The Burmese demonstrations against the junta have been crushed and more people are continuing to be arrested. I am thinking about how these extraordinary people will cope with their imprisonment, and I’ve been reading a book by Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics; Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. 1999. I downloaded it from http://homepages.tesco.net/ ghoutman/chapter_09htm
It wasn’t a great day for me. I’m physically somewhat ill (nothing grave) and emotionally in the dumps. I was supposed to meet my friend Ann Swidler at her hotel, go to dinner, and drive her to the airport, but nausea prevented this. The body is my prison.
That notion is precisely what has allowed many Burmese dissidents, and even true, hardened criminals, to transcend the misery of their confinement, according to Houtman. This particular chapter “Transcending boundaries: Samsara, the State, the prison, and the self,” reviews the way in which the notion of the “prison” is a central concept in Buddhism.
“The most common word for prison in Burmese is htaung. As a verb this means to “set a trap,” “entrap,” or “catch,” in the sense of animals. Alternatively it means to “erect” as in the walls of a house or a marriage....
Even such groups as a family or a nation can be implied in the notion of a prison. Building a nation is setting up a house, which is creating a trap. ... This resonates with the Cambodian concept of a “prison without walls.“ Living in the repressed country is the same as being a prisoner. But the concept extends even further.
“This concept of imprisonment of the entire community resonates with Burmese interpretations of the entire world-system (loka) as a form of prison, having its locus in “I”ness and embodiment. According to Buddhist interpretation, the ultimate form of imprisonment is neither family, prison, nor country, but it is inherent in the concept of “I” which maintains “mundane existence“ (loka) or the samsaric life cycle itself. Craving makes one attain new lives (houses) within samsara, and by uprooting this one becomes truly homeless.”
Gautama taught a methodology of “mental culture” that is politically important in Burma, not least by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, during her imprisonment and house arrest. The jail can be considered an opportunity to practice Vipassana meditation, and many political dissidents have viewed it in that way. As Houtman notes,
“collective freedom in the Buddhist tradition is thus necessarily preceded by mental culture practised to first liberate oneself....The Buddhist concept of true freedom is about the encouragement of certain mental dispositions that must be attained by oneself before it can be encouraged with others....Vipassana is the ultimate instrument for liberation, for it liberates from the prison within, in relation to which freedom is attained from all other conditions of imprisonment.”
I had heard that Aung San Suu Kyi spends hours every day in Vipassana meditation, but I had not realized until today that many, many other political leaders, even in the repressive years of British colonialism in 1823, have also followed that practice. In King Mindon’s reign, the state sponsored lone reformist forest dwellers who emphasized mental culture. Houtman described the spiritual/political discipline of five individuals who applied it to imprisonment: U Hpo Hlaing, U Ba Khin, Ledi Sayadaw, Accountant-General U Ba Khin, and Prime Minister U Nu.
During his tenure as prime minister, U Nu erected meditation centres throughout the country. By 1981 in Burma alone there were 293 centres, plus others in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Britain, the United States, Japan, France and elsewhere. In 1957 U Nu made Vipassana practice a precondition for promotion in government office, and he commuted the sentences of prisoners who studied Buddhism. Though this sounds to Western ears like an inappropriate mixing of religion with politics, it may not be considered as such in Burma. Vipassana is not partial to any one culture because it is “a-cultural.” However, there are ethnic communities in Burma that practice other religious traditions, and I do not know how they regard this official promotion of Buddhist practice.
In any case, I am impressed by some anecdotes about the equanimity of “mentally cultured” prisoners facing death. I presume that it is too late for me to cultivate such spiritual insights. Vipassana would be the right kind of meditation for me to take up next, since I have discovered in myself zero aptitude for single-pointed concentration. I have never taken instruction in insight meditation, so that may still be a possibility. Also, I like the idea of practicing metta meditation, since lately I have been unable to summon up any feelings of loving-kindness.
One has to choose. Long ago I chose to try to make a difference in the world, rather than to attain inner peace and freedom. Today I’ve almost been regretting that choice. This body is my prison. So is my mind. And so is my closing capacity for loving-kindness. Metta is inaccessible to Metta.