Friday, March 11, 2011

Comfort Or Challenge II

I agree that the Sangha and politicians have quite different parts to play. From the very beginning it has been essential to Buddhism that the Sangha and the laity have roles that are complementary. Those who take the Buddha’s message seriously are to renounce the world, giving up both the burdens and the pleasures of lay life, and devote themselves to Buddhist principles. It is the role of the Sangha to keep the Buddha’s message alive, and that means to preserve Buddhist values and ethical principles. The Sangha are moral leaders, or they are nothing. Many matters, from economics to sexology, they are to leave to the laity. Monks and nuns are no more expected to get into the rough and tumble of political detail than they are expected to carry arms and fight. But I put it to you that it is their duty to advise political leaders on the moral principles which must guide how they govern, and even how they make war, if that cannot be avoided. Why should Buddhist principles, under that name, be kept out of government and politics? Buddhism is not some kind of frivolous game or pastime: it is there to be applied to the whole of life.
Such crimes as torture and murder are not a matter of politics, but fundamental to morality. Anyone who acquiesces in them on the grounds that the torturers and murderers are powerful people who rule over us does not deserve to be called a Buddhist, or for that matter a member of any religion. Of course, people who achieve prominence in public institutions do sometimes find themselves in uncomfortable positions when the state does something obviously wrong; but surely that is the price they have to pay for their eminence. At the end of the Falklands war, the Archbishop of Canterbury presided over a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He led the congregation in prayers for the dead on both sides in the conflict, not just for the British victors. It was known that Mrs. Thatcher was angry about this, but that is the difference between a mere politician and a religious leader: the Archbishop was doing no more than his duty in following Christian values. Since Britain is a democracy, he ran no great personal risk. Church leaders in Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini were in a much more difficult position. It is common knowledge that the Pope at the time, Pius XII, did not behave well, whereas some members of the Christian clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, had the courage and sincerity to protest and even became martyrs, to their everlasting glory. (Though I am not a Christian, such Christian language is surely appropriate in this case.)
If an individual, whether monk, nun or layman of either sex, has decided to opt out of society and to lead a secluded life, we cannot demand that they make pronouncements on public affairs – pronouncements to which in any case few people would listen. But if they have willingly assumed leadership roles in religious institutions like the Sangha, they surely have thereby undertaken to play those roles with moral sensitivity, and not just to give silent acquiescence to every atrocity perpetrated before their eyes.
If the leaders of the Theravadin Sangha fail to raise a finger to help or a voice to protest against the maltreatment of their brethren in other countries, I believe that this has to do not just with cowardice and moral indifference, but also with nationalism. It turns out in the modern world that most people feel a stronger bond with those of the same nationality than they do with those of the same religion. If I draw my next two examples from Sinhalese Buddhism, please understand that this is not because I wish to single out the Sinhalese for criticism: I simply happen to know more about them.
Here is my first example. The first Theravada Buddhist vihara, wat, or whatever you like to call it, was set up in London in 1926 by the Sinhalese Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala as an arm of the Maha Bodhi Society. To this day, that monastery, now called the London Buddhist Vihāra, is controlled by trustees who are members of Dharmapala’s family and live in Sri Lanka. This means that the Vihara cannot be registered as a charity in Britain, which in turn means that it has serious financial difficulties. Most of its supporters are Sinhalese and most of its activities are aimed at them. Not long ago I received an invitation from Colombo to become head of the lay branch of the British Maha Bodhi Society with a mission to revive it, but when I found that all major decisions, including the appointment of the monastery’s incumbent (who is always Sinhalese), would still rest with the Board in Colombo, I saw that this could lead nowhere. As some of you will know, the Mahā Bodhi Society, dominated by Sinhalese, maintains a similar stranglehold on its establishments in India.
This is not a terribly serious matter: compared with failing to criticise the murder of monks it is indeed trivial. But since this conference intends to discuss the problem of disseminating Theravada Buddhism to the rest of the world, it seems to me highly relevant.
On much the same topic, think of the history of Sinhalese Buddhist missions over the last century. Sri Lanka prides itself on being the Island of Buddhism, the Dhammadipa, and thus a suitable base from which to bring Buddhism to the world. It also contains, however, a sizeable minority of non-Buddhist Tamils; and it happens to lie just off the coast of Tanilnadu. Despite this, there have been pitifully few attempts since Independence to bring Buddhism even to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, let alone to those on the Indian mainland, because missions to the West seem so much more glamorous. How many Tamils have been ordained into the Sangha since 1947? I do not believe that anyone knows the precise answer to this question, but all would agree that it cannot be more than a handful.
I repeat that I have no wish to single out the Sinhalese for criticism. Similar stories can be told about the other Buddhist nationalities, and not only the Theravadins. But what would the Buddha have made of this? It is worth pausing for a moment to compare Buddhism with Christianity and Islam in this regard. Of course, nations states and the terrible emotions they can arouse are a part of the modern world, and nationalism crops up in religions which fervently preach the brotherhood of man. But on the whole Christian and Muslim religious leaders, and even their followers when the context is religious, do not fail to respect or co-operate with fellow-religionists on the ground of nationality.
Back, then, to our question: why do so few people in the wider world find Theravada Buddhism worthy of their serious consideration? Well, mankind has two great moral problems: let me label them sex and violence. I shall now speak about each in turn; and since I have already mentioned murder and nationalism, I shall first say some more about violence.
Buddhism proclaims itself the religion of non-violence, ahimsa. It is therefore only natural that people ask how it measures up to this claim. My own experience is that they ask whether the recent history of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Kampuchea, the five Theravada countries, shows a better record in this respect than that of other countries. The answer, as we all know, is embarrassing. Sri Lanka has recently brought to an end a civil war which lasted for more than 25 years, a whole generation, and the new government is showing alarming authoritarian tendencies. In Myanmar the central government, which has no democratic legitimacy at all, has been fighting minority populations for even longer than that, and millions of people have fled the country. Thailand of course has a far better record, but here too there has been serious civil conflict, sometimes violent, for much of the last two years; in May this year people seeking refuge in a monastery in the heart of Bangkok were killed by what some call the forces of law and order; the last military coup d’état was only 4 years ago; the far south of the country is not at peace; and there has been sabre rattling in a border dispute with a Theravādin neighbour, Kampuchea. Laos (which I know little about) has not been exactly peaceful, while poor Kampuchea under Pol Pot suffered something close to auto-genocide.
Let me immediately add that this summary is, I know, very inexact. In some cases it is not the Buddhist population or Buddhist government who are primarily to blame for the violence. All I am saying at this point is that unfortunately it is not possible for those who want to persuade others that Theravāda Buddhism leads the world in non-violence to demonstrate that theory is at all matched by practice.
This gap between theory and practice is particularly glaring when we look at law enforcement, and in particular at capital punishment. While one has to be extremely careful in assigning blame for the general political record which I have just summarised, the same is not true in this area. What part does Buddhism, which professes non-violence and love for all, play in public life? We need look no further than the first precept: not to take life. More than half the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment, which means that the state does not take life. Yet in the list of those which have no capital punishment figure only two Buddhist states, Bhutan and Kampuchea. This despite the fact that there have been numerous studies of whether capital punishment lowers the crime rate by acting as a deterrent, all of which have concluded that it does not. So there is not even a pragmatic argument for retaining capital punishment: it is there only to satisfy the desire for revenge.
Capital punishment usually follows a terrible crime such as murder, and such crimes are certainly detestable. That is why treating those criminals humanely really puts to the test whether we are sincere about out principles of love and non-violence. Of course, if someone murders a person dear to me, it is too much to expect me ever to love that murderer. That is why we have a judicial system, rather than allowing everyone to take the law into their own hands. But if I am a sincere Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf? And there is a further point. Buddhism says that anyone who has done an evil deed will have to suffer for it: that is the law of karma and retribution. If we sincerely believe in that fundamental Buddhist tenet, how can we justify multiplying the violence by making judge and executioner too commit murders?
Make no mistake: the state that uses the death penalty is to that extent corrupting its citizens and going against the Buddha’s teaching. I was present at a huge international Wesak conference here in Bangkok, when at a panel session a Norwegian proposed from the floor that the death penalty was incompatible with Buddhist principles and should be abolished. I was shocked by the panel’s glib response: that this was a difficult question to resolve, because many people in Thailand favour the death penalty. So is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral issues, or to follow the crowd?
Again, I do not intend to single out one country. After all, the Norwegian spoke against the death penalty in front of Sangha members from every Theravada country, and not one of them spoke up to support him. So much for the religion of universal compassion.


