Seekers

When the young Siddhattha left home, he wandered south, leaving his ancestral home of Sakya, and eventually entering the kingdom of Magadha. Legend has it that great king, Bimbisara, saw him wandering, and, struck by his appearance, asked where he was from. When he learned that he was a son of the Sakyan clan, he gladly received him into his realm. Even Bimbisara’s son, Ajatasattu, though less honorable than his father, accepted the ancient duty of kings to provide protection and shelter for all those in his realm.

Siddhattha was lucky that he didn’t come to Australia by boat. As a homeless wanderer, displaced not by war or necessity, but by simple choice, he would be treated as an “illegal”. He would be scorned by Australians, who would regard him as a queue-jumper, a bludger, and probably a terrorist in disguise. He would be locked up in a mandatory detention center in some lost, forsaken place. There he would be stripped of basic human rights, overcrowded, with not enough water to drink, inedible, worm-infested food, inadequate medical services, no shoes, in an atmosphere of brutality and hopelessness where people could hardly sleep out of fear and discomfort. From time to time there would be violence and riots; and in that culture of despair, people would be so traumatized they would resort to cutting themselves, hunger strikes, stitching their lips together, or trying to kill or immolate themselves. This would be enabled by a culture of secrecy, with the government cutting off communications when things got bad. Popular representations would be full of hate and suspicion, while the voices of those who suffer go unheard.

Buddhism is known worldwide as a religion of compassion. And we like to think of ourselves as a compassionate people. But compassion is not just an ideal, it manifests in acts of kindness; and kindness is nothing if it does not respect first of all the powerless or less fortunate.

One of the most fundamental expressions of kindness is the duties one owes to a guest or a traveller. In Greek myth, this task is apportioned to no less a deity than Zeus himself. In the Buddhist monastic code (Vinaya), there are elaborate duties prescribed when a wandering monk arrives. One is to greet them, offer water for washing their feet, wipe down their dusty sandals; offer water and show them where the bathroom is, then ensure that they are allocated suitable lodgings. This is not some special holy duty, it is merely the everyday kindness of basic human decency.

When guests arrive on our shores, we should treat them with the same kindness and respect. They are human beings, who have come a long way from home, and are weary, fearful, and distressed. Our duty is to put them at ease, to reassure them that they are among friends and will come to no harm. They should be provided with decent lodgings, food, medicine, clothing, and appropriate legal and other support, just like any other human being. Our legal system is built on the presumption of innocence, so all those who arrive on our shores are, in the eyes of the law, innocent.

It is natural and inevitable that some people will wish to move from one place to another. It’s not a temporary aberration, it is inherent in the act of drawing a boundary around a nation. You don’t draw a boundary unless you expect someone will want to cross it. So: the manner in which you maintain your boundary defines your nation. If that is characterized by heartlessness and selfishness, as it is now, that becomes the place you live, a place that requires cruelty for its self-definition. But this is not our only choice. There are many, many different ways in which the situation can be managed, all of which are kinder, cheaper, and would make us all better citizens of the world. The fact that we have ended up with the most hardline option available is not a political necessity, but is an expression of a lack of compassion.

We don’t own this land, and have no special right to it. We are guests on this planet, borrowing for a time the air, the water, and the soil. The Buddha regarded it as a sign of the decline of society that we draw lines on the earth, saying that “this is mine”. Such conduct is nothing other than greed. In Australia in particular, we often forget that we are all descendants of illegal boat people, who arrived at this land, butchered the local people and desecrated their culture, and drew lines of the earth so we could apportion ownership, a thing unknown to the first peoples.

In ancient India, while the boundaries between nations were acknowledged, people moved freely between them, without visas, passports, or border controls. This is the traditional model of Buddhist culture.

In the colonial era, western nations developed a system of bureaucratic control over the movement of peoples. The basis of this is inequality: we have lots, and we want to stop others from getting it. The more inequality there is, the more tension there is around borders. Hence the shift in the past few decades, as the level of inequality has shot to historically unprecedented levels, towards an irrational obsession with border control. We know we have it good, and we really don’t want to share it.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is a duty of the rich to share their wealth. Traditionally, it is said that we should give a quarter of our wealth to those in need. Now, we in Australia are the rich; and though we have much, much more than ever before, we give maybe 1% or so.

Like all controversial subjects, those in power exert themselves to obfuscate the issue, so that what is, in fact, a simple ethical principle, becomes confused and intractable. Power is maintained by fear, and when there is nothing to fear, it must be manufactured. And sad to say, it seems that for many people, these efforts have been successful, as there seems little ability to clearly think about this issue at all. We are distracted by furphies, while the powerless suffer.

