Celebration in the ruins of Rangoon

Buddha at BogalayOn May 19, the moon will pass into its full phase, marking the festival on which Theravada Buddhists celebrate Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbana. This date marks the most important and largest Buddhist holiday.

Devotees often undertake the eight precepts, make donations to charity and also go to temple to pay respects to Lord Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. This festival is filled with celebrations of joy and also the intent to renew one’s dedication to the path.

But for the people of Burma, the full moon of the month of Kason will mark two and a half weeks since the landfall of Cyclone Nargis. I cannot begin to describe this tragedy, especially as many others have done so thoroughly already (also see here, here and here). How will this festival be marked in Burma? How will Buddhists celebrate this day around the world, while so many Burmese flounder in destitution, abandoned by their own government?

What is an appropriate Buddhist response on this occasion?

It probably goes without saying that the best thing you can do is extend a helping hand. (Read this appeal by Jack Kornfield.) No donation is too small, even when it comes to a disaster of such a large scale. Even just $2 can support one survivor for one day.

My friends have asked me if their donations will have any benefit at all, given the military government’s antipathy towards foreign aid and its recent actions to confiscate some of the aid which had arrived. Here are two organizations that I trust to get your aid to the people who need it:

  • Many Buddhist websites have promoted the Foundation for the People of Burma as an established and reliable Burmese-run organization that has the infrastructure on the ground to effectively distribute aid.
  • I also have Burmese friends involved with the US Campaign for Burma, an organization which I trust to get relief aid to the Burmese people (although I think the Foundation might have a better infrastructure in place already).

Also, if you are an American citizen, you can call your representative to encourage the United States along with its allies to consider humanitarian intervention in the Irrawaddy Delta.

These are simple steps that can take less then 20 minutes of your day. But what makes all this a “Buddhist” thing to do?

For one, by giving relief aid to the Burmese people, we are expressing an act of charity that is particularly traditional practice among Theravada Buddhists at this time of year. By our donations, we are also indirectly contributing to the Maha Sangha of Burma — a community that has had a strong influence on Theravada Buddhism in America — as I do not doubt that at least some portion of our aid to the people will in turn be donated again to the Burmese monastic community.

This tragedy is also an opportunity for us to individually practice the qualities of loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna). It can be easy to abstract away from this disaster and just think of Nargis as bad stuff happening to poor people on the other side of the world. But as Bhante Kassapa writes:

As a concerned people we hear the cries of those being oppressed. We must if nothing else pray for them. Develop metta in out everyday chores. Think good and loving thoughts for those who are oppressed. We may not be able to care for them directly, but we can care about them. We can wish them Peace. The fire of tyranny, oppression and hatred is never quenched with more fire. Prayer is an act of peace.

I hope that this coming celebration gives each of us an opportunity to reflect on the Buddha Dharma, to give the gift of charity to our brothers and sisters in Burma, and in this way to show our deep gratitude and respect to those who made it possible for us to have the blessed Dharma in our lives.