Challenges of Buddhism in the Modern World

Listed here are 20 possible reasons contributing to the challenges of Buddhism in the modern world. The list is not exhaustive. Some of these are obvious whiles others are subtle yet significant once identified. Some are more predominant in the Eastern world whiles other are more prevalent in the Western world and there are some points which are common to both cultures. The items with their descriptions are based on generalised behaviours through observation and is not a reference to any specific individual.

I feel it is important for us to be aware about these detrimental factors which impede the growth of Buddhism because we can only act if we develop awareness first.
To illustrate certain points it is sometimes necessary to make comparisons with other religions. This is not a reflection of the teachings of those religions but its more to do with common behavioural traits in the followers of those religions (which may be seldom in Buddhist communities).

A. Ego – despite Buddhism considers that ego is a major cause of suffering, out of all religious groups, Buddhists in general have the biggest ego. You can readily observe this in Buddhist temples and centres where it is not seldom to encounter ‘unique snowflakes’ where they make themselves identified by their manner, speech and even the way they dress. It’s the attitude that one needs to appear ‘special’ compared to other ‘ordinary’ Buddhists who attend the temple. Some show off their knowledge to show that they are superior to others and the intention is little to do with helping others understand. To understand the amount of ego in the Buddhist community we need to consider a comparison to see where we stand. Out of all religious groups Muslims have the lowest ego. They all dress in the same basic way. They all get together and eat the same way. Whether you are rich or poor does not matter. Once inside the place of worship they are all equal. So looking at this we realise that the levels of ego in the Buddhist communities are very high.

B. Sectarianism – this happens in obvious and subtle forms. But the psychology behind them are the same. It’s the feeling that one’s own tradition is either the only truth or superior compared to other traditions. We can see in discussions on social media where some openly display their sectarian views while others give this impression in subtle ways. Sectarianism can also be passive or active. The active type tends to be more common in the Eastern world whiles the passive type is relatively more common in the Western world. Active sectarianism is almost always obvious. The passive type is more regarding the mentality of showing no regard or showing apathy/indifference to other forms of Buddhism than one’s own. Indifference here means that other types of Buddhism than one’s own is considered no different from non-Buddhist religions.

C. Undiplomatic behaviour – This is present in almost all religious groups and Buddhists are no exception. Peace, respect and understanding develop bilaterally like a two way street. Some Buddhists have the reluctance to get into another Buddhist’s shoes and look at things from the other’s perspective. This is more commonly observed in dialogues between different schools or sects where one accuses the other of something faulty while the other goes on the defensive. It is not uncommon to see bilateral discussion between Mahayanans and Theravadins being quick to divide into two camps where the two groups headlessly get engaged in slinging mud at each other without anyone taking the initiative to step inbetween to restore mutual dialogue. This headless nature comes from the inability to see things from the viewpoint of Buddhists who are of a different tradition. The end result is that time, effort and energy is wasted on useless argument and creating an inflamed environment with a lack of mutual co-operation between different schools. This undiplomatic attitude within Buddhism is the underlying principle behind sectarianism in Buddhist societies.

D. Blind attachment to teachers – we are all human and we are all prone to make mistakes. In some traditions it is required to be devoted to one’s own teacher. There have been instances where there are some teachers who were known to teach incorrect articles of doctrine or demonstrate controversial behaviours. In such situations the most sensible thing to do is to let go of the teacher and look for a different teacher. But some consider the student-teacher relationship as ‘unconditional’ where one just blindly follows the teacher. Therefore if the teacher, teaches something incorrect or behaves in non-compliant way to that specific Buddhist lineage then this corruption will continue down the line because there are some students who will blindly follow the teacher without applying one’s own conscience or rational thought.

E. Extra-religious loyalties (nationality and ethnicity) – some people who are Buddhists consider their nationality and ethnicity more important than Buddhism. Despite Buddhists knowing it’s the Buddha Dharma that leads people to Enlightenment and not one’s own nationality or ethnicity, some are so attached to the ideas of patriotism and racial pride. This is more common among Buddhists from Eastern backgrounds. It’s the mentality that we are from ‘country X’ first or we are from ‘race Y’ first. This is the same reason why in the West where you get Eastern Buddhists that they have their own temples for their own nationality or ethnic group. You find that the national festivals are celebrated on a larger scale than Buddha day or Bodhi day. People usually come to these sorts of temples or centres to gossip about problems in their own countries (like politics) rather than discuss any Buddha Dharma.

F. Extra-religious loyalties (political views/ideology) – some see the world through the political lens for all different aspects of life. These individuals may not necessarily openly say they prefer politics over religion, but the discussions these individuals have in life shows that their minds are more politically oriented than spiritually oriented. They generally do take an unusual interest in current affairs regarding global politics. Some individuals go up to the extreme extent where they consider that if you are Buddhist you don’t have a choice but to follow ‘political ideology Z’ or ‘the T political party’. It just shows that their main interest is with politics and they are less interested in the Buddha Dharma. This form of extra-religious loyalty is present in the East as well as the West but as a proportion it is more common among Western Buddhists.

