Monday, October 1, 2007

The turmoil in Myanmar/Burma brings to my mind some great men and women from that country whom I met in 1947 as a young teenager attending a conference at Mountain House, Caux, the newly created centre of reconciliation in Switzerland.

Francis Ah Mya and John Aung Hla were young priests at that time but went on to become the first Burmese nationals to become Anglican bishops and then archbishops in that largely Buddhist country. I met them as I stood in the cafeteria line for lunch. Francis and John had come to Caux with George West who had been for nineteen years Bishop of Rangoon and was a close friend of my family who lived there.

When George became bishop and moved into the official residence many years before the country’s independence he wrote down in his morning quiet time: ‘Bishopscourt must be a heartbeat for the whole nation, a place for British and Burman, Indian and Karens to meet and find a common mind on an entirely new level of unselfish statesmanship where the spirit of God might touch and heal the bleeding wounds of Burma.’

One of his chief aims was first to develop a close relationship with churches of other denominations, particularly the Baptists, then to deepen communication with non-Christians, the Hindu and Muslim communities, and particularly the Buddhists. This gulf with the Buddhists was epitomized for him by the large wall which separated Bishopscourt and the monastery next door. He had seen the monks go out in their yellow robes to receive gifts of food but had never had any personal contact.

In his daily quiet time he had the thought, ‘Feed the hpoongyis (the monks).’ He suggested to his chaplain, John-Tyndale Biscoe, that some of them be asked in for a meal. John noted that never in the history of Bishopscourt had any occupant entertained a Buddhist monk. The bishop went further. ‘Why not invite them to a Christmas dinner?’

The upshot was that twelve yellow robed monks did indeed come for the dinner and followed it up with an invitation to the bishop to come to the monastery for a pwe, a party with music, drama and dancing. Then the two groups began to teach each other Burmese and English, and when the bishop had to go on tour, interrupting the lessons, the monks insisted on accompanying him as he went on his visitations. On National Day Bishop West was invited to give the toast ‘Burma’ at the national celebrations. Later the Abbot of the monastery suggested that a gate be put into the wall. He stipulated that there should be two keys to the gate, one for him and one for the archbishop.

Another Burmese Christian at Caux that summer was Daw Nyein Tha whom I wrote about in my book All Her Paths Are Peace. At twenty-one she became the youngest school director in the country, and was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi. She was asked to respond on the national day to Bishop West’s toast. She was also very direct. At a meeting with missionaries where she spoke on the subject of sin a missionary said to her that his sins had been forgiven. ‘What sins?’ she asked. ‘Sin in general,’ he replied. ‘I don’t know “sin in general,”’ she said. ‘My sins are all specific.’ She had expressive ways of presenting truth. One of her most famous sayings is known around the world: ‘When I point my finger at my neighbour there are three more pointing back at me.’

In 1961 had the good fortune to meet and report on the visit to Caux of six Buddhist abbots sent by the Presiding Abbots’ Association of Burma to celebrate the birthday of Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister who was the inspiration behind this centre. A report in a Rangoon paper reflected that experience and their response. It was headed, ‘In Caux Christians live like Buddhist gentlemen.’ Later that year I was present for the visit of the Burmese Prime Minister U Nu.

A year later U Nu was deposed by General Ne Win. After his release and return from exile U Nu devoted himself to a task that was also a priority even as a government leader, the translation of Buddhist Holy scriptures. There was a certain detachment from power that contrasts somewhat with today’s leadership. When he was prime minister he shook his cabinet one day by announcing that he would resign. He told them that without a new moral climate the country would perish and it was his job to help create it. After protests from his colleagues he agreed to return in a year’s time.

In an address to his party on his return he said, ‘After I had been prime minister for some time I found the dreaded disease of conceit had gradually but surely taken hold of me. I began to think “I am the most courageous member of my own party, I am the most intelligent, the most efficient, the most important.” I, I became the subject of my thoughts. From that moment I began to look down upon my colleagues, and to treat them with contempt. I admit that the present lack of discipline and order in our party has its roots partly in the disease of conceit from which I suffered. When this disease becomes an epidemic in any party, order and unity will disappear. In the past we have looked only at our virtues and at other’s faults. Let us in the future look also at our own faults and at other’s virtues.’

Not a bad bit of advice for a Burma in turmoil and Western countries approaching elections. There are certainly walls to break through and bleeding wounds to be healed in Myanmar today. The mild people of that beautiful country deserve better than repression.