03 November 2010

The Need for Buddhism in Social Change

Many times religion is seen as a tradition disconnected from progressive social change and human rights. Sometimes, religion even creates a force that pushes against the momentum of social justice. Yet after completing our third unit on human rights, I saw a new approach to the Buddhist religion that creates a framework for social change that blurs the lines of religious practice and social action.

For three days of our Collaborative Community Consultation unit, we traveled to Bangkok to attend the First ASEAN Human Rights Conference. The night before the conference we had the opportunity to exchange with Buddhist activist, scholar, and father of the “Network of Socially Engaged Buddhists” Sulak Sivaraksa. Sivaraksa has been charged for Lese Majeste (libel against the Thai King) multiple times, and is seen as one of the leading figures for social justice and human rights in Thailand.

Sivaraksa explained to us how a new movement of Socially Engaged Buddhists has interpreted the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism as a calling for social and environmental action. He detailed how Buddhism (and all honest spiritual practice from any religion) is an extremely powerful tool for social change. The reason comes from a belief that has been preached by the Dahli Lama for generations. That is, world peace is only possible if we cultivate peace within ourselves. Sulak believes that spirituality is critical to positive action, because one cannot act completely truthfully and positively without personal awakening. Only after we throw out our dishonest desires, our egos, and our dualistic thinking can we begin to approach problems of social justice.

While this view may seem questionable to the Western mind, the ultimate message is powerful nonetheless. If a person begins to confront these issues within oneself, they can better understand the deep seeded roots of problems. So often individuals place themselves outside of the “objective reality” that they see in the world. However, it is individuals that make up this reality, and each individual typically contributes to the problem. With this in mind it is imperative that individuals begin to live with a virtue ethic—also preached by authors like Thoreau—to confront societal issues on a more personal level.

A good example of this idea comes from the abuse of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in Thailand. We visited a scavenger community that ekes out a living by scavenging through the trash of wealthier urbanites. We also visited communities living in slums, and Isaan villages affected by large destructive dams. These people consistently have their Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights abused by the government, the economic system, and the actions of others. Every time I over-consume and create abundant waste so I can live a gluttonous lifestyle, I trod on the rights of these people. Every time I eat food without thinking of the consequences, or demand more electricity because of my excessive energy use, I indirectly abuse the rights of others. With a Buddhist perspective I can begin to understand this, to address the issue from a deeper, more personal level. I can work to live in a more simple, non-consumerist way. Western society tends to attack problems from a higher level, when many of the problems stem from individual greed, desire, and ego.

Ginger Norwood, a presenter at the Human Rights Conference, continued this idea. She has created an organization in Thailand that uses a Feminist perspective, combined with Buddhist spiritual practice to question societal oppression. She calls it “spiritual activism.” Her organization attempts to create a space where individuals can introspectively focus on their own internalized oppression. The spirituality of activism also cultivates a more sustainable activism to counter burnout and hopelessness often seen in NGO and activist movements.

Sivaraksa and Norwood also explained the Buddhist belief of “skilled mindfulness.” That is, Buddhists don’t necessarily see actions as right or wrong. Instead, each individual action needs to be examined and contemplated. It isn’t that government is bad, it that the people in government act with ego and selfishness. It’s not that capitalism is bad, but corporate business leaders aren’t leading lives free from greed and desire (or their greed is not being channeled to the public good). Buddhism is successful in creating social change because it attempts to create a holistic personal health, because only then can a healthy society be created.

Bryant Mason
University of Colorado at Boulder


Anonymous said...

sulak is an anti-democratic conservative disguised as a progressive/liberal activist Buddhist; he has and continues to support a fascist regime in Thailand illegally emplaced since 2006 and excuses the infringement of human rights made by the regime which has killed more than 90 people earlier this year in Bangkok; he is against the popular grassroots red shirt movement because they no longer look up to him for answers/directions since they were empowered under the elected Government of Thaksin Shinawatra. This is hypocritical and shameful and thus Sulak should be condemned by sincere Buddhists everywhere. He is anti-Peace and anti-democratic...

Emily said...

Great job, Bryant! I really connected with the part where you explained and expanded upon Sulak’s belief that world peace starts with cultivating peace within oneself first because it’s something I’ve been thinking about all semester. Plus, that concept really connects with the “Why Bother?” question that our group loves to ponder. At the same time, I just wonder: will a more personal or even spiritual understanding of the issues and of themselves really be enough to create such a thing as world peace? Could that even exist in our contemporary world, or is it simply a characteristic of some fictional utopia that we as a society are constantly striving towards? Definitely huge questions, but I think your comparison of that Buddhist concept to our experiences in the landfill and the idea of personal choice really swayed me to be a bit more optimistic about the existence of world peace.