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«My Buddha is Punk» Acinematographic review.


In the era of Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago, the concept of human rights had not yet been ratified as the standard of humanism. Just as today, many rights that we now believe to be essential were continuously violated, even unnoticed, at that time. Gautama Buddha did not create a social revolution movement. Yet he never accepted violence, nor did he accept the supremacy of any being, human or divine, and therefore, of course, much less did he accept that anyone should be discriminated because he or she was different. The documentary film that I am reviewing here, My Buddha is Punk (2015), shows with great skill and narrative audacity the despair and social anguish of Burma, a broken society, in which “Buddhist” fundamentalism has supported for years flagrant violations of human rights. The genocides committed against the Muslim minority of the Rohingya people have brought a group of young Buddhists to rise, with the aim of exposing such atrocities, but more importantly, of what they believe Buddhism truly entails. Interestingly, these young activists insist that punk is their only “Buddha”. I think it goes without saying that in Gautama Buddha’s time, punk did not exist. However, as I point out here, I very much doubt that the humanist thinking of the founder of Buddhism, his teachings and the history behind the Burmese punk movement in this documentary are unrelated.

The photographic staging of the documentary is magnificent, and although I am not a specialist in the field, I consider myself enough of a cinephile to be able to say so. The protagonist’s daily routine allows us to travel with his ideals to different Buddhist temples and hidden places in Burma. His serene expression during meditative practice contrasts with his exacerbated features throughout the scenes that chronicle the frenzy with which they hold their concerts. Their music, as well as their activism, also travels through the more rural areas of the country, with the mission of connecting with new generations and bringing them not only closer to their band, but also to their principles. The intense gaze of his protagonist, Kyaw Kyaw, thus appeals to reshape Burmese society by fusing punk music with his interpretation of Buddhist teachings.

Synopsis of this documentary

The story of this filmography features the Burmese activist, Kyaw Kyaw, lead singer of the Burmese rock-punk band. They are known as The Rebel Riot. Their intention is clear: to rebel against the established system and, through their music, to highlight the human rights violations in their country. Their motivation involves their interpretation of Buddhism, which aims to dissociate itself from the rigid relationship that this religion maintains with the high political spheres and the most deeply rooted traditions of their culture. The story is told from the point of view of these young people, who question the true meaning of Buddhism, expressing through punk the values they consider truly universal.

Still from the film My Buddha is Punk

The new generations represented in the documentary grew up in the age of Burmese dictatorship. Perhaps because of this, they seem to find in punk a channel for their personal quest. They identify with this style of music and promote it as the spirit of the liberation movement that they themselves perceive as the authentic Buddhist message. According to public interviews given by the band’s leader, the Burmese punk movement, as an urban phenomenon, emerged in the 1990s. In 2007, protests led by certain sections of monks, known as the “Saffron Revolution”, led to the punk phenomenon becoming a symbol of resistance, Kyaw Kyaw says. The humanist, democratic and Buddhist principles of their society are challenged by this group of reformers. Among the daily idiosyncrasies of the Burmese capital, Rangoon, the bold punk outfits contrast with the more conservative costumes of the people on the streets. The scepticism towards individual freedoms in their country arises as part of the rebelliousness that these young people want to convey, not only from the ethnocentric vision most deeply rooted in their society, but precisely because they consider that this is far from the essence of the Buddhist message. Modern versus traditional does not clash in this story as part of a generational struggle, but rather, it originates from a search for spiritual peace, based on social activism. Together with the members of his band, Kyaw Kyaw tries to raise awareness among the people of his homeland about the lack of democratic tools in their society, but above all about the constant violation of human rights resulting from the military dictatorship backed by the staunchest Buddhist orthodoxy.

Why does this story need to be told? 

Support for obstinate hate speech from certain Buddhist-monastic sectors in Burma, against much more than just the social reputation of the Rohingya, supported the campaign of ethnic genocide carried out primarily by the country’s military forces. According to the director of this documentary, Andreas Hartmann, his purpose in filming this documentary was to reveal the troubled history of Burma, a country which, in 2011, after more than fifty years stained by the blood of a tenacious dictatorship, continues to suffer from the violation of human rights. According to data provided by the non-governmental organisation devoted to the research, defence and promotion of human rights, Human Rights Watch, the ethnic minority of the Rohingya has suffered discrimination and relentless repression for decades in Burma. The Rohingya are an ethnic minority of Bengali Muslim origin, most of whom do not have national recognition (in 1982 the Burmese Civil Act denied their nationality). As stateless people, they have suffered persecution, execution and discrimination for many years. The genocides of their ethnic group by the Burmese military in recent years have gained international media interest, although the conflict does not seem to have been fully resolved.

