Sunday, October 30, 2011

Religions and Politics: How to help a nation?

The central of Thailand and certain parts of the city of Bangkok had been deluged with flood water over the past one week or more. And it had so far killed about 400 people. Cries of desperation had been heard. People in other countries are collecting money to help them. However, the Thai people do not actually need money. Nor do they need food. They have plenty of these. The problem is the food and other daily necessities cannot reach them due to the flood. That's the problem when a nation is faced with such huge natural disaster. There are calls from various people and religions to pray for them. There was even one call to do battle with the force of nature. 

I find this rather strange because we are not able and will never be able to battle the force of nature. That is because the force of nature is just a manifestation of the people in it. It is the group karma (or national karma as I wrote once in a previous blog post) we are talking about. And group karma is usually very strong and not easily pacified with individual karmic strength. We don't combat them. It is the wrong word to use. The right word to use is "pacify". And how do we pacify the force of nature?

It is actually very simple. But hard to implement. The whole nation or the majority of the people affected by the natural disaster must apologise and say "sorry" for whatever wrong doings they have done in the past. Karma is never wrong. So, when we Buddhists say things like "combat with nature", we are actually implying these natural phenomena like floods or earthquakes are inflicted by others, for example by God or other entities. Even if it is caused by other entities, with regard such a wide scale destruction, it is never without the accompanying negative karma of the people affected. So, the first step to ease the flood is in fact to adopt the "I am sorry" attitude, and not "I will combat you" attitude. If you have the later attitude, already the first thing you do is wrong. So, how can the mantras you recite work?

Whenever we recite the Vajrasattva mantra, we must do it with the four powers, of which regret is one of them. "Regret" is just the "I am sorry" attitude. As a nation and people, think what was the thing that you guys have done wrong? Perhaps not working together harmoniously as a nation? Perhaps, the politicians are more interested in holding large scale protests and jamming up the streets, airport and economy? Perhaps there are people, especially the politicians who are more interested in maintaining power or grabbing power for themselves, rather than contributing to the interest of the nation even without any positions? And are people supporting a political candidate just because they like him/her despite knowing he/she does not have any actual ability to govern a nation? So, all these do have consequences to the national/society's karma. 

One of the most important area to improve a nation's general karma is in the area of politics. And Buddhists do have a role to play even in politics, including monks and nuns. In the days of the Buddha, the politics then were feudal and the ordinary citizens do not have much voice in the day to day governance of the nation. But today absolute monarchies are rare. And ordinary citizens have a role to play in a democratic nation. A good and responsible government elected by the people will ensure the continued support and prosperity of the religion. But if you have a communist party taking over the nation, you will faced with dire consequences to any spiritual practice, just as what happened to Buddhism and other religions in China during the Cultural Revolution of the Communist Party of China. Lots of Buddhist temples and Buddhist scriptures were destroyed. Is that what you want to happen to Buddhism in the future? If that is what you mean when you say that religious people should be free from politics, think again. The truth is, in today's contexts at least, religious people can never be 100% free from their responsibility to do their part in supporting the right government or opposing those that are not. In a democratic nation, for example, the monks and nuns should still come out and do their part in a general election to cast their votes. Otherwise, if a bad government comes to rule and administer the nation, they also have to be partly to blame as others who supported the bad government party. 

I advocate certain limited involvement of religious people in politics and not wholesale involvement. Some limited involvement in politics by religious personalities is in fact good for the nation. This is in line with the concept of the Middle Path advocated by the Buddha and the Bodhisattva concept of not abandoning samsaric beings. The Buddhists like to cite the concept of renunciation as a reason for not getting involved in politics at all. But this is not likely to be correct as total renuncation does not mean having a "don't care, don't bother" attitude. A little involvement is necessary to balance renunciation and focus on spiritual practice. As I have mentioned, you can be involved in the election process once every few years. And you can make your disagreement with national policies heard through the proper channels. That is perhaps all a religious person needs to be involved in. But not taking to the streets until the economy and peace of the nation is affected. Certainly not be involved actively in any political party activities nor taking part in national policy debates and all that.  But we can give advice if necessary. However, how far should a religious person involved in politics is never fixed. There is no rule of thumb. It will have to depend on the situation. And no one can really tell for sure. And yes, sometimes it may even have to involve sacrifice and defending the nation in some skillful ways. I use the word skillful to be in line with how the Buddha did to prevent war waged by the Kosambis against his Sakya tribe. The Buddha never lifted a single weapon except the weapon of compassion. Unfortunately, that was not enough to prevent war. So, religious involvement with politics should never be encouraged till it has to resort to military means. Monks should never have to carry arms. The present situation in Tibet, Sri Lanka and the past histories of Japan and China are replete with examples of monks who got involved heavily in politics. We should realise that when these monks carry weapon, they are not wearing the hat of a religious monk, but that of a nationalist. We must distinguish their two different roles. It is the same with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was playing two roles at the same time until recently when he gave up the role as political head. I feel that it is a step in the right direction of separating these 2 roles. He cans till advice the Prime Misniter but the Prime Minister must take full responsibility and make his own decisions.

So, we can see that there were many cases of religious people who involved themselves in politics in a major way. But by and large, there is no need to go to that extent. Most of the time, just a little bit of involvement will suffice. And the rest of the time, they should concentrate on their spiritual practice, instead of meddling in politics. As Buddhists, it is better not to wear the hat of a nationalist for far too long. It may have a negative impact on our spiritual practice. To sum up, I think there is still a role to play in the politics of a nation by any religious person. But to think that religions can be absolutely free from politics is naive, if not irresponsible. Buddhists should make it a point to support the right leaders. Look at Korea for instance. It is because the people elected a Christian as their president that at times, it seems like the Buddhist interests are not being taken care of. In the meantime, Christianity is prospering there. As I said, there is no need for Buddhists (especially monks) to form a political party. Just exercise your voting rights in the right way to ensure continued support for Buddhism. I am not writing all these with any particular nation in mind. Even though I mentioned Thailand, Korea and Tibet above, the advice and views given here in this blog post is general in nature. It can be applied to any country.
By the right involvement in shaping the politics of the nation, and with the right advice given to politicians, religious people can make a positive influence to the peace as well as the spiritual welfare of the nation. That will enhance the national karma and will ultimately reduce the incidences of destruction by the so-called "forces of nature". Actually nature has no force, it acts in accordance with the karma of the people. If the people is peaceful and have positive values and the society is generally virtuous, and the politicians and citizens live in harmony, then heaven and earth will be in harmony too. Everything will be in harmony when the people are virtuous and morally upright. Think about it. 

So, if you are in the middle of a flood crisis, try to ease the situation with saying "sorry" for whatever wrong you have done in the past. Think of something wrong that you have done. For example, have you been selfish to somebody? Have you been stubborn and refuse to support a good politician even though you know he is a good politician? Have you been greedy for something? Have you been unreasonable with someone? Think, think. Only you yourself know what you have done wrong. With that "I am sorry" attitude in you, and multiply that with the number of people living in your area, things will surely improve. Together, it collectively forms a good positive karma and that is the best way to pacify destruction by nature, i.e. by a positive change in our attitude. 

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