Getting (More) Socially Engaged: The Future Path of Indonesian Buddhists

Buddhists comprised of 1% of Indonesia’s total population, approximately amounted to 240 millions people. Most Buddhists live in the big cities of Sumatra and Java islands, especially those of Chinese origin. While many others, mostly indigenous Javanese Buddhists reside in several villages in Java, especially in central and eastern part of Java. After experiencing the revival of Buddhism in the late 60’s, currently, Buddhists are enjoying their freedom to exercise their religious rights. Despite facing few practices of discrimination in certain local villages, the overall atmosphere is decent for Buddhists in Indonesia. For the last 40 years, it is appropriate to mention that Indonesian Buddhist community has achieved accomplishments in terms of the religious life of Buddhists: recognition from society and government, the increasing number of Buddhist temples, organizations, publications, practitioners, and others. However, in terms of their contribution to society, it is still a long way to go: Buddhists have a plenty of homework to work for real essence of humanity. The following article would provide a brief chronological and critical outlook on how Indonesian Buddhists have gone through its journey since Buddhism revived in the late 60’s and how they get to know engaged Buddhism movement.

The euphoria of revival

To understand why Indonesian Buddhists deal more with religious than social orientation in practicing Buddhism, it is important to take a brief look back to the late 60’s, when Buddhism marked its revival in Indonesia. As the presence of religious infrastructure was very minimal, this period witnessed vigorous efforts of various local Buddhist elements. Limited sources and places to learn and practice Buddhism are the main hindrances. Boosted by these shortcomings, Buddhists – old and young – showed their eagerness resolving any restrictions hampering ways for public to learn and practice Dharma. The focus was to make sure that needs to learn Buddhism can be accommodated and fulfilled.

Some significant achievements should be mentioned in this era. Basic Dharma classes and retreats were started. Sangha denominations as well as the laymen institution were established to perform religious services and to facilitate Dharma learning. Today, more monks have been ordained and sent to remote places reaching out eastern part of Indonesia. The laymen institutions are doing good as well. Better management and more human resources make them possible to attract more Buddhist practitioners. Gradually, facilities to study and practice Buddhism can be more found easily.

Universities students also joined the move. To fulfill the needs to have Buddhist lecturers in colleges and universities, several medical students of University of Indonesia (UI) – the leading and distinguished university in the country – assembled to establish the first Indonesian Buddhist student campus organization in February 1971. A month later, The Union of Jakarta Buddhist Students (KMBJ), the first Regional Buddhist student union in Indonesia was found. Later, these student activists become the leader of major laymen Buddhist institutions in several sects. KMBJ together with Buddhist students in other provinces established The Union of Indonesian Buddhist Students (HIKMAHBUDHI). A special note on this youth movement should be taken here. The seed of thoughts that Buddhists should get involved and be integral part of the nation in dealing with social matter had existed in the mind of the youth, however due to the bigger and urgent need to build basic religious framework, the seed didn’t have enough space to grow at that period.

The self-oriented perspective

Unfortunately, in this period, a misguiding mainstream perspective was shaped: Good Buddhists should focus more on working and dedicating themselves for Buddhism. It can be realized by going to the temple every week, donating food and fund to the monks and temples, or being active in religious and social activities organized by their respective temples. Good Buddhists should not get involved in demonstration or speak against government’s policy. Buddhists are peaceful society, so any thing should be solved quietly. Any misfortunes suffered by the poor are the result of their karma. Before dealing with others’ suffering, we should deal with our suffering first. And to deal with personal suffering, one should need to practice Buddhism diligently.

It is only few who thought that Buddhists should have more inclusive rather than exclusive perspective. They should get more socially-engaged with people’s life. Buddhists should also address their view on poverty and people’s suffering, how to deal with it and do something actual to eliminate it. However such opinions and involvement in any movement addressing problems in social, political, cultural, economy aspects were regarded harmful for the community. This could be triggered by the fear of the former president Soeharto’s regime.

This stand and perspective were no without effect. Buddhists tended to be ‘alienated’ from national community and were dubbed as an exclusive community. For certain parties, especially for politicians and those who have vested-interest, indeed, this was an advantage. This exclusive and silent community are apparent potential targets and tools for them to reach their political, business, and individual ambitions. Once, even a Buddhist leader claimed that Buddhists undoubtedly supported the ruling political party, Golkar, as Buddhist monks wear yellow robe: the symbolic color of the party.

