A Malaysian Malaysia… A non-sectarian Buddhism?

Watching the Malaysian General Election poll results on Saturday night was an exciting affair. In a jaw-dropping historic moment, 5 out of 13 states of the federation has fallen to opposition rule.

This year, the opposition has one outstanding feature. 3 parties have formed a loose alliance that had candidates ranging from Chinese doctors to Indian lawyers to Malay urbanites, and even the Muslim hardliner.

In contrast, the ruling coalition consisted of raced-based parties: the UMNO for Malay muslims, MCA for the Chinese, MIC for Indians. Since 4 decades ago when Tunku Abdul Rahman was the Premier, this coalition won the majority of parliamentary seats to form the government. Malay muslims dominated the cabinet, with some lesser Ministerial positions given to the other races: this was the formula for sharing power at the top. This was what the BN insisted was their version of multi-racialism, equality for all races.

48 years have passed, 43 since Lee Kuan Yew rejected this form of ‘racial equality’ and was thrown out of the federation.

With corruption rampant and inflation raging, the Malaysian electorate has decided this year that it was time to give the other kind of ‘racial equality’ a chance: equality of opportunity, where, regardless of your race, as long as you are capable, you have a chance to work for the country.

As I was sitting at a bus stop pondering over this, it sort of reminded me of the sectarian situation in Buddhism… in some aspects.

I’ve been told not to mix religion and politics together before, especially in Buddhism… But do read on before you lambast me.

NUS Buddhist Society prides it self on being ‘non-sectarian’. I’ve asked potential Management Committee members before: what do we mean by ‘non-sectarian’?

Does ‘non-sectarian’ mean that we go out of our way to have representations of different Buddhist traditions as much as possible in our activities? That if we do one puja in Pali, then we should do one in Chinese and one in Tibetan? That we should teach all different kinds of prostrations to newcomers? That if we had one Dharma talk by a Theravadin Bhikkhu, we should get one by a Mahayana or Vajrayana next time?

To me, sometimes this kind of non-sectarianism is carried too far. We are all coloured by our own affinities to various traditions. We are careful that what we squeeze in elements of our own preferred practice, while conveniently closing an eye to the ‘other stuff’ that was left out. We are not infallible, we are inherently biased. So this kind of pie-cutting does not work. It is like the pie cutting by the BN: inherently unfair because people are unfair.

Then does non-sectarianism mean closing our eyes to differences in the schools of thought? Does it mean loudly proclaiming that all the school of thought “are the same!“? Ajahn Sujato says this is closing our eyes to reality: in reality the schools of thought are different. It is like proclaiming that racial differences do not exist. This is just plain blindness.

Ajahn Sujato says this should be the age for ‘post-sectarianism’. Sects were divided in the past, yes. Now it is time to go past that period of squibling.

Effective non-sectarianism is a conundrum: you do not overtly stress the differences, yet you do not claim complete similarity. You simply treat the schools of thought as they are: simply schools of thought, with their various emphasis and development of key ideas, their suitabilities for different people.

It is not easy. Theravadins are described as ‘most authentic’. Mahayanists are described as ‘most noble’. Tantrayanists are described as ‘most expedient’. They have no problems using such adjectives on themselves. The problem only comes when they hear others using their respective adjectives, and they start to get inflamed: “Whaddaya mean by you’re the most authentic?? We’re authentic too!!”

Newcomers cannot learn everything, they prefer to learn the easiest. So logically they learn the simplest prostration first.

The idea of ’emptiness’ is not well developed in Pali literature; you get someone else to talk about it.

If we can, we get different opinions on the same matter. If we cannot, then we work with what we have.

Who does what topics best?

What is available?

Only by not being attached to sectarianism, and yet being mindful of sectarianism, can we truly be non-sectarian. The Buddha’s middle path of non-extremes is SOOOOooo useful.

Malaysians have been given a glimmer of chance at a Malaysian Malaysia. It is for us Buddhists to find our own formular for going into post-sectarianism.

(I feel that politics, the economy, sociology and religion are all related. Politics influence where the economy goes; if the economy improves, society become better off, at least material-wise. Religion, however, works to improve social welfare from the other end.)

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