March 4, 2008

On being Ornamental, Passive, or a Pacifist

Popular representations and stereotypes are aplenty when it comes to just about anything, spiritual practices notwithstanding. There are religions wrongly stereotyped to be violent, for example, but one religion that seems to be the least connected to violence, is Buddhism. However, it has even been unfortunately associated with passivism, which could be one of the biggest myth about Buddhism.

Think of Buddhism and visuals of peaceful monks in maroon robes spouting incomprehensible philosophical teachings may come to minds of most. This 'peaceful and esoteric' image of Buddhism by mainstream society can perhaps be epitomized by the deluge of Buddha's head statues being used as decorative items. There are hundreds of them for sale in Bali (incidentally not a predominantly Buddhist society) a shopping haven for popular 'ethnic' handicrafts, woodcarvings, paintings, and exotic decorative items galore; the Buddha's smiling head has become so symbolic of Asian inner peace and tranquillity that it's found its way into restaurants, bars, clubs, and your neighbourhood spa – to add that bit of peacefulness and exoticism. There's even a bar named after him and CD compilations such as the Buddha Bar and Buddha Lounge series described as 'chilled out music' or 'ethnic electronica'. Can one laugh and cringe at the same time? Perhaps Mr Buddha would if he were alive today. Who knows - but I bet most people would believe he would just smile in an aura of peace and tranquillity instead.

Apart from symbolizing tranquillity and inner peace in the face of violence or electronica music, Buddhism is also better known these days for its mystical explorations and collaborations with western scientists' obsessions with the brain. Lesser known, unfortunately, is what its role can be when it comes to structural oppression or social injustices; what some would call 'engaged Buddhism'. It is unfortunate because somewhere along the way, from when Buddha was a social reformer who spoke against injustices in his time more than twenty thousand years ago, the popular perception of Buddhism is now largely only about meditation, achieving personal enlightenment, and disengaging from the world outside.

How one's approach to social change is another matter, but to say that Buddhism teaches one to embrace suffering or develop inner peace amidst and despite suffering within one's society alone, could very well be one the biggest myth that many, including those who speak of it in its name, still hold in their respective consciousness. In this environment, it is easy for one to mistake its teachings that promote pacifism (non-violent means to effect change) to be passivism. Such passivity in the face of injustice, is perhaps not much better than misusing religion to justify acts of violence or bigotry, as both involve the misunderstanding and mis-use of religion that perpetuates injustice.

Growing up as a Buddhist in Malaysia, engagement with social concerns and 'the pursuit for enlightenment' seemed like different worlds apart. I had not heard about Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and peace activist who coined the term 'Engaged Buddhism', nor about Tenzin Palmo, who is challenging the institutionalised belief that only the male form can reach 'liberation'. I came to realize that the Burmese monks who marched in thousands recently for democracy, is not an exception, and that we can apply universal insights to situations of social injustices -to be more engaged with our society- irregardless of one's spiritual leanings. Religions have often been misunderstood or misused to justify violence, or to be apathetic to injustices. Perhaps there will be less of that if we can look beyond the institutionalised aspects of religions, how they came to be, and to see the essence and universality of their teachings.

1 comment:

Wu Ling said...

I actually wrote a very short response piece to your article and it was published in The Sun long long time ago:

Promote well-being of all