By Joah McGee
This article was originally published on Insight Myanmar.
To my knowledge, in this month since the current crisis in Myanmar began, The Lion’s Roar, the premier Buddhist publication in the West, has published exactly one article on this topic: a brief and somewhat vague (and not quite historically accurate) thinkpiece by Randy Rosenthal that has been shared widely on social media.
In it, I was pleased to see a reference to how vipassana and mindfulness practitioners should hold Myanmar in mind at this moment: “This history means that anyone who practices any form of mindfulness — be it at a monastery, a secular meditation center, through a meditation app, or in Cognitive Behavior Therapy — should feel an affinity for Myanmar today.”
Establishing this link between contemporary practice in the West and its origins in Buddhist Burma is certainly important to affirm. However, the messaging from there becomes somewhat ambiguous; there is no word as to how (or if) this “affinity” should translate into action. Instead, it falls flat with a line that left me perplexed: “I fell in love with Myanmar. Not just the land, but the people. Now, in the wake of a military coup, I’m worried about them. I’m very worried.” Very worried, okay, and so…? But nothing follows. This reminds me of the “diplomatic-speak” we are now seeing from countries and world organizations which, as the news continues to worsen, escalate their official statements from “grave concern” to “urgently demand.”
Earlier, I wrote about the moral stand that I firmly believe meditation organizations with connections to Burmese lineages should take at this time. But what about the role of the individual meditator with ties to Myanmar, or the yogi who follows a meditation tradition originating from there? Are there considerations beyond the emotional state of being “very worried” that might be more helpful?
This can be a hard one to untangle. Organizations have a stated mission and can be held accountable if they do not act in accordance with those goals. But with individuals, it is not so straightforward. I personally find it inappropriate to tell others how they should act or engage, to say nothing of suggesting how they should feel. But what makes this issue more challenging still is the subversive influence of spiritual bypass, which is never a wholesome reason for a lack of feeling or engagement.
So let me state my own belief clearly here: while I would never dictate to any individual as to what they should be doing or feeling, I do not hesitate to name spiritual bypass when it lurks behind a decision to disengage, or not engage at all. The amount of spiritual bypass I have been hearing and reading regarding the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar has been disheartening, to say the least.
In this essay, I try to address this very difficult balance of honoring and respecting individual agency on the one hand, and pointing out where a fallback on what masquerades as “individual agency” is simply a cop-out form of spiritual bypass on the other. I hope that we can move forward with this very sensitive dance of calling attention to this phenomenon, while at the same time affirming that it is never appropriate to dictate terms of engagement to individuals. Perhaps fear of the latter is why Rosenthal is unable to advance his own thoughts beyond the point of being “very worried.” But whatever the reason, his failure to do is emblematic of the many pathways that now encourage spiritual bypass, which has become endemic within some Western practitioner communities.
First, I want to clarify the meaning of spiritual bypass. It is a term first coined in the early 1980s by a Buddhist teacher, John Wellwood, when he noticed some students using their practice as an unhealthy excuse to avoid facing challenging mental or emotional “stuff.” For an updated definition, I’m copying below work done by Clyde Ford, a vipassana meditator in the Goenka tradition and an anti-racism trainer who has led seminars with the organization. He wrote:
• SPIRITUAL BYPASS: Using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, or social injustices.
He then gives these examples:
• “I (We) are filled with compassion, and practice Metta toward everyone, I could never be considered (this center could never be considered) prejudiced or racist.”
• “Just practice what you are taught.” That’s enough. “There’s no need for advocacy on social issues or discussion of interpersonal issues.”
• “All we need is more ________ (peace, love, compassion, meditation, Metta, etc.), and everything will be resolved on its own. There’s no need to confront difficult thoughts, feelings, or emotions.”
• “With such ________ (peace, love, compassion, meditation, Metta, etc.) no one could ever feel alienated within our community.
This month, I have seen three general types of spiritual bypass relating to the unfolding crisis in the Golden Land, through interactions with others and on social media:
1. The first kind uses ostensible Buddhist wisdom as a cover, pretty much word-for-word what Clyde Ford describes. It goes something like this: “Just make sure to send mettā. It is unfortunate what is happening, but we have to remember it’s all karma anyway. So just wish for them to be equanimous.”
