Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
Sri Lanka as a nation is founded on Buddhist norms and principles. What the country clearly projects is its Buddhist imprint. The uniqueness of its cultural heritage is directly attributable to its Buddhist foundation. The impact of Buddhism is reflected both directly and indirectly, in the tangible and intangible aspects of the nation’s culture. The values that guide people’s life, are clearly reflective of the impact of Buddhism. Buddhist principles have shaped people’s lifestyle of where non-violence, tolerance, compassion and peaceful coexistence with others and with nature, are ingrained characteristics. Since the arrival of Buddhism in the country in the 3rd century BCE, during a long historic period of more than 2200 years, the outstanding accomplishments of her people in many areas of life, are largely attributable to Buddhist principles that guided their lives. It was Buddhism that inspired the people of this nation to develop wholesome qualities and skills enabling them to evolve a culture where peace, tolerance, compassion, generosity, creativity, wisdom, creativity and spirituality are the cornerstones.
Wholesome Buddhist values and norms that form the basis of the uniquely indigenous Hela Buddhist culture were reinforced during the glorious classical period of our country’s history. This period includes the greater part of the more than 2200 years of Buddhist cultural history of this country, between 3rd century BCE to 13th century CE, when Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were the royal capitals. This was a time when the population of the country was exclusively Buddhist and the country was ruled by Buddhist royalty. It was the Buddhist Sangha community that provided education – both secular and spiritual, and was the primary source of inspiration and assistance in the evolution of varied aspects of the nation’s culture. The strength of this cultural foundation was tested several times in the past, especially during periods of foreign invasion and associated devastation and exploitation. There were 17 ruthless South-Indian Dravidian invasions and from 16th to about the mid 20th century European colonial powers used violent means to subjugate and exploit our country in order to serve their self interests. They caused untold misery to the indigenous Buddhist community. But the nation stayed intact, withstanding threats, perils and calamities. This was largely owing to the power and potency of the nation’s Buddhist cultural foundation.
The nature of development of the country’s natural, human and cultural resources of the past is reflective of our long-held traditional Buddhist principles of peaceful coexistence and integrity, particularly on the part of those who assumed leadership roles in the country. Promotion of virtuous and spiritual lifestyles among people was a fundamental goal of the nation, and Buddhist leaders of the past including Maha Sangha were in the forefront in furthering this goal.
The nation’s irrigation system developed in the past, with an extensive network of reservoirs and canals are considered in modern times as marvels in irrigation technology. In addition, the nation’s astonishing ancient architecture, sculpture, art, literature and other forms of visual culture including the Sinhala language and literature displayed magnificently across the country, are living evidence of this nation’s exceptional cultural heritage. They are reflective of the outstanding imaginative and creative powers of the people including their talents, skills, and foresight. The world recognition of the greatness of this unique Buddhist culture is reflected by the UNESCO designating our ancient royal sites as World Heritage Sites – Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mahanuwara (Kandy), Sigiriya and Dambulla, all built upon and strongly reflecting inspiration drawn from Buddhism. It is a fact that, if there is anything unequivocally worthwhile that Sri Lanka or Heladiva or Sinhalay was it was known in early days, can offer to the world today, it is the Buddha Dhamma and its outstanding culture, including its people’s attitude towards life and their natural habitat.
TOLERANCE, OPENNESS AND PERSUASIVE POWER
Buddhism is not a religion with a dogmatic canon. Buddhism functions not through crusades, but through tolerance, openness and the persuasive power of its philosophical foundation. Its insights into time and space have found a good measure of corroboration in modern science. Truth and reality have been questioned under Buddhism in ways that Western philosophy has only approached recently under the influence of paradigm changes in the natural sciences. Buddhism arose out of the profound psychological and ethical experience of an exceptional human being concerned about the fate of humanity, someone who intently and successfully pursued a spiritual quest.