G. Neoprogressivism – with the advent of ‘engaged Buddhism’ (application of Buddhist principles outside spiritual domains) paved the way for individuals with neoprogressive views to speak and be a ‘voice’ for Buddhism. Their interest is more to do with matters outside of spirituality. Instead of utilising Buddhist teachings to get closer to Enlightenment, they use Buddhism as a ‘moral platform’ to promote their own views or behavioural patterns which are not necessarily related to reaching Enlightenment. Examples of such views or behaviours are environmentalism, socialism, pacifism and veganism. In vegan groups you see intolerance in its most extreme form to Buddhists who are non-vegan. People use insulting phrases such as ‘meat-eating Dalai Lama’ etc and promote hatred to those who don’t share those same progressive views. So notice how activities or ideas which are usually motivated by good will are now used by some as sectarian devices to cause our Buddhist community to become more fractured.

H. The ‘indoctrination’ issue – some Buddhists (especially in the Western world) who are parents or grandparents consider that teaching Buddhism to their children is a form of indoctrination. So they just allow their children to follow whatever they want. But notice that most teachers of Buddhism to Western audiences came from Eastern backgrounds who originally learnt Buddhism from their own parents and/or in school within their own countries. They were the ‘end product’ of many generations of this process happening over and over again. Had it not been for that, then the transmission of Buddhism to the West would not have been a reality. So whiles people from other religions are teaching their children about their own religion, some Buddhists just actively avoid the effort to transfer those teachings to the next generation just show their ‘righteousness’.

I. Age group issue – this is an observation that applies Western societies. Most people who are from Western backgrounds that turn to Buddhism are from mature or elderly age groups which means that they are either parents (who may not teach their children about Buddhism) or those who are grandparents who have their own children living their own lives away from them. The combination of the ‘age group’ effect and the reluctance to educate one’s children (mistaken for indoctrination) means that there will be ‘little’ continuation of Buddhists down successive generations and in each and every generation the only type of Buddhists who you will see are most likely those who made an active effort to convert to Buddhism. We need a comparison to see where we stand as a community. Take a look at the muslim population in the West. Most converts are young people who are of school age or university age. They also don’t have the confusion about indoctrination that some people in our community have. This means their religious population will be successful and growing over the generations while Buddhist populations will decline.

J. Lack of community spirit – Buddhists have the lowest community spirit of all religious groups. This is an end result of so many factors than a primary cause, but this in itself is also an important cause for the decline of Buddhism. The combination of spiritual ego, sectarian views with one’s loyalty to Buddhism diluted by patriotism, ethnic pride, linguistic barriers and political views leads to poor community cohesion among Buddhists.

K. Ritualism/superstition over logic/doctrine/philosophy – this is only observed in the Eastern world especially in areas like Nepal, Bhutan, northern India and the province of Tibet (PR China). There are children who are just raised in Buddhism to only follow the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism with no education towards the actual doctrines of Buddhism. Therefore these individuals grow up to just have a superstitious view of Buddhism like a ‘magical voodoo pagan religion’. The Noble 8Fold path, Four Noble truths with other essential elements in scripture are completely alien to these individuals. They are usually pleasantly confused in their ritualistic attitude towards Buddhism. This had led to the mind-numbing culture which defies human intelligence. Examples of sentences by such individuals include ‘pray to Buddha statues to get unlimited benefits’ or ‘pray to Guru Rinpoche because he is God’.

L. Consumerist attitude towards the Dharma – this is relatively more common in the West. Buddhism is viewed as a ‘consumer product’ to be used and thrown away. It’s the mentality of scraping all the goodness and then discarding the rest with no appreciation to teachers or the teaching. Once again this consumerist attitude comes with ego or the feeling of ‘self-worth’.

M. Misappropriation of the term ‘Buddhist’ – Buddhism is incorrectly viewed by some as a ‘feel good pagan religion’. The misappropriation comes with spiritual apathy where one considers that just because Buddhism is not dogmatic, one can mix and mash Buddhism with any idea or religion no matter how contradictory those two systems are. This is more common among new age/neopagan individuals who take interest in Buddhism and also by those who identify themselves as ‘Buddhist-Christian’ or ‘half Hindu half Buddhist’. Its just a reflection of either cognitive dissonance or a lack of understanding of the core teachings of Buddhism.

N. Size of texts – the texts of Buddhism are voluminous as compared to texts of other religions (such as the Bible or Quran). This means that we are more likely to encounter a Christian or a Jew who is well-versed and well educated in their scriptures whiles meeting Buddhists who have patchy or fragmented knowledge in the teachings. I do hasten to say that the large size of texts is not an excuse. All these teachings were carefully preserved in written form by dedicated individuals over the centuries. We cant expect Buddhism to be laid in front of us on a platter. The onus is on the follower to make effort to read and educate themselves about what is in the texts. The excess size of the texts is used by some Buddhists as an excuse to be lazy or show reluctance to read Buddhist scripture.

