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Thursday, September 18, 2008
The trap of moral righteousness
A mass prayer from the clergy. An appeal for non-violence from reformist monks. An army of cooks and cleaners from a fundamentalist Buddhist sect.
Don't say that religion and politics should not mix. This popular misconception is just that, a misconception. The challenge now is how to make our conflict-ridden society return to its senses through the ancient wisdom of Buddhism.
Fear of bloodshed from the current political divisiveness has triggered a flurry of petitions and activities from civic groups to stem violence. Such a fear is so widely shared that even our conservative, pro-establishment clergy feels it must do something to intervene.
And they've done it the only way they know how - by staging a mass prayer which also made a good photo op.
Apart from the chanting in ancient Pali (which most of us do not understand a word of), we did not hear anything else from the elders. A group of reformist monks and nuns took a step further by making a public appeal for non-violence.
All sides should refrain from violent speech including the use of rude words, half-truths and demonisation because they instigate violence. All sides should also refrain from arming themselves with weapons, to make non-violent political assembly possible, they pleaded.
Whether their moves are sufficient or not, their message for peace and the need to transcend anger and hatred - the root cause of violence - is true to Buddhism. Which is why what Santi Asoke is doing at Government House sticks out like a sore thumb.
With all due respect, Santi Asoke has done much to make Thai Buddhism relevant again amid today's excessive consumerism. Its advocacy of a back-to-nature and self-reliant community is a critique against the authoritarian clergy lost in materialism and power play, as well as an effort to offer a solution to the environmental degradation and moral bankruptcy.
As the backbone of the protests, the so-called dharma army from Santi Asoke has been stoically doing the cooking and cleaning for the People's Alliance for Democracy.
Why? Many doubt the political motives of Phra Bhodhirak, Santi Asoke's leader, given his bitter feuds with the mainstream clergy which ostracised him and his sect. The simple answer, however, is his longstanding ties with Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang, one of the core leaders of PAD.
Believing that politics must embrace religious morality, Santi Asoke has been with Maj-Gen Chamlong through thick and thin, from his campaigns for Bangkok governor, his establishment of the Palang Dharma party and now, his drive to get rid of money politics.
Phra Bhodhirak has argued in the Santi Asoke newsletter that he must support the PAD because it is in the right. Politics, he added, is essentially about serving and liberating people, which is what Buddhism set outs to do.
He can say anything and, given Santi Asoke's military-like emphasis on discipline, his followers will follow wherever he leads.
It pained me to see the devout Buddhists of Santi Asoke stoically doing the heavy chores while being unable to utter a word to question the PAD core leaders' demonisation tactics to stir up anger, hatred and to whip up moral superiority to legitimise violence.
Can't they see that all this is against Buddhist teachings?
How to avoid the crisis of divisiveness through Buddhist wisdom? Ironically, we had to hear this from a lay person, Seksan Prasertkul, former student activist and communist insurgent, and not from the elders.
If we understand the Buddhist concept of void, he said, we will know that dichotomy, such as the division of people into good and bad, is a form of extremism that must be transcended.
Voidness, he said, is the state void of separate self, because all are relative and dynamically shaped by inter-related forces into different forms at different phases. As such, all are inter-connected and one in the stream of change.
Wait a minute. If all is one, does that mean the self-righteous PAD can become as dictatorial and power-clinging when anger, hatred and greed are their masters, like their political foes?
The answer is chilling.
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