The Buddha’s teachings include a theory of knowledge, an ethical system and a system of law and inter-personal and inter-community relations. The political philosophy of Buddhism is universal in that it directly concerns with the totality of human life. Not only does it deal with the social and economic aspects of life but also deals with man’s spiritual and ethical aspects too. According to Buddhist political thought the state or the ruler is expected to establish a just and selfless social order in which every individual of a country is happy and contended. The Buddha’s ideas were primarily based on the Noble Eightfold path and he advocated that all human problems could be easily avoided by following this eight fold path, namely Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The political thoughts of the Buddha revolutionized the political scene in our nation. The Buddha went into the root cause of unhappiness, unrest and inequality of the human society and pointed out the weaknesses in the traditional and orthodox ways of ruling the society and controlling individuals. The Buddhist monarchial organization in the form of the Maha Sangha was an innovation of the Buddha and even a slave or an individual of mean birth was taken into the order of Bhikkus and he was honourably treated. This shows the special place Buddha gave to the equality of human beings. A very important social and political principle amply supported by the Buddha is the biological unity and equality of mankind.
BUDDHIST POLITICAL THOUGHT
Two important political principles introduced by the Buddha were the elective principle of government and the acceptance of the peoples’ sovereignty. He introduced the voting procedures at the election of leaders such as in the Sangha and showed the importance of the freedom of expression to create public opinion in issues of public importance. He also showed that there is a close link between politics and the economy of a country. On various occasions the Buddha showed that economic welfare is all important for social stability, peace and good governance. The ultimate aim of the Buddha’s political theory was the creation of a selfless society. There is no doubt that if any country could follow at least some of these political ideologies enunciated in the teachings of the Buddha, such a country would be peaceful, free of wars, free of petty divisions and destructive evil thoughts and actions.
LIVING IN HARMONY WITH NATURE
The Buddhist approach is to live in harmony with nature more than subduing it, conquering it, and exploiting it. Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all living beings. This Buddhist attitude to nature is enumerated in several of the Buddha’s discourses, such as the “Cakkavatti Sihanada Sutta”, “Samyutta Nikaya”, “Vinaya Pitaka”, ” Dhammapada”, and Theri Gatha”. The type of economic system, which the Buddha proposed, was one where the individual’s needs would be provided but there would be no overemphasis on the purely material aspects of life. One’s material needs, would be essentially what one need to make one live happily and for one’s physical sustenance.
Buddhism advocates the judicious use of resources, the elimination of waste, and the most productive use of resources. In the suttas mentioned above, the Buddha’s advice to laypersons was to develop both their material and spiritual welfare by fruitful use of nature’s resources. Cooperative spirit among people, a simple way of life based on a simple technology, a non-violent and gentle attitude towards nature, and all living beings are essential components of the Buddhist approach to development. Such a form of global development is bound to dismantle and eliminate those conditions, which have nurtured and perpetuated the global problems and related human dilemma of contemporary times.
Tolerance and the enormous adaptability of Buddhism are qualities that have remained unchanged throughout its remarkable history in many countries. With a down to earth philosophy of man in harmonious and cordial relationship to man, at a very visible and conceivable level, Buddhists have never stood up against any single man or groups of men in the name of Buddhism, either to defend or propagate the religion. That is quite a record for a faith with a history of more than two and a half millennia. That was very much before the time of the appearance of most of today’s great world religions.
Buddhism upholds everything worthy and meaningful. It promotes peace, peaceful coexistence, and democratic principles in governance. It promotes human rights, development of individual and community virtues and discipline in accordance with the pancha seela”. Respect for the natural environment and sustainable and participatory development of resources and upheld in Buddhism. In addition, Buddhism strongly promotes tolerance of other faiths, religious and social harmony, and cordial relations with other nations. Buddhist culture led to the evolution of a peaceful community structure. This provided order and stability to the respective communities in the country. Lifestyle of people in a Buddhist society has been simple and uncomplicated. It was a quality of life that moved at a gentle pace where people enjoyed a high degree of leisure and freedom. As part of a close-knit community, people felt secure enough to be themselves. In this sense, they enjoyed a remarkably high quality of life.
Buddhist principles were reflected in people’s attitude towards each other, other communities, other living beings and their habitat – the environment. People’s livelihood and institutions were reflective of the impact of the teachings of the Buddha. A striking feature was that, on the whole, relations between people and between culture and nature were compatible, in harmony and well adjusted and adapted. This is largely owing to Buddhism – the foundation upon which the way of life, culture and social values of the people evolved and established.
