Forum on Human Rights

On Wednesday 23 June, as part of this my busiest week in a long time, I served as the Buddhist representative on the Forum on Human Rights, organized by the Attorney General’s department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. As one of the religious representatives, and not a specialist in the field, my role was mainly to witness events and see in practice how the process of community consultation is carried out. It was terrific to see the different perspectives in action, and to have so many people with detailed, specialized knowledge to call upon.

Australia is still the only developed nation in the world with no national human rights charter. Having failed to introduce the (already fairly moderate) provisions of the Brennan report, the government has introduced a Human Rights Framework, which is of much narrower scope. There seems to be the intention to gradually expand the scope and provisions of the Framework. At least it’s something, but far short of the guarantee for provision of basic rights for all that was hoped for by the majority of Australians.

I learnt a thing or two: for example, the existing human rights provisions in Australia only cover citizens. Even those on PR have essentially no human rights guarantees, a weakness that was highlighted by the protests (going on while we were meeting) against the expulsion of the Muslim leader Mansour Leghaei. The government claims there are reasons for his expulsion, but since he is not a citizen – although he has lived in Australia for 16 years and raised a family here – he has no rights under FoI and so the Govt has not disclosed the reasons.

Further erosion of rights for Muslims is being pushed in the NSW parliament, with the introduction of a bill on June 22 to ban the burqua, by the notorious Rev Fred Nile (think Mary Whitehouse, only more so). Who will be in their sights next? I’m sure the religious right are concerned over the rise of Buddhism in Australia – will they argue that monastic robes have to be banned? After all, robes have served as the cover for weapons, even the assassination of a Sri Lankan Prime Minister.

An argument was raised repeatedly to the effect that, ‘How can Australia be effective in its self-appointed role – seen as arrogant by many – to improve human rights internationally, while still having no internal guarantees?’ With issues regarding indigenous peoples, detention centers, security laws, and religious minorities, there’s no shortage of areas where a clear and firm policy on human rights would help. The response was typically, ‘Well, umm, it’s not that simple, actually we’ve done a lot and no-one’s perfect…’. Which is all true, but hardly the point.

I managed to raise some areas of concern with Buddhists, particularly our opposition to exemption from anti-discrimination laws for religious organizations; and in addition questions that have been raised about the apparent imbalance in favor of Christian refugees from the Burmese Karen people. We’re not sure whether this arises from conscious or unconscious discrimination, or whether it simply reflects the fact that the Karen, a disadvantaged minority in Myanmar, are largely Christian.

Sitting in the meeting, I felt that there were some serious problems in the way the meeting was conducted. As an observer, I could see these things very clearly – and then it occurred to me that we had made many of the same mistake in the ASA conference just the day before! They included:

  • Use of acronyms and specialized language, which is exclusive not inclusive;
  • Speaking too fast, making it hard for those for whom English is the second language;
  • Lack of specific encouragement for non-specialists, making me – and others, I’m sure – reluctant to speak up in the presence of so many experts.

I’ll raise these with the ASA and see if we can do better in future. (More on the ASA conference in a few days.)

Women rule

Who exactly is in charge? I live in NSW, Australia, near Sydney, and chief public leaders are:

Sydney mayor: Clover Moore
NSW Governor: Marie Bashir
NSW Premier: Kristina Keneally
Governor-General: Ms Quentin Bryce
Prime Minster: Julia Gillard
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II

Quite extraordinary; but a misleading snapshot of public life in Australia, where the majority of positions are still held by men, and ethnic minorities are badly under-represented.

Charter for Compassion (4)

You may remember some previous posts on the Charter for Compassion initiative. I’m delighted that it is proceeding well, and has been adopted by many bodies internationally.

On Thursday June 24 at 12.30 pm, Australia became the first nation to formally adopt the Charter for Compassion. It was presented at Parliament House, with the chair of the meeting being Senator Ursula Stevens, a terrific welcome to country by Aunty Agnes. I had the honor of leading the group, including several MPs and senators, in a meditation on compassion.

The emotion of the event was palpable, and was heightened by the fact that, as the meeting was progressing, we were losing a prime Minister in extraordinary circumstances and gaining Australia’s first female prime Minister. The atmosphere at parliament was electric, with hundreds of visitors pouring in. We could see first hand the pain and struggle of the politicians as they kept about their civic duty under tremendous stress. Be as cynical as you like, but all i saw on that day was good human beings trying to do the right thing.

I hope that the everyday reminder of the Charter for Compassion will bring a little more kindness and gratitude into those halls of power.

Monastery Constitutions

Now that’s something I’ll bet you’re all fascinated in. You snuggle in at night, guiltily hugging your latest monastery constitution, staying up till the wee hours to get to the bit where it talks about procedures for the AGM. Admit it, you’re busted!

Or not.

Actually, we all want to avoid such things, don’t we? Just get on with the practice, and let someone else worry about the legalities. Then, bit by bit, you get more involved, maybe end up on a committee or as an abbot, and there it is, waiting to be read: the Constitution!

