Buddha leads

by SANITSUDA EKACHAI, The Bangkok Post, April 8, 2008

Former revolutionary Seksan Prasertkul explains why Buddhist spirituality can heal the malaise of globalisation

Bangkok, Thailand -- Can the ancient teachings of the Buddha, which date back more than 2,500 years, cure the modern angst of globalisation? Ask Seksan Prasertkul, and the answer from the former Marxist revolutionary is a firm "yes".

"The problems arising from globalisation are essentially spiritual," said Seksan, a former leader of the 1973 students' uprising and a one-time guerrilla who once chose violence as a path towards change.

Buddha dharma, or Buddhist teachings, as the spiritual medicine for human suffering is therefore needed more than ever in the age of globalisation, he said.

In his view, globalisation is not all bad. Its fierce forces of greed and competition may have spurred more intensive individual pursuits of material gains that destroy human connections. The great disparity it creates may have triggered deep resentment among the oppressed who often turn to tribal violence to stave off globalisation threats.

"But globalisation has some positive forces that are favourable to the spread and the practice of Buddha dharma," he said during his recent public talk, "Buddha Dharma in the Age of Globalisation".

Thanks to modern communications technology, for example, the exclusive teachings in an ancient language that had long been monopolised by the priesthood are now accessible in everyday language, enabling more people to explore how their inner peace can change their external worlds.

This has led to the growth of lay Buddhism, which has freed itself from the bindings of traditional sects and cultural rituals to focus on the teachings' universal essence, which meets the needs of a globalised audience.

Many see this movement as the return of the Buddha's core teachings.

"Buddha dharma is the truth in nature and human life as discovered and taught by the Buddha," said Seksan. "It focuses on the understanding of what suffering is, its causes, its eradication, and the path towards the eradication of suffering.

"Buddha dharma focuses on the exploration of inner life, seeing the mind as the source of the problem. The way out of the problem is then to purify the mind by letting go of thoughts and the illusion of self in order to attain a new state of mind that is pure and void."

On the surface, it may seem that Buddha dharma and globalisation are contradictory. But as a multidimensional process of rapid change, globalisation has also opened up room for Buddha dharma to reach the world like never before, he said.

"We must therefore harvest the positive sides of globalisation, such as communications technologies, the material support in our work and way of life, the cross-boundary consciousness that binds people together as one, and the freedom to realise an individual's potential to lessen the dark side of globalisation."

His may be a message of optimism amid the gloom of worldwide violence and intense materialism. But Seksan does not in any way underestimate the dangers of globalisation. On the contrary.

In his talk, Seksan detailed how the forces of globalisation have shaken the powers of nation states to the core while creating a worldwide generation of lost souls.

So what is globalisation? "It's an era when the world has become smaller while moving faster through communications technology, enabling people from all corners of the world to overcome the old constraints of time and place in order to connect with one another," he explained.

With transnational capitalism as its driving force, the avalanche of globalisation has greatly affected the relationships between man and society, man and the physical environment, and between man and his inner self.

The results: The decline of the nation state and the emptiness of representative democracy; the decline of so-called "national culture", including local traditions that stand in the way of free trade; and the domination of materialism, consumerism and irresponsible individualism.

In a world of economic globalisation, citizens in developing countries no longer receive full protection from their governments, which allow runaway capitalism to override national borders in trade and investment at the cost of people's welfare and equitable income distribution.

Consequently, the state increasingly loses its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, said Seksan. Meanwhile, the local capitalist elite, with its international networks, moves more aggressively to take over state power to protect its self interests through manipulating the election games.

Unless this economic and political hegemony is countered by "people politics", which allows local communities to choose the development that suits their needs and way of life, a large number of people will sink into community destruction. As mere pawns in ballot box games, their misery may escalate into a national catastrophe, he predicted.

"While the decline of 'nation state' is a gradual process, the decay of national culture and local traditions is happening more rapidly and more intensely," he pointed out.

This is because the globalised community keeps sending out an endless flow of information that questions local beliefs and practices, leading to change in all aspects of life, from the tastes in dresses, art, sexuality and food to the new concept of power and social relations that challenge the old norms.

"We cannot blame the decay of national culture solely on globalisation, however," noted Seksan.

Despite its old power to integrate peoples of different backgrounds, the nation-building process in Thailand has been carried out with authoritarianism right from the start. "It is the state and the elite class who define what national culture is. Obedience to the rulers is its essence, clothed in Western garb, and based on contempt for the cultures of local communities."

With little say to determine their life, the people are too weak to resist the avalanche of foreign cultures. And the education system, said Seksan, is of no help.

Instead of being agents of compassion and independent thinking, schools are the state's principal brain-washing tool to create a state ideology. School education, therefore, ends up as a class indicator and a passport to economic advantages. When this happens at a time that local cultures have been much destroyed, it produces a culturally rootless generation. "Particularly the children of the middle class," said Seksan.

Intellectually weak, spiritually lost and culturally rootless, youths hungrily swallow an endless flow of information that constantly fuels false needs and consumerism.

Apart from making people feel they are nothing unless they own a certain product, the advertisement industry also helps debunk the notion of nation states, glorifies the rootless life, the "self", individualism and lets the free market system determine the values in life.