People’s livelihood and economy reflected their interdependence with their natural habitat, with other people and other living beings. They enjoyed an abundance of natural resources by way of useable land, fertile soil, clean and dependable water resources, healthy climatic conditions, a rich and diverse biological resource base, an awe-inspiring natural environment pleasing to the senses and spiritually inspiring, and above all, a culture that valued harmonious relationship with each other and the natural environment which provided the basis of their livelihood.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP AND ORGANIZATION
Each village or community had a group of well-respected elders and families who had earned the respect and recognition of the people, owing to their benevolence, generosity, virtuous nature and adherence to a life-style in-keeping with the long established indigenous culture and social values. Invariably they held leadership positions in their respective communities and were a source of positive influence and were role models to the people. In Buddhist villages, they belonged to the ‘dayaka sabhas’ of temples and worked closely with Bhikkhus in Buddhist activities based on temples. Often they were office bearers of community development and social welfare organizations.
This system prevailed in a good part of the country even during the first three decades following independence. The Bhikkhus were unofficial leaders of these communities providing a wide range of services to their communities besides their activities connected with the spiritual advancement of the people. Religious, literary and cultural pursuits flourished in these communities. There were festivities and religious functions where the entire community participated willingly. Among them were spectacular festivities such as ‘perahera’ with drumming, dancing, and music and traditional rituals of varied types. Their cultural pursuits and creativity were also reflected in the beautiful art, sculpture, architecture, pottery, handicrafts and fine arts of varied forms.
A BROADER SELF
Life in the modern day urbanized world is made complex by the multitude of distractions, competition to get ahead in life, and the need to adjust to rapidly changing circumstances and environment. The system promotes individuality and ego-boosting as opposed to companionship and a collaborative spirit among people. Selfishness and exclusiveness of individuals is so strong that close companionship has hardly any room to develop. The my” and your” feelings are nurtured in a strong way.
In traditional Buddhist communities, the idea of self prevails, but it is different. The development of this self” is influenced by the norms of living in that community. Its way of thinking, interacting and lifestyles are different. These are characterized by a high degree of restraint and simplicity. Relationships and attitudes towards members of the community and to the natural surroundings are more accommodating and less competitive. There are far greater and closer human interactions leading to more companionship. There are more opportunities for direct and closer interactions with nature and to be conversant with the diverse environmental processes of the locality, and therefore to live in harmony with nature. The attachments that one develops towards others and ones local environment gives one strength and confidence and a greater degree of inner peace and capacity for self discovery to be happy with life and also to have a strong sense of self to experience solitude in a positive way.
Opportunities for solitude are necessary for inner growth. Traditional community life and the rural environmental setting provided ample opportunities for individuals to find solitude and to find creative benefits of being alone. Modern science has established that if the brain is to function at its best and individuals are to reach their highest creative potential, they need to develop some capacity for solitude. Rural communities living with less distractions and closer to nature have many opportunities of being alone in nature which offers them most rewarding experiences. In small Buddhist communities in rural Sri Lanka we still see very strong communities where bonding and inter-relationships are very important. If people have their upbringing close to nature, they will be close to the source of great happiness.
People develop a broader” self under these conditions. It is also a deeper self. Ego” and associated Selfishness” is not strong in this self”. For most people, seIf is often identified with or seeing something of themselves in others. This self is joyful when others around are happy, and sorrowful when others are sorrowful. Their feelings are somehow adapted to the others with whom they identify with. For example, you identify yourself with the other. This starts with your family members. You have identification with your son or daughter or family members to such an extent that you help them as you would help yourself. This identification can extend wider than your family: for example, to your friends, your neighbors and your country. It can extend to the whole of humanity. It does not stop there either. You can identify yourself with pets, with other animals, with plants and other natural elements. Through identification with others you find self-realization. The term includes personal and community self-realization.
According to Buddhist philosophy the self does not have absolute boundaries. We are not separate or disconnected entities. Everything in the universe exists in relationship. Everything has a living, flowing connection with everything else. Of course, that does not mean that there is no self in a relative sense. Buddhism is not a nihilistic philosophy. It emphasizes the inter-relatedness of everything. We are not isolated entities. Many Western philosophers have thought of non-Western cultures as lacking a sense of individualism which they think is necessary for progress and higher consciousness. But Buddhist societies have developed a very high level of consciousness and yet they have retained a deep sense of community and connectedness, which has helped them to be fulfilled and self-realized.
