By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
It is rather superfluous to have debates on a question of ‘justice’ when our central issue is one of unappeased hunger.
Dealing with hunger first
There is hunger for food; and there is hunger for wealth, power, position and influence. In this rat race there is an insatiable appetite for ‘more’ and ‘better’ things – but hardly any concern for sharing. So long as our temples of ‘democracy’, ‘justice’, ‘nirvana’, ‘progress’ and a growing culture of five star hotels can co-exist with one third of our children being malnourished, we cannot afford to speak of one society – still less of ‘rights.’ Our true values have excluded social justice and integrated the egoistic pursuit of personal satisfaction to the fullest measure.
The Second Republican Constitution of 1978 has now unraveled to its logical conclusion. In the immortal words of Dr. N. M. Perera we are fully committed to a bogus value system which ensures “justice for the rich and freedom for the poor to starve.” While the poor hunger for food, a voice and access to justice, the rich hunger for better food, leisure, entertainment and power. It is all about food for the body and food for the mind; and we desire more and more variety as we stumble upon the feasts and riches only the kings and nobles enjoyed in the past. Both the rich and poor are essentially united by a mindless hunger, and alienated by everything else.
We discuss matters of justice as if we were a society of human beings. My humble submission is that we are not; that this talk about justice is yet another aspect of the self-deception we have clothed ourselves with. Not having asked ourselves what it takes to be human we have not attained to this status yet.
Truth of violence
The noble truth of suffering is inextricably interwoven with the truth of violence. Nyanaponika Mahathera (Four Nutriments of Life) referred to the reality of violence involved in our incessant search for food:
If we wish to eat and live, we have to kill or tacitly accept that others do the killing for us. When speaking of the latter, we do not refer merely to the butcher or the fisherman. Also for the strict vegetarian’s sake, living beings have to die under the farmer’s ploughshare, and his lettuce and other vegetables have to be kept free of snails and other “pests,” at the expense of these living beings who, like ourselves, are in search of food. A growing population’s need for more arable land deprives animals of their living space and, in the course of history, has eliminated many a species. It is a world of killing in which we live and have a part. We should face this horrible fact and remain aware of it in our Reflection on Edible Food. It will stir us to effort for getting out of this murderous world…
Beginning with this way we get our food we can go on to the whole structure of human society and ask ‘on what do we stand?’ This question is important because we assume in our critical mode, at least at the sub conscious level, that we are respectable men and women of worth. We have learnt to separate the good from bad in our society under the terrible influence of the criminal law. As such we take this frivolous attitude that individuals are to blame for the chaotic state of society. In fact all individuals – however powerful externally, are powerless inside. We would never concede that we are suffering together because we are collectively culpable.
Society is founded on violence
Unlike Gandhi we don’t really see ourselves in the mirror. Unlike Gandhi we cannot quite realize that we all stand, both historically and currently, on a flawed foundation of violence. Sociologists are fond of saying that the political history of mankind is nothing but a history of crimes. The present politicians (all over the world) are simply perpetuating this ignoble tradition (either with or without imperial immunity or backing.) The Mahatma rather than “9/11” was the defining incident of our recent political history and he expressed this saying ““generally history is the chronicle of kings and their wars; the future history will be the history of man.”
In 1894, M.K. Gandhi, a timid 25 year old, was reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You when he found the passages dealing with the torture of hungry peasants by a Provincial Governor in Russia. By then this internationally reputed Russian Count was finishing his life and search for enduring principles for man who had become distanced from God with the emergence of scientific materialism in the West. When Gandhi read the lines below, he became to the aging Russian, what Lenin became to Marx,
Fate, as though on purpose, after my two years’ tension of thought in one and the same direction, for the first time in my life brought me in contact with this phenomenon, which showed me with absolute obviousness in practice what had become clear to me in theory, namely that the whole structure of our life is not based, as men who enjoy an advantageous position in the existing order of things are fond of imagining, on any juridical principles, but on the simplest, coarsest violence, on the murder and torture of men.
We are conditioned by a culture of entitlement. This may be based on feudal privilege and family wealth, the more superficial modern idea of rights or plain robbery. Having thus made ourselves respectable a finding that we are nothing but hairy apes driven by selfishness, aggression and violence to get what we want may come as a shock. Yet this is who we are; this is the bottom line; this is square one. Of course every human society has to go through materialism before graduating into a level of balance and sanity. But for this even materialism has to follow certain norms – like mutual affection between human beings and basic trust. No society has developed without them.