We hear, for example, that we can’t afford to resettle these people. This is nonsense. Australia has plenty of money, so where has it gone? Drive around the streets of Perth or Sydney, and look at the huge boats and houses, and the answer is not hard to see: the rich took it. If we follow the ancient Buddhist principle that those with much should share with those with little, then we would not have a problem.

The current situation is, moreover, probably the most wasteful and expensive solution possible. Due to the secrecy with which our government cloaks its activities—which is of course totally counter to not only the principles of modern democracy, but also the Buddha’s advice to “open up a covered thing”—it is not possible to know exactly how much it costs. However, according to Amnesty, we spend over half a million dollars per person per year. It is completely, utterly absurd.

This money is mostly paid to a corporation, Serco, which is currently under investigation for defrauding the UK government to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. A former employee alleges, among other things, that Serco hires unqualified people, who receive little or no training and are taught to run the camps like prisons, ignoring the suffering of the detainees.

Next we hear that the people coming are not real refugees, but “economic migrants”. These are people who moved from one place to another place because they want to make a better living for themselves. They are not evil, and they have committed no crime. They may be guilty of being foolish and greedy, but that is no excuse to treat them with anything but dignity and kindness.

Personally I would love to live in a world where anyone could simply move where they wanted, as we do within a country, since we all belong to this one planet and cannot claim ownership.

But we don’t live in that world. In the world we do live in, there are procedures that are accepted by the international community, and enshrined in Australian law, that decide whether a person is a “genuine refugee” and should be resettled or not.

So those who arrive should be looked after as honored guests until their status is determined. If it is found that they do not qualify for resettlement, they should be returned to their country, or other arrangements made. Of course there are practical difficulties, as there are with any situation, but this doesn’t affect our moral obligations.

There is a genuine problem with people smugglers. These people are international criminals, and we should work with the international community to disband these networks. If we were to close the absurd, horrific detention centers, we would free up billions of dollars which could be used to disrupt the people smugglers. Instead, the smugglers ply their trade and we punish their victims.

There is a further genuine problem with terrorists. In Sri Lanka, for example, after the crushing of the Tamil Tigers, it is to be expected that the Sinhalese authorities will want to pursue those guilty of terrorist acts. Of course, not all those it pursues are terrorists; but some are. No-one wants such people in its borders, and it is understandable that the Australian authorities should be careful and thorough. Nevertheless, this is only a tiny percentage of those arriving in Australia. The bulk of those fleeing the aftermath of the war are either displaced internally or are in India. The fact that some of those arriving are criminals does not justify treating all of them as criminals. Some of the people who read this blog are criminals; are we to punish everyone who reads it?

Another common furphy is that we fear the introduction of un-Australian values. This is, of course, nothing other than the fear of the Other that has demeaned Australian civic life since the days of the White Australia Policy. Fine: anyone who is settled in Australia should be taught about Australian laws and values, and as with people everywhere, they should respect that. I have spoken of the duty that a host owes to the guest; similarly, the guest owes a duty to the host. And if anyone is not abiding by those laws, they need to be dealt with. Australian law does not, and should not, tolerate uncivilized practices such as female genital mutilation, slavery, sharia law, discrimination based on gender or sexuality, or the caste system.

But there is no inherent connection between these things and people arriving by boat. However they come, whether as immigrants or refugees, people bring their own baggage. And while mostly this baggage is positive and helps enrich our culture, some of it is toxic. Equating such harmful practices with maritime arrival is nothing more than rhetorical sleight of hand.

People who are newly arrived will have certain issues, while those who have been here for a long time will have others. The real issue is how to prevent people from harming each other, while educating all people, whether newly arrived or here for a long time, to be more compassionate and wise.

Those who are so concerned with defending Australian values seem to be wilfully blind to the ways that values are actually created in societies. People don’t embrace values because they are forced to, but because they see positive models.

If people arrive as weary wanderers, and are immediately treated with heartlessness and suspicion, what will they think of Australian society? Can we expect those who have undergone such an experience to respect Australian culture and Australian Government? Australians have persistently voted in governments with relentlessly hardline policies on maritime arrivals. New arrivals know this; they feel like outsiders, and will learn to trust only slowly.

If, however, peoples’ initial encounter with Australia is an experience of kindness and friendliness; if they are treated with the openness and the fairness that we like to pride ourselves on, they will gain a natural respect for Australian culture and values. This is the starting point for real harmony in any culture.

