A Lesson from Waisak

Today, Buddhists across the country will celebrate Waisak, to commemorate the birth of the Lord Buddha, his enlightenment and passing more than 2,500 years ago. As in the past the faithful gathering at Borobudur Temple in Magelang and other areas will include those who traveled from other countries, an annual reminder of old creeds that transcend national borders. Today in Indonesia there are barely 2 million followers of Buddhism, or 1 percent of our vast population, though Buddhism is known as Indonesia’s oldest religion, apart from Hinduism. As the state retains its policy of acknowledging only six (from earlier five) religions, those who would otherwise declare themselves Taoists, for instance, are also thought to be included in that 1 percent figure, having officially to be Buddhist on their identity cards as an article in the Opinion explains.

Though not all faiths may feel acknowledged on a par with Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians, every public religious holiday is testimony to the country’s official policy of recognizing the religious identity of all Indonesians. This is proof that we are supposedly a harmonious nation upholding pluralism and tolerance as a central part of our daily lives.

Progress in this regard has proven to be slow — the heartland of Java, and other regions for that matter, have seen violence when it comes to living with religious differences, and even differences within one faith.

Reformasi, marked by the fall of authoritarian ruler Soeharto, brought about more freedom of expression; but so far it is only freedom of the fittest. As Muslims have grown to become the majority, some feel they have the right to decide what is right and wrong. Last week, as a result of this phenomenon, members of the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect, which the dominant group has declared as non-Muslim, sought asylum at the consulates of Australia and Germany in Denpasar. They said they were hunted down like criminals.

So much for harmony

The celebration of Waisak reminds us of the universal message of peace developed by Siddharta Gautama, the Lord Buddha — and today’s contrasting realities. Though many of us do not understand Buddhism, Javanese of different creeds are no strangers to the discipline of self-restraint from worldly pleasures, as taught in Buddhism, given the tradition of syncretism of all faiths that came to Java. But how come we are so far from self-restraint whenever there’s a chance to bully minorities?

Elsewhere, the monks of Myanmar have brought us a little more understanding of their mission of “active love and kindness” — a sense of duty that has often forced them out of the sanctuary of monasteries into clashes with abusive rulers. The denying of aid by those rulers of the Buddhist nation to thousands of cyclone victims reflects our own experience; that adhering to faith is not a priority when tyrants only wish to ensure they remain unchallenged.

In the modern pluralistic state that is Indonesia, our leaders have yet to resume the firm stance regarding respect of all faiths, which our founders fathers introduced in the Constitution. This is a nod to the fact that those who shout loudest bring the votes these days, never mind if it means crushing some minority rights.

Tuesday’s message from our leaders will likely reaffirm the state’s commitment to bring about harmony and recognition of citizens of different creeds. But much more needs to be done to translate pluralism on the ground. Until then the constitutional right of freedom of worship will remain mere words for our minorities.