Democracy -- Essence of Buddhism

Forwarded by: Tawit Chitsomboon
By Sulak Sivaraksa

June 20, Sunday Post -- THAI Buddhism, in my opinion, does have something
to offer. How can we eliminate suffering? In Buddhism, we are encouraged
to practice `dana', or generosity, a cutting away of some of our
selfishness. This does not just mean giving what we don't need. We
should also give what is most dear to us, not only money, but also time
and thought.

To do that, one must be practice `sila', the moral code. In the old
agrarian society, the moral code was simple: "Do not kill." But these
days, we have to apply the moral code in a new way. Isn't the very
existence of militarism against the first precept -- not to kill?
Isn't dictatorship against the second precept -- not to steal? What
about the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank? What about
sexual exploitation -- the third precept? Isn't most advertising
against the fourth precept -- right speech? We must interpret the
precepts in a modern way.

We practice generosity because it helps our meditation, `samadhi'.
We must question everything, including our every motive. Did we do it
because of our own ego, because we want to look big? Or did we do it
because it was the right thing to do?

To be a Buddhist, we have to practice mindfulness, not just for our
own happiness, but to share the suffering of others. That is how not
to exploit ourselves and not to exploit others; how to be of service
to others and also to ourselves. Mindfulness, when developed properly,
will lead to wisdom, `panna'. We know our potential, how much we can
do, which way we can and cannot change. We can do everything in a
nonviolent way.

This is the three-fold training -- `sila' (precepts), `samadhi'
(concentration), and `panna' (wisdom) put into a modern context.

We Thais have to look at out own society. With mindfulness --
personal as well as social -- we see that we have been resourceful in
not being colonised. But if we are egocentric, feeling superior to
others, that is a problem. Siam is the only Buddhist kingdom left in
the world. It has its strengths and weaknesses. One strength is its
Buddhism, which has been there all along. One weakness is a very
corrupt regime. How can we separate the Sangha from the present
regime? The Sangha has to be developed to include monks, nuns, laymen,
and laywomen, as it says in the canon.

Many Thai monks come from the poorest families and some, because
they have no chance of a secular education, join the monkhood merely
in order to rise on the social scale. At the same time, there are many
others who are proud of their culture, which is being destroyed very
quickly, who realise that they are custodians of something that goes
directly back to the Buddha, and who have not become corrupt.
Particularly now, many monks want to preserve the forest because their
lives are there.

But too many still believe in the old `muang' triangle of the
Sangha, the king, and the people -- and the kind is represented by a
government that only represents the people in form. Roads, dams,
electricity, and tourism only benefit the very few who are wealthy
enough to use them, and television only lures us into the consumer

The monks at the bottom of society are finally beginning to realise
all of this. If we identify with them, we will help preserve the
forests and restore the indigenous culture. We cannot return to the
good old days, but we can adapt the beneficial elements in their way
of life to the modern situation. In every town now, we have at least
four or five socially engaged monks who are trying to adapt the old
ceremonies to the modern way of living. How can they learn to practice
reforestation, avoid plastic bags and styrofoam, keep their ceremonies
from becoming commercial, and still remain meaningful and relevant to
people's needs? These are very important concerns.

We are very lucky to have leading monks like Buddhadasa Bhikkhu,
who, at 87, is a shining light. Sixty one years ago, he started Wat
Suan Mokkhabalarama (the Garden for Empowering Liberation), and he has
become a very powerful voice. Although many people will not listen to
him, some monks and laypeople do get his message. Before he dies, he
intends to form new order: Dhammamata, the "Mother of Dhamma". If
women are recognised with this sanctity, with this deep cultural
commitment, we can even confront prostitution.

Shining lights like Buddhadasa have a tremendous effect on our young
people. Many of them have now turned to Buddhism for the best reasons.
Although, as I have mentioned, most monks come from the poorest of the
poor, we now also have educated young people joining the monkhood, and
these people always practice meditation. They try to cleanse
themselves, to be mindful, and at the same time, to see the social
issues -- the need for social justice. These monks are now working
with the people and with the other monks.

In Sri Lanka, many monks do wonderful social work, but very few of
them practice meditation, and now, in times of turmoil, they have
become violent. The same is true in Burma. It is very important that
we link Thai monks with Burmese, Khmer, and Laotian monks, so that we
can practice meditation together, for our own security and
selflessness, and to help other people.

The cause of suffering is always the same -- greed, hatred, and
delusion. But we mustn't leave it in conceptual terms. What is greed?
-- consumerism. How does consumerism arise? -- advertisement and so
on. How can we use contentedness to confront consumerism? The same
goes for power, militarism, and dictatorship. How do we confront these
things? We have to denounce them. We have to alert the people.

On August 21, 1991, I made a speech against the Thai dictatorship.
There were only 200 people listening, and frankly, most of them were
sleeping. But now my talk has been quoted all over Siam as well as in
Germany, England, Japan, and the US. Why? Because I discussed the
cause of suffering in a concrete way, as greed, hatred and delusion,
and we all understand the importance of speaking the truth.

Hatred is power, it is dictatorship, it is militarism. We must
transform it into democracy. Democracy is at the heart of Buddhism.
The Sangha is democracy; it is fraternity; it is equality. The Sangha
is there for liberation, for freedom from fear and freedom from
selfishness. How do we bring the Sangha back?