I’ve had a reasonable amount to do with constitutions, having been involved in reforming the Santi constitution, as well as formulating one for the ASA.

When I arrived at Santi, the original constitution had been set up so that Ajahn Brahm would be the Spiritual Director, more or less in absentia. The framers had apparently thought that, with the future uncertain, it was necessary to give Ajahn Brahm quite strong powers. Effectively, as Spiritual Director, he could veto any major expenditures and other decisions, and, essentially, could not be expelled from his position.

Of course, the reality was that Ajahn Brahm took a very hands off approach, and only responded when we asked for his help. But the legal structure was there.

After I was here for three years, Ajahn Brahm and the committee invited me to take over as Spiritual Director. I took the opportunity to work with the committee to revise the constitution. One of the crucial reforms was to make the Spiritual Director accountable. Now, he – and she if there is a bhikkhuni Sangha – must be nominated by the Sangha, then further accepted by the Committee. If the committee rejects the Spritual Director, the matter goes back to the Sangha. If there is a deadlock, the matter is referred to an external body for mediation.

The basic point is that there is no absolute power. All power is provisional and balanced.

The committee at Santi FM is elected at the AGM, from the members of the incorporated association, which anyone may apply to join. So there is a balance between the powers of the lay and ordained community, and no-one is the absolute ruler.

This, of course, is Dhamma: the Buddha refused to appoint a monk as his successor, said that the Sangha should operate according to Dhamma-Vinaya, not according to any individual. The Dhamma-Vinaya sets up principles and procedures – openness, democracy, accountability, transparency – that are pretty much the same as those required of normal incorporated associations today, although of course the details are somewhat different.

However, this isnot the case in growing numbers of monasteries. Many monasteries, particularly of the Western Wat Pa Pong tradition, are set up like a corporation. The monastery is a company, whose assets are owned by the shareholders. And the shareholders are a couple of lifetime appointed monks. Full stop.

Many of these documents are available online. If you’re interested, you can find them on most of the relevant monastery websites.

What a peculiar arrangement! A charity where the sole owners are also the sole beneficiaries. I wonder how this can even be legal.

This kind of model is becoming the standard among the western Wat Pa Pong branches. Monks are re-writing constitutions, advising the lay committees to abandon the balanced, democratic models, such as used at Santi and the BSWA, and to bring the constitutions of various monasteries in line with the ‘standard’: the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya of Wat Pa Pong’, as they put it.

Which means, among other things,no equality for women, ever.

There seems to be some implication that this is the ‘right way’. But whatever it is, it is certainly not what the Vinaya requires. Vinaya is always balanced and open.

It’s most interesting that the preferred model seems to be the ‘company with shareholders’. Why is that, I wonder? What is a company? – Well, I guess it’s an organization that is created specifically for the benefit of its member. We expect a commercial company to be selfish and to attempt to monopolize power to itself.

That is why there are other forms of organization for other kinds of activities. Charities, NGOs and so on – these are not created for the benefit of a few individuals, but to serve the community.

As monastics, we are living entirely on the donations offered freely by the kindness of lay donors – should they not have some say in how those resources are used? Should a monastery be something that is rather more like a company, or more like a charity?

When governments arrogate power to themselves and exclude the people, we call that totalitarianism, and think of it as the worst kind of evil. A good government shares with the people, listens to them, and responds to their needs. This is the kind of government I want to live under.

And while Australia is by no means perfect, it does try. In a couple of weeks, I’m in Canberra, where I’ve been invited to represent the Australian Buddhist community in a community consultation on human rights in Australia. We can be as cynical as we like about the motives of governments, but at least its happening. And since the invitation is there, we should take it up. If we don’t use our voice, we forget how to use it. If we don’t stand up to defend others, who will be there when we need help?

If this is the standard that we expect of governments, should not we expect even more from religions? Shouldn’t religions be setting the pace, showing an example of how things can be done? Do we really want to participate in a monastery whose legal structure resembles that of a money-grabbing company, or a totalitarian state?

We come to Buddhism to learn and grow spiritually. That means becoming wiser, more responsible, more free – able to choose our own destiny. Sadly enough, monastics in some circles seems to regard acquiescence as the highest virtue. If we are not careful, we will end up becoming exactly the opposite of our original vision.

It seems that, with the bhikkhuni ordination, and the retirement of Ajahn Sumedho, the Ajahns of Wat Pa Pong fear that monasteries will drift off and do their own thing. With no charismatic leader to inspire unity, the only recourse is legal. Bringing monasteries tighter into the fold will discourage the development of local, independent communities, and make monasteries increasingly subject to decisions and policies made elsewhere, into which the local communities will have no input.

If you’d like to, say, treat bhikkhunis as equal, bad luck. That’s not the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya of Wat Pa Pong’.

All this is very far from the original Vinaya vision ofmonasteries as independent, run by the local villageor community for the benefit, not of the Sangha of Wat Pa Pong, but for the Buddha’s Sangha of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

I wonder which way you’d prefer your local monastery to be? If you don’t know, educate yourself. Ask questions, read the constitution, and make an informed choice.