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Buddhist principles can revolutionize news and journalism

By Shelton Gunaratne, Lanka Daily News, Feb 15, 2009

Asian communication specialists debated the issue of de-Westernizing social science theory and research at a gathering in Taipei, Taiwan, in mid-December last year. Their contributions will appear in a special issue of the Asian Journal of Communication this year.

Taipei, Taiwan -- This gathering propelled my thoughts on revolutionizing news and journalism into higher ontological levels. It occurred to me that Sri Lanka, as a component of the world-system, could challenge the dominant (Western) model of news and journalism and its permutations by adopting a normative model based on Theravada Buddhist principles and demonstrating its applicability across the boundaries from the periphery (developing countries) to the center (developed countries).

Presuming that globalization is an indicator of the system's unique property called emergence, the current direction of the pattern of influence is from the center to the periphery. However, the principle of diversity (yin) within unity (yang) ensures varying degrees of hybridity in anything that moves along the global pathways.

Buddhist principles have universal applicability because they are not divine dictates but explicit and practical morals of human communication. American journalist Doug McGill says that a journalism grounded in Buddhist morals would produce (1) a journalism of healing because the goal of Buddhism is achieving the end of "suffering," which connotes many facets of existence, and (2) a journalism of timely, truthful, and helpful speech based on the Noble Eightfold Path. Because Sri Lanka is emerging from the ravages of a long-drawn war with the Tamil Tigers, this is the time for the state, as well as all newspaper editors and publishers, to give serious thought to applying Buddhist principles to news and journalism.

A normative model with the capacity for healing and an emphasis on timely, truthful, and helpful speech (roughly equivalent to what German critical theorist Jurgen Habermas calls communicative rationality) will be revolutionary because it would transform news from a commodity to a social good. It would also be a panacea for what Habermas refers to as the crises or pathologies of the lifeworld (modern capitalist society) engendered by the cognitive-instrumental rationality of the "steering media of money and power" in the system world.

Buddhist Model of Journalism

The search for a normative Buddhist model of journalism should start with the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhist philosophy. The first truth (about existence) is that there is dukkha (suffering/sorrow). As McGill explains:

It is ordinary everyday suffering, aches and pains, mental moods and afflictions, sickness and death. On a social level, suffering in Buddhism is defined as any harshness, violence, and division of the community. A Buddhist journalism would therefore be aimed at helping individuals overcome their personal sufferings, and helping society heal the wounds caused by injustice, hatred, ostracism, and physical violence. Such a defined professional purpose would give the Buddhist journalist a measuring stick for each word and story produced: does it help overcome individual and social suffering? (McGill, 2008)

Existence has two other characteristics: anicca (impermanence), and anatt? (no-selfness). Impermanence is usually treated as the basis for the other two. The timeless wheel of existence represents these three functionally related characteristics. Because everything is impermanent, there cannot be an unchanging or fixed self. Sorrow arises with impermanence. Where all is process, so is the self, which is not separable from its experience. Buddhism rejects "the conceit of enduring selfhood" associated with substantialism and reification (Macy, 1991, p. 109).

Important journalistic principles that we can dig out of the first truth may take the following forms:

" Concede that everything is subject to ongoing change (anicca), the first of the three characteristic of existence (ti-lakkhana), and assume the role of constructive change agent rather than that of the defender of the status quo.

" Concede that no-selfness (anatt?) is the reality of existence, and refrain from over-emphasizing individualism, which has a causal link with egocentrism (e.g., celebrity pitfalls). Focus more on cooperative efforts highlighting mutual interdependence at different levels- international/global, national, or local. "Where minds interact, they mutually create" (Macy. 1991, p. 186).
" Understand the reasons for the existence of dukkha (sorrow/suffering), and desist from using journalism to knowingly promote attachment to desire.

We now turn to the next two truths: The second truth asserts that suffering arises from attachment to desire, and the third truth asserts that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. In "primitive" Buddhism, these two truths are succinctly expressed in the doctrine of paticca samupp?da (dependent co-arising). The early texts (e.g., Samyutta Nikaya and Majjhima Nikaya) describe dependent co-arising as a four-part formula expressed in four succinct lines:

This being, that becomes;
From the arising of this, that arises;
This not being, that becomes not;
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.

