Bhikkhu Sujato, Feb 2023
A Buddhist perspective in contribution to Statements from the Soul: The Moral Case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, edited by Shireen Morris and Damien Freeman, La Trobe University Press, 2023.
Australia’s united Indigenous communities are calling for a referendum for constitutional reform to properly acknowledge the primordial and unceded Indigenous custodianship of the land of Australia, and to establish an ongoing First Nations Voice to represent Indigenous peoples in Canberra. The Buddhist community hears their call and stands with them. We join the leaders of Australia’s many religious communities in calling for swift and decisive government action to hold a referendum and implement the recommendations of the Uluru Statement.
This is a joyful moment, a moment of potential. Let us seize it without delay.
The Buddha taught us to celebrate the successes of others (muditā). And when I think of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, I am filled with a sense of joy, an awe at the unparalleled success that is the adaptation and survival of their traditional cultures and custodianship of this continent for millennia. They have cared for this land, nurtured the plants and animals, woven their stories in the landscape, and maintained an unbroken cultural continuity from time immemorial. If the long story of the Australian continent were written out in years, the period of the English occupation and establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia would barely make a footnote.
If we cannot celebrate others, our own humanity is diminished. We live in a time when Aboriginal people of the Gumatj clan are working with NASA to launch rockets into space from their country in Arnhem Land. What now is not possible? What can we not dream? Yet it is apparent that we, the diverse peoples of Australia, will never be whole until we can join in joyous celebration with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
A true friend, said the Buddha, is one on whom you can rely like a child at the breast. What will it take, I wonder, for non-Indigenous Australians to realize that Indigenous peoples are our truest friends and most loyal companions? That they, more than anyone, are committed truly and fully to this land of Australia? They are our family. I’ll be honest: I don’t like to hear stories about Indigenous incarceration rates or alcohol abuse or health crises; and I can’t imagine anyone else does either, Indigenous people least of all. Yet such stories must be told so long as they continue to be true. We have a chance to make these things a relic of the past, if we choose to. There is nothing inevitable about the way things are. It is simply a result of the choices we as a society have made. The Uluru Statement asks Australians to constitutionally guarantee that Indigenous voices will always be heard in laws and policies that affect them. It is based on the conviction that in order to deal with problems like child removal, incarceration, and systemic discrimination, we must remedy their ‘torment of powerlessness’. We must heed their wisdom. Indigenous communities need a better say in addressing the issues they face. This is a logical, fair, and practical request. If we want things to improve, this is the place to start.
I am writing this in the ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura. It sits in the centre of Sri Lanka, and its vast stupas are evidence of millennia of devotion to the ideals of the Buddha. For Buddhists, such monuments, soaring higher than the pyramids, remind us of our highest values and aspirations. They call us to grow and become better people. In the same way, I feel that I have become a better person, and a better Buddhist, by learning from Indigenous Australians. I hope it is not inappropriate to take the liberty of repeating some of these lessons here, based on my imperfect memory.
Some years ago, I led a small group of Buddhist meditators on retreat at a little Pitjantjatjara community in central Australia called Lilla. We were warmly welcomed to country with a smoking ceremony. Lewis Clyne, a young man in his thirties, was our guide. He showed us the land and told us the stories, at least to a beginner’s level suitable for us. He told us that he was born in this place, and that after traveling widely and seeing all the cities and the fancy things, here was where he chose to be.
One morning, we were sitting together as the sun rose. He said quietly, ‘Everything here was different when I was a boy.’ I was so surprised. I thought we were in the middle of a vast wilderness, untouched by man. But he said, pointing to the grasses, ‘They do not belong here. They are from Africa. The smell is different, the way the plants grow is different; the insects are different, the birds and the animal calls, all different.’ In the few decades of his life, even this most remote of places was nothing like it once was.