THE DISRUPTIVE COLONIAL PERIOD
Being an agricultural community, Buddhists of Sri Lanka were grounded to their place in the natural world at the time of the arrival in the early 16th century, of European colonial powers. Until the time of large scale land use grab and changes during the British colonial period from the 19th century and thereafter, our people were self-supporting farmers living harmoniously with their environment. Most farmers worked for part of the year. Poverty, unemployment and environmental pollution were unknown to them. Productive farms including luxuriant home gardens, clean water and air enabled a healthy life for the large mass of people. Irrigation and water management technologies of our people are considered as engineering marvels and are in use even today. Their farming methods are known to be environmentally most compatible and sustainable.
With the intrusion and expansion of plantation agriculture in the country from about the nineteenth century and thereafter, and the ill-advised development” policies of various post-independence era governments during the past five and half decades, the stable agricultural livelihood of the people, founded on the Buddhist way of life was disrupted to a great extent. The social and environmental consequences of the transformation of the country into an export-import based, outer-oriented commercialized economic system were drastic. With the introduction of so-called modern technologies and social institutions to facilitate this commercialized economy, what suffered most was the close interrelationship and integration that prevailed between the indigenous people, their livelihood activities and their environment. In other words, it led to a sharp disintegration and fundamental separation and between people, as well as between people and the living world.
During the colonial period of occupation and large scale exploitation of the country’s resources, the impact of Western ways of life and Christian norms became rampant, and was spreading to interior rural areas. With the export-import based monoculture, urban areas assumed importance, job opportunities were centralized in these places, and so was political power. This intensified the economic pull of urban areas. Farmers were pushed off their land and the urban influx began to increase. Rural life was beginning to collapse and people who once relied on nearby resources became tied to the export market and related economy. The gap between the rich and poor widened and anger, resentment and conflict increased. In this process, our people lost something essential – their self-sustaining society.
With the establishment of the foreign imposed export-import economic system with its associated urbanization and centralization, daily lives of the people began to depend more on a human created world characterized by its associated complex of systems such as transportation, energy, western education and medical services, to name a few. In the conglomeration of operations of these varied systems, it became increasingly difficult to know the effects of people’s actions on nature or on other people. Overlooking the negative impacts of disturbing the inherent interrelationship that exists between humans and their environment, these new or ‘modern’ tendencies associated with large-scale commercial plantation monoculture, were based on the wrong premise that humans are able to control the natural world.
DEMORALIZING URBAN INFLUENCE
People from different ethnic and social backgrounds were pulled to Colombo and other urban areas, where they were cut off from their communities and cultural settings. They faced ruthless competition for jobs and basic necessities of life. Individual and cultural self-esteem were eroded by the pressure to live up to media and advertising stereotypes, whose images are based on an urban, western, English speaking consumer model, alien to the stable indigenous lifestyle. The villager or farmer was soon made to feel primitive – the gamaya or godaya”, backward, and inferior. Hostility among young people in particular became strong owing to the intensely demoralizing and competitive situation they were compelled to face. Differences of any kind become increasingly significant and ethnic and racial violence is the all but inevitable result. Historically, the erosion of cultural integrity was a conscious goal of colonial developers. With political independence, the system of government and economic system thrust upon our people, along with the alien political party concept resulted in further divisiveness and animosity among people. In recent years, this trend was further accentuated by economic globalization and its socio-economic and religious ramifications in the country.
IMPACT OF THE DIVIDE AND RULE POLICY
Prior to the arrival of European colonialists the Sinhala Buddhist majority and the minorities who made the country their home, lived together for centuries without conflict. European introduced Christianity led to serious divisions within the Sinhela community. The divide and rule policy of the British with preferential treatment accorded to the minority Tamil community and Christians, led to divisive feelings and polarization of the Sinhela-Tamil and the Buddhist- Christian peoples. With independence, the well-established, Western educated and economically well-off Tamil and Christian elite began to feel the erosion of their power, influence and identity. They felt threatened in the absence of the preferential treatment that they enjoyed under the British. This was the beginning of ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka.
CONTRARY TO BUDDHIST PRINCIPLES
The new structures and institutions on which people were made to depend upon were often not in-keeping with Buddhist principles which formed the basis of life of the indigenous people. They were a denial of the interdependence and impermanence taught in Buddhism. They were reflections of ignorance and greed. They were not promoting a way of life that is consistent with Buddhist economics but based on a narrow perspective on human needs and motivations.
