We think about Buddhism being a kind of a passive religious faith but the author would describe it as a form of spirituality from a deeply revered enlightened one whose teachings were not radically different than those of Jesus and Mohamed in their recognized religions. Moreover, despite the massive bloodshed in the past over alleged religious reasons, the precepts are all pretty much the same. So what has caused Buddhist monks to be less than the passive, quiet folks, they are supposed to be? In the final analysis, when things are woefully wrong, they step up and react.
Without going back to the beginning of time, the most dramatic change to have occurred in recent history was the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in Saigon on June 11, 1963 which President John F. Kennedy characterized the monk's burning image as: "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one." Moreover, it was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War as it disclosed the fallacy of a democratic South Vietnam-a pretense used by the United States to resist the communist advances from North Vietnam which in reality were based on the desire for a united Vietnam free from foreign intervention.
Thich Quang Duc drove the Austin sedan shown in the image above to a busy Saigon intersection with two monks, one of whom put a cushion on the asphalt and the other poured a five gallon can of gasoline over Duc and set him on fire as he meditated. Duc pleaded to President Diem, a member of the Catholic minority, to implement religious equality to maintain the strength of South Vietnam.
As President Diem ridiculed Duc, further monk self-immolations followed. An embarrassed President Kennedy instructed the CIA to remove Diem and then planned the U.S. exodus from Vietnam to follow his expected re-election to a second term. Upon the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson inherited something he knew nothing about and, despite his transformational domestic human rights success, chose not to seek a second term due to the lunacy of the Vietnam war.
Recently, Denis D. Gray, former Bangkok bureau chief for the Associated Press wrote an article for the Nikkei Asian Review entitled Environmental Activism Buddhist Style regarding an incident in his current hometown in northern Thailand. The activism was prompted by a scheme to cut some 700 teak trees to enable corrupt government officials to harvest the green gold they represent. Phra Bunthong, abbot of a nearby Buddhist monastery, set in place a movement to save the trees by encircling each tree trunk with the saffron robes of monks.
Lo and behold, it worked and, even the powerful military who generally support business and governmental interests, did not raise a finger to intervene. Beware of the power of the saffron robes which in the two cases mentioned here were able to overcome military might and demonstrate the will of the people. What is normally thought to be a passive and quiet group of people can be emboldened when the teachings of Buddha are threatened and wantonly dismissed by those in power even though they are held dearly by the populace.
The above monks seem pleased with the success of their "save the trees" program. All in all, it was a far more peaceful program than the one their Vietnamese counterparts embarked upon some 53 years ago.
In another recent article in the New York Times by Jonathan Soble, Japanese Buddhist monks have begun to offer their services to visit devout Buddhist homes to enable them to perform memorial services on the anniversary of family members' deaths. Moreover, as average incomes of the aging population decline, the families are able to pay their respects at a reasonable and much lower cost than going to the Buddhist temple for a similar ceremony.
The Buddhist monk home visit can be arranged as easily as going to Amazon.
The monk will chant prayers, and in the case of the image shown above, do so adjacent to the shrine honoring the deceased wife of the gentleman facing him.
Therefore, Buddhist activism can be about many different issues but fundamentally all of the above examples stem from the basic precepts of the Buddhist spirituality. Everyone feels better about themselves and are able to do so by helping others.
All Things Buddha