29 November 2017, The Tablet

Pope calls for closer co-operation in meeting with Myanmar's Buddhist elders

Francis called for religious leaders to come together to forge a way of 'compassion and loving kindness'

Pope calls for closer co-operation in meeting with Myanmar's Buddhist elders

In a top level Catholic-Buddhist encounter during his visit to Myanmar Pope Francis called for closer co-operation to overcome prejudice and hatred while the country’s most senior monk issued a firm condemnation of religiously inspired terrorism. 

The Pope arrived this afternoon at the Kaba Aya Centre, the national headquarters of Buddhism, took off his shoes and sat opposite a group of Buddhist elders who make up the state appointed central committee of monks that oversee the religion’s activities in the country. On one side sat a group of Buddhist religious in a mix of orange, maroon and scarlet red robes and on the other was the Pope and his delegation in white tropical soutanes or cassocks. 

While both sides stressed the need for religions to be peace builders it was the Venerable Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, leader of the “Sangha” committee, who said that “terrorism and extremism” were being put in place of the name of religious beliefs. 

Watch Christopher Lamb's latest Facebook Live from Myanmar – see more like this here.

“We firmly believe that terrorism and extremism arise from bad interpretations of the original teachings of religions, because some followers introduce changes to the original teachings under the force of their own desires, instincts, fears and disappointments,” he said in a Vatican translation of his speech. 

His words did not cite any specific religion, but there is a strong anti-Islam sentiment in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and a fear that terrorism is being brought to the country by Muslims. This has been a factor behind the Rohingya Muslim crisis which has seen thousands driven from their homes and over the border into Bangladesh. The military and a number of Buddhist factions refuse to even call them “Rohingya” and instead refer to them as “Bengalis” who have recently arrived in the country. 

Kumarabhivamsa’s remarks can also be read as a firm condemnation of those within his own ranks who have incited hatred and violence against Muslims. Most prominent among them is Ashin Wirathu who is spiritual leader of an anti-Islam movement in the country. One expert on the ground in Myanmar, who wished to remain anonymous, said that a poor education system in the country was fuelling the hatred and misunderstanding. 

In his address the Pope called for religious leaders to come together to forge a way of “compassion and loving kindness” which leads to “healing, mutual understanding and respect.”

Likening the words of Buddha to St Francis of Assisi - the Pope’s namesake - he said more co-operation between Catholics and Buddhists was needed in order to “deepen our understanding of one another and affirm our interconnectedness and common destiny” and ensure "authentic justice and lasting peace.” 

He explained: “The words of the Buddha offer each of us a guide: ‘Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth’ (Dhammapada, XVII, 223). Similar sentiments are voiced in a prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon...Where there is darkness, let me bring light, and where there is sadness, joy”. 

At the end of the meeting, which was translated simultaneously into Burmese and Italian, an exchange of gifts took place with Francis presented Kumarabhivamsa with a sculpture of a dove of peace and the Buddhist monk giving the Pope a large picture of the pagoda designated to world peace at the Kaba Aye Centre.  

In his address Kumarabhivamsa explained that 87 per cent of Burmese are buddhist and there are more than 500,000 monks and novices. 

PICTURES: Francis meets Buddhist leaders and Myanmar's Kaba Aya Centre ©CNS. The Kaba Aya Centre, the national headquarters of Buddhism©Christopher Lamb 


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