Future of Buddhism
Challenges and Opportunities: Speculations on a Buddhist Future
In the West, where materialism has already taken a pervasive hold, the growth in secularism both in the public arena and the private sphere has increasingly suggested that religion of all types is irrelevant to modern life. It is now possible to live as a perfectly functional and moral person without any religious practice or adherence whatsoever, and ever-growing numbers of people (especially the young) are making such a choice. It may be that the only real hope that Buddhism has in societies that have been strongly conditioned by secular materialism is to become another commodity in the marketplace of self-help therapies and leisure tools, a fate that some would say amounts to the de facto destruction of Buddhism itself.
Those are a few of the major challenges; now on to opportunities. I'll suggest four here as well. First, Buddhism's capture of important segments of the intelligentsia, both East and West, positions it well to take advantage of advances in communication technologies. Online religious communities and rituals have thus far been poor substitutes for real world ones, but there is tremendous potential for new social media to serve as augmentations and enhancements of the Buddhist experience. This is especially evident in the ways that they can nurture Buddhists who live in situations where they have little local support, the manner in which they greatly enhance the possibilities for Buddhist inter-denominational exchange and cooperation, and the ability to get the Buddhist message out to non-Buddhists in a wide variety of venues. New technologies will continue to transform our lives at ever-increasing rates, and to the extent that Buddhists can stay abreast of such developments, they will be able to seize tremendous opportunities in influence and support.
Second, the increasing role of women in Buddhist leadership presents a terrific opportunity. For the past couple of generations, both in Asia and the West, women's power within society and religion have been increasing, and while much remains to be done before true parity is achieved, there can be little doubt that women are making great strides in Buddhism. Enhanced female leadership would increase the number of women who come to or remain within Buddhism, and bring new perspectives to Buddhism's practice and dissemination. Also, since women tend to be more immediately impacted by social changes than men, and have greater roles in rearing children and passing on religion within the family, the involvement of women ensures both that Buddhism will be more responsive to economic and other trends in society, and that Buddhists will take an active role in promoting the continuance of religion in new generations.
A third opportunity lies in the interaction of Buddhism and science, including ecology. Many of the studies on the benefits of meditation are poorly designed and produce results that are less impressive than headlines might suggest. But there is still much that can come out of the encounter between Buddhism and the sciences. Certain fields, such as psychology, can clearly benefit from contact with Buddhism, but it is Buddhism that has the greater opportunity in this encounter. Buddhist interpreters have proven highly adept at adapting Buddhism to a new scientific idiom and emphasizing those aspects of the tradition that are most consonant with areas such as modern physics and environmental science. Continuing the dialogue with scientific developments can keep Buddhism fresh and provide language and tools for expressing Buddhist spiritual and psychological insights, as well as giving it greater relevance compared to other religions more intimately tied to anti-modern mythologies and worldviews.