According to the organisation, approximately one million Rohingya are estimated to be crammed into camps in Bangladesh, where the vast majority of them took refuge following war crimes committed against their ethnicity in Burma in August 2017. Approximately 600,000 of these people have been belittled for their ethnicity, being confined in different concentration camps across the country. This misfortune is not alien to fundamentalist orthodoxy, the political doctrine that claims to be “Buddhism”. At the heart of the plot of this documentary is precisely a reflection on the true Buddhist message. Its story reflects on whether fundamentalism could in fact be considered authentic “Buddhism”.

From a Buddhist philosophical point of view

I do not know any Burmese monk personally. I know that Buddhism has been established for centuries as their religious backbone, and that, as is the case in the vast majority of Southeast Asian countries, its main strand is ascribed to Theravāda Buddhism. However, because of my specialisation and training in the subject, as well as the fact that I know quite some people, I am aware that “clothes do not make the man”, not even in the Buddhist context. Gautama Buddha’s ontological analysis was precisely this, that what really matters is what is inside the heart. From the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, how can we read the message of this film? Well, although we don’t need to be a spoiler, since answering this question does not require an exquisite knowledge of Buddhist teachings, I would like to briefly outline here some points for your consideration.

If the mental process (saṅkhāra) of harbouring hatred or rejection (dosa) (without even pausing to discuss that it might be justified towards a certain type of ethnicity) were useful in reversing (paṭiloma) the causes of suffering (dukkha), Gautama Buddha would have reflected this in his teachings. Instead, he, who advocated compassion and empathy for all sentient beings, professed precisely the opposite message. 

In this world, never does hatred cease hatred.
It is getting rid of hatred [that extinguishes the flame of hatred]: this law is universal.
na hi verena verāni sammantīdha kudācanaṃ
averena ca sammanti esa dhammo sanantano (Dhammapada 5)

As we can infer from the contextual analysis of these famous verses, social inequality, the shedding of innocent blood, as well as the suffering of other beings (whatever their nature), were issues that concerned Gautama Buddha. Although in his time nationalist thinking had not yet developed in the same way as in contemporary history, the devastation arising from the war between different kingdoms shares ethnocentric ideas with the Burmese conflict addressed in the documentary. Beyond the Buddhist apologetic discourse, from an academic point of view (I dare say, precisely because of what concerns me), Gautama Buddha’s teachings historically promoted the practice of the four “refuge in Brahma”, which are nothing more than different ways of expressing the most human quality: empathy. Universal love, compassion, rejoicing in the achievements of others, are the altruistic practices that he defined as restorative, first and foremost, for the practitioner, especially when performed through the perspective of equanimity (upekkhā). The activism of the punk-Buddhist band refers to the reflection (even if sometimes expressed with too much distortion on the guitar, for my personal taste) of these teachings.

The Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga) is the basis of the Buddhist ethical message. The Middle Way, the method that Gautama Buddha coined so that everyone could attain his own liberation, involved more than mere words, doing the right thing. The right thing to do may be subject to interpretation according to the situation. This does not mean doing the right thing. Gautama Buddha never denied the (individual) conscience of the human being to discern the right thing, quite the contrary. Although Gautama Buddha and his group of followers completely renounced their social status, there is no doubt that throughout his life, he encouraged philanthropy and altruism in all its possible forms. For him, doing the right thing is always what “connects” us to the absolute truth. Kyaw Kyaw, too, does not question the individual’s ability to achieve happiness. Like Gautama Buddha, he tries to promote people’s awareness of this capacity through his social activism. Which, in my opinion, is none other than his interpretation of compassion, the exercise that Gautama Buddha emphasised helps us to detach from all that binds us to continue suffering. The Burmese punk band’s volunteer activities include Food Not Bombs, an international movement that began in the United States in the 1980s, where they distribute food to people in need. He and his punk band travel around the country’s rural areas to help those in need.

Still from the film My Buddha is Punk

Not clinging, not even to Buddhism itself?

The renowned Chinese monk Línjì 義玄, founder of the school of Zen Buddhism that bears his name Yìxuán臨済 (in Japanese read Rinzai), left for posterity his message summed up in the phrase: “If you meet a Buddha, kill him”. This striking advice, paradoxical as it may sound, precisely advocated detachment from any kind of essentialism (a philosophical stance that Buddhism denied from the very beginning). Burmese religious fundamentalism, promoted by certain sectors that consider themselves Buddhists, seems not to be a particular trait of its people, despite the claims of the Burmese national-centrist movement. The filmography we review here, or rather the central problem from which its story arises, comes precisely from this, from the ethnocentric view of those who fear the disappearance of their traditions. To interpret phenomena statically, as if they were independent “things” (rather than interrelated processes) is far from what Gautama Buddha taught. To him, clinging to an idea (micchābhinivesa) resulted in misinterpretation (micchādiṭṭhi), which in turn results in acting (micchākammanta) in a biased way (micchāgahaṇa). Those who do so (micchācārī) guide their mind (micchāpaṇihita) in the wrong direction, which leads to continued suffering. The eagerness (micchāvāyāma) and thoughts (micchāsaṅkappa) that may be shown in whatever is done in this direction, which, we emphasise, attaches us to suffering, are the trigger of a false life (micchājīva). Some of the oldest passages of the Buddhist canon ascribed to the Theravāda school record as direct teachings of Gautama Buddha the following:

Recognising that this is suffering, when these experiences, when you realise that these phenomena are false (mosa), then the very moment you are in contact with them, the contact fades away and you understand their nature (dhamma). A self-respecting monk, [is the one who] without hunger, eradicates his sensations and becomes free (parinibbuto).

