Buddhism and Civic Consciousness

I have just read a very good post on Buddhism and the need for taking care of our fellow human beings by a Thai author. He argues that ‘suffering’ or ‘duhkha’ is a fundamental conflict, such as one between our desire and the world — we suffer when the two do not connect; and he also says that Buddhists need to be more mindful of the plight of their fellow human beings, since we are all “suffering beings.” We are in the same boat, so to speak.

Here is a criticism of the kind of Buddhism that is being practiced in Thailand today. I am not talking about Theravada Buddhism, because Theravada Buddhists can be very kind to other human beings and all sentient beings too. This is not unique to Mahayana as pundits seem to believe. Caring for others is at the heart of Buddhism. The Buddha decided to come out of his Enlightenment to teach all of us simply because he cared for us. It is his love for us samsaric beings that prompted him to spend forty-five years tirelessly showing the way, teaching each of us differently according to our individual backgrounds and abilities, all in order that we “get it” and see that the lives we have been living for so long is pointless and there is a way out of this pointlessness which is achievable by everybody.

So the kind of Buddhism that the author is criticizing is not Theravada per se, but a social form of Buddhism that is being practiced in Thailand. Thai people emphasize the “merit making” aspect of Buddhism, so much so that somehow they seem to forget that this is only a path toward the goal. It seems that most Thai Buddhists mistake the path for the goal. We make merit not as an end in itself, but the merit helps us eventually “see” the way that the Buddha wanted us to see. Instead most Thai Buddhists see practicing Buddhism as little more than making merit and storing it in order to quality for some goodies that will happen afterwards. But that is not the heart of Buddhism.

We will understand the heart of Buddhism if we look at what the Buddha himself is doing. He left his princely, luxurious life to become a poor mendicant. This is terribly shocking, but when Buddhism is taught to Thai students this aspect is not emphasized much. The Buddha’s life story is related straightforwardly without letting this point seep into the listener’s mind. What does it mean for someone to abandon a wife, a son, a career, a home, a host of staffs and servants, a father, a mother, a bright future, to become a beggar? Why did the Buddha do that? What is the whole meaning of it? Reflecting on this and we eventually see how kind and compassionate the Buddha is to us. He took great sacrifice on himself so that all of us benefit. Not only did he abandon his palace, but during his practice he undertook very austere practices. We all know the story of how the Buddha tormented himself and was on the brink of death because he wanted to achieve Liberation. He wanted to know how to get rid of the sufferings — birth, old age, sickness and death — that afflict us all.

We don’t have to become exactly like the Buddha. But at least we can emulate him a little bit. Even this tiny bit will do us tremendously good. The whole point is that the Buddha did not all this for himself. It is not like, he wanted to become the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one that will be revered by millions of people. No, he did not want us to prostrate to him day in and day out. He did not want people to build gilded images of him and held him in highest respect either. All that he wanted was that we see the point and get it. He did all these sacrifices for us!

So this is what we can do. Instead of thinking only of ourselves — oh I am making this much merit today, so I will be eligible for even higher rewards afterwards, especially after I die — we should instead think of others and put their interests above our own. In fact this is the point of making merit, such as giving (dana). We give because we want others to be happy; we share what we have so that others can enjoy what we are enjoying too. We rejoice when others are happy. This is the real merit.

So what about civic consciousness? The author of the Thai article I mentioned earlier says that Buddhists should be more civic minded. He means Buddhists should not think only of themselves but they should care for others. When others in society are suffering we should not ignore them. We should understand, according to him, that suffering does not occur only at individual level, but at the structural level too. For example, there is an unjust system of distribution in society which leaves some very rich and some very poor. This is a simple example of the structural kind of suffering. Buddhists should strive to end that kind of suffering too. Thai Buddhists are usually blind to this, and in fact they have been programmed by the power-that-be that what they are doing (making merit and obtaining individual positive karmic results) is about the only thing they can do.

When we understand that injustice and structural kind of suffering all arise from human decision and intention, we realize that the individual level and the structural level are not that remote from each other. A good Buddhist, then, should do what he or she can to address both the individual and structural level of suffering. However, in Thailand Buddhists, especially monks, have been conditioned so much that they are expected to remain aloof from society and attend to their individual business only. That is wrong,and that is not what the Buddha taught.

So having strong civic consciousness is part of being a good Buddhist. Some Thai Buddhists may think that this is Mahayana. In fact ‘Mahayana’ or ‘Theravada’ are just labels, and neither term appears in the entire canon of the Tripitaka. The Buddha was neither with Theravada nor Mahayana nor Vajrayana nor what have you. He is with us. He wants us to get the point! It is the responsibility of those who can see something to help others who have not seen. This requires caring and helping others. This is what the Buddha taught us his students.


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