Buddhists Concerned About Mindfulness ‘Marketing’

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By Kalinga Seneviratne*

This article is the eighth in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN | Lotus News Features) – Mindfulness, the meditative practice, which has its roots in Buddhism as Vipassana Bhavana, encourages people to focus on the present, rather than on the anxieties of the past or future.

In the previous decade, however, it has become somewhat of a fad around the world. Particularly in the U.S., it is now everywhere: in schools, law firms, banks, governments, and even in the U.S. military. They are all offering mindfulness sessions to staff.

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The mindful way to Asean journalism

Published in Straits Times (Singapore) on 24 December 2015

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Lotus

While a new Asean community dawns, a “mindful communication” fad is sweeping across America which has its origins in a philosophy that shaped the Asean civilisations centuries ago.

Americans are now professing to be the new gurus of awareness training that the Buddha taught as Vippassana Meditation over 2,500 years ago. The University of Massachusetts has recently set up a Centre for Mindfulness. It offers a five-day residential intensive programme of “Mindfulness Tools” for a fee of US$625 (S$879). There is no acknowledgement of the Buddhist or Asian origins of its mindfulness practice.

A group of Asian communication scholars and media practitioners are now trying to reclaim their heritage from such appropriation. They gathered at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok this month to develop a “mindful journalism” curriculum for Asia that will bring in ideas and concepts from Buddhist, Confucius and Hindu philosophical traditions.

This project titled “Mindful Communication for Asean Integration” is one that I initiated in association with Chulalongkorn University. It took us over a year to get the support of Unesco’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.

The symposium’s two keynote speakers from Thailand put into perspective the current mindful communication trend.

Phuwadol Piyasilo Bhikku, a communication arts graduate from Chulalongkorn University and a former journalist, who is now a Forest Monk in northern Thailand, noted that mindfulness practised in the West is “a bit problematic” because it is used mainly on an individualistic level to de-stress.

He argued that it has to be accompanied with wisdom (panna).

“Without this moral wisdom, the practice will not be enough to drive us in the right direction to understand suffering and help society,” he added.

Renowned Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa warned that a fixation on mindfulness could lead to something negative, if the training is not accompanied by ethical aspects. “Learning about sila (ethics), greed, hatred and delusion is needed for mindful communication towards sustainable development,” he argued.

In teaching communications, it is also important for young Asians to know the historical contributions Asian civilisations made to humankind. If not, they would live with the delusion that Asia’s ancient wisdom is not relevant to shaping their modern lifestyles.

European colonial education has taught us that democracy originated in ancient Greece, but we are kept in ignorance of the people’s assemblies, known as Samithis and Sabhas, that existed in Vedic societies in India much before that.

And when it comes to mass media, we teach in universities across Asia that it originated with the Gutenberg Bibles printed in movable type in the 15th century in Germany. Again, we ignore the fact that six centuries earlier, the Chinese printed the Buddhist Diamond Sutra on the block type. In fact, it was the Chinese who invented paper and printing, and after the Buddhist cannon Tripitaka was written at Aluvihare in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC, it was the printed word that spread Buddhism across Asia.

Shouldn’t this historical fact be taught as the origin of the mass media?

Retired Malaysian diplomat Ananda Kumaraseri believes that we need to “de-culturalise” the journalist to understand the mind. During a panel discussion, he argued that because today’s problems are created by humans, “we need to train journalists to direct their minds towards the roots of the problems (not sensationalising them)”.

Asia’s ancient philosophies are unique in that these reject the notion of complete adherence to divine intervention. Their teachings are about how to guide one’s minds to be aware of the surroundings. This helps develop compassion towards living beings and hones insight into their suffering. Journalism’s role should be to help alleviate or eradicate such suffering, not sensationalise it.

Chulalongkorn University’s journalism lecturer, Professor Supaporn Phokaew, believes that there is a fundamental flaw in the way journalism is now taught. “We teach students writing and speaking skills, but not listening skills,” she noted. “We need to introduce the teaching of deep listening skills; to practise mindful communication, (they) need to listen to people to relate to society.”

The challenge facing Chulalongkorn’s curriculum developers is to offer this concept of mindful journalism as an ethics- and virtues-based model that is secular in nature. Yet, its spiritual base cannot be ignored, which is the common heritage of Asia.

Ethics and virtues are indeed an important part of the Asian tradition, argues Professor Kwangsoo Park of Wonkwang University in South Korea. Quoting Taoist philosopher Chuangtzu, he argues that the adversary style of journalism could be transformed into a more cooperative and active problem-solving style.

