Two thousand and six hundred years ago today, the Buddha gave his first sermon which was to become the cornerstone of Buddhist teachings: Avoid extremism, understand the reality of suffering, its nature and its cessation, and then follow the middle path of eight practices to free oneself of suffering.
In the Buddhist jargon, they are called the Middle Path, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path.
This year, Thailand joins other Buddhist countries in celebrating 2,600 years of Buddha’s enlightenment. And today, Thai Buddhists nationwide are celebrating Asarnha Bucha Day which marks not only the Buddha’s first teachings, but also the emergence of the three things Buddhists vow to take refuge in _ Buddha, dhamma, and Sangha - or the Triple Gems in Buddhist lexicon.
It’s an important day in an important year, and we’ll certainly see a lot of religious ceremonies and hear much of the Buddha’s words being recited repeatedly.
But are we really listening? Honestly, are we Buddhists really taking the Buddha’s words to heart?
Look around and what do we see?
A society engulfed by excessive materialism amid chilling indifference to stark inequality, and a country deeply mired in political violence, that’s what we see.
The Buddha teaches that all things and all beings are inter-connected and advises against all forms of exploitation. Yet we see the rich and powerful keep on bulldozing nature and the livelihoods of small people, unaware that they and their children will also suffer when the oppressed explode and the planet breaks down.
Let go, advises the Buddha, because all things _ our body, our feelings, our emotions, our beliefs _ are all transient, therefore only creating suffering if we insist on holding onto the non-existent me and mine.
Yet, the powers-that-be, all professing to be devout Buddhists, are relentlessly destroying the country with their refusal to let go of their power, while our divisive, violent-prone colour-coded politics is trapped in ideological rifts bent on instigating hatred and demonising one another.
The Buddha also teaches non-self, that all is one, the realisation of which will unleash indiscriminate compassion. Yet, our supposedly Buddhist society remains attached so tightly to so-called Thainess that we turn a blind eye to all forms of exploitation, especially to people considered “not one of us”.
As a Buddhist, while I believe I can still take refuge in the Buddha and the dhamma, I’m not so sure about the Sangha nowadays. A closed system ruled by autocratic elders, the clergy is not only out of touch with the world, but it also seems totally incapable of containing rogue monks from endlessly eroding public faith.
Buddhism advises us to see reality, to see what is, and what we see is not pretty.
But Buddhism also teaches that change starts with our ourselves, which is where the practices under the Eightfold Path come in. It is our duty to constantly evaluate ourselves if our view of reality _ that all matters and phenomena are impermanent and void of self _ govern our intentions and actions, if our words are truthful, kind and beneficial, if the way we make a living does not hurt others, and if our perseverance in developing mindfulness and clarity of mind has eased our greed, anger, and delusion _ or if our strict practices have only strengthened our belief in our religious superiority.
Amid increasing ethnic and religious conflicts, it also pays to heed the advice from the late reformist monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: Understand the essence of your own religion, create inter-religious understanding and wean ourselves from the powerful draws of consumerism.
Tomorrow starts the three-month rain retreat for monks to deepen their practices. But we cannot just keep on passing our moral responsibility for others and ourselves onto monks. Unless we, too, follow the guidance outlined in the First Sermon, we’ll fail to see that our society’s political, social and environmental disintegration are the natural consequences of a breakdown in morality. Unless we see that, we cannot hope to salvage our country, and our souls, from the rut.
(Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor of Bangkok Post. This appeared in the August 2nd edition)