There, but for the grace of . . .

This post is an approximation of a dharma talk I gave this morning at the Greater Boston Zen Center.


These are the first few paragraphs of an article from the front page of the November 30,  2012 edition of the New York Times.  It’s titled “Ethnic Hate Tears Apart a Region of Myanmar.”


SITTWE, Myanmar — The Buddhist monastery on the edge of this seaside town is a picture of tranquillity, with novice monks in saffron robes finding shade under a towering tree and their teacher, U Nyarna, greeting a visitor in a sunlit prayer room.
But in these placid surroundings Mr. Nyarna’s message is discordant, and a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Unprompted, Mr. Nyarna launches into a rant against Muslims, calling them invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our laps.”
“According to Buddhist teachings we should not kill,” Mr. Nyarna said.   “But when we feel threatened we cannot be saints.”
Violence here in Rakhine State — where clashes have left at least 167 people dead and 100,000 people homeless, most of them Muslims — has set off an exodus that some human rights groups condemn as ethnic cleansing. It is a measure of the deep intolerance that pervades the state, a strip of land along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar, that Buddhist religious leaders like Mr. Nyarna, who is the head of an association of young monks, are participating in the campaign to oust Muslims from the country, which only recently began a transition to democracy from authoritarian rule.
After a series of deadly rampages and arson attacks over the past five months, Buddhists are calling for Muslims who cannot prove three generations of legal residence — a large part of the nearly one million Muslims from the state — to be put into camps and sent to any country willing to take them. Hatred between Muslims and Buddhists that was kept in check during five decades of military rule has been virtually unrestrained in recent months.
Even the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence.


The article goes on to describe how Muslims in Rakhine State have been subjugated by Buddhists, the squalid conditions in which they live, and the humiliation they suffer.   It also describes how the Buddhists there, whose lives generally are better, but which are far from good, fear for their security as the state’s Muslim population grows more rapidly than the Buddhist population.


And it describes how all this has generated an escalating spiral of conflict.  After Buddhists recently accused Muslims of the rape of a young girl, Muslims burned Buddhist monasteries and Buddhists destroyed mosques.


Some of you may know that I’m part of an NGO that helps catalyze and support local stakeholder owned and led peace process to end wars and national dialogue processes to prevent them.


I’m also a Buddhist.


So reading this article was a bit disconcerting for me.


I was in Beirut this time last Saturday.  We’ve been providing assistance to a national dialogue process there, and we’re becoming increasingly involved in emerging peace processes elsewhere in the Middle East.


We’ve also recently become deeply involved in the situation in Burma, the subject of this article.


I got involved in the international conflict resolution field in grad school almost 20 years ago.


I had come to study contemplative spirituality, but another front page New York Times article, this one about the genocide perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, near the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia, derailed that plan, inspiring me to study the relationship between religion and conflict.


I ultimately developed a theory about why religion so frequently appears as the fault line along which violent conflict occurs.


Social psychologists have shown how even trivial identity differences — like being randomly assigned to a blue team or a red team in an experiment about group conflict — have a  propensity to generate hostility in environments where tangible and/or social resources are perceived to be scarce.


Psychologists also have confirmed what we already know about ourselves, more or less reflectively:  we quite naturally seek physical, mental and social security and stability, and the impulse to develop secure and stable individual and group identities is part of our strategy for doing so.


My theory suggests that religions historically have served this identity impulse more comprehensively and effectively than other cultural markers, like language or ethnicity (though these often are tightly intertwined with religious identity), and that this explains why conflict so often occurs along religious fault lines. In 1999 I published an article in the main journal in the conflict resolution and peace studies fields in which I described this theory, and it still gets a lot of play today.


More recently, the political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have shown, through rigorous statistical analysis of mountains of empirical evidence from the majority of rich and poor countries in the world, that societies where there is a high level of existential insecurity — where people lack basic resources, like sufficient food and clean water; where illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities make it more difficult for them to voice their needs and concerns and better their situation; etc. — are societies that remain deeply and traditionally religious.


