From Sri Lanka to South Korea, from Tibet to Myanmar, Asia's Buddhist clergy are in unprecedented numbers exerting their moral authority onto politics, abandoning their detachment from worldly events and giving rise to what at least one academic has referred to as a region-wide "angry monk syndrome".
Agitated ascetics made global headlines last year during Myanmar's "Saffron Revolution", where in their thousands they took to the streets to protest against the military government's policies and perceived mistreatment of clergy members. At the height of the unrest, monks dropped the symbolic gauntlet by overturning their alms bowls and refused to accept donations from government officials and their family members.
This year, over 300 Tibetan monks marched in protest in Lhasa in commemoration of the 49th anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule and to air more modern complaints and grievances, including calls for the release of monks detained last year after the Dalai Lama was awarded a congressional medal of honor by the United States, for the withdrawal of all troops and security personnel from their monasteries and the re-instatement of monks expelled from monasteries for their failure of "patriotic education" exams that required them to denounce the Dalai Lama.
And over the weekend, thousands of Buddhist monks joined South Korean citizens in candlelight rallies in front of Seoul's city hall to protest the government's controversial decision in April to resume imports of beef from the United States, which protestors believe could be tainted with mad cow disease. The usually apolitical monks' involvement in the rallies exerted additional pressure on the government to review the unpopular decision.
While each monk protest is unique in its demands and character, Buddhist clergymen are making their political voices heard in unprecedented ways and increasing numbers across the region. In the process they are often bringing the Sangha out of detached isolation and directly into the cut-and-thrust of everyday politics. The growing images of Buddhist monks leading political protests cuts a sharp contrast to the cliched calm and serene robe-wearing ascetic meditating in the pursuit of otherworldly enlightenment.
John Whalen-Bridge, co-editor of a series of books on Buddhism, refers to the growing phenomenon as "angry monk syndrome", a flip way of referring to the clergy's departure from the pursuit of equanimity and raised-fist involvement in the call for political change and economic justice. Politically active monks are not an entirely new phenomenon. Western observers will likely recall the images of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, who, in protest against the corruption and repression of the South Vietnamese government, self-immolated himself in June 1963.
Lesser known is the violent role aggrieved ascetics played during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), when Chinese monks abandoned their commitment to non-violence for reasons of patriotism. Certain monks at the time even cited Buddhist scriptures to justify killing their Japanese enemies. On the other side of the battlefield, Zen priests were similarly conspicuous as aggressive and visible defenders of imperial Japan and its nationalistic policies.
Monks were also in the forefront of protests in colonial Burma before the country now known as Myanmar won independence from Britain in 1948. After independence, monks were actively involved in the nationwide uprisings against the military junta-led government in 1988, which were eventually crushed by soldiers. There are accounts of monks sharpening bicycle tire spokes and launching them at soldiers during that violent melee.
The recent surge in monk-led political ferment, usually towards the aim of giving voice to the often silent majority, seems to signal a political reawakening of Asia's Buddhist clergy. Well-organized and in most instances peacefully executed, the protests have provided a resounding reaffirmation to the Sangha's social relevance in modern times. It is also a potentially profound political trend, in that monks tend to speak out on behalf of the politically oppressed and economically downtrodden.
That's the majority of the population in many authoritarian-run countries with substantial Buddhist populations. In Myanmar and Vietnam, for instance, monks have led the moral charge against their respective abusive and repressive governments. In more economically advanced Thailand and South Korea, politicized monks are highlighting the gross inequalities and rampant corruption that has accompanied rapid economic growth.
What do these scattered protests say about the Sangha's contemporary mindset? Pattana Kitiarsa, an associate professor in the department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, believes the Sangha's role has frequently been misunderstood in historical and modern context.
"Buddhism and Buddhist monks are often stereotyped as peace-loving, world-rejecting, calm, serene and poised," he said. "However, when monks become or choose to become worldly-engaged actors, they have put themselves in a familiar position of expressing, communicating, acting, or dealing with the mundane world."
To be sure, individual monks have stood out for their political and social postures. Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has long promoted so-called "socially engaged Buddhism", which advocates the application of Buddhist principles towards resolving social, environmental and political problems. His grassroots relief organization helped to rebuild bombed villages, re-establish schools and medical centers, resettle homeless villagers, and organize agricultural co-operatives during the Vietnam War, but he was later exiled due to his non-violent anti-war activities.
The jet-setting Dalai Lama, head of Tibet's government-in-exile and winner of the Nobel Peace prize for his non-violent approach to political struggle, is an individual monk of that same socially-engaged mold. As is Taiwan's Buddhist nun, teacher and philanthropist, Cheng Yen, whose Tzu-Chi Foundation is one of the island-state's largest charity organizations with offices in over 30 countries around the world, undertaking activities as wide-ranging as disaster relief, environmental protection and bone marrow donations
While globally recognized Buddhist leaders have helped to spawn a worldwide movement of engaged Buddhism, recent developments show that the movement is transcending mere individuals and taking on mass proportions. Internationalized and well-informed monks are joining forces in ever larger numbers to launch mass protests against their respective governments and perceived unjust economic actors.
But does this growing, often political, mass movement contradict the Buddha's teaching to eschew worldly matters and abide in equanimity?
Geshe Jangchup Choeden, a Tibetan Buddhist monk-teacher from the Gaden Shartse monastery in India, says that according to ancient scriptures the "ideal" monk is disciplined and refrains from all actions which might bring him into conflict with the clergy's devotees. But, he asks, "Is it possible to have an ideal monk in the modern world? How essential is the ideal monk in times or at places when and where they are needed to take actions against injustice or for the well-being of the people?"
Whether Myanmar's protesting monks, who mobilized en masse last year against a military regime notorious for its human rights abuses and entrenched corruption, lived up to this ideal is definitely debatable. The government accused many of the robed demonstration leaders as "fake" monks and assaulted and jailed many of them and their followers. Other monks were confined by security forces to their monasteries.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks are clearly taking sides amid the country's deeply polarized and increasingly violent ethnic- and religion-based politics. There they have their own political parties, sit in parliament, and are the strongest supporter of the Sinhalese Buddhist government's campaign to militarily obliterate the mostly Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group.
Academic Kitiarsa points to the diverse upbringings, educational backgrounds and monastic practices for varied monk responses. "In reality, there has never been one singular monk. Only Buddha himself is considered a model monk," he said. "Monks in the 21st century could be militants, activists, magicians, forest-dwelling world renouncers. All these monks wish to have their voices heard in their own ways."
That was clearly the case when Tibetan monks wept and cried out "Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free!" when Western media members visited Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet's holiest shrines, during a government-managed press tour in March. These extraordinary scenes helped to keep the government's recent security crackdown and continued occupation of Tibet in international headlines ahead of Beijing's hosting of the Summer Olympic Games in August.
There are concurrent worldly risks that the socially engaged movement is in certain instances being manipulated for narrow political purposes. In South Korea, for instance, where monks have been on the vanguard of the street protests against US beef imports, the demonstrations are now increasingly being driven by liberal opponents of President Lee Myung-bak's new conservative government.
But in countries like Myanmar or places like Tibet, where the moral argument against the prevailing political order is more obvious, monks are in increasing numbers straying from the past middle path of loving kindness towards what some see as a more socially-engaged path towards enlightenment. "There is nothing wrong or undesirable with the Sangha protesting out of their compassion for humanity," said Choeden. "But once their aims are achieved, they should get back as soon as possible to their purpose and avoid drifting into the ways of the world."