Buddhism and Development

Prof. Sulak Sivaraksa

To begin my speech on a Buddhist perspective on development I would like to start with a moment of silent meditation focusing on our breathing.

Awareness of oneself and one’s environment is central to the Buddhist worldview. There is a belief that inward reflection through breathing and meditation leads to a feeling of calmness. This sense of peace helps us to reduce selfish desires and reconstitute consciousness about the interconnectedness of all sentient beings. Realizing interconnectedness we are then moved to act with wisdom and compassion to end suffering and all forms of structural violence. This understanding about the power of mindfulness and the relationship between individual and collective wellbeing is very similar to a Buddhist perspective on the relationship between individual change and material development.

I will not spend too much time on a critique of the current nature of development and the religion of consumerism but I will briefly lay out the aspects of so-called modern development which are most at odds with Buddhist ideals. Firstly, the overreliance on quantitative and structural frameworks, most notably in the domination of economic models for engineering human and social well-being is contradictory to the belief that spiritual transformation must accompany material transformation in order for progress to occur. Furthermore, all transformation must be done non-violently and compassionately. Science and technology do have the potential to improve health and living conditions but it must not be within a framework of promoting materialism as the goal of existence. The current trajectory is not environmentally sustainable and this crisis has already, and will continue to catalyze a new understanding of the deep ecological relationship between human beings and all other forms of life.

This brings me to my second point about the current development model. The current framework presupposes the ideas of capital markets, nation state structures, the free individual, and the linear and unlimited process of growth. These ideas are justified and upheld by most of Western liberal philosophy. Embedded in this philosophy is the idea that freedom is defined as the ability to make choices. The act of choosing is meant to affirm individual identity and self-worth. What is currently happening in the "developing world" is not the ideal of the free individual enjoying material prosperity amidst democratic government, but is a warped version of this ideal that serves to benefit those in the industrial world. In the so-called developing world income and material disparities are increasing, feudal cronyism is disguised as representative democracy; and a mass of disempowered citizens are increasingly cut-off from their historical identities. Yet, these disempowered masses have internalized the imported notion of freedom. Despite experiencing the suffering and breakdown of communities in the name of industrialization, the desire to consume is the driving force for most of society. Identity is no longer interconnected with family and village but instead with money and consumer goods.

A typical example of this process comes from the Lake Songkla region in southern Siam. This rural, agricultural based culture and the values that are inseparable from it continue to lose ground to the urban consumer pseudo-culture and all that it breeds. This trend is exemplified by the popularity of automated harvester combines. It is extremely rare to find anyone in this region who does not hire a combine to harvest rice. Although it is quicker than harvesting by hand, what is lost are the many rich traditions and customs which provided that bond of village like as each family was dependent on others for their help in harvesting rice. The village being one’s home is vanishing. Instead there is a quick swap of money to the stranger from up north who rents out the combine --- a grinding, mechanical monster which limbers over the land. It leaves feelings of competitiveness, isolation, and separateness in its wake.

The Buddhist goal of development is based on an alternate understanding of freedom. Merely having a wealth of choices is not freedom. We must make the right choices—choices that show compassion for all and which are not motivated by greed. For Buddhists, the ideal of freedom is threefold: the first freedom is the freedom to be free from insecurities and the dangers of poverty, disease, famine, etc. This level of freedom is the most influenced by advancements in technology and health and global cooperation in the name of meeting basic needs is essential. The second freedom is social freedom and the freedom from human oppression and exploitation; such a state presupposes tolerance, solidarity, and benevolence. This stage of freedom is synthesizes the collective with the individual in terms of peace and progress. Lastly is the freedom of the inner life, the freedom from mental suffering, the freedom from insatiable desire, and the freedom to accept the cyclical, multi-causal and inextricably connected nature of life. This final stage of freedom, called Nibbana in Pali, is not acquired merely through individual meditation and solitary reflection. Cooperation and compassion is both the means and the end. Through helping others understand the meaning of freedom, the individual learns to embrace the reality of interdependence, the state of "interbeing" described by the well-known Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hanh to be the awareness that one is made up wholly of non-self elements.

The atomistic society where each individual is seeking happiness will never achieve the holistic definition of freedom. As guidelines for life led by wisdom and compassion, Buddhism uses the four divine abodes of metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity).

Metta or loving-kindness towards oneself and others. This love is similar to a Christian notion of agape or universal love. Metta is a state of happiness where the mind is harmonious with oneself as well as with others. Metta recognizes the necessity of love for true understanding about interdependence. It renders assistance and benefits without ill will and without the malice of anger and competition. Once one is tranquil and happy, these qualities will be spread to others as well.

