A Socially Engaged Buddhist Approach to Making a Post 3/11 Society in Japan

No More Back to Business as Usual

A Socially Engaged Buddhist Approach to Making a Post 3/11 Society in Japan

Sulak Sivaraksa

Sulak Sivaraksa is a renowned Thai author, social critic, and spiritual activist. Among the many social and spiritual development NGOs he founded in his native Siam (Thailand), he helped to found the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in 1989. In July, 2011, he became the 29th recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize for his lifetime work. This essay is based on a talk given at Kenju-in, the temple of Rev. Hidehito Okochi, in Tokyo on July 26, 2011.


The events of March 11th are something very significant. I think people should take them seriously, which means we should not return to business as usual. People in power either in the political, economic, or scientific spheres think they can change and improve things, so they never seem to learn from crisis. The cause of 3/11 in fact comes from human arrogance. We think we can control nature and invent something supremely powerful. Now nature has shown to us repeatedly that it is beyond human control and imagination. I think it is time we learn to become humble and to respect nature and other human beings.

After Japan was forced to open itself to the West in the mid 1800s, they began to follow the West. After their victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, they began to feel they could compete with the West and master scientific and technological knowledge no less than the West. The disaster at Fukushima shows they have not really learned that western successes also constitute their failures. In this way, I think perhaps the Japanese have been uprooted from their wonderful nature. Although most people consider the Japanese to be Buddhist, I think they have been alienated from the essential teaching of the Buddha.

The Essentials of Buddhism

In Buddhism, the first thing one learns is how to be humble and respectful. In the modern West, however, the first thing we learn is how to be arrogant and to compete with others. I think there is a great difference here. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition to which I belong, we are told that we will be blessed with life force, good health, and strength (mental, spiritual and physical), provided we remain humble and respectful to those who are to be respected, such as our parents, elders, nature, and all natural phenomena. In the Thai language, we call the river, “mother water”; the earth, “mother earth”; and the rice, “mother rice”. I think this is a wonderful sign of how we respect mother nature. In the modern West, nature is regarded as natural resources to be exploited. People like St. Francis of Assisi who preached to animals and took other sentient beings seriously in the 13th century is not in the mainstream. I think it is about time we Asians learn to come back to our roots and seriously question western civilization.

Humility from the Buddhist point of view is that you learn to tame the ego. The ego tends to be oppressive, but humility tames and reduces the ego. It teaches you not to take the ego seriously. This is the first step in training. Once you learn that your own self is not that important, you learn to serve others. Other human beings as sentient beings are more important than you. This is the idea of Buddhism towards life, nature, and sentient beings. The more you want to promote your own happiness, the more selfish you become and the more you end up in suffering. The more you try to promote the happiness of others, the more you are on the right track if you do it skillfully.

In Buddhism, once you learn to become humble and respectful, then you take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. Refuge in the Buddha means that we all can become awakened. Taking refuge in the Dhamma means that we can come to the truth. Taking refuge in the Sangha means that we can live in community, equally, with fraternity in order to liberate ourselves from greed, hatred, and delusion. Nowadays we don’t take refuge in the Buddha but take refuge in how to become rich, powerful, exploitative—and this makes us all unhappy.

In Theravada Buddhism, once you take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha then you take the Five Precepts (pancasila). You learn not to kill, not to steal, not to make sexual offence, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants. The Five Precepts are not commandments. You are not told what to do. Rather, they are guidelines on how to live a normal life, a natural life, a life of happiness. In the first precept on not killing, we can ask, why should we not kill? When we kill, the other suffers, but the killer also suffers because he/she promotes violence. The more violent we are, the more we are not natural and not normal. In the second precept on stealing, when you steal, someone loses their property; but even for the one who steals, it is bad for you because you promote greed and again you are no longer normal, no longer natural. In the third precept regarding wrongful sexual acts, when you do that, someone else suffers and you yourself promote lust. In the fourth precept concerning lying, when you tell lies, someone does not get the truth, and you yourself begin to believe in your own lies. This is very dangerous and is why politicians and advertisers believe their own lies. The fifth precept on not taking intoxicants is basically about advising people to be mindful, not mindless. Alcohol and drugs may make you mindless, but advertizing can also make you mindless. Ideologies and even Buddhism when it is not properly taught can make you mindless.

