Nepali Times
Summiting under a shamiana in Lumbini


The Second World Buddhist Summit, held by the Mayadebi temple and nativity site, which was inaugurated by King Gyanendra on Wenesday resembled one of the royal public receptions we have seen in the past year.

The common folk were herded into cattle pens facing the harsh midday sun while the diplomats, high lamas and dignitaries were on the dais in the shade. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's faux pas when he misread his speech and welcomed 'His Majesty King Birendra' to the conference was symptomatic of the rest of this confused and ill-conceived gathering.

It was a Rs 5 million plus state-sponsored show organised by institutions and individuals who are far from Buddhistic spiritualism, either by birth or by inclination, seeking to take political mileage of this place at this time.

Kathmandu's politicos have long hijacked Lumbini for state purpose, having among other things promoted a blatant but as-yet unsuccessful touristic agenda. They have instigated sectarian competition in the monastic zone within the Lumbini Garden, where money and marble are given preference over ascetic concerns. Religion, variously defined, has largely hijacked what was meant to be a spiritual haven for the world's seekers.

Part of the chaos at the conference seemed to emanate from a tussle between the Lumbini Development Trust and the government effort headed by Minister for Culture and Tourism Deep Kumar Upadhaya, who hails from next door Kapilbastu. While Upadhaya was making frantic calls to local boarding houses seeking rooms for guests, bureaucrats just stood around. The minister was micro-managing to such an extent he was heard suggesting to staff that makeshift loos were best supplied with toilet paper.

The conference venue was in the shape of a massive wedding shamiana with side panels made up of incongruous kitsch images showing trains, lakes and paddleboats. Never had the Mayadebi Temple area been trampled by military boots or witnessed automatic weaponry in such numbers. The sound of army helicopters reverberated throughout the conference period.

One reason that the nation was saved from total embarrassment was that there was so little international participation in this 'summit', and the ambassadors present were hopefully habituated to the way things are done here. Otherwise, what would the world have thought of the absolute sidelining of the local communities which surround the Lumbini Garden, making up some of the poorest people in the country, a majority of them Muslim? Or that there was nary a mention during the summit of Tenzing Gyatso, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, regarded in his non-political avatar as a repository of the faith by a significant portion of the world's Buddhists? Or that political henchmen and student activists linked to various ministers were allowed to stomp all over the conference and push their weight around?

Amidst the confusion, however, it was possible to locate some points of departure worth nurturing. The conference's thoughtful slogan was 'Unity in Diversity' and this was in ample evidence in terms of Nepali participation. Gathered in this tarai venue in Rupandehi were representatives of Nepal's hill and mountain peoples, from the Managba to the Sherpa, Loba, Tamu, Thakali, Magar, Kirats, and the Newars of Kathmandu Valley as a sizeable not-to-be-missed contingent.

The substantive agenda of the conference was rescued on behalf of the beleagured organisers by the two Shakya gentlemen presenting theme papers. Heritage activist Karna Shakya made the case that Buddhism was the only world faith based on history, which was reason enough to respect the legacy and archaeology of Lumbini. He decried the conversion of Lumbini into 'a playground of intellectuals', a place where 'iconoclastic concessionaries' were allotted real estate amidst the sublime landscape. There was a hegemonistic rat race in progress, he said and Lumbini should be saved from the all-too-apparent dangers of ethnocentricism and religious parochialism. Shakya added that the Lumbini region could never develop into a space for spiritual renewal if local communities were neglected. "Only with their participation is the future of Lumbini assured," he concluded.

Bhikkhu Sugandha (Anil Shakya), scholar of anthropology and presently a senior monk in Thailand with proximity to King Bhumibol, started his talk by asking whether peace was even possible in a war zone. Repeating a saying of Shakyamuni, that "one should not kill or cause to kill", he asked rhetorically what each of the players in Nepal today-the monarchy, the Maoist rebels and the politicians-was willing to give up in the name of peace.

"You cannot stop the war with more war and war and war," said the Bhikkhu, "power will never gain us peace, only sacrifice can." Speaking up against violence that was overtaking the country, the Bhikkhu said that the role of religious organisations was not merely to act in piety, but to actively condemn violence.

Despite the dust and confusion, the tacky conference venue and the travails of room and board, in the end it was the placid ambience of the Lumbini Garden that cast a spell over most of the participants. But one thing was clear: no government should go about organising peace summits when it is in the middle of a bloody war to which it is party. It just does not carry conviction.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)