From alleged government espionage programs to religious scandals of assault or abuse – where among this barrage of Lord of the Flies scenes do Buddhist observers find confirmation of the belief that people are inherently good?
When the historical Buddha Shakyamuni founded his order of ascetic monks, he established no rules. I presume he did not lay down any because he and Buddhists in general consider every being wise and compassionate by nature. However, even this enlightened soul developed precepts for transgressions that people committed.
As Buddhism migrates westward to countries with explicitly stated natural rights, a general regard for human rights and more comprehensive sets of constitutional laws, and legal systems based ideally on the pursuit of liberty, justice and happiness, how should the religious demand civil treatment, if at all? How should the religious assure that civil rights begin from within their institutions?
Whereas fundamentalist Buddhists may argue for an essentialist transference of Buddhism to the west — everything should proceed as it had in Asia. Karma will take care of everything, regardless of human nature. Those deserving of support or condemnation will receive them accordingly. Monastics are to swim upstream (metaphorically speaking) and pursue not liberty, justice or happiness but only ultimate freedom from cyclic existence. And for such goals, monastics of a Buddhist order must be obedient and docile, there are no inalienable rights to speak of.
Buddhism acculturates into the culture that it enters. Inevitably, western culture will change Buddhism as Buddhism will change this culture. Cultural and ideological differences should be cause for Buddhist orders to reconsider and incorporate at least the principles of fairness, procedural due process, and equality. Hence, I as a Buddhist nun, would advocate that monastics in the U.S. and beyond be accorded certain basic rights, and best if these were put in writing.
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Presuming a different cultural context and few enlightened teachers in the U.S., it is especially important to institute fair and standardized due process. For example, to avoid or prevent different standards and lack of clarity so that neither ecumenical nor secular authorities may manipulate or miscommunicate the interpretations of law.
In an increasingly litigious society, religious organizations ought to consider more preventative measures and remedial resources. Offering confidential counsel to listen and to advise those faced with frustration, developing ombudsman and mediator roles to ameliorate charges and improve relations are a few possibilities. Otherwise, in cases of alleged abuse, victims usually remain silent for a long time and finally report in less than amicable circumstances. The same applies to cases of alleged transgressions. Counseling, advising, and mediation are better ways to improve any individual or system issues.
Principles east and west can be misused anywhere. Therefore it is important, for one, to recognize that karma is not the same as punishment. No one in a position of authority may oppress in the name of karma. The law of cause and effect is also agency for creating our future and that is exactly what we are to do. Two, democracy is not to be imitated and warped into a game of win or loss, and certainly not a propaganda ploy for anyone and everyone to scrutinize some target as if she were an election candidate while the voting grounds shift continuously. Three, silence and homogeneity are not harmony. Minority voices ought not be squashed in the name of harmony. And four, absolute docility and obedience can bring out the worst in people. The 1971 Stanford prison project showed that whereby absolute power was granted the wardens (assumed by college students), decent college students turned sadistic and destructive in a short span of a few days. Prison inmates (also assumed by college students, unbeknownst to the wardens) were harmed to such an extent that the originally planned two-week experiment had to terminate abruptly on its sixth day.
In short, as religious orders adapt and assimilate in the West, they cannot help but evolve. I hope, however, the direction in which they move will encourage the pursuit of both democratic and spiritual ideals.