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Monday, May 31, 2010
Back to normal, are we?
Normal. How sweet the word sounds, after two weeks of excruciating political tension which culminated in the torching of central Bangkok.
Indeed, we have taken our normal lives for granted, complaining no end about the horrendous traffic, the perennial work and money worries, the endless family headaches, the nagging boredom...
But the Bangkok inferno and the simmering political anger that could explode again at any time have made us realise that no matter how many problems we face in our daily lives, at least we are still blessed with normalcy. Life may be tough. But it still is a source of joy in so many ways.
Not so when we live in war.
Those were my thoughts on my first day back to work, elated to return to a normal life again. The elation was punctured when, at the traffic light, I spotted a little girl, not more than seven years old, looking tired and dejected, with jasmine garlands in her hand. Schools were already open that day. She should have been in class, learning how to spell. What was she doing on the street?
But isn't the sight of garland children normal on Bangkok streets?
There are so many other things that we have come to view as part of our normal life in the capital. Rickety slums alongside luxury mansions. Beggars in front of shopping centres. Labourers toiling for a pittance. The daily extortion on the street when low-income policemen fleece low-income motorcyclists...
But what is normal cannot lead to disaster, can it? Why then the shocking explosion of fiery rage that shook Bangkok to the core?
Since our supposedly Buddhist society is desperately struggling to recover from the worst political violence in its modern history, let's take a look at how Buddhism defines "normal".
As Buddhists, we can recite by heart the five sila or precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual exploitation, no harmful speech, no intake of intoxicants. The Pali word "sila", however, does not only mean precept, it also means the state of normality. This normalcy or balance breaks down when we kill, steal, exploit others, engage in hate speech, and/or take intoxicants. It is only when we observe the "sila" that we can maintain the state of normalcy, within and without. Look around. Can we honestly say our society is normal?
The recent bloody crackdown and senseless city arson aside, the crime rate in Thailand is one of the world's highest. The country is an international hub of the sex trade, human trafficking and drugs. The education system and the mass media play a significant role in perpetuating oppressive values. What else has become "normal" in society? Strict social hierarchy? Angry and alienated youths who use violence to vent their frustrations? Landlessness and indebted farmers? Ethnic prejudices? Police corruption? Military supremacy? Rape and sexual harassment? Cleric patriarchy? The commercialisation of Buddhism? The destruction of the local villagers' health and sources of livelihood for big business? Stark and persistent social inequity amid city affluence? Political centralisation that has no room for voices on the ground? Censorship?
The list is endless.
No, this is not a normal situation. This is a society without sila.
Sila is based on the principle of non-exploitation. It's simple. Don't harm others nor yourself. Do what is beneficial to others and to yourself. That is why Buddhism strongly advises against anger and hatred. The first target of destruction is we ourselves.
As individuals, we can sit and meditate all we want to instil inner calm, but we cannot hope to calm the anger of those on the receiving end of injustice if we do not understand the structural imbalance that hurts the weak and the poor and numbs us into hopelessness.
We need to tackle this inequality, this injustice. But how we do it must be in line with sila. If not, our supposedly normal lives will drift dangerously towards violence once again.
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