Lay Buddhist Activism
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A society can only be as good or as bad as its members. This paper presents several examples of lay Buddhist activism by individuals or small groups in transforming society for the better by applying ...

A society can only be as good or as bad as its members. This paper presents several examples of lay Buddhist activism by individuals or small groups in transforming society for the better by applying and engaging people in living Dharma, in a life based on Buddhist teaching and values.

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Lay Buddhist Activism Lay Buddhist Activism Document Transcript

  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA Lay Buddhist Activism in Making Dharma Relevant in Modern Day World Suwida Sangsehanat and Bong C. L. Paper presented at The Fifth Lay Buddhist Forum -Monasticism and Lay Buddhism- October 27-30, 2010 Seoul, South Korea.Suggested citation:Suwida, S., and C. L. Bong, (2011). “Lay Buddhist Activism in Making Dharma Relevant inModern Day World” in The Fifth Lay Buddhist Forum: Monasticism and Lay Buddhism, October27-30, 2011. Seoul, South Korea. Pages 396-405 (English version) (or pages 406-414 forKorean version).
  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA Lay Buddhist Activism in Making Dharma Relevant in Modern Day World Suwida Sangsehanat1 and Bong2 C. L.Abstract:A society can only be as good or as bad as its members. This paper presents several examples of layBuddhist activism by individuals or small groups in transforming society for the better by applyingand engaging people in living Dharma, in a life based on Buddhist teaching and values. The first caserelated in this paper is the work of Mr. Chamlong Srimuang in inculcating and applying the value ofintegrity in daily living and working among professionals to root out social ills such as injustice andcorruption. He founded a Leadership Training School to train different levels of professionals in theright attitude to living and right livelihood based on character-building in embracing integrity andappreciation of nature and what it offers. The second case related is the work of BaanareeFoundation in bringing Dharma to urban centre and supporting right livelihood enterprises in themiddle of the metropolitan city of Bangkok. The activities include providing resources for learningand practicing Dharma (regularly scheduled Dharma talks and guidance in meditation by monks ofcertain renown and competence) attract more discerning people who are uncomfortable with goingto temples (as most temples usually conduct ‘devotional’ or ‘religious’ chanting by monks ofuncertain quality), support ‘vegetarian market’ that conduct business not out of ‘greed’ butproviding a hospitality service with the attitude of ‘sharing of labour and merit’. The third caserelated in the paper is the work on Buddhist arts and architecture and the practice of dana, animmense generosity of the renown Thai artist, Mr Chalermchai Kositpipat, the sponsor, designer andbuilder of the famous temple in Chiangrai, Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple. Thedesign is a fusion of traditional Thai and modern arts. The funds for this huge temple complex comefrom the proceeds of the sales of his works of arts, rentals from the shops in the temple compound,and donations from visitors to the temple. This work and generosity is a mark of tremendous faithand devotion of a lay Buddhist to Buddhism and his country. The works and contributions describedabove show how lay Buddhist individuals and groups like them meet the challenges and makeDharma relevant to everyday life in the modern world; how it can be applied to transform oneselffrom within, and then transform the society for the better through collective effort and living basedon the sharing of similar views, conviction and values of Buddhist teaching.Keywords: activism, lay, Buddhist teaching, Dharma, transform, society, relevance, values, modernday world.1 College of Bodhivijjalaya, Srinakharinwirot University, Thailand. Email: suwida.ss@gmail.com2 Email: bongcl@gmail.com
  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREAIntroductionFor Buddhism to be relevant, its teachings have to be understood and lived or both internalised andexternalised to build an inner world and outer world that is fit for living for all sentient beings. Theworld is plagued with crises after crises such as wars, eruptions of social unrest and violence,environmental disasters and famines. Social ills and injustice of all kinds tear humanity apart. Howdoes Buddhism respond to such global and social turbulence for it to be relevant today?Large and small Buddhist institutions such as Buddhist temples or monasteries or lay Buddhistorganisations respond to these social and global issues seemingly with ‘compassion’ by providingaids and various other educational and social-welfare services with funds raised publicly. Asignificant proportion of their time and effort is expended in fundraising and dispensing activitiesleaving little time for Dharma practice. In fact, some monastics and lay individuals are moreinterested in acquiring or gaining fame and power through sitting on positions of influence in aboard that manages the funds raised publicly. Often instead of practicing anatta and humility, somemonastics or lay individuals or organisations actually