Buddha's unfinished business in Indonesia

by Craig Warren Smith, The Jakarta Post, May 8, 2009

Magelang, Central Java (Indonesia) -- On May 9 the moon over Jakarta will be full and the streets empty. Why? Because in 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists arbitrarily decided that the moon's fullest day in May would each year mark Buddha Day, what Indonesians call Waisak. The Republic of Indonesia, proving its religious correctness, added Buddhism to the long list of official religions that qualify for a national holiday.

So what does Waisak mean for Indonesians? It is tempting to answer: Not much. Only two percent actually say they are Buddhists. So, many will just take the day off and enjoy the national pastime: Shopping.

Hmmm. Shopping perhaps would not be a good way to celebrate the legacy of the Sakya prince who for over 2,500 years has inspired citizens to look beyond material pleasures to find the deeper meaning for their lives.

Beyond that, there are compelling reasons - four of them - why Indonesian could find meaning in the life of the Buddha, particularly now on the eve of a crucial new election, a pivotal time in Indonesian history.

Buddhism is not a religion. It is being reborn in the modern era as a secular learning process called "mindfulness."

It could spur interactive learning and create a much needed alternative to Indonesia's antiquated "drill and kill" education system.

Let's get rid of the nonsense that Buddhism is in any way comparable to the other religions recognized by their Indonesian holidays.

Buddhists have no god, no culture of their own, no political parties and some say they do not even have doctrinal beliefs.

Yet Buddhism's impact here is quickly growing. It is a by-product of the country's Westernization, as educated Indonesians come to understand why the bule (foreigners) are so crazy about The Enlightened One.

For Buddhism, America is the new Mecca. About 40 years ago, Buddhist adepts from Japan, Southeast Asia, Korea, China and Tibet found the West to be their new watering hole.

Their separate cultural influences canceled out each other, and Buddhism emerged as a secular philosophy called "mindfulness," a way of training the mind which has largely replaced the West's fixation on Freudian psychology as a way to cope with stresses.

Democracy isn't just about "one man, one vote." Democracy works when citizens participate, rather than wait for government to fix things.

But stress-reduction is not all that mindfulness can do. Some of America's most prestigious neuroscience labs have produced functional magnetic resonance images that prove how mindfulness can make the brain more pliable (they call it "neuroplasticity,") and therefore a basis for interactive learning. "Learning how to learn" is a 21st century art, says the Dalai Lama.

MIT Professor Peter Senge has sold millions of books proposing that educational systems be remade into Buddhist-inspired "learning organizations."

He says mindfulness presents a shield against addictions, enabling one to be more discerning about the choices one makes.

Inspired by such thoughts, some Indonesian computer scientists are considering how mindfulness concepts, embedded in mobile technologies, can help cure smoking addition.

A Buddhist philosophy called "sufficiency economy," could help revive GDP while at the same time halt mindless consumerism and lessen global warming.

Perhaps the most important question for Indonesia's leaders is how to stimulate the economy without deepening the country's carbon footprint unacceptably. Buddhism provide's a clue.

"Buddhist economics," a term introduced by EF Schumacher in 1973 refers to the notion that, after meeting basic needs, economies need not be geared to endless consumerism but to the cultivation of fundamental human values.

The Thai king has this notion renamed it Sufficiency Economy, a notion that is now a worldwide movement. Republic of Indonesia's BRTI, its telecom regulatory agency, could turn to Buddhist principles for measures that could reward technologists who empower users - and punish technologists who addict them.

Mindfulness may be a key to strengthening citizen participation in Indonesia.

Democracy isn't just about "one man, one vote," a notion that can be corrupted through vote buying and debased through crass populism. Democracy works when citizens participate, rather than wait for government to fix things.

As noted by the Dalai Lama, Buddhism is ultimately democratic in that it focuses on helping each citizen make his own free choice about how to find happiness. Indonesia is already a democratic bulwark in the Islamic world. Following Buddha's example could make democracy work even better.

We don't have to buy books by the Dalai Lama or Western thinkers to promulgate Buddhist principles in Indonesia. We only have to look within. Let's remember that Buddhism is hardly a recent phenomenon in this country.

Long before Angkor Wat was built, Indonesia was the center of the Buddhist universe.

Even Indians had to come to this archipelago to get it. For example, a Brahmin prince named Atisha famously traveled to Surabaya in the ninth century to learn from the Indonesian master Dharmakirti.

Out of this apprenticeship came the mind training method known as Lojong, embedded in the Indonesian language through the terima kasih (sending and receiving or "thank you").

This Indonesian export became the cornerstone of Mahayana Buddhism which transformed China and even Tibet.

Long before Gandhi, the Indians learned about compassion from an Indonesian.

Today, the mysterious legacy of Indonesian Buddhism entices visitors to Borobodur. The temple of Mendut, where Bobobodur's Waisak procession begins this week, includes a perfectly preserved 9th century Buddha image that some scholars identify as Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.

Over a millennium since then, that Buddha may be sending a message to us now: Buddhism's impact in Indonesia is unfinished.

We must finish it.

Craig Warren Smith, PhD, the co-founder with Ilham A Habibie of Investor Group Against Digital Divide, is currently meditation teacher in residence at Amanjiwo, Borobodur. www.amanjiwo.com