Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

John Walsh: 'When did the Burmese monks start talking about revolution? Have they been stockpiling armaments?'

In the golden age of the New Statesman, their weekly competition would ask contributors to suggest phrases that were unlikely to be uttered by famous people. You know the kind of thing: Lord Clark of Civilisation saying, " Isn't it amazing how the eyes follow you around the room?" or Mrs Thatcher saying, "Of course, we were all Communists in those days." One of my favourites was Gandhi using the line, "Come outside and say that..."

The conjunction of violence and spirituality has been in the news this week, with the extraordinary scenes in Burma, where hundreds of Buddhist monks led popular demonstrations through the streets of Rangoon against the long-standing military junta. It's a fantastic, if counterintuitive, sight. Though they may inspire freedom movements, such monks aren't natural participants in civil unrest or political complaint (unless they're the Dalai Lama). Their time is spent in meditation, teaching and acquiring positive karma through good works, such as releasing little birds from cages. They wouldn't be first name to call if you were enlisting flying pickets. They seldom, if ever, hurl cobblestones at riot police.

Now, although the Buddhist hierarchy hasn't officially supported the demonstration, the young monks are going for it without them. And they've clearly rattled the Burmese generals. What do the army bosses think, as they watch the sea of saffron advance through the streets? Do they think, "Hang on a minute, these are monks. They have abandoned all possessions, and, like redundant vacuum cleaners, shed all attachments. They have no sense of material gain. The only state they want to see is a state of non-being called Nirvana. So who is the fat rabble-rouser in the midddle, haranguing his fellow monks through a bullhorn? What are they singing? Is it 'Kum Ba Yah'? Dammit, no, the monks are chanting, 'Our uprising must succeed'."

Uprising? This is fantastic. When did they start talking about revolution? Have they been reading the Communist Manifesto? Have they been stockpiling armaments? I imagine factional rows breaking out between traditional Buddhists and the modern kind. The former carry banners that read: "Love and kindness must win over everything." The newer tendency would presumably like to add, "... and if they don't, perhaps a Hellcat S400 armour-piercing rocket will do the trick."

The image of the saintly contemplative who can turn on a sixpence into an unconquerable fighting machine reached an apogee in the early 1970s with the American TV series Kung Fu, in which an exiled Shaolin priest called Caine, played by David Carradine, wanders through the 1870s Wild West looking for his half-brother. In every episode, this mild sacerdotal figure encountered assassins and bounty hunters and was obliged (against his gentle nature, you understand) to kick their asses. By an odd coincidence, a modern version of Caine has recently appeared in the form of Jason "Bad Ass" Barrett, a Pentecostal preacher from Moss Side, Manchester, who moonlights as a cage fighter. Recently, he's suffered a dislocated shoulder and an exploded eye socket after a punch destroyed his cheekbone. Is he the kind of preacher you'd invite to your parish fête? (Would you try to stop him?) Can monks turn into fighters without losing their integrity? Mr Barrett thinks so. "People have taken Christianity and packaged it until it's all 'turn the other cheek'," he says. "It's not about getting bulldozed; remember the Crusaders were Christian."

Admirable sentiments. How we'd love to see an army of Barretts triumph in Rangoon over a government that currently controls everything except the people's faith. It's too much to expect, of course, that the monks might turn overnight into the Buddhist Church Militant and start passing round the ammunition. But if by some miracle they topple the military, it will seem as if that's exactly what has happened - a rare sighting of the meek inheriting the earth.

** The world is in mourning, naturellement, for Marcel Marceau, the great French mime. Of course we should be grateful to him for reinventing, almost single-handedly, an ancient art form that uses gesture to summon up archetypal figures (the suspicious cop, the fuming waiter, the fussy businessman). Clearly he was some kind of a single-minded genius. But, dear God, how I always hated him. That awful sad-clown routine of his, starring the egregiously pathetic Bip - a name he chose in homage to Pip in Great Expectations, though the hero of Dickens' book is a deal more resourceful and less wet than his French alter ego - used to set my teeth on edge inside 30 seconds. So did its later incarnations in the grisly comic routines of the Cirque du Soleil, where the woebegone descendants of Bip could send strongmen hurtling towards the exits. And don't get me started on the army of Bip wannabes, who were everywhere in the 1970s: a humour-free tribe of self-dramatising onanists, who hung out in public parks and pretended, with their palms extended, that they were trapped in an invisible box. I remember David Bowie trying that routine onstage for about five minutes until someone told him it was internationally understood sign language for a prat. One shouldn't, I know, blame an artist for the poor quality of his imitators, but really. "Born in the imagination of my childhood," Marceau wrote, "Bip is a romantic and burlesque hero of our time. His gaze is turned not only towards heaven, but into the hearts of men." I trust he found the words "Bugger off, Bip" when he looked into mine.

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