Douwe Bob managed to capture millions of hearts with his song Slow Down, the official 2016 Dutch entry for the Eurovision Festival. In this song, that he wrote himself, he repeats the phrase ‘slow down brother’ as a kind of mantra. It makes up most of the song. Slowing down is also what many “Mindfulness” gurus and teachers tell us to practice. Douwe Bob is all of twenty-three years old and is probably not following courses in mindfulness or meditation. His lyrics contain other words of wisdom, along the slow down lines, in that utterly charismatic way that the young can and do strike the right chord in you. If you are listening, that is. And apparently millions were, because he got quite far in the competition.
“Mindfulness” courses, teachers, books and websites are to be found everywhere one looks. Amongst other practices, it incorporates slowing down. “Mindfulness” is seen as essential to our mental and emotional fulfilment, for committing ourselves to accepting what is in the moment.
Most of us connect “Mindfulness” to Buddhism. Professor of Buddhist Studies, Leiden University Jonathan Silk says that Westerners take on practices inspired by Buddhism freely, without the feeling that it clashes with their own religious background or belief system. No wonder then that a splendid exhibition, The Buddha, is now on display at the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden and will also travel to the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam.
‘The Buddha is one of the most inspiring figures in world history. What makes the life-story of this spiritual leader so intriguing? What are people searching for in Buddhism?’ These are some of the questions that the exhibition attempts to give answers to. The life of the Buddha as well as present day practices, expressions and manifestations in a host of different countries, including the Netherlands, are on display.
In the background, in every single room the chant ‘Buddham sharanam gacchami, dhammam sharanam gacchami, sangham sharanam gacchami can be heard’. For those of us who grew up learning about the life of the Buddha through our schoolbooks, this chant is familiar. Simply translated, it means: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in Dharma; I take Refuge in the Sangha’.
The different practices linked to “Mindfulness” could be seen as a refuge from our extremely busy lives in which our balance is at stake. In another time, in another place refuge took another form. On October 14th 1956, three hundred and sixty-five thousand people participated in converting to Buddhism along with Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution. The latter was of the Mahar community and seen as a pariah by caste Hindus, as were all of the other converts of that day. Unlike those of us into Buddhist inspired practises without a sense of it clashing with our other beliefs, for the converts of that day, taking refuge in the Buddha was an act of severance. A clean cut from the Hinduism that labelled them as ‘untouchable’. It is considered the largest one time mass conversion in history. Pity therefore, that this incredible historical act of taking refuge in the Buddha is missing from this exhibition.