A human being, first and foremost
By PHRA PAISAN VISALO, Bangkok Post, Jul 8, 2006
One of Thailand's reformist monk talks about transcending barriers and demarcations in dealing with the restive situation in the country's south
Bangkok, Thailand -- Both Buddhism and Islam recognise the unity of humanity, seeing every human being as a friend or a fellow sharing the earth. Understanding the essence of one's religion will enable both the Buddhist and the Muslim devotee to appreciate this bond and to have compassion for one another.
Differences in terms of religion, language and nationality will not pose as barriers. However, quite a number of Buddhist and Muslim devotees divide and classify other human beings in terms of religion, race, nationality, language, etc.
This has not only led to division between ''us'' and ''them'' but also to indifference or callous disregard for others - even to the point of seeing the other as the enemy.
This view negatively impacts social justice and peace because the religious devotee will only be concerned about members of his or her own religion; justice and peace will apply only to the members of the same religion.
He or she will not care about (or will not be able to perceive) the injustices and violence suffered by the members of other religious communities.
Last year, Thai Buddhists experienced revulsion when some monks and novices were murdered in a temple in Pattani province. A section of the temple was burned down, and a Buddha image was destroyed. Many expressed vengeance against the perpetrators of the crime. However, they felt no remorse when approximately 80 Muslim demonstrators suffocated to death after they were arrested and piled into army trucks waiting to be transported to a military camp in that very same province.
It seems that many Muslims also share the same view as the aforementioned Buddhists. During a meeting of the National Reconciliation Commission, I suggested to my Muslim colleagues that they should publicly condemn the murder of the Buddhist monks in the case mentioned above, a tragedy that is believed to have been perpetrated by a number of Muslims. But my Muslim colleagues declined to do so, fearing that it would make them the target of criticism or negative reaction from the local Muslim inhabitants.
As I've already said, a religious devotee tends to overlook the crime or injustice committed by the member of his or her own religious community.
On the contrary, he or she will clearly see a crime or an injustice when it is perpetrated by a member of a different religious community.
When a monk who was my friend was savagely stabbed to death in the northern part of Thailand, there was no moral outrage among Thai Buddhists in the kingdom. In fact, the murderer appears to be a Buddhist. But there was moral outrage when Buddhist monks were killed by Muslims in the South of Thailand.
Likewise, I learned that when Sunni Muslims bombed a Shia mosque in Iraq during the Ramadan period last year (and there have been several more bombings), there was virtually no denunciation of the crime among Sunni Muslims worldwide (including Thailand). But there would be an endless round of moral outrage among Muslims whenever Muslim inhabitants in Iraq (whether Sunni or Shia) were killed by American soldiers.
I believe that any Buddhist or Muslim devotee who knows the essence of his or her religion will not be able to remain unperturbed whenever a fellow human being (and it does not matter which religion she/he is from, or if she/he has a religion, for that matter) is abused in such manner.
This is because religion is supposed to enable human beings to transcend the various barriers that have been artificially constructed by humans themselves.
Religion opens us to the fact that we are human beings before we are Muslims, Buddhist, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, Sinhalese, Tamil, etc.
Religion can be a force for justice and peace because it profoundly transforms human beings, enabling them to have compassion and generosity toward all humans. Identities (or ''brands'') in terms of nationality, race, religion, ideology, etc will not be able to sever the ties of humanity. But when we are unable to grasp the essence of our respective religions - then religion may turn into a major obstacle to justice and peace.
It cannot be denied that at present almost every religion in the world, including Buddhism and Islam, is being used to fan the hatred of others or to justify violence in the name of Good or other Absolute Values.
We can see this in religious wars in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, etc. It is interesting to note that religious devotees who have picked up arms to fight one another feel that they are genuinely upholding the teachings of their respective religions.
There must be a very strong inspiration for a person to voluntarily sacrifice his or her life. For many people in the world, religion serves as this inspiration. The depressing thing is that nowadays religion is able to incite people to willingly die in order to kill others but seems to lack the power to inspire them to sacrifice their lives so that others may live.
Religion should be a force for peace. But this aspect of religion is waning. When millions worldwide demonstrated against the planned American invasion of Iraq in 2003, religious organisations did not constitute the majority in the anti-war movement.
When Israeli troops besieged Ramullah in Palestine in 2002, many innocent civilians were killed. Subsequently, many international activists went to Ramullah to serve as a human shield against Israeli troops and tanks. They were willing to risk their lives. Most of them, however, did not belong to any religious denomination.
Of course, there are religious devotees who are working for peace. However, one of their preferred activities is holding peace conferences.
On the contrary, the religious devotees who worship violence are willing to die in order to take the lives of others. At present, a question that is worth pondering is: To what extent is Buddhism or Islam able to serve as a powerful inspiration for its followers to sacrifice their lives to save the lives of others? Or at least to convince followers to struggle for global justice and peace through non-violence without being anxious for their own personal safety?
This will be possible when there is no ''us'' versus ''them''.
I feel that this is one of the major challenges confronting Buddhists and Muslims who believe in justice and peace.
