Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Buddhism: Growth or decline?

Having launched, perhaps a little unwisely, into a head on debate on an engaged Buddhist loop, I retire to lick my wounds and consider. Is Buddhism growing or in decline at present? Hard to answer such a general question, but in response to an account of the current age of growth (are we really 30 years into a 100 year growth phase in the West as Ayya Khema is quoted to have said?) I felt the need to flag up concerns I have shared with others in some quarters of the Buddhist world that Buddhism in the West has perhaps already passed its peak - at least in its current form - and has reached a point of stasis or even some decline. Can we really still claim to be the fastest growing religion as we did five or ten years ago? I am not pessimistic, but I do feel we need to take an honest look at what is happening and take steps to do something about it. It does seem to me that many groups are struggling to maintain numbers even at current levels. Also we are an aging population. For the most part we are a generation of baby boomers continuing to practice as we have for twenty or more years but maybe not attracting the numbers of young people required to further the Dharma in the future. Of course there are exceptions (many examples of groups attracting young people were pointed out to me) but overall there are not many. Religion is having a hard time generally in the modern world, and especially among the young, so it may not be Buddhists alone who should be worried, but I do think we need to address the critiques leveled at us if we are to re-activate our previous growth levels. How much real social engagement do Buddhist groups engage in? Are we just offering "stress reduction methods" for secular audiences? Are Buddhist groups too withdrawn from ordinary life? Are we too concerned with legitimacy and preserving old forms to adapt to the needs of the west - and the world?

There is a danger that we are perceived as "nice people" practicing peaceful and quietistic methods in quaint monastic settings. There is a danger we are respected but not involved. There is a danger we withdraw ourselves into non-participatory retreat and do not return. Comments please....


Blogger Sujatin said...

If we do want a peaceful world, in addition to sitting on the cushion and becoming more peaceful, it seems important to me to be out there creating the conditions for a better world, imperfect as I may be.

10:39 am  
Blogger Dharmavidya said...

Thank you for your contribution to "Ever Alone?" on Interlog. The question you are asking here about whether Buddhism has passed its peak in the West in its present form is challenging and important - a kind of wake up call. I sense that it is the "in its present form" comment that is most revealing. I have for some time felt that the form that seems to represent the current Western Buddhist concensus will not stand the test of time. There are several strands in it that owe more to passing Western fashion than to Dharma - to political correctness, to the current concern with ecology, to niceness even - and some others that are really reflections of long standing Western religious preoccupations that again are not that strongly connected with Dharma - even the widespread ideas about non-dualism could be seen in this light as being a throwback to the Catholic horror over the dualism of gnosticism more than anything truly Buddhist. As Buddhism entered China it went through several phases. In the first phase people tried to fit Buddhism into existing Chinese categories. This did not work very well but it was a necessary stage. Perhaps the West has been going through something similar.

2:41 pm  
Blogger Kleshavidya said...

Its an interesting question that you first thought was well what/how do you define "buddhism?" I don't think its reasonable to find one definition of buddhism that all Buddhists would agree with. everybody seems to want to put their own spin on it! Being more specific i wonder if the pure land movement is in growth or decline? It has been my experience among younger people that so-called "hobby buddhism" is very popular. They are reluctant to go all the way and become a renununciant as it were, but at the same time they like incorporating Buddhist ideas like love, compassion, wisdom etc... For young people especially, i think it is a difficult choice it seems between the call of the buddha on the one hand and the worldly life on the other. For those who haven't yet been married, raised a family etc, the call of the worldly life is understandable. At the same time, older folks who have completed these tasks seem more able to embrace the buddhist life whole heartedly. I am of course speaking in generalizations here, but the "hobby buddhism" trend is very apparent to me. Not a day goes by where the don;t show a celebrity bowing or gassho-ing during a photo op, especially on the red carpet. One wonders if they really know the meaning behind bowing and gassho!

5:04 am  
Blogger Prasada said...

Thank you for these comments. It is interesting to reflect further on the questions. I agree with Dharmavidya that the form of Buddhism being adopted in the West is certainly of interest and maybe concern. Personally, in response to Tharakesh, I feel that one issue is precisely that you raise. There is a need for Western Buddhism to find ways for people to combine serious commitment with family life. After all, Christian groups have been doing this (at least in protestant spheres) for a long time. Monasticism there has fallen into a minority activity. In Buddhism there is a strong place for monastics, but I think a third force (not monastic or lay) is really whast is required - and indeed what is developng in many centres including our own. Pureland does have strength in this area but it is not alone. so I am optimistic, but i still urge an end to complacency, and, yes Sujatin, off our cushions!

6:53 pm  
Blogger Madrakara said...

For Buddhism to really grow it need to catch people's imagination, as something worthwhile that you can put your heart into. I think 'making a better world' comes into this category - more so that finding a way to have peaceful thoughts in meditation. I think if Western Buddhism can come from this angle it will have more success in attracting people - of all ages and backgrounds.

12:27 pm  
Blogger Linklight said...

This blog Buddhism: Growth or decline? is a great place for Jewish. Thanks Prasada.

12:54 am  
Blogger Lisa said...

Prasada, I was just passing by on my search for things about Jewish on
the Net, and dropped in on your blog. I was looking for stuff for my Jewish site. Not
sure that your blog was exactly what I needed, but I enjoyed my visit all the same.

6:31 am  

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