Etaṃ “dukkhan” ti ñatvāna mosadhammaṃ palokinaṃ phussa phussa vayaṃ passaṃ evaṃ tattha virajjati, vedanānaṃ khayā bhikkhu nicchāto parinibbuto ti (Suttanipāta 739)

Being aware of this danger, that “the flame of attachment” gives rise to suffering, a monk should act consciously, acting free from attachment, not clinging [to anything].

Etam ādīnavaṃ ñatvā taṇhā dukkhassa sambhavaṃ vītataṇho anādāno sato bhikkhu paribbaje ti. (Suttanipāta 741)

In these passages, among the oldest known in the Buddhist canon, the idea seems clear. Attachment and hunger are two metaphors that go beyond material possessions; let us not forget that, in the Buddhist monastic context, they are meaningless. So what is being referred to here? Basically to discard any kind of idea, in other words to get rid of ethnocentrism. The denial of an individual entity (anattā), exercising compassion and altruism towards all beings, as well as many other Buddhist teachings, are nothing but an appeal to this very same thing. If we want to be even more specific and elaborate the argument, we will say that, in this way the cognitive process (based on our consciousness’s craving for stimuli) can be deconstructed. That which we regard as real, when we hold on to what we experience, is it merely the product of the interdependence between matter and consciousness, which keeps us within the existence (saṃsāra). Deconstructing the empirical process is the goal of Buddhist practice. If you meditate, but hurt others, you are not a Buddhist. If you are punk, but help others (you are also helping yourself, hence the idea that altruism is liberating), you are truly Buddhist. Being a Buddhist is not about wearing a specific robe, but about behaving in the right way. Rightness does not imply a specific behaviour, it depends on the situation. What is not relative is the direction it has to take to be identified as right. The goal is always the same, to counteract the effects of what produces suffering.

From the perspective of the punk band leader, certain sectors of his country’s main religious tradition had tolerated, on the basis of essentialism, firstly, that the political systematisation of religion resulted in it being detached from its original altruistic message, but above all that this resulted in something that further contradicts its conciliatory message: hatred and its greatest exponent, violence. The fundamentalism generated by religious orthodoxy is not unique to Burma. Strong links with the political sector of the Buddhist community in other Southeast Asian countries have led to nationalist ideas being endorsed under the pretext of not allowing their beliefs to be undermined. The conversation that the leader of the Burmese punk group Kyaw Kyaw has in the garage with other followers of his movement shows the root of the disagreement. Kyaw Kyaw points out that to understand and implement the Buddhist message in an integral way, what you really need is “to change oneself, from the heart”. The young man calls for something beyond what has been established in his country as Buddhism. His quest for spiritual freedom is more than remarkable. His channel is punk, to him, his “Buddha”.

Panoramic view of Bagan Temple Myanmar (National Geographic)

Final thoughts

I am convinced that Gautama Buddha would not have liked punk music very much. In fact, I am not even sure that, if he had listened to it, he would have considered it “music”, as such. Well, this is perhaps an excessively subjective opinion of the author. Still, what I have no doubt is that Gautama Buddha would not have completely disapproved of the implicit intention of the message: “Punk is my Buddha”. For all lovers of humanism, the modern history of Burma, but especially how certain people have overcome adversity and fought to defend the Truth, a visit to the press archive as well as a deep personal reflection is certainly worthwhile.

Recommended reading related to the documentary

Dhammika Herath. (2020) Constructing Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar: Imaginary of a Historically Victimised Community. Asian Studies Review 44:2, pages 315-334.

McCarthy, Stephen (2008). «Losing My Religion? Protest and Political Legitimacy in Burma», Griffith Asia Institute Regional Outlook Paper, No. 18.

Steinberg, D. (2008). Globalization, Dissent, and Orthodoxy: Burma/Myanmar and the Saffron Revolution. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs9(2), 51–58.

Efraín Villamor Herrero (Bilbao, 1986) Degree in Japanese philology and Japanology (2012-2016) from Yamaguchi Prefectural University (Japan). PhD, University of Salamanca (2020-2023). His main fields of study are Indian Buddhism and its influence on Japanese thought. In his doctoral thesis he has analysed differentjātaka stories that were transmitted to medieval Japanese literature. He is a member of the Erasia Humanismo Research Group (Spain), the Society for the Study of Pali and Buddhist Culture and Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Japan).

* This article was originally published in Dharma-Gaia Foundation.

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