Faith & Society: Leadership Amidst Controversy

Shared at “Pathways Institute 2013 in Singapore” this evening.
Faith & Society: Leadership Amidst Controversy (At NUS campus)

My talk was “Forgive and Forget: Can we truly put our past aside and have Peace and Harmony?

We often hear the adage Forgive and Forget.  But if we forgive because we forget, then when we remember the incident, long gone hurt may rise again.

Instead, we should try to forgive but don’t forget.

Buddhist approach is to learn to use Wisdom, Love and Compassion to see people or things that irritate us. That way, even if we remember something that used to irritate us, we would gradually and ultimately not be irritated. 😉

In this way, we can forgive without forgetting. The way the Buddha’s Love and Compassion encompasses all sentient beings unconditionally, with equanimity. 😀

Today, I also picked up a few valuable things during the Q&A session:

1. Is it possible to learn and practise Buddhist meditation without dropping one’s faith / belief.  (Yes.  Many Christians & Jews worldwide are practising Buddhist meditation and benefiting from it without denouncing their religion.)

2. The muslim community made a statement denouncing the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues.  (Perhaps we should establish closer ties with fellow religious heads, so that such voice of reason can be heard over
the chaos)

3. The muslim community hope to reach out to the Buddhist community in Myanmar to help resolve the conflict in Rohingya and promote peace.  Participant gave a good example of how the Dalai Lama’s effort in North India helped in restoring peace in that region.  (Again, some means to foster inter-faith peace talks is needed.  Perhaps it is even more important to do so before conflict arise.  Fortunately for Singapore, we have IRO since 1949!  IRO for every country, anyone?)

4. Christians do not try to convert others, ‘cos in their belief, conversion is strictly speaking done by God and not by human; they are only sharing their faith.
(Hmmm … maybe it’s just me?  IMO, it seem to border on “換湯不換藥”。Calling it “sharing” and not “converting” just means that *unsolicited* “sharing” is inappropriate and distasteful.  Hmmm … …  :s )

5. A nice reminder about how South East Asia was once pre-dominantly Buddhists.  Eg the Borobudur temple in Indonesia.  (I like the suggestion to give a balanced coverage of both positive and negative incidences.)

6. Religious beliefs is just one belief in the sea of beliefs that people have.  Should it be treated differently?

My sharing focused mainly on negative incidences as these are points of contentions, which are detrimental to peace and harmony.  My thoughts were that if we manage to overcome the negative incidences, then positive ones would naturally build on those successes!

Note to self:  I must mindfully moderate the level of positive and negative info for interfaith talks in future. 🙂

Thanks to John and Asha from Pathways Institute and the participants for having me this evening.  We really overrun the schedule with Q&A!  Special thanks to Farid for the link up, without which I would not have shared tonight.

Sabbe satta sukita hontu!
May all beings be Well and Happy! 🙂

Discerning Reading, Responsible Journalism

Chanced upon two interesting articles in StraitsTimes:

1. Chinese factory ‘treated workers as slave labour’ – dated 15 December 2010

2. Hospital steps in to stop abuse – dated 16 December 2010

The first article about “mentally disabled workers allegedly enslaved for years in deplorable conditions (China)” was syndicated from Agence France-Presse, XINHUA while the second article was written by Kimberly Spykerman from SPH (Singapore Press Holdings).

These two articles caught my attention because while both were reporting on abuse, their respective titles focused on quite different aspects of the matters.  The first article focused on the abuse of workers by a Chinese factory while the second focused on how a hospital stopped abuse.  Granted, the context and people involved are vastly different, the subtle difference in the title can paint a very different story in the mind of many readers who merely scan through titles.

To be fair, the former article states clearly in the first paragraph of how the Chinese authorities have stepped in to shutdown said factory.  What if the title had read “Chinese authorities stepped in to shutdown factory for workers abuse”?  Would that not give a more positive impression that the Chinese government is not that different from other governments in protecting its citizens?

Consider the second article.  If it was entitled “Mentally disabled patients abused”, it would still be factual, except that it would skew the reader to focus on the abuse and perhaps even mislead one to think that these patients are abused in the hospital!  Fortunately, journalists in Singapore are more prudent when it comes to reporting.  Their reporting serve as a feedback loop that can support and aid positively, the social fabric of society or trigger a mass hysteria.

We as readers, need to be discerning in our reading.  Read the article thoroughly before forming your opinion.  And even then, remember, this is what is reported.  That is all it is.

In a similar vein, when we hear reports of people at work or among friends, we should be discerning in our hearing and not simply jump to conclusions.  Preconception about people or situations often create self-fulfilling prophesies.  If there is anything I learnt from Literature in secondary school, it was the concept of “self-fulfilling prophesies” introduced in Macbeth.  Like the king who listened to the three (witch?) sisters and later led to his own downfall (granted, many other factors are at play!), we sometimes listen to our ‘oracles’ and watch our own little ‘tragedy’ unfold.

My friend, how do you want your life to be like?  Read carefully, hear mindfully, discern wisely.


I noticed that the date in StraitsTimes read “Thursday, December 16, 2010”.  This follows the US date format convention.  I thought the date format convention in Singapore should read “Thursday, 16 December, 2010”?  When did StraitsTimes started adopting the US date format convention?

