Reuters blog archive
A government-backed mob in Vietnam about a week ago booted nearly 400 Buddhist monks and nuns out of a monastery in the centre of the country, bringing an apparent end to an ugly standoff with complicated origins. The incident has raised questions about the ruling Communist Party's commitment to progress on religious freedom, but the Bat Nha Monastery narrative is much more complex than simply an "authoritarian government cracks down on the faithful" story. (Photo: Thich Nhat Hanh at Non Nuoc pagoda north of Hanoi, 20 April 2007/Nguyen Huy Kham)
Some of the basic facts seem pretty straightforward. For nearly three years, the monks and nuns had lived at Bat Nha monastery in Lam Dong province, largely with the blessing of the local authorities via cooperation with local Buddhists, after their leader, the Vietnamese-born, French-based Buddhist zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, visited Vietnam in 2005 for the first time in 39 years. Last year, the local authorities started to put pressure on the followers of Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village school of Buddhism. In late June of this year, electricity, water and phone services to the monastery were cut and a mob attacked the group to try to evict them, but they refused to leave. In July, a smaller mob attempted another attack. The government set Sept. 2 as a deadline for them to leave, but that date came and went. Then, on Sunday, Sept 27, the group's overseas adherents reported that "an unidentified mob" of about 150 people, believed to include plain clothes policemen, violently evicted the 379 resident monastic followers of Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photo: Monks pray at Dong Pagoda northeast of Hanoi, 26 Nov 2008/Nguyen Huy Kham)
The central government's line has been that local Buddhists wanted Thich Nhat Hanh's followers out of their monastery and the government had nothing to do with it. Asked about the incident, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said in a statement it was "an internal issue between two groups of people following Buddhism at Bat Nha monastery. The dispute was non-violent, nobody was injured or detained."
But Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village followers said police were involved in the eviction. A local government document from last month obtained by Thich Nhat Hanh's followers and shown to Reuters stated that the group was not recognised by the state or the official Buddhist congregation and was staying at Bat Nha illegally. The roots of the problem may go back, in part at least, to Thich Nhat Hanh's late 2007 visit to Vietnam. During that trip, he told Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet that the government should abolish the arm of the police that tracks religious groups and disband the government's Religious Affairs Committee, which regulates religious activities.
Some book titles are too good to pass up. "How God Changes Your Brain" is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg's fourth book on "neurotheology," the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like "Born to Believe" or "Why God Won't Go Away." Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn't be "How God Meditation Changes Your Brain." As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.
That's not to say Newberg doesn't have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe -- the area that directs the mind's focus -- is especially active while the amygdala -- the area linked to fear reactions -- is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.
Neurotheology - the study of the link between belief and the brain - is a topic I've hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.
If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don't have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I'm attending a "Neuroscience Boot Camp" at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.
The 1996 murder of seven French Catholic monks in Algeria, called the Martyrs of Atlas because of the Atlas mountains where their monastery was located, was not the work of Islamist militants as officially stated at the time, according to testimony by a retired French general to an inquiry into the killings. (Photo: Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin -- with red sash -- visits monks' graces, 20 Feb 2007/Larbi Louafi)
In fact, he told a closed-door inquiry in Paris, Algerian troops in a helicopter inadvertently gunned down the Trappists when they strafed an isolated camp they believed belonged to the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that was battling the Algerian state at the time. When they landed to inspect the scene, the troops found the bullet-ridden bodies of the monks who had been kidnapped two months beforehand. Algeria then concocted the story that the Islamists had slit the monks' throats to hide their fatal blunder.
DECANI, Kosovo - A visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to one of the best known monasteries in Kosovo has again revealed a deep split in the church. A veteran of Balkan complexities from his U.S. Senate activism against Serbian aggression during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Biden visited the 14th century Decani monastery on Thursday afternoon to highlight the importance protecting the Serbian minority in Kosovo. (Photo: Fr. Janjic with U.S. Vice President Biden at Decani monastery, 21 May 2009/Adam Tanner)
Father Sava Janjic, sometimes called Decani's "cyber monk" because of his embrace of the Internet, warmly welcomed the vice president, who had first visited there in 2001. "This is his second visit to this monastery which is one of the most important Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo," Fr. Sava told Reuters in fluent English. "We sincerely believe his visit will help the preservation of Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo and generally help the position of the Serbian people in Kosovo."
from Changing China:
Beijing has poured money into Tibet over decades of trying to bring the restive region to heel, raising average wages, restoring cultural treasures like the Potala Palace, even paying a monthly stipend to monks who hold government permits. Local officials are sensible about this munificence and grateful for the help in running one of China's poorest regions. "The support of the government is the reason for Tibet's development. Without their backing....Tibet could not be its the current position," Tsering, vice chairman of the regional government, told reporters on a recent officially sponsored trip. Tsering, like many Tibetans, uses only one name. The sentiments of ordinary Tibetans are more complicated. Many of them resent the political baggage that comes with the funds and the influx of Han Chinese who have followed. There is little question that life has improved materially for many over the last 50 years, particularly in rural areas where scholars say the harshness of farming life has also kept outsiders away, helping to preserve traditional culture.
"Life is better now. Every day is like our old New Year," said 55 year-old Gelek, a farmer who speaks only Tibetan and greeted a foreign visitor the old-fashioned way, by sticking out his tongue.
He says he makes cash from vegetables grown for sale in Lhasa, has moved into a new house, and eats meat far more often than as a young man.
But frustrated urbanites face discrimination and often see jobs that are created with cash from Beijing going to Han Chinese competitors.
"They are very lovable as a people, but they are not really motivated about work," said one senior Han Chinese intellectual working in Lhasa who works with several Tibetans but shares prejudices common among many outsiders.
"They start (a project) and then they go off for a drink and sometimes you call, and call and they don't even answer." Many monks and nuns, whose numbers and religious activities are constrained by the government, also resent a ban on expressing their devotion to the man they still revere as spiritual leader -- the exiled Dalai Lama, who has been denounced by Beijing as a scheming separatist. The Dalai Lama denies this accusation, saying he seeks only genuine autonomy within China, not a separate nation. Many Tibetans also appear more interested in religious and cultural freedoms than independence. But on their right to those freedoms most Tibetans agree. Few have time for Beijing's ubiquitous assertion that Tibet has always been a part of China, which even led to a dispute over the Chinese version of a Tintin comic book -- published as "Tintin in China's Tibet" instead of just a straight translation of the English title "Tintin in Tibet". "They treat us like a child and think they can deceive us. But we know Tibet was once an independent country," said a monk called Jigme in Tongren, an ethnic Tibetan part of neighbouring Qinghai province.
Photo Credit: Sixty-eight-year-old Tibetan farmer Danzeng Basa adjusts his solar-powered kettle outside his recently built house in a small village outside Lhasa, Feb. 12, 2009. REUTERS/Emma Graham-Harrison
from Changing China:
A German water polo player who had earlier this year floated the idea of his team wearing orange robes a symbolic protest at the Olympics against China's Tibet has changed his mind, saying the Tibet issue is far too complex and that he knows too little about China to organise such a demonstration.
Soeren Mackeben, 29, told Der Spiegel news magazine this week: "I've become more sceptical towards all sides in the meantime." Mackeben had first proposed wearing the orange robes -- the same colour as the Tibetan monks -- in an interview in March.