Karuna or compassion can only be cultivated when one recognizes the suffering of others and, consequently, is driven to bring that suffering to an end. Undoubtedly a rich person who does not care about the miserable conditions of the poor lacks this quality. It is terribly difficult for him or her to develop into a better person. All those who lock themselves up in ivory towers in the midst of a shockingly unjust world cannot be called compassionate. In Mahayana Buddhism, one vows to become a Bodhisattva and forgoes one’s own nirvana until all sentient beings are free from suffering. In other words, one cannot remain indifferent. Rather one must endeavor to help others and alleviate or mitigate their suffering as much as one can. The essential characteristic of any healthy community/society is its principle of inclusion. As we become more attuned to compassion as the instrumentality of social organization, we can embrace the community.

Mudita or sympathetic joy is a mental condition whereby one genuinely rejoices when others are happy or successful in a number of ways. One feels this without the flame of envy even when a competitor gets ahead. Mudita is necessary for good friendship that is considered necessary for personal growth and social awareness.

Upekkha or equanimity refers to the state in which the mind is cultivated until it becomes evenly balanced and neutral. Whether one faces success or failure, whether one is confronted with prosperity or adversity, one is not "moved" by it.

The Four Sublime Abodes are to be developed step by step from the first to the last. Even when one is not perfect, one must set one’s mind toward this goal. A Buddhist view considers development to be the developing of individual spirituality within communities where all people can experience and foster the four abodes and have the opportunity for understanding the deeper levels of freedom. To achieve this community there must be an inner realization concerning greed, hatred, and delusion and an outer realization about the impact of these tendencies on society and the planet.

Historically, the sangha was one such community. The sangha is narrowly defined as the monastic community but can be more holistically viewed as the community of ordained and laypeople whose activities are based around the temple. The Temple was the political, educational, artistic, and spiritual center of the community. The center of the sangha was usually in the forest and there was an emphasis on living in harmony with natural surroundings as well as an understanding about the wisdom of nature that cannot be exploited by humans. All goods were thought to have "use value" rather than an "exchange value" and the community was self-reliant.

Implicit in this model is a discussion about the issue of religion and politics. For Buddhism to survive, according to the scriptures, it must be supported by a just ruler(dhammaraja) and the wheels of righteousness (dhammacakka) must influence the wheels of power (anacakka). It is the ruler duty to restrain the violent elements in society, discourage crime through the alleviation of poverty, and to provide the material necessities to enable the state’s citizens to pursue the religious life unhindered. Furthermore, the ruler must be a moral exemplar fostering the ethics of compassion. Politics can never be devoid of ethics--- even in so-called secular states— politics is not just a tool to maintain order or to protect national boundaries, it is the responsibility of leaders to be a part of community and individual transformation.

The last 30-40 years have seen the erosion of the Siamese sangha community in response to industrialization and an unquestioning appropriation of Western models of education, urbanization, and government. However, through the work of concerned engaged Buddhists and laypeople the sangha model is undergoing a transformation to meet the current needs of society. For many years now, one abbot in the Surin province in Northeastern Siam has been trying to maintain the integrity of the community in the face of corporate globalization. He encouraged people to farm together and share their labour with each other. He suggested starting a rice bank to overcome the shortage of rice and village temples cooperated. Whatever was cultivated that was left over was offered to the temple, where the grain was kept for anyone in need to receive free of charge. In this way, the traditional concept of giving alms to the temple was translated to address the social reality of today. He also started a buffalo bank. Since killing buffalos is seen as an uncompassionate act, the temple kept buffalos and offered the offspring to those who could not afford to buy one. The only conditions were that the buffalo had to be treated kindly and that 50% of all future offspring had to be returned to the buffalo bank. The work of the abbot was, in some ways, a preventative strategy against the creative destruction of modern capitalism.

The residents of Pak Moon Dam were not able to prevent this destruction and despite protests, were displaced from their land.

In addition, the government has reneged on the compensation for many relocated families. The protests of the dam and the settlement community that has arisen is largely due to the efforts of the Assembly of the Poor, an organization made up primarily of urban and rural small-scale agriculturists and manual laborers. They form the absolute majority in the movement. Non-governmental organizations, environmentalists, responsible intellectuals, students, and some individuals from the business community strengthen the sinews of the Assembly.

