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Straight Talk: Reforming Buddhist Education in Asia, with Dr. Ananda Kumaraseri
“I’m a one-man army,” laughed the Malaysian gentleman sitting in front of me before the seminar session began. Dato’ Dr. G. K. Ananda Kumaraseri and I were in Tripura, India for the conference hosted by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) in December last year (Dato’ is an honorary title bestowed by the Malaysian king). A retired diplomat, he travels around the world giving talks on Buddhist education, the family, and society, and he half-jokingly told me that he was his own promoter for his books. However, his intense conviction was palpable in his assertive, vigorous voice. Though trained as a diplomat, he is a frank speaker, and so was not short of words to express his frustrations about Buddhism’s present state of affairs (referring mainly to Theravada).
Perhaps, at an earlier point in time, Dr. Kumaraseri did not feel so alone. Born in 1942 in Malaysia to Sinhalese parents who had emigrated there from Sri Lanka, he joined the Malaysian Foreign Service in 1966 amidst the setting of post-World War II Asian geopolitics. He served, among many other posts during his 30-year career, as counselor in New Delhi from 1972–75, counselor in Tokyo from 1975–78, minister in Washington, D.C. from 1981–84, and ASEAN’s director general from 1993–95, and is also one of the permanent representatives of the World Fellowship of Buddhists to UNESCO. His opinions on Buddhism drive his passion for writing. A pious and energetic lay practitioner, he has strong views about the current problems the religion is facing in Asia.
“Much of the problem lies in the right practice of the Buddha-Dharma. In many Buddhist countries, the priority is unfortunately on having a close relationship or association with bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, in particular the chief prelate of a vihara or temple. This motive among lay followers of the Buddha-Dharma leads to an emphasis on dana, or offering alms to the Mahasangha [the community of monks and nuns],” he told me. “The bigger the offerings, the greater the visibility of a devotee’s claim or credentials to enjoy a prestigious association with the prelate. Special status is accorded to the devotee and his immediate family members by way of the monastics offering them special pujas, blessing services, and rapport.”
Dr. Kumaraseri then challenged this culture of association and prestige, insisting that the Buddha was opposed to such “self-seeking ego-trips.” Instead, the Buddha placed “utmost importance on the practice and practical application of the Dharma in daily life,” and on “extending metta [‘loving-kindness’] and karuna [‘compassion’] to the needy and not to monks and nuns only.” “He who practices the Dharma honors the Buddha the most, not one who knows the Dharma most or the one who can quote the suttas best,” he stressed. “At the same time, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis today have not lived up to the Buddha’s instruction, to go forth for the welfare and happiness of the many.”
His refrain is that the Buddha’s teaching deals with problems and challenges we face in everyday life, but these aspects are not being given due emphasis. “Many sermons, Dharma talks, discussions, conferences, and literature today, dwell on subject matters more related to high spiritual pursuits that are in the realm of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. As such, the Dharma that is taught and disseminated is well above the head of the average person who has to work for his living, get married, and have a family of his own,” he said.
He blamed the lack of a proper education about right Buddhist practice for a problem that Asian Buddhist elites have complained about since the Portuguese sailed to Sri Lanka: Christian evangelization. “It is the lack of a systematic Buddhist education that often has led many dharmaputris and dharmaputras [traditional terms for female and male practitioners] to embrace another religion. There is also the evidence of unethical conversion of dharmaputris and dharmaputras by evangelical missionary organizations in traditional Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. With the benefit of a systematic Buddhist education from a young age, laypeople will be less susceptible to the onslaught of evangelical missionary activities in these countries.” For example, it was from Christian churches that Buddhist institutions in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and elsewhere took the idea of Dharma Sunday school.
Dr. Kumaraseri emphasized the urgency of promoting what he saw as right understanding of the Buddha-Dharma. “We need to give due emphasis to the Buddha’s teachings regarding fellowship, such as samagga [kinship among the community of followers] and dana that is not limited to giving alms to monks and nuns, but includes altruistic acts to any living being, such as donating blood or saving the life of an animal about to be slaughtered for its meat,” he urged. “Through such right understanding of the Buddha-Dharma and by placing emphasis on the practical application of the religion in daily life, we will be able to strengthen the community spirit among fellow devotees.”
Dr. Kumaraseri recommended that Buddhism be taught in English in a greater number of institutions in traditional Buddhist countries. He asserted that his advocacy of English serves two purposes: to modernize Buddhist education while at the same time providing people with educational and social capital via the world’s global language. “These countries will benefit greatly by their people becoming proficient in English. Also, other religious organizations and places of worship are offering opportunities for learning English that have resulted in increasing numbers of Buddhists embracing those religions as well. So thanks to our Buddhist leaders and institutions failing to provide opportunities to learn the Buddha-Dharma in English, many families have been converted to other religions simply by having an opportunity to learn English.”
He intends to pursue his reforms incrementally, invoking the image of a building. “There is already substantial intellectual material. What needs to be done is to focus on capacity building through the institutions. This would include the training of teachers as well as parents and significant elders. Newly married couples and those planning to get married are to be included in the capacity building program. I already have a comprehensive manual and related literature that provide guidelines on critical matters like ensuring a happy married life, the philosophy of holistic motherhood, and parenting. So much of the groundwork is already in place for implementing this project. What we need to concentrate on is establishing institutional linkages in individual countries to replicate this critical area.”
He hopes institutions can unite to meet the challenges and opportunities he outlines in his work to promote a systematic, reformed program of Buddhist education. I do not know how many will answer his call, and its realization requires far more than a one-man army of even his caliber. What is clear is that his frank diagnosis of the problems should be given a fair hearing, and it is long overdue that Buddhist institutions follow the advice of people who are unabashed to point out sensitive problems and provide good, long-term ideas to solve them.