Buddhist texts also explain dependent co-arising in terms of an interdependent chain of 12 conditional factors known as nid?nas, upathis, or paccayas. These factors, referred to as this and that in the four-part formula, are:

avijja (ignorance)
sankhara (volitional, or karmic formations)
viññana (consciousness or cognition)
namarupa (name and form, or the psycho-physical entity)
satayatana (the sixfold senses)
phassa (contact)
vedana (feeling)
tanha or trsna (craving)
upadana (grasping)
bhava (becoming)
jati (birth)
jaramarana (decay and death)

Some scholars have erroneously presumed avijj? (ignorance), which often begins the nid?na series, to be "the first act" of the not-yet-individualized soul, or "the primary cause of all existence" (Macy, 1991, p. 49). Buddha has repeatedly asserted that an absolute first beginning of existence is something unthinkable.

As Anguttara Nikaya attests, avijja is not a causeless first principle inasmuch as it "is causally conditioned" (p. 50). Many metaphors and analogies in the early scriptures clearly convey the interrelatedness of all causes. Textual evidence abounds that the relationship of the nid?nas is one of mutual dependence.

For example, namarupa (name and form) arises conditioned by viññana (consciousness) while viññ?na, in turn, is conditioned by namarupa. Thus the cybernetic feedback loops attached to the notion of mutual causality makes dependent co-arising an "interdeterminative" process (p. 54).

The doctrine of impermanence (anicca) is integral to apprehend the meaning of dependent co-arising. "No factor external to change, no absolute that is not definitive of process itself, secures our existence" (Macy, 1991, pp. 34-35). Existence is suffering as it is associated with the mutual causality of the12 conditional factors, which represent attachment to desire. Furthermore, the appearance of continuity ("order") occurs within the reality of change ("chaos"). This contrasts with the linear view of causality that order requires permanence (equilibrium conditions). Trinh Xuan Thuan explains:

The world is a vast flow of events that are linked together and participate in one another. There can be no First Cause, and no creation ex nihilo of the universe, as in the Big Bang theory. Since the universe has neither beginning nor end, the only universe compatible with Buddhism is a cyclic one. (Thuan, 2001, p. 206)

Matter/energy and consciousness have co-existed, co-exist, and will co-exist for all times. They are co-arising. They rise from infinite potentiality into the phenomenal world, go through the cycle of birth, growth, and death just like other living systems, and return to infinite potentiality. Let us dig out some more principles appropriate for journalism from the doctrine of dependent co-arising subsuming the second and third truths:

" Understand the significance of mutual causality for journalistic interpretation and analysis. Refrain from extensive use of linear cause-effect reasoning. Keep in mind that feedback loops condition both "causes" and "effects" and blur the conventional distinction between the two. Therefore, analyze problems and solutions within "articulated integration" (Macy, 1991, p. 185)-the middle path between atomism and holism.

" Advocate the need for humanity to work in harmony with Nature, including all its flora and fauna, because everything is functionally interrelated, and nothing is entirely independent. "There is no aspect of 'I'… that is not conditioned or not interconnected with at least something else" (Kasulis, 2005, pp. 398-400).

" Discourage conspicuous consumption "since consumption is merely a means to human well-being" and our "aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption" (Schumacher, 1973, pp. 47-48).

We must now turn to the fourth truth, which asserts that freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way or the Middle Path. This path has three functionally interdependent areas for practice: pañña (wisdom), sila (virtue or ethical conduct), and sam?dhi (concentration or mental development). It provides the Buddhist ethical guidelines, which journalism could adapt. As an overall ethical guideline, journalists should:

" Follow the Middle Way, and avoid the extremes on any issue. Journalism should convey the idea that people mattered. This is the approach that Schumacher (1973) proposed for economics more than three decades ago:

Now, we shall examine each of the paths enumerated under the three co-arising categories. Pañña (wisdom) involves two paths: right understanding/view and right thoughts/conceptions. These provide the practitioners of journalism (including public relations and advertising) the means to cultivate moral principles such that their output does not contribute to increasing dukkha. Therefore, the practitioners should

" Follow the path of right understanding/view (samma ditthi): the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths (that is, the understanding of oneself as one really is). "Buddhist's intimacy orientation says I am moral when I am most truly myself" (Kasulis, 2005: 301).

