In Buddhist communities around the world, a generation of senior teachers is slowly disappearing. The recent death of Thrangu Rinpoche (1933–2023), senior tutor to Urgyen Trinley Dorge, has underscored this for many, but recent years have also seen the deaths of Fo Guang Shan founder and Humanistic Buddhist pioneer Ven. Hsing Yun (1927–2023), Pure Land Master Chin Kung (1927–2022), Vietnamese peace activist and Engaged Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh (1926–2022), The Thai Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta (1953–2021), and the former acting Supreme Patriarch of Thailand Ven. Somde Chuang (1925–2021), just to name a few of the major figures who are no longer with us in bodily form.
In the face of such change, the future of Buddhism is of growing concern. While it is impossible to know exactly how Buddhists will grow and evolve in the years to come, there are a number of trends that point in promising directions. These trends not only give us hope that Buddhism will continue to grow and thrive in the century ahead, but offer us opportunities to clarify our own roles in that development.
First, we may look increasingly to the work of scholars of Buddhism around the world. A stark and wonderful feature of the last century has been the rise of Buddhist studies as a profession. Many scholars diligently researching, documenting, and teaching the history and practices of Buddhism are not Buddhists themselves. Nonetheless, they have taken up the important work of ensuring that the past is well-understood and that resources are available to present and future generations of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Second, we can look at past and current forms of adaptation and innovation within Buddhism to see what has worked and what has not. We know that Buddhism adapted to Chinese culture when it took root in China, borrowing from and blending with Daoism and embracing the Chinese values of social harmony and filial piety. In Tibet, Buddhism tamed local deities, incorporating them into a new syncretic blend of indigenous beliefs and Buddhist teachings. In fact, this syncretism or blending has occurred everywhere Buddhism has spread, which has allowed practitioners in these new places to adopt it more easily. In the West, Buddhists have adopted prominent ideas from psychology, the sciences, and social activism in its process of adaptation. Grace Song, an ordained Won Buddhist Kyomunim, wrote recently of her tradition’s move to North America that, “In a process of trial and error, Wŏn Buddhist teachers are learning that repackaging, re-contextualizing, and even recreating the tradition is necessary if it is to suit the domestic market.”1 As Buddhism continues its slow growth in South America and Africa, we will surely see new forms of adaptation and assimilation.
A related trend will be that of technology and growing online Dharma. While Buddhists around the world joined the popular move over the last 20 years to online communities, YouTube channels, podcasts, sharing spaces, and discussion boards, the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the rise of online Dharma communities. This move has allowed students from around the world to interact with teachers who they might otherwise only see once in a lifetime.
And while clearing away physical and geographical boundaries to teaching has been liberatory for many, others have worried about the loss of historical hubs of Buddhist learning. Ancient monasteries and temples throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond continue to be unearthed each year, giving rise to new insights into the spread of the religion. The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made strong efforts over recent years to revitalize the nation’s Buddhist heritage.
Further to Modi’s efforts to deepen our understanding of Buddhist history is his clear work to employ Buddhism as a tool of soft power, utilizing its principles and practices to foster cultural and diplomatic relationships. For example, this year he organized the Global Buddhist Summit in New Delhi to bring together Buddhists from various countries, emphasizing the importance of Buddhism in international interactions.2
A more accessible form of “soft power” we can all employ is in being more mindful and perhaps helping those around us to cultivate their own mindfulness. Around the world, mindfulness and meditation have gained popularity beyond Buddhist and other religious circles, with benefits recognized in various fields such as healthcare, psychology, and education. Buddhists can act as ambassadors of this practice, offering context and history as well as hints of ethical and philosophical ideals that are sometimes stripped out of secular teachings of mindfulness. Anam Thubten Rinpoche wrote recently that:
Buddhism has a lot of practical and applicable practices that have universal appeal, so some of these practices reach beyond Buddhism’s own domain. Today, people from literally every background are doing mindfulness meditation. This is one concrete example. It is also attracting many newcomers in the West as wholehearted followers, not because they are chasing after magic or ecclesiastical promises, but because they appreciate Buddhism’s down-to-earth approach.3
Building on this form of friendly interaction, Buddhist practitioners can harness another kind of soft power: interfaith dialogue. Just as we have gained access to Buddhist teachers around the world in recent decades, we have also been able to interact with people from all faiths. And while many factors have given rise to distrust and problems, Buddhist now have an opportunity to be part of the solution by building bridges across religious divides.
Another direction that Buddhists might take in the future is simply to welcome the next generation of great teachers. People like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (b. 1961) still have many active years ahead of them, and Kyabgon Phakchok Rinpoche (b. 1981) is still young in his teaching career. In the United States, a number of teachers have seen the importance of recognizing and raising up younger teachers and, in 2011, formed the GenX Buddhist Teachers Sangha (GBTS) for teachers born from 1960–1982 to gather and learn from one another. In other parts of the world, teachers in this age range—or younger—might follow this example to create networks of mutual support.
These are just a few of the broad trends in global Buddhism that will continue in the decades ahead. As Buddhists, it will be up to each of us to determine how and where we can be of greatest benefit to ourselves and other beings. The loss of so many revered teachers is a great tragedy, bringing sorrow to many each passing year. But in this loss is the change that the Buddha taught as a universal truth. If we can embrace the change as opportunity for a bright and engaged future, Buddhism will flourish.
As we mourn the loss of these teachers and in them a sense of connection to the Buddha and Dharma, we might borrow this wisdom from the great Thich Nhat Hanh:
It is possible the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and lovingkindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation.
We know that in the spirit of the Lotus Sutra we are all students of the Buddha, no matter what tradition we find ourselves in. We should extend that spirit to other traditions that are not called Buddhist. We can find the jewels in other traditions—the equivalent of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. Once you are capable of seeing the jewels in other spiritual traditions, you will be working together for the goals of peace and brotherhood.(Inquiring Mind)
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