Buddhism Under Threat in Asia, Warns New Report
By Krishan Dutta
BANGKOK (IDN) — A new report released by the Sydney-based Lotus Communication Network (LCN) on February 26 warns that Buddhism is under threat across Asia, both from within and outside, and calls for concerted action by Buddhists across the region to empower themselves.
The 238-page report produced as an eBook identifies six issues that threaten Buddhism in Asia, a region, whose identity over the centuries has been built around what is called the ‘Indic-Buddhist’ civilization. These issues include proselytism targeting Buddhist communities, particularly by Evangelical (Pentecostal) Christian groups and lately Wahabi Islamists.
An Australian Buddhist monk who has spent 30 years in Sri Lanka and Thailand is quoted as saying: “Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries are up against an incredibly well financed, carefully designed and extremely determined scheme to destroy Buddhism and replace it with Christianity”.
Other issues include poverty among grassroots Buddhists, who constitute the majority of the poor in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, which is exploited by the Christian and Islamic groups.
Another serious issue is youth from Asian Buddhist families drifting away from Buddhism and the report blames Buddhists for paying too much attention to rituals and neglecting the philosophical teachings that is very relevant to the 21st century.
Distortion of Buddhism by wayward monks and temples is another issue identified as a threat from within. The monastic system that has been the lynchpin of the Buddhist community for centuries is also under threat because not enough young people are willing to become monks.
The book is a result of a 18-month study over 2018 and 2019 by Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan born communications scholar, who visited most of the Buddhist countries and communities in South and Southeast Asia during this period. He was commissioned to do the study after the first Asian Buddhist Media Conclave held in New Delhi in August 2018 organised by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC).
After much discussion about media bias against Buddhists, hate speech accusations, lack of Buddhist media networks in the region and the drifting away of Buddhist youth from Buddhism, it was suggested that a study be undertaken to look at the communication needs of Buddhist communities in South and Southeast Asia. The report is designed to be a consultative report to IBC and other Buddhist organisations in Asia. It calls for peaceful action to address the issues identified in the document.
“During my consultations, some Buddhists, especially in Southeast Asia, told me that worrying is a form of suffering in Buddhism. So why worry about the social-economic problems of the world. You need to cleanse yourself,” Dr Seneviratne notes. “I don’t really agree that this is the essence of Buddhism. We need to look at how to solve socio-economic problems that bring so much suffering to people.”
Dr Seneviratne believes that the essence of Buddhism is mindfulness, “which the whole world accepts now”. He sees mindfulness as not worrying about something, but mindfully understanding the root causes of the problem and doing something to empower the people to solve their own problems. “It is called Engage Buddhism — we need to address the problem and work out the path to help solve it — that is the path I took in doing the study,” he argues.
The 15-chapter report dedicates 12 chapters to specific countries that includes predominantly Buddhist countries such as Bhutan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand; and also formerly Buddhist countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Nepal.
There is a lengthy chapter on India looking at a possible Buddhist revival there and also efforts to develop Buddhist tourism. East Asian countries, where substantial Buddhist communities exist such as China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, are not included in the study. Each country chapter includes a substantial discussion on the historic background to its Buddhist heritage and culture that should be a very valuable resource for education in Asia, where most modern youth lack a good understanding of their own cultures and heritage.
“The book is very comprehensive and it surveys all development trends and problems, paradoxes facing Buddhism in the region,” says Dr Palphol Rodloytuk, Assistant to the President and former Dean, School of Liberal Arts, of Shinawatra University in Bangkok. “I particularly like the mindful communication and Buddhist communication model discussed in chapter 2, and the chapters on Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are an eye-opener.”
In chapter 1 there is a lengthy discussion on how Buddhism spread through the ancient trade routes known as the ‘Silk Route’. Its peaceful exchange of ideas and philosophies is offered as a lesson for modern day missionaries who create conflicts.
In chapter 2, Buddhist communication strategies over the centuries are discussed starting from the Buddha’s sermon on ‘free inquiry’ — the Kalama Sutra — to Ashoka edicts and to modern day communications using Facebook and music concerts.
“I will use part of the book in my PhD class on world wisdom and traditions for communications,” says Dr Rodloytuk.
The country chapters give an uniquely Buddhist perspective on pressing socio-economic, political and cultural issues facing Buddhist communities. Such as in Bangladesh, how a minority Buddhist community around the Cox Bazaar area is living in fear on the shadows of the Rohingya crisis, while in Myanmar, why the Buddhists feel that global media’s coverage of the Rohingya issue is highly biased and does not take into account the socio-economics of a development issues that fuels such a crisis.
The Laos and Vietnam chapters give an interesting perspective on how a “communist” government has come to a historic accommodation with Buddhism, where the religion thrives at the moment with the support of the state. Interestingly in Laos, Buddhist temples have become development delivery vehicles for government rural development policies — a role not that different to what monasteries have traditionally played in Asia.
The Indonesian chapter gives a good insight into how the Sriwijaya Buddhist civilization diminished in the face of a peaceful Islamic incursion. It provides a good discussion on lessons contemporary Buddhist communities could learn, when the religion (and monks) become corrupted. It also discusses how the current Indonesian government wants to develop Borobodur temple complex into a major Buddhist pilgrim centre.
The report points out that most Buddhist media in the region is mainly broadcasting sermons by monks seated in front of a camera or chantings. It also points out that in many Buddhist countries the media practitioners lack a good knowledge of the Buddhist philosophy to do programs with Buddhist themes. It recommends that music, drama and other forms of cultural expressions attractive to modern youth should be used to present Buddhism to Asian youth — even suggesting that lessons could be learned from how Evangelical Christians use gospel music that is attracting Asian youth to Christianity.
Many examples are given from various countries of how monks and Buddhist media practitioners are using modern digital communication tools to repackage the Buddhist message, which the report strongly encourages. The final chapter includes a number of recommendations, while also pointing out some initiatives being taken by LCN and IBC.
“Asian Buddhists are fond of building grand temples,” notes Dr Seneviratne. “We have enough of them now and if we do not empower the Buddhist communities to apply the teachings to improve modern life, by the end of the century, these temples will be like Borobodur with no Buddhist communities to serve and existing merely as historic monuments,” he warns. [IDN-InDepthNews – 01 March 2021]
Photo: Collage of the book cover and Kalinga Seneviratne’s picture at a railway station in a Southeast Asian country.