I’ve never been to Burma – Mynnamar as some call it – but I felt I was there during the recent protests by the Buddhist monks. One photo, in particular, carried me from America to Rangoon: a shot of slippers left in a pool of blood on the street. I wondered which monk had been bludgeoned for pursuing freedom.
In a way, I feel connected to the monks. During the early 1960s, as a boy, I lived in Kathmandu, Nepal for three years. My father was stationed there as a physician with the U.S. Foreign Service. It was a time of turmoil in Tibet, a period when hundreds of Tibetans trekked over the Himalayan Mountains to seek refuge in Nepal. My mother, active in the refugee movement, invited Tibetans to visit our house. It was the monks’ visits I remember the best. I recall them walking up the long driveway with their red robes waving in the breeze, feet sandaled, heads shaven, skin bronze and handsome. They’d often display religious artifacts or art work in the living room, items smuggled from Tibet to prevent the Chinese authorities from destroying them. Most of all, I remember how kind and gentle they were. I didn’t speak Tibetan, nor they English, so we communicated with smiles and hands. I sensed a peace in their presence, a calming stillness.
After leaving Nepal, I lost contact with the monks, although I thought of them whenever I passed the prayer wheels, brass Buddhas, and other Tibetan artwork we kept in our house. And when accounts of the Dalai Lama appeared in the papers, I read them with interest. Then the protests in Burma erupted in 2007. I saw the pictures of the monks marching in their red robes, their calls for freedom answered with crushing force. I felt I knew the monks, each and every one. We’d exchanged smiles, gestured with hands, sat together silently. I thought to myself: You don’t beat monks. They’re emissaries of peace. Within days, it became clear the Burmese junta had banished the monks. But then, I thought, maybe not, for I believe the drive for freedom is irrepressible. Guns may tamp it, but freedom will rise; batons crush it, but freedom will reign. In our lifetimes? I don’t know. But this I believe: freedom’s flame is like one of those trick candles ? extinguish it, and it will light anew. If the drive for freedom led sandaled monks to scale the tallest mountains of the world, I believe the blood from those slippers abandoned in Rangoon has surely planted freedom’s flame in others who will carry the struggle on.
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