The insidious thing about this form of spiritual bypass is that on the surface, it is really does sound like good and wise advice for every meditator. So what is my issue with it? The problem is not the words themselves, but the intention behind them. A truth of meditation is being used to justify inaction and/or disengagement—which are very different from compassionate detachment. A mature practitioner is able to be very engaged, while remaining detached from the outcome. So the meaning of those otherwise Dhamma words is actually more like, “I see that palpable suffering exists for other beings, but even seeing it, I choose not to help in any way beyond the good thoughts I send through meditation practice.”
It is important to note that there is a way to verbalize this same message of wisdom without implying that no other ethical responsibility or engagement is necessary. We have two wonderful examples in the case of the interviews with Daw Viranani and Sayalay Chandadhka. Both stress the value of mettā over all else, to oneself and to all others. Both reference the role of karma, and encourage the practitioner to seek a balanced mind. However neither ever give any indication that it is a simple matter of putting an “x” in a box on our meditation checklist, while remaining disengaged; on the contrary, both engage deeply with the very messy and uncomfortable issues of the current reality in Myanmar, understanding that one’s personality and circumstances will dictate the degree and kind of engagement. But their message is to generate mettā and be empathetically engaged in whatever way feels right to the individual, while trying to stay detached from the outcome.
This form of spiritual bypass rests on maintaining apparent equanimity in the face of challenges. However, equanimity is not apathy. Many teachers (such as in this video by Bhante Suddhasso at Empty Cloud Monastery) try to make sure this distinction is clear because it is so easy to mistake apathy (a sign of spiritual bypass) for equanimity (a sign of spiritual growth). Disengagement shows apathy, detachment shows equanimity.
Spiritual bypass’ tendency to sidestep worldly challenges can even be seen in some Western monastics living in Burma. Following just days after the coup, one monk wrote on social media, “No need to worry about us. We are fine in our far away mountain monastery bubble. Monks should not get involved in politics and should have more important things to do.” Here, this monk creates a false binary choice: either a monastic marches in the street or lives a contemplative life. Because “monks should not get involved in politics,” his conclusion is that there is no room for engagement or involvement of any kind—yet again, one need only reference the talks of the two nuns above to see how Buddhist wisdom can be integrated into various levels of engagement, even by monks and nuns.
To me, this approach seems based in privilege, which a later post of his makes clearer: “I’ve been looking forward to the Myanmar Internet being cut off, but it does not seem to be happening. I guess that is good for the people here.” It is unclear why he could have been “looking forward” to a lack of internet. But whatever his reason, internet access provides the Burmese people a very literal—and basically their only—lifeline to the world these days, so it is stunning that either the monk is totally oblivious of this crucial fact about the country in which he lives, or he does not care that the Burmese supporters who feed and clothe him will be deprived of this essential service in a time of such turmoil and suffering. It is a trap to use one’s privileged status to avoid compassionately interacting with, let alone understanding, the plight of those without that privilege.
2. The second kind of spiritual bypass that I’ve seen this month is based on the assertion that Buddhist practice will survive in a Buddhist country, regardless of the government or what happens there. This was best expressed by one meditator on social media: “Buddhism was founded, grew and thrived under the governments of emperors and kings who were much much more autocratic than the current military rulers of Myanmar. Therefore, as far as Buddhism is concerned, I do not see any problem whether Myanmar is governed by the Tatmadaw [military] or the NLD [National League for Democracy]. Members of the Myanmar military are themselves Buddhists. The coup has nothing to do with suppressing Buddhism. Buddhism is not in any way threatened in Myanmar. There is no suppression of Buddhism or any religious freedom there.”
First, the inaccuracies underlying this belief need to be addressed. Buddhism survived, but did not always “thrive” under autocratic rulers. Many Burmese kings were guided by Hindu and animist advisors, or driven by superstition, which members of the Saṅgha certainly did not think supported a “thriving” Theravada religion. There were mad Buddhist kings that actually tried to murder monks; some kings used the Saṅgha and a host of associated Buddhist doctrines to advance their own petty missions and egoism, or interfered with the monkhood to fit their own agendas. And history is filled Burmese kings initiating oppression, tyranny, and war, not exactly a focus on promoting and propagating Buddhism.