" Follow the path of right thoughts/conceptions (samma sankappa) in its threefold form: thoughts of renunciation as opposed to those of sense pleasures; kind thoughts as opposed to those of ill-will; and thoughts of harmlessness as opposed to those of cruelty. This involves a commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement.

Sila (virtue or ethical conduct) involves three paths: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. These provide the essential ethical guidelines for a journalism based on Buddhist goals. The practitioners should relate these guidelines not only to their own actions but also to the actions of those who consume their output. McGill asserts that the Right Speech doctrine provides many of the tools and materials necessary for the healing purpose of suffering:

The midway place of Right Speech along the Noble Eightfold Path is interesting, because speech is the first action to follow the gaining of wisdom and positive intention, as developed in meditation. By this view, speech is a person's very first chance to act morally in the world. It is followed then in the Noble Eightfold Path by "Right Action" and "Right Livelihood." Also, very helpfully for journalists, the identifying traits of Right Speech are specifically defined as "timely, truthful, helpful, and spoken with a mind of good will." Likewise, the five main types of speech to avoid are lies, divisive speech, harsh and abusive speech, and idle and distracting speech. (McGill, 2008)

Let us now interpret these three Sila paths to fit journalism practice:

" Follow the path of right speech (samma vaca): abstinence from lying, divisive speech (e.g., biased opinion writing), abusive speech (e.g., defamatory writing), and idle chatter (e.g., gossip writing). [However, Asanga, the fifth-century author of several Mahayana texts, maintained that a Bodhisattva will lie to protect others from death or mutilation (Harvey 2000, p. 139).]

" Follow the path of right action (samma kammanta): abstinence from taking life (e.g., harming sentient beings intentionally), stealing (including robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty), and sexual misconduct. [Some Mahayana texts, e.g., Upaya-kausalya Sutra, justify killing a human being on the grounds of compassion in dire circumstances" (Harvey 2000, p. 135). Similarly, a Bodhisattva may break the precepts of stealing and celibacy on compassionate grounds].

" Follow the path of right livelihood (samma ajiva) by personally avoiding and discouraging others from activities that may harm others (e.g., trade in deadly weapons, trade in animals for slaughter, trade in slavery, and trade in intoxicants and poisons). Some may include public relations and advertising also as harmful to the extent that they are seen "as encouraging greed, hatred and delusion, or perverting the truth" (Harvey, 2000, p. 188).

Samadhi (mental development) requires the practitioners to improve their moral discipline as an ongoing activity through three mutually interacting paths: right effort/ endeavor, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Kalupahana, 1995). Accordingly, the practitioners should:

" Follow the path of right effort (samma vayama), which has four steps: the effort to (a) discard evil that has already arisen, (b) prevent the arising of unrisen evil, (c) develop the good that has already arisen, and (d) promote the good that has not already arisen.

" Follow the path of right mindfulness (samma sati), which has four foundations: reflection relating to the body (kaya); feeling (vedana)-repulsive, attractive, or neutral; thought; and ideas (dhamm?) pertaining to the experienced phenomena. (Such reflection enables one to overcome covetousness and discontent.)

" Follow the path of right concentration (samma samadhi), which consists of the attainment of the four preliminary stages of contemplation, which culminate in the development of unprejudiced perception or equanimity with regard to what is perceived. (This is also considered a middle standpoint in the way in which we perceive ourselves in the world.)

We have outlined the framework of the Noble Eightfold Path as a set of goals for practitioners to judge their inputs and outputs. The perfection of all eight paths means reaching enlightenment. The characteristics of existence-anicca (impermanence), anatt? (no-selfness), and dukkha (suffering/sorrow)-imply that a perfect journalism is not attainable. However, the Middle Path points out the multiple pathways available to practitioners to aim at reaching the ever-elusive equifinality. One should note that the Buddhist approach requires the journalists to improve (or purify) their minds through the paths of pañña (wisdom) and sam?dhi (mental development). The presumption here is that journalists with "impure" minds would produce "impure" journalism that would increase dukkha (suffering/sorrow) no matter what awards they receive.

Dr. Gunaratne, who was a Lake House journalist in the early 1960s, is the author of The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory (Hampton Press, 2005). This article is a revised extract from a longer journal article.

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