By Alan Clements
Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize winning democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi offers us a great vision that places self-respect, human dignity, compassion and love above material considerations.
A rare and remarkable interview
You can’t separate people’s politics from their spiritual values
If you have positive feelings towards others, they can’t frighten you
Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi is, in the words of Vaclav Havel, one of the outstanding examples of the power of the powerless. She told me her own story in many conversations at her home in Rangoon. It was a journey into the soul of the struggle for freedom in this southeast Asian nation of 48 million people, many of whom, at this very moment, may be risking their lives to win the right to choose their destiny.
Aung San Suu Kyi offered me, as she does to all, a great vision that places self-respect, human dignity, compassion and love above material considerations. Placed under house arrest, separated from her family for years at a time, she kept silent, and so grew into a living legend. Finally, once again speaking defiantly and acting boldly to unlock the prison doors of the SLORC (Burma’s State Law and Order Restoration Council) military dictatorship, she will not be stopped.
This is the Aung San Suu Kyi I came to know—a dynamic woman with an unshakeable conviction, inseparable from her principles and sustained by a sense of justice and duty. She abhors hypocrisy, while admitting her own shortcomings. Her compassion is tangible. The one quality that I feel best defines her is sincerity, at the core of which is her conviction in self-improvement. Aung San Suu Kyi is a seeker, one who makes her life a vehicle for an awakening to deeper and deeper truths.
She wears her spirituality quietly, unpretentiously, and with subtlety. She laughs freely and easily. Her words are so simple at times as to take you by surprise, yet spoken without equivocation. She is straightforward and direct, and is her own person in every sense. It was this aspect of our time together that I most appreciated: a woman enjoying her sovereignty and happiness while fighting for the independence of others.
Many wish to label you in heroic terms. Even the Vanity Fair interview with you was entitled ‘Burma’s Saint Joan’. Good heavens, I hope not.
You are referred to as a female bodhisattva, striving for perfection of wisdom, compassion and love—with the intention of assisting others attain freedom.
Oh, for goodness sake, I’m nowhere near such a state. I would love to become a bodhisattva one day, if I thought I was capable of such heights. I have to say that I am one of those people who strive for self-improvement, but I’m not one who has made, or thought of myself as fit to make a bodhisattva vow. I do try to be good (laughs). This is the way my mother brought me up. She emphasised the goodness of good, so to speak. I’m not saying that I succeed all the time, but I do try.
I have a terrible temper. I will say that I don’t get as angry now as I used to. Meditation helped a lot. But when I think somebody has been hypocritical or unjust, I have to confess I still get very angry. I don’t mind ignorance or sincere mistakes; but what makes me really angry is hypocrisy. So, I have to develop awareness. When I get really angry, I watch myself. And I say to myself, well, I’m angry; I’ve got to control this anger. And that brings it under control to a certain extent.
What has most affected your growth as an individual?
What I have learned in life is that it’s always your own wrongdoing that causes you the greatest suffering. It is never what other people do to you. My mother instilled in me that wrongdoing never pays, and my own experience has proved that to be true. Also, if you have positive feelings towards other people they can’t do anything to you—they can’t frighten you. I think if you stop loving other people then you really suffer.
How would you characterise yourself as a person?
Well, I see myself differently from how others see me. For example, all this business about my being so brave, I had never thought of myself as a particularly brave person. When people say: “How marvellous it is that you stuck out those years of detention,” my reaction is, “what’s all the fuss about?” Anybody can stick out house arrest. It’s those people who have had to stick out years in prison, in terrible conditions, that make you wonder how they did it. I see myself as a trier; I don’t give up. And I’m not talking about not giving up working for democracy. That too, but basically I don’t give up trying to be a better person.
What does Buddhist meditation mean to you?
It’s a form of spiritual cultivation—a spiritual education and a purifying process. Basically, it’s learning awareness. By being aware of whatever you’re doing, you learn to avoid impurities. The main reason I meditate is the satisfaction I derive from knowing that I am doing what I think I should do, that is, to try to develop awareness as a step towards understanding anicca (impermanence) as an experience. I have ordinary attitudes towards life. If I think there is something I should do in the name of justice or in the name of love, then I’ll do it. The motivation is its own reward.
How has meditation been a process of self-discovery?
I don’t know if it has been a process of self-discovery as much as one of spiritual strengthening. I was always taught to be honest with myself. Since I was quite young I had been in the habit of analysing my actions and feelings. So I haven’t really discovered anything new about myself. But meditation has helped strengthen me spiritually in order to follow the right path.
For me, meditation is a way of life because what you do when you meditate is to learn to control your mind through developing awareness. This awareness carries on into everyday life. For me, that’s one of the most practical benefits of meditation—my sense of awareness has become heightened. I’m now much less inclined to do things carelessly and unconsciously.
