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Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Sulak Sivaraksa
Religion as Freeing the Person for Service to God, Family and Society – A Major World Religion: Buddhism

Although the word God is not frequently used in Buddhism, the Buddhist religion is concerned with service to one’s family and society. Those who practice the Buddhist faith work to free themselves from hatred, greed, and ignorance. Once liberated from these three poisons, the person is free to serve family and society. We can see that every society has too much poverty, deprivation and oppression. We should develop loving kindness and compassion towards those who suffer in our midst. Particularly, if we are from a privileged class or background, we should learn to open ourselves to those who struggle for justice and freedom – we should share our lives with them and learn from them. Ideally, we should work with them to liberate all in society from abusive and oppressive social structures. As Archbishop Romello of Latin America said, “When I tell the rich to be kind to the poor, they call me a saint, but when I tell them that the poor should have the same rights and dignity as the rich, they call me a communist.” The late Archbishop was certainly a saint regardless of what others might have called him. Like him, we must learn to develop sympathetic joy for the poor, and not hate those who oppress them. As Jesus taught, we should always work to overcome sin, but we should never hate sinners.

Normally our judgments of others are controlled by our biased subconscious perceptions. Hence we need to develop equanimity. Once we develop loving kindness, compassion for ourselves and others, as well as trying to be compassionate with sympathetic joy, then we might learn to develop equanimity, which means that the mind is elevated above all prejudices.

These four dhammic guidelines: Metta (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upekkha (equanimity), are collectively known as brahma vihara. The abodes of God. Regardless of our particular faith tradition, we can achieve great spiritual maturity by practicing these dhammas. We can free ourselves for the service of God or the supreme dhamma. And we could really be of service to our families and our society.

However in this modern world, one must also be aware of the negative effects of globalization and the destruction of the environment as led by the "American Empire" in collaboration with transnational corporations. Here let me quote John Cobb, the leading American theologian, who started the Buddhist-Christian dialogue with Masao Abe over two decades ago. This is what Cobb wrote:

If our traditional religious communities are so alienated from the teachings of their founders that they cannot see that American imperialism in the service of global capitalism stands in sharp contradiction to all they have taught, their ability in the future to address any issue of public importance is radically compromised.

Actually, this may be a challenge of apocalyptic dimensions. If the United States proceeds as its leaders now desire, it will lead the world into ecological catastrophe. Since the United States has the military power to suppress all national military opposition, the only effective resistance will be moral, intellectual, and spiritual. To be effective this will, no doubt, have to express itself in nonviolent civil disobedience. If our traditional religious communities do not generate, or at least support, such opposition, it is doubtful that resistance can achieve sufficient strength to block the implementation of disastrous American policies.

Many of us have come to realise that whatever goes by the name of “modernity,” “development,” or “globalisation,” is in fact neo-imperialism – something that unjustly reaps the benefits away from the people. The Industrial Revolution spread capitalism through violence, conquest, ethnic cleansing, and slavery. Even within the hearth of the empire the poor are taken advantage of through various means. So long as the minority upper class exploits the majority in the middle and lower classes, there will be violence. The violence intensifies as more sophisticated technologies are introduced, and as more power is vested in multinational corporations who have lost their moral conscience.

Economic, social and political inequalities form the roots of exploitation and violence. Violent acts are then inflicted on those from different class backgrounds, different religious creeds, and different cultures. These differences are linked to unjust social structures, which, in turn, depend on the world economic order which operates under a laissez-faire policy.

The stark differences existing in society result in one side enjoying privileges, making the other find various ways of opposition, even perhaps not through accepted judicious means, since the law primarily serves the rich and powerful.

Once one side abuses the other, it is natural that the other would retaliate, hence exacerbating the violence. This corresponds with a Buddhist saying that: “Bad deeds cannot be ended through retribution.” If “bad acts” such as violence persist in our world, then our markets will continue to produce arms, even India experimented with a nuclear device named, ironically, “Buddha Smiles.” These weapons of destruction provide enormous profits to the superpowers and the arms industries, at least in the short run. Eventually, such investments yield no value to society, but would only create losses if they are ever used.

How do we then find a way out of violence for social equity? The answer lies of course in the pursuit of non-violent means. That is, we need to swim against mainstream currents of thought. We have to cease developing technology for weaponry. We have to set more and ethical limits on our technologies. We have to guarantee that the existing free trade policies are transparent and bounded.

From a Buddhist perspective, all the suffering in this world is directly or indirectly linked to the three root causes of suffering, that is, greed, anger and delusion. In our present-day world, greed is expressed through the creeds of capitalism and consumerism. People are coerced to believe in money and a crude scientism, which often distract us from realizing our true nature and discovering the miracles of life. We should realise that the basis of western philosophy lies in René Descartes, whose dictum “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am” has been immortalized. We learned that Descartes is the Father of Modern Philosophy, but have we ever contemplated where the roots of individualism are? Individualism, expressed by oneself, is in fact a duality: If there exists a “one”, there also exists an “other”. This essence is contrary to the Buddhist principle of interdependence of all beings. In fact, Buddhism teaches us that we inter–are.

