You’d think a session inviting participants to ask anything they wanted about a particular religion would descend into a slugfest of defensive posturing and harsh criticism disguised as questions.
That was not the case however in the Ask Me Anything about Buddhism session held at the Asian Civilisation Museum on a Saturday, 24 February 2018.
Instead the 60 or so participants found themselves laughing and smiling along. The vibe in the room was relaxed overall even when discussions turned to topics that would be deemed too sensitive for public discourse - the intersection of politics and faith for example.
For instance, at one point, one of the panelists - a monk - was asked pointedly about the LGBT issue in Singapore. It’s a tough question, often tensely received by religious leaders. But in this case the monk - who’s required to be celibate - replied jovially while pointing to his robes: “I can’t advocate on heterosexual or homosexual relationships; I mean look at me!” The response elicited much laughter but at the same time drove home his point - live and let live.
And that’s the whole aim of The Ask Me Anything series: It’s about creating safe, open spaces for participants to have their deepest most honest questions answered or at least discussed openly.
It was not mere chance that enabled frank conversations without awkward situations developing on that Saturday afternoon. It had everything to do with facilitation.
Lead facilitator Farid Hamid set the scene right at the beginning: “This can be as superficial of a day as you want it to be. It can be as politically correct as you want it to be, but this can be deep, rich and meaningful too. If we would like that to be so that it doesn’t waste our time, my question is… what are some of the values attitudes and behaviours we should have?”
This prompted one participant to say, to much laughter: “If you disagree with me, tell me you disagree with me.”
Another participant suggested everyone “empty” themselves of their pre-conceived feelings and thoughts to allow for “understanding, acceptance”. Also, to accept does not mean to agree.
With the shared values established - be empathetic, give respect, and most importantly build trust - the sessions started proper. There were two parts. Group discussions for nearly two hours, followed by a questions and answers session with the panelists for just over an hour.
Everyone split into five groups consisting of about six to seven participants per group. A video was played at the start to jog the thoughts of participants, then they launched into discussions.
As one participant put it: “The video made me think about how diverse Buddhism is – the people practicing Buddhism are diverse, therefore the practices are also very diverse. For example, the Chinese Buddhist are vegetarian, the Thai Buddhists eat meat. The Tibetan Buddhists living up in the mountains have no access to vegetables so they eat meat. A Japanese monk can get married, they are not celibate. They practice Buddhism as a vocation, as a job”.
Discussions revolved around what the faith teaches you, about being a better person, and about humanity.
Someone suggested that Buddhism was about not holding too tightly to one’s view and accepting the world as it is, but another participant challenged that notion. Would it be right to be accepting of extremist ideas, to accept the world as is and not push for progress? Another participant added: “It is not all about meditation, it is more about living your lives in the most optimal way."
The free-flowing group discussions set the stage for the panel questions and answers. There were three panelists, one practitioner from each broad schools of thought: Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana.
This was a chance for participants to have their questions answered by specialists. The questions ranged from various practises and traditions to the philosophical and political.
How to practise detachment? Asked one participant.
The reply by one panelist: “The traditional approach is to teach generosity. Learn how to give up something first. Giving of good thoughts, words and deeds.”
Another monk added: “We need to get rid of primary attachment, and that is an attachment to ourselves.”
Before long, a tough question on the role of religion and political violence was raised by a participant: What was the Buddhist’s stand on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar?
All the panelists were clear that the issue was not straightforward. One monk said that if it was really an issue of Islam vs Buddhism, then why was it that the conflict was localised to the Rakhine state? Why not in the other parts of Myanmar?
Another panellist added: “At heart of it, it is tribal. It is all about self-identity. Unless the attachment to the self-identity can be superseded by compassion, I think that problem will stay for a very long time.”
In all, the session lasted for three hours, with an hour-long lunch before it started. This allowed participants to get to know one another and be comfortable within a group setting.
Parvitar Singh, an entrepreneur, left satisfied. In particular, he said that he “didn’t feel the panelists avoided any tough questions. Instead, they provided enlightening context to every tough question posed to them.”
He felt that there was something to learn for everyone. For himself in particular, he said his biggest takeaway was that “religion evolves according to geography, era and demographics… important for people to learn how to apply fundamentals as fluidly as possible according to time and place”.
He added: “I would recommend such sessions to my friends because the knowledge they gather about faith groups is usually clouded with stereotypes with no understanding of context about practices and scriptures.”