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" Cultures and Development ", n° 22, June 1995.

Rubem Cesar Fernandes
"Cultures and Development", n° 13/14, May 1993.


"Cultures and Development", n° 13/14, May 1993.


In Tokyo, Cultures and Development's editor had the opportunity to meet people from SVA-Sotoshu Volunteer Association. SVA is a Japanese Buddhist NGO of a Soto Zen sect doing development work in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand. Here follow extracts from their dialogue.

C & D - What work do you do as an NGO ?

SVA - Our NGO works in Indo-China with Buddhist monks. These monks of Theravada Buddhism are launching outstanding activities to foster the independence of local communities. We want to support them and also learn from them because they can give us lessons, in Japan, to go beyond modern progress and acquire more wisdom. We, as a Japanese NGO, attempt to support "Kaihotsen".
The word development in Japanese is "Kaihatsen".
But in Buddhism we say "Kaihôtsen". With an "a", the word is objective. But with "o", it is subjective and it means to develop oneself rather than to be developed. When we read "No life without roots", we felt the same notion was present. Kaihotsen is "internal flourishing in harmony with nature".

In Indo-China, our NGO tries to pay respect to localities. Our mimeography project in Cambodia is an example of the cultural assistance we bring, allowing local people to communicate. Even Mhong refugees were able to communicate thanks to a simple mimeograph machine. People thus create their culture. Our NGO has "only" given this simple devise so as to assist peoples' activities. That, to us, is enough. People help themselves.

A balance must be struck between the material and spiritual. For refugee camps, cultural activity is essential to avert chaos. I will tell you an anecdote which illustrates how vitally important culture is to people. One day, in our library, a mother softly tried to slip a book in Khmer language into her bag. We did have to object but for her this book was a life buoy. She was about to migrate, To speak to her child about her country when installed in a third country was essential to her. That is why she wanted that book so badly and even tried to steal it. This example shows how important culture can be for the very survival of people.

C & D - How do you feel about the economic and technical progress of Japan ?

SVA - The world sees Japan as a great success and a model for the Third World. But our values were destroyed under the slogan of "catching-up" with Europe. We "succeeded" but lost many important things. The impact of modern economies on Buddhism was fatal. The five dragons of the Fast East (or NIC'S) inspire us with the awesome feeling now that they too will pay a price ! In Japan, we lost so much ! Alienation is fatal to us. I hope the Third World will not follow our model.

C & D - Can Buddhism offer an alternative to capitalism, now that this system reigns supreme but is leading our planet to a tragedy ? At least, can it offer a critique of dominant thinking which can help us ?

SVA - I think that Buddhism and capitalism are incompatible. But, concretely, Buddhism in Japan is too weak today. The Japanese religions are cornered into the Japanese society. Our Constitution dictates that religions cannot play a political role.

C & D - Still political leaders everywhere in the world know our world is following a dangerous course. A man like Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, recently called upon intellectuals, artists and spiritual leaders in Europe to speak out, to offer other perspectives, more sense and depth.

SVA - Of course, some people speak out. And we need networking these people because there are many restrictions in Japanese society on social criticism. To cope with capitalism, the control of desires is essential. Capitalism is based on infinite desires. But how can you limit your desires ? I would say we need to know that "we have enough" ! Also we need to acquire the idea that humans and nature live together. We are "with others" : this is a key notion. We must think of symbioses in diversity, both in terms of nature and of culture. Buddhism says that we cannot exist without relation with others.

C & D - Your interest in Network Cultures is based precisely on what ?

SVA - What we like about your views on Cultures and Development is that, as Europeans, you criticise the eurocentric view on development.

C & D - May I ask whether you like that because it pleases your Japanese pride to hear a critique of Europe or because you believe that also Japan has perhaps been and still is ethnocentric ? In other words, do you apply our criticism to Japan itself ?

SVA - The concept of Development Aid is quite new in Japan. Many Japanese studied abroad and were stimulated by Western ODA. But they felt there were limitations in this ODA concept, in the whole idea of development co-operation ! Thus, our NGO sensed that culture should be taken into account. But we could not spell out clearly what was wrong with development aid. Critical ideas on culture and development from Europe helped us to clarify our views.

C & D - Can you give an example ?

SVA - We printed 1.000.000 books on Buddhist classical texts for refuges camps in Cambodia/Thailand. But our constituency and fellow NGOs laughed at us. Through your Network, we read that some NGOs in Europe had also sent books containing holy Buddhist scriptures so as to re-equip the libraries of the pogodas in Cambodia which had been destroyed by Pol Pot. This was encouraging and interesting.

C & D - Do you limit culture to the past ?

