The art of leadership has lately become one of the most widely debated issues across all sectors of society. Despite often political overtones, the question of training and choosing leaders has always preoccupied religious traditions as well. In the field of religion, there are plenty of publications across different denominations about Christian leadership, from the humble question of how to manage a prayer group or a Sunday school to the governance of a far-reaching regional institution such as a Catholic or Orthodox diocese or an evangelical megachurch.
Conversely, few books or studies have been written about leadership in a Buddhist context or setting. There are also few to no formal theories of Buddhist leadership. While a “Buddhist leader” is traditionally envisaged as a monastery abbot or temple administrator, the complex needs and realities of Buddhist communities today—both lay and monastic—mean that such stereotypes are outdated and in need of re-imagining.
A Buddhist leader in today’s world is someone entrusted with leading any kind of Buddhist organization, whether as an individual or with peers. This can range from a small meditation group every weekend to a Buddhist charity; from an internationally renowned temple such as Shaolin Monastery to a Japanese hereditary estate. Whatever the size, structure, or numbers involved, three hallmarks could be said to define skillful Buddhist leadership: an openness to diversity, an ability to synthesize differences through the application of wisdom and compassion, and perhaps most difficult of all, the ability to channel these harmonized differences into a single driven purpose for the benefit of the institution or group as a whole.
Buddhist leadership is characterized by diversity for three historical reasons. First, the Buddha did not appoint a successor, for better or for worse. Second, the Buddha could have centralized authority in the Buddhist order in his day, but he accepted the idea of geographical boundaries (Skt. siman) for monastic law codes (Vinaya): what was applicable for a Buddhist community in one region might not be so for one elsewhere. Third, the later development of altogether different monastic law codes (the Theravada Vinaya, Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and Mulasarvastivada Vinaya all remain extant and in use today) formalized the decentralized nature of what it means to lead and guide a Buddhist community.
The immediate difficulty faced by Buddhist leaders today, therefore, is tackling differences, both within their communities and beyond. The latter can become a prominent issue once two or more Buddhist groups need to cooperate to accomplish a task. Differences of opinion, of course, become more challenging when those who hold them are attached to their views and are unable to brook compromise.
Neil Pembroke, a Uniting Church pastoral theologian and professor at The University of Queensland, offered a good example of such difficulties when, many years ago, he realized that two of his peers in his congregation’s governing council were each adamant about having their own way in all matters. “It’s the culture of niceness in the church,” one of them insisted. “Someone has to have the guts to back up his convictions, and I’m the man for the job.” They cast everything in win-lose language, bullied other members into accepting decisions against their better judgment, and failed as Christian leaders by not being open to differing views (Pembroke 2006, 40).
Buddhist leaders need to be informed by Buddhist concepts and teachings if they are to come to a Buddhist understanding of leadership. One quality of effective Buddhist leadership could be said to be an attitude of open nonattachment, allowing for a plurality of opinions to influence and sometimes correct the leader even as the latter shapes and guides the institution. Leaders need to remain open in the ultimate sense even while managing their community at the conventional level, where they are bound by duties, goals, and rules.
As leaders learn to open themselves to others’ strengths, weaknesses, and perspectives, they draw closer to their peers and subordinates through the Buddhist concept of interdependence. Interdependence is a helpful way of thinking of community within an institution, where the individual’s duties and roles are usually distinct from those of others although their objectives are the same: the benefit of the Buddhist institution, which in turn will benefit other beings.
The Buddhist in a position of leadership might use a Buddhist understanding of macro- and micromanagement to challenge superiors, peers, and subordinates to see their actions as taking place within Indra’s Net. By transposing this motif of a mutually reflecting collage of jewels from the Avatamsaka Sutra into life, individuals can see their conduct, ethics, wisdom, and compassion reflected endlessly throughout the institution, illuminating the group as a whole in a good (or bad) light.
Perhaps the most inspiring expression of cooperation amid diversity is the Mahayana teaching that, while there are limitless, “different” Buddhas throughout the universe, they all work toward the single purpose of liberating all beings. Thinking about leadership as a worldly reflection of how the Buddhas work together can illuminate how we understand the nuances and struggles faced by communities and help us move toward unity against the backdrop of diversity. In the Mahayana, all beings are actually seen as Buddhas-in-waiting, after all.
Another way to conceive of Buddhist leadership is to contrast different visions of guidance and authority. For example, we could cast leadership as a choice between religious liberalism and conservatism—how should Buddhism adjust to modernity? Should modern tenets like science and progress accommodate traditional Buddhism? But this is a complex dichotomy best left for another time. The truth is that Buddhist leaders have many spiritual resources at their disposal to craft their leadership style. While one suggestion is to begin with diversity, openness, and interdependence, we certainly hope the conversation can continue to develop and evolve.
Pembroke, Neil. 2006. Renewing Pastoral Practice: Trinitarian Perspectives on Pastoral Care and Counselling. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate.