Dhamma for all
Buddhists Engaged in Social Development
By Phra Paisal Visalo
Recently in Thailand, the view that Buddhism has nothing to do with society is becoming widespread. Most people think of it as having ritualistic ceremonies or as a method of dealing with personal problems. But during the past twenty years, there have appeared among the Buddhist monks a small number of men who try to confront the problems of society and among people head-on, which is causing the Thai people to change their attitudes toward Buddhism. Such monks are called “development monks,” and they are mainly active in the agricultural regions of Thailand.
The economic development that has taken place in Thailand over the past few decades has widened the difference in the level of living between cities and rural villages, bringing to the villages poverty and environmental destruction. The development monks, while integrating themselves in the village society, have begun to confront the problems of villages suffering from poverty and environmental destruction. The economic development that has taken place in Thailand is not that different from that which occurred in the other Third World countries. More attention is placed on industry than on agriculture, and, in order to reduce the spending of those involved in the industrial sector, the prices of agricultural produce were pushed way down. Thus, the life of farmers is fraught with troubles. Further, economic development was promoted in order to supply great amounts of natural resources on the market at cheap prices, with the result that once beautiful mountains and rivers have been destroyed. That is why a number of villagers have begun to question the merits of economic development.
Development monks can be divided into three groups. The first group is devoted to benevolent activities such as building facilities for orphans, hospitals for people suffering from AIDS/HIV, and other charitable works. The second group is mainly active in an economic manner—organizing cooperative society with cooperative shops in the villages, and even establishing the Water Buffalo Bank and also creating a savings cooperative (credit union) so that people will not have to take out loans at high-interest rates, and encouraging the production of traditional folk crafts. The third group is involved in environmental problems—working mainly to save and protect the forests and the rivers.
These activities of the development monks did not, at first, attract the attention of people living in the cities. Yet through the steady continuation of these activities, connections were made with NGOs both in Thailand and abroad, and their activities gradually became more widely known in the villages and cities. The activities of the Thai development monks were intimately related to those of the NGOs from the beginning. The NGOs offered support to the activities of the development monks in various ways, such as supporting the creation of networks among the development monks, and even dispatching volunteers to help support their activities.
But I feel that, among the contributions of the NGOs, what was of the utmost importance was that they provided the development monks with various analytical points of view. Whether they were involved with problems of environmental protection or ameliorating poverty, the staff of the NGOs supplied the development monks with various ways of looking at how these problems were related to the structure of society or the economy, or the development of Thailand itself.
Formerly, development monks and other Buddhist groups who became involved with social problems took part in the kind of activity that deals with the problems right before their eyes. For example, if there were children suffering from starvation, they fed them; if there were people suffering from disease, they brought them to the hospital. But if anything is going to be done at the source of environmental problems or poverty, it is necessary to understand the social structure that forms a background to individual problems. Up to that point, the activities of development monks seem to be no different than giving an aspirin to someone suffering from a headache. Through that, the pain might be reduced, but concerning the fundamental cause of the headache, it is not a sufficient approach. Concerning that, the staff of the NGOs taught them that just giving someone an aspirin is not enough.
However, the relationship between the NGOs and the development monks is not just a one-way type of providing them with something. Rather, the development monks also had a positive influence upon the NGOs. One of the things they imparted was the importance of being aware of the significance of the spiritual aspect when engaged in their activities. It was one weakness of the NGOs, who could be said to have focused too much upon political and economic problems. It might even be said that they undertook their activities upon the premise that the villagers would become happy if they could live their lives in the midst of material wealth. Now, economic development is certainly important, but through bringing the new sense of values of what might be called “consumerism” into the village society, the villagers’ peace of mind was disturbed. Yet, concerning this problem, I feel that the staff of the NGOs were not sufficiently aware of this matter. Furthermore, among the NGO workers there were many who were indifferent toward spiritual matters, for which reason, because they were so busy with their activities that they did not have the leisure to pursue spiritual matters, they themselves ceased to be able to feel happiness, and there are even cases in which confrontations broke out among the NGO workers. When that happened, the development monks were able to teach the NGO staff about the significance of attaching great importance to peace of mind while carrying out their activities. In my own experience, I believe that it is necessary for Buddhist monks and Buddhist groups and the staff of NGOs to share their knowledge with each other.
In Thailand, as in other Buddhist countries, cooperation between the Buddhist groups and the NGO staff is essential in promoting development. And what they must cooperate on is the creation of a sound civic society, which requires a comprehensive or holistic development in order to create. What I mean by “comprehensive or holisitic development” is not just economic development—social development must take place, as well as development concerning environmental issues, and it is even necessary that spiritual development be part of the overall process. In order for such comprehensive or holistic development to take place, it is necessary for both sides—Buddhist monks and groups and the staff of the NGOs—to meet in cooperation in order that they might supply each other with what the other side lacks. In terms of activities, it is necessary to make political and economic reforms in relation to the issues of poverty, human rights, and the environment. At the same time, what might be termed “spiritual development,” or “development in a spiritual sense,” must also take place.
The problem at present is the importance of resisting the rapidly proliferating consumerism, which can be said to be the common enemy of both the Buddhist groups and the NGOs. This is because at the basis consumerism creates a structure in which the poor are exploited, the environment is destroyed, and the spiritual peace of the people is thrown into confusion. Especially in the recent spread of globalization, consumerism has increasingly become more and more intense. Not only in Thailand, in many countries the number of poor is increasing, widening further the gap between the rich and the poor. And while the gap between the rich and the poor widens in a single country, the gap between rich and poor countries also grows ever greater. Within that context, it seems as though consumerism is just like the dominating religion. Within globalization, what is receiving special attention is the concept of free trade. The three slogans of globalization are often given as “liberalization of market” “the privatization of public enterprises,” and “the deregulation,” but while these aspects are being emphasized, the budgets for social welfare and various types of subsidies and funds to support the sick and the aged are being cut. The situation is such that the poor are now suffering more than in the past. And in the midst of that ever worsening suffering, it is important that the NGOs and Buddhist groups cooperate more fully than ever before to try to stop the situation from getting even worse. In order to do that, I feel that it is necessary for them to learn from each other, to create a new way of life and new sense of values that encompasses both the material and the spiritual aspects of life.
Through the cooperation between NGOs and Buddhists, the following four categories of activities can be done. The first is the protection of human rights, and engaging in the humanitarian activities in support of those who suffer. It is crucial to lend assistance to the poor, the elderly, orphans, and other needy people. That is not enough, however. What needs to be done is to to restructure the society in order to reduce the structural violence, i.e. exploitation and lack of social justice, which is the root cause of poverty and suffering. . This is the second category. As I mentioned earlier, although there has already been quite a lot of cooperation between NGOs and the development monks, still the situation is becoming ever worse. The third category is the creation of a new sense of values or spirituality as a countermeasure against consumerism. In particular, speaking as a Buddhist, I believe that there is a need to make it clear that Buddhism is not something that simply consists of performing rituals; rather, it is an active religion that teaches us about how we can achieve peace of mind and happiness. Finally, the fourth category is the activities of peacemaking. Today, there are many wars and conflicts going on around the world. Up until now, Buddhists have taken various opportunities to articulate the importance of peace, but in fact there are very few cases in which peacemaking and preventing wars were tackled in earnest by the Buddhists. I have heard that during the past few years, many Japanese have visited Palestine and worked there as peace workers, and, at times, even serving as human shields, and taking part in various activities. When I heard that news, I could not help but think “How many of them are Buddhist?” or “How deeply involved in such problems have Buddhist become?” From now on, I believe that Buddhists must become involved in the problem of peace much more seriously than ever before.
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