Socially engaged Buddhism has added a significant voice to public discourse in Asia since it developed after World War II. Its concrete efforts to translate Buddhism into a means of positive social change for the benefit of all living beings has resulted in numerous and highly successful projects for social and environmental justice. Socially engaged Buddhists in Asia have produced initiatives for health care in poor areas, for peace building in conflict areas, and even for interreligious cooperation on a global scale.
These successes, however, have taken place in developing and developed countries that respect human rights and religious freedom, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. In countries where freedoms are tightly controlled by central governments, these successes have, by and large, not happened. This is true of Myanmar.
For the near future, I expect the government of Myanmar to block the monks in their monasteries and repress any demonstrations by the Buddhist laity. The result of the demonstrations will be failure.
In the long run, however, dialogue between the monastic leaders and the government may lead to positive changes. This is now happening in China, where engaged “humanistic Buddhism” is working with the government to address social and environmental issues of concern to all Chinese. Since the Chinese government is a close ally of Myanmar, my hope is that they will encourage the Myanmar government to engage in dialogue with Buddhist leaders for the good of the country and region.
– Donald W. Mitchell is a religious studies professor at Purdue University and the author of BUDDHISM: INTRODUCING THE BUDDHIST EXPERIENCE (Oxford University Press).