PROMOTION OF BUDDHISM IN
THE 21ST CENTURY


By Dr. Ottaranyana
From a talk given at Fourth
World Buddhist Summit
in Yangan, Myanmar,
December 2004

Most Venerable Mahatheras, respected members of the Sangha, brothers and sisters in Dhamma from all lands and all schools, I greet you with joy. It is a great and glorious opportunity for us to come together in harmony like this.

Our ultimate victory, our ultimate happiness, is the attainment of Enlightenment, but there is another happiness to be experienced on the way. It is to pass on the teaching that has come down to us from the Buddha and that has been entrusted to our care. Our duty, as children of the Buddha, is to pass on that inheritance to future generations. How we should be doing so in this 21st century of the Common Era is the subject of my paper. The new century challenges the practice of our faith as never before but it also brings great opportunities for those wise enough to see them. It is not enough, however, simply to perceive them. We must train and equip ourselves, both to meet the challenge on the one hand, and on the other to seize the opportunity.

I hope it is obvious to all of us that it really is our mission to spread the teaching of the Buddha throughout the world and to make it heard. At the end of his first Rains Retreat, with only sixty-one perfected monks in the Order, the Blessed One told them to go out into the world and witness to the effectiveness of his training:

Set out on your journey for the profit of many, out of compassion for the world, and for the welfare, the benefit, the bliss of gods and men. None should take the same road together. Teach the Dhamma that is good from beginning to end. Make known in heart and mind the perfected, utterly pure, righteous way. There are those with little dust in their eyes bound for death that will flourish once they learn of this teaching.

It is important to remember where we find these words. It is in the Mahavagga section of the monastic code of discipline. Even before the training rules for monks and nuns were drawn up, this duty of teaching was laid down and is as necessary in our day as in the Buddha’s day.

It is our mission, I said, to spread the teaching and make it heard. Heard, I should add, not only in those parts of the world that do not yet acknowledge themselves as Buddhist, but also in our own countries. Buddhism has a good reputation at the moment and much is expected of it. We might even say that the eyes of the world are upon us. If the Buddha’s teachings are not applied, as they ought to be in our own countries, we can hardly expect others to have confidence in us as Buddhist teachers.

Now, what are the modern circumstances, which call for our teaching? First of all there is the globalisation of the so-called business ethic. This is neither more nor less than the application of business efficiency to greed, launching it as a competitive ideology. We have spent so much time squabbling among ourselves that we have failed to see until now how threatened we are by the professional organisation that materialism has acquired. We need now to defend the very concept of spirituality itself. Greed is seen as a good and compassion is condemned as weakness. Competition is seen as a good, with its baggage of hatred, of anger and, indeed, of all the negative emotions that the Buddha diagnosed as bringing suffering, misery and despair. In truth, competition is a form of war. Competition brings misery, rather than prosperity. It is our duty to persuade those who preach it as the new Gospel that it is an abomination that threatens not just the welfare of human beings but also the very survival of our planet.

In circumstances such as these, Buddhism starts with great advantages. First of all, it gives us the intellectual tools to analyse what is happening and to suggest a remedy to the present breakdown of civilised values. The human behaviour that his teaching analyses is the same after 2,600 years as when the Buddha first taught; it does not alter with time. Neither does human nature differ from country to country; it is the same in East and West. Suffering arises from the same causes and can be ended by the same remedies.

Also in Buddhism’s favour is the present distrust of authority. There is no authoritarian centre to Buddhism. Its appeal is to personal experience, to trial of the teaching before assent is given. Faith is not demanded either in doctrines or in authoritarian concepts such as God. Indeed, many people who discover Buddhism say that this is something they have believed all their lives without realising that they were ‘Buddhist’. All we have to do is discover these hidden Buddhists! In the West especially, many have become disillusioned with materialism. We do not need to convince them that it brings suffering rather than content, for they have discovered this truth for themselves. What they are desperate to hear is what we have to teach. A way that lessens dependence on things, that weakens the bonds of greed, hate and the assertion of the ego; a way that leads to peace of mind; a way that gives them hope.