In Burma today the large portion of monks and nuns see spiritual freedom and socio-political freedom as separate. But in truth, dharma and politics are rooted in the same issue—freedom.
Indeed, but this is not unique to Burma. I think some people find it embarrassing and impractical to think of the spiritual and political life as one. I do not see them as separate. In democracies there is always a drive to separate the spiritual from the secular, but it is not actually required to separate them. In many dictatorships, you’ll find that there is an official policy to keep politics and religion apart, in case, I suppose, it is used to upset the status quo.
At the monastery in Vietnam of the first monk who immolated himself in 1963, I was told that his “immolation was not an act of suicide but of compassion; his way of drawing world attention to the staggering suffering of the Vietnamese people during the war”. That prompts me to ask you how engaged Buddhism could be more activated today, especially among the 1,000,000 monks and 500,000 nuns in Burma?
Engaged Buddhism is active compassion or active metta. It’s not just sitting there saying: “I feel sorry for them.” It means doing something about the situation by bringing whatever relief you can to those who need it the most. Of course, ‘sending of loving kindness’ is very much part of our Burmese Buddhist training. But we have to do more to express our compassion. And there are so many ways of doing it. When the Buddha tried to stop two sides from fighting, he stood between them. They would have had to injure him before they could hurt each other. So he was defending both sides, as well as protecting others at the sacrifice of his own safety.
In Burma today, many people are afraid to visit families of political prisoners in case they too are harassed. Now, you could show active compassion by offering families of political prisoners help and by surrounding them with love, compassion and moral support. That is what we are encouraging. How can this ‘active compassion’ express itself on the street, among those where “fear is a habit”?
There is a direct link between love and fear. It reminds me of the Biblical quotation: “Perfect love casts out fear.” I’ve often thought that this is a very Buddhist attitude. ‘Perfect love’ should be metta, which is not selfish or attached. The Metta Sutta has the phrase, ‘like a mother caring for her only child’. That’s true metta. A mother’s courage to sacrifice herself comes from her love for her child. I think we need a lot more of this kind of love around the place. I was mugged earlier this year in a Paris subway station. It made me think of the magnitude of violence in the world. Love is often an ideal. You use the metaphor of a mother’s love that embraces even her child’s faults, but this ‘child’ is slitting the throats of his neighbours.
I think you have not quite understood what I’ve been saying. We’ve got to make metta grow. We’ve got to make people see that love is a strong, positive force for the happiness of oneself, not just others. A journalist said to me: “When you speak to the people you talk a lot about religion, why?” I said: “Because politics is about people, and you can’t separate people from their spiritual values.” Some people might think it is idealistic or naïve to talk about metta in politics, but to me it makes a lot of practical good sense. I’ve always said to the NLD (National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party) that we’ve got to help each other. If people see how much we support each other and how much happiness we manage to generate, in spite of being surrounded by weapons, threats and repression, they will want to be like us. They might say, well, there’s something in their attitude—we want to be happy too.
What is the core quality of your movement?
Inner strength. It’s the spiritual steadiness that comes from the belief that what you are doing is right, even if it doesn’t bring you immediate concrete benefits. It’s the fact that you are doing something that helps shore up your spiritual powers. Martin Luther King Jr encouraged his people to grow tired of injustice, to become ‘maladjusted’ to the oppressive racist system. You speak of genuine reconciliation, but are you also speaking to the need of the population to become dissatisfied with SLORC?
Our principal task is to encourage people to question the situation and not just accept everything. Acceptance is not the same as serenity. Sometimes, the very fact that you accept what you do not want to accept and know that you should not accept destroys the sense of serenity and inner peace, because you’re in conflict with yourself. We want to free people from feeling complacent. Actually, I think many people just accept things out of fear or inertia. This readiness to accept without question has to be removed. And it’s very un-Buddhist. After all, the Buddha did not accept the status quo without questioning.
In Buddhism, the four ingredients of success are chanda—desire or will; citta—the right attitude; viriya—perseverance, and panna—wisdom. And the step prior even to these is questioning. From that you discover your real desires. Then you have got to develop chanda. How would you describe it?
Chanda is translated as ‘wish to do’ or intention. Every action begins with it. Where there is a will there is a way.
Yes. You must develop the intention to do something about the situation. From there you’ve got to develop the right attitude and then persevere with wisdom. Of course, the five basic moral precepts are essential, to keep you from straying, as it were. With these we will get where we want to.
So what you’re doing is fostering a sense of individual courage to question, to analyse.
And to act. I remind people that karma is actually doing. Some people think of karma as destiny or fate and that there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s simply what is going to happen because of their past deeds. But karma is doing, it’s action. You are creating your own karma all the time.
A Rangoon University student asked me: “Should Burma’s democracy movement engage in armed struggle?” I told him I would ask you the question.