SVA - No. Culture can change. It is influenced by the whole world. We must not limit culture to tradition. Our notion should not be rigid. We must reinforce peoples' capacity to evolve and choose. Self-esteem is important for all people as well as the Buddhist's notion of "enough". By the way, we are curious : what about Christianity ? Do Christians also speak about limitation of desires and putting a break ("enough") to consumption ?

C & D - I think this is a jolly good question ! Going beyond modernity and its craving for limitless accumulation and consumption is, to me, a major challenge for European culture and for Christian spirituality. We must learn to dissociate ourselves and our spirituality from some of the negative aspects of modernity. Buddhism may help Christians and Westerners in general to rediscover their own roots.

" Cultures and Development ", n° 22, June 1995.


The NGOs territory at Flamengo Park, in Rio de Janeiro, became a "holy village" in the night of June 4th 1992. Twenty five different religious traditions joined in a twelve hours long celebration, from 8 p.m. through 8 a.m. of the next morning. According to security, around thirty five thousands entered the gates to be a part of the all night vigil.
Each religious group took possession of one of the tents especially built for the Global Forum, making of it a worship space where the earth could be celebrated according to that tradition's particular rites. Walking around the tents, as many chose to do, one entered the forest of symbols that have composed the deepest layers of world history.
The experiment touched on fragile borderlines. Belief differences that have been the source of so many conflicts were brought awfully close for the vigil. The solemn eucharist of the Roman Catholics (with Teilhard de Chardin's Mass for the World's Evolution) happened a few yards away from the largest to date gathering of Candomblé priestesses. The first time in the Americas, the Catholic hierarchy shared a celebration with the religious heirs to the African slaves. Austere Lutherans, led by the president to the World Lutheran Federation, worshiped next door to Brazilian spiritists. Hindu groupings, such as Ananda Marga, Brahma Kumaris, Sai Baba Movement, Guinana Mandiram, Hare Krishna endured their differences, rneditating or dancing close by Japanese (Rissho Kosei-Kai) and Tibetan Buddhism could meet Synchretic religions, such as the Japanese Brazilian Messianic Church or the Amazonian Santo Daime (generously sharing the hallucinogenous "ayuasca") held a respectful presence in crowded tents.

An all-night vigil for the earth

"A religious Woodstock", announced a local newspaper the day after. Such a wealth of symbols could indeed evoke a taste from the sixties. However, this was not an "alternative" demonstration. Don Luciano Mendes de Almeida, the president of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, spent the night in vigil. The conservative archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Cardinal Eugenio Sales, sent an official representation. Besides heterodox Reb Zalman from Philadelphia and his disciple Rabi Bonder, from Rio de Janeiro, the local Jewish establishment was equally present. Hundreds of religious authorities, from churches and sects alike, showed an equivalent spiritual earnest, experiencing the enchantment of a global encounter that enjoys the value of innumerable diversity.
Around 3 a.m., the communities left their tents to meet each other in the various open spaces. They did this through a variety of forms : music, dancing, in small groups' conversations, in painting, in sculpturing, visiting (and often joining) those rituals that would not stop for the interval. After two hours of exchanges, they went back to their tents, to prepare for the common celebration at sun rise. They had been ceremoniously together in the beginning, at the open air amphitheater of Flamengo Park. They had been called by the sound of Dijiridoo, the Australia aborigean wind instrument that makes one hear the depths of the earth. That was the only sign of unity expressed throughout the opening ceremony, a unity that-cannot be named. Solemn invocations, in the languages and rites of so many religions cultures, recalled the astonishing diversity inscribed in the human search for the divine. The crystal clear voice of the Brazilian singer Olivia Byington and the earthy sound of Dijiridoo recovered the sense of unity.
Together again at dawn, they stayed in silence for some time, listening to the birds, while waiting for the arrival of his Holiness the Dalaï Lama. They heard the words by the candid Tibetan king and by the humble Brazilian bishop, Don Helder Camara. They also heard the hawling sax of Paul Winter, held hands and literally cried to the singing of Olivia Byington, and saluted the new day joyfully dancing to the rhythm of Hindu mantras.
Something very unique and promising happened that night.

Rubem Cesar Fernandes

"Cultures and Development", n° 13/14, May 1993.


Many activists feel uneasy with the word 'spirituality', and quite rightly so. The word 'spiritual' appears counter-posed to the physical world. This is a false separation. But for want of another word I shall use it all the same.

In more ways than one the activist is in crisis today. The guiding ideologies inspired by Marxism and other streams of radical socialist thought which played so crucial a role in the seventies, find themselves inadequate. (... ) Having condemned capitalism, those who looked to the socialist giants, are far less clear now.

Technology is also becoming a vexed question. The old dictum that the political Right will misuse technology and the Left will use it in the genuine interests of humanity does not hold as much conviction as earlier. Some technologies, like the nuclear one for example, are proving to be totally detrimental to our very survival. Bhopal and Minamata are further questions : are they merely tragic accidents or are they symbols of a far deeper malaise ?

