Averting the Erosion of Buddhist Values

by Dr. Daya Hewapathirane, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 18, 2004

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Indisputably, the Buddha Dhamma is the crowning glory of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. The Buddha?s teachings and Buddhist values are the greatest inheritance of the large majority of the Sinhala community living in the Western world. This inheritance continues to have an overpowering influence in shaping the lives of many Sinhela Buddhists, wherever in the world they choose to live.

A good number of Buddhist parents have attempted with varying degrees of success to share this inheritance with their children. They did not wish their children remain rootless in the Western world. They genuinely wanted to make it possible for their children to reconnect with the culture that they inherit, however embattled it may be.
Initiating Children into Buddhism

The most effective way of initiating their children into Buddhism is by the example set by parents by living their lives according to Buddhist principles. This will be reflected in the way how family issues and commitments are handled. Also, in the nature of relationships that are developed and maintained within and outside the family. Alongside such influence, parents need to provide right opportunities for their children to gain increased understanding of Buddhist teachings. Of course there is an abundance of readily available Buddhist literature, and website information for grown up children.


Exposure to Buddhist Practices

As the children grow up and their inquisitive spirit widens, they should be exposed to meaningful Buddhist practices and training that lead them to higher levels of emotional maturity and inner development. In particular, opportunities should be made available for them to practice Buddhist meditation under the proper guidance of monks and grown-ups who are knowledgeable and experienced in, and dedicated to such practices. These practices need to be organized and conducted in ways that are appealing to the young minds. By continued practice and regular training, children will be able to realize the benefits of mindfulness training and meditation in developing their capacity to better understand their lives. They will begin to appreciate how meditation can help them to find effective ways of dealing and coping with issues and problems that they face in their daily lives, including those encountered in their academic lives. They will find useful ways of overcoming stress and pressures of modern existence, and developing and leading a happy life.

Lack of Opportunities

Opportunities to expose our children to relevant and worthwhile Buddhist practices are to a great extent lacking in Western countries. Most Buddhist temples established in these countries under the patronage of Buddhists of Sri Lankan origin focuses more on a system of reverence and rituals. They are not organized as centers of learning of relevant Buddhist practices that help the younger generation to enrich their lives.

As in the case of typical Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, the temples in most western countries are popular places for Buddhists to gather and participate in traditional Sri Lankan Buddhist rites and rituals conducted by Sri Lankan monks. They provide opportunities for Sri Lankan Buddhists to organize and participate in customary Sri Lankan Buddhist celebrations and to personally interact with Sri Lankan monks and obtain their services to perform traditional Buddhist rites and rituals both in the temple and in private homes. They provide opportunities for Buddhists to socialize and get to know each other.

Relevance of Programs

Most children find it difficult to relate to and understand the relevance of what is happening in Buddhist temples established in the West under the patronage of Sri Lankans. Programs and practices of these temples are focused on grown-ups. Temple activities are no different to those prevalent in the large majority of temples in Sri Lanka. Essentially, they are a duplication of popular rites and rituals practiced in temples in Sri Lanka. Often, many children accompany their parents to these temples merely to satisfy their parents, with the minimum of interest in participating in the activities that take place in these temples. Most temple activities in any event are conducted in Sinhela language and most children are not able to follow or fully understand the proceedings.

Particularly the mid and late teenagers and other more grown-up children, shy away from temples because they see little meaning in temple programs, little value in terms of providing them with anything worthwhile, let alone spiritual satisfaction and inspiration. Most of what is offered in temples have no bearing on the spiritual, intellectual or emotional needs and interests of those who are serious about learning and practicing the Buddha?s teachings.

Most monks and parents, who organize temple activities, tend to overlook the fact that these children live and operate in a socio-cultural environment that is different to that of Sri Lanka. The environment they live in has a strong influence on their attitudes, values and priorities. Their medium of communication is not Sinhela or Pali. They communicate, think and formulate ideas in a ?foreign? language. Under the circumstances, most Buddhist temples and organizations established by Sri Lankans in the West, cater little if at all, to the spiritual needs of Buddhist children. Once the present generation of adult Buddhists who faithfully patronize the prevailing temple rituals are no more, the need or relevance of these temples will diminish greatly.

Higher Forms of Inspiration and Training

Some adult Buddhists in the western world are also faced with a similar kind of dilemma and frustration. They look for higher forms of inspiration and spiritual satisfaction from the programs organized and offered by their temples. Often they shy away from temples because their needs are not served. Besides, they are discouraged by the highly commercialized nature of most temples.

There will be many participants and potential donors for Buddhist activities if they are focused on the core values and practices in the Buddha?s teachings that are of direct relevance for inner purification and development and increased understanding of the Dhamma. Temples rarely offer opportunities for mental training that helps one to grow to higher levels of emotional maturity where one can be free of normal unhappiness.

Buddhist meditation in particular, helps to free the mind of all forms of mental distortion such as stress, worry, strain, anxiety, sorrow, depression, despair, displeasure, frustration, and exasperation. It helps one to overcome the many pains and pressures of modern existence and to develop the capacity to better understand ones life. It helps one to live peacefully and happily.

The aim of Buddhist meditation is to raise the human consciousness to a higher level, to bring ones mind to a state of equilibrium. It is an effort to change ones thinking, feeling and behavior through the constant practice of introspective awareness of ones thoughts, feelings, speech and action. Meditation provides the greatest single capacity for improvement and fulfillment in life ? spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Need for Change

If monks and temple programs are to make a difference in terms of making the Buddhist message relevant and meaningful to the contemporary western mind, a certain degree of tailoring of the Buddhist message and practices to match the socio-cultural conditions of recipient communities is a necessary strategy. It is by adopting such an approach that Buddhist monks can establish a fruitful dialogue with those in the West, including children of Buddhist parents, on the core values of the Buddhist faith.