In the promotion and propagation of Buddhism in the modern age, we are following the Lord Buddha’s instruction: Teach the Dhamma, that is good from beginning to end. Make known in heart and mind the perfected, utterly pure, righteous way. To fulfil this duty, Buddhist missionary centres must be established around the world. Such centres may be of various kinds.

1. Buddhist learning centres catering for a variety of abilities.
2. Meditation centres
3. Pagodas, stupas and monasteries.

But there are other ways of making Buddhism known, including:
4. T V programmes
5. Internet web sites
7. Academic research papers
8. Public ceremonies

As an example of the last of these, I will mention our local co-operation with Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. They have a magnificent standing Buddha in the Indian Gupta style and invited us this year to celebrate Buddha Day in front of it, as we had done once a few years before. This autumn we took part in another public ceremony there and on top of this they asked me to advise them when preparing an exhibition of their collection of palm-leaf Buddhist scriptures.

Let me mention too how our Birmingham Peace Pagoda functions as a learning centre. Each year we have visits from an average of 24 schools, colleges, universities and adult organizations. When over a hundred students are involved, these groups are usually divided into two. In addition, there are five junior schools each year that are involved in an Interfaith Education Project organised by one of our devotees. These come back several times to study particular themes with one of our monks. At our monastery on the same site there are several classes in Buddhist Studies and meditation retreats provided free of charge where everybody can study the Dhamma in both theory and practice. Some of these classes are planned in co-operation with local colleges. At present we are planning a degree course with Birmingham University as well.

Now missionary activity is a speciality like any other and can only be undertaken after special training. Some already have training centres in their own countries, but we should give greater thought to the quality of teaching there, to what is taught and to the calibre of those trained. More is demanded than broad scholarship. Linguistic ability is of great importance if we are to teach those in other lands, for example. Again, we must be sure that those who go among the temptations of materially developed countries are of the highest morality and take their training rules seriously. Meditation is the treasure we have to offer and it is much in demand all over the world. The missionary must therefore be highly experienced in it - not just in its theory but also and even more importantly in its practice. On top of this, missionaries will need the practical ability to organise their new centre.

If we are to teach in other countries, it is also important that we be at least as well educated as those who live there. If they know everything except Buddhism and we know nothing except Buddhism, there is hardly the opportunity for a meeting of minds. We need to know something of Eastern as well as Western philosophy. We need to know about the history of the country in which we teach. We need to get acquainted with the religions we are liable to encounter and be ready to hold intelligent dialogue with those who follow them. That too requires training – in the ability to listen, to compare justly and to reply tactfully! In addition, with science playing such a large part in forming modern thought, we have to know something of that too. Finally, we need to be able to use a computer. Communication with others is increasingly dependent on this, as is the search for and storing of information.

If we are to take our missionary role seriously, then the first thing we must decide is how these endeavours are to be paid for. Otherwise it will remain merely a pious wish and the Buddha’s command to us will go unheeded. Much more seriously, a great opportunity will be missed and the world will be the unhappier because the Buddha’s teaching has not been made more available.

Of one thing I am convinced, however. To take such a scheme forward we must act together; it must be a joint enterprise across the different schools. Occasions such as the World Buddhist Summit will themselves be an empty exercise unless something practical comes out of them. Let our meeting together be more than a talking shop. Certainly it is a good beginning; we understand each other better, we are gaining strength in diversity. Let us now put these benefits to use and make the fourth summit memorable as being the one when we progressed from talking to each other and took measures to make our voice heard more effectively in the world. Let us all join hands as brothers and sisters to make the teachings of Buddhism better known, working together and supporting each other financially and spiritually.

Most venerable Mahatheras, respected Sangha and Dhamma friends, we have been considering how to promote Buddhism in the 21st century. But you and I know that in Buddhist terms it is already the 26th century. Let us go out and bring the rest of the world up to date!

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