By Shyamal Sinha
IN recognising the potential of ‘engaged Buddhism’ as a fundamental force for positive social change in the region and its links to humanitarianism, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes that the concept of sympathy and compassion towards fellow human beings in need has never been more relevant as the world grapples with the highest number of refugees since the end of World War II.
Approximately 500 Buddhists from across Asia gathered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai to attend a landmark three-day retreat and conference on “Buddhism and Humanitarianism in Asia,” where they discussed the potential of engaged Buddhism as an agent of social empowerment and humanitarianism, seeking to connect Buddhist teachings to situations of social injustice and inequality—in particular those involving displaced communities.
More than 500 monastics, academics, and students from 13 countries, including Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, assembled for the symposium, which was co-organized on 7–9 July by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Thailand’s Vimuttayalaya Foundation. Speakers at the event included Sister Chan Kong, the first fully-ordained monastic disciple of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, former ASEAN secretary General Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, and Indrika Ratwatte, the incoming director of the UNHCR’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific.
Ratwatte, the incoming Director of UNHCR’s Asia and Pacific bureau, cautioned that religious beliefs should not be allowed to become a ground for persecution or a source of displacement, noting that, “The shared values common to different religious traditions present a strong framework for promoting tolerance and openness towards people of other faiths.” (eTurboNews)
Ratwatte added that faith-based organizations could play a major role in offering solutions for refugee situations in the region by promoting reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.
“All religions, at the highest level, teach the unity of humanity,” observed former ASAEN head Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, a practicing Muslim. “With a growing population and finite resources, we must ask how to protect and care for future generations.” (eTurboNews)
Topics of discussion on the agenda, which were facilitated and organized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the 3R Foundation, ranged from natural disaster response planning, to resolving armed conflicts, enabling social empowerment, and environmental sustainability.
Venerable V. Vajiramedhi, a noted Buddhist monk and president of the Vimuttayalaya Foundation, co-hosted the three-day retreat, which was organized with the threefold purpose of reflecting on Buddhist teachings, thought, and practices in the context of humanitarianism, allowing the participants to learn more about humanitarian activities in the region, and establishing a network of engaged Buddhists working toward humanitarian goals.
The venerable concluded the retreat on Sunday with words of optimism and hope, noting that when people come together there are “many more hands to change the world.” He encouraged the conference participants act and practice in ways that would allow this generation to be one of “compassion, love and sharing.” (eTurboNews)
Buddhism is the fourth-most widespread religion in the world and the third-largest in Asia, representing 12 per cent of the Asia-Pacific population, according to data for 2010 from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center. It is the predominant religion in Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet. Significant Buddhist populations are found in Japan (36.2 per cent), Singapore (33.9 per cent), South Korea (22.9 per cent), Taiwan (21.3 per cent), mainland China (18.2 per cent), Malaysia (17.7 per cent), Macau (17.3 per cent), Vietnam (16.4 per cent), Hong Kong (13.2 per cent), the Northern Mariana Islands (10.6 per cent), and Nepal (10.3 per cent). There are also sizable Buddhist minorities in Brunei, India, Indonesia, North Korea, the Philippines, and Russia.
UNHCR is the United Nations’ Refugee Agency – a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people with offices in Thailand and throughout the sub-region.