go on ego-trip, building up their pride andsense or illusion of importance, which really defeats the goal of the practice and teachings of Buddha.However there are monastics, lay individuals and organisations that truly practice selflessness intheir service to humanity. The funding for these services is generally of two kinds in terms of theirsources, through public donations or resources or through the really altruistically motivated personalfund or resources. This paper presents three cases of lay activism (obviously there are more) in dailyliving and spreading Dharma through altruistic selfless services, without seeking personal gain, fame,power or influence; and making Dharma relevant in today’s world by addressing the issues of thetimes and meeting its needs.1. Transforming society through transforming its members – Leadership Training School The founder of a human resource training school called the Leadership Training School located in Kachanaburi in Thailand is Mr Chamlong Srimuang, an Asoke lay Buddhist social activist who leads an austere ascetic life, taking only one vegetarian meal a day. Having witnessed the meaningless wastages of human potential brought on by the prevalence of social ills and vices in the society, unethical practices of money politics and politics of money, and the single-minded pursuit of money and profits without regards to the wellness of oneself, others and the society, he decided to do something to effect change and transform the society for the better. He considered human resource as most important single resource for effecting the change he envisioned. He sees no shortage in people who are smart and clever with technical knowledge and knowhow, but these are not put to good use because of the poverty of character or lacking in knowledge or appreciation of morality or ethical living. It is the latter that causes the rots in the society. He identified such negative character traits as slovenliness, laziness, unrestrained consumerism, greed, selfishness, lack of integrity and resourcefulness to be eradicated; and such positive values as integrity (purity of mind and body), uprightness, frugality, honesty, faith and gratitude to be inculcated into the trainees of his Leadership Training School. His courses are designed to instil the values of leadership, morality or integrity of character, sacrifice and unselfishness (generosity) or public spiritedness and selfless service to the society. He applies Dharma to inculcate these values into people his school trains; in short, he teaches right living and right growth based on Buddhadharma. The philosophy and methodology used is based on
  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA the Asoke philosophy and practice and Sufficiency Economy philosophy. In brief, the objectives of the school are as follows: a. Sound body and mind: purify the mind, be diligent, frugal, honest, generous; be respectful to others; being grateful for what is given; b. Reduce or give up vices and unwholesome deeds of ways of life or lifestyles that are destructive to health and life and that eventually lead to lower rebirths; c. Adopt a life based on Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy. d. Participate in activity and contribute to empowering people, community and society. e. Promote Thai products and Thai lifestyle. Since the school was started in 1995, it has trained well over 50000 people who come from a cross section of the society – professionals and administrative executives from public institutions and private business corporations including banks, petroleum industry, various ministries such as the Ministry of Justice, and farmers. Many of the corporations or public institutions require their executives to undergo and pass a training course at the School before being considered for promotion.1 In this way, professionals in responsible decision-making positions are educated in human values. They would apply them in their work, in that way contributing to transforming the society for the better through ethical practices and lessening of vices in their personal, professional and family lives. The success and effectiveness of the training program in transforming human potential and quality is evidenced from the trainees’ admission of their own change and their recommendations for their subordinates and relatives to undergo similar training there. The school operates regular monthly courses and also special courses for groups larger than 100. It is a non-profit operation. While himself an Asoke member, the school is not affiliated in any way to the Asoke Community. Its pool of trainers includes well-known people in the government or politics, industry, public institutions, Asoke members, and experts in various fields and ex-trainees.2. Living and bringing Dharma to urban population - Baanaree Complex Situated in Soi Aree in an upscale part of Bangkok metropolitan city, amidst the hustles and bustles of high tension and sometimes mercenary business world, is the Dharma-inspired ‘Baanaree complex’. The Baanaree complex consists of a Dharma educational and practice centre run by the Baanaree Foundation and a vegetarian food court with an outdoor garden and indoor dining facilities. It is a cool and safe haven for the weary (office workers and business people) who need a refreshing respite or rest (physical and spiritual), and Dharma learners and practitioners