Socially Engaged Buddhism is about Social Structures

What I have just presented is the traditional Buddhist approach, but socially engaged Buddhism has to be more meaningful this. Nowadays we don’t need to kill, but we allow our government to kill. We allow the government to draft people to kill and then spend so much money on arms. I think if one is truly a committed Buddhist, one must challenge the government on no killing, no dreadful weapons, and reducing budgets on arms. In the second precept as well, we don’t need to steal anymore, we just allow the banks to steal for us. The World Bank is the biggest organization stealing from the poor for the rich, and most of us are not aware of it. Rich people exploit poor people; rich nations exploit poor nations; and all nations are controlled by transnational corporations. This is stealing at the global level. I could elaborate on each precept here at greater length, but the gist of the matter is that modern social structures are so unjust, violent, and exploitative.

If a modern Buddhist does not understand social structures, I think he/she is not socially engaged—and perhaps they have become irrelevant. When I started our movement for socially engaged Buddhism with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) in 1989, I went to the Dalai Lama for his blessing and support. I asked him to understand social structures, but he said to me, “What do you mean by social structures? I have no idea.” So I told him, “The second precept about stealing refers to how the World Bank is stealing. Do you see my point?” And he said, “Yes, yes ,yes!”

However, it is not so easy to get rid of the World Bank. I am happy that I was able to have a dialogue with the Bank through the former President, James Wolfensohn. One of his senior advisors was Catherine Marshall, and she was the one who nominated me for the Niwano Peace Prize that I received this year. Mr. Wolfensohn asked me, “You say something is wrong with the World Bank, but what is your Buddhist concept of wealth”. I responded that, “The Buddhist concept of wealth is to be: 1) self-reliant, 2) content, 3) generous, and 4) mindful.” He then asked me, “Where is the place of money?” I said, “Money can be helpful or harmful, but on the whole it is more harmful. That is why in Theravada Buddhism, the monks are advised not to even touch money.”

Nowadays, we have been told that Gross National Product (GNP) is the criteria to measure development, progress, and success. Obviously, GNP is linked directly to mainstream, so called neo-liberal economists and to capitalism and consumerism. Capitalism means that the more money or capital we have, the better. Consumerism means that the more you consume the better and that by acquiring you will become happy—but you never do become happy. For example, Japan is one of the richest countries with scientific advancements, a high GNP, but are the people happy here? Why do so many young people commit suicide in Japan? There is clearly something fundamentally wrong. The Chinese government is now competing with the American government worldwide, selling goods all over the world and becoming economically very powerful—but the Chinese people also suffer so much. They work under the worst conditions and are very exploited; all in the service of GNP.

On the other hand, Gross National Happiness (GNH) goes back to Buddhist economics—economics as if human beings mattered. If the Chinese cared for their workers and better working conditions, they would not need to compete with the Americans. Most Chinese people in fact would be very happy, content with a civilized lifestyle and freedom. The former King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, promoted this idea of GNH during his reign when Bhutan was a closed and isolated country. People were on the whole very poor but very content and Buddhistic. When I first went to Bhutan 35 years ago, there were no high rises anywhere. The capital and other towns and villages were very similar. Most people were poor together except for a very few rich ones, but even they were practicing Buddhism and were very civilized and humble. However, now that they have opened up the country, there are many high rises, and Thimpu has become an ugly place. I think that this is very dangerous and that it will be very difficult for them to carry out Gross National Happiness. People think Bhutanis a utopian Shangri-la, but it’s not.

However, I still believe in GNH. I have advised the Prime Minister of Bhutan on a better education system. Even in my country, Thailand, which is much worse than Bhutan, GNH is still possible. The reason why it is possible is that even the most advanced nations feel that what they are doing now is wrong. Leading economists who have won the Noble Prize, like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, have come out clearly stating that the GNP model will lead to the ruin of the world. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, now has a team of advisors on GNH. My new book, The Wisdom of Sustainability, was reviewed this year in the prominent British newspaper The Independent, and the reviewer said in the first line, “Breathe in happily, breathe out mindfully, and drop Pepsi Cola”. The second line was, “The Prime Minister of Britain should read this book.” Every year at Davos,Switzerland, economists, prime ministers, and finance ministers meet on how to promote economic advancement. Last year, they invited a French Buddhist monk ordained in the Tibetan tradition named Matthieu Ricard to speak on GNH. Ricard was a scientist before becoming a monk and is very articulate. I think these are all good signs that people are probing and looking for happiness, so we should all come together to look forward, beyond “business as usual”.

