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.