By Kalinga Seneviratne*
Buddhists across Asia are going to temples, bathing the baby Buddha, giving food to monks, lighting lamps and offering incense sticks accompanied by chanting paying homage to the Buddha on Vesak day, May 29 this year. While keeping with these traditions is important, Asia’s Buddhists are letting go a great opportunity to shape the global development path in an ecologically friendly, compassionate and a sustainable manner.
As the centre of gravity of the world’s economy shifts to Asia, Buddhism – which has shaped Asian civilizations for over 2000 years – has much to offer in guiding Asia’s development path. Buddhist philosophy has a rich reservoir of ideas on living sufficiently and comfortably without exploiting nature and people, ideas that anyone can adopt irrespective of your religious affiliations, as the mindfulness fad in the West shows. Mindfulness itself is rooted in the age-old Buddhist meditation practice of ‘Vipassana Bhavana’.
Often, I find it sad, when I hear young Asians – whose ancestors for generations have been Buddhist – saying proudly “we are free thinkers”, and refuse to identify as Buddhists. I have often explained to them that Buddhists indeed are “free thinkers” – as reflected in Buddha’s sermon to Kalama on free inquiry – and they are essentially atheists – as Buddhists don’t accept a dependency on a creator God. This makes it possible to adopt Buddhist ideas without converting to a religion.
However, this liberalism has also created problems, such as in the Mindfulness craze in the West, where in order to “secularize” mindfulness, westerners have taken out the spiritual aspects of the teaching such as the development of compassion and loving kindness.
Thai Buddhist social critic Sulak Sivaraksa is critical of the way the West has appropriated a Buddhist practice. “It will be a wonderful thing to practice; for some, it will bring wonderful benefits (but) to seek mindfulness exclusively has the potential to evolve into something unwholesome, something negative,” argues Sivaraksa in a recently published book on mindful communication for sustainable development.
Pointing out that CEOs of many big global corporations have been sent for mindfulness training, he warns: “When building up empires, taking up this meditation practice without the ethics (wisdom) will not see his mind changing for the better (of humankind) or becoming benevolent, more compassionate, more wise.”
The foundation of Buddhist ethics is in what is called the three poisons – greed, hatred and delusion. To eliminate suffering in the world, Sivaraksa says we need to understand these poisons and mindfulness training needs to guide you to this – to eliminate what he calls the “structural violence” of our economic systems. These include the exploitation of the poor and the environment; issues of climatic change and environmental sustainability.
If we look at the results of the ‘Arab Spring’, it is a good example of how the three poisons have taken the better of humanity. A greed for resources (oil and gas) has led to a widespread manifestation of hatred from all sides, who were initially fed a delusion of freedom and democracy, by parties, that were merely interested in grabbing the resources of the region for themselves. This also reflects the structural violence of the global economic system that is creating conflict rather than cooperation.
In the past two years, I was involved with a project at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, which was originally funded by UNESCO, to development of curriculum to introduce mindful communication methodology into journalism training programs in Asia. We have developed curriculum where we promote a concept called “human-centric journalism” and in the economic and development reporting we introduce ‘sufficiency economics’ principles.
In economic reporting curriculum, we have used the concepts enshrined in the Buddhist ‘Four Noble Truths’, on understanding suffering (dissatisfaction), its causes and manifestations, cessation or extinction of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
This is a path of investigative journalism we promote, where the journalist is not just a watchdog, but an advocate or facilitator for finding solutions – to map a sustainable development path sans the structural violence of the current economic system. This also leads us to ‘sufficiency economics’, a concept the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej promoted at the height of the Thai economic meltdown in 1997 and has been recently revived by the military led government. The concept emphasizes community development that strengthens the community to the self-supporting level.
This concept has been adopted by Bhutan, where they have rejected the GDP-based method of measuring progress, and they have adopted the ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) concept based on the ‘sufficiency economics’ principles. In 2015, at the Climate Change Conference, the UN adopted Bhutan’s call for a holistic approach to development, a move endorsed by 68 countries. Now, a UN panel is looking at ways how this model can be replicated across the globe.
The current methods of journalism we teach – borrowed from the West – are too adversarial and promote conflict rather than cooperation and wellbeing of humanity. We may need to call the new mindful journalist a communicator – rather than a journalist – one, who could use a variety of digital communication tools to analyse, report and advocate for sustainable development.
If Asia is to give leadership to such a sustainable development movement and shape the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, funds need to be mobilized, especially from within the Buddhist communities. This is where rich Buddhist temples, individuals and foundations could help. Rather than spend millions on building huge Buddha statues and grand temples – there are enough of them across Asia – Buddhists need to fund media networks and training programs that promote these Buddhist concepts.
* Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan born Buddhist journalist and communication scholar currently based in Singapore.