Concerned primarily on monetary transactions and largely overlooking such non-material aspects of life such as family and community, meaningful work, or spiritual values, the focus of this so-called modern system of social relations was based on the belief that people are motivated primarily by self-interest and endless material and worldly desires. This is in total contradiction to Buddhist principles and values known to our people. Greed was nurtured by the consumer culture that was introduced by the foreigner. Profit motive, competition, self interests, individualism and material values generated by this foreign culture resulted in increased social problems and cultural degeneration. The privileged urban and underprivileged rural lifestyle differences became marked. The complexities that this economy created led to disconnected society with psychological deprivation and environmental breakdown. The first signs of disintegration of the integration that existed between people and their local environment and the cooperative spirit that existed in rural communities were evident during the colonial period.
PLIGHT OF THE ORDINARY PEOPLE
From the time our country was occupied by European colonial powers, the development models that were applied in our country were focused on serving the interests of the foreigner and local interests. This approach continued even after the country attained the so-called political independence. The country’s leadership and our development planners continued with the outer-oriented foreign approaches to development, the latest being the globalization process which began emerging in late 1970’s. These foreign approaches have failed to bring about improvement to living conditions of the large mass of indigenous people, mainly Buddhists. Instead, they have led to untold problems and misery to them.
The large mass of the Sinhala Buddhist people in particular, suffer owing to the lack of basic necessities in life, including safety and security. They are forced to function in a socio-political system marked by the lack of virtue and moral character, being corrupt, selfish and small minded. The country’s resources and environment are being misused, mismanaged and indiscriminately exploited and are in a state of depletion and degradation. The glorious cultural heritage of the nation is being destroyed. Its traditional long-standing social institutions are being undermined and treated with disrespect. Children and youth are being corrupted and misled by superficial and unwholesome aspects of foreign cultures and blind beliefs. Human relationships are strained to an extent never seen in our country in the past.
We have lived through and experimented for too long with western and irrelevant systems which have clearly failed to improve the quality of life of the overwhelming majority of our people. Blind adoption of foreign and culturally incompatible systems, has led to the total disarray of our governance, ethnic relations, religious tolerance, economic system, social values and cohesion. It is time that the indigenous people of the country realized that actions and influences of the so-called developed world that have created most of the problems faced by our people, most importantly, the widespread poverty and cultural degeneration to which the country is subject.
ILLS OF GLOBALIZATION
What is clearly evident in our country is that globalization virtually tears people apart from their own ecosystem and their own resources. It has directed and deviated most of our people into an urban lifestyle far removed from their own resources and culture. The global monoculture is a dealer in illusions: while promising a glittering, wealthy lifestyle it can never provide for the majority, it is destroying the sustainable ways of living that traditions and local economies provided. For what it destroys, it provides no replacement but a fractured, isolated, competitive and unhappy society.
A good part of people in our country, especially the indigenous Buddhists live below poverty-line with its concomitant hunger, malnutrition, disease, ignorance, unemployment, economic uncertainty, cultural disintegration, crime, violence and political conflicts. To make matters worse, there is a steady depletion and degradation of their environment and the natural resources forming the basis of survival for most of these people. Rapid urbanization as it is happening today in our country is destructive. The psychological, social and environmental costs of this type of urbanization and development are cruel and frightening. It cannot be sustained, neither can the biological systems. Inherent in this process is the destruction of biological diversity. Species are literally disappearing. We cannot live without that biodiversity. It’s not so much a question of preference as of survival. It in actual fact, robs people of self-esteem.
Under globalization, the destruction of cultural integrity is far more subtle than before. The computer and telecommunications revolutions have helped to speed up and strengthen the forces behind the march of a global monoculture, which is now able to disrupt traditional cultures with a shocking speed and finality which surpasses anything the world has witnessed before. Mass media and advertising agents are being used effectively to play upon human weaknesses such as the innate greed for sensual pleasures and social prestige, in order to convince people of the virtues of increasing consumption. Extreme forms of social problems have been the outcome of these modern trends.
