Buddhism in the New Millennium
by Phua Keng Chuan
What is the future of Buddhism in the new millennium? The mass media, such as the internet and mobile communication has brought a tremendous change in the world today. It has revolutionised the communication and affect the way we do in our everyday life. It brought people together through the sharing of knowledge. Buddhism, like all other religions is feeling the impact and it has to keep pace with this change.
Nowadays, we can spread the Dharma with new tools and ways that are more sophisticated. Globalisation and modernisation have led to a number of changes in Buddhism. It has posed new opportunities and challenges for Buddhist communities and it will eventually help to globalise the Dharma. Buddhism has been adapting naturally and simply for many centuries. The adaptability of Buddhism may be one reason for its success, as it is easily integrated into many foreign cultures during the past centuries. However, there are always views and opinions with misunderstanding about Buddhism. There is also a perception that the religion is gradually invaded by other faiths and it is degenerating. It may one day vanish from Asia where Buddhism has the roots.
The aim at the forum is to create a platform on how to update ourselves so that the truths will remain steadfast. Time is everything in our life and we have the opportunity to look forward. Buddhism looks at times differently. It signifies the declining of everything. It is an illusion as the elements of time are like a tip of our memory. We discover nothing but the past. The present has no beginning and ending. Time is like the water current and both are moving nature.
How do we make use of time to our benefits? The millennium is an indicator for us to do something. It is how we practise Buddhism in our present age. To Buddhism from the ancient time to the present era, it is a wide span of time to raise such an issue like this. The core of human beings is suffering and this is a problem that will still exist even into many millenniums.
Buddhism has global appeal. From the land of its birth in India, Buddhism has spread to many countries throughout Asia. In each country and civilisation that it encountered, it was understood and adopted to the ideas and customs of a country. In recent times, there has been an interest and a movement towards Buddhism in Western countries. We can also find different brands of Buddhism around the world. It is still keeping the essence of how to end suffering. There is always a great diversity of Buddhist methods and Buddhist teachings and it fit very well with different societies and different cultures.
We must first self-realise the teaching and its truths, before we can pass on the teaching beyond the time factor – challenging everyone to come and see. Buddhism is not a philosophy, as we need to practise systematically. We can get the results by ourselves without asking Buddha for help. Therefore, Buddhism is still relevant regardless of time. There are different schools of Buddhism with different practices and it is still growing. When we visit big temples, we cannot see any monks but many Buddha images, and we may mistaken that Buddhism is degrading.
There is a different approach to practice Buddhism. The Western ideal of a religion is that there must be a God. However, Buddha says that let the God be in his space, while we Buddhists have to solve our own problems. Buddhism is beyond time and space. It is in our minds. The word, “Theravada” as with Theravada Buddhism was coined in Sri Lanka in 1950 to replace Hinayana. It created identities, while we live separately in our own country to preserve Buddhism. There are divisions and we need to build a platform like The World Fellowship of Buddhists (The WFB) to bring all schools of Buddhism under one umbrella. There is another word, “Dhammaduta” that appeared in the 5th century BCE and it was alien to most Western scholars. It means to spread Buddhism everywhere in solidarity. Today, we have the three schools of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, which can simply mean cleaning of the mind, compassion and wisdom respectively.
Fake Buddhism also poised other challenges to the religion. They created a problem with the world by taking some aspects of Buddhism into their own teaching and labelled them as Buddhism. For Buddhism to be sustainable, we must hold it in its own firm ground. The Buddhist symbol, the Dhammacakra is the turning of the wheel of Dharma perpetually. It carries unmistakable strength. Buddhism is still relevant and active to solve people’s problems in the next millennium. We may invite people from other religions to learn the ABC of Buddhism. It is a philosophy of Awakening, Balance (Sustaining) and Compassion.
How does Buddhism face challenges beyond itself? There are great values of Buddhism for the contemporary world. The doctrine and practice that Buddhism offered such as equality, fraternity and democracy are advocated by modern society. The Dharma is also in line with the trend of human development and scientific exploration. The advance of technology has led to the discovery of more Buddhist insights. The Buddhist scripture is huge as compared to other religions. It poses a big challenge to people that are nowadays busy with their working life. The other problem is the expansive propagation and language barrier and the lack of human resources and multilingual monastics to propagate the Dharma. Buddhism is also in line with solving contemporary social problems and contradictions. The world needs Dharma to bring peace and to address environmental issues. However, there are too many challenges for the potential of Buddhism. We must start thinking of what we can do about it.
The census of Buddhists population of the world as compared to other religions shows that Buddhism is declining. According to the report by the Pew Research Centre, the global Buddhists population of the year 2050 will be the same size as it was in 2010. With the exception of Buddhists, all the major religious groups of the world are expected to increase in number by the year 2050. Buddhists are projected to decline by 7% from nearly 500 million to about 462 million in the year 2060. Should we be concerned about numbers or does it matter if Buddhism continues to exist? Alternatively, is it just enough for people to learn the Dharma and benefit from it? The challenge to Buddhism now is how Buddhism will disappear. Will it be displaced by other religions? Will it replace with pseudo Buddhism or even abandoned by Buddhists.