With the West’s “fourth estate” model fast disappearing with the commercialisation of the media, Bhutan’s Royal Thimpu College dean Dorji Wangchuk offered his country’s “contentment” media model as an alternative to help build a caring Asean community.

“Bhutan is building a form of journalism that advocates contentment, community (harmony) and compassion,” Mr Dorji explained. “It will promote news as a social good and not as a commercial commodity – and will not thrive on conflicts, controversies and commercialism.”

These are but nascent strands of thought, but the hope is that they can be developed into a curriculum that will shape the minds and practices of future journalists from the region.

  • The writer was a radio and broadcast journalist in Australia who now teaches regional media systems at Nanyang Technological University.
  • S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian issues.

Carbon Trading – Are Financial “Wizards” Cooking Up Another Scam?

Published in Gateway (Malaysia) in February 2010

Carbon TradingBy Kalinga Seneviratne

In the aftermath of the Copenhagen climate change summit fiasco many accusing fingers have been pointed at China, particularly by the western media, for not been conducive to come to the party to save the world from global warming. But, the truth of the matter may be that it is the western powers that are refusing to come to the party and in fact have been plotting to undermine the Kyoto Protocol which set clear targets for them to reduce greenhouse gases, instead they are trying to pass the burden to developing countries, which both China and India sees as part of.

Behind this plot is a scheme to promote a ‘carbon trading’ regime to mitigate global warming which the Malaysia-based Third World Network (TWN) has described in a briefing paper prepared for the Copenhagen summit as “derivate trading” which are “sold as simple futures contracts”.

While today’s carbon markets are small, if the United States succeed in adopting a carbon trading regime as a major plank of the world’s answer to curbing green house markets, within a few years of being launched, the US carbon market could reach US$ 2 trillion, according to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commissioner Bart Chilton.

“As the global financial crisis has shown, derivatives are not well regulated, and regulations are practically non-existent at a global level” noted TWN.

In a policy brief for developing countries released just before the Copenhagen summit, Martin Khor, the Executive Director of the Geneva based South Centre warned that at the two preparatory meetings held in Bangkok in October and Barcelona in November, almost all the developed countries indicated that they have decided to abandon the Kyoto Protocol (KP). They apparently want to join the United States (who refused to sign the KP) to establish a new agreement, which is likely to be a climb down from the legally binding regime that is the KP.

Thirty two industrialised countries who are members of KP have made internationally legally binding commitments under the KP’s first commitment period to cut their emissions by an aggregate of 5.3 percent by 2012 as compared to 1990 levels, and each country has its own targets to meet. Negotiations have been going on since 2005 under KP’s working group to set these targets for the second commitment period starting in 2013. These were to be completed for signing at the Copenhagen summit. Instead in the lead up to it some developed countries have been spreading misinformation in the media that KP expires in 2012.

Led by the US and now joined by the European Union (EU) and other developed countries, they want to negotiate a new agreement which will be a climb down from legally binding agreement to a loose national pledge and review system. The group of developing countries known as Group of 77 and China have made it clear that this will not be acceptable to them.

Developing countries want the developed countries to cut their emissions by 40 percent by 2020, but figures released by the UN Framework Convention on Climatic Change (UNFCCC) in Barcelona in November indicated that when added up, developed country emission cuts have been between 16 to 23 percent, and if the US is included in the statistics it will aggregate to between 11 to 18 percent.

“Developing countries are aghast at such low levels of commitments,” notes Khor. “Even then these national announcements and pledges are over-stated because a significant part of the reductions will not be done domestically by the developed countries, as they plan to have developing countries undertake some of the emission reductions for them through offsets”.

This is where carbon trading comes in, which is a complicated system that allows developed countries which does not want to make emission reduction domestically to trade away these commitments for the promise of emission reductions in other countries, so that the earth achieves an overall balance in its greenhouse gas emissions.

There are 2 types of carbon trading ‘cap and trade’ and ‘offsetting’. The first refers to schemes implemented by government or intergovernmental organizations such as the European Commission, which hands out licences (carbon permits) to major industries. Instead of cleaning up its act, one polluter can then trade these permits with another who might make ‘equivalent’ changes more cheaply. The European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), which adopts this, was worth US$ 63 billion in 2008 and continues to expand. In the ‘offsetting’ trade, instead of cutting emission at the source, companies, and sometimes international financial institutions, governments and individuals, finance emission-saving project outside their capped area. This may include building hydro-electric dams, paying developing countries not to clear forests or capturing methane from industrial livestock facilities.