SPREAD OF WESTERN CONSUMER CONFORMITY
In the past three decades, in both urban and most rural areas of Sri Lanka, western consumer conformity has been descending on a massive scale. This so called development’ involves tourism, western films and products and television to the remotest parts of the country. All provide overwhelming images of luxury and power. Action films and advertisements give the impression that everyone in the West is rich, beautiful and brave, and leads a life filled with excitement and glamour. Advertisers continue to propagate the illusion that the use of westernized fashion accessories, fast food and adoption of western lifestyles are reflective of an advanced culture and quality of life. It is common knowledge that in our country, people are induced to meet their needs not through their community or local economy, but by trying to ‘buy in’ to the global market. People are made to believe that, everything imported is good and local things are ‘crap’.
With passage to time, advertising and media images exerted powerful psychological pressure to seek a more westernized life – one based on increased consumption. Since jobs are scarce overseas employment became popular. This led to further erosion of family and cultural values. Despite the disastrous consequences, it has been the policy of every government to promote these trends through the support for globalization.
In our motherland, the breaking up of local cultural, economic and political ties isolates people from their locality and from each other. Life speeds up and mobility increases — making even familial relationships more superficial and brief. At the same time, competition for scarce jobs and for political representation within the new centralized structures increasingly divides people. Ethnic and religious differences have begun to take on a political dimension, causing bitterness and enmity on a scale hitherto unknown. With a desperate irony, this globalization monoculture instead of bringing people together – creates divisions that previously did not exist. As the fabric of local interdependence frays, so do traditional levels of tolerance and cooperation. Disputes and acrimony within previously close-knit communities, and even within families, are increasing. The rise in this kind of new rivalry is one of the most painful divisions that are seen in rural communities.
NEED FOR OVERALL TRANSFORMATION
When we adopt a Buddhist perspective on the problems of our country today, we see that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we lead our lives. The transformations we need have to be more than merely personal. It must embrace aspects of our existence – the internal and external, the personal and social. Both of these are inseparably intertwined and mutually conditioning. Our values reflect our social and economic realities, while our social and economic realities are shaped by our values. Thus, while it is in our personal lives that we have the greatest power to instigate direct change, any alterations in our personal lifestyles must also reach outwards and exercise an impact on our interpersonal relations, our social order, our political agenda, and our relationship to the natural environment. There has to be a far-reaching change in our collective views, attitudes and lifestyles.
IGNORANCE AND DELUSION
The social order brought about by globalization is founded upon ignorance (“avijja”) and delusion (“moha”), namely the supposition that material wealth and consumption are the criteria of good life. According to the Buddhist texts, when ignorance infiltrates our cognitive systems, it issues in a series of distortions (vipallasa”), which infect our perception (sanna”), thinking (citta”) and views (ditthi”). The Buddha mentions four such distortions – the notions that the insubstantial is a self, and that the unbeautiful is beautiful. At the most basic impermanent is permanent, that the painful or suffering is pleasant, that the level, we perceive things in terms of these distortions. When these distorted perceptions are taken up by the thought, we start thinking in terms of them. Finally, under the combined influence of distorted perception and thought, we accept views, beliefs, doctrines, and ideologies that affirm the mistaken notions of permanence, pleasure, selfhood and beauty. In modern commercial culture, these distortions or conceptual manifestations of ignorance dominate the thinking, attitudes, principles and policy of both producers and consumers alike. The illusions of permanence, pleasure, self, and beauty are sustained by the images that have become such an intimate part of our lives.
MANIPULATION OF HUMAN DESIRES
The inevitable outcome is the exaltation of craving and greed as the fuel of social and economic activity. Production is geared towards the enhancement of commercial profit which means that human desires must be subtly manipulated and expanded in a bid to enhance profits. As a consequence the elementary need for material sustenance, for the basic necessities of life, becomes blown up in an insatiable urge for status, power, and luxury.
The masters of commerce strive to create in people a perpetual sense of discontent, to induce feelings of inadequacy, to stir up the need to purchase more. As a result, envy and resentment replace contentment and satisfaction. For the corporate based economy to flourish there must never be enough but always a thirst for more, for the bigger, faster, and better, for novelty and variety. In a newly affluent society, perhaps the segment of the society most vulnerable to the tactics of commercial advertising is the youth. The promoters of consumerism know this very well. They know how to capitalize on the tender psychological needs of the young, for example their rebelliousness and audacity, their compulsions and anxieties, and on this basis, they attempt to create a specific culture of youth in which prestige and prominence are attached to the appropriate commodities that are produced. They know how to control fashions and styles to make acquisition of replacements a recurring demand.
In summary, the glorification of the profit motive gives rise to a social order in which the underlying springs of social activity are the twin defilements of ignorance and craving. The experts, who defend this system, the advocates of free trade and globalization, tell us that the unrestrained functioning of the economy is the precondition for general human happiness. What the Buddha teaches is just the opposite. In a society governed by ignorance and craving, in which greed, reckless growth and consumption are the spurs to mass scale human activity, the inevitable outcome has to be suffering and conflict. In the formula of the Four Noble Truths, we find this expressed in psychological terms craving is the origin of suffering”. In the ” Mahanidana Sutta”, the Buddha has made the same point with specific references to the breakdown of social cohesion From craving comes the search for profit, from seeking comes the gain of profit, from gain comes discrimination, thence come desire and lust, thence attachment, thence possessiveness, thence selfishness, thence hoarding, and from hoarding comes many evil, unwholesome things such as crime, quarrels, conflicts, disputes, recrimination, slander, and falsehood”.
DEVALUATION OF THE INDIVIDUAL
The ultimate effect of corporate culture is to reduce the person to a mere consumer whose whole being centers on the intensity and variety of private experience. In subtle ways, this operates below the threshold of perception. The consumerist conception of the good life cuts away at the bonds of community that unite the members of a social order into a unified whole. By appealing to those values that inflame egotism and self-interest, it replaces social cohesion with a social atomism that locks each individual into a self-enclosed world of one’s private concerns. Each person is obsessed with maximizing his or her own status, wealth, position and power or the outward signs of material success. If one is puzzled why social discipline and responsibility have become so rare today, reflection of the above should provide the answer. Greed, hatred, and delusion lead to inner disharmony and social conflict. Greed is a state of lack, need, and wants and always seeks fulfillment. Hatred in all its degrees is also a state of dissatisfaction often associated with frustrated desires and wounded pride. Delusion, taking the form of ignorance, is a state of confusion, bewilderment and helplessness. Both greed and hatred are closely linked with delusion. The coarsest forms of these three unwholesome defilement have to be abandoned through sila” (virtue), while in the advanced stages the aid of samadhi” (meditation) and panna” (wisdom) have to be applied. Any philosophy, or way of life, which establishes the ego as the focus of motivation and activity will inevitably perpetuate all those factors of conflict, ill-will, hatred, greed, and exploitation, which causes the human race continuous unnecessary suffering. According to Buddhism, the excessive domination of the personality by greed of any kind is detrimental to the development of a healthy society.
Economic development must be placed against the wider background of the need to develop a well-rounded personality, and a happy human being. In the “Mangala Sutta” and the “Sigalovada Sutta”, the Buddha has said that the happiness of the average person depends on their economic security, the enjoyment of wealth, freedom from debt, and a blameless moral and spiritual life. In a number on contexts, the economic factor is linked to a wider relationship to the dhamma”.
Schumacher outlines most convincingly, a Buddhist Economics” which has much relevance to the modern world (Schumacher, E.F. (1973), Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”. Blond and Briggs.) He proposes production based on a middle-ranged technology, yielding on the one hand an adequate range of material goods, and on the other, a harmony with the natural environment and its resources.
LACK OF CONNECTION WITH OTHERS
In today’s mass society, young people are growing up fearful of expanding their deeper and broader selves. The tragedy of the modern age is that in the name of individualism, what’s being promoted is, in fact, a mass culture where people are fearful of developing their unique characteristics. The insecurity that many children now feel is due to a lack of connection with other people. This generates an emotional insecurity and a fear of being themselves.
Before the intrusion of globalization, in the small rural Buddhist communities that we talked about before, people are really in charge of their lives, responsible for their own natural resources and not at the mercy of urban or further-removed elite. They feel secure, peaceful and free. With the spread of the globalization process, progressively, rural communities have been marginalized. People may be living rurally, may know each other and have these internalized relationships, but because they have been made to feel insecure, they lose power and self-respect. Individuals become intolerant and out of that intolerance grows a rejection of your own self- realization and that of others. What we can do is to sabotage this globalization structure individually and locally and try to establish local communities that are more or less independent. We must protect what is left of local culture against the onslaught which is there all the time. Our development process needs to be a transition to a more locally-based culture.