The problems Buddhism is facing are not new. Whenever there is the distortion of Buddhism and the Dharma, the solution for us is to increase Dharma solidarity and to establish right view. The support within the Buddhist community is very important. There is a view that traditional Buddhism program has no appeal especially to the younger generation. We may want to change the approach, but we must be careful. There is also the problem of disconnection between members especially with the lack of support between members and temples. This problem cannot be solved easily and we must start with knowing our members. We may even fear the loss of members and it is here that we need collaboration between Buddhist organisations. Do the problems affect us if Buddhism continues to exist? It does matter if in future, Buddha images are not found in temples to inspire practice of cultivating pure thoughts for society; but in buildings and to be forgotten as historical relics.
In ancient India, the people and their beliefs were more complex. They believed in rites. When the Buddha was around, he discarded all that. This simple approach attracted many people, including the kings that allowed Buddhism to grow. When we looked at Buddhism that is taught today, it is full of ceremony. Nowadays, people are more educated. We should approach the Dharma in a simple manner. Buddhism will not attract people if they could not understand certain practice such as chanting. We understand that Buddhist rites and ceremonies are very rich and we would not advocate eradicating it. Perhaps, we should repackage it at a later stage for a better, deeper understanding.
We should teach in a language that everyone could understand. There are three areas of approach. They are simplifying, emphasis on practical applications in social experience and lastly to practice meditation. We may simplify the Dharma so that they can become more effective and easily understood by the majority of the people. Simplicity is the way that can lead one to enlightenment. We can teach Buddhist stories in simple language. For beginners in Buddhism, they will be shocked to see many rites and ceremonies. Therefore, it is important to demystify Buddhism for beginners. Our experience from the five senses is important. The known is the experience. The teacher can use expedient means to teach students that may even motivate them to learn more about Buddhism. Mindfulness is important because through meditation, one can become enlightened. It is an excellent way to introduce them to the Dharma. The people will come and enjoy learning the Dharma. We can also make use of technology, songs and story base to disseminate the Dharma.
The need for a calm and compassionate mind is important. There is discontent, conflict and unhappiness as the world is brought up in confusion. It is time we need cultivation. The challenges facing Buddhism can be personal, external and ideological. These are alienation, family and relationship stresses and high work demands. Other challenges such as poverty, globalisation, discrimination, environmental mismanagement, misinformation and indoctrination by the internet are not new.
What is the root of the problem? The challenges to problems are ultimately mind-made. They are spun out from the mind that is caught in greed, hatred and delusion. The root of the problem is the misguided mind. We can address these challenges with the cultivation of morality, concentration and wisdom. The application of a discerning mind, guided by compassion and wisdom may provide the holistic approach.
When sharing the Dharma, we should highlight the relevant of the Dharma by creatively communicating the Dharma. On the personal level, this is the positive transformation to personal well-being and ultimately to enlightened being. On the global level, this is the vision of ethical and compassionate humanity or pure land on earth. Science is also a good partner with Buddhism in addressing the demands of the new millennium. We can also share the peaceful and joyful Dharma such as the seven factors of enlightenment. These are mindfulness, discernment, energy, joy, tranquillity, concentration and equanimity. We may even broaden the network of Buddhist fellowship and favourable environment for engaging with the Dharma. This can be done by extending the supportive metta-charged fellowship and spiritual communities to cater to the need of the segregated small family social environment. The network can also provide the platform to reach out and share the Dharma.
What are the development and characteristics of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism? What are the differences and similarities between them? The differences are lineage, language, teachings and form. There are practices that differ but the end goal is to cut across lineage and taking the Triple Gem as our common refuge. The other problems are the idolisation of a teacher, sectarian teaching and isolation. One of the main solutions is to take the Buddha as our teacher, the Dharma as our teachings and the Sangha as our guide. In all Buddhist traditions, the focus is on helping sentient beings. The different lineages are more like medicine and vehicle. Our goal is to end suffering. The lineages offer different approaches that are suited for individuals with different affinity and inclinations. The focus is on the Dharma and not on the method it is delivered. The Theravada and Mahayana tradition also stressed on the importance of meditation. Both are adapted to cultural differences.