Change is the heart of Buddhist philosophy. The Buddha said that all conditioned things are impermanent. He applied this observation to the changes in our minds and thoughts, to the ageing of the body, and to the cycles of birth and decay of the cosmos. He even spoke of a time when the water would rise and cover everything; and of a time when the earth would be consumed by fire.
A few years ago, I met with the Noongar/Yindjibarndi elder Noel Nannup in the coffee shop at Garden City in Booragoon, Western Australia, near where I grew up. He began the conversation by observing that change was the heart of Aboriginal wisdom. Again, I was surprised; but I guess I shouldn’t have been. To observe the changes of nature, the passing of the seasons, the patterns of dry and wet, of cold and heat, the passing of all things as they grow old and die: surely any person of wisdom would see this.
I learned another lesson about change from a Noongar elder, Ken Colbung, back when I was a teenager in Perth. I had recently become vegetarian and, hearing that he too was a vegetarian, I wanted to know why. He said it was because of love. I remember he sang the Stevie Wonder song, ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You.’ I thought the song was so corny, it was everywhere on the radio; but when he sang it, I heard it for the first time, and I still hear it in his voice. He loved all creatures like his own family, and would never hurt any of them except from necessity. He was careful to tell me that these were the values that he had learned from his own tradition, not something he got from modern ideas. He told me that in the past, his people would hunt kangaroo or snake, but only because they had to. Now, he said, he can just drive down to the shop and buy some tofu. For Ken, his tradition was a living and evolving thing, a vital and loving response to the world as it is.
We live in times of accelerating change, bringing with it unprecedented challenges and opportunities. We can all attest to the same thing: nothing here is as it was. To survive and flourish will take all of us working together. Things are changing and we must change too. And that also means we must learn from the past and do better. Yes, it is a matter of justice and restoration to ensure Indigenous people have a say in their own fate, and in how our nation proceeds. But it is more than that. It is a challenge for us to live up to our united potential.
The great Buddhist King Ashoka ruled a vast empire in the third century BCE, encompassing all the extravagant diversity of the peoples and religions of India. How did he, an avowed pacifist, rule such an unwieldy realm? When he came to power, he was a different man; a bloodthirsty tyrant who massacred the people of Kalinga. Later, he came to deeply regret the harm he had caused. He inscribed his repentance in an edict at Kalsi so that his wrongs would never be forgotten, saying that his own acts had been ‘painful and deplorable.’ But he did not allow himself to be consumed by guilt. Instead, he determined to do better. He believed that we thrive best when we lift each other up, so he spent the rest of his life implementing a policy of love and justice. His words are recorded in another edict in Kalsi. ‘We only harm our own religion,’ he said, ‘when we criticize the religions of others. But when all religions listen to each other and respect each other’s precepts, all will prosper.’ And what Ashoka said of different religions is just as true of different peoples and ethnicities.
Australian history is full of pain and injustice. But rather than be consumed by guilt, we have before us an opportunity to do better. By requiring political decision-makers to listen to Indigenous people when Parliament and government make decisions about them, we are giving constitutional sanction to a policy of love and justice. When we listen to each other, we all prosper.
Australia has proven itself adept in change and adaptation. We thrive with the contributions of people from all over the world. This is a change I have seen in my own life, and I have seen the largely white Anglo Australia of my childhood evolve in extraordinary ways. Australia’s Buddhist community is an important part of that story, flourishing with the influx of Asian Buddhist communities, each with their own traditions and practices, as well as those who, like me, found Buddhism in adulthood. For all the differences between our local Buddhists, we share one thing in common: we are grateful that we can live in Australia, where we can freely practice our path and maintain our values and customs.
Yet there is a shadow that lies on Australia’s soul. A shame that calls into question our pride in our country, and which, to people overseas is evidence of something rotten in the Australian nation. While we enjoy our success in creating a vibrant multicultural nation, all too often Indigenous people are left outside. Those who by every right of morality and principle belong at the heart of Australian life struggle to supply even the most basic of human needs for themselves and their families: food, shelter, medicine. And more than that, a sense of dignity and purpose. We still treat Indigenous people as a problem to be solved, rather than as fellow humans capable of greatness.
