors and tenured American professors package him as a simplistic Gandhiesque icon rather than an individual with a complicated dual role of being a spiritual leader and also a head of a government assisting in the prosecution of a war. Not even Gandhi in death was a simplistic Gandhiesque icon; he was buried with the highest military pageantry by a state he helped to create, a state that as been at war for over half a century, a state that is not only a military power, but a nuclear military power.

We talk about reconciliation between peoples. Reconciliation entails, at some level, an equality of those on each of the opposing sides of the divide; that means recognition that you are, if not half, at least part of the problem. While only a small minority of Americans actually engages in direct military operations, Americans, and American Buddhists are always part of the interdependence of the struggles of global wealth and power that are the seat of war. This article intended only to describe, not necessarily criticize, a specific, tragic, and ironic episode in this link of interdependence. I am not telling American Buddhists to divest, boycott, or to self-flagellate, just awaken them to the reality that they are stakeholders in fights of which they are likely not even aware. Such awareness can only but empower, rather than impede, those sincerely dedicated to skillful peace and reconciliation.

Dr. Lawrence P. Rockwood is a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer. After his separation from active military service, he served as a Fellow for Center for International Policy, a consultant for the Institute for Policy Studies, Amnesty International's Military, Police, and Security Working Group, and as been contracted as a human rights instructor for the Department of the Army and Department of Defense. He received his Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History in 2005 from the University of Florida. He has taught American and intellectual history at numerous public universities and colleges. He is a practicing Buddhist, an anti-Islamophobia and pro-immigrant activist, and the state chair of the Socialist Party of New York State.




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