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“Buddhist Voices from the Land of Rivers:” In Conversation with Venerable Buddhadatta

This is the second article in our series “Buddhist Voices from the Land of Rivers.” Here, John Cannon converses with Venerable Buddhadatta from Wonmyung Meditation Center about the Buddhist community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The village of Baroghoniya Tanchangya Para lies at the foothills of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). My next destination, Rangamati main town, which is higher up in the hills, is reached after a one-and-a-half-hour CNG (a 3-wheeled vehicle powered by natural gas) ride on a road winding its way into the heart of the CHT. Although the ride was bumpy and a challenge to the backside, the views I witnessed of the local countryside made it worth the constant jolts and the maddening swerves of the driver to avoid potholes or, more likely, the animals of all types languidly crossing or standing in the road.

On 28 May, Jnan Nanda and I arrived at Wonmyung Meditation Center, where we would spend the night. Over the next day and a half, I had ample opportunity to talk at some length with its director and general secretary, Venerable Buddhadatta, about the center’s function as well as his aims and future plans, and he helped me to more clearly understand the concerns of the local Buddhist community. Ven. Buddhadatta also took us on an extensive tour of Moanoghor, the nearby Buddhist charity set up in 1974, which offers education to indigenous children from all over the CHT who would otherwise be denied this opportunity. It is the largest residential educational institution in the CHT.  

Ven. Buddhadatta has a cheerful disposition and is very nimble on his feet (I discovered this later when we were visiting Shuvolong Waterfall, where he effortlessly scrambled up the rock face). His eyes sparkle when he laughs. Ven. Buddhadatta usually walks with arms akimbo or, if he is holding an umbrella, with one hand on his waist, and stops frequently to engage in conversation with the laity.

Ven. Buddhadatta is a former student of Moanoghor. In fact, he was among the first batch of graduates. He then went to Sri Lanka for nine years and later, to South Korea for ten years because he was interested in Mahayana and wanted to explore its “good sides.” He returned to Rangamati in 2007 to work at Moanoghor as joint secretary, a position which he still holds today, in charge of hostel management for the students. His latest project has been the setting up and running of Wonmyung Meditation Center.

Wonmyung Meditation Center

Wonmyung Meditation Center was set up both as a novice training center and to teach basic Buddhism to lay people, offering courses on the Dhamma and meditation practice. For most of the year instruction is provided whenever people show up, but there are special courses during Vassa (the three-month Rains Retreat from July to October). On average, the class size for one course is 10 to 20 students.

Ven. Buddhadatta admits this is a humble effort, but something is better than nothing. As the CHT has no formal Buddhist organization at the moment, there is an urgent need for the establishment of more monks’ training centers, similar to those in Thailand and Sri Lanka. The difficulty he is facing is a lack of both educational materials and trained teachers. Whenever he goes on holiday, he brings back teaching materials to be translated into Bangla for use in a Dhamma school.

Previously, Ven. Buddhadatta sponsored monks to go overseas for formal training. He sent three groups to Sri Lanka with the hope that some would come back and contribute to the local community, but none did. Family responsibilities and other considerations influenced them to choose a path that would allow them to provide better family support. He stressed that at least his endeavor helped to relieve the poverty of others.

Ven. Buddhadatta firmly believes that monks in the CHT should be more active, especially middle-aged monks, who need programs of perhaps three months to teach them how to manage a temple. Since these types of programs exist only overseas, money remains a problem. Lay committees could help, but most lay people are very poor, and someone would need to take the initiative. 

John Cannon in deep conversation with Ven. Buddhadatta. From Jnan Nanda for BDI.
Ven. Buddhadatta enlightening John Cannon. From Jnan Nanda for BDI.
Ven. Buddhadatta at Shuvolong Waterfall, Rangamati. From John Cannon.
A CNG, the most noticeable mode of transport in Bangladesh. From Jnan Nanda for BDI.

Buddhist Community in the CHT

My observations and conversations during my trip have made me aware that Buddhists in Bangladesh are not a homogeneous whole. Ethnicity and geographical location affect their experiences, difficulties, and relationship with the government and non-Buddhists. I came to understand the situation in the CHT in more depth through my extensive discussions with Ven. Buddhadatta.

There are ethnic and physical distinctions between the Buddhists in the CHT and the larger Bengalee community in Bangladesh. The majority of the indigenous peoples, such as Chakma, Tanganchangya, and Marma, who have their own distinct cultures and languages, are Buddhists. They have an East Asian appearance and a fairer complexion than Bengalees.

Ven. Buddhadatta informed me that the indigenous peoples, compared with the past, were now “slowly awakening,” becoming more vocal and making their presence felt to the extent that the government cannot ignore them. I myself noticed the growing number of army camps and border guards, and an obvious police presence, as I traveled around the CHT. Since my return to Hong Kong, I have read news reports on recent protests against land grabs, difficulties faced by villagers in erecting a Buddha statue, and the use of temple lands by Bangladesh Border Guards (BBG) to set up army camps.

Unrest in the CHT is stoked by old and new grievances. It is not easy to overcome three decades of bitterness over the failure to implement the Chittagong Peace Accord signed in 1997, and sporadic outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims, leading to village massacres. The most recent crisis has been the continuing influx of Muslim settlers into the border areas, which has threatened to overturn the demographics of the CHT and placed severe strain on accessibility to natural resources, such as land and water. 

I took a look at the provisional results of the 2011 census for the CHT. Findings reveal that 50 per cent of the population are indigenous peoples, mostly Buddhist, followed by 48 per cent Muslim, with the remainder comprising Hindu, Christian, and animist. If we compare this demographic background with that of Partition in 1947, we find a stark contrast: 98.5 per cent were non-Muslim, of which 85 per cent were Buddhist. One can understand why indigenous groups fear they will become the minority, their culture and religion gradually marginalized.

There is also the perception that the armed forces and government officials in the CHT use double standards when there are grievances between Buddhists and the Muslim settlers. Being sent to the CHT is seen as a punishment: they just want to serve out their term with a minimum of fuss and return home.

The case is slightly different in the Chittagong Plains, Ven. Buddhadatta went on to explain, as Buddhists there are a religious minority immersed in the larger population of Muslims surrounding them. In the Chittagong Plains, all those with the surname of Barua are Buddhists and speak Bengali. Following the Muslim invasion, the Baruas refused to renounce Buddhism for Islam. The difference between the two groups is one of religion, not ethnicity. This explains why the Buddhists of the Chittagong Plains are of darker complexion than the indigenous peoples in the CHT. Physically they look like any other Bengalee, the dominant ethnic group in Bangladesh. No one knows by appearance whether someone is Buddhist or not. 

Buddhists outside the CHT have also faced occasional outbreaks of inter-communal violence. I was to see and learn more about this later in Ramu, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.

I rounded up the discussion by asking the Venerable what could be done to address these grievances and lead people to live in harmony and be tolerant of each other. He responded by stating that ignorance on both sides lay at the root of the conflicts. Ignorance needs to be faced and weakened through everyone’s efforts. Discussion between parties should be open and conducted with respect, leading to mutual understanding.

I agree with these sentiments, but cannot help saying, “Aye, there’s the rub.” How are we going to ensure this will happen? What mechanisms will we put in place to achieve “respect,” “mutual understanding,” and the dissolution of ignorance?

For further information, see:

Villagers Observing “Uposatha” in Rangamati
Hill People in Bangladesh Denied Social and Religious Freedom

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