Brute force and violence are not the basis for a sustainable society. The hungry dogs let loose upon the powerless today will eventually turn on the powerful. Negative and destructive energy will follow its own rules. It will not make fine distinctions in the end.
Test of morality
The acid test of morality is our behavior when we are hungry; hungry for food, for sex, for belonging, for acceptance and for power and control. Do we observe any rules of restraint in these situations or none? Have we lost sight of that victory in our heart when we know in our own court of conscience that we have done the right thing? Or are we still playing to the gallery like intoxicated clowns; heroes to all except ourselves?
The effort to tame this animal energy with external controls – whether these consist of those western ideas of propriety or the more ancient five precepts the Buddha laid down – have failed. Public life, private enterprise and the Sasana are simply opportunities for personal advancement. They are ladders to be climbed – nothing more. The time has arrived to stop talking about ladders and start talking about what is inside the men and women who climb them. This is the environment that must be probed – not by asking who did what and taking up fingers of accusation against each other.
We have to simply ask ourselves who we are – not when our stomachs are full, but when we are hungry and how we set about getting what we want. We have to experience and know ourselves at this point of pain and suffering; without extinguishing it with mindless food, drink and talk.
Voluntary poverty, self restraint and non violence
In the Buddha’s time in India mendicancy or voluntary poverty was a powerful expression of non-violence and human interdependence. This is a valuable point our pious kings overlooked when they guaranteed the economic security of the Buddhist priesthood with land grants in perpetuity. With the death of mendicancy within the priesthood, society itself lost its spiritual backbone and frame of reference.
It is the resultant drift away from reality which has created this pseudo society. Every social institution is in crisis starting with the family. The functions of parents, teachers, family and friends have been replaced with masks and figureheads. They are either absent, or if present, demoralized and disempowered. Both family and society outside are monsters from whom the children have to be ‘protected’. And so called protection is a mere exchange of institutional dysfunction for family dysfunction. These are not allegations against anyone but a simple exercise in collective self-criticism.
We do not know the value of human relationships and institutions we are destroying today. And the only way to know their value is to go on a fast and experience hunger and deprivation without judgment or reactions. To do this is to know our self and our dependence on others. This is to be blessed with gratitude and happiness for what is without getting tied up in knots over what ought to be. But the more we get lost in the distractions of the senses placed in our way – the good life, the entertainment and sports – the more we stand in danger of losing our deeper selves and our connectedness to each other.
The Muslims fast in the holy month of Ramadan and the Buddhist monks observe a fast after 12 noon every day. Both Hindus and Christians observe penances for purifying the soul and strengthening the heart. For the atheists, humanists and free thinkers also I say that there is nothing intellectual or mystic about hunger. It is direct and hits you in the gut. And it has a startling efficacy for both brutalizing and ennobling us. To delay our gratification even for ten seconds can reveal a deeper human being we never knew existed.
Today the whole society is poor because we have not realized the commonality of the pain of hunger and the suffering in our hearts. Our choice is quite simple. We can undertake some form of voluntary poverty or abstinence today and strengthen ourselves for the hard times ahead; or we can undergo deeper forms of enforced and ignoble poverty tomorrow without freedom, rights or dignity.
We can fool ourselves with discussions about justice in air conditioned rooms. But the moment we step out into nature elemental forces like sun, rain and wind hit us directly in the face. It is the same when hunger hits us and we are face to face with the tiger within. It is in acknowledging this defenselessness, this utter vulnerability that we develop qualities of courage and compassion. When our hearts are not dominated by our own hunger and climb up the social ladder and we can step outside this little self to embrace our greater self, our community – then we are qualified to talk of justice. Not before.
Where individuals who hold public office are dominated by personal hunger and poverty and are therefore committed to a path of violence rules of public law cannot address this dysfunction within that individual and the group to which s/he belongs. In addressing any problem we must begin at the beginning – not in the middle or at the end. Enacting dramas that do not get to the root causes of any problem is simply a waste of money and a waste of time. Courts as a whole are familiar with this folly.