Satish Kumar: compassion to think the world

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

A former Jain monk and promoter of voluntary simplicity, the famous Indian activist talks about his relationship to Buddhism and his possible responses to the challenges of the XNUMXst century.

What is your relationship to Buddhism?

I was born Jain. Jainism and Buddhism are like two twin brothers, 90% of the principles are the same: Jainism puts, for example, non-violence and compassion as primary values, even before truth or any other principle. It is the same in Buddhism. So my relationship with Buddhism starts from my very early childhood: from the age of 12 or 13, I read the life of Buddha, Dhammapada and many sutras. Later, I became very close to Thich Nhat Hanh ; I met him regularly for several years, before he became very well known. I particularly remember having met him in Paris when he lived there, in the 70s. I am still very sensitive to his teachings: my wife, June, often returns to Plum Village, and I myself will be in November, for “Earth Week”. I think Buddhism in general, and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh in particular, are deeply sustainable and ecological, at their core. There is this famous dialogue between Buddha and his son, Rahula, who asks him where he learned his wisdom, his compassion and his forgiveness. And Buddha answers: "By touching the earth". It is the "Bhumisparsha Mudra", the gesture of touching the earth. For me, Buddha was the first pioneer of ecological consciousness. The Dalai Lama is another great teacher of ecology and compassion, spirituality and benevolence, social justice, human rights, and the rights of nature!

Have you ever met him?

Yes, many times, in London, Northern Ireland, Delhi and different places. Other teachers also inspired me a lot. Like Chogyam Trungpa, whom I also met and who influenced me a lot. He is both a thinker, a writer and a wisdom activist, he is a very important person. I also met several Tibetan Lamas, such as Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopha or Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, whom I really appreciated. The Tibetan Book of Life and Death. I am also good friends with Theravada teachers, like Venerable Ajahn Chah in Thailand, and I spend a lot of time reading Theravada texts. So yes, in the end, Buddhism is a real source of inspiration for me.

What are the precepts that seem most relevant to you today for thinking about today's world?

I would say karuna, compassion, which seems to me to be the most important principle for ecological balance. Because today humanity has lost that compassion. We are no longer sensitive and caring towards other human beings nor towards the forest, rivers or animals. Compassion is the supreme ecological principle. This is the active and positive reverse side of non-violence: with non-violence, you contain and do not hurt. But how do you do that, if you don't have compassion in your heart? Without compassion, non-violence is not possible, we cannot separate them. The next step is love.

In your latest book (1), translated and published in French last year, you claim "a new trinity for our time" around the following triptych: Earth, soul and society. Why and what is the need?

Today we have a very rational and Cartesian way of looking at the world. This is particularly true in France, for example, where the triptych “Liberté-Égalité-Fraternité” carries very social and political values, without having acquired this kind of ecological and spiritual awareness. This rationality has become too strong, too important and too exaggerated, it has become dangerous. This is why I propose this new trinity, which brings these ecological and spiritual dimensions, both more intimate and more holistic, to this scientific, rational and political consciousness. This trinity needs to be inclusive, it is done on a personal scale – it is the soul – on a natural scale – the Earth – and on a collective scale – society. In France, people understand what society is, but nobody talks about the Earth. Now, we must have reverence for nature, for life. We do not measure nature in terms of interest for human beings, it is not a resource for the economy. It is a source of life. This is why this new trinity – Earth, soul, society – proposes an internal transformation which then generates an external, collective transformation.

Buddhism, however, refuses the idea of ​​the soul. Could you replace it with the idea of ​​consciousness?

When I speak of "soul", I do not mean a solid, rigid and fixed entity. Often words depend on how you interpret them. Thich Nhat Hanh sometimes uses the word "soul" (soul in English), as he sometimes uses the word God (God), whereas in traditional Buddhism, there is none! But Thich Nhat Hanh uses these words. For me, the soul is the conscience, the intelligence, the imagination, the spirit, all this belongs to this same idea. The soul is not an entity or an object, it is rather a value, a principle. To put it in Buddhist language, I would say that I don't use the soul in terms of “atman” – translated into English as “Soul”. The soul is not only the atman, which means this kind of entity that moves from one point to another, but it is everywhere, more diffuse. The soul is not in the body, it's the opposite: it's the body that is in the soul… So we can replace the soul with consciousness! Consciousness is a quality of the soul and vice versa. The soul also includes all metaphysical and non-physical dimensions, such as consciousness, spirit, imagination, intelligence, etc. All of these things are part of the soul.

You are also a great disciple of Gandhi's philosophy, do you see any parallels there with Buddhism?

Gandhi led a life of sobriety and compassion, in service to humanity and planet Earth, with respect for the poorest, women and all living beings. So, it can be said that he lived completely in accordance with Buddhist principles and values. But we should not try to make Buddhism a kind of label or brand.

That is to say ?

Buddhism is not an “-ism”! Buddhism is not a philosophy or a religion, it goes beyond that, it is a way of life. The Dalai Lama says it himself: you don't have to be a Buddhist, you just have to be a good person! It's enough. A Buddhist should not become dogmatic or narrow-minded, he should not lock himself into a separate group of society. There is no "Buddhism", only the teachings of Buddha, which tell us to be good, compassionate and benevolent. And if you are, then you are a Buddhist without necessarily calling yourself a Buddhist!

“Compassion is the supreme ecological principle. This is the active and positive reverse side of non-violence: with non-violence, you contain and do not hurt. But how do you do that, if you don't have compassion in your heart? »

Buddhism is a dharma, which is sometimes assimilated to "religion" in the West. I don't think that's a good translation. One of the purposes of religion is to bind people together, to form groups: if you believe in this particular dogma, then you belong to Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or Judaism, with their respective books, etc. Whereas Buddha says: "I speak as a teacher, I am not a prophet, I am a friend". It is the “metta” or “maitri”, friendship. So Buddha is not a prophet in the traditional sense of religions, it is Buddha's disciples who were able to transform him in this way. But Buddha was not a Buddhist! Nor is it a philosophy, which is also a particular discipline, narrow and circumscribed. There is a particular philosophical science, while Buddhism is inclusive of several philosophies. Buddhism is an art of living, a way of living in compassion.

Do you meditate ?

Yes, every day, in the morning. Very important meditation is the medicine of the mind. Meditation serves to be aware of one's state of mind, but also of one's state of heart – it is fundamental to associate the two, we are both mind and heart. Meditation helps to live in the present time, it is its ultimate goal. It's not just sitting down, closing your eyes and crossing your legs for half an hour: meditation aims at a state of awareness and compassion for every word you say, every gesture you make. fact, every thought that one constructs. We are in meditation 24 hours a day, it is not an isolated act or a kind of particular technique! Today, we want to precisely define and delimit each thing: Buddhism becomes a philosophy, meditation a technique… But that is not the meaning of meditation! Meditation is a way of living in awareness, compassion and benevolence, in the present time, by evacuating fears and anger and by cultivating confidence. Meditation, like Buddhism, is an art of living.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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