There is strong collective desire among many Buddhist clerics as well as lay adherents to protect the Buddhashasana or the tradition of the Buddha. The protection of the Buddhashasana is an important concept that appears in the scriptures as holy duty for monastics and Dharma masters. But it is also a concept that needs correct interpretation so that it stays true to its original intention and does not get hijacked by nationalism, xenophobia, racism, fundamentalism, and sectarianism. As a Buddhist, I feel that we should not let this happen in order to protect Buddhashasana, as scriptures encourage us to do. This is my stance, not as a liberal or nor a conservative Buddhist, but as a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha who’s teaching is continuously helping me to find the meaning of life.
Most religions in the world fall under the categorical umbrella of monotheism or polytheism due to their unchangeable doctrine and the super natural beings who created the cosmos or harbor the might to save their souls. Buddhism falls under neither. Instead, it illuminates the mysteries of our existence through the law of karma as well as pratityasamutpada or interdependent origination. It is certainly not an ethnocentric tradition and cannot be used as a basis of class or cast, consecrated by the words of the highest Devine. It is an egalitarian spiritual system that regards all human beings as equal to each other, all have Buddha nature. It also should not be rendered as the building blocks for cultural and national identity. Those who practice Buddhism are Buddhist regardless of their race, gender, or location; be it in little hut community in the Amazonian jungle or tent in Sahara desert.
There are people who feel that they have to protect Buddhashasana from others who have different religious belief systems. Such feelings have semblance to that of terrorists who are motivated to perform horrendous act in the name of the divine, and can give rise to a willingness to resort to violence including the expulsion of religious groups that have a foreign background. Such an act will not only not help the tradition, but will harm it by damaging its image as a religion of peace and tolerance, going straight against the foremost principle of Buddha’s teaching which is nonviolence. Harming this image can be a powerful blow to the tradition by causing disillusionment among the adherents, by limiting its outreach beyond its old territory, and by shortening its longevity in a specific context, time, and place.
Buddhism is rooted in the philosophy and the practice of an all-encompassing nonviolence. It teaches not to harm any living beings and to help them by alleviating their suffering. It has a relatively good record, lacking a history of crusades, burning witches, hanging blasphemers, and stoning wrong doers. I remember that years ago the CNN presented a documentary produced by its chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour. She discussed the violence and fanaticism found among other world religions at length, before she talked about Buddhism. In the documentary, she shows the contrast between Buddhism and other religions by portraying it as peaceful and tolerant. Her presentation is based on facts and also reflects the collective imagination held by many in this world.
Then there is fundamentalism and dogmatism which might have been working well for some religions, at least for a while. As the world becomes more educated and the living standard of people increases, not to speak of the endless entertainment that they can indulge in, less people will seek comfort in those rigid dogmas, especially if they are psychologically threatened to accept them. This is why once powerful western religions are dying in the West with the speed of a natural development rather than being attacked by some external political force or aggressive secular policy handed down by a godless autocratic government.
People should be able to feel this atmosphere of tolerance and open mindedness when they come to Buddhism. Such a feeling allows for many modern people to feel welcomed and comfortable, and to even feel a profound joy of exploring and practicing the Dharma. This is not to say that we should compromise the principles of the tradition just to make it easy to approach. We can bring open mindedness and tolerance in order not to scare people away while maintaining our principles. This should be discussed among Buddhist teachers and sanghas as one of the most important issues in order keep Buddhashasana alive as a source of inner awaking in a time when there is so much change taking place, and some unimaginable changes are teetering on the brink of manifestation. Luckily, there are some forward thinking Buddhist teachers who command great influence. Thinking of them often brings me hope. They are deeply careful about the wellbeing of humanity, and engage with social political issues rather than simply being blissed out in the excessive worshiping of devotees. While they are grounded in their spiritual tradition, they work to solve humanity’s challenges such as poverty, inequality, and climate change through rational means.
It is important to remember that external forces can harm Buddhism just as much as the violence and intolerance of its own adherents. Therefore, the most effective means to protect the Buddhist tradition is to practice and exemplify the timeless teachings of Buddha. I would like to beg attention from all those who feel that they need to protect our beloved tradition, and to tell them that the way to do so is to practice nonviolence and tolerance right away. Buddha didn’t encourage us to divide humanity and to be intolerant towards each other. He taught its opposite; to practice kindness towards all beings.