I do not believe in armed struggle because it will perpetrate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power. Even if the democracy movement were to succeed through force of arms, it would leave the idea that whoever has greater might wins in the end. That will not help democracy.
How effective is nonviolence with regimes that seem devoid of sensitivity, moral shame and conscience?
Nonviolence means positive action. You have to work for whatever you want. You don’t just sit there doing nothing and hope to get what you want. It just means that the methods you use are not violent. Some people think that nonviolence is passiveness. It’s not so.
In Burma numerous brave young people faced bullets in their willingness to be nonviolently active, yourself included. That left at least 3,000 dead. Do you ever have doubts about the effectiveness of nonviolent political activism in the face of armed aggression?
No, I don’t have any doubts about it. I know that it is often the slower way and I understand why our young people feel that nonviolence will not work. Especially when the authorities in Burma are prepared to talk to insurgent groups, but not to an organisation like the NLD that carries no arms. That makes a lot of people feel that the only way you can get anywhere is by bearing arms. But I cannot encourage that kind of attitude. Because if we do, we will be perpetuating a cycle of violence that will never come to an end.
Is nonviolence an immutable ethical and spiritual principle that will never alter in your struggle?
We have said that we will never disown those who have taken up violence. They want democracy and think the best way to go about it is through armed struggle. And we do not say that we have the monopoly on the right methods of achieving what we want. Also, we cannot guarantee their security or that we’ll get there without any casualties.
We have chosen nonviolence simply because we think it’s politically better for the country to establish that you can bring about change without the use of arms. Here, we’re not thinking about spiritual matters. Perhaps in that sense, we’re not the same as Mahatma Gandhi, who would have probably condemned all movements that were not non-violent. I’m not sure. But he did say at one time that if he had to choose between violence and cowardice, he would choose violence. So even Gandhi was not somebody who did not make any exceptions.
I know it’s a nice belief to hold that, ‘in the end, right will prevail’. What evidence do you have to say: “The light will have to come?”
Whatever you may say, the world is better today. Which government today would hang, draw and quarter somebody, in full view of the public, and think they’d get away with it? People as a whole are more civilised. Horrible tortures do go on but behind the scenes. At least people are beginning to learn that this is not acceptable. There have been more wars and murders in the 20th century than all previous centuries combined. And Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and activist, was hung in full view of the entire world. Wars are telecast live on TV .
Let’s put it this way. The values of civilisation have become more dominant. Take Burma under the Burmese kings: those who were out of favour were executed in cruel ways. Now, Burma has been accused of many, many human rights violations. But authorities never admit them. Whereas in the days of the old Burmese kings, there was no question of denying it. It was their prerogative and nobody would dare question them. And they would not think there was any need for them to even pretend that they had not done these things. So that’s progress.
You seem to live and breathe your country’s suffering. How do you manage to keep your heart open to the pain?
I think I’m very fortunate that the people around me have such open hearts. Because we can afford to be loving with each other, the habit of opening our hearts is always there. Also, if you know that there are people in the world who are worthy of love, and whom you could open up to without danger, I think you are more ready to accept that there are others too who could be lovable.
How do you look into the eyes of SLORC without feeling a sense of outrage, really?
People often ask the same question: “Why don’t you feel any sense of vindictiveness?” I think some of the people who ask this question don’t believe that we are actually free from such feelings. It’s difficult to explain. The other day Uncle U Kyi Maung, Uncle U Tin U and I were talking with a group of NLD delegates and we were laughing over this. Apparently, you had asked Uncle U Kyi Maung how he felt the day he heard I was going to be placed under arrest. And he replied that he didn’t feel anything at all. And you were surprised by that.
Despite the fact that armed soldiers had surrounded your house, and it was likely that you would be taken to Insein Prison, you all just laughed and started cracking jokes.
Yes, and we didn’t feel anything at all. So many journalists have asked me: “How did you feel when you were released?” I have said: “I felt nothing at all.” (Laughing) I had a vague idea that I should feel something, but my real concern was, what should I do now? Then a journalist asked if I were elated or felt happy. I said: “None of these things. I always knew that I was going to be free one day. The point was, well, what do I do now?”
They assume that it’s some form of denial or repression?
Exactly. (Laughing) It’s very strange.
When you speak of “feeling nothing at all” after your release, are you saying that the past is simply irrelevant?
I don’t think you can just forget the past but one should use experiences of the past to build a better present and future. Extracted with permission from The Voice of Hope (Seven Stories Press) Alan Clements is a performing artist, human rights activist, and World Dharma teacher. A former monk in Burma, he has played a prominent role in bringing Burma’s revolution of the spirit to the world since 1988. He is author of Instiuct for Freedom, Burma: The Next Killing Fields?, The Voice of Hope, and co-author of Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit.
His website is www.WorldDharma.com.
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