PROTECTING INDIGENOUS CULTURAL INHERITANCE
We should not let our wholesome Buddhist cultural inheritance be undermined and eroded away by economic, social and cultural trends that are incompatible with our enviable social values that took some 2300 years to develop and form the basis of life of our nation. We are duty-bound to work towards transforming and changing whatever harmful trends evident in our motherland. It is time to reinforce Buddhist principles that constitute the basis of the national culture of Sri Lanka.
Building a stronger sense of national identity holds the key to achieving true reconciliation and social cohesion in our nation. Our nation needs to be united behind the nation’s Buddhist values. Extremism in any form, including religious, is not in-keeping with the Buddhist principles and values that form the basis of our nation. Attempting to implant in Sri Lanka, norms and behavior patterns of other countries aimed at being exclusive and markedly different to the long established social and cultural norms of our nation has a socially divisive effect. Buddhist community leaders, especially Buddhist Bhikkhus who have been the traditional custodians of the nation’s culture and values should be in the forefront in confronting in a legitimate manner, any extremist and divisive trends on the part of any community cultural or religious, who has made Sri Lanka their home. Traditionally the Buddhist leadership is duty-bound to prevent attempts by anyone to undermine the long established Buddhist socio-cultural norms of our nation. This is necessary in order to get the various non-indigenous communities to be a part of our nation and to help them develop a national perspective. They should be encouraged to actively participate in national events and be participants in the national development effort for the common benefit of all and not exclusively for the benefit of one’s own community and religion.
In general, separatism and divisiveness appear to dominate the thoughts of minority communities of Sri Lanka when it comes to their association with this country. This attitude inevitably prevents them from developing a sense of belonging to the nation, and cultivating better relationships with Sinhala Buddhists – the majority mainstream of the country from historic times. This parochial attitude prevents minorities from understanding and appreciating the worthy principles and values that characterize the Sri Lankan nation, that give this nation its identity as a unique nation.
SOCIALLY ENGAGED BUDDHISM
The painful and disastrous effects of the three mental poisons – hatred, greed and delusion that are fast overtaking our nation have to be controlled and managed for the welfare of our nation. Private spirituality and morality alone cannot address and contain overall suffering or dukkha” of our people. Suffering and its relief have a social dimension that has to be addressed in an organized manner. Merely feeling sorry for those who suffer or meditatively channeling compassion to them and performing intercessory rituals on their behalf are of little value today. We need to find more direct and tangible ways to serve the suffering and to relieve their misery. We need to institutionalize our efforts and attempt vigorously to find out the institutional and political ramifications of ignorance and attachment – the Second Noble Truth in Buddhism – that is on collective greed, hatred and delusion, and on new organizational strategies for addressing social evils such as injustice, war, poverty, exploitation, intolerance, and to venture into prospects for outer and inner peace in our nation. The approach involves engaging in the lives of others through compassion, sacrifice and service.
Buddhism has always been engaged in various socio-political contexts. The idea of interdependence is widely associated with Buddhism. Buddhism is the religion of Human Ecology. Engaging in the lives of others through compassion, sacrifice and service is the worthy spiritual path that we need to observe in the contemporary world. We need to expand our approach or shift somewhat away from those traditional customs that excessively promote monasticism and individual salvation, and become more socially engaged and be more concerned about service to the community, the human habitat and the environment in general. We need to broaden our spiritual practices to include both family and community and the social and environmental concerns of the broader world. We need to approach meditation not as a way of escaping from society or getting out of society, but to prepare us for a re-entry into society so that we will be better able to identify and understand social hardships, misery and perils, and be able to do something tangible to relieve them. It is time that we as Buddhists involve ourselves in an organized manner, become socially engaged and apply Buddhism to matters of everyday life, individual work, family, politics and the community. It needs to be a direct application of Buddhist principles and concepts to social and political issues and areas.
The development path of our country need to be built from the grassroots, based on its Buddhist cultural foundation. It should involve the development of strong local economies in which producer-consumer links are shortened and cultural values are respected and peaceful coexistence in harmony with the environment and all diverse people are assured. Moving in this direction appears to be the appropriate way to solve the whole range of serious social, economic and environmental problems faced by the country today. Ultimately, we are talking about a spiritual awakening that comes from making a connection to others and to nature. This requires us to see the world within us, to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life, of which we ourselves are among the strands.
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane