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  • [美]照初法师:Adapting Buddhist traditions for the future

    Chao Chu


      I was raised in a Southern Buddhist culture and become the recipient of a Theravada education. As a child, it was all I knew, but I became aware of other Buddhist traditions. My attraction to Buddhism occurred at an early age and I became a novice in 1964 in a Theravada order. However, I made a decision to go to Hong Kong to study and complete my education through the Northern Buddhist tradition. I was fully ordained as a Mahayana monk in 1970, so I have enjoyed a first hand opportunity to see both sides of the mountain. Now, after many years of observation and evaluation of differences in clothing, art, ritual and architecture, and so on, I have developed an understanding and balance between these traditions.

      Since my training in Asia, my experience with Buddhists has spread from its traditional culture in Asia to the Western world. I have travelled, taught, and participated in conferences, meetings, and discussions for more than fifty years.  People abroad who have been interested in Buddhism have explained to me the appeal of Buddhism, especially when some of these people who have been looking for an alternative to Western religion. First, let us try to understand why Buddhism is appealing in Western culture and in developing nations where Buddhism was not a predominant religion. Buddhism is appealing because of its clear differences to Abrahamic religions. Buddhism is non-theistic and non-dogmatic; it gives the freedom to think and practise. There is no fear or faith emphasized on an external saviour figure. Its openness for inter-religious, philosophical, and psychological sensitivity. Another reason for Buddhism’s growth and appeal is that the perception of Buddhism is inspiring and intellectually convincing. Findings of modern psychology and environmental issues are compatible with Buddhist teaching. Explanations of modern social concerns about the values of peace and social issues, including race and gender, can be found in Buddhist teaching. Modern-day people, especially in the West, have a desire for non-hierarchical, free-thinking, non-dogmatic, and scientific approach to religion. The teaching of Buddhism can be experimented with. As a scientific and analytical religion, it has not contradicted the findings of modern science.

      Buddhism features an open attitude, but its practice in non-traditionally Buddhist nations is more complicated. I have found that although Northern and Southern Buddhism may differ in practice, their shared culture in Asia has mixed with Buddhism so that they are interconnected. However, in the West, Buddhism was introduced from outside Western culture, and the environments that feature Buddhism often require Western visitors to figure out how to adapt to Buddhism as well as Asian culture. Buddhist centres that are based in Asian ethnicity operate for their own ethnic, cultural, and religious communities. These centres, including temples, do not have or have a very small number of Western people, which is generally because temples do not make any real attempts to draw Westerners in. Many Westerners who come to our temple to participate in our activities have told me that they have faced considerable cultural and linguistic barriers when trying to interact with Buddhists. Another thing that keeps Westerners away is that traditional ethnic temples’ devotional chanting and praying have an attitude of faith. There are also non-Buddhist or ethnic, cultural activities and beliefs that are popular with ethnic groups, which can confuse Western visitors because they may believe that Buddhism is only a performance of cultural practices.

      The challenge for Buddhists today is to balance cultural tradition as part of adaptation of Buddhism in various places. In Asia, the traditions of culture and religion have had a long, interconnected history, but Buddhists in the West may find culture to be a burden instead, especially if it conflicts with Western culture. We must present Buddhist teachings to suit Western thinking and living. For example, Buddhists must use language that is understood easily if they wish to include newcomers. Westerners will not usually understand the meaning behind faith-based rituals, so we should instead emphasize the importance of Buddhist practice and its benefits. However, if we perform rituals and ceremonies, then they should be introduced in a way that Westerners can accept the changes that they must make to adapt. Asian rituals often involve mythological stories as a basis, such as the divine power of the Buddha for solving life problems, but Western culture focuses more on scientific research and facts. We can also use daily experiences from the present day to relate teachings within study groups.

      Changing Buddhist practice is not limited to adapting to Western culture. The Buddha gave the freedom to adjust reasonably to minor rules and codes whenever there is a need, so necessary changes can be done to adapt to a different culture or time. It is an important condition for effective transformation. The Buddha was a pragmatic leader. He established his credentials by showing flexibility in making changes and adjustments to the Vinaya when he saw the need, or when members of his community brought problems to his attention. A democratic system of majority rule was initiated and used to give all monastics an equal voice. As Buddhism spread across Asia, it made itself welcome not only by the teachings but also by unique adaptability that allowed it to be absorbed by differing cultures, governing bodies, even to merge to a superficial degree with existing religions. Everywhere Buddhism became established, it was able to coexist with indigenous religious traditions. This can be attributed to the Buddha who maintained that the essential teachings were the most important. He did not attach importance to rituals; he preferred adaptation to confrontation and destruction.  It is very important to make note of the fact that he obviously stressed the fundamental teachings rather than the irrelevant matters of magic, occult, metaphysics or even the influence of other religions. This policy continues to this day. Buddhists attempt to make the teaching comprehensible and relevant within sociocultural context by through traditional and adapted forms.

      During our journey, it is always good to have a clear idea about where we are going, if we are in the correct direction, and so on. I would like to suggest that we all take a step back to pause and temporarily keep away our strong views, opinions, and habits to understand where our Buddhist tradition is going. How can we move forward successfully? We have to evaluate our present conditions. As Buddhism continues to spread in the West, the question will present itself again and again. When this occurs, is it appropriate to respond by trying to define the differences and the reason for the differences, or is it more appropriate and more effective to point to the absence of them in the fundamental teaching?

      We do not try to or even think about converting people to become Buddhist. Some people come to say that they want to become Buddhists; we ask why they want to become Buddhists. To be a Buddhist should be a gradual process. It starts with familiarity and understanding of its philosophy and cultural differences. For many Westerners, Buddhism is not just another faith or belief. They start with reading and then can become more used to Asian culture. Buddhism can also adapt in academic settings as well. We have to adopt Western-style education in Buddhist colleges. While teaching various traditions in educational institutes, we have to follow an inclusive approach. Western practitioners or people who grew up in Western culture have the tendency to mix and pick up what they like. This is a problem and challenge to traditional practitioners. Buddhism is not something that we can choose bits and pieces from; its teachings and practices are interconnected.

      It is clear that our differences should be set aside and our energies directed toward curing the ills of the world. We must re-examine our relationship and take action to eliminate these minor differences. The state of deterioration of the environment, the world economy, and the inequality of living demand that we assert more leadership that starts with harmony within our own assemblage. Buddhism is one religion, but to establish and maintain this commitment requires our leadership to take action.

      To make adaptations, we have to have good understanding of the present-day Western lifestyle. Some Westerners who are new to Buddhism like its logical, philosophical, and practical teaching. Westerners come to study or participate in meditation groups. We Buddhists are from different countries and sects have to adopt ‘closer practices’ to establish non-sectarian practices and teachings. As we are facing some difficulties in modern society in training monastics, lay ministers can be useful. They can fulfil Buddhist needs in many ways, such as organizing meditation and discussion classes, talks in schools, and chaplain services in prisons and hospitals. They also attend interfaith meetings and events. The past has proven that the principles of agreement can be achieved today. An outstanding example occurred in Los Angeles, USA when a common ordination was performed for several traditions, simultaneously. At the Los Angeles Buddhist Union, with the support of the Sangha Council of Southern California, which itself is an inter-traditional organization, we developed a Buddhist lay ministry. It is a body of devoted lay Buddhists who assist the Sangha in any way requested.

      We must work together to change our approach to teach people what Buddhism is and what Buddhism is not. This will ensure less confusion and more respect and accept of the Buddha’s teaching. The key in my opinion is a well-trained Sangha with concerns over the future of Buddhism along with an ongoing, open-minded inter-sectarian dialogue. Inter-traditional cooperation should not be difficult if we remind ourselves of the fundamental principles taught by the Buddha. We have examples as outlined above of how successful it could become. I challenge the leadership here today to wake up and develop guidelines to bring our traditions together as a single body into the 21st century. We need to understand that unity is of paramount importance. We then have to reflect on our own motivations and attitudes to root out our own weaknesses that would obstruct this sense of unity.

      Rather than teaching Buddhism through cultural practices, let us teach Buddhism through Buddhist practices. The basic teachings of the Buddha are universally accepted truths. I understand how very difficult and painful this transition may be. But if we care about the future, we need to make some changes. We have to openly discuss these issues and have the courage to discard the non-Buddhist practices that are used in the name of Buddhism. Rather than putting palms to palms to show respect, shaking hands, and presenting a happy face, thus patting ourselves on the back in the face of our sometimes divisive behaviour; we ought to face reality. We need to talk openly about non-Buddhist behaviour. In the name of Buddhism, many self-proclaimed Buddhists have behaved in a manner that is contradictory to the Buddha’s teachings and advice. In different ways we try to say or show how our particular school is superior to all others while, at the same time, trying to maintain a face of compassion and inclusion.

      The time has come to look forward. We need to drop our divisive views from Asian culture for the preservation and dissemination of Buddha’s teachings. It is absolutely imperative that we pool our resources and find the courage to leave our cultural differences behind. When we travel around the world, or attend international Buddhist conferences or ceremonies, we can see with our own eyes how diverse cultures are taking an interest in the Buddha’s teachings. We have inherited this invaluable treasure from the early disciples of the Buddha, and we have the responsibility to preserve, practice, and teach others who are willing to learn. So let us come together to help ourselves and help others to be relieved of suffering and find peace and true happiness.


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