to cultivate their fields of merits and wisdom. It has an environment that conduces and influences whoever visits to be mindful of his or her conduct and to receive and offer his or her best in service or regards to others. This wonderful place was put together by the initiative of a group of like-minded lay Buddhists intent on living Buddhadharma the way they can in making a living each day and on bringing Buddhadharma to the life of the urban population and visitors in the metropolitan city on the principles of sharing of what is good or wholesome (meritorious) for one another. The Baanaree Dharma centre houses the Baanaree Library, Dharma Hall, meeting rooms and workshops operated by the apolitical non-profit Baanaree Foundation whereas the Vegetarian Food court is made up of more than twenty food stalls operated by different lay individuals. The Baanaree Dharma centre holds regular Dharma talks given by prominent and well-respected monks in both Thai and English. The centre
  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA publishes and prints Dharma books, and also sponsors reading and recording of Dharma talks on CDs for distribution. The centre’s workshop also provides a space for volunteers to meet and work together on other projects such as knitting hats or mats or other products for Dana. It also holds family activities on learning and practicing Dharma. It regularly teaches insight meditation (motion meditation). The library is well stocked with Thai Dharma books including Tripitaka and also has some English books. The founder of the Foundation is a multimillionaire lay Buddhist who had found Dharma that helped him overcome a particularly difficult patch in his life during the economic crisis in 1997 to emerge a more successful business person later. At the peak of his success, he retired from active business as he found that money or material wealth did not bring him happiness.2 Since his retirement from active business, he has devoted his time, effort and resources to serving the society, a service from which he derives much happiness and satisfaction. The vegetable food stall operators are everyday ‘ordinary’ people who are not prospering business persons or millionaires in any way. However they stand out as Dharma practitioners in daily lives. They believe in merit-making and fair healthy living, in being generous and sharing. They find happiness in serving the public with fairly priced wholesome vegetable foods, and in making and sharing merits with the public. On Buddhist holy days and full moon days, they contribute their foods to offer as ‘Dana’ and sell their foods at lower prices than the already very fair prices for the foods on normal days. Each day, they offer herbs and vegetables and drinking water free to the customers. The customers return the good service by contributing in kind like cleaning up the dining table and keeping away the dishes they use in proper places to lessen the work of the food stall owners and contribute to maintaining the cleanliness of the place. This little complex is a very special place in Bangkok metropolitan where ordinary people of all walks of life in the city gather to simply make daily living and/or practicing a wholesome living in sharing and merit-making, in cultivating a wholesome mind, in getting a taste of Dharma in the brief respite from their otherwise stressful and tension-filled daily working routine. These individual lay Buddhists work together on promoting Buddhadharma, sharing the wisdom and merits of Buddhist way of life in learning, showing personally their endeavour at living right (right livelihood) and practice of generosity or non-attachment (dana) in an urban setting without the formality, rites and rituals commonly associated with a temple or religious setting that some urbanites or visitors or tourists of the city are sometimes uncomfortable with. This is one endeavour in the propagation of Buddhadharma that is wholly originated, organised and supported by lay individuals that benefit urban populations of all religious creeds (Buddhists, non-Buddhists, visitors, local and overseas tourists, etc). These lay Buddhists’ effort or activism in bringing Dharma to urban centres in such a successful and beneficial way is praiseworthy. The success of this little niche could serve as an inspiring model for city planners in their planning, designing and development of a city, for Buddhist organisations and city temples and monasteries to consider to adopt and develop niches like this in their cities to bring and enliven Dharma in a city for the good of the many leading a stressful city life and who want to participate in right livelihood. Niches like this without the rigidity and formality of conduct and religious rites and rituals associated with religious places or temples attract crowds who are uneasy with those restrictive formality. Further niches like these enable people of different inclinations and dispositions to choose and participate in spiritual life and practices in the ways meaningful to them and not in ways simply imposed on them by traditions or conventions the
