Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Joshua Hammer - Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Revolutionary Leader

An article in the recent issue of the Smithsonian Magazine looks at how meditation and Buddhist practice helped Aung San Suu Kyi survive house arrest, and how they help her now as a legislator. It's an excellent article, offering a little overview of Buddhism along with the content on Burma and its culture.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Revolutionary Leader

The Nobel Peace Prize winner talks about the secret weapon in her decades of struggle—the power of Buddhism

  • By Joshua Hammer
  • Smithsonian magazine, September 2012

Here is a little bit of the article:
I ask her whether, as I’ve heard, she is meditating for an hour every morning, following the Buddhist practice that kept her calm during nearly two decades of house arrest. “Not mornings,” she corrects me. “But yes, I’m meditating every day.” Then her security team nudges her away and she mounts the steep staircase leading to the third-floor headquarters.

She and I had first met, only 16 months before, in more tranquil circumstances, before the international frenzy surrounding her escalated exponentially. The setting was the temporary NLD headquarters a few blocks from here, a dilapidated, garage-like structure watched round-the-clock by security agents. In a sparsely furnished lounge on the second floor, she had told me that she took up vipassana, or insight meditation, at Oxford University, where she studied philosophy and politics during the 1960s. The 2,500-year-old technique of self-observation is intended to focus the mind on physical sensation and to liberate the practitioner from impatience, anger and discontent.

Aung San Suu Kyi found meditation difficult at first, she acknowledged. It wasn’t until her first period of house arrest, between 1989 and 1995, she said, that “I gained control of my thoughts” and became an avid practitioner. Meditation helped confer the clarity to make key decisions. “It heightens your awareness,” she told me. “If you’re aware of what you are doing, you become aware of the pros and cons of each act. That helps you to control not just what you do, but what you think and what you say.”

As she evolves from prisoner of conscience into legislator, Buddhist beliefs and practices continue to sustain her. “If you see her diet, you realize that she takes very good care of herself, but in fact it is her mind that keeps her healthy,” I’m told by Tin Myo Win, Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal physician. Indeed, a growing number of neuroscientists believe that regular meditation actually changes the way the brain is wired—shifting brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex. “Only meditation can help her withstand all this physical and mental pressure,” says Tin Myo Win.

It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism. Yet this underlying story has often been eclipsed as the world has focused instead on military brutality, economic sanctions and, in recent months, a raft of political reforms transforming the country.

Buddhists constitute 89 percent of Myanmar’s population, and—along with the ruthless military dictatorship that misruled the country for decades—Buddhism is the most defining aspect of Burmese life.

The golden spires and stupas of Buddhist temples soar above jungle, plains and urbanscapes. Red-robed monks—there are nearly 400,000 of them in Myanmar—are the most revered members of society. Pursuing lives of purity, austerity and self-discipline, they collect alms daily, forging a sacred religious bond with those who dispense charity. Nearly every Burmese adolescent boy dons robes and lives in a monastery for periods of between a few weeks and several years, practicing vipassana. As adults, Burmese return to the monastery to reconnect with Buddhist values and escape from daily pressures. And Buddhism has shaped the politics of Myanmar for generations.

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