Assembly of the Poor members joined with dislocated families to create a self-reliant and sustainable community and are currently making huge improvements in the quality of life there. For example the following initiatives have been implemented at the protest settlement:

  1. A group was formed to open a traditional healthcare center that offers herbal sauna, traditional massage , and medicinal herbs to the members of the settlement;

  2. Several community businesses emerged. Producing for their own consumption, only the surplus is sold, thus meeting the needs of the members and reducing the amount of money flowing out from the community. Income generating enterprises include the production of natural shampoos and dish-washing liquids, herbal teas and medicines, natural vegetables, microbe fertilizers, soy milk, and vegetarian food;

  3. A youth environmental group was established; and

  4. A preschool center that is run by volunteer teachers was built.

The establishment of these programs at the Pak Moon Dam settlement demonstrates how Dhammic ideals can be put into practice and is a testament to the current capabilities and the future potential of the Assembly of the Poor to have a substantial impact on Buddhist models of development.

Like the abbot, the Assembly is attempting to create a self-reliant community where goods are locally produced and where there is a transformation of the traditional relationship between manager and laborer, seller and consumer, politician and citizen. Each member in the community plays many different roles and thus, the interconnected nature of society is reinforced. The creation of such a community does not have to happen without external help—on the contrary, many worthwhile initiatives can come from mutually beneficial exchanges with people from other communities and from NGO representatives, activists, and academics. These exchanges must be in the context of sincere respect and cooperation. The leaders and advisors of the Assembly work closely together to identify activities that will strengthen the people’s movement and build sustainable and self-reliant communities. For example, the NGO’s and activists share knowledge on launching sustainable alternative agriculture, community businesses, financial management and accounting, and conflict resolution skills while the core members of the Assembly share their knowledge of indigenous agriculture, internal community networks, traditional values, and simple lifestyles. The symbiotic relationship has ramifications beyond the local community, there is a hope that such cooperative efforts will also strengthen the role of civil society in the broader national context. Local cooperation with NGO’s and activists will lead to more participation by the poor in the state’s decision-making process.

The sustainable community economic model emphasizes local production for local consumption (e.g. via the establishment of credit unions, cooperative shops, and appropriately scaled income-generating businesses). Using the example stated earlier, rice farmers in Songkla could have had alternatives other than outsourcing or hand-picking. Through organizing and place self-sustainability as a high priority, communities do not have to fatalistically follow the trends of globalization. Since priority is given to meeting local needs rather than to exporting of fulfilling the needs of the rich in urban areas, this means that industries and businesses are small-scale, taking from the environment no more that is locally needed—hence, for example, the emphasis on natural farming. Most importantly, an alternative model must include participatory management approaches, must foster solidarity, cooperation, and emphasize teamwork within the community. It must be noted that there is no specific blueprint for setting up sustainable communities: each community must draw on its unique strengths of resources, culture, and diversity in order to be successful.

Self-sustainable communities are one step to achieving both structural and individual transformation --- educational reform is another. The current development framework sees education as a narrow program meant to develop intellectual and rationalistic reasoning. Little emphasis is placed on emotional or spiritual understanding. The emphasis on competition and salary potential after graduation are indicators of the individualism and material values often inculcated through current educational institutions. Buddhism values wisdom—the ability to treat others with compassion and to apply knowledge towards the proper ends—far above the raw intellectualism of critical reasoning. The ideal education would develop all the different facets of the child and prepare him/her to be responsible and generous members of society.

In Siam, the Children’s Village School is an alternative education community for children who have been orphaned or come from very poor families, some of which were abusive. The founders of the school believe that each child can thrive and blossom when given enough love, attention, freedom, and the assurance that his/her basic needs will be met. Instead of a narrow focus on intellectual reason and skills for employment, alternative education engages the whole child, including will, heart, and mind. The capacity for intellectual reason is only meaningful within the context of understanding and compassion for one’s community and the environment. The children at the school learn about self-government and environmental education through hands-on activities. The self-government system allows them to settle their own disputes, to propose, amend or annul rules, and to decide on everyday matters of living together. Through natural and organic farming they learn about the balance of nature independent of any attempts to control and mismanage nature. The teachers at the Children’s Village School live, work, and play with the students in a cooperative environment.

In closing, the Buddhist model of development is more than material development with a human face, it is the development of an understanding of the interconnectedness of individual happiness and societal emancipation from greed, hatred, and delusion.

Throughout this conference we will probably see that our views on religion and development are united in calling for a dramatic change from the current model to a model that is more "people-centered". I hope we will all have the strength to learn from the collective wisdom gained here and the indigenous wisdom of our histories, cultures and faiths in order to better serve our communities.