Today’s world has transformed Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” to “I buy, therefore I am”, the essence of consumerism. The reason why we study is to be able to get a job and make money. Confused by powerful advertisements and media campaigns we too often abuse our abilities and talents to buy meaningless goods. It follows that if we lose the power to buy, we lose the purpose of ourselves.

We have been misguided and through our unskilful actions we perpetuate violence. To achieve peace, Buddhism proposes the dictum “I breathe therefore I am.”

Our essence is not about our thoughts. Thoughts may make us more intelligent, but they certainly do not make us good. Even without thinking, we might be good. But without breathing, we die.

We constantly breathe, without stopping. Yet we do not seem to give any importance to breathing. Our first breaths come when we are born, and our last when we die. With western education, however, we ignore the importance of breathing. We perpetually breathe in anger, hatred, stress, vengeance, greed, and delusion.

Buddhists call the mindfulness of breathing ãnãpãnasati, and it works as follows:

When you inhale a long breath, know that you are inhaling a long breath.
When you exhale a long breath, know that you are exhaling a long breath.
When you inhale a short breath, know that you are inhaling a short breath.
When you exhale a short breath, know that you are exhaling a short breath.

From these simple exercises, we may want to try breathing in love instead of anger. We may be able to overcome the scourges of greed, anger and delusion through our conscious breathing.

When we are conscious, we are able to understand the essence of mindfulness, which is the key to life. To understand life means more than knowing the sum of its mechanical parts, which is what we have been preached by materialistic science. At least we should come to realise that we should not be living our lives for our self-glorification, for climbing the social ladder—which abounds with injustices, but we should rather recognise that the downtrodden and exploited members of our society are no less important than us. We should also realise that we share a responsibility in protecting our natural environment, which is being destroyed. We should also learn how not to hate those who are exploiting us, but we should instead overcome the unjust social structures which are full of violence.

The core teachings of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths. If we do not confront suffering, we do not know the essence of suffering. Suffering that is both individual and social.

What we call globalisation or modern development does not understand the essence of suffering. One escapes from suffering using the intoxicating means of consumerism and globalisation as the civilisation of the new generation. However, a globalisation based on consumption and economism does not acknowledge the essence and meaning of life at all. Such materialistic approaches to globalisation might arguably improve our lifestyles, but in fact it cannot set us on the path towards true happiness, which is peace.

From a Buddhist perspective, man can enjoy happiness when man has three levels of freedom:
(1) Freedom to have a decent livelihood, which requires material security in our natural environment. In other words, we should not allow our environment to be destroyed in the pursuit of a good life. Our environment should not drift from its natural equilibrium. We should however be aware of the dangers lurking in nature and hence adapt ourselves to cope with such dangers;
(2) Freedom to enjoy a good life with others. This means freedom from being exploited by fellow men, be it from individuals, the state, or the market. Both freedoms are factors which assist us in attaining freedom of the mind, which is supreme happiness. We can be content living simply, so long as our environment is healthy and secure. From a theological perspective, once we have these three freedoms we will be free to experience God.

Once we are able to experience God, or recognise the supreme Dharma, our egos will diminish, and peace would consequently be the foundation in our lives and society.

In order to achieve peace in a society, contemporaries who already have the seeds of peace embedded in them need to analyse the structure of society in order to understand how greed, anger, and delusion are expressed. It is fortunate that this idea has been spreading recently, beginning from Schumacher’s writings on Buddhist Economics some 30 years ago to the works of the Venerable Bhikkhu Buddhadasa in Siam. Cobb and Daly also wrote a wonderful book on Christian economics which is really challenging the mainstream, neoliberalism which always promotes capital or greed regardless of the costs to society and the environment. There is even a school of political science which denounces violence, i.e. that of Glenn Paige, which has gained considerable interest in various educational establishments.

With the Buddhist perspectives on greed and hatred, a true understanding of delusion becomes even more important. At last, there are some within institutions of learning who are yearning for a more contemplative education, which is closely associated with morality and ethics. Through such an education, there would be some hope that peace would be achieved, ultimately resulting in mindfulness to achieve the highest freedom – wisdom, the essence of peace.

I sincerely hope that what I have said would make you contemplate and perhaps would even make you act by challenging the status quo—the intellectual subservience to the mainstream Western domination which people in other parts of the world have been naively following far too long. Perhaps you could achieve peace in society and in the world through finding peace within yourselves. Perhaps you could spread your individual state of peace to your family and your society through a culture of awakening and non-violence, replacing the evil and violence existing in today’s societies. This, in my mind, is the ideal way to serve God.

We may be a small group of people. However, the British sociologist, Margaret Meade, put it beautifully: never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, dedicated citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. To put it stronger, let me end my talk by quoting Gandhi, who said that a small body of determined spirits, fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission, can alter the course of history.

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