step into the fire – what we don’t know about Burma

It’s a sunny day in Santa Fe and, while Frank is at a training retreat, I’m contemplating the teachings of the previous week.  It’s all still a mash of concepts and perspectives.  One of the teachers was Merle Lefkoff who taught the Science of Surprise – complex systems and compassion.  One of the points that impressed me was the idea of adaptive systems.  Adaptation is about letting go, it is about becoming open to the unknown.  Of course, we don’t tend to live that way.  And that brings me to the insight of the week: our practice makes us outliers to the norm.  In Lefkoff’s terms we are the scout ants of the colony, reaching out beyond the tried-and-true.

The danger, of course, in being an Outlier is the risk of being shut down, put out, and closed off from the mainstream.  In a word, the risk of humiliation is high and that can be a deep cause for suffering.  Being an outlier means being comfortable with solitude, having deep personal relationships rather than collecting people, seeking truth outside the system with humility and respect.

Lefkoff put us through a number of exercises.  As an aside, I love this quote from my notes: We are attached to each other by the task itself not only the exercise.

One exercise was to imagine what seems impossible at this moment.  What scenario can you devise that does not seem possible in the world at this time?  This was before the tragedy in Japan.  My scenario would have been very different, I think.  Or maybe not.

I described a Burma without oppression.

The second part of the exercise was to take a step back and see what has to happen for the scenario to actualise.

What did you think?  Get rid of the military rulers?  This narrow view opened a deep realization for me.  In any discussion about Burma, the focus is on the current conditions: the oppression by the military.  What we tend to miss are the outliers: the various ethnic groups who have been struggling for recognition since the British invaded Burma and sliced it up into pieces.  I’m particularly familiar with the Karens, having been a loyal supporter of Zoya Phan and her work through the Burma Campaign UK.  Phan’s book Little Daughter is a powerful revelation of the tragedy of bigtory and persecution.  When I met Phan in Ottawa, she became the first person to acknowledge those who stood up against the beginning rule of the military by Ne Win and who spoke out against the duplicity of U Nu.  Scout ants.

We miss the real issue when we rant against the military rulers.  True, they need to be confronted but there is a deeper issue that is too consistently being ignored – the diverse ethnic identity that is Burma.  Not one, not two.  Shan, Kachin, Pau’a, Karen, Padaung, Arakan, Chin, Mon, and more.  We disregard their rights when we speak of saving Burma as if it is a unity.

In the science of emergence, there are initial conditions interacting with rules of the system which in turn interact with relationships.  These interaction result in emergent behaviours presumably ones that result in upaya – skillful actions.  In the case of Burma, the rules have to change.  Our rules.  We need to see beyond our salvationistic tendencies and begin to acknowledge that the initial conditions are not the generals in their constructed cities but include the diversity of the region.  Each ethnic group needs to have a voice for a respectful re-construction.

What does this have to do with practice?  It’s up to you.  The next time someone talks about Burma as if it’s another Afghanistan – speak up.

Thank you for practising,


2 thoughts on “step into the fire – what we don’t know about Burma

  1. Thank you for talking about the Karen and other ethnic minorities from Burma. Many of my former ESL students are Karen, and I developed a strong connection with their stories, and how they came to live here in Minnesota. Burma’s situation is more complicated than most know.

    • Thank you, Nathan! Those stories would be a beautiful collection to keep the Karen identity alive. We lose so much more than material or spatial attachments when we are displaced.

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