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Eastern Spirituality Could Help Sustainable Development


August 14, 2017
By Kalinga Seneviratne
InDepthNews

This article is the 18th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

YANGON, Myanmar (IDN) – “The desire for peace exists everywhere, but the majority of people are not in a position to enjoy peace, stability and security they desire,” noted venerable Dr Ashin Nyanissara, spiritual head of the Sitagu International Buddhist University (SIBU), in opening a two-day gathering of spiritual leaders and scholars at the university here on August 5.

The event was the second Global Initiative for Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Consciousness (SAMVAD) conference, following the first held in New Delhi in September 2015.

SAMVAD is an initiative of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to adopt principles of Asia’s age-old spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism to address modern-day issues threatening human civilisation.

Though there were a number of Muslim and Christian scholars from Myanmar and India among the 250 people that attended the event in Yangon, the SAMVAD initiative is driven by Buddhists and Hindus who are keen to exploit commonalities in their spiritual teachings to create a more tolerant, liberal and accommodative world living in harmony with nature rather than seeing it as a resource to exploit.

SAMVAD is spearheaded by the Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) and the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) in association with the Tokyo-based Japan Foundation. Local partners this year were the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) and SIBU.

In a video message shown at the opening session, Japanese Prime Minister Abe told the audience that Buddhists always say “may all beings be well and happy” that the spirit of tolerance and compassion encompasses coexistence of all lives.

“The spirit of tolerance is facing challenges today,” he warned. “Terrorism and violent extremism are expanding and trying to deny the existence of ‘others’ and trying to paint our world in a single colour,” adding that in Asia “we must let flowers of all different colours bloom in harmony.”

In the inaugural speech, the governor of Uttar Pradesh, Ram Naik, pointed to the great contribution of Hindu and Buddhist traditions to the modern world, such as yoga and mindful meditation. Noting that it was a Burmese of Indian descent, S.N. Goenka, who introduced Vipassana (mindful) meditation to the world, he pointed out that “such is the strength of our deeply woven heritage that, today, this tradition of meditation is being practised in over 94 countries … It would not be wrong to say that by gifting meditation and yoga, Asia has persuaded the world to take a pause and look within.”

Although SAMVAD was built as an inter-faith dialogue, it was not all sweet talk and smiles. There were some animated discussions both in the spiritual masters’ roundtable and lay scholars’ panel presentations.

Both Hindus and Buddhists repeatedly referred to problems in “Abrahamic” scriptures and their lack of tolerance of other beliefs. Many Hindu speakers from India spoke about how they have rejected old Hindu scriptures that speak of caste and “untouchability” because this does not fit into the 21st century where they are trying to build an inclusive society. They also suggested that Muslims in particular need to reject some of their “Koranic” scriptures that may preach exclusivity.

While endorsing the spirit of Buddhist ‘Kalama Sutra’ (Buddha’s sermon on free inquiry) and the Hindu sayings of Shri Ramakrishnan, Al-Haj Aye Lwin, Chief Convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar, stressed that truth is not in books but that it has to be experienced to be realised, warned that one needs to be vary of misinformation and disinformation on Islam in this age.

“It would be needless to say that if anyone alleged that other religions are false or label the adherents of other religions as heathens or kafirs, the dialogue would certainly be counterproductive” he argued.

“It will be equally counterproductive to brand any religion, be it Abrahamic or not, as doctrinally intolerant and consisting in exhortation to religious violence or its teachings as not being ecologically friendly.”

Lwin pointed out that there are black sheep in every religion and they should not be looked upon as role models for any religion. “No matter how good the original teachings are, people want to hijack religion to suit their vested interests and hidden agendas would twist and turn the truths and translate them in line with their sinister plans,” he warned.

Both Buddhists and Hindus pointed out that many rituals and festivals in their respective religions which have survived so far draw the link between nature and humans.

“The consciousness that man is part of nature and not independent and certainly not its master is fundamental to protecting and sustaining environment and ecology,” noted Rajalaksmi Ravi, a social activist from Chennai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“Hindu culture has made the tree a symbol of forests and prescribed ‘Vriksha Vandana’ (reverence of trees) as the attitude of humans to forests – unless humans revere trees, forests are not safe,” she noted, pointing out that ‘Ganga Vandana’ (worship of water) and ‘Bhumi Vandana’ (homage to earth) “celebrate all rivers, lakes and ponds to inculcate environmental consciousness and protect water resources.”

In his video message, Indian Prime Minister Modi reminded participants that Hindu and Buddhist philosophies see nature as living in harmony. “If we don’t live in harmony with nature, we have climatic change,” he warned. “(We must) revere nature and not consider it merely as a resource to exploit.”

“Buddhists apply the concept of interdependent origination to everything in our world,” said Tibetan Buddhist monk His Holiness Drikung Kyahgon Chetsang. “An authentic environmental consciousness will develop naturally once people recognise the deep interdependence between humans, plants, and animals. Thus, the ancient Buddhist philosophy of interdependence is critical to the future of our planet,” he said.

The Tibetan monk described a “Go Green Go Organic” campaign his monastic order is developing in the Himalayan Ladakh region of India where water supplies and environment are under threat from global warming. Over 2000 trees have been planted in an effort to prevent soil erosion and also to give local people natural resources to harvest sustainably, which he called “creating sustainable economic opportunities.”

With the glaciers of the Himalayan snow mountains melting rapidly, his campaign has dug trenches to capture the water flow in the summer and distribute its water to a wider area, which is also giving rise to the growth of wild plants that contribute to tackling soil erosion.

“We need to develop a broader perspective of the earth as a whole,” argued His Holiness Chetsang. “Natural disasters and ecological problems do not choose people of one religion or one nation.”

Referring to the preamble of the UNESCO constitution which declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed,” Venerable Miao Hai of the Boshan Zhegjue Monastery in China said that we need to review the rules of capitalism. “The competition for fossil fuels, especially for oil, leads to conflicts and war,” he noted. “Such fundamentally wrong attitudes expose our planet to extreme danger.”

Citing a number of instances where environmental disasters have led us to question economic models and technology, he pointed out that providing electricity to the 1.2 billion people who do not still have access cannot be done by using existing capitalist models because this will create more conflicts for fuels.

He described a model his monastery is spreading using Chinese solar technology and a pilgrimage called the “Chan-Tea-Solar Road Trip” that started in Shanghai in May 2016 and ended in Bodhgaya in India in May 2017 passing through Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and India. This was a cross-cultural experience during which Chan Tea Musical performances were organised and solar power was introduced to communities.

The new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (with a population of over 230 million), Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest turned politician, flew all the way from Lucknow to Yangon to give the Valedictory Address in which he pointed out that Indian philosophies are not dogmatic and do not thrust their points of view on others. He particularly praised Buddhism and made many references to Buddhist scriptures in his speech.

“We have inherited this glorious tradition of tolerance and peaceful accommodation of ideas, differing from our own – something which has almost vanished in the contemporary world,” he noted. “If the world must progress towards peace and prosperity, it is time to re-evaluate Lord Buddha and his Dhamma,” he added, drawing parallels between Hinduism and Buddhism in the approach to sustainable development.

The SAMVAD process is expected to grow on a more formalised basis in the next few years and it is the hope of many of the Hindu and Buddhist participants that the two religions may be able to lead the world in promoting a sustainable development model where humans and nature can exist in harmony.

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