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Reflections from the Buddhist Tradition

Reflections From Different Religious Traditions on How Poverty Affects Children
Reflections from the Buddhist Tradition
Rev. Hidehito Okochi, Chief Priest of Juko-in Temple, Japan

At first I would like to express my sincere joy that people of faith from around the world have gathered at this conference to take action for children. And I am thankful that we received warm support and encouragement from many people throughout the world at the time of the disaster due to the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident.

Well, Japan is a country of advanced poverty because the issues of poverty today have been brought about by economic development and globalization. The number of unemployed and homeless people continues to increase. More than 30,000 persons commit suicide every year.

As a matter of course, poverty has had various impacts on children. It is often pointed out that poverty becomes one of the causes of child abuse. As the number of children dropping out from school increases, the vicious circle of poverty intensifies.

The essence of poverty is "the division of " rather than "the lack" of resources. Enough leftover food to feed hundreds of thousands of people is thrown away every day in Tokyo.

And there are many unoccupied houses and empty rooms. This might be considered an issue of unequal distribution, but we have to ascertain a more basic problem.

The essence of Buddhism is the teaching of interdependent co- arising (Pratītyasamutpāda). It is the understanding that every existence is connected and related to every other. All phenomena are manifested as a result of the mutual relationship of innumerable causes and conditions. There is nothing unrelated to me in the world. We have to live in harmony with nature, with other people, with the past and with the future. It is seen that the essence of life is suffering and the root cause of this suffering is our craving, anger and ignorance.

We are taught to face all who suffer, both ourselves and others, with loving kindness and empathy, to discern the mechanism of suffering, and to walk the path of truth as beings who share one universe.

Seen from this perspective, the essence of poverty is human greediness and mammon.

In a society that gives top priority to economic growth, making money becomes the cardinal virtue, valued more than traditional culture, the environment or life itself. Villages relying on farming, forestry or fishing in harmony with nature, and communities based on mutual aid have collapsed, and our shared assets and social capital have passed into the hands of private corporations. This makes us ever more dependent on money.

It is claimed that economic development eventually trickles down to people at the bottom. But the reality is that disparities are widening, and we are walking the path towards further division rather than redistribution.

Poverty today is structural violence due to liberal economic globalization. This structural violence is epitomized by nuclear power generation, which has been promoted in the name of economic development while inevitably exposing workers to radiation and contaminating the environment.

The effects of radiation on health and the environment have been downplayed and the government has raised the limits so that the children in Fukushima are left to live in a high radiation area. Exposure to such radiation levels is violence against children. Prioritizing economics over life has victimized the children the most, including the unborn, who are more susceptible. But our nation, ruled by money, does not stop to look at this suffering. The citizens have lost the strength to change the government's policy, which promotes nuclear power generation.

Such loss of the strength to live is an important facet of poverty today. The children also face the same problem. A high school teacher recently asked his students whether Japanese society would get better or worse in the future, and almost all of them answered that they thought it would get worse. A survey also found that only 20% of young people in Japan think they can do something to change society. One can see to what extent young people have been alienated from society.

I once tried to collect the views of children about child abuse. Unaccustomed to saying what they think, many children at first seemed to be at a loss. However, once they began to think about the children being abused, they started to show their wish to do something. They began to raise issues and come up with solutions that only children could think of. And they tried to understand the feelings of the abusive adults. The children are our partners, gifted with remarkable sensitivity and imagination; they are an invaluable social resource, capable of participating in society with awareness of their own responsibility and potential.

All forms of violence such as poverty and discrimination have a top-down structure of domination as a backdrop. This can only be overcome by a society which embraces human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came into being through deep reflection on the many aspects of human suffering. A society free from the tyranny of money, exemplified by many indigenous peoples that have lived in harmony with nature. A flat society that respects all people equally, including children.

The children who are participating and speaking out here today have given me much courage. I feel called to begin building a society that truly listens to the voices of children, starting from this hall and reaching to the corners of the planet. Because we are connected to everything, we are able to change the future and to remake the world. This is the hope that I want to share with the children.