Published in Straits Times (Singapore) on 24 December 2015
By Kalinga Seneviratne
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.