Researcher Dan Welch in the book ‘A Buyer’s Guide to Offsets’ says “offsets are an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened”.

Michelle Chan, a researcher at the Friends of the Earth, US, who authored the TWN briefing paper argues that carbon trading would create windfall profits for Wall Street banks and it also has the potential to create a ‘subprime carbon’ market which will lead us to a similar financial crisis like the ‘subprime mortgage’ scandal.

“As carbon markets grow, Wall Street banks will not simply broker in plain carbon, but they will create complex new financial products based on carbon commodities … ‘financial innovations’ will likely outstrip the ability of regulators to keep up” she warns. “Subprime carbon particularly can become a problem because sellers can make a promises ahead of time to deliver carbon credits before the credits are issued, or even sometimes before greenhouse gas emissions have been verified”.

Marianne Lavelle an investigative reporter for the US-based Centre for Policy Integrity in a recent article noted that by the beginning of 2009 Wall Street bankers had 130 lobbyists on Capitol Hill to influence lawmakers to shape climatic change policy in their favour. “Wall Street interests see themselves as brokers, project developers, financiers and consultants in an emission ‘permit’ market, that one federal regulator estimates could reach $2 trillion in value within five years making carbon the world’s most widely traded commodity” she says.

Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environment Network laments that the potential threat of climatic change has turned into an opportunity for profit making. He views this as a new form of colonialism where developing countries will be targeted for rich countries to make profits in the disguise of assisting “development” in poor countries.

“They (carbon credits) rely upon hypothetical baselines that can be manipulated to produce credits for imaginary reduction” Goldtooth warns, adding, “this shifts the responsibility to act from those who have contributed most to the climate problem to those who have contributed lease”.

 

 

 