O. Complacency with a limited amount of knowledge – complacency is not the same as being content. Some only learn a little and think that its enough when it truly isnt. We get this new culture where one will just focus on one Sutra whiles another individual will focus on a different Sutra only. This over time will lead to a population of Buddhists with non-uniform knowledge where different Buddhists will claim different things about Buddhism. Further to this, people will even start having debates as to which Sutra is better and taking pride that “my Sutra is better than yours”. People in the Buddha’s time only required one or two Sutras to reach their maximum spiritual potential because of their great karma over many lifetimes with their spiritual training in their previous lives. We cant compare ourselves with them and we have a long way to go. It is this mistaken view which has led to overconfidence and complacency where one does not make further effort to learn the Dharma any further when it is actually necessary.

P. Naivety – Buddhists can be naïve compared to followers of other faiths. There is plenty of emphasis on non-violence, kindness, compassion (essentially the qualities related to the Brahmaviharas (Four Immeasurables)). This is part of the practice to help eliminate certain defilements. However as a side-effect it can also make people very naïve. Some consider kindness and compassion is all that there is to Buddhism and think that one does not need to learn anything else apart from being kind. Some are so blinded by the Brahmaviharas that they even don’t appreciate those who help them and take judgemental stances. As an example lets take the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel is the only country in the Middle East which openly allows Buddhist centres to be built on their soil and have no laws against people converting to Buddhism. Yes as Buddhists we don’t have to take sides in a conflict. But there are Buddhists who overlook Israel’s acceptance of Buddhist freedom and go out of their way to support Palestine (even though Palestine will never allow a Buddhist temple to be built on their soil provided they were to claim parts of Israel later in the future). Part of the reason behind this is the naivety where we fail to appreciate those who support us.

Q. Esoteric nature of certain teachings – this is a necessary ‘disadvantage’ as some teachings are required to be passed down in an esoteric manner to prevent those who are unsuitable to learn it from experiencing danger by practising them incorrectly or making dangerous interpretations out of those teachings. But it is because of this same esoteric nature which has led to some lineages becoming endangered in the recent ages. Its all about hoping that enough people will be interested in that specific lineage to maintain it, whiles being in ‘competition’ with other collateral lineages.

R. ‘Face value’ not considered as deserved/exaggeration of the importance of things – The Buddhists world like all these other ‘worlds’ have its own figures in our modern day like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nahn Hanh. They are great teachers which we should all respect and they have made great efforts to get to where they are now. But some things mentioned by them should be taken no more than face value. But some fail to realise this and consider ‘face value’ comments as gospel and not only that, they are prepared to act upon them too. When the Dalai Lama says ‘sleep is the best meditation’ he actually means that without good sleep, we cannot be mindful during the day. What he means here is that with a lack of sleep we would not be able to focus and concentrate on daily activities. He is NOT suggesting that sleeping is better than Vipassana or Samatha meditation in terms of reaching spiritual faculties like Jhanas. But some are very quick to misunderstand this way and they confidently explain that their understanding is correct. When Thich Hanh Hanh mentions that the “future Buddha is not an individual but a community” this is just be taken as a ‘throw away line’.

S. Exclusion or aversion of new ideas – whenever a new idea is presented for the development of Buddhism it is faced with overwhelming scepticism and negativity by some individuals which also discourages others. Ideas which exist in their abstract form are equated with the worst possible examples and overwhelmingly discouraged by some Buddhists. Such people probably did exist during the times when the ‘technology’ of paper was invented where some Buddhists decided to transfer oral teachings onto paper. Such individuals may have spent all their breath trying to discourage people from writing down Buddhist texts and only wanted Buddhism to be transmitted by the oral route. They may have had various reasons to justify their argument such as “if teachings get written down then people will stop listening to teachers. Then teachers wont have students because they just read books and people would stop getting ordained”. Some would have said “reading teachings written in paper doesn’t mean you ll be enlightened so it’s a useless activity”. Its this paranoid mentality which leads to the automatic knee jerk response to new ideas considering them as a threat to what already exists. It’s the mentality of having only one option with a lack of regard to alternatives in a selfish manner without showing regard to their usefulness to others. The end result is elimination without being inclusive and open minded towards ways in which that different people can benefit from different methods applied in order to deliver the teachings. It is also the paranoid and suspicious mentality that a new idea or concept will grow and replace existing forms which may not be the intention of those that initiate those new ideas in the first place.

T. Right wing groups – this is only observed in Eastern Buddhist nations. There are right wing nationalist groups like BBS and the 969 Movement who are a fringe minority in Buddhist nations that make the headlines in their local nations as well as the Western media. It comes with the sense of religion being an identity inextricably associated with nationality or race (like the Ku Klux Klan or Nation of Islam). This gives Buddhism a bad reputation. It will discourage those who are outside of Buddhism who could potentially be interested in Buddhism, to lose interest and look away. A specific Western Buddhist group (which I will not name) is overly keen on highlighting the negative aspects of Buddhism in Eastern nations and to use extreme examples including the examples of right wing movements associated with Buddhism, to be representative of all of Buddhism in those nations to justify the existence of that specific Western Buddhist group. These examples which are not representative of Buddhists is used as false propaganda to justify an agenda.


Source: Pamodha Wasala (Mahayana-Theravada Dialogue in Facebook)