August Pieta said...

THe author says: "It is common knowledge that the Pope at the time, Pius XII, did not behave well,"

That's not correct. That idea is the slaunder that Hitler, Stalin, Ulbrigt, KGB startet spreading about Pius XII, and that idea is now held upright by thos who hate the church (for several reasons). FACT IS, that know one saved more jewish lives than Pius XII (860.000); no one protestet fiercer and more constantly against Nazism than Pius XII; no one helpt more victims of the war than Pius XII; no one worked harder, day and night to prevent the war, prevent violence, and rescued victims on all sides; no one wrote more letters, telegrams, visitted more importent men in behalve of the jews. HItler called Pius: "The Jewish Pop"; The Fascists called the Osservatore Romano "the voice of the jews" etc. etc.

GiDo said...

Death penalty is not effective because it is not in the hands of the suffering. Of course, an independent court should decide - but the suffering relatives should have the responsibility to then kill or not kill. Faced with those people, the death penalty could have a preventive effect indeed. In most cases I guess, people will be unable to finish it. In this way, it will not be done and those will learn about forgiveness. In the other cases, it will be cruel and full of hatred - and thus causing fear in potential damagers.
Now, is this idea compatible with Buddhism? Not with Theravada Buddhism, but with ideas of the icchantica, the non-believer who is not willing to change, as in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. This idea is ethically important because it is the only one that takes into account the danger of people who are not willing to change, like Bin Laden, Milosevic, Gaddafi and those dictators in Africa as well as serial killers etc. You have to kill certain people to stop their violence. It is so obvious that Buddhist ethics that rely on nothing else like ahimsa are an illusion.