I recently gave an evening lecture on the topic “The Relevance of Buddhism in the Twenty-First Century” in London, one of the birthplaces of our modern world. Today, London is still a powerful city, an economic and cultural center, but there are many other world cities that are equally powerful, if not more so. England itself is a relatively small country on an island with a modest population. It’s hard to imagine that, once upon a time, this country built the largest empire ever seen and initiated the industrial revolution, which then gave birth to the modern world of science and technology that we’re enjoying today.
This topic is interesting to ponder, yet it’s something most Buddhists don’t even think about in everyday life as they bask in the bliss of their religious practice. But it’s worthwhile to discuss in this new era, in which many religious institutions are collapsing under not just one but a variety of factors.
In the Western world, the “nones”—those with no religious affiliation—are the fastest-growing demographic. The church of the secular is attracting countless devotees without the need for preachers or to knock on doors with pamphlets. This is partly because many don’t believe in orthodox religious doctrines, or because they define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” There is also so much to do in modern life: cooking, going out, watching TV, and much more. Unless there is some unexpected surprise that reverses this trend, the West is only going to become more and more irreligious. It will no longer be the stronghold for Judeo-Christian religions. Some Americans on the political right have a utopian vision of turning their country into Christendom. But there is perhaps a greater possibility of seeing people living in a secular human colony on Mars than seeing the United States become a wholly Christian country, as it used to be in the 1800s.
What about Buddhism? It’s difficult to predict the future of Buddhism. Yet, if we reframe the question to ask: “What is the relevance of Buddhism in the 21st century?” then we can offer plenty of thoughtful answers. Buddhism is a unique tradition. It can be regarded as a religion, but at the same time, it doesn’t really fit within the narrow definition of religion that Western thinkers might come up with. Buddhism is bigger than the Western notion of religion, which is often rooted in the unquestionable idea of God as a singular being who created the entire cosmos. On the contrary, such a postulation is refuted by Buddhism again and again to make sure that it would never be misconstrued as theism.
There are many validating reasons for the relevance of Buddhism in this century, one of which is that Buddhism is not built upon theism, but instead upon understanding the true nature of reality. So those who cannot force themselves to believe in God can find a spiritual sanctuary and feel that there is another path to transcendence. Many Western Buddhists come to Buddhism because, among other reasons, they have a desire to find a spiritual path that gives meaning to life, but they cannot accept the doctrine of a god.
Some years ago, a friend of mine who worked at Google in Mountain View, California, told me that the company had a variety of interest groups. Among the religious groups, the Buddhist club was quite large, and the group’s gatherings were attended by people of different backgrounds—some of whom were culturally Buddhists and some who didn’t identify as Buddhists. Many Google employees are true specimens of the 21st century; they are highly educated and enjoy many benefits that people in past could not even dream of. This can be a small example of how the Buddhist teachings have so much to offer us, regardless of our belief systems.
The Buddha had a keen insight into the human condition. He realized that the human mind is the realm within which lies the source our suffering and our liberation. He gave an entire body of wisdom teachings and techniques on how to work with our mind and how to let go of the very root of suffering. In that sense, the Buddha was a kind of enlightened psychologist who understood the workings of the human mind and knew how to set us free from its traps. Meditation was one of main disciplines he taught. Today, Buddhist meditation is helping so many people overcome internal conflicts and discover inner peace. What is known as mindfulness is also rooted in the Buddhist tradition. It’s quite shocking to realize how popular mindfulness has become; it’s embraced by people from different walks of life and is applied by many institutions to promote mental well-being.
Right now, Buddhism is still flourishing in the East. Sooner or later, as Asian societies become more modernized, many are naturally going to become more secular. For Buddhism to thrive in this new era, we must make sure that it meets the spiritual needs of modern people, whose ways of life are constantly changing. This task lies on the shoulders of Buddhist leaders and Dharma teachers. If Buddhist leaders take the right approach, Buddhism will have longevity and continue to help humanity to find inner peace and happiness. This is because its timeless wisdom transcends all cultural boundaries, which is also why many intellectuals think that Buddhism is the only religion that can go along with modern thinking, namely science.
Then there is Buddhism in the West, which has been developing its own flavor. In some ways, this manifestation of Buddhism has begun to have influence even in Asia, from where Buddhism originally emerged. I have found that many Westerners who practice Buddhism not only correctly understand the Buddhist teachings but also have the sincerity to change themselves through practicing the noble Dharma.
Dharma teachers often encounter many challenges when teaching Buddhism in the West, where it has no historical roots, whereas most Asian Buddhists grow in up a culture infused with Buddhist practices. This is, in some ways, not bad news. It allows Buddhism to continue to be a living Dharma with a liberating power, instead of an old tradition that has lost its life and vitality. To me, the fact that all of these educated individuals with logical minds in the West are embracing Buddhism is proof that the tradition continues to have so much relevance in our times, even if one lives in the most modern and secular society.