A compassionate practice

Jessica Yu in conversation with Jarni
View of a great golden Buddha statue inside the buddhist temple of Shorinin in Ohara, north of Kyoto, Japan
Moyan Brenn/Flickr
In her monthly column, Jessica Yu speaks to everyday people from a variety of faith backgrounds about how their religion plays out in their daily lives.

I first heard Jarni speak about his Buddhist faith at a party last year. The thing I remember most vividly is asking him if he followed the teachings of Buddha and him holding up the sweaty bottle of cider he was drinking and saying, “Well, obviously not all of them.” It made me smile; the humanness of it and the fact that he was reluctant to come off as pious even though he seemed so serious about his faith.

Right Now: Which religion do you belong to?

Jarni: Buddhism, what I’ve learnt formally is Thai Theravada Buddhism.

How do you engage with Buddhism on a daily basis?

Things like meditation, chanting and the reading of Buddhist texts are some of the ways I engage with Buddhism. But rituals are not my main focus.

If rituals aren’t your main focus then what is?

Finding the path out of suffering. Buddhist teaching is centred on the idea that suffering is based on how you react to conditioned factors both external and internal.

How do you find the path out of suffering?

By trying to focus on the self and the self in the moment rather than what’s going on around you. The goal is to end suffering but I don’t expect to achieve it in this life. It’s more about minimising suffering that comes from my own thoughts and interactions with the world around me.

Buddhism can be a vehicle for dealing with mental health issues in that way. There’s a lot of truth and comfort for me in the idea that everything is impermanent, that mental states are conditioned not natural. That they won’t be there forever and to be patient about that.

Of course, the idea that suffering is about your response to things rather than your circumstances can be quite a judgemental position to have. It’s one I kind of approach with caution because it doesn’t exactly take into account the role of things like racism, discrimination and privilege, especially as I see Buddhism as a compassionate practice.

How is Buddhism a compassionate practice?

Well it’s not just about alleviating your own suffering but alleviating the suffering of others. Trying not to hurt others in your daily life. So, for me, social justice is actually a way of practising Buddhism. The traditional understanding of Buddhism is that it’s about eliminating hatred, anger etc. from within yourself. So some Buddhists monks can be quite withdrawn from society. The more progressive view, the one I engage with is that suffering can also be societal and that by engaging in social justice, you’re alleviating social suffering.

How do you practise social justice as a Buddhist?

Personally? I guess as a journalist, I try to write about issues that I think aren’t getting as much attention as others, about racism and discrimination. Things that aren’t being talked about. It can kind of be a contradictory thing for me because engaging with those kinds of issues does make me angry which can be seen as against Buddhist teaching…

So how do you negotiate that contradiction?

Well, it isn’t really a contradiction for me because you’re becoming angry about a person or a system that causes suffering for others. I don’t enjoy being pissed off at racism. The end goal isn’t to hate someone but seeing that person or system is causing suffering and injustice to other people does make me angry.

I do try to avoid anger in my daily life but in everyday life you do have people that frustrate you or make you angry. It’s obviously not always something that you can control.

So you would say that you don’t follow all Buddhist teachings?

I guess I do pick and choose the teachings that I follow. I’m critical about it. I don’t just read Buddhist texts and believe everything I’m told just because it’s written there. But Buddhism doesn’t have strict dogmas and everyone has a different path towards the goal of ending suffering.

Which specific teachings do you find it hard to follow?

Well, the fifth teaching is not consuming alcohol…

But you consume it.

Yeah. [laughs]

Why?

I guess, it’s cultural, it’s social and I enjoy it. But also, the precepts of Buddhism are there as a guide to treat others with respect, to not hurt other people. So don’t murder, don’t steal. I think the idea behind the fifth precept is that by consuming alcohol, you’re diminishing your ability to treat others with respect. So the main issue is not harming others whether drunk or sober. Obviously intoxication can be harmful to your mindfulness at times as well.

Going back to meditation: mediation as a part of mindfulness is something which is being practised a lot nowadays. Do you see it as being different to the way you practise meditation?

The way mindfulness is practised in a Western corporate setting can be quite disrespectful to the way in which Buddhism was originally intended to be practised, I think. In a corporate setting, meditation is detached from its Buddhist origins to promote the pursuit of capitalist greed and success which kind of forsakes its original purpose. I think trying to chase material or success or happiness that way is a fraught exercise that will never actually satisfy.

Also Buddhist meditation is a practice that comes with underlying beliefs behind it, if you remove the teachings and just practice the breathing it will always be something different.

What do you think about Western representations of Buddhism, more generally?

Well, Australian society is a very anti-theist society. It’s kind of like…having faith is like believing that fairies live in the sky. You know, blind faith – being an idiot. Don’t you think so?

This is a big question but why do you think that is?

Well, I think we come from a Christian society and most people are disillusioned by it and that disillusionment is projected on to other religions.

But then…Buddhism also has this thing where it’s kind of hip and cool and indie. You know how you go into a bar in the city and there are just these huge Buddhas staring down at you as you drink? I don’t think people would feel so comfortable with a giant Jesus or Islamic scripture in that same space.

Why do you think people perceive Buddhism as being cool?

Well, Buddhism’s never been a historic political threat to the West in the same way say, Islam was during the crusades. And the West has a real romanticism of Buddhism and this real want to remove Buddhism as a religion and portray it as a philosophy, which it’s not white peoples place to do. You know, going back to the thing about living in an anti-theist society, it’s people trying to make themselves more comfortable with the idea of having faith by calling it a philosophy.

But then, any kind of appropriation of the East is trendy. You know, whether that’s a cool statue, interesting flag or yoga position. So when people realize that I’m Buddhist they often say, “That’s so cool!” It’s a response which treats someone’s faith like a trend or a fad. I don’t think Buddhism is cool. It’s something that I find helpful and believe in and which many other people do too.

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