Buddhism in International Relations: Applied Dharma Concepts

This series on Buddhism and international relations by Durgesh Kasbekar is a modified series from an essay “Buddhism in International Relations” by the same author. International relations and global politics are often absent from reflections about Buddhism in academia. This series aims to provide a small corrective and highlight how Buddhism affects and is affected by international relations in the contemporary world.

In Part Two Durgesh Kasebar examines the second and third tiers of Buddhism in international relations, examining case studies of Buddhist influence at the UN: specifically, the International Buddhist Conference in 1998 and the political phenomenon of Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.

Durgesh Kasbekar is an Executive Committee member of the Religion in International Relations Section, International Studies Association (ISA). The views expressed by the author are personal and do not reflect those of the ISA or Buddhistdoor Global

The Second Tier

Theravada countries led the first organized Buddhist effort at the UN in the late 1990s, which led to the declaration of the UN day of the Vesak. The Sinhalese word “Vesak” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Vaishakh” – the 2nd month of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh calendar. Vesak day celebration is celebrated on the full moon night of the 6th lunar month (May). It commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing away (nirvana) which miraculously occurred on the same day (Brahmagunaborn, 2011). The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recognized the International Day of the Vesak via its resolution 54/115, thereby acknowledging Buddhism’s contributions to human spirituality for the past 2,500 years (Guterres, 2020). The UN headquarters, UN offices and permanent missions celebrate this day annually in consultation with relevant UN offices (Guterres, 2020).

In November 1998, at the International Buddhist Conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, all member countries unanimously resolved to gain international recognition for the Vesak Day as a symbol of Buddhism’s birth (International Council for the Day of the Vesak [ICDV], 2015). UN representatives of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, India, Myanmar, Mongolia, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Bhutan followed by proposing to the UNGA to adopt the resolution for the International Recognition of the Day of Vesak (ICDV, 2015). At its plenary meeting at its 54th session on 15th December 1999, the UNGA considered agenda number 174 and adopted the draft resolution of the International Recognition of the Day of the Vesak and for the appropriate arrangements for the observance at UN Headquarters and other UN offices. Thirty-four countries sponsored the draft resolution (ICDV, 2015). Sri Lanka took the lead in co-ordinating the commemorative event at UN HQ in year 2000 and 2001, followed by Myanmar in 2002, India in 2003 and Thailand in 2004 (ICDV, 2015). Since 2004, Thailand has hosted almost all annual International Buddhist Conferences on the United Nations Day of the Vesak through its co-ordinating agency – the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (ICDV, 2015).

Each conference attracts Buddhist monks, scholars, and practitioners from across the world. Past conferences have explored specific themes viz. a) Buddhism and World Crises; b) Buddhist contribution toward achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals; c) Education and Global Citizenship: a Buddhist perspective; d) the Buddha’s enlightenment for the well-being of humanity; e) Buddhist virtues in socio-economic development; f) Global Recovery: Buddhist perspectives; Buddhist response to global crisis; g) Buddhist contribution to building a just, democratic and civil society; h) the Buddhist contribution to good governance; i) World Peace, co-operation between all schools of Buddhism; and k) sustainable development and the Sufficiency-Economy theories of His Majesty King Bhumibol among others(ICDV, 2015). In addition to the UN HQ and its offices, Buddhist communities celebrate Vesak Day in different countries across the world.

The Third Tier – Gross National Happiness (GNH)

The UN has changed significantly since its formation in 1945. The organization was created to prevent wars and conflicts, but has evolved to include sustainable development, millennium development goals, peace building, women’s empowerment, poverty reduction and empowerment of the marginalized sections of society. The inclusion of other areas/topics should not be perceived as innovations, but rather as recognizing significant global concerns, which the UN overlooked, during the organization’s formative years. Two innovative landmarks at the UN were the creation of the Human Development Index (HDI) and Gross National Happiness (GNH). Evolving perceptions of governments and global institutions of the world from new social, economic, philosophical, and cultural lenses resulted in the development of these concepts.

The concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) was coined in 1972 by the fourth King of Bhutan—King Jigme Singye Wangchuk—when he stated that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product (Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, [OPHDI] n.d.).This concept, born out of Bhutan’s Buddhist worldview, emphasizes that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards progress and, by doing so, accord equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being. The GNH stresses the importance of non-economic spheres of human well-being. In 2011 Bhutan, with support from 68 member states, introduced a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for a “holistic approach to development” aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and wellbeing. The UN unanimously adopted the resolution (OPHDI] n.d.).

Building on Bhutan’s pioneering work to develop the GNH Index, a meeting held in July 2011 in Thimpu was aimed at bringing together world leaders, experts, civil society and spiritual leaders to develop a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and well-being (OPHDI] n.d.). The Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Y Thinley chaired the Thimpu meeting and Jeffrey Sachs was requested to plan a UN High Level meeting on “Well Being and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” which was held at the UN in April 2012 (Helliwell et al, 2020). The preparation of the first report was the outcome of that meeting bringing together evidence from the emerging science of happiness and available global data on national happiness (Helliwell et al, 2020). The UN subsequently published the first World Happiness Report in 2012 and has published it every year since.

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