March 28, 2023

BANGKOK — For the first international conference on the Buddhist Path to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, more than 100 leading academics, private and public sector executives, and Buddhist leaders around the world gathered at the World Buddhist University in Bangkok.

The Ven. Phra Anil Sakya, second from left, introduced Dr. Patrick Mendis and Dr. Steve Young, right, to the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, at left. (Photo courtesy of the WBU)

Welcoming the delegates, the Venerable Phra Dr. Anil Sakya, the rector of World Buddhist University, said the conference is an open dialogue on ways “to ensure the sustainability of the planet, provide social and economic justice, and advance the cause of ethical decision-making.”

The conference was hosted by the Thailand’s Office of National Buddhism and the WBU of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in collaboration with Sasin Centre for Sustainability Management and the Caux Roundtable for Moral Capitalism. The conference was held in honor of the late King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, the “Development King” and the late 19th Supreme Patriarch, Somdet Phra Nyansamvara of Thailand.

Long before the UN, the late King Rama IX developed a secular and sustainable form of sufficiency economy philosophy with Buddhist teachings for the Thai people — regardless of caste, creed, or religion, Sakya said. It highlighted the centrality of the cause-and-effect (Kamma) doctrine of Buddhism to find a part of the solution to development issues and climate change — and finally to human happiness, he said.

“There is growing recognition that current economic development policies are neither sustainable, nor do they contribute to happiness,” Sakya said to the delegates. “The world is searching for a perfect development model, which keeps a holistic vision of human development — a balance between material and mental development that guarantees Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as well as Gross National Happiness.”

Each speaker emphasized how the development model adopted over centuries was a deviation from the Buddhist Middle Path and has never really been holistically sustainable. The speakers said that many human inventions that were designed to improve the quality of life, yet there so much continued conflict, disease, hunger, anger and poverty.

Sakya said the Buddha’s first sermon itself was all about sustainability.

Fundamentally, sustainable development is like any development which has a balance as its foundation and has no negative by-product on society, economy, and the environment, he said. That is the same root and same meaning as the Sanskrit root of ‘Dhamma’, he said.

“In other words, Buddhism is all about guidance on sustainable development,” Sakya said. “Accordingly, the Buddha’s first sermon, Dhamma-cakka pavattana Sutta, literally can be translated as ‘the application of sustainable development in action.’”

In his keynote address, Patrick Mendis, Ph.D., of Harvard University, said that Buddhist teachings applied in equal measure to individuals, communities, societies, and nations. But ‘all’ begins with an individual, he said.

Dr. Patrick Mendis addressing the delegates at the World Buddhist University in Bangkok. Photo courtesy of the WBU.

Mendis said every practicing Buddhist is guided to observe five precepts in fulfilling the primary conditions of Right Livelihood: abstain from killing, stealing, improper sexual relationships, lying, and the use of intoxicants.

“Yet, every Buddhist is expected to live a life according to this code of conduct. In practice, however, many Buddhists violate the Buddhist way of life,” Mendis said. “Many who claimed to be Buddhists in Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, and elsewhere live life contrary to their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Mendis added that the conventional economics espoused by bankers and economists were often in complete contradiction to themselves and to Buddhist teachings.

“Buddhist teachings emphasize that a person who is free from debt — and saves wealth for the family and children — attains true happiness,” Mendis said”

Mendis said there is danger of being a slave to accumulating excessive wealth and emotional suffering from it and of harmful possessions — such as the production and trade of lethal weapons, poisons and alcoholic drinks.

Mendis cited Buddhist Suttas to describe the Vyagghapajja Sutta that refers to savings as one of the most important requirements for economic prosperity. This and other suttas attest that the Buddhist economic philosophy itself is based on frugality, resourcefulness, control over excessive craving, and moderate patterns of consumption in search of balanced material and spiritual life, he said.

Mendis said that Buddhism is not about limiting the enjoyment of life and natural endowments but teaches that the unnecessary craving for them leads to human suffering and environmental decay. The same guidance applies to ecological and climate change issues, he said.

When human greed and acquisition of excessive wealth becomes a way of life, it creates an imbalance in human life and in the natural ecosystem, Mendis said. The Buddhist teachings advocate a gentle attitude towards the environment and stress the importance of a peaceful, violence-free, happy society which he called the Buddhist equilibrium in caring for the earth and sustainable development. The Buddha was born under a tree, attained enlightenment under a tree, and passed away under a tree. The nexus symbolizes the close relationship between people and nature, he said.

Focusing on governance in achieving human happiness, Dr. Steve Young, executive director of the Caux Roundtable for Moral Capitalism, justified the deepest morality that resonates with all cultures and faiths for a sustainable human life, liberty, and happiness.

“Moral governance focuses our use of power and willfulness on the good,” Young said. “It implies that governance is stewardship and not exploitation. It demands that power be measured not by its strength but by the ends to which it applies its strength. This is true for individuals as well as for collectives — families, villages, corporations, nonprofits, churches, sovereign authorities. Governance is the exercise of that capacity for self-control, which makes human happiness possible. No one out of control can be happy.” He then concluded that “the lack of moral governance is self-destruction.”

Other speakers also shared a series of practical applications for achieving the UN sustainable development goals. (Drawn from the Travel Impact Newswire by Imtiaz Muqbil in Bangkok.)

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