Political lessons from a Buddhist monk

By Katherine Marshall, The Washington Post, August 30, 2010

Washington, D.C., USA -- Washingtonians will remember this ferocious August for its unusual and disconcerting heat - a merciless string of 90-plus degree days - and an intemperate, nasty, heated public discourse.

Meanwhile, human crises of biblical proportions are unfolding across the world: stunning floods in Pakistan, a molasses-pace rebuilding in Haiti, heartbreaking conflict in central Africa, droughts in parts of Asia. We badly need to bring down the temperature and refocus the agenda.

The political tone in Washington stands in jarring contrast to an interview I was reviewing with a wise Cambodian leader, Heng Monychenda. A former Buddhist monk who founded a non-profit organization, Buddhism for Development, Monychenda comes back again and again to the common-sense virtues of reason and compassion. Cambodia's challenges are far from Washington, but his counsel and insights ring true.

Buddhist tradition talks about a middle path; moderation and self-awareness are the prime objectives. Monychenda, who was a slave laborer under the Khmer Rouge and has spent decades working to resolve conflicts of all sorts, stresses the central Buddhist concept of satah, which is confidence or trust. If you don't trust each other, how can you work together? (Congress take note, please). His approach to building trust is to start with the family and the community and move up from there.

Monychenda argues that conflicts are not resolved unless people can live together afterwards. Legal proceedings rarely leave people talking to each other. His approach to conflict resolution aims to leave working communities. Communities in Cambodia torn apart by genocide and poverty have been able to come together behind common objectives. That's a hopeful example.

His organization, he stresses, is not focused on development for Buddhism; its purpose is not to raise funds for monks or temples or to make Cambodia more Buddhist, but "Buddhism for Development." Cambodia is 95 percent Buddhist and Buddhist values are indeed a large part of what makes Cambodia Cambodia. But the nation must be open to all religions, he says, and draw on all their wisdom and their engagement. He quotes Ashoka, the great 5th century ruler, who believed that by harming other religions one harms oneself. Monychenda admits that some Cambodian monks feel threatened by Christian missionaries, especially those who offer incentives for conversion like English classes and food (which appalls him). But he sees real benefits in a multi-faith society, and argues that it means people must know enough about each other to live in real harmony.
Monychenda argues that development, peace and human rights are so inextricably bound together that they should not be sliced into segments. So he also is looking to something that echoes the currently fashionable term: holistic and sustainable development. But he brings some welcome nuance: he argues for human development, not human resource development, because "if you look at a human as a resource, then they are like petroleum, and humans are more than petroleum." Cambodians use a term for development that suggests "super progress" and embraces change across the board.

The equivalent of "super progress" in the ancient language pali, is, he says, Bhavana. It conveys the essence of what wise and reasonable progress is about. It calls on four kinds of principles: physical Bhavana, moral Bhavana, cheta Bhavana, which means mental development, and banya Bhavana, which means wisdom development. In terms of daily life, physical development means economic development. Moral development concerns all of the social order, so "you could call it social development." Mental development relates to how you can control your own emotions. Wisdom development is the concept of education, intellect and IQ. Together the four dimensions form an integrated approach.

September is fast approaching and perhaps that will bring the temperature down. Students head back to the classroom, where one hopes they will focus on all four dimensions of development. Perhaps they can help bring the national agenda back to what really matters, which is the welfare of citizens cross our interconnected world. A reader in the British paper, the Telegraph, commenting on low charitable giving for the Pakistan flood, suggested that the poor response to the flood appeal for Pakistan "is because every school in Britain is on holiday." Let's hope for a September agenda that includes some pieces of Monychenda's sage counsel: trust, wisdom, reason, and compassion.

Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a visiting professor and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.