Righting A Wrong: Faith & Atonement

There is an EIF dialogue session on Saturday, 23rd October 2010 and I was invited to participate.  Unfortunately, I am unable to attend the dialogue, so I decided to pen down my thoughts in relation to the suggested discussion points and share them with the participants and on this blog.

Faith & Atonement

I’ll go with the two definitions of atonement and move on from there:

1. Amends or reparations made for an injury or wrong;
2. Reconciliations or an instance of reconciliation between God and humanity.

When I first read it, I zoomed into the part of reconciliation between God and humanity.
Throughout history, humans have worshipped and prayed to multitudes of God(s). However, Buddhist do not have a belief in creator God(s). Hence, there is no concept to receive reconciliation between God and humanity. Some may posit that Buddhists merely replace “God” with “Buddha” and draw arbitrary delineations to differentiate themselves. Consequently, some think that Buddhists worship Buddha and seek forgiveness from him, in order to not incur his wrath. In fact, it cannot be further from the truth.

We may perhaps first examine how wrong or injury can occur. It can occur if say, harm or injury were inflicted or it could occur if certain rules are broken. Many times, the two coincide, other times, they diverge.

eg, it is illegal to park along the road at certain hours or not at all. No one may be harmed in a sense, but a breach of the law has occurred.

Another example I like to share is wearing of seat belts. Some people dislike seat belts and wear them only when absolutely needed, and takes them off whenever they can. As some say in Singapore (or worldwide?), “just don’t get caught”. The funny thing about this rule is that, even if you don’t get caught by the traffic police, getting caught in an accident would result in harm nonetheless.

So we can see that sometimes rules and harm coincide and sometimes don’t.

In Buddhism, if you harmed someone, the best thing to do is to seek forgiveness from the person or group we harmed. We have a joke about asking Buddha for forgiveness after slapping someone. Nope, not gonna work. Apologising to the person involved is the most
direct way of atonement and of gaining closure on the matter.

In the case of a breach of Buddhist precepts, it is not a breach against the Buddha, but against ourselves. Consequently, Buddhists in a way do not really apologise to the Buddha. Let’s take a look at Buddhist precepts to understand better.

Buddhist precepts are training rules taken up voluntarily to help us change and become better. It is like a person with high blood pressure prescribed a ‘precept’ of not taking too much salt and oil. If he take a lot of salt and oil, would the doctor be angry? Would he need to apologise to the doctor? I think the doctor would not be angry (ok, some may!), but may feel sorry for the patient, for the patient is the one who is being harmed, and not the doctor. Out of compassion, the doctor may rebuke him and suggest for ways that the patient may adopt a healthier diet, but in the end, it is still up to the patient to adopt the diet, and to follow through with it.

So when Buddhist did something against the precepts, they are really doing something against themselves and others (where their actions also harm others), and not the Buddha. Just like the doctor in the above analogy, the Buddha do not get angry with people for doing wrong things. Instead, He feels compassion for us, for He sees clearly the harm that we do to ourselves and others by breaching the precepts.

Hence ‘atonement’ is not so much an apology or seeking reconciliation from the Buddha, but ‘atonement’ refers more towards the steps we take to right the wrong.
This consist of (1) confession 忏, (2) repentance 悔 and (3) aspiration 发愿. (Some communities may develop this further and hence be more comprehensive).

In Buddhism, if we do some wrong, the first step is to (1) confess the deed, (2) recognise that our deed was (2a) harmful, was wrong, ignoble, blame-worthy, unworthy, and hence, should be (2b) abandoned, removed, eradicated etc. We should, having recognised the wrong, then (3) make a firm resolve not to repeat it. But easier said than done. So, within the Buddhist text, there are very comprehensive teachings, outlining how the human psyche ticks and what triggering factors lead to others that inclines towards harmful actions that are driven by greed, anger and delusion.

Follow-up Steps
We then (1) practise distancing from triggering factors while (2) applying reflections, contemplations and other practices that transform our perception of the triggering factors so that future contact with it do not lead to the same actions. Meanwhile, we also (3) strengthen mindfulness so that if (1) fails and we encounter the trigger before we have mastered (2), then mindfulness can kick in and prevent a repeat of our earlier actions. (4) Applying proper attention is also most useful while we distant ourselves. Why preoccupy ourselves with something that upsets us?

In modern day Buddhism, repentance puja (chants) are recited as part of a devotional practice that encompasses the above steps. These may be done infront of the Buddha’s image as a reminder of our spiritual direction, towards this state of perfection, Nirvana, that is humanly possible and attained by the Buddha, the Arahants and Enlightened Bodhisattvas. Where possible, confession and repentance is also done with one’s guidance teacher who knows our habits, both good and bad, and knows our tendencies and inclinations. In this way, done methodologically, it can lighten the emotional burden of wrong, while developing the mind so that we can practise restrain and not repeat our mistakes again and again.

These steps leading to an eradication of harmful actions is the full ‘atonement’ of that wrong, a full purification of that wrong.

Good news is that while difficult, it is humanly possible.

Happy thoughts! ^_^