The Buddha’s ethics is based firmly on his love and compassion, which is without exception or limit. Constantly we find the phrase sabbe satta, “all beings”. We are still catching up to this ethos. We have a long way to go before we see ourselves as first and foremost sentient beings, temporary tenants who share our beautiful planet together, and fully surmount the limitations of race, nation, caste, gender, and religion. In our time, in our Australian home, this is how we are being tested. And the test is this: as Australians and as those inspired by the Buddha’s path, to use this opportunity to grow in love; to show the world that the Buddha’s teachings are not merely nice ideals, but eminently practical tools for building a healthy and harmonious society.

23 thoughts on “Seekers

  1. Thank you Bhante Sujato for an excellent article. I really am saddened by how the Australian Government treats the refugees! They have, in my opinion, been stripped off their human rights and put in detention centres which is like a prison. I wish we live in a more compassionate society and welcome people who arrived here in boats.

  2. Exactly. We’ve got so much. Let’s risk it all and give till it hurts. I would rather die knowing I gave as much as I could than die fearful that someone is going to take something I tried pointlessly my whole life to protect and keep from others. UNHCF reported that there’s 51 million displaced persons in the world right now. How many will be permanently resettled in the next 12 months? 100,000. That’s it. Australia Squabbling about taking in 12,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 a year is pathetic. Seriously, let’s do something ‘crazy’ and take a million people right in right now and work our butts off to support them.

  3. While I agree with the majority of your post, here’s something I have strong doubt about:

    “Those who are so concerned with defending Australian values seem to be wilfully blind to the ways that values are actually created in societies. People don’t embrace values because they are forced to, but because they see positive models. ”

    “If, however, peoples’ initial encounter with Australia is an experience of kindness and friendliness; if they are treated with the openness and the fairness that we like to pride ourselves on, they will gain a natural respect for Australian culture and values. This is the starting point for real harmony in any culture.”

    Do you have any data points to support that statement? It sounds logical that treating people like guests is a good idea, and probably leads to more respect for Australian culture. But why would that change anything about the conflict of values?

    I’ve talked/listened to some immigrant people who
    a) absolutely don’t believe in gender equality
    b) think homosexuality (let alone bi, trans etc.) is quite worth despising
    and they’re by no means people who
    -didn’t receive a warm welcome
    -are disintegrated in society
    -are of obviously ‘faulty’ character.
    Instead they feel quite comfortable here – it’s just that they see the achievements of western culture as signs of decadence/sin/whatever, which should be cured.
    Is that because they don’t have any role models for these values? I doubt it, because (a) and (b) are basically firmly established in western culture. (ok, there’s still some room for improvement with b.)

    You seem to think that it’s not a big deal as long as crimes against western values aren’t declared legal. I’m not convinced. (Germany comes to mind as a sad example, where something has gone awfully wrong. These days, in schools mainly attended by first, second and third(!)-generation immigrants, ‘jew’ is a swearword.) Maybe I just need to train my optimism faculty.

    • Hi,

      Just a point here: please use your real name on this site, unless you are in fear of persecution or have some other genuine reason for using an alias. I’d prefer not to reply to people who don’t use their real names.

  4. The question is one of genuine refugees….. Refugee camps around the world are full of people who are genuine refugees ….boat people pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to jump the Que.. Personally I feel that the majority of people arriving by boat are economic refugees who seem to manage to fly in Indonesia bypassing many nations who are also democracies and who offer freedom.

    Australia has a migration scheme where hundreds of thousands of people have patiently waited their turn and jumped through the hoops to emigrate to Australia …. What is the message we send to the world if a person can just pay a smuggler to arrive in Australia?

    You talk about compassion…. Personally I think we should discuss those real refugees who are destitute and stuck in refugees camps …. That’s where our refugees must come from.

    We also need a discussion on how many refugees Australia can accept…. There are over a hundred million refugees in the world…if we applied the love and compassion rule then we should allow all to come and live in Australia….. Obviously that’s ridiculous…. There needs to be a pragmatic debate on the level of refugees that this country can assimilate culturally and economically .

    I just signed a petition today protesting the exclusion of Ajahn Brahms paper. When Theradava Buddhism is capable of not discriminating against women I would have more tolerance and appreciation for an argument based on Buddhist values with respect to Australia’s refugee program

    • Hi Bill,

      Thanks for the comment!

