March 4, 2010

The Top Ten Buddhist News Stories of 2009

Buddhism has been in the news a lot lately—so much so that it was one of the top ten Google trends only days ago.  With disgraced celebrity golfer Tiger Woods having mentioned the religion of his birth in a statement to the media, and comments about the athlete’s faith from Brit Hume and Bill Maher also widely discussed, it was sort of inevitable.  In addition, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent visit with U.S. President Barack Obama (after the very controversial cancellation of a scheduled appointment between the two by the White House last year) has kept Buddhism in the spotlight.  (His Holiness was even asked about Woods by various press agencies and representatives.)

Though it’s only the first week of March, it’s shaping up to be a really interesting year for Buddhist news.  That’s saying something when you consider what a remarkable year last year was in terms of Buddhist news—and I’m not even talking about House District 20, Wat Mongkolratanaram, Osel Hita Torres, the Episcopal Buddhist bishop flap, “good manners” in the Thai sangha, or “Dharma Wars”!  Below are my “Top Ten Buddhist News Stories of 2009”—last year’s items that you should definitely be aware of:


For Buddhists in the West—and particularly those of us interested in the growing Buddhist media—one recent story was cause for some excitement: the Dutch Buddhist Broadcast Foundation launched, becoming “the first independent Buddhist broadcasting foundation in the West to produce and broadcast Buddhist programs within a country’s Public Broadcasting Foundation System.”  Dit is fantastisch!


Almost exactly one year ago, Cambodian news sources reported on a group of Buddhist monks organizing to “keep the country’s first rock opera off the air because, they [said], it [insulted] Buddhism.”  As one Buddhist blogger, “Arun” at Dharma Folk, would go on to note, the opera is based on a traditional narrative and was put together by a Cambodian organization devoted to preserving traditional arts. The project even received an endorsement from the King of Cambodia.  Why the bother then?  Arun explained, “Keep in mind that less than a month ago, Cambodia’s seventeenth monastic conference convened, where hundreds of monks had to discuss the dark sheep in the flock. With plenty of news reports and rumors of felonious monks, I imagine this particular Sangha leader might have been a bit over-defensive about TV portrayals of ill-behaved monks.” Organizers of the opera went on to change some lines of narration to appease the vocal monks, and, following the premiere, Cambodian premier Hun Sen called for future television shows related to Buddhism to be approved by the Cambodian sangha.


In August, after thirteen months, the tense standoff between the Thai and Cambodian armies at Preah Vihear, the eleventh century temple on the border of their two countries, ended peacefully. Although the temple was originally consecrated to honor Shiva, it was later converted to Buddhist use—much like Angkor Wat and other temples in Cambodia. Ever since the French departure from Indochina in the 1950s, sovereignty over Preah Vihear and the surrounding area has been in dispute. The conflict flared up again in July 2008 when UNESCO recognized Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, using a map drawn by the Cambodian government. The most dramatic point in the renewed clash came in October, when soldiers on each side exchanged gunfire and launched rockets—a burst that ended in the deaths of two Cambodian soldiers.  The fall started with two countries meeting and agreeing to “end hostilities and abide by a new border demarcating the territories.” After the resolution of the standoff, local authorities reported “increased visitor numbers to the temple, a quarter of which are foreign visitors.”


The Buddhist world lost three prominent figures in 2009:  His Eminence Penor Rinpoche, John Daido Loori Roshi, and Venerable Master Sheng-yen.  The 11th holder of the Palyul Lineage of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (the oldest of the schools), and a master of Dzogchen meditation, Penor Rinpoche was a prolific teacher, training many other important Tibetan teachers and travelling worldwide to spread the Buddhadharma.  Daido Loori Roshi, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York and the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, was also a vital person in the development of Buddhism in America broadly.  Venerable Master Sheng-yen, one of the great contemporary Ch’an masters, was the founder of Dharma Drum Mountain—one of four main Buddhist organizations in Taiwan.  Between his many books translated into English and the Chan Meditation Center he founded in Queens, NY, he also enjoyed a large following in the Western world.


The monastery itself is not affiliated with Nhat Hanh’s movement, but rather the official Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Following Nhat Hanh’s return to his homeland in 2005, the abbot at Bat Nha invited Order of Interbeing members to study and teach at the temple. The Order spent upwards of $1 million on new land and buildings at the monastery so that they might have appropriate space to do their work and not interfere with the other trainings taking place at Bat Nha. Then, presumably upset with some of Nhat Hanh’s outspokeness on several hot-button political issues, local authorities cut off water, electricity, and telephones to the group. Then things turned violent. International concerns about religious freedom have long confronted the Vietnamese leaders, who responded to criticism about the situation at Bat Nha Monastery, saying they only want to “manage” Nhat Hanh’s community, not “control” it.


