One of the most startling images from the Viet Nam war was the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. On June 11, 1963, the monk burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection. (You can see Malcolm Brown's famous news photo here and read part of David Halberstam's eyewitness report for the New York Times halfway through this Wikipedia article.)
Thich Quang Duc was protesting the anti-Buddhist discrimination of Ngo Dinh Diem's regime. But the disturbing image of his sacrifice seared itself into the brains of people around the globe. At the time, I didn't understand the logic of self-immolation, but I was deeply moved.
Today Buddhist monks are once again taking to the streets of a South Asian nation, risking their bodies in nonviolent protest against an oppressive regime. This time the country is Myanmar (or Burma, as most Americans still refer to it).
This morning, the AP reported from Yangon (Rangoon):
Soldiers in Myanmar pounded down on dissenters Friday by swiftly breaking up street gatherings of die-hard activists, occupying key Buddhist monasteries and cutting public Internet access. The moves raised concerns that a crackdown on civilians that has killed at least 10 people this week was set to intensify.
By sealing Buddhist monasteries, the government seemed intent on clearing the streets of monks, who have spearheaded the demonstrations and are revered by most of their Myanmar countrymen. This could embolden troops to lash out harder on remaining protesters.
And in the Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson commented on the spiritual power of the Buddhist monks' protest.
[T]hese protests have ... shown that nonviolence need not be tame or toothless. The upside-down bowls carried by some of the monks signal that they will not accept alms from the leaders of the regime, denying them the ability to atone for bad deeds or to honor their ancestors. These chanting monks are playing spiritual hardball.
Gerson then mentioned the familiar spiritual analogs in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the spiritual revolutions that helped to bring down Communism in Eastern Europe. "Religious dissidents have the ability not only to organize opposition to tyrants but also to shame them. Political revolutions often begin as revolutions of the spirit."
Gerson uses the language of spirituality to describe these bold moves against evil and on behalf of freedom. It is ironic that the words spiritual and spirituality have taken on such warm, fuzzy tones in contemporary American speech. They convey the image of spiritual drifters, people who are not anchored to any strong beliefs but are constantly going with the flow as they quest for the next feel-good experience.
Maybe, as these monks face the tear gas and truncheons of the oppressor, they can help us reclaim the hard edge of spirituality in our own culture.
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P.S. Buddhists aren't the only ones resisting the Myanmar government. Christians have also risked their lives in the struggle for freedom. But Christians are largely located in tribal regions away from urban centers like Yangon. For past Christianity Today coverage of tribal Christian resistance see "Burma's Almost Forgotten." And to learn how Christianity came to Burma, you can order Christian History and Biographyissue 90, which tells the story of Ann and Adoniram Judson, early missionaries and Bible translators.