- By N. Vaghul
It is difficult to sum up the very rich experiences of the last two days. For the sake of brevity I will just make a series of points giving a sense of what was achieved.
Objective of Seminar
The objective of the seminar was not to indulge in any intellectual debates on metaphysics, but to deal with the problems of society. It was not to find any mechanical solutions to the problems, but to test the hypothesis that Dharma can provide an alternative approach to solving these problems, and to draw up a specific action plan.
Definition of Dharma
To achieve these objectives, first we have to understand the meaning of the Dharma we are discussing. Someone mentioned that Dharma has different meanings in different contexts, and that the word is used thousands of times in the Pali texts. For practical purposes, we are not so interested in all the different meanings, but we need to develop a common understanding of what we mean by Dharma, and that was provided in a very succinct and clear form by Dr.S.N. Goenka right at the outset of this seminar.
Let me refer to some points that he made.
First, that Dharma is a path, a path of life.
Secondly the essence of this path is twofold. One is to refrain from doing any act that causes hurt to other beings, and to perform acts which positively benefit other beings. The second is to free ourselves from all negativities by purifying the mind. Translated into specific action, what it means is that we eliminate craving or greed from our mind, we eschew negative feelings, we attain tranquillity and achieve perfect congruence between our thoughts, words and actions. That is whatever we do is to be in accordance with whatever we say, and whatever we say should be in accordance with what we think.
It is not sufficient if we appreciate these elements merely at the intellectual level, they have to be appreciated at the experiential level.
If the experience is to be valid and personal, there is no alternative but to work on yourself. This means you will have to delve deep within to find an answer. You cannot rely on hearsay; you cannot rely on any teachings, you will have find an answer from your own experience.
It is easy to say you will have to find an answer yourself, but you are dealing with a phenomenon which is subject to wild fluctuations, so a technique is needed to deal with this. Dealing with the mind is like trying to write on a blackboard which is hung right in the middle of a room, and which is swinging wildly. It is necessary to take the blackboard and fix it firmly to the wall, so it is stable and doesn’t fluctuate, and to erase whatever is written on the board before you start writing on it.
To work at the experiential level, what technique should be used? It is not claimed that this teaching of Vipassana is the only technique that could be used, but certainly Vipassana has shown the way. Apart from the fact that it dates back at least 2,500 years and has stood the test of time, it continues to be relevant in the modern world.
In the session before this one, people shared their experience of Vipassana. That session provided ample proof of the emotional experiences that people underwent during this whole mental exercise. Some had gone to one course, and others had done repeated courses. You heard about the immense benefit they had derived, even on the first attempt.
So Vipassana is a technique which can be used to achieve stability of mind, to eliminate mental impurities and to develop good moral qualities.
Non-Sectarian Nature of Dharma
Dharma is non-sectarian and universal. There was a good deal of debate on this point; it seems difficult to achieve consensus on the precise meaning of these terms.
I will give an example of a poet in Tamil Nadu in the fifth century by the name of Walluwar, who spoke of concepts which can be loosely equated to Dharma. Walluwar was claimed by the Buddhists who said his ideas were the same as those in the Buddhist texts. The Jains claimed they were the same as their teachings. A prominent Christian in the late nineteenth century said Walluwar must have taken up the ideas of the Christian mystics who had earlier settled down in that region. Hindus claim he was a Hindu and they put a sacred thread on his body in their images of him. I don’t want to labour the point; you don’t need any other evidence that the universal Dharma is the same: the universal Dharma.
Dharma and Science
We had an excellent presentation on whether Dharma is inconsistent with science. What emerged was, that these deal with two different domains: one with the physical domain of matter, the other with the spiritual dimension of non-matter. Notwithstanding that fact, Dharma has an independent claim as a science because it deals with the mind. Just because it does not deal with matter, you cannot call it unscientific. In the same way, you cannot say science is totally materialistic because science also has elements of humanism built into it. What emerged was, that we should not look at the two as opposite, but as complementary to each other. science cannot exist without Dharma, and Dharma cannot exist without science. Accordingly it is possible to achieve a unity between Dharma and Science, and examples were given where the current scientists of today are working towards this unity.