I am hopeful but not optimistic about engaged Buddhism in Japan. Hope gives us strength to do something meaningful, while optimism leads us to think that something will be achieved easily—but it is not so in this case. My country too is in a dreadful state politically and not so well off economically. Education wise it is very backward, so I started a small NGO fifteen years ago called the Spirit in Education Movement (SEM). Mahidol University, the most prestigious university in Thailand, has asked us to help them with their professors, many who are very arrogant and fight each other like cats and dogs. We are teaching them to breathe properly, and now they are learning to become more humble and friendly. The mayor of the biggest city in Northeast Thailand called Khon Kaen has asked us to help four schools. These four are the top schools in the city which send students to university. However, the students were not happy, and the teachers were quarrelsome. For the last few years, we have been teaching them how to be happy—it is possible. Chulalongkorn University, the oldest university in Thailand, has asked us to establish a School of Wellbeing to promote GNH in association with the Buddhist Studies Center in Thimphu, Bhutan. We are also working with Buddhist monks and an NGO promoting alternative education with a spiritual component. We work very closely with Buddhist monks in Laos, a Communist country. We have worked for fifteen years in Burma, a country run by dictatorship. We have 300,000 monks in Thailand who preach on consumerism, capitalism, funeralism, and monarchism, but having just 300 monks caring for the dharma is hopeful.

The essence of engaged Buddhism is to first begin to transform ourselves from within through meditation, by which we can then restructure our consciousness to care more for others. We must bring ourselves to see and confront others who suffer. However, this is not going to those in suffering to help them or preach to them. Rather, it means to share their lifestyle, learn from them, and perhaps to work together to change the situation. I come from an elite background and I used to think I was well educated, so I thought I could go help the poor. But once I exposed myself to the poor, I felt I learned much more from them, and this humbled me.

Making a Post 3/11 Society in Japan

I wish I could say something meaningful to the farmers and people in the nuclear disaster zones near the Fukushima nuclear facility. However, since I don’t know the situation well, I think it would be presumptuous and arrogant of me to advise people. I would say, though, that I admire them to stick to their roots and their land. I think that those of us who are really concerned about the victims of the nuclear disaster or the tsunami should work to become their friends, have dialogue with them, and learn from them. My friend Hisashi Nakamura, a professor at Ryukoku University, has done this by bringing in people from the disaster areas to his home to learn from them. When people are in such desperation, they need good friends, so we should go there to live with them for two to three weeks. We should learn from those people there how they could become hopeful in a very serious situation. In this way, we can restructure our consciousness and become hopeful even when facing death. The Buddha has taught us how to face death mindfully. I think this is the first essential step if you want to apply Buddhism for the world.

For those outside the disaster areas, I think they should learn that business as usual is not possible anymore. I think we have to credit Prime Minister Naoto Kan for being very concerned about the 3/11 nuclear accident. Most politicians serve vested interests and transnational corporations rather than serving the people. Most top politicians do not have “good friends”. “Good friends” in Buddhism are called kalyanamitra, and they are the ones who tell you what you don’t want to hear. Prime Ministers do not want to be told what they don’t want to hear. Kalyanamitra are an external voice of conscience. I think it is essential that we should be his kalyanamitra and talk to him as good friends. With good friends supporting him, perhaps Mr.Kan will have the moral courage to not continue business as usual. However, that would mean that his colleagues will sack him even more easily, because politicians want to have business as usual.

We have to think carefully and perhaps use our heart more than our head—learn how to meditate properly. Someone said the 21st century will be the century of spirituality, otherwise it will be the end of the world. I think we need to promote spiritual strength. When 9/11 took place in the United States last decade, the American establishment never changed and resorted to violence. However, a lot of young Americans changed. They want more spirituality and more truth, not lies and hypocrisy. The Occupy Wall Street movement has been tremendous. Yet even in Norway, the safest place in the world, the place of the Nobel Peace Prize, a terrible shooting incident just happened. People need to learn that no place is safe and to confront crisis mindfully and hopefully—then everything can be overcome.

Even here in Japan where the society is regarded as so homogenous, there are some wonderful alternatives taking place; for example, this temple we are in rebuilt by Rev. Okochi with natural, non-chemical materials and used in part as affordable apartments for the people. I think other priests will follow this model, because this is the only way for Buddhism to survive in the modern world. You cannot keep being greedy, making money doing funeral services and building ostentatious temples. We have to be more serious in practicing the Buddha’s teaching by being more generous. I think this is possible here in Japan and elsewhere.

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