The later period of 70’s and 80’s also saw the silent competition between sects and groups, especially at the elite level. Each group inclined to centralize their energy and time to expand their temples, activities, and followers in the name of Buddhism. Doubtlessly, thoughts of caring for crucial, broader social and national issues were neglected. This phenomenon was contagious. Regrettably, some the young intellectual students were also dragged by this current. Young, still naïve, and eager to work for Buddhism, they were driven by some elites to achieve selfish hidden agenda. However, like a blessing in disguise, this condition had even boosted the young having the spirit to revive Buddhism to become more socially engaged. Slowly but sure, they consolidated the proponents of the idea that Buddhism should benefit all walks of life, get rooted in people’s daily life, and finally manage to end living being’s sufferings. A move that bear the fruit afterward.

The wind of change

The period of mid 90’s brought about a fresh atmosphere. Thoughts of getting more engaged to the social problem of the country’s weak and poor were regaining ground. Sulak Sivaraksa was one of the initiators. Invited to address a speech in a sharing session of The Union of Indonesian Buddhist Students (HIKMAHBUDHI) in 1994, Sulak revived the idea on how Buddhists should also go out of the temple and get involved actively in the cessation of people’s sufferings. Since then, gradually Sulak has been one of prominent sources of Engaged Buddhist movement in Indonesia.

Thanks to Sulak and friends, HIKMAHBUDHI has had the chance to attend INEB conferences and activities since 1995. Considerable exposure with INEB networks were definitely countless assets for Indonesian Buddhist Community. Some INEB friends such as The late Ven. Maha Ghosananda and Jonathan Watts of Think Sangha have definitely enriched the discourse of socially-engaged Buddhists with their visits to Jakarta. Watts dedicated himself as a source for numerous engaged Buddhism discussions, and Ven. Maha Ghosananda once addressed his key-note speech in a national seminar held by HIKMAHBUDHI attended by Indonesian prominent various religious leaders and activists.The seminar held in the middle of violence outbreak in Indonesia discussed the book ‘Love in Action’ of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh which had just been translated into Indonesian. Subsequently, the incumbent executive secretary of INEB, Anne has successfully managed to run the youth leadership training which has added the fuel to foster engaged Buddhism movement in Indonesia.

All of these experiences and interactions had boosted young activists longing for reform in the Indonesian Buddhist community. A rapid change had rolled on since then. More young Buddhists, mostly students began to break their silence. This may also be coincided with the fall of Soeharto regime. Going down to streets to voice people’s suffering was no more a novel thing and one to be afraid of. Getting involved with pro-democracy, environment, human-rights activists’ discussions and actions have already developed as a habit. Working with poor villagers to empower them in empowering project has been going for the last 9 years.

A Future to Walk

At first, the idea of socially-engaged Buddhists was viewed suspiciously as it is too critical and breaks the traditional stand of being silent. However, as the reformation swept the country, the Buddhist community found its courage to step forward. Step by step, they began to change their inward and exclusive perspective to a more outward and inclusive one. More monks and temples have opened their door for greater involvement with national affecting-people issues. Several monk leaders from Buddhayana and Mahayana even gave Sulak chances to share his critical thoughts on how to practice Buddhism in a more socially-engaged outlook. In some extent, their activities have begun sided the poor interest in a more effective ways rather than just formerly superficial ones. They now also join the force to spread the idea of engaged Buddhism. This is indeed a good prospect for the future path of Buddhism in Indonesia. With greater involvement and attention towards the real sufferings and problem of people, Buddhism can work best at its most essence: the cessation of suffering.

However, much more have to be done by Indonesian Buddhists to transform Buddhism as a personal liberation guidance to be a more social one. This would be a long journey and needs supports from various parties. The idea of socially engaged Buddhists can be a constructive alternative for the future path of Buddhists in Indonesia as a more socially-engaged Buddhist community surely can help relieving the suffering of hundred millions of life in Indonesia and more in the world. (Agus Hartono)