National Level Buddhist Organizations must rise up to face new challenges

by Goh Seng Chai, Buddhist News Network, June 10, 2004, Email:

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- During the World Fellowship of Buddhists General Conference held in Shah Alam (Malaysia) in 2002, a fellow South Korean delegate remarked that Malaysia has the potential to become a world Buddhist centre.

"Few among men are they who cross to the further shore. The other folk only run up and down the bank on this side." (Dhammapada, Verse 85)

He based his observation on a few criteria, such as, a renowned Sangha led by the world respected Venerable Dr K. Sri Dhammananda, a population that communicates comfortably in English, and a large pool of dynamic lay practitioners who apply innovative approaches to propagate the Dhamma.

These three key areas - recognizable Sangha member, English and a dynamic, self driven lay movement - he says, are elements that is fueling the rise of Buddhism in the west. In this respect, Malaysian Buddhists are well poised to provide global leadership.

He astutely observed that many of the local projects and initiatives are self generated - both in terms of financial and human resources. As a Muslim led country, Malaysian Buddhists do not get as many privileges enjoyed by those from Sri Lanka or Thailand. Nevertheless, even with the rather limited resources available, he commented that the international community have always had good regards of Malaysian Buddhist efforts to propagate the Dharma effectively.

We have to be honest with ourselves: Are Malaysian Buddhists ready to assume regional or global leadership? If the potential of Malaysian Buddhism as an international centre-force is to be realized, it has to begin with our own house keeping. It has to begin with the deep realization that globalization forces requires one to be fully engaged with community circles and administrative systems in which it operates. It has to be proactive in its approaches to build relevant networks - with both Buddhists and non-Buddhists - as means to strengthen the community as well as to integrate itself into national and regional development, whether socially, economically or spiritually.

While we admit that Malaysian Buddhists have been largely fortunate to be able to practice their faith without hindrance in this country, it does not help if their key national based organizations are not immersed into mainstream levels of national and regional development. These key bodies must realign their focus and energies, and be more sensitive to social and religious undercurrents sweeping the region.

To obtain strong grass root support, they have to skillfully muster and consolidate their resources not only to run mundane activities, but more importantly to galvanize the spirit of shared ownership and fellowship amongst its members. When we use the Dharma as the forefront and principle guide, and inspiring our resources to innovate while executing activities, the results obtained are certain to be far more satisfying than planned. To achieve such organizational cohesiveness, the main body has to be itself be focused on clear goals, and its elected representatives possessing the will to engage and be embraced by the society which they represent and serve.

Unfortunately, the period of disengagement over the last few years have disillusioned many who looked towards these venerable bodies representing the Buddhist lay movement. It has saddened many people to see our key Buddhist organizations becoming a pale shadow of what they were, and what they could have become. Instead of being a voice of the Buddhist masses, their silence on so many issues has indeed been most disappointing. Some have even gone as far to say that the last few years has seen National level Buddhist Organizations in Malaysia at it's most disengaged mode in recent memory.

Why do we say so? When you do not voice out against injustice and intolerance, you become disengaged. When you do not actively support movements that dare to confront problems facing Buddhists and Buddhism, you are disengaged. When you do not take initiatives or be innovative enough to grab opportunities to further the cause of Dharma propagation, you are disengaged.

It is not wrong to say that the future of Malaysian Buddhism is helmed not by major organizations. The biggest movers and shakers that have attracted local and international attention are spear headed by grass-root movements such as Sau Seng Lam, who offers free or subsidized haemodyalysis treatment. In terms of media innovation, Buddhism in Malaysia is made well known throughout the world through small but dynamically effective efforts such as UKMBA's Buddhist News Network (BNN). Even initiatives to embed Dharma based courses into the country's National Service scheme was conducted by an individual Buddhist activist.

It is a shame to National level Buddhist bodies when small grass-root movement like BNN take the lead to galvanize support to confront issues and challenges facing the Buddhist community such as the "Buddha bikini" affront by Victoria's Secrets. And where were the presence of the "big boys" when most Buddhists voiced their protests in the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Why was there no "heavyweight" Buddhist representation at the National level open houses to celebrate Aidilfitri (the Muslim New Year festival)? Even the Sikh community, who are 15 times smaller in comparison with the Buddhist population, have made their presence felt stronger.

What saddens many Buddhists even more is the incessant squabbling for position among its elected representatives in these key bodies. Organizational politics, even in a Buddhist environment can be most unforgiving. You are a "team-player" if you are savvy enough to hone your skill to satisfy the needs of your supporters. On the other hand, you may be branded as a "trouble-maker" if you don't know how. While this may be something not palatable to many, in reality, it does play out in meeting rooms and during intense lobbying for an elected position.

Instead of using the privileges accorded to them to serve their members, many find themselves bogged down by petty quarrels and political dodging. Instead of promoting ideas and encouraging individual initiatives, they spend their time bashing up other people's ideas and tearing down resourcefulness.

While the list of malady and other affliction effecting organization Malaysian Buddhism is sad and discouraging, nevertheless there is still hope. Unfortunately the hope lies not in the hands of these religious behemoths. Instead influential players have emerged using nimble and mobile platforms to push their inventiveness and creativeness.

There is a nascent movement to utilize the fine and performing arts as a tool for Dharma outreach. This new development augurs well because culture is a potent tool for social engagement. Another key aspects coming up is the promotion of Information Technology in organization management. Small and newly formed establishments are astutely adopting high-end web-based systems to reach out to their members.

Meanwhile, there are groups forming a Buddhist business network, facilitating trade and commercial exchanges among themselves. Another key network in place is one that calls itself "Buddhist Life Circles", where organized effort are made to personalize Dharma outreach via the development of cell groups. Recently, a group of young Buddhists mooted a "Roving Wesak" concept when they celebrated Wesak at a location where no Buddhist temples existed, so that they could "light the lamp of the Dharma where there was none."

There are groups that have established counseling units, giving workshops educating the public on social issues such as rape, AIDS etc. Some groups have initiated social support programmes such as "kitchen soup", providing free food to the homeless and the poor. Other efforts worth mentioning include those who have set up recycling counters, collecting reusable articles and redistributing them to orphanages and old folks home.

All these nascent, grass root development have occurred not because they were made to follow strategies drawn out by national level bodies. Their services were mooted out of desire and compassion to serve targeted sectors of society. Their actions and programmes are drawn to meet specific needs, and not to attain any type of grandeur recognition.

If things are going at this rate, I am confident that service oriented, societal centred groups will become the beacon of Buddhist leadership in Malaysia. It is here that the seed of local and regional change will emerge. Hopefully, they will continue to provide lessons to the more established organization behemoths that have gone into deep slumber.

It is apt to say that organization based Buddhism is at a critical crossroad. To fulfill the country's ambition as a leader of the Buddhist world, they need to first wake up from their slumbering disengagement. They must rise up to the multi-varied challenges facing Buddhism locally, regionally and internationally. The rise of Asian Buddhism is not just about preserving its traditional way of devotion, but more critically to engage its devotees to open their eyes and see what the Dharma is really all about.

Like the Buddha said, don't be like those who only know how to run up and down along the river's bank, but be daring enough to run across it (Dhammapada V. 85). And being engaged with society, essentially is all about having the courage to run across rivers of obstacles, challenges and hindrances.

May the Dharma ever protect and guide us in the correct path. - BNN


Mr Goh Seng Chai is currently a member of the Executive Council of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB). He is also the President of the World Fellowship of Buddhists ? Selangor Regional Centre. Mr Goh has over 40 years of experience in administrating Buddhist activities.

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