AVERTING THE EROSION OF BUDDHIST
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
Ontario - Canada
Indisputably, the Buddha Dhamma is the crowning glory of the cultural
heritage of Sri Lanka. The Buddhas 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 Buddhas 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 Buddhas
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 Buddhas 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 Buddhas
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 Buddhas message
in a way that is intelligible and comprehensible to the Western mind
and adopting methods that the westerner can identify with and relate
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 Buddhas teachings.
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 Peoples
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 Buddhas teachings, cannot
(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