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Buddhistdoor View: Envisioning the Future of Localized Buddhism in Africa

Children play in the sunset at ACC Lesotho. Image courtesy of ACC

The sober news that Buddhism continues its demographic decline in East Asia underscores the need for sober reflection on whether the numbers can be effectively reversed—young people are less likely to be Buddhist, and just under half of the percentage of adults raised Buddhist have abandoned the spiritual tradition of their childhood. It also puts into sharper contrast a separate, more encouraging conversation: the localization of Buddhism in regions of the world once thought peripheral to the Buddhist world. This bold diffusion beyond “traditional” regions of the sangha’s presence, including the Anglophone world, must be part of the future’s Buddhist activity and communication.

On this “diffusion list,” we can include places such as Spain and Central and South America (the whole of the Hispanophone world), certain cities in the Middle East, including Dubai, and the southern half of Africa. Whether in Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, or Madagascar, local African communities in touch with Buddhism (most commonly the Amitofo Care Centre foster care and educational network) are engaging with Buddhist thought, making Buddhist practice their own, and enquiring into how to become Buddhist or enter the monastic order.

Lesotho is one important example, where the director of the Amitofo Care Centre (ACC) there, Pearl Wu, regularly interfaces with government officials and external interest groups, which has the effect of making the ACC—and therefore Buddhism—an integral part of Lesotho’s progress in fighting poverty, improving education, and more. Meanwhile, in Madagascar, ACC founder Ven. Hui Li, whose land in Lesotho was donated by Pearl Wu’s father, is building a Dharma practice and study center, an institution distinct from the orphanage-cum-school campuses that have characterized the ACC’s humanitarian activity since 2004. As the organization enters its 20th anniversary, Ven. Hui Li wants Africa and the world to know what Buddhism really is about—his intention since the beginning.

Drone shot of ACC Namibia. Photo by BDG

It may be tempting to think of the African continent as a Buddhist “frontier,” another place for Buddhism to diffuse into. But this conception seems dangerously close to colonial thinking, and in fact it is not and should never be about Africans becoming Buddhist. Rather, the question is how Buddhism can become African, a truly local spiritual tradition that will become part of its host countries, regardless of a small or large number of adherents. There is precedent: while Western Buddhism faces its own challenges, the fact that Asian Buddhists in the West and their Western allies have managed to make the Dharma a visible part of broader Western culture is a remarkable achievement.

Buddhism in different African countries will not resemble one another. But like many “Buddhisms” of modernity, the attraction to Buddhism will likely be found in the search for peace and meaning amid stress and existential anxiety.

Also, unlike Buddhism in the Global North—which was largely unattached to economic concerns and were indeed more popular among the middle classes—emerging economies will find in Buddhism a partner for prosperity. Simultaneously, there will be a need to have a dialogue between Buddhist philosophical concepts and local philosophies and worldviews. In his June interview with BDG, the consul-general of South Africa in Hong Kong, Mojalefa Mogono, expressed admiration for the Asian hub and the high-tech cities of mainland China. His idea of internationalization has deeper philosophical implications, which is none other than the pan-continental African word “ubuntu,” which carries similar connotations to the Buddhist idea of interconnectedness. In Zulu, the term is “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which translates into something like, “I am because you are.” Buddhism will need to put its doctrine of inclusiveness, tolerance, and harmony front and center for African communities to feel that the Dharma can “translate” into a local, helpful tradition.

The incomplete campus of ACC Madagascar. Image courtesy of ACC

Buddhist leaders should not slip into stereotypes about what African Buddhism could look like. African countries are postcolonial constructs that include within them immensely complex societies and communities, each with numerous and distinct ethnic and cultural groups. But it might be at least interesting to contemplate what it would mean for a Buddhist community that embraces dance and song as much as it does meditation. Inevitably, with the economies of African countries ever more interlinked with China’s, Buddhism would also need to serve as a force that corrects mutual misunderstandings, brings people and cultures together, and subdues racism and other barriers to cultural, economic, and political partnerships.

In other regions around the globe, especially in Latin America, Buddhist communities are growing, and interest in the Dharma is burgeoning because people there feel that it has something to offer. Conversely, where Buddhism is in decline, such as Japan or South Korea, surveyed people see Buddhist institutions in the opposite way; as having nothing new or helpful for them or their families. It is not as complicated a story as we might think, even if there are structural problems such as declining birthrates and the secularization of society that are beyond Buddhist leaders’ control.

But in certain places in the world, including countries such as Madagascar and Lesotho, Buddhists can be said to be in a similar situation to when the first Indian and Central Asian monks trickled into China. They encountered strange officials and emperors that told them to get to work translating. China did not know what to make of the Indian Buddhists, and neither did the Buddhists in China. The success story that would follow was replicated many times elsewhere throughout world history. In the 21st century, with structural problems chipping away at once-constant regions, Buddhism must be bold and be wherever it can go, just like old times.

Related features from BDG

Buddhistdoor View: Buddhism on the Oldest Continent – A Case Study of Amitofo Care Centre’s Success
Buddhistdoor View: Africa – Continental Legacies, Religious Inheritances

Related news reports from BDG

Latest Data on Religion and Spirituality in East Asia Shows Ongoing Decline of Buddhism
Pope Francis Quotes the Buddha and Praises Interfaith Dialogue in Mongolia Visit
Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Brings Hope and Education to Malawi
Weekly Toyo Keizai: Buddhism Facing a “Life or Death Struggle” in Japan

Related blog posts from BDG Tea House

Rhythm of Liberation: Insights from Pearl Wu, director of Amitofo Care Centre Lesotho
“Culture comes first” – The rich interface of Chinese and South African tradition and contemporary life
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