The Buddhism of Forks or Chopsticks
At the end of 2013, I returned to Australia from China, where I had spent five years as a Buddhist monk. On my return, I found that the religious landscape in Australia had changed markedly in my absence. The country has only just had another census so we eagerly await results, which we expect will show a further shift in the sands of the religious scene.
Australia has traditionally been predominantly a Christian countr, yet this is changing. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there was an increase in the number of people not reporting a Christian faith from 36.1 per cent of the population in 2006 to 38.9 per cent in 2011. Observers expect an even greater leap in this figure in the latest census.
The number of people reporting “no religion” also increased significantly, from 18.7 per cent of the population in 2006 to 22.3 per cent in 2011. Pundits suggest an even further increase by 2016, when we may have a quarter of our society reporting no religious affiliation.
The most common non-Christian religions in 2011 were Buddhism (accounting for 2.5 per cent of the population), Islam (2.2 per cent), and Hinduism (1.3 per cent). Of these, Hinduism experienced the fastest growth since 2006, increasing from 148,130 to 275,534, followed by Islam from 340,394 to 476,291, and Buddhism from 418,749 to 528,977.
So it seems that Buddhism is flourishing among Australians. However, what these figures do not tell us is how ethnic backgrounds are reflected in the number of adherents. Australia has recorded a dramatic increase in immigration from Asia, including India, and the Middle East.
Though Buddhism is growing, the growth seems to be only in proportion to migration, rather than from a desire of Australians to engage in a new spirituality. The challenge at present for Buddhism is its ability to influence the younger generation, who seem increasingly alienated from the religion of their parents. It is a huge challenge to make Buddhism significantly appealing to this fast-moving, tech-savvy generation, and it is within this context that I returned to Australia.
My monastic training took place at a small rural mountain temple in mainland China. Westerners like to clearly define and categorize Buddhism into various schools—Pure Land, Chan (Zen), Tientai, and so on. The reality in China is that the distinctions are often more difficult to perceive; my temple predominantly practiced a Pure Land approach, with a strong flavoring of esoteric practices.
With the exception of Zen, practiced more in its Japanese form, Chinese Buddhism has not attracted a wide audience among Anglo-Australians. This is due in part to the cultural traditions of Chinese Buddhism and in part because of the practices and teachings. Tibetan Buddhism, through the popularity of the Dalai Lama, has perhaps attracted the larger Anglo-Australian audience. Most Australians favor meditation, whereas Pure Land Buddhism, as widely practiced, places an emphasis on Buddha Name recitation and walking meditation in the form of walking chanting.
A young Australian woman recounted to me how she had visited a Chinese temple in Sydney in the hope of learning about Buddhism and meditation. When she arrived she found a large group of practitioners clothed in brown practice robes and engaged in walking-chanting meditation. She was not permitted to join in as she did not have a robe. When she asked how she could obtain one, she was advised to join a Dharma class. She further inquired about Dharma classes, but was informed that they were only conducted in Chinese. Needless to say she left disappointed. I relate this as well as some further anecdotes not to apportion blame, but simply to illustrate current challenges for Buddhism in Australia.
A man who had attended one of my meditation retreats in Australia attempted to find out where Pure Land teachings were conducted in Sydney, only to find webpages mainly in Chinese.
Another person described attending a morning meditation group at a Sydney temple. She was at first delighted to find that the teaching was conducted in English. After the meditation, practitioners were invited to have lunch together. On exiting the meditation hall she was eager to introduce herself to another participant, but was told that talking was not permitted. She attempted to communicate again over lunch, but again this was not allowed. She had never used chopsticks before, yet when she asked for a fork, it was whispered to her that forks are instruments of violence and that she would have to use chopsticks! She felt isolated and excluded, and naturally so.
While practicing Buddhists understand the rules of silence within a temple, most newcomers need slow immersion rather than a sudden shove into cold water. The rigidity over chopsticks versus forks still confounds me. This person did not return as she was seeking a Buddhist community with a sense of belonging and “true spirituality” (her words).
These are just three of many similar stories I have been told.
Pure Land Buddhism is for the world, not only for one group. Buddhism was one of the first missionary religions of the world; on not a single occasion did the first Indian monks force a set of cultural values on new inquirers, rather Buddhism interacted with local cultures and witnessed emergence. From Mahayana and Taoism in China emerged Chan. Indeed, Buddhism can be seen as the most emerging religion and all without losing one ounce of its essence.
The challenges facing Chinese Buddhism—and in particular Pure Land Buddhism—in Western societies lie not in teaching old ways in a new setting, but in asking new questions. We are failing to listen and failing to ask the deeper questions of how Buddhism can emerge in new cultural settings.
A former and recovered drug addict, who attributed his recovery to a combination of Buddha Name recitation, meditation, and the Dharma, walked with me into a temple in Melbourne. As we entered, we encountered a lovely statue of Maitreya Buddha displaying a big, happy grin and welcoming open arms. On seeing the statue, Steve (not his real name) spread open his own arms at the statue and sounded a loud and exuberant “Yes!” Devotees turned in shock, followed by a stiffening silence. Yet Steve’s actions were correct. He was acknowledging the true joy and truth the statue reflected in a way that was meaningful to him, as well as expressing a profound “yes” to the teachings. I must admit, I was almost breaking out to give Maitreya Buddha a “high five,” but managed to hold back for fear of having us ejected.
Chinese Pure Land Buddhism is practiced in Australia predominantly by adherents to Master Chin Kung’s guidance through the Amitabha Buddhist Association of Australia. Master Chin Kung has done some groundbreaking work spreading the joy of Amitabha Buddha, with a wealth of English translations of his teachings. Central to Master Chin Kung’s teaching is that Buddhism is not a religion but an education—a life education. This concept sits well and comfortably with a Western audience. I recall Master Chin Kung speaking at a Pure Land assembly in United States some years ago, where he remarked that he had noticed that Buddhism had not yet come to America. There was a silence and scratching of heads in the audience as he continued: “Because I note that all your statues have Asian eyes!” We can smile at this remark, yet it is true. We can see the transformation in statues from the early Buddhist period in China dressed in what appears to be Indian-style clothing to later embrace Chinese culture, when the statues became clearly “Chinese.” This emergence may take time, nonetheless, it is an emergence we must embrace and nurture if the wonderful education of Buddhism is to grow.
My work in Australia has been that of a translator of concepts into an Anglo-Australian setting, and a bridge builder across the cultural divide. As a psychotherapist I can see much of rich value in the Pure Land sutras to help us heal and engage in developing a higher, compassionate mindset. Mindfulness and yoga are central to many Australians who are searching for a different lifestyle. Pure Land has much to offer.
In the Contemplation Sutra (the Amitayur-dhyana Sutra), speaking of the incarceration of King Bimbisara, the text states: “Although he was imprisoned, his mind was free and undisturbed.” This verse is a powerful prologue to how the Pure Land practice can have a significant effect on the mind. With one in four Australians accessing medication for anxiety and depression, it is a comforting notion that a free and clear mind is an outcome of tested belief. The Contemplation Sutra also speaks of concentrating the mind, which is a direct link to mindfulness. Buddha Name recitation has a neurological foundation in the concept of cognitive ease. Cognitive ease comes about through the repetitive nature of the mantra of the Buddha’s name, whereby the mind is comfortable with the concept attached to the recitation. In my work as a psychotherapist, I have seen remarkable results in people challenged with anxiety disorders.
Finally, the concept of sangha is of significant importance to both community and individual wellbeing, and again it is an area in which Pure Land Buddhism has much to offer. Pure Land is relational. It centers on a faith relationship with Amitabha Buddha, in establishing a belonging that unifies. One of the greatest sicknesses of our modern and corporate world is an ever-increasing sense of isolation and de-humanization. Unfortunately, Buddhism in the West has de-emphasized sangha, placing the locus on individual meditation and mindfulness as the path to salvation and mental wellbeing. That is a grave error. Only belonging and relationships can heal a lonely disenfranchised mind.
How can Pure Land Buddhists, both Asian and Western, unite and ask the deeper questions? How can we encourage a Buddhism that is inclusive, a Buddhism that offers a vibrant and practical life skill and education? How can we engage our younger generation with the possibilities of a new and meaningful vision? These are some of the questions we need to ask. We can no longer afford to stand rigid on cultural issues. Neither chopsticks nor forks will heal humanity. We must attain bridge builder and translator mindsets; do not be afraid of emergence. I can assure you that the only constant is change; the question is what change do we want to see? As we embrace change, we bring new life into a timeless teaching and may make a difference to our world. Namo Amituofo.
Back to Tradition and Innovation: Chinese Buddhism Beyond Asia Special Issue 2016