What place do spiritual values have in shaping and defining the policy of the country? It’s a question that would certainly not be asked at a UK party conference. Other than an occasional grace said before meals, our institutions pay little heed to the religious lives of their people.
As a secular country, we rarely regard the pronouncements of the established church as applying to us. The monastic orders are in sharp decline, and their empty old buildings are being put to other uses. So it is odd to read of a place where empty monasteries bear eloquent witness to political crisis.
Burma’s monasteries have been emptied by a military dictatorship that fears their influence. Only 10 days ago, they were right to do so. The sight of tens of thousands of saffron-robed, shaven-headed monks was curiously awesome. They streamed through the streets of Rangoon, for all the world like the terracotta army come alive. People began to speak of the saffron revolution. Their demeanour told us much about modesty, obedience and shared values.
But what exactly did the Buddhist people of Burma expect to happen? They may have hoped to infiltrate some spiritual unease among individuals in the junta. It’s said these men are strongly superstitutious, believing in astrology and the influence of magical numbers. Apparently monks can exercise a sort of excommunication that can damage their karma, ruin their afterlife.