The Chinese Buddhist diffusion is not as well-known in the West as its Vajrayana and Japanese counterparts. This does not mean that there are no significant names. Master Hsuan Hua and his organization the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA), and major Taiwanese groups such as Fo Guang Shan and Tzu Chi, are essential parts of the tale of Western Dharma. In contrast, Chinese Buddhism has made more inroads in Africa than its Theravada and Vajrayana counterparts, thanks in no small part to Ven. Hui Li and his Amituofo Care Centre (ACC).
This is not to say that Africa is not exposed to the Southern tradition or the Diamond Vehicle. The Uganda Buddhist Centre, for example, is led by the charismatic and culturally-informed Ven. Buddharakkhita, a Theravada monk. Meanwhile, Drupon Khen Rinpoche Karma Lhabu teaches at Tara Rokpa Centre in South Africa, and Samye Ling Harare in Zimbabwe. Drupon Khen Rinpoche speaks only Tibetan and is always accompanied by his Scots-born translator, Karma Kunga, yet his congregation is growing and he has been known to confess his surprise at his own popularity in several African countries, as well as in the United Arab Emirates.
It is difficult to overestimate the capabilities of the ACC. It is a fundraising powerhouse that has funded the building of 7 branches in 6 African countries. This money has not only been spent on the “hardware” of buildings, such as dining halls, schools, and temples, but also on employing a large, continent-wide team of staff overseen by each center’s director (Ch: yuanzhang). The ACC also has other resources that assist with its logistical demands: for example, a fleet of vans and 4WDs in each country of operations that would be the envy of any Buddhist charity. It also has a wealth of experience and manpower at the administrative level: there are the active orphanages in Africa, and there are also small-but-dedicated mobile teams of staff in countries around the world that help to coordinate the needs of the African centers.
The Sinophone world lies in a curious position between the dichotomy of the Global North and the Global South. China is considered part of the Global South yet it is the world’s second-largest economy. Taiwan is considered a wealthy, West-oriented nation, despite having a lower average national salary than China and Hong Kong. And Islamic-dominant countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have contributed many Chinese benefactors and workers for ACC.
One of the strengths of Ven. Hui Li’s governance philosophy—and partly due to his busy schedule—is that the directors are largely autonomous managers of their centers, allowing for a range of administration styles that, ideally, evolve around the local characteristics of each country. Eswatini is not Malawi is not Mozambique, and so on.
The ACC is open about its nature as an organization: it is a Chinese Buddhist non-profit, and most of its executives and C-suite leaders are from the Sinophone world. On the ground, however, where local needs and sensitivities must be respected the most, teachers, cooks, drivers, and construction workers are drawn from the talent of the country in question. In each center are primary schools and secondary schools—the buildings are often the result of grants given by businesses or donors. In the mornings, students of every age group sing local songs and their national anthem at beginning the day. Putonghua Chinese is taught in the curriculum, but students learn in their local language and are encouraged by local adult mentor figures to represent their country, culture, and heritage with pride.
As the director of Eswatini’s ACC branch said: “The problems that Africans face, in our view, are: number one, education; number two, education; number three, education.” Traditionally, education has meant the three “Rs:” reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. The ACC has added Ven. Hui Li’s threefold model of: Putonghua (increasingly a passport to employability and mobility in many African countries); kungfu and overall fitness to ensuring children are fit and healthy, waking up in the early hours to run and exercise every day; and finally, Buddhist learning.
Education in life skills is also acknowledged as critically important: the ACC is updating its program in sexual health and sex-ed, since AIDS remains a serious problem in African nations. Teen pregnancies are common in countries such as Malawi, and romantic and sexual encounters eventually occur between high schoolers that live together.
The quality and rigor of a child’s life and education at the ACC is often better than what they might receive outside the center. This is what enables the orphans—for every child at ACC’s centers except the ones in Madagascar and Namibia has either been abandoned or suffered parental loss—to be remarkably well-adjusted and friendly. Of course, no life is completely happy, and we all suffer psychologically and emotionally to one extent or another. But these children are a far cry from the stereotypical images of African orphans that are circulated by well-meaning organizations such as UNICEF.
The relationship between the Buddhist vehicles is one of mutual respect and occasional cooperation. And so it should be: there is little appetite to see the gradual, growing presence of Buddhism as an intrusive or pushy one. When told about Drupon Khen Rinpoche’s activities in Africa several years ago, Ven. Hui Li praised the engagement, saying that the growth of the Dharma is what matters, not a specific Buddhist group. And Taiwanese group Tzu Chi, one of the best-known humanitarian Buddhist non-profits, is already making a powerful and positive impact in Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Past colonizing powers of Africa might have called Christian missionizing a “harvest of African souls.” Buddhist groups such as the ACC have no desire to replace one misguided and damaging approach with another. Rather, sensitive outside traditions in Africa are taking into account the needs of Africans first, then engaging accordingly.
Religious groups that wish to be embraced as a force for good on the continent need to embrace, at an existential level, the deeply rooted local spiritual traditions that already exist as a resource from which to learn. They should take very seriously the social glue of community and the nuances and complexities that keep such communities together. Finally, outsiders—including ACC and other Buddhist leaders—need to examine the socio-economic, political, and cultural problems that African countries face on their own terms, with a sympathetic and critical eye.
Despite these successes and a longer-than-expected historical relationship with Africa, Buddhism is still a tiny force on the continent. Sensitivity and humility remain core values of Buddhist work, and right intention should always be the top priority.
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