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Friday, February 26, 2016, 08:58

Zen and the art of mindful living

By Chitralekha Basu
Zen and the art of mindful living
Shantum Seth believes in “taking the religiosity out of Buddhist practice”.

Shantum Seth responded to our questions for this feature during a bumpy coach ride. He was on his way from Kushinagar in north India to Lumbini in Nepal, completing a circuit between the locations of the Buddha’s passing and birth. Seth, a new-age Buddhist teacher, has been leading small groups of travelers on pilgrimages from Myanmar to Peru since 1988. While the itineraries include obvious destinations through which the Buddha himself had passed, sometimes Seth takes his tour group to unlikely destinations such as the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, encouraging people to discover the resonances of Buddhist ideals of universal brotherhood and compassion even in the middle of a tropical mountain forest in the Andes.

For those of us who cannot make a trip to the upper Amazon basin just yet, Seth will be giving a workshop on March 1 in Hong Kong. Brought to the city as part of the India by the Bay festival, co-presented by Teamwork Arts and supported by the Consulate General of India in Hong Kong, the session is likely to be a departure from somber meditation-oriented meets. “I attempt to take the religiosity out of Buddhist practice, while maintaining the attentiveness that the Buddha taught,” says Seth. “The story and teachings of the Buddha would appeal to people from age 8 onwards.”

In an evening dedicated to Buddhist ideals and lifestyle practices, a guided meditation session and interactive storytelling based on the life of the Buddha will be followed by what Seth calls “mindful eating”. The idea, says Seth, is to “consume foods in awareness and enjoy every morsel”.

“As we eat in awareness the food becomes more real and reveals itself in a deeper way. We become attentive to the many conditions that have brought the food to us, be it the cook, the farmer, the earth, the sunshine, the seed or the cloud.” Mindful eating is about experiencing food as “a gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky,” he adds, “and much hard work” that has gone into its making, as indeed it’s about “enjoying the flavors and developing a sense of gratitude”.

Zen and the art of mindful living
Shantum Seth’s (seated, center) siblings, the novelist Vikram (standing, first from left) and filmmaker Aradhana (seated, left), supported his career switch, having themselves made unconventional career choices. (Photo Provided to China Daily)

Shoemaker’s trail

Seth came to Buddhism following a prestigious stint with the shoe manufacturer Clarks in London. During his term as a highly-placed corporate executive, Seth had become increasingly aware of the inequities prevailing in society. He went back to school to pursue development studies and subsequently got involved in student activism. Soon afterwards a round of self-introspection set him off on a spiritual quest.

“I realized peace in oneself and peace in the world are inter-related. I knew that spirituality could help with inner peace, and so started a journey looking for an appropriate spiritual path,” says Seth, who after trying out a few options zeroed in on Buddhism.

Unsurprisingly, Seth’s life-changing career switch from heading a division in a multi-national company to a practicing Buddhist did not create much of a ripple in his family. While his father, Prem, was initially discouraging of the move, his mother Leila — the first woman chief justice of a state high court in India,  his older brother, the novelist Vikram, and filmmaker sister Aradhana were supportive of his unconventional aspiration. “Though my family may not have agreed with my lifestyle and decisions, they continued to support me,” says Seth. “My siblings too have not necessarily taken on conventional careers,” he points out, “and so we have always supported each other in our life choices.”

Seth’s life exemplifies the fact that one does not have to be a monk to actively pursue the path of the Buddha. He is married with two young daughters, works as a consultant with the World Bank and International Finance Corporation and has collaborated on several book and film projects with the BBC. Seth is now working on a Hollywood production called The Buddha.

“I find no contradiction in integrating my spiritual life with my family and work life,” says Seth. “The Buddha spoke about the four-fold sangha (community of practitioners) that included monks, nuns, lay men and women and we aspire to live the life, informed by a monastic model, except that we as lay people practice responsible sex as opposed to celibacy, a form of right livelihood instead of living on donations. Our family is our primary sangha.”

Two-way traffic

Doubtless, it’s especially meaningful for Seth to bring the teachings and lifestyle practices of the Buddha to China, almost as a continuation of the traffic of Buddhist monks from India to China which began around 2,200 years ago.

“We can say India, the cradle of Buddhism, exported Buddhism to China,” says Seth.  “However Buddhism was not easily identifiable as a distinct spiritual path in India after the 13th century, while it was recognized as one in China,” he adds, outlining the context.  “As an Indian Buddhist, I understand the context in which the Buddha lived and how the teachings developed and flowered for over a millennium through generations of Indian teachers. I am uniquely placed to see how Buddhism that transposed itself culturally into China is now expressing itself back in the Indian context in the 21st century.”

He sees the cultivation of Buddhist lifestyle practices as a possible route to fostering greater understanding between the two ancient cultures. “I feel it is important for China and India to excavate and celebrate our common heritage of Buddhism that will help us understand each other better and promote harmony between us.”

The workshop on March 1 might make for a small step in that direction.

If you go

Shantum Seth, Buddhist teacher

India by the Bay Festival

Buddhist meditation, interactive session and vegetarian dinner

7 pm, March 1

Ovolo Southside Hotel, Wong Chuk Hang

Contact the writer at

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