Well-off members of Greater Vancouver’s Buddhist community should not use their religion as an excuse for ignoring those who are suffering, Southeast Asia’s leading Buddhist social activist said Wednesday.
Sulak Sivaraksa, an internationally known Buddhist publisher, educator and freedom fighter, said B.C’s fast-growing Buddhist community is prone to using meditation to attain personal peace, while turning a blind eye to social realities.
“Many Buddhists in the West believe that Buddhists shouldn’t challenge the powers that be — that you don’t get involved in politics. But that’s a misinterpretation of Buddhism,” Sivaraksa said during a Vancouver speaking tour co-sponsored by the University of B.C.’s Institute of Asian Studies.
Considered one of the most influential Buddhists in Southeast Asia, Sivaraksa has been persecuted in his native Thailand. The author of 60 books on peace, non-violence, ecology and community development has several times been forced into exile by Thai authorities, but he has been allowed to live there since 1992.
“They are a bit afraid of me,” Sivaraksa, a 63-year-old father of three children, said with a smile after speaking about Buddhism and ecology at UBC’s C.K. Choi Building.
In rejecting Western consumerism and emphasizing spirituality, Sivaraksa has worked closely with the Dalai Lama, noted Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanhand U.S. Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. He received the 1995 Right Livelihood Award, an alternative Nobel peace prize.
Unfortunately, he said, many Canadian Caucasians are attracted to Buddhism as a form of escapism. They believe Buddhism allows them to be unapologetic consumers while pursuing private spiritual contentment.
“They say, `Oh, I feel peaceful. I’m all right, Jack.’ ”
Meanwhile, the Chinese immigrants who make up a large portion of the 40,000 British Columbians who call themselves Buddhist often practise a “superstitious” form of Buddhism through which they pray to Buddhist gods for financial success, said Sivaraksa, who taught in Canada and the U.S. during his exile.
“Asian immigrants in B.C. are mostly Chinese. And the Chinese generally don’t have much to do with spirituality. They are a very practical people. The main goal for most Chinese is to be successful. They see Buddhism mostly as a place for funeral rituals and superstition,” he said.
Most Chinese, he said, haven’t had the opportunity to practise purer forms of Buddhism because Chinese Confucian leaders repressed the religion for more than 1,000 years. In Taiwan, Buddhists were allowed to set up social-service agencies only five years ago.
To survive the wrath of heavy-handed political leaders in such countries as Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, Sivaraksa said, Buddhist leaders have often “been very tame.”
A true Buddhist, he said, “must overcome greed,” “confront suffering” and realize the “interconnectedness of all things” to work for the good of all.