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Aung San Suu Kyi, photographed in June 2012 (Getty Images)

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Revolutionary Leader

The Nobel Peace Prize winner talks about the secret weapon in her decades of struggle—the power of Buddhism

On a steamy evening at the beginning of the rainy season, a crowd of 10,000 packs the street outside the National League for Democracy headquarters in downtown Yangon. Volunteers pass out bottled water in the oppressive heat, while a Burmese vaudeville team performs folk dances on a red carpet. This headquarters, a crucible of opposition to Myanmar’s military junta until it was forced to shut down nearly a decade ago, is about to reopen in a lavish ceremony. At 6 p.m., a white sport utility vehicle pulls up, and Aung San Suu Kyi emerges to a jubilant roar. “Amay Suu”—Mother Suu—chant thousands in the throng. Radiant in an indigo dress, white roses in her hair, The Lady pushes through supporters and cuts a ribbon with a pair of golden scissors.

I’ve wangled an invitation to the VIP section, next to the building’s entrance. I’m soaked in sweat, overcome with thirst, and my lower back is throbbing from waiting on my feet for The Lady for nearly two hours. Suddenly, in the midst of the crush, she is standing before me, exuding not only rock-star magnetism, but also an indefinable serenity. Even in the press and tumult of the crowd, it’s as if the scene stands still. Standing ramrod straight, reaching out over admirers and bodyguards to clasp my hand, she speaks to me in a soft, clear voice. She wants, she says, to give thanks for support from the international community. She has a trip to Thailand planned in a few days—her first out of the country since 1988—and her schedule is even more jammed than usual. I ask her whether, as I’ve heard, she is meditating for an hour every morning, following the Buddhist practice that kept her calm during nearly two decades of house arrest. “Not mornings,” she corrects me. “But yes, I’m meditating every day.” Then her security team nudges her away and she mounts the steep staircase leading to the third-floor headquarters.

She and I had first met, only 16 months before, in more tranquil circumstances, before the international frenzy surrounding her escalated exponentially. The setting was the temporary NLD headquarters a few blocks from here, a dilapidated, garage-like structure watched round-the-clock by security agents. In a sparsely furnished lounge on the second floor, she had told me that she took up vipassana, or insight meditation, at Oxford University, where she studied philosophy and politics during the 1960s. The 2,500-year-old technique of self-observation is intended to focus the mind on physical sensation and to liberate the practitioner from impatience, anger and discontent.

Aung San Suu Kyi found meditation difficult at first, she acknowledged. It wasn’t until her first period of house arrest, between 1989 and 1995, she said, that “I gained control of my thoughts” and became an avid practitioner. Meditation helped confer the clarity to make key decisions. “It heightens your awareness,” she told me. “If you’re aware of what you are doing, you become aware of the pros and cons of each act. That helps you to control not just what you do, but what you think and what you say.”

As she evolves from prisoner of conscience into legislator, Buddhist beliefs and practices continue to sustain her. “If you see her diet, you realize that she takes very good care of herself, but in fact it is her mind that keeps her healthy,” I’m told by Tin Myo Win, Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal physician. Indeed, a growing number of neuroscientists believe that regular meditation actually changes the way the brain is wired—shifting brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex. “Only meditation can help her withstand all this physical and mental pressure,” says Tin Myo Win.

It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism. Yet this underlying story has often been eclipsed as the world has focused instead on military brutality, economic sanctions and, in recent months, a raft of political reforms transforming the country.

Buddhists constitute 89 percent of Myanmar’s population, and—along with the ruthless military dictatorship that misruled the country for decades—Buddhism is the most defining aspect of Burmese life.

The golden spires and stupas of Buddhist temples soar above jungle, plains and urbanscapes. Red-robed monks—there are nearly 400,000 of them in Myanmar—are the most revered members of society. Pursuing lives of purity, austerity and self-discipline, they collect alms daily, forging a sacred religious bond with those who dispense charity. Nearly every Burmese adolescent boy dons robes and lives in a monastery for periods of between a few weeks and several years, practicing vipassana. As adults, Burmese return to the monastery to reconnect with Buddhist values and escape from daily pressures. And Buddhism has shaped the politics of Myanmar for generations.

Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who renounced worldly pursuits and attained enlightenment beneath a banyan tree around 500 B.C., Buddhism probably took root here more than 2,000 years ago. Its belief system holds that satisfactions are transitory, life is filled with suffering, and the only way to escape the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth—determined by karma, or actions—is to follow what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path, with an emphasis on rightful intention, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Buddhism stresses reverence for the Buddha, his teachings (Dhamma) and the monks (Sangha)—and esteems selflessness and good works, or “making merit.” At the heart of it is vipassana meditation, introduced by the Buddha himself. Behind vipassana lies the concept that all human beings are sleepwalking through life, their days passing by them in a blur. Only by slowing down, and concentrating on sensory stimuli alone, can one grasp how the mind works and reach a state of total awareness.

During the colonial era, monks, inspired by the Buddha’s call for good governance, led resistance to British rule. The British scorned them as “political agitators in...robes” and hanged several leaders. The country’s liberation hero, Aung San—father of Aung San Suu Kyi—grew up in a devout Buddhist household and attended a monastic school where monks inculcated the Buddhist values of “duty and diligence.” In 1946, not long before his assassination by political rivals in Yangon, Aung San delivered a fiery pro-independence speech on the steps of Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500-year-old, gold-leaf-covered temple revered for a reliquary believed to contain strands of the Buddha’s hair. On those same steps, during the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi was catapulted to the opposition leadership by giving a passionate speech embracing the Buddhist principle of nonviolent protest.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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