Reaching the essence of religion liberates one not only from the delusion of identities that divide human beings but also from the narcissistic attachment to one's religion or sect; that is, seeing one's religion or sect as perfect and superior to all others.
This delusion has been the cause of countless violence and tragedies in the past. Buddhism itself has fallen prey to this delusion. When Japan invaded China, Manchuria and Korea 70 years ago, Japanese Buddhist leaders extolled the invasion, even praising it as ''sacred war inspired by the great compassion of the Bodhisattava''. They felt that Buddhism in China and Korea was deformed and lowly, and that the one in Japan was authentic. It was thus the obligation of Japan to bring authentic Buddhism to China and Korea - and to India. This might ultimately entail ''transforming the world to be a pure Buddhist land''.
Other religions have committed similar tragedies. Attachment to one's religion extinguishes compassion for other religions, leading to actions or practices that are contrary to religious teachings and that destroy rather than nurture religion.
This is a lesson for both Buddhists and Muslims. And it challenges them to think of ways to prevent such tragedy from resurfacing in the future.
Collective Action against Violence
Buddhists and Muslims should not only be compassionate and open-minded, and thus not take part in violence perpetrated in the name of religion; we must not forget that whenever thousands or tens of thousand are killed in a land where a religion has deeply planted its roots, it can be seen that that religion is a failure.
This is because all religion is not able to prevent the outbreak of violence because it shows that it lacks the power of peace-building. It is far worse whenever a religion directly incites violence for it points to its moral degeneration or disintegration.
Seen in this light, Buddhists and Muslims bear responsibility for the state of violence in many countries in the present, including Thailand. They have not only been unable to prevent or mitigate violent situations but have at times also allowed violence to be committed in the name of religion (even if the actual perpetrators constitute a minority).
Perhaps most religious leaders and devotees do not support or believe in violence. But their passivity or inaction enables the few who worship violence to hijack religion, to use religion to legitimise violence at will.
This is a major problem confronting religions worldwide and is a condition of violence in many areas of the world.
Therefore, it is highly pertinent for Buddhists and Muslims to put an end to violence done in the name of religion. At least, they should collaborate and condemn the killing of people or of members of different faiths, without fearing retaliation by armed extremists or fundamentalists.
At the same time, they should cooperate with one another to protect religion and religious places - along with the personal security of religious leaders, monks, etc. They should also work together demanding religious devotees to strictly uphold compassion and forbearance according to religious teachings, to advocate fraternity and the sacredness of life, and to refrain from violence in solving a problem or dispute.
Of course, this proposal may be against the grain of mainstream currents, which goes by the dictum ''an eye for an eye''. It requires a lot of moral courage as well as perseverance to be able to fulfil this task. As such, we must try to go to the heart or the highest ideals of religion.
Being at one with the highest ideals will nurture us and enable us to persist steadily on our course despite the gravity of opposition.
Learning from Each Other
The last point I'd like to make is that bridges must be constructed between religions, between the followers of different religions. Working together to denounce violence committed in the name of religion may serve as an important stepping stone for more extensive and intricate collaboration in the future.
On the one hand, Buddhists and Muslims should collaborate to bring about positive social changes along the lines of justice and peace. We shouldn't forget that violence isn't simply about bloodshed. It also includes exploitation and the deprivation of basic necessities and the lack of access to education and public health.
Here cooperation between Buddhists and Muslims is still weak because they are too fixated on the gains and interests of their respective communities.
Aside from cooperation in terms of justice and peace, working together on other public issues, including increasing daily contacts or interaction, is also essential because it helps bridge both religions together and helps reduce any misunderstanding, which may be a source of hostility, between them.
Due to limited contacts or interaction, religious devotees of different religions learn about one another largely through the mass media or even the grapevine. As such, things may be distorted or added, contributing to misunderstanding.
Increased interaction between devotees of different religions may be facilitated by regular meetings or by collective activities such as trips to important religious sites, celebration of religious days, cultural exchanges, social work, and even organising sports events - keeping in mind the traditional and the practices of participating religious communities in mind.
More challenging, however, is the willingness to learn from and about one another, particularly concerning religious teachings, beliefs and practices. As a Buddhist, I think we can learn a lot from Muslim devotees, especially about cultivating a sense of justice and developing strong communities through religion; that is, binding ''worldly'' and religious communities together.
At the same time, I feel that Muslims can also benefit from Buddhism. They may find Buddhist teachings on compassion, broad-mindedness, interdependence of all sentient beings, and The Dependent Origination useful.
Through open and continuous dialogue, I believe there will be improved understanding between Buddhists and Muslims. We will find that a lot of the differences between us have been exaggerated by a great magnitude, and that the differences between us serve as no legitimate reason to divide us into ''us'' and ''them.''
The road to justice and peace will be blocked as long as we cannot see through ''the brands'' that we and others ''wear'', as long as we cannot appreciate the humanity that closely links us all together. Therefore, we should all treat each other as brothers and sisters. Wouldn't this enable us to make our religious duties, which are geared toward the highest ideals, more complete?