This past summer saw the end of Sri Lanka’s more-than-a-quarter-century civil war. From 1983 until their defeat this past May, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist militia composed of Hindu-Tamil minorities, fought the Sri Lankan government (representing the Sinhalese Buddhist majority) for the creation of an independent state.  Though investigations into possible war crimes and controversy over the handling of hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees have dominated the headlines since, there have also been noteworthy developments with regards to Sinhalese Buddhism:  (1) For the first time in twenty-six years, the annual Kathina Perahera festival of the Naga Vihara took place on Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula—the “first major event” held in Jaffna since the start of the war.  (2) President Mahinda Rajapakse publicly thanked the country’s monks for “the guidance and blessings he received from the Mahasanga during the liberation of the country from terrorism.”  (3) President Rajapakse and former army general Sarath Fonseka opened their presidential campaigns at Buddhist shrines as the Venerable Battaramulle Seelaratana Thera made history with his own surely divisive bid for the country’s highest office—the South Asian nation’s first from a Buddhist monk.  (The move hearkens back to the controversial elections of quite a few monks to parliament in 2004.)


There were quite a few striking Buddhist environmental efforts in 2009.  Responding to calculations that, at the current rate, their forests will be completely depleted within twenty years, the Kingdom of Bhutan limited the number of trees that may be felled by its Buddhist citizenry to make poles for flying prayer flags.  In Taiwan, the Tzu Chi Foundation continued its project of recycling plastic bottles from Taipei’s waste stream by turning some into 244,000 polyester blankets for disaster victims, including those in China’s Sichuan province and New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. Thailand’s Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew, a Buddhist temple northeast of Bangkok, began erecting new structures on the grounds out of discarded bottles. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, published Environmental Guidelines for Karma Kagyu Buddhist Monasteries, Centers and Communities.  Finally, the Buddhist Climate Declaration, a pan-Buddhist declaration authored by Dr. David Tetsuun Loy and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi with scientific input from Dr. John Stanley, was released.  Signed by over 5,000 people—65 Buddhist teachers (including me) among them—the effort also yielded the Wisdom Publications title A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.


At the end of October, a group of Buddhist nuns were ordained during a ceremony at Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Australia. Ayya Tathaaloka was the preceptor, and Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sujato performed the “certifying acariya chanting in the bhikkhu’s part of the ceremony.” On November 1st, Ajahn Brahm was told by the leadership of Wat Pa Phong that Bodhinyana Monastery would be disavowed if he did not publicly state the ordination was invalid. When he refused, Bodhinyana Monastery was disavowed by Wat Pa Phong.  The incident brought a flurry of responses from those involved, observations from prominent Buddhist teachers around the world, and lots of chatter in the blogosphere.  In addition, it served (and will probably continue to serve) as an important flashpoint in the ongoing conversation about institutional sexism in the Buddhist traditions.


In an incredibly bizarre twist that no one really saw coming, the house arrest of Burma’s embittered Prime Minister-elect, Nobel Peace laureate, and Engaged Buddhist icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was extended by 18-months after she gave temporary shelter to an American who made a reckless swim to her home after dreaming that her life was in danger. The man, John Yettaw, was sentenced to seven years of hard labor, but U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) flew to Burma to secure his release and return.  In the wake of the trial, Time Magazine reported that many of the country’s monks who led the marches for democracy that were brutally quashed in the fall of 2007, continued on in their political struggle undeterred.


2009 was not only the 50th anniversary of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the brutally quashed Tibetan uprising against their presence, and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape to India, but a noteworthy year in the history of the contentious “Tibet issue.”  In addition to news of a number of protests within the country, there was (among many other things) His Holiness’s announcement that the next Dalai Lama should be determined by democratic election; the U.S. Congress’s approval of over $10 million to “[invest] in [helping] Tibetan refugees sustain their unique identity by revitalizing half century-old settlements in South Asia”; two “strike hard” campaigns in Tibet ahead of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China; the executions of at least two Tibetan protestors on the orders of the Chinese government; His Holiness’s controversial visit to Arunachal Pradesh—an Indian state claimed by China; the publication of a joint report on the “Human Rights Situation inside Tibet” by the United Nations, European Union, and Human Rights Desk of the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration; the very public cancellation of a scheduled meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and His Holiness; the launching of the “Thank You Tibet” campaign by Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Corrigan Maguire; and the jailing of Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche.

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