The term, meditation means the cultivation of the mind. The nearest Pali or Sanskrit terms that corresponds to this is the word, citta-bhavana. In Buddhist tradition, the cultivation of the mind is usually presented in terms of two different but complementary aspects. They are namely “calm” and “insight”. The aim of calming meditation is to enter into deep “concentration” (samadhi) while the aim of “insight” meditation is to arrive at “wisdom” (prajna). We have Upatissa’s Vimuttimagga (path of freedom) which gives us 38 aspects of meditation and we have Buddhagosa’s Visuddhimagga, which gives us 40 aspects of meditation. Some of the objects of calming meditation are the ten devices, four formless, the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth jhana. Some of the obstacles to calming meditation are five hindrances, sensual desire, ill will, tiredness & sleepiness, excitement & depression, and doubt. There are also different schools of meditation in Mahayana Buddhism. They are the Sanlun, Fa Hsiang, Pure Land and Tiantai Buddhism. The Pure Land School emphasis on the practice of “nianfo” They usually mean “mindful recollection of the Buddha” It also means “the recollection or the bearing in mind of the attributes of a Buddha”. The Tiantai school of Buddhism emphasises samatha and vipassana meditation.
How are we going to practise Buddhism in this modern age? There are thousands of discourses taught by the Buddha. In ancient times, many people learned by memory using the oral tradition. Today we have every opportunity to learn. One can be a doctorate in Buddhist teachings. They give lecture but not practicing. Therefore, when a devoted Buddhist faces difficulty, he may not know how to handle the problem. Beliefs and devotion are also not important in Buddhism, as we do not consider the Buddha as a God. It does not help in salvation. Nowadays, it is difficult to learn and practise Buddhism because many things attract us. We have fast moving life-style. As life is competitive, we may have created serious problem. Therefore, we need Buddhism today. Everybody has stress and it is suffering. Anger should not overcome us. Let it come, watch it and conquer it. When practicing Buddhism, we can obtain beautiful results, and overcome stress. We need metta (love without attachment), karuna (compassion) and simplicity joy (being happy about people success).
Buddhism is also developing slowing in Western countries. However, the needs are different. Buddhist characteristics such as “come to see”, cause and effect, responsibility, “open to questions” and interdependence attracted many Westerners. Other traditional religions impose fear on people. Some Buddhist monks in America conducted meditation services and visited the homeless non-Buddhist for a nice friendly conversation. The approach is different. There are meditation program in prisons, schools and hospitals. There is also a need to train local people to work in the various places. For some Westerner, it is advisable that we do not emphasis on ritual, chanting, devotional activities, merit-making or doctrinal studies. We need to tell people that this is traditional Buddhism, but do emphasis on mindfulness. How can be we move forward? We need to have understanding and unity. It is also good to discuss non-Buddhist practises. As a Buddhist, we must learn to accept and appreciate and it is important that we must help to promote the Buddhist teachings.
There is a huge impact of globalisation on Dharma propagation. The economic globalisation leads to greed. Greed takes centre stage and it is institutional. Greed is also materialism. The Dharma of non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion is important. The characteristics of globalisation are excessive consumerism, uncontrolled wastage of resources and instability, There are transnational religious organisation or religion in the business world. It has positive impact. The results are wider Dharma propagation, greater awakening, competition and mutual learning. However, their negative impacts are competition for limited resource, the rise of personality cults and the exploration of resources such as consumerisation. The rise of mega-pseudo-Buddhist cults is also subverting the Dharma. We need to expose them by educating the public on the truth about the Dharma.
Cultural Globalisation such as language, values and lifestyle have an impact on Buddhism. The English language, the common language of the world is not another language of Buddhism. Asians such as Oriental people are quiet by nature. Our food and dressings are also different. We also tend to follow the Western lifestyle of having Christian name. We need to propagate the Dharma by preaching corporate conscience to corporate leaders to counter greed. The Buddhist institution must practise what is preached. Buddhists also need to take part in Inter-religious dialogue with other religions. It is ideal to preach Dharma to all others and not only to Buddhist alone. For Dharma propagation, it is also useful to have a mastery of important words such as dukka or karma in English. As a Buddhist, we also need to live a wholesome Buddhist lifestyle and have social engagement.
What is meant to be a Buddhist practitioner? What are the positive development and challenge we face as a lay-people? To engage wholeheartedly in Buddhism takes valuable time for meditation, study, service or volunteer work and community. Modern technology, however increasingly dominates our everyday lives in work, education and society. We have the aspirations and ambitions. The progress of modern science and the advance in educational level of many people has a huge impact on the religious beliefs of many people. There is a way to escape the suffering in modern life. Science is trying to explore mindfulness. The Buddhist use of mindfulness stress-reduction program is useful. Many modern educated Buddhists are having demanding jobs, and practices such as mindfulness meditation provide much-needed relief from the pressure in day to day life. We have the desire to lead a less stressful and meaningful life.
While we concentrate on our own liberation, we also need the spirit of having the Bodhisattva vows to follow the Buddha’s example and help everybody to become enlightened. A Bodhisattva-aspirant generated the great aspiration to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings by actively giving service to people. The choice of us is either we follow the path to end our sufferings or to end the sufferings of everybody. With globalisation and fast changing world, people are becoming intolerant, more materialistic, egoistic and individualistic than ever before. Time is on our side as there is a growing need for us to act immediately. This is important for Buddhism to progress and flourish beyond the new millennium.