And this reality doesn’t just concern the bad, old days of autocratic and capricious kings. In more contemporary times, we’ve seen the military regime promote the causes of nationalist monks, and arrest or harass more progressive teachers. Under prior military rule, it took an enormous amount of work for a meditation master like S.N. Goenka to get his courses approved, which could only be accomplished by turning a blind eye to the significant human rights abuses happening at the time in the country. This is not an indictment of Goenka, he did what he felt he needed to do to advance his wholesome agenda under the circumstances. But it is also true that this kind of tacit approval of the military’s repressions only helped perpetuate the suffering of the Burmese people.
In our interview with Thabarwa Sayadaw, he noted how the stability and growth of his own center was only made possible by the societal freedoms that came after the 2012 reforms. And in our interview with Chit Tun, he speaks about all the monasteries had been languishing in poverty, unable to get donations or serve their communities, because the military would not allow their actual condition to be reported. And this is just going back to the 1990s. Go back just a little further, and you have a country with its amazing Buddhist masters totally cut off from the outside world—foreign monastics and yogis unable to enter, and the great teachers, such as Sayagyi U Ba Khin, unable to venture outside the country’s borders. The ability of traditions to grow and spread was stunted, and access to them cut off.
And even in this present crisis, there has been word that the military put pressure on some very revered Sayadaws to co-opt their support, and when they refused, spread rumors of scandal about them. Progressive monks have been jailed, and the military has freed prisoners, injected them with morphine, and sent them into neighborhoods dressed as monks, to provoke the population.
So no, it has clearly not all been sunshine and roses for the Sasana in Burma, either looked at over the long arc of history, or in more recent times…or even now. The reality is that the Sasana is not secure by definition just because it exists in Myanmar.
This form of spiritual bypass uses that highly inaccurate and misinformed belief statement as a convenient rationale for being disengaged anywhere but on the cushion— because the Saṅgha is secure in Myanmar, any concern with worldly problems there is unnecessary… even if human suffering is the clear result. Like the first kind, it only serves to make inaction and disengagement palatable, and leads one away from acting positively in the world for the direct benefit of other beings. Again, to me, this perspective is not what the Buddha taught at all, especially for lay followers, who, by definition, are choosing not to leave the worldly life.
3. The third type of spiritual bypass I’ve encountered hides behind devotion to seeing the path maintained in the world above all else. To paraphrase it: “Access to Buddhist practice and qualified teachers can now be found the world over. So while the current situation in Myanmar is sad, we have no real fear about the survival of Dhamma teachings, however bad it is there.”
This may sound a bit harsh, but isn’t the wording of this message just a less offensive way of saying, “We certainly hope Myanmar doesn’t implode and become a scorched-earth terror state for the next decade where many thousands of innocents may die. If it does, it’s very unfortunate, but such is life and such is samsara, and it’s not really our concern. We should just carry on practicing.” Besides conveying this cringeworthy meaning, in this case as well, the “factual” basis of the assertion is just as important to unpack.
First, let me first say, unequivocally, that like everything else in the world, “Burmese Buddhism” is not a perfect entity… and sometimes blatantly not. So I do not at all mean to romanticize or paint an exotified picture of the glories of Burma Dhamma. However, there is certainly a depth, diversity, and possibility of practice here that simply does not exist in any other place in the world! A bypassing statement like the above completely misperceives the richness, breadth and complexity of Dhamma practice in the Golden Land, instead privileging one’s own, likely Western, and perhaps even watered-down version of Buddhist community and practice. It seems to conclude— shockingly, and without any basis in fact— that by now, all the important elements of Dhamma practice have emigrated out of the Golden Land.
So again, an inaccurate understanding, this time of the present circumstances, is used to justify a decision to passively disengage, to avoid facing a challenging reality, to wash one’s hands of any responsibility while leaving the Burmese people to suffer without support.