Some might argue that globalisation helps liberate people from the old yokes of oppressive nation states and that it helps break old monopolies and makes certain goods cheaper and certain life aspects more comfortable and convenient. Going beyond national barriers also helps foster a common bond of humanity and unleashes individual creativity without cultural and political constraints.

All of this is true, said Seksan, but it is not the main face of globalisation.

"In Thailand, globalisation has created a vast, barren cultural and spiritual space. The youth and the middle class are moulded by the free market system and are deeply mired in consumerism and extreme individualism. Their excesses have become a pit of suffering which they cannot climb out of."

The importance of materials to make life easier is undeniable, he said. "But the crude belief that life is all about sensory gratification is dangerous. It places ultimate values on material consumption, leading to an irresponsible individualism which sees oneself as the centre to judge the world, treating others as mere tools to satisfy one's goals."

Such a mentality has created a deep and widespread social malaise "because it leads to loneliness, alienation and emptiness within".

Much research, he said, confirms a common trait of today's generation: The "me first" mentality, obsession with self-beautification, consumerism and sex, political apathy, lack of empathy, patience and perserverance.

"Our youngsters are emotionally vulnerable and prone to violence, or suicide, when facing disappointment."

Unsurprisingly, society is rocked by increasing violence, drug abuse, family breakdowns and sexual crimes. "Everybody seems to have a problem, and everyone blames it on others."

Politics cannot rescue people from this suffering. "Dictatorship cannot do it. Nor can democracy," he said, "because they are not designed to tackle problems of the mind and spirituality."

Destructive human behaviour is blamed for many problems in the age of globalisation, be they poverty, borderless wars, social violence, environmental destruction or climate change. "But the real culprit is our unbalanced mind," he stressed.

Despite the odds, Seksan believes it is possible to restore inner peace. "But we cannot depend wholly on political solutions."

Political and economic reforms, he said, can help liberate people from an oppressive system, but they cannot help one liberate oneself. "The freedom attained is not complete," he said.

"The only way to balance the dark side of globalisation is to restore the victims' mindfulness [sati sampajanna]. This can be done on both individual and social movement levels. It's therefore urgent for us to turn to Buddha dharma because it helps us move towards self-liberation."

It is not a pipedream, he said. The change is in already in motion as seen in the growth of Buddhism in the West, the popularity of meditation retreats and materials on Buddhist spirituality.

The way Buddha dharma works in the age of globalisation is different than before, however.

To start with, it is principally about the lay Buddhist movement, which allows more independent interpretations, said Seksan. Meanwhile, the growth of Buddhism in the West has also had repercussions in the East.

Thanks to translation, for example, practitioners anywhere can now study and appreciate the teachings of other sects that used to be inaccessible because of language problems.

The need of Western Buddhists to screen out cultural rites and dogmatic biases to find the core teachings that can be adapted in their lives has also created a new body of integrated teachings that transcend sectarian differences.

The wide availability of translated works of other Buddhist traditions has not only widened the locals' religious horizons, it has strengthened Buddha dharma through self-study, "which fits today's way of life", he added.

With Buddhism's higher profile, there has been more dialogue between Buddhism and Western science, which for a long time rejected the existence of mind and spirituality.

The works of the Dalai Lama and Western thinkers that integrate science with the Buddhist approach of self-transformation, he said, show the potential of Buddha dharma to transform society in the age of globalisation.

"Buddha dharma has quite a modern packaging that is accessible and responsive to the ways of life of people in a free market system. That is why I firmly believe Buddha dharma can still be a refuge for people in this day and age."

But isn't the Buddhist non-clinging approach contradictory to the greed-driven economic system?

"Buddha dharma does not contradict anything or anyone," replied Seksan. "Our life may be full of misery, but the misery itself can be the gate of dharma if we use it to understand suffering and how to end it.

"Buddha dharma teaches us to transcend all forms of conflict to reach oneness with humanity and the universe. But we cannot overcome conflict if we have not experienced it.

"How can we let go of the world if we have not previously been burdened by it?

"Likewise, in order to be able to transcend the 'self', we need to know who we are first. So it doesn't matter what we've been through. Be they victories, defeats, successes, or loneliness, happiness or grief, they all help us to discover ourselves.

"We need to climb to the top of the mountain to discover that the apex does not exist. Unless we have been high and low, we won't know that it is not real. All is relative. All are defined by others."

But will the realisation that all is illusory lead to resignation?

On the contrary, said Seksan. Instead, one's creative forces will be unleashed when one is free from the pushes and pulls of ego.

"No matter what role you play in society, just maintain mindfulness within. No matter what you are confronted with, make sure your mind is like a vast, still sky.

"If so, you can be anything without attachment. If so, you will give when you can, not complaining when deprived, peaceful when successful, and ready to leave when peace is attained."

Letting go helps one live with evils, "but you must see through them. You must use them as a test to strengthen yourself through a still mind."

Reconnecting with Buddha dharma and learning the art of non-clinging will rescue people from globalisation's pains, he said. "It's not only possible to do so. It is necessary."

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