by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 6, 2011
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Gaya is a contradiction. At one end, fine yellow dusts fill the air and choke the lungs, while piercing horns and shouts from a thousand bodies choke its narrow streets. You can see children who wear torn rags on the streets, who probably have no idea what school is like – ever. Then you see polio stricken kids crawling on muddy sidewalks extending their hands for alms, and you get hit by the effects of deep poverty and the consequences of what an unattended fever can do to a young child.
At the other end, there exist vast tracts of verdant green fields. These are hidden behind monasteries, temples and village slums which dot the periphery of the local highway leading from its airport to the focal point of Gaya’s existence, the Mahabodhi Temple, spot of the Buddha’s Enlightenment.
In this vortex of noise, pollution, poverty and calm, serene greenery, augmented with a historic Enlightenment, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists held its biannual conference here.
More renowned for its acronym, INEB brings together Buddhist based organizations and individuals from around the world to share stories, resources and to support each other’s work.
This year, the organizers – Jambudvipa Trust, Youth Buddhist Society of India (YBS), the Deer Park Institute and INEB designed the conference as a platform for examining the future of Buddhism to re-awaken and to re-vitalize Buddhist commitment towards helping all sentient beings. More significantly, this year’s INEB takes place to commemorate the 2,600 years since the Buddha gained Enlightenment right here, in Bodhgaya.
Unlike any other Buddhist conferences, people who attend INEB do not just to sit through a series of talk shops. A significant difference between this and other Buddhist gatherings is the participation of “resource persons”. These are not just practicing Buddhists, but also dedicated professionals who are respected in their field of expertise.
The guy who gives detailed narratives of guided tours around the Mahabodhi temple was also a founder of a public listed pharmaceutical company, which produces are made based on traditional medical knowledge. His name is Richard Dixie.
Then there is the Japanese priest Rev. Hideshito Okoshi who established a miro-credit “Future Bank”, developed buildings that could last for 100 years and is now dedicating himself to work for a nuclear free Japan.
In Thailand, Phra Sangkom Thanapanyo works with remote villages to address issues of water scarcity while helping to maintain local agricultural practices and to protect forest ecosystems. He calls his work “Application of sufficiency economy”.
At “The Bridge Fund”, Monica Garry from the United States manages a foundation which works exclusively with disadvantaged people living on the Tibetan Plateau in Western China, down to the most remote nomad. The fund supports developing local entrepreneurship (right livelihood), expanding rural healthcare, tackling waste management and strengthening communities, while grounded in respect for Tibetan culture and values.
Like any previous editions of INEB, social action is synonymous with engaging underserved, under privileged and sometimes persecuted groups. This year, the delegates heard stories of samsara at work on whole communities: the Chakmas (India), the Dalits (untouchables of India) and the Chittagong Hills Tribe (Bangladesh). For some of these communities, like the Dalits, embracing Buddhism is a way out to escape the clutches of discrimination.
And so we get to see real people doing courageous work at ground level to help these disadvantaged communities, people like Mangesh Dahiwale from the Jambudvipa Trust and Santoshita Chakma from the Chittagong Jumma Refugees Welfare Association.
All through the presentations, we hear how these individuals and organizations fortify themselves with non-violent communication strategies, compassion and street smart wisdom as they face the realities of engaging with people who are denied basic human rights just because some parts of society deemed them as below “cows”.
We see at first hand how the Buddha-Dharma operates in diverse conditions of human and environmental suffering – from working with rejected population, empowering marginalized groups, gender identity, awakening the youth, climate change and green marketing. All these are laid out in work groups, led by one or more resource persons.
These work group structures facilitate connections that could be made, so that people with a variety of knowhow, experience and skill can get together and brainstorm on issues. Even innocuous activities such as discussions on how to use a website effectively, film making, photography and art have a role to play in that creative process.
Like Gaya’s vortex of dichotomies – of dust with verdant fields, noise with serene gardens, poverty with its majestic monasteries, INEB’s key success lies in its ability to blend tools with experience, strategies with street smart realities, faith with focus and compassion with wisdom.
Yet, like the focal point of the Buddha’s Enlightenment in the Mahabodhi temple, participants from such diverse backgrounds would not have been so evidently committed if not for the drive and inspiration of INEB’s founder, Ajarn Sulak Sivarasa. In his opening address, he said:
“We need to be culturally sensitive, politically concerned and socially committed to have the courage to tackle questions of the common good and to point out abusive situations. To be able to see clearly, to be truly aware of the state of the world, we must begin by deprogramming ourselves and be free of prejudice toward those we criticize. By working with others of goodwill, we can identify and confront abuses of power. It is critical for people of all faiths and ideologies, as well as atheists and agnostics, to listen to each other as we promote justice and have balance through non-violent means. Equality must be upheld in all situations, in order to have empathy for, as well as to stay in touch with the poor and the oppressed.”
This was aptly summarized and supported with a simple advice from the Bhutanese monk Dzongsar Kyentse Jamyang Rinpoche (a strong advocate of non-sectarian Buddhism), when he observed,
“When you drink tea, there is the tea and there is the cup. We can’t say whether the tea or the cup is more important. Without the cup, you cannot hold hot tea in your hands. Yet, we should not be attached to the cup, and say ‘only this cup can hold the tea’. “
Without a doubt, INEB have successfully brought together groups of diverse Buddhists from all corners of the world, each personally and socially committed to reach out and to help the underserved and under privileged. More admirably, their work are accomplished using Dharma inspired strategies such as mindfulness, compassion motivated actions and non-violence.
They have shown the way that Buddhists are not just self-centred practitioners, motivated only by personal salvation. This INEB gathering has demonstrated anything but that.
Utilitarian Buddhist values need not be undermined by dogmas and cultural strait-jackets, and yet it need not succumb to rootless modernism and new age secularism. With a balanced understanding of the new and the ancient, of east and west, the Buddha’s Teachings is timeless and equally effective, then and now.
All that is asked of us is to have the capacity to see clearly without prejudice, to have the ability to listen to one another and to act without selfish motives and personal agendas.
And when we can do this, no amount of samsaric dust, pollution or mental poverty can stop us from reaching out and fulfilling the dreams of our common humanity, that is to end suffering for ourselves as well as for others.
The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was established in 1989. It held its biannual conference from October 26-29, 2011 at Wat Pa Bodhgaya, Gaya, India. The next INEB conference will be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2013. For more information, please visit: http://www.inebnetwork.org/.