Some activists are caught in a dilemma : a return to older ways with organic farming and simpler forms of technology, or a critical continuance with the present tendency. Or is there another alternative ?

International capitalism continues to relentlessly propagate the consumer ethic. Nobody is spared from these values. Competition, often ruthless. The individual as the centre of the Universe. The United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights is an example. A liberal individualistic perception of rights which forgets the notion of rights which other traditions have held sacred : the right of specific traditions, the rights of the cosmos.
Poverty continues to rage as before among billions of human beings. The structures that marginalise and oppress are becoming more and more sophisticated in their methods. Human rights violations are blatantly carried out in all societies.

Homogenisation seems to be the principle. Differences have to be wiped out. The 'other' cannot exist. Either perish or homogenise. Earlier the European worldview dominated, now the American one does. Non-western cultures are being brutally transformed.

The interests of international capitalism will not tolerate any soul but its own. And this soul is composed of loudness, information and more information. Loud sounds, loud colours, loud lights, loud sex, violence-stimulating, over-stimulating. Taking us progressively from the real. Fragmenting everybody.

But the world is also undergoing transformation; transformations which suggest hope. We may be sometimes unsure, even ambiguous in assessing our work and its implications. But we have to still admit that it is considerable, and often very solid. Let us look briefly at some of these transformations.

The notion of mass participation in all the critical issues facing society is slowly making headway. In thousands of villages, factories, slums, in women's groups, among fish workers, decisions are debated at a popular level. This is a major area of activist contribution. Will these ideas lead to more genuine political and economic democracy, to decentralisation ? Possibly. There is a good chance.

A male dominated world is beginning to crack and feminism is talking about values which may fundamentally affect our way of being. False dichotomies between the rational and the intuitive, between thinking and feeling are now under attack.

Indigenous peoples are reasserting their old truths. That the Earth is mother and cannot be violated, brutalised. The indigenous peoples of the Pacific talk through stories and not through a language which is merely cerebral. Their songs, their struggles, their Gods become part of their stories, at once personal and collective.
We are learning that a symbiotic relationship exists between humans and the Earth. They are each part of the other. The various environmental struggles hopefully bear testimony to this conviction. Some have even gone further and talk about Eco-Spirituality.

The clasp of sisterhood and brotherhood

The spiritual has to do with 'emptiness' and with matters of ultimate meaning. It has to do with the clasp of sisterhood and brotherhood. It has to do with pain and joy. It has to do with freedom. It has to do with striving to be free, and walking with the other on roads to freedom. It is an experience of the here and now and the beyond. "Lead us from the Unreal to the Real", says an old Vedic chant.

The illusions of our consumer society, the legitimisation of power for narrow personal ends in the name of the struggle, hiding behind words and expressions because we are afraid to confront ourselves, afraid to be creative, afraid to be free - all this is the Unreal. We can say the right things, sound hopeful and be cynics at heart.

It is a despairing world we live in, and hope must be wrung from this despair. Otherwise hope may be mere fizz, another cliché.

What can help sustain hope and authenticity ? The Vedic chant says : "Lead us from the Unreal to the Real" - What constitutes the Real ? The values that we live, free from clichés. Owning up, at least to ourselves, our contradictions and ambiguities. The capacity to feel deeply and intensively. To experience real pain and joy. To respond to the pain and joy of the other. To respond politically, to respond humanly.
Where does the activist find the Real ? In the struggle, the direct involvement to transform society. In the struggle that began here with the Minamata tragedy, in the struggles of indigenous peoples in Asia and the Pacific, in women articulating new experiences and understandings, in the struggle to green our Earth.

The Real is found in any experience that is creative and intensely human. The Real is found in transforming our social environment, and in so doing transforming ourselves. It is found in transforming our environment. Sometimes personal depth experiences are to the fore, sometimes social transformation gains ascendance Both go together, with the emphasis being different at different moments of our personal and social history.

These depth experiences and confrontations are experienced in personal and political struggles, in the energies of cultural action, in popular theatre, singing, poetry, music, dance. In the art of loving, caring. It is found in silent contemplation, in prayer, in what is authentically religious.

If all that is liberating is spiritual, then the activist cannot do without spirituality To the extent
that religions are authentically liberating, to that extent they are genuinely spiritual. If we discard the cultural accretions of the major religions in Asia and the Pacific, we may find profound truths and insights. They help us to see ourselves clearly and critically. They tell us that in the act of saving society we must also save ourselves. They teach us to listen to rivers, see the sap throbbing in trees, touch the Earth. They teach us to see suffering and oppression around us and respond creatively and intensely.


"Cultures and Development", n° 13/14, May 1993.

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