      In my essay, I tried to develop an argument that started with the basic principles of Buddhist ethics, then draw out the implications of that based on evidence and reason. So forgive me if I use the same approach to critique your response.

      First, however, I would note that you simply avoided any substantive engagement with any of the arguments or facts that I detailed in my article. Instead, you reiterated some standard shock jock talking points, which, as I pointed out in my essay, have been used to mislead the public and prevent a rational debate on the issues.

      The question is one of genuine refugees….. Refugee camps around the world are full of people who are genuine refugees ….boat people pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to jump the Que.. Personally I feel that the majority of people arriving by boat are economic refugees who seem to manage to fly in Indonesia bypassing many nations who are also democracies and who offer freedom.

      The vast majority of people who have been assessed arriving by boat have been determined to be genuine refugees. The fact that you feel otherwise is irrelevant. If people who arrive in Australia are determined to be not genuine refugees, or for other reasons are not going to be settled in Australia, then they can be sent home. This in no way justifies the current system of abusive, violent, and exorbitant imprisonment of innocents.

      Australia has a migration scheme where hundreds of thousands of people have patiently waited their turn and jumped through the hoops to emigrate to Australia …. What is the message we send to the world if a person can just pay a smuggler to arrive in Australia?

      The message is that Australia is a country that respects the rule of law, and will apply that law with kindness and fairness.

      You talk about compassion…. Personally I think we should discuss those real refugees who are destitute and stuck in refugees camps …. That’s where our refugees must come from.

      Australia has a reasonably good resettlement program for refugees who are determined as such before they arrive in the country. That is a separate issue. To argue that “we can’t talk about x because y is worse” is a logical fallacy. If this principle was applied, we could not talk about any moral issue until we have addressed the worst of all moral issues (reductio ad absurdum).

      Further, if you are concerned with “real refugees”, why not contact some of the refugee organizations and discuss the matter with them. I suspect that you will find that the people who are actually working to help “real refugees” would also condemn Australia’s current policies.

      We also need a discussion on how many refugees Australia can accept…. There are over a hundred million refugees in the world…if we applied the love and compassion rule then we should allow all to come and live in Australia….. Obviously that’s ridiculous…. There needs to be a pragmatic debate on the level of refugees that this country can assimilate culturally and economically .

      Once again, irrelevant (straw man). No-one was arguing that we should accept all the world’s refugees. I was arguing that we should treat with decency, in accordance with the relevant laws, UN human rights agreements, and compassionate ethics, the few thousand people who arrive on Australia’s shores by boat.

      There is already a discussion about how many refugees Australia can accept, and there has been for many years. Given that there are many times as many refugees living in many poorer and less developed countries than Australia, the realistic answer is, we can accept many more than we have currently. Whether it is a good idea to accept more, however, is a separate question. In any case, given that there will always be maritime arrivals, and that most of those have historically been genuine refugees, those numbers should be factored in to the discussion.

      I just signed a petition today protesting the exclusion of Ajahn Brahms paper. When Theradava Buddhism is capable of not discriminating against women I would have more tolerance and appreciation for an argument based on Buddhist values with respect to Australia’s refugee program

      Thanks for signing the petition, but I’m afraid that is another irrelevant argument. The Theravadin treatment of women, which I have consistently critiqued for many years, has nothing to do with whether Australia should treat its maritime arrivals with decency.

      The basic ethical principle is this: it is wrong to treat any sentient being with cruelty, or to punish them if they have done nothing wrong. This applies just as well in the case of discrimination against women as it does in the case of inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

  5. Great article Bhante! This issue is sickening. I can’t help seeing comparisons with what happened in Europe during WWII. I bet people didn’t want to know then either. I’m a proud Aussie who totally disagrees with this treatment of vulnerable people. I’m deeply ashamed because, even though I disagree, as long as our government supports these things (in whatever ways they may be doing so) they do so in my name too…it makes me want to throw up… It’s just horrible.

  6. Hi Bhante ,
    Great post as usual , but don’t you think that we should be looking after , all vulnerable peoples ? Like our own homeless persons ,street people , aboriginals etc , first . and providing these people with the same basic rights as well,
    It seems that these people are just pushed aside , to make way and accommodate these refugees with housing etc ,
    I have been homeless as well , so I can speak with experience , on who the government supports , and sadly it isn’t the people who need it the most , it is the people who make the headlines .
    I mean to cause no offence , but if you cant help your own first , how can you help others who arrive here .