What would Australia be like if we were to live as if Indigenous people were a key to the future?
There’s a teaching the Buddha gave on meditation, which I think we can stretch to apply here as well. He said that we must have four qualities to be complete and balanced: faith, morality, peace and wisdom. Without all four, we are like a lame dog, limping along on three legs, never able to truly run.
Now, I think Australia is a faithful nation. I’m not speaking of religiosity, but of our confidence and belief in ourselves. We know who we are, and we know what we can do. And we are, loathe as we might be to admit it, a moral nation. We keep the law, govern ourselves with globally low levels of corruption, and have built a society where we look out for each other. We’re also a peaceful nation where, by and large, citizens can live freely, without fearing violence from neighbours or the state.
But are we a wise nation? Wisdom is not blind; she sees all. And, as a nation, our history and ongoing treatment of Indigenous people is a huge blind spot. We refuse to see and to acknowledge what we have done and continue to do. And so long as we do that, we cannot be a wise nation.
To right historic and current injustices and guarantee a future of justice, health and prosperity is a moral imperative. But here’s the thing about morality: it doesn’t just sit there. It’s not a dead letter; an abstract theory. Our mistakes eat away at our soul. They blight our waking days and darken our sunshine.
For, while many Australians live in a confident, moral and peaceful society, this is not the case for many of our Indigenous people. Many have been forcibly removed and cut off from their traditional sources of meaning and value, and struggle to find a place in a world that seems to care about them only as a curiosity. They suffer injustice at levels that non-Indigenous Australians cannot imagine, incarcerated and subject to the brutality of the state at its worst. And their lives are haunted by the spectre of violence and peril. Restoring our nation’s wisdom means opening our eyes with compassion and care, unafraid to take on a challenge. It requires us to listen.
Lewis Clyne told us a Dreamtime story while we were at Lilla. Near us was a line of cliffs. He showed us a prominent outcrop and said, ‘This is where the quoll looked back.’ Long ago, it seems, the quoll had been naughty: he had stolen scarce food supplies. They chased him across the desert, but he always gave them the slip. Eventually, though, he turned back and saw what he had done, and shame filled his heart. Consumed by greed, he had taken what was not his to take.
For Buddhists, also, to take what is not given is to break a fundamental moral precept. In our personal lives, we would not steal even a small thing from another. Yet here we are, living in a stolen land.
Lewis didn’t draw any parallels with what white folk had done in Australia, but I did. And I do not want to end up like the quoll. When he was unable to find it within himself to undo the wrong he had done, he was punished by the rainbow serpent, who rose out of the desert near Uluru and blasted the quoll with his laser eyes, leaving black scars all along the cliff face.
When we feel shame, we have a choice. We can keep going, making an excuse for repeating the same mistake, and suffer the fate of the quoll. Or we can choose differently. Things today are not what they were. We can make different choices, better choices. But first we must listen. We must listen with our ears, our hearts, and our minds.
I will finish with a final word of wisdom, from the D’harawal elder Frances Bodkin. She’s one of the most extraordinary people I have met, having lived a life devoted equally to the pursuit of science and traditional knowledge. Aunty Fran was graceful enough to join me in a discussion, and I asked her, ‘How do you do it? What keeps you going?’
‘Curiosity,’ she said.
It was curiosity also that drove the Buddha on his relentless search for the truth. He was never satisfied with accepted wisdom or conventional answers. He wanted to know.
If you think of what we might become as a nation were we to implement the Uluru Statement, aren’t you just a little curious? I know I am.
Bhikkhu Sujato (or Bhante Sujato) is a Theravada Buddhist monk ordained in the Thai Forest Lineage of Ajahn Chah. A leading scholar of early Buddhism, he has translated the entire corpus of early Buddhist discourses from Pali. He leads SuttaCentral, a project facilitating the study of Buddhist texts from comparative and historical perspectives.