One of the most striking memories I’ll never forget is the time I went to celebrate Vesak on May 2010. One could not miss the venue: the planned celebrations were to be held at the famed Hong Kong Coliseum in Hung Hom. Yet this extravagant venue is hardly any example of thrift; it is the haunt of superstars like Aaron Kwok, Joey Yeung and Raymond Lam (the other one, unfortunately – I have had the heartbreaking experience of confessing to a lovestruck fan that our website was not managed by her man). I was experiencing a commemoration of Buddhism’s dispensation in a celebrity’s dominion. Needless to say, the night was, spectacular, bedecked with special effects and song after glittering song. Was it progress that Buddhist organizations now had a foothold in Hong Kong’s most exciting and star-studded joint?
While we celebrate our Matthieu Ricards and Ajahn Brahms (in other words, Buddhists who come close to celebrity status and are certainly so in our various sanghas), it is important to remember that they also embody the basic virtues of Buddhist living: thrift, simplicity, honesty, and guilelessness. One can see the application of marketing-savvy, skilful means, and in a world where media and impressions dominate decision-making, this is an understandable (and sometimes effective shift). This is not to say that there should be limits, not only on the basis of finance but also morals.
Of course, we wish to see Buddhism thrive in the 21st century and beyond. But our motivation of disseminating and projecting the voice of the Buddha should be a simple and guileless one. It is also true that Buddhist communities should be bold in reaching out to the young, to use “modern” means to propagate a timeless message. But it is a different thing to chase after worldly glamour, particularly that which is associated by society with secular celebrities. Buddhism has an image of dignity to maintain and the ideal is that this quiet, spiritual dignity can be seen on the outside as well as skin-deep. And if nothing else, attachment to forms has never been the way forward spiritually.