Singapore: MEGA CHURCH SCANDAL REVEALS RELIGION AS BUSINESS MODEL

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis

Banks

SINGAPORE (IDN) – Over the centuries, all great religious leaders and philosophers, including Jesus Christ, have drawn attention to the evils of excessive greed and taught honesty and integrity to overcome it. The guilty verdict by a Singaporean court in October, convicting six leaders of a large Christian Evangelical Church in a 36 million U.S. dollar fraud case, has raised question marks on whether so-called Mega Churches with thousands of devout followers generously donating to their coffers are a business or a religion?
The City Harvest Church (CHC), which had a congregation of 33,000 followers when the court case started three years ago, but since reduced by half, got embroiled in one of the biggest corruption cases in Singapore’s 50 year history, when its founding pastor Kong Hee and five of his senior staff were charged with misuse of church funds. On October 21, Singapore’s District Courts found all six guilty of acting dishonestly in conspiring to misuse church’s funds running into millions of dollars.
Kong Hee was found guilty of secretly funnelling 18 million dollars of the church’s funds into sham INVESTMENTS to bankroll the controversial pop music career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun. CHC’s finance committee member John Lam, fund manager Chew Eng Han, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, Finance Managers Serina Wee and Sharon Tan were all convicted of devising plans to use a further 19 million dollar to cover the tracks by setting up sham companies.
In delivering the verdict, Judge See Kee Oon described the six as “acting dishonestly” to misuse church funds on a so-called Crossover project – CHC mission to use Ho’s gospel music to evangelise Taiwanese and other Asians as well as break into the U.S. gospel music market with an English album. “Each of them participated and functioned in their own way as crucial clogs in the machinery,” said Judge See, who singled out Kong as the spiritual leader that the other defendants have trusted.
The 140 day CHC trial is the second longest criminal trial in Singapore and experts here say that it could be the most expensive trial in Singapore’s history with legal costs shooting over the 10 million dollar mark. Four of the defendants were represented by elite Senior Counsel whose costs could be in excess of 1.5 million dollar for the case, a senior lawyer has told the Straits Times. While wealthy church members may have contributed to some of the costs, at the beginning of the trial, the government said that it was illegal under the law for the church to publicly canvass for funds to help its members to fight the court case.
The scam involved CHC’s finance managers, setting up music production company Xtron and glass-maker Firna. The latter was in fact set up to fund the Crossover project which the defendants claimed during the trial as serving the Church’s mission to evangelise in Asia. First, 18 million dollar was INVESTED in bonds from Xtron and Firna. Later, 19 million dollar was used to cover up the initial misdeed.
The judge noted that the initial bond issue was not genuine INVESTMENTS because the album sales projection indicated that they will not make enough income to redeem the bonds on time, and Ho’s album’s perceived success was inflated as album sales were boosted by the church. Later they used 19 million dollars to cover up the initial misdeeds, while hiding from the auditors the fact that Xtron was controlled by pastors Kong and Peng.
The Judge did not buy the argument that Crossover project had a dual purpose of being an INVESTMENT and serving a missionary purposed. He noted that they have devised creative labelling for “round-tripping” transactions that were designed in a way that the “CHC was channelling money through various conduits in order to pay itself”.
The CHC was formed by Kong in 1989 with 20 followers. At that time he has just graduated from the University of Singapore with a degree in computer science and had “barely a dollar to his name” according to CHC website. In 1995, after Kong returned to Singapore from the United States with a doctorate in theology, the church began to grow rapidly.
By 2009 they had over 30,000 mainly young energetic followers packing its 34 million dollar newly built chic church. Their pop concert style services appealed to the young, while Kong had to often brush off criticism that he practiced an aggressive form of evangelism and he focused on FINANCIAL blessing which is sometimes known as “Prosperity Gospel”.  He has argued that CHC is presenting Christianity in a way that is relevant to the people of the 21st century, particularly the young.
Whiste-blower’s crucial role
It was around this time that Kong and the CHC appealed to their followers for funds to make a 215 dollar million bid to buy a controlling interest in the Suntec Convention Centre, a popular venue for international conventions. This raised alarm bells in the small affluent island republic about the business model and aggressive evangelisation of some Christian churches.
The conviction in October has its roots in a 2003 claim by a whistle-blower, a 53-year old CHC member and businessman Roland Poon who alleged that church’s funds were used to fund the music career of pastor Kong’s wife Ho. At the time she was vying for the Singapore Favourite Artist Award at the MTV Asia Music Awards. Poon was eventually forced to retract his allegations by church members and he spent over 20,000 dollars in taking out advertisements in local newspapers to do so.
Strait Times’s Assistant News Editor Abdul Hafiz argued after the verdict that the CHC saga highlights the crucial role of whistle-blowers in exposing wrongdoings of charities who claim to do good for the society. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said recently that whistle-blowers are important because the Government could not keep watch on everything.
“Larger religious charities like CHC are a breed apart,” argues Hafiz. “They work behind closed doors, and donations at times are made with a blind conviction that those in charge will always do the right thing under the scrutiny of heaven.” He also points out that Kong’s controversial prosperity gospel works on the principle of more the tithes (biblical donations to church) more the followers get back material on earth. The CHC website says, “we believe that our giving is a form of worship”.
Since the CHC case started many dissolutioned former church members have openly criticised the church’s aggressive fundraising tactics in blog posts. They have described how Kong in his glitzy sermons often makes statements such as: “We can lift our hands to worship god, but if the titches are still in your pocket, then due tributes are not been given.”
One ex-member of ten years standing writing in a  blog as “Farhan” described how the church changed his life in a positive direction and he even started to eat cheaply to save MONEY to buy 10 CDs of Ho’s album. But, his faith in the church began to wane, when they moved their Sunday services to Suntec Convention Centre and Kong asked the congregation to donate generously to raise 220 million dollar within seven years to buy off the venue by paying their debts.
While the members were asked to sacrifice for “god’s mission”, Kong and his wife were living in luxury in multi-million dollar properties in Singapore and Beverly Hills, driving around in a luxury Audi and travelling first class on frequent overseas TRIPS. “He may have sacrificed a lot in his early days, but now they are living the days of their life,” noted Farhan, “it came to a point I said enough is enough and left”.
A research paper released by the Yusof Ishak Institute of the National University of Singapore on the growing Pentecostal Christian churches in Southeast Asia, by researcher Dr Terrence Chong argues that these churches driven by upwardly mobile Chinese have become crucial spaces for social  networking, business contacts and identity making among ethnic Chinese minority communities across the region.
Chong points  out that “charismatic” senior pastors enjoy “great deference and sway over large congregations” and these churches are also spreading to slum communities in Asia. “(These leaders) are deeply authoritarian in character because the charismatic leader is supposedly entrusted to articulate God’s will and vision for the church,” he argues.
Following the verdict, Kong has apologised to a weeping congregation at a Sunday service and said that god will use his ‘guilty’ verdict for good of the church and announced a new management structure where his wife Ho has been officially appointed as a pastor.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities (COC) has indicated that it will soon take measures to ban Kong and others convicted from holding any key management positions or employment with the church. COC has also been tightening regulations on charities after a spate of such scams uncovered in recent years in both religious and secular charities.
The National Council of Churches in Singapore has issued an appeal to its members to “pay greater attention to church governance in the management of funds”. Pastor Kong and five others convicted will be sentenced on November 20.