Originally published in the Malaysian Insider
A few years ago I visited Sri Lanka to attend a meeting with its opposition coalition of the social democratic persuasion. I was at that time running the secretariat of the Network of Social Democracy in Asia, a coalition of political parties, organisations and scholars in the region espousing social democratic values.
At the conference in Colombo, I met a Buddhist monk in the familiar saffron garb of the order. What a strange place to meet a monk, at a political conference discussing rights of minority, war crimes and welfare economy. I approached the monk politely asking him about his political involvement. I found out that he was a member of one of the socialist parties. I also found out from him that there were even monks elected into Parliament. This raised my curiosity even further. Being raised in a Chinese Buddhist family (I am a Christian), I’d thought that monks are not supposed to “interfere” in worldly affairs and should instead devote themselves to the spiritual path of enlightenment.
When I enquired further, he said that when the masses suffer, it is even more needful for the so-called enlightened ones to rise up in compassion to end sufferings.
This is a simple and yet profound principle.
To have compassion is not patronising. Compassion comes from the compound Latin word, co-passion. It literally means to suffer together. Our fate as a community and as a nation is inextricably bound to each other. How can we feel good when our neighbours are being persecuted? How can we feel glad when our friends suffer? It is compassion which compels us to act against injustice and oppression we see around us. Simply because, like my friend the monk in Sri Lanka, we feel the suffering as if it was inflicted upon us. A society cannot function with one part feeling good while the other suffers.
If we are not convinced, perhaps, Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem may serve as a reminder, or rather warning, to us all. He was writing of the indifference of the German intellectual community against the atrocity of the Nazis. His warning: our apathy will eventually catch up with us.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Wesak Day, may we all be filled with compassion to show an act of kindness to our neighbours. And if we are wondering what kind of act? We can give all sorts of things to our suffering neighbours. But perhaps the Dhammapada offers a timely message, “sabbe dana dhamma danam jinati”, that is, of all gifts, the gift of the truth excels. In a time when we are constantly bombarded with falsehood, whether in the news or on TV or even on the Internet, we have the responsibility to speak the truth even if it costs us. When the lines between right and wrong are blurred, when criminals go free and those who seek justice and righteousness are imprisoned, we have the responsibility to speak the truth even if it costs us. Because one simply cannot feel good and stay in our comfort zones when others are feeling pain.
And let us remember, embracing and speaking the truth is not sedition. Preventing people from speaking the truth, that is seditious.
Happy Wesak Day. May all be well and happy, and compassionate.
* Steven Sim Chee Keong is the MP for Bukit Mertajam. He was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum in 2012.