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Buddhism in the 21st Century

by Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge, The Buddhist Channel, Sept 25, 2013

Speech to the Plenary Session of the International Buddhist Confederation, New Delhi, India on September 11, 2013.

New Delhi, India
-- Let me begin by expressing my grateful thanks to Venerable Lama Lobzang and the Asoka mission for the steps take to establish the International Buddhist Confederation. An organization as envisaged with a wide range of objectives is a vitally necessity as we advance into the twenty-first century.

Buddhism had existed for over two thousand six hundred years and during this period it had spread to a significant part of the world. The colonization of traditionally Buddhist countries by Britain and France enabled the Western missionaries and administrators to discover Buddhism and its culture. It found a nursery in the academia of Europe and North America and an enormous contribution has been made by scholars in the study and publication of Buddhist literature in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan and Vietnamese and research in its philosophy, history, archaeology and socio-spiritual impact.

It is more recently that Buddhism in practice became worldwide due to three factors: (1) the importation of labor from China and Japan to USA in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, (2) the interest taken by an increasing body of intellectuals in Europe and Northern America who found Buddhism to be an alternative to Christianity and adopted it as their personal religion, and (3) the immigration of a multitude of ethnic Buddhists from. Tibet as a result of the ideological transformation of China, from Korea and Vietnam as a result of the two wars and from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Taiwan due to expanding opportunities for economic improvement. As such Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the Western world today.

As numerous as professed Buddhists in these countries, who are mainly from Asia, are those who find in Buddhism a variety of special activities fulfilling their spiritual needs such as meditation, chanting, retreats and monastic experience. A fair number of these, whom we would call the friends of Buddhism, remain culturally Christian or Jewish while associating closely with Buddhist institutions and the Sangha. Some even call themselves by such terms as Jubus (Jewish-Buddhists) to indicate the dual interest.

What has this recent development done to Buddhism as a whole? Buddhism is so widely known in the world today that the knowledge of the Buddha and the basic doctrines of Buddhism is indispensable as an integral aspect of cultural literacy. Hardly is found an educated person in any country who is devoid of some familiarity with Buddhism. A question that has become very difficult to answer under such a context is “What is Buddhism?” How can it be defined?

When Buddhism was confined to the traditionally Buddhist countries of Asia, each community had a clear idea of what Buddhism meant to it. The Buddhists in countries in East Asia, which continue to have the largest Buddhist populations, practiced Mahayana Buddhism, studied Mahayana sutras as preserved in the Chinese Tripitaka and worshipped the Bodhisattvas. Meditation as in Chan, Son, Zen or Thien or the repetition of formulae like NamoAmatafo, NamoAmidabudsu or NamoAmitaphat in Pureland Buddhism or Namomeoorengokyeo in Nichiren Buddhism divided them into recognizable groups. Tibet and Mongolia followed the Vajrayana tradition, in which mantras (incantations like Om manipadme hum), mudras (gestures of worship) and mandalas (graphic aids to meditation) constitute the main elements of worship. The countries of South and Southeast Asia had preserved a form of early Buddhism with its scriptures in Pali, which is currently identified as Theravada. It lays emphasis on intellectual study and discussion by both the Sangha and the laity, the observance of additional precepts on special days by the laity and self-cultivation.

Each tradition, school or sect of Buddhism had its own Sangha, who, though based on the same principal rules of Vinaya, dressed differently and differed in the ways they were prepared for their spiritual role. Their temples and shrines varied in architectural design and each had special shrines as pagodas, chortens and stupas. Even the Buddha was presented in physical characteristics specific to each ethnic group. The Bodhisattvas were distinguished by particular iconographical features and all traditions did not have equal prominence give to such icons as Amitabha Buddha, Medicine Buddha, DhyaniBuddhas, Avalokitesvara, Kwanying, Maitreya and Taras. Each also had different rituals and forms of worship.

This diversity of Buddhism was hardly known or recognized by the Buddhist populations of the world as they developed in isolation and without any interaction among them. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that the different traditions, schools and sects developed some contacts among them due to the efforts of AnagarikaDharmapala of Sri Lanka who set up the Mahabodhi Society as the first ever international Buddhist forum in 1891, his address to a sizeable Western audience in the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 and the American Theosophist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott’s initiative to get Buddhists of different countries to agree on a Platform of Fourteen Points which he formulated in 1894.

But the most significant development in modern times began in the middle of the twentieth century when waves of ethnic Buddhists migrating to the major cities of Europe, the Americas and the Oceania brought these many forms of Buddhism to co-exist side by side.  The rich diversity of Buddhism, which had developed in Asia during long centuries of independent growth, has given the impression of “many Buddhisms” and few other than serious scholars have a clear idea of the doctrinal and attitudinal unity which binds them together.

Outside these countries, it is in India that the variety of Buddhism has become significantly evident. Here we meet Buddhists from all Asian countries. As a result of the exile of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the presence of Tibetan Buddhism with outstanding educational, cultural and spiritual activitiesis remarkable. The development of holy shrines around Buddha Gaya and the increasing arrival of pilgrims to pay homage to the Buddha has made the diversity of Buddhism a reality in India.

It is true that several attempts have been made since Colonel Henry Steel Olcott to point out the unity within this diversity. Christmas Humphreys in Britain formulated in 1945 a twelve point document highlighting the common teachings of all traditions, schools and sects. More recently in 1997 the Sangha Council of Southern California and the American Buddhist Congress did a similar exercise in identifying a common base for all of them in ten points.

Many in the world today like to see the evolution of a unified form of Buddhism. Tricycle, the Buddhist periodical published in the USA, sees such unity as a combination of the Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana traditions.  There are others who advocate unity in the form of a Buddhayana or Ekayana. The ethnic Buddhists, on the other hand, are more conservative and favor the retention of their specific forms of Buddhism without any attempt at assimilation or interaction. This may be all right as far as the first generation of immigrants is concerned. What will happen in the future when the younger generations, with increasing exposure to science and technology, participatory democratic processes and new trends in spirituality, find dissatisfaction with what is taught and practiced as Buddhism by their elders? This is a tremendous challenge for the Buddhist leadership in general and the Sangha in particular in the twenty-first century. How should they prepare to face this challenge especially because the issue is the credibility of what Buddhism stands for?

It is in this context thatI see the relevance and the importance of the International Buddhist Confederation. The need for a unified front consisting of all traditions, schools and sects to grapple with this problem has been widely recognized and a significant international effort to foster unity, cooperation and interaction has been made through such organizations as the World Fellowship of Buddhists, the World Sangha Council, and Buddhist forums and summits convened by national and international bodies.

The World Fellowship of Buddhists brings together every two years representatives of all Buddhist traditions, schools and sects to consider ways and means of promoting the advancement of Buddhism in the world scene. It has already fostered a greater understanding and collaboration among diverse Buddhist groups. The World Sangha Council does similar work through monastics and has proved to be a very important forum to develop unity and cooperation. Similar efforts are being made by frequent conferences and seminars. But how successful are they in facing the challenge and what more has to be done? What is done by these organizations should have the desired impact at the grassroots level. The proposed International Buddhist Confederation has to evolve programs of action to encounter the challenges which Buddhism continues to encounter. It is the task before us in this Conclave as well as in the near future.


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