Faith and politicsAre we going back to times when religion and political power were complementary?
I went for a two-week meditation retreat ordained as a monk. Each day we were to prostrate in front of the guru 48 times before and after each session. It was an experience that lets you wander as the objective is to do nothing. It is tough. A mind that is used to doing so much is suddenly asked to do nothing. It gets restless. This retreat was to commemorate the 78th birthday or 1,000 moons of the venerable Jnanapurnika Mahasthavir. He was one of the first foreigners to be given the title of Dhammacharya by the Pali University in Burma more than 50 autumns back. He is credited with translating many works from Burmese to Newari, Nepali and English and with starting the Theravada School to teach Buddhist education. He has many followers and many of his disciples from around the world made it for this rare retreat. The group was fortunate to have great practitioners imparting knowledge and techniques.
On the penultimate day, we all walked in somber meditation from the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Sankhamul, New Baneshwor to the Vishwa Shanti Vihara in Min Bhawan. It was a walk through filth. Tall grass growing on the pavements compelled us to walk on the main street. There was garbage, construction materials and extension of business establishments. My mind kept wandering. I could not meditate. I kept on thinking about what must strike the minds of politicians or leaders when they see the chaos. I kept thinking what it would take for cleanliness to become a natural part of life in our society. And I kept thinking of Rwanda, a third-world country that has been able to maintain first-world cleanliness.
When I reached the event venue and saw a minister sharing the stage with the guru we prostrated so much in front of, my meditation thoughts came to an end. I was livid. I wanted to react. I wanted to walk out. I wanted to protest. I thought my 10 days of silence were about to end. But I composed myself. I started breeding compassion. I started ignoring. But it was tough. My eyes were set on the bodyguard who always stands behind a minister. I started thinking what harm could befall the minister in a place of religious worship. I saw him play with his phone. Then I listened to him teach us religion. And then he spoke about values. I heard divine words that we are accustomed to listening only in sermons. I watched how he did not even clasp his hands to say thank you when senior monks and nuns who have spent decades in the world and practice of dhamma bowed in front of him. He behaved as the divine one, the blessed one, the one perhaps above everything.
Maybe this particular individual represents our mindset. I continue to question as to why political figures are invited to religious functions and why they accept. Is there a free junket hidden somewhere? Do they get some free goodies? Cannot religious bodies function without political patronage? Is it to keep the temples and their property protected from political goons? It is a way for the religious people to demonstrate their political clout and show their disciples whom they know? Is it that even after
ousting Vishnu’s ‘reincarnation’ or ‘avatar’ from power, we have created new incarnations? Why do organisers of religious events want politicians to share the stage with their leaders? Why should the prime minister of a country spend tax-payers money to be on television to tell the world he can breathe? Or is this the new world order where battles will be fought in the name of religion? Are we going back to times when religion and political power were complementary?
Change is possible
After my mind could not meditate anymore, I got into activism. A couple of us told the organisers that we would not attend the graduation ceremony if a politician shared the stage with religious leaders. We were happy that the stage was graced by another Buddhist scholar and practitioner Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche. An invited politician was kept away–of course in the first row. At least half the battle was won! Many liked the idea of receiving their certificates from the politician. I am not sure why this obsession exists. I looked at the certificate. It was signed by a religious leader in politics and a politician trying to gain a religious foothold. I just focused on the name of the nun who was the lead organiser and worked tirelessly to make the retreat successful.
Cultures shape societies and countries. We have found countless wrong ones to shape ours; I hope we try to change a few in whichever way we can.