There is one, more specific type of spiritual bypass related to this “Dhamma will survive” variety. It concerns a particular meditation community which, of all the practices connected to Burma, is the most widespread worldwide but also seems more prone to falling prey to spiritual bypass, and perhaps especially so at this particular moment: the vipassana tradition of S.N. Goenka. I hesitate to call out any group by name in a forum like this, but several practitioners and teachers within the organization have reached out to me recently to share their own experiences with this form of spiritual bypass in the context of the events unfolding in Myanmar, so I would be remiss not to mention it here. That said, it is my intention to do so respectfully and carefully.
Of course, first let me say that the tradition is served by a large number of selflessly dedicated adherents, and many lives have been transformed through these teachings. And it’s important to stress that all meditators and teachers within this tradition certainly do not condone spiritual bypass; indeed, a growing number of practitioners are trying to address it within their own spiritual community, in particular as it relates to issues of race, such as in the work of Clyde Floyd mentioned above. And Goenka himself taught about the difference between “[positive] action” (engagement with wisdom, which yogis should try to do) and “reaction” (engagement without wisdom, which yogis should try to avoid); he did not frame his teaching in terms of engagement versus disengagement. So please do not take this as a blanket criticism of the Goenka tradition, to which I personally owe a debt of gratitude. It only addresses a particular “bypass trap” that members of this community seem prone to fall into, as evidenced by the statements heard this month. I hope that readers will take it at face value when I say that my only objective for raising this here is to talk about it clearly and openly so awareness and change can start to happen, as I’ve done with the other kinds of spiritual bypass.
One reason that this organization seems prone to spiritual bypass—and why it is surfacing at this particular moment, and in this particular form—is that its tradition narrative unintentionally opens the back door to let it in. With respect to the current situation in Myanmar, the connection goes something like this: “Although our own meditation tradition stems from Burma, we have gotten the pure technique through a chain of teachers stretching directly back to the Buddha. It has now safely taking root in a great many countries around the world. So we can be secure that our tradition has safeguarded the Buddha’s teaching. What’s happening in Burma now is unfortunate, but Burma is no longer essential for our mission.”
As with the other kinds of spiritual bypass, this rationale rests on a convenient but faulty premise. This is not the place to explore what caused the tradition narrative to develop in this way, nor the subsequent world-building that it gives rise to. But to put it succinctly, it is a reductionist, historically inaccurate view of the actual lineage transmission, positing a direct line of Burmese teachers dating back to the 19th century, which can then be traced directly back to the Buddha. In fact, the Burmese reality is more fluid and dynamic, and the historical record is quite clear that this particular tradition almost certainly originated with the great monk Ledi Sayadaw in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (even if the teachings now are not totally identical to what Ledi taught). Moreover, the broader, traditional narrative asserts that the lineage safeguards the one, pure form of the Buddha’s teaching through its vipassana meditation technique, and that its main mission is to safeguard this singularly precious teaching until the next Buddha comes. Taken together, these narrative factors can engender an intensity of faith, responsibility and certainty in some of its followers to dedicate themselves completely to this unique mission, with all else being secondary. This unfortunately has the unintended consequence of giving some of its practitioners easy justification to disengage from challenging, worldly concerns, sometimes expressed with a surety that they are above it all. These factors are easily discernable in the bypassing rationale above.
In sum, spiritual bypass takes different forms according to the reasoning and beliefs used to rationalize it, and I described several ways I have heard it expressed during this present crisis. I hope that my purpose in writing this article was clear: It was not to point fingers or complain, or orchestrate how people should feel or act; rather, it was to call attention to the dangers that lurk in the form of pseudo-spiritual arguments, which lay out mental frameworks and justifications for distance, disengagement and a lack of empathy amid the messy reality of samsara.
The Burmese people and the health of the Sasana in the Golden land now need more from us than being “very worried,” and if we truly are grateful for the treasures that we have gotten from the Golden Land— in whatever form— we will transform that worry into some kind of action, whether great or small.
I understand that for some and perhaps many readers, the question is, “Okay, but what can I do from so far away?” However, this will require another long reflection, and so be on the lookout for an essay exploring this question in an upcoming blog post.
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