  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA meanings of which they may not understand. A niche like this is ‘cool’ and would appeal to young and old people, people of all ages and walks of life.3. Selfless Generosity, faith and devotion - Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple In a village by the name of Rong Khun in Chiangrai province in northern Thailand is being constructed by far the most ambitious and magnificent piece of Buddhist art work in Thailand. This is the temple complex called Wat Rong Khun or Rong Khun Temple or sometimes also known as the White Temple. The temple glitters in the sun and can be seen from afar. This temple complex when completed will have nine buildings and the whole temple ground including the buildings are crafts of a fusion of Thai Buddhist contemporary and Thai Buddhist arts depicting Buddhist cosmology and Buddha’s teachings on samsara, the way to Nibbana and Nibbana. The donor, builder and financier of the massive multimillion dollar project is the now famous and accomplished Thai contemporary artist, Mr Chalermchai Kositpipat. He dedicates his whole fortune, talent, time and effort in building this temple complex as an offering Buddha, his country and King. He has funded this project with his money without soliciting funds from the government or the public. So far he has spent more than 30 million Baht (close to USD one million) on its construction. He has planned and budgeted for the construction through to its completion in 20703 with proceeds and revenues from the sales of prints of his artwork, T-shirts and other souvenirs, and rentals from the souvenir shops built on one part of the temple ground. The temple management would accept an individual donation of not more than USD250.00 per donor towards the construction of the project. The artist is determined that the temple is built with contributions made with the sincerest and purest of motivation and faith. That is one reason he builds the temple with his own money without expecting or planning to raise funds by any means except for voluntary donations of small amounts. Wat Rong Khun, although not yet completed already stands to be one of the most magnificent masterpieces of contemporary Thai temple arts. Mr Chalermchai Kositpipat is inspired and motivated to work on such monumental piece of artwork by the faith he has on the Dharma and how he benefits from the Dharma, in his own words:4 ‘Dharma of the Lord Buddha is like a piece of rattan with sharp thorns. It strikes onto my rebellious heart. Sometimes, Dharma is like cool water that cools down the heat in my heart. It is also like warm water that warms up my heart when I am afraid of the facts of life. Now that I have used Dharma for 20 years to kill my passion, I finally have found happiness, peace and wisdom.’ Wat Rong Khun is an example of the huge generosity of the heart and mind of a lay Buddhist who selflessly contributes his money and dedicates his talent, time and effort and life of deep faith and devotion to designing, building, sculpting and painting one of the most magnificent Buddhist temple complexes of contemporary arts, architecture and design. This lay Buddhist project also stands out as a project built not on solicited funds or donations as most religious projects or for personal fame or gain.Concluding RemarksThere are many remarkable individuals, lay Buddhists and monastics alike, who enliven Dharma, liveit, internalise and externalise it and show its relevance in today’s world. The cases presented are
  • THE FIFTH LAY BUDDHIST FORUM 2011, 0CTOBER 27-30, 2011, SEOUL, SOUTH KOREAjust a few. There are many others who contribute in various ways and also selflessly like many whoare in the business of printing and distributing Dharma materials for free. There are also monks andnuns who adapt their delivery of Dharma to make it alive and relevant and in a language and mannerthat is understandable and acceptable by the young of today. Many of those who contributeselflessly with the right attitude of mind and motivation are a great inspiration to many and they areliving proofs that right livelihood based on Buddha’s teachings is possible and is supportive ofspiritual and material growth in harmony with the environment. There is no need to exploitresources and others selfishly in blind pursuit of material wealth which in the end does notguarantee or bring happiness that selfless service and right livelihood do as indicated in the aboveexamples. The lives and works of the lay Buddhists described above show how Dharma can beapplied sincerely with pure motivation to benefit oneself and others without the taints of pursuingpersonal fame or glory or spiritual materialism. Today’s world is in need of such kind of Dharmapractice that actively engages oneself and others to make the world a better one; one that is alive,that is internalised and expressed for one’s own and others’ happiness and welfare; one that isordinary in everyday living yet extraordinary in its cumulative beneficial impact on the developmentof humanity.References: 1 . Suwida Sangsehanat. 2006. “Integrated Wisdom on Buddhist Philosophy: An Alternative Strategy for Thai Social Development”. Ph.D. dissertation, Thammasat University, Thailand. 2 . Veeranat Rojjanaprapa. (2011). “Dare to think new, Retire earlier than others”. ISBN : 978- 616-7036-31-1. DMG Books. 3 . Daniel Nahabedian. (2010). The White Temple. http://www.canvas-of-light.com/2010/12/the- white-temple-thailand/ . Accessed 16:20hr, July 28, 2011. 4. Chalermchai Kositpipat. (2006). Wat Rong Khun, Tourismchiangrai.com http://web.chiangrai.net/tourcr/e_version/index.php?option=rongkhun. Accessed 13:39hr, July 30, 2011.