In our Siamese culture, the villages, the `ban', were democratic.
The heads of villages were elected. How can we bring this back?
Especially now, just past the 60th anniversary of Siamese democracy,
we want to make democracy real. It means we have to challenge those
who blindly follow the western model of development.

Our government is only democratic in form, not in substance. Most
elected officials still uphold unjust laws which help the rich, not
the poor. The generals who ordered the killing of people last May
still play golf openly without any guilty feelings. The bureaucrats
still dictate our "colonial" policy, which really looks down upon the
poor in the Northeast, in Laos, Burma and Cambodia.

The National Economic and Social Development Board has more
influence on government policy than Parliament. Yet it blindly follows
the World Bank and the IMF, which say that we must catch up with
Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in order to be the fifth
tiger, which means the gap between [the] rich and the poor will be
widen and there will be more destruction of our environment as well as
our neighbours.

Now the Sangha is alert as never before because, for the first time,
a monk has been put in jail while still a monk. In the old days, a
monk had to be disrobed before being jailed, but the last junta had no
respect for monks. The monk was jailed because he tried to protect the
forest from military leaders who wanted to destroy it. Thai monks are
now working with Khmer and Burmese monks, and they are beginning to
assert their power. To me, this is wonderful.

How can we prevent politicians from wreaking such a havoc? We have
to use the Buddhist way. If the leaders lie, we must tell the truth.
If they act out of greed, we must act out of generosity.

As Thai Buddhists, we must work very close with the Burmese. I
proposed this exercise to the Burmese:
- Stop quarreling among yourselves.
- Be positive.
- Get your facts right on the abuse of human rights, the abuse of
the environment and the drug trade in Burma.

But we must work closely not only with our immediate neighbours such
as the Burmese, but also with our other neighbours.

The worst situation is that of the Tibetans, who have been oppressed
by the Chinese for over 40 years. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a
very good example of Buddhist non-violence. For four decades he has
been confronting the Chinese with hope, truth, and compassion.

In Oslo, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, His Holiness gave a
lecture on religion and democracy. He claimed that religion at its
best, particularly Buddhism, is democratic. If your are not careful,
he said, even the guru, the meditation master, can become a dictator,
and so, regardless of his good intentions, you must always challenge

He also pointed out that religious institutions sometimes become
dictatorial. Even in Tibet in the old days, with all the best people
and with so many good intentions, there was a tendency to become
autocratic. His Holiness knows that, so he is now setting up a
democratic government precisely because the Tibetans have endured so
much suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-know Vietnamese Zen master, tried to
change the situation during the Vietnam War, but unfortunately it was
too late. So now he has been helping the Vietnamese in exile

They come with tremendous physical and psychological main: Many of
the women have been raped by pirates, many have been treated very
badly in Thai refugee camps, many have been treated badly by their own
people in the reeducation camps. Now, many Vietnamese and other are
benefiting greatly from Thich Nhat Hanh's retreats. We need that. It
is what a Buddhist would do, healing in a non-violent way. There are
wonderful things happening all around the world, beginning with the
dismantling of the Soviet Union. Although I do not think that the
Chinese empire will fall apart, I do think that the ruling group will
destroy itself.

The same is true in Burma, although perhaps not as soon as we would
like. We have to practice patience, and also mindfulness and
compassion towards dictators. If they are to be overcome, they must be
overcome nonviolently.

We Thai Buddhists are very hopeful but at the same time we must
always remember to practice mindfulness, to be critical of ourselves,
our motives, our culture, and even our Buddhist tradition. By being
critical we will learn how much we can do. We cannot do it alone. We
need good friends. We must work with others -- young people and old
people. Buddhists and non-Buddhists, in our own country and in other
countries. Is is essential.
™ The Buddha said that the most important thing for each of us is our
critical self-awareness; to develop insight and awareness in
ourselves. The second most important thing, he said, is to have good
friends. So the Thais are now learning to establish good friendships
with the Burmese, the Bangladeshis, the American, and the Japanese.

It is wonderful that in America, they have the Buddhist Peace
Fellowship, which is working very closely with us.

Meditation is wonderful, but we most also address the real problems
of the world. At our International Network of Engaged Buddhists
meeting in Bangkok in February 1992, we began to deal with issues of
social justice and peace in Asia.

I am sure that in the next decade, and the next century, Asia will
become more democratic, more Buddhist, and more spiritual. Buddhism
will reassert itself to make authentic. Real democracy means
consulting with each other and progressing together, respecting human
rights, the rights of animals, and the right of the environment.

Working towards peace and social justice, so as not to exploit
ourselves or others, is to me the essence of Buddhism. We can revive
this essential element of Buddhism by working together.

In my latest book, `Seeds of Peach: A Buddhist Vision of Renewing
Society', I made a distinction between capital `B' Buddhism and small
`b' buddhism. The essential element of buddhism really is on the level
of a small `b', i.e. one does not even need to call oneself a

However, one needs to be respectful of others -- whatever their
creeds and their beliefs -- because ultimately this is also our own
self respect. It is also the way to change ourselves from a selfish
being to a selfless being and, hopefully, to restructure our society
to be peaceful and just.