Their analysis and my theory seem like two sides of a coin:  existential insecurity breeding strong individual and group religious identity, and religious identity supplying the fault line upon which violent conflict often occurs in environments marked by scarcity.  I believe we have a recipe for religious conflict of the type we see in Burma.


It’s tempting to judge Mr. Nyarna, the teacher featured in the article from which I read.  Sure, the situation is difficult — more difficult than most of us likely can imagine — but he is a Buddhist teacher.  He seems to sacrifice the precepts so readily, and so unreflectively.  The seeming lack of nuance in his perspective, the seeming inability to consider the other’s perspective; it’s quite arresting, at least to me.


One of my mentors from grad school is Herbert Kelman.  Now 85 and still active as a scholar and practitioner, Herb is a famous social and political psychologist and the longest-standing facilitator of dialogues between high-level Israelis and Palestinians.


Herb’s class on the psychology of international and intrastate conflict and their resolution was the first class I took in the field.  In one of our early class sessions, I naively said that war is pathological behavior.


I got a deservedly blunt reply. War is definitely not pathological behavior, Herb said, even though it is tragic. It’s the product of complex causes, and frequently a response to unmet human needs, and those causes and needs can be understood.


I can’t really begin to relate to the conditions in which the people of Rhakine state — Buddhists and Muslims alike — live.


I know how difficult it can be to honor the precepts, act compassionately, and not get lost in my own “default mode” certainties, when I feel slighted here in my own secure and comfortable environment.


Mr. Nyarna’s perspective and conduct may be as tragic as the conditions in which he lives, but they are not pathological.


And I know from my colleagues who have begun to work in Burma that there are many devoted Buddhists and Muslims who are striving to promote understanding, collaboration and reconciliation.


I once contributed a chapter on religion and conflict to a book on conflict resolution. My chapter surveyed the dominant attitudes toward conflict within our five largest religious traditions.  Not surprisingly, one finds perspectives and resources for inciting conflict, and also for pacifying conflict, in each of these traditions.


Although I gave a few examples of Buddhist perspectives that might contribute to or justify violent conflict, I was somewhat gentler on Buddhism than I was on the other religions. I speculated that features like meditation practice, Buddhism’s distinctive perspective on the self, and the emphasis on interdependence make Buddhism relatively less likely to incite or inflame conflict.


While I still believe there’s a measure of truth to this, I now think I was idealizing to a large extent.


For me personally, I do think — I do hope — that Zen practice, along with other disciplines, relationships and experiences, has helped me become gentler, more genuinely caring, less reactive when I perceive threat or offense.


But I see with some regularity how fragile these qualities are; how dependent they are upon my sense of security; how quickly they can dissolve when I feel threatened or slighted; how vigilant I must be to maintain them, even in this privileged environment.


The stories of Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others who show great courage and moral leadership in the face of great adversity are deeply moving and inspiring. And, without intending to detract one bit from the amazingness of what they did and the ideals they represent, some figures like this have at least some element of privilege in their backgrounds.  Their “micro context,” if you will, perhaps gave them a somewhat firmer personal footing from which to see the possibilities, and to act in these courageous ways. Ghandi was a lawyer.  Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of a once powerful general.


Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was a wealthy prince.


To be sure, others act and lead with great courage and moral vision without the benefit of economic or social advantages.


And, yet so many people are just trying to survive in environments they perceive to be zero-sum.  We are so moved by those who exhibit great courage and vision in dire circumstances because we understand how difficult that is to do, and appreciate why it is so rare.


Yes, we must stand against prejudice, injustice and violence.  Speaking out against the sort of conduct we’ve just read about no doubt is an important part of what needs to be done. This seems especially true to me when we see intolerance and injustice perpetrated by those who are relatively well off, by any standard, against those who are less so.


And we need more than advocacy.  Not just conflict resolution efforts, in contexts like Myanmar/Burma, but also economic development efforts, and public health efforts, and more.


As much as I’d like to think that whatever degree of virtue I exhibit, from time to time, when I feel challenged in the comparatively small ways I sometimes feel challenged, is not contingent upon my life circumstances, I can honestly say I’m not so sure.


How would I respond if I were Mr. Nyarna?


I hope I never face a test so severe.