    • Hi Pete,

      Sure, of course we should help the people who are homeless, and if, as you say, they are deprived of assistance this is wrong. But our poor and needy are not being deprived by arrivals; they are being deprived by the rich. It is our government’s policy to end the “age of entitlement”, which means that the homeless, the poor, the unemployed, and so on, will have less, while massive subsidies for industry will flourish even more. There is plenty of money in Australia to look after both our homeless people and new arrivals, we just need to distribute our wealthy more equally.

  7. Wonderful post (as always) Bhante!

    Rather amusingly, had I not known you were from Australia, and if every mention of your country had read “America,” every word would have remained just as applicable. The way migrant populations (and in particular, refugees) are often treated as a result of their predicament is absolutely absurd.

    Please be well, Bhante.

    • Hi Hickersonia,

      I don’t know enough about it to comment, but one difference is that the US shares a massive land border with Mexico, and that there are over 10 million people living in the US who were born in Mexico. In Australia the numbers are a few thousand; I think there’s about 1100 people on Manus Island right now. Our Government refuses to release any details, treating poor people who come on a leaky boat like a major security threat. It is so bizarre: all they want is to stay here, get a job, and raise a family. And when we are faced with a major maritime disaster, our government just pretends nothing is happening.

  8. The United States has a mixed record with respect to Refugee Resettlement, with a fairly positive past, though I suspect that the trend will be toward fewer resettlements in this country. Our ultraconservative ( ie the crazy party) GOP is blocking most efforts to create new cohesive immigration laws in the US. To address Ajahn Sujato’s excellent post, one phenomenon that has occurred in the US is the revival of some dying “rustbelt” cities by integrating refugees into these cities, thereby creating new and vibrant communities. Refugees are reviving cities that have suffered population outflows, and instead of vacant homes and defunct businesses, honorable refugee communities have rescued forsaken homes and started new businesses. In other words, logic, economics, compassion and reason prevailed, and created a “win-win” situation. See http://www.newsweek.com/lewiston-maine-revived-somali-immigrants-78475 and http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/cultureheritage/culture/cities/Publication/Zachary.pdf . Ajahn Sujato’s message of Dhammic compassion, when applied to the issue of refugees, suggests that when wisdom and compassion work together, positive results and mitigation of suffering can occur.

    • Thanks for the comments, some good examples. It is obvious that on the whole our immigrant arrivals, including asylum seekers, has been overwhelmingly positive and has transformed Australia from a fairly insular and culturally narrow society to one with a rich multicultural heritage. And that, of course, includes Buddhism.

  9. Both climate change and the refugee issue are man made catastrophes of our time, I admire the courages approach you take on both fronts, not sure if the world will ever be brave enough to put a stop to either disaster but your essay is almost like a psychological balm to heal the pain surrounding these issues. Keep writing bhante!

  10. Dear Bhikkhu Sujato, Thank you for your great article, and for the skilful way you have countered the usual arguments.
    If we are honest, we all know we have been very fortunate to be born in Australia, or to come here. We do not actually deserve to be here, any more than anyone else. We cannot own the earth, any more than we own the sky. And we don’t need to possess things in order to enjoy them. We can enjoy the ocean, without having to have a house with ocean views, and the same with trees, and beautiful open spaces.
    Australia now has the largest average house sizes in the world, I have read, and Perth the largest in Australia. At the same time we have very high rates of depression, family violence, and children with psychological problems. Could these two facts be related? Working long hours to make money, commuting in traffic, having no time to rest and enjoy other people, is not happiness.
    The tragedy, is that with all that wealth and sunshine, we have people so poor in spirit, that they feel they cannot afford to be generous, to people who have nothing but the clothes they stand in. This is the poverty of Australia. The tragedy of Australia’s detention of boat people is not just a tragedy for these new arrivals, it is also our tragedy, our hearts that are being hardened, our lives, our communities, that are becoming more closed and fearful and cruel.
    ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls. . .

  11. Just to add, for people who don’t know the (mis!)quote above – this refers to ‘No Man is an Island’, a poem by John Donne.
    The poem ends:

    Any man’s death diminishes me,
    Because I am involved in mankind,
    And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.

    We are all connected to one another – of course Buddhism teaches detachment – not indifference or disregard, but wisdom. Thank you again Bhikkhu Sujato for approaching this difficult subject. May you and everyone reading here be happy and well.

  12. Баян Купи-ка: “it’s a pity i don’t have a boat, otherwise i’d come to settle in Australia :)”

    Stay at home and don’t frighten kangaroos.

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