In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Sopachai Verapuchong, who is a Thai businessman, a former monk and secretary-general of Bodhigayavijjalaya 980 Institute, talks about the roles of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. He highlights how important the religion founded by Siddhartha
Gautama, the Buddha, is in governance and business.
KT: Buddhism is the main religion in many parts of Southeast Asia. However, another characteristic of these countries, including Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, is historical antagonism, resulting from years of wars, conflict and violence. What do you think Buddhism can do to alleviate that?
Mr Sopachai: According to Buddhism, the world keeps moving, and the mind and the heart of the people keep changing. When we are talking about the past, we cannot fix it suddenly. We might have problems from 400 or 500 years ago, but that was the past. Lord Buddha taught us how to be in the present, with our focus and our mind and our bias. Buddha said there were four kinds of bias: of love, of hatred, of being afraid and of losing the way. People should not follow their bias or emotion. My answer to your question is that we cannot change the past and do not know the future. I can be a good man today and a bad man tomorrow. That’s why being a Buddhist is about forgiveness. So we do not need to hold a grudge because of the past, because it has already passed, but we have to learn from the past to find the problem, which means we can fix the problem from the origin of that problem. And you do not need to be worried about the future because it has not come yet.
KT: Are the leaders of the countries in the region interested in using Buddhism in their ruling?
Mr Sopachai: That is a good question, although I am not a country leader. The monks are the representatives of Lord Buddha, and that’s why we have to respect the monks. I do not know whether the leaders respect the monks or not. But this region is a sacred land, and the great kings and leaders of different times believed in Buddhism. Most of them have been following Buddhism in leading their countries. But, sometimes, they may have some surroundings, some ambiences, and some situations which are not easy to handle. Politics may not comply very well with the principles of Buddhism. Yet, we must walk in a middle path, not too extreme to the right or left.
KT: Myanmar is a Buddhist country, but it has been criticised for the Rohingya crisis. Do you think Buddhism can help to fix it?
Mr Sopachai: This is very complex. The Rakhine State [where the crisis is going on] is located near Muslim countries. The country was divided by English colonist in 1948, if I am not mistaken. Rakhine is a remote state, located at the border. It is a difficult question because of the long history in that area. But, two years ago, Myanmar set up the Asean Buddhist Community, and they asked us to be the co-founder. We tried to help in some way, somehow to initiate Buddhist clusters among our brotherhood. We need to keep the principles of Buddhism, which includes not hurting anyone. Yet, again, people rely on their emotions.
KT: Khmer Rouge once tried to get rid of Buddhism in Cambodia because of their irrational atheism. How can you prevent that from happening again in the future?
Mr Sopachai: One rule in Buddhism is the “rule that you know yourself”. I do believe that all leaders in our time can fix themselves. Otherwise, they cannot be leaders. They have to know that they made the right or wrong decision because it is common sense. But, again, it depends. People have biases, and Lord Buddha taught us not to follow them. I cannot criticise anyone. It needs to start with families teaching their children about Buddhist principles. If all families do that, the whole country will be living in harmony.
KT: Do you think modern technology, including smartphones and the internet, is affecting Buddhism?
Mr Sopachai: For sure, the world is changing today thanks to globalisation. We are seeing a digital transformation in the world, and we cannot stop it. That’s why we need to make the world balanced. Today, we are living with materialism and desires. The monks can watch porn on the internet in just one second. It means the world is not balanced now. We need to put the principles of Buddhism to attain balance. If we don’t do it today, we will meet chaos sooner or later.
KT: What is your overview of Buddhism today? Is it going in the right or the wrong way?
Mr Sopachai: As Buddha says, as long as we are alive, we have to suffer from pain. No one is perfect. Even I still drink, smoke and have intercourse with the ladies, I confess. But, I try to balance myself. That is the concept of the ‘Middle Way’, taught by Lord Buddha. As a businessman, I have to drink to entertain my customers or as part of my social life.
KT: Can you share your experience in leading a business with Buddhism principles?
Mr Sopachai: Buddha taught people more than 2,000 years ago about good and bad, heaven and hell. Life should stick to goodness, in another world. But, in real life, we have no unit to count goodness, only a unit to count money. But, Buddha’s teachings can be applied in everything, such as that you should not harm anyone, including yourself, in whatever you do. That’s the same with business.