Now this brings us to the most important point of the seminar: how to deal with social problems. There was a very interesting presentation on social problems, which were divided into three major areas: political, social and economic.
At the political level we are confronted with the lust for office, the lust for power, and a tremendous amount of abuse of authority and power. Many instances were mentioned, showing how the politics of this country have degenerated.
There was also discussion of social problems: communal, caste and sectarian tensions, not only in India but around the world. Terrorism was mentioned, which is sweeping across many parts of the world; also noted was the violence presented in the media.
Then the economic problems were discussed, the problems of poverty and unemployment. One of the speakers mentioned that even the process of becoming rich has its problems. The process of liberalisation and globalisation that is occurring in this country is associated with the negative reactions of greed and craving that people have to deal with.
Why Current Solutions Don’t Work
A very interesting paper was presented on the various mechanisms for dealing with these problems. There are the institutional structures of families, schools and charitable organisations. There are social welfare schemes that are being initiated by governments and government legislation which attempts to deal with social, communal and caste tensions. Science and technology is coming forward to find solutions, to enrich and uplift our lives. Many alternatives have been found to make life more comfortable than it used to be. Finally there are world multi-lateral organisations, like the United Nations, which are trying to deal with terrorism, global poverty, slums and so on.
The ineffectiveness of dealing with these problems in this way has been highlighted, because in all of these cases, there have been only limited improvements. An analysis showed that there are two reasons that we have not been able to deal effectively with these problems.
Firstly, we have only dealt with the symptoms, the outward manifestations of these problems; we are not dealing with the underlying causes. What happens is, the problems may seem to disappear, but as the underlying malady persists, the symptoms keep appearing again and again. The underlying malady, as has been pointed out so often during our discussions, is the greed, the jealousy, and the negative feelings that permeate the world. These are the real cause of all the social, political and economic problems that we confront.
Secondly, the feeling was that the people whose task it is to implement solutions through social structures and legislation don’t have the necessary love and compassion. For example, in India there are so many anti-poverty programs initiated by the government, and their implementation has been entrusted to various government organisations. These organisations deal with the problems in a very mechanical way, there is a lot of waste and leakage in the system, and the gains do not go to the intended beneficiaries.
I think the problems can be tackled at two levels. Ultimately the solution has to be found at the individual level. Each of us has to work on ourselves in a sustained campaign to remove the craving, greed and negativity. Secondly, at the institutional level we need to encourage a Dharmic way of working.
This leads us to the last point of our discussions—a specific action plan. As was outlined in the session on social problems, we have to deal with these problems at the individual level. Now are we really going to take on the responsibility of converting the whole world of five billion people into a Dharmic way of life? As far as we know, it has never happened in the past, that all the people in the world were converted in this way. I think we should be humble enough to recognise our limitations. What I think we need to do is transform the critical mass of the people, who really make a difference. If we succeed in transforming this critical mass of people into the Dharmic way of life, by exposing them to the concepts of Vipassana, then we will have taken the first step towards the transformation of the community.
Four intervention points were mentioned.
a) Schools and colleges. Right from the level of primary education, we need to inculcate this way of life. A variety of techniques can be used. One example was given of a teacher in Germany who was able to achieve a great improvement in the concentration and attitude of his students, by asking them to do five minutes of Anapana meditation before starting a lesson. Mr Bordia mentioned about the possibility of introducing teachers to Vipassana. In this way we can more readily transform the children and initiate an enduring process of reform in our educational system.
b) Work Organisations. Moving into the corporate sector, we need to transform the "king-pins" of the economic system, the corporate executives and managers, by exposing them to Vipassana.
c) Bureaucracy. We need to identify the people who really matter to the economy, administration and to the community.
d) Political system. Again a transformation is needed in these key people.
While continuing to operate at the individual level, with this critical mass of people, we must go beyond that to the institutional level: corporate, bureaucratic and political institutions. We need to do some more research into how the way of working of important institutions can undergo a Dharmic transformation. We need to find ways in which a sense of values can be imparted, so that the moral principles which form the foundation of Dharma can be practiced.
On that note we ended, with a substantial platform upon which to build our future actions. We believe that this seminar has been immensely successful and has provided us with the necessary impetus to carry this message forward.