What goes on in our temples do not convey to our children or help to convince them of the psychological flavour of Buddhism, that it is an ever-ongoing investigation of reality. That it is a microscopic examination of the very process of perception and that its intention is to pick apart the screen of lies and delusions through which we normally view the world, and thus to reveal the face of ultimate reality. They fail to reveal to our children that Buddhism presents them with an effective system for exploring the deeper levels of the mind, down to the very root of consciousness itself.

It is a fact that the large majority of Sri Lankan monks are not well versed or well equipped to serve any of the non-traditional spiritual needs of contemporary times. This is true not only among monks in the west but more so among those living in Sri Lanka.

Ways to Change

Irrelevant and inadequate training and exposure are among the most serious challenges faced by Sri Lankan monks who operate in the Western world. The kind of monastic training that our Bhikhus receive in the tradition-bound centers of learning in Sri Lanka, has to be drastically restructured and improved to make it relevant in terms of realities of contemporary life and social value systems.

Firstly, Bhikhus need to be conversant with modern disciplines and their diverse perspectives, especially disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, cognitive psychology, logic, neuro-physiology and so on. They should necessarily be conversant with other Buddhist traditions - Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Zen in particular.

Secondly, they should be well conversant with other religions, related practices and their approaches to the dissemination of religious knowledge.

Thirdly, as far as places like North America, UK and Australia are concerned, fluency in English is an essential prerequisite. This is for the mutual benefit of monks and the international community that they can serve. For those who are competent in these languages, the facilities and opportunities to further advance their knowledge is enormous in North America.

Fourthly, they should be conversant with the reasons behind the interest in Buddhism among the westerners, and the spiritual needs among some of them. Such knowledge and training will allow them to better interpret and convey the Buddha?s message in the idiom that the contemporary folk in the West can empathize with.

Why Turn to Buddhism

People in the western world have turned to Buddhism for different reasons. The interest of refined intellectuals and scholars appear to be an academic one, at least initially. Their interest is largely the outcome of the influence and motivation of their own academic disciplines and related research perspectives. Their interest largely focuses on the Buddha?s interpretation of some deeper aspects of life.

There are others in the west who are spiritually destabilized and yearn for inspirational strength from Buddhism. Their interests could be served satisfactorily only if our Bhikhus can convey the Buddha?s message in a way that is intelligible and comprehensible to the Western mind and adopting methods that the westerner can identify with and relate to fully.

The Dilemma

Buddhist monks are faced with the dilemma when it comes to explaining the impact of Buddhist teachings on the affairs of Sri Lanka and on the lives of people who inhabit it. The prevailing political, economic and socio-cultural conditions in Sri Lanka are largely contradictory to Buddhist teachings and practices. Sri Lanka is a house tragically in disarray. It cannot be a wellspring of inspiration to nations and peoples who are more fortunately circumstanced. Our monks have a hard time explaining why our Buddhist land is such a crucible of misery. It does not reflect any strong influence of the Buddha?s teachings.

Enlightened Leadership

It is a fact that Buddhism draws strength from enlightened leadership. Such leadership should be exemplary in terms of its devotion to Buddhism. It has to be a leadership that moves the ordinary people to heights of religious devotion through concern and compassion. Such leadership is generally threefold ?secular Buddhist leadership of the political elite, religious leadership of the Buddhist Sangha, and People?s leadership mostly through organizations.

All three aspects of this leadership must be healthy for the ?florescence? of Buddhism. But today, all three parts are in a very sick condition. We continue to have a political leadership in Sri Lanka that has forfeited its moral and ethical leadership in order to promote the cause of globalization and a corporate culture system that does not accommodate Buddhist principles.

We have a Sangha community that contributes little in the form of meaningful leadership, to say the least. Some are busy serving their worldly self-interests, leading lives that are in total contradiction to what they preach. Their influence is no different to that of the political elite of Sri Lanka. Concerned people have reacted to this trend by distancing themselves from monks and temples. Some monks fail to earn the respect that they use to earn, and most appear to be not accepting responsibility for this sad trend.

The greater mass of lay Buddhists regard the Buddhist faith as an end-game strategy and a preparation for death. Their interests in temples and monks are virtually confined to the participation in rites and rituals. Monks continue to encourage and propagate these rites and rituals, performing them with much vigor. These practices have become lucrative sources of material benefits for monks and temples. With very few exceptions, rituals form the primary basis of interaction of monks and people.

There is a great need for the caring and sensible Buddhists within and outside Sri Lanka to organize themselves to avert the erosion of Buddhist values occasioned by the lack of enlightened Buddhist leadership. A realistic strategy and approach need to be developed, to directly address the glaring problems facing contemporary Buddhists and ways of helping to reform and re-invigorate the Sangha need to be identified in a pragmatic manner.

We have to be protective of our culture. It is time that we made a determined effort to reclaim our cultural heritage. We know that it is in our own culture where we instinctively feel most comfortable and where we are ourselves.

It is by sharing and helping to incorporate its values to shape their lives that this great cultural inheritance can be sustained for succeeding generations. In promoting it among our children, the realities of the times and environment in which they live should be essential considerations. In contemporary times, with its special cluster of bafflement, discord and uncertainties, the relevance of the Buddha?s teachings, cannot be overemphasized.


Material contained in this write-up is based not only on my own experiences and observations during my stay in Canada, USA and UK, and travels in a few other English speaking countries, but also on information drawn from relevant readings and communications with several well-known Buddhist monks and many lay Buddhist friends who have lived in the west for long periods of time, and who have closely interacted with Sri Lankan Buddhists

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