Buddhists of the World Unite

The Voice of America reported Wednesday that Buddhists recently met in New Delhi, India with the goal of forming an umbrella organization or voice for Buddhists around the world. In an interview with VOA Wednesday, Lama Lobzang said:

“The main responsibility of our organization is the preservation of Buddhist heritage sites including over 100 Buddhist meditative caves in Indian states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. These ancient Buddhist sites that were previously neglected need to be protected and preserved.”

Earlier this month, Buddhists from 33 countries attended the first International Buddhist Conference in New Delhi and formally launched their umbrella organization, which will arrange pilgrimages to ancient Buddhist sites in India.

Based on my limited experience in India, this could be a very helpful development, bringing an added element of stability to both the communities where these Buddhist sites exist and to devotees on pilgrimage from around the world. I have seen ‘developments’ at some of these sites that began with enthusiasm but very quickly deteriorated into empty buildings in the countryside. While it is possible that a larger organization like this will merely replicate those mistakes on a larger scale, it is more likely that they will be in a better position to learn from past mistakes and devote energy where it would be most beneficial, learning from the many successful Buddhist projects in India representing various branches of the religion.

Thinking toward the future, it would also help to have at least an online database of the various schools, sub-schools, and sub-sub-schools developing over the last 50 or so years, a sort of “who’s who” of Buddhism. Too often Buddhism is treated as one homogeneous lump, filled with peace, meditation, and mantras – and headed by the Dalai Lama. Could one central site with the aim of clearly, academically, and interactively, informing people about the various strands of global Buddhism be of benefit in the world today?

What might it say, for example, about the various “new” branches of Buddhism, such as that promulgated by Buddha Maitreya, based in Lake County, CA? Admittedly, I don’t know much about this guy, but I’ve been around the block enough to know that he’s clearly “out there.” Not many lamas offer Brainwave Optimization or Distance Soul Therapy (for $50 minimum donation).

Alternatively, some “new” branches that have had bad press in the past such as the F.W.B.O. / Triratna Buddhist Community have become mainstream, while other teachers have branched off to form independent groups like the New Kadampa Tradition or Diamond Mountain University – which themselves may be in the process of becoming mainstream.

Unfortunately, many people hear about Buddhism from limited sources and then go to one or another of these groups, not having any idea of their particular practices or past, and take it as “Buddhism.”  And some weird things seem to get introduced as Buddhist in the West, like “Tulku” Steven Seagal:

(although it’s worth pointing out that this is not unique to modernity or the West)

As an educator I would love to see some central discussion forum for Buddhism and/or Buddhism in the West.

The overly idealistic view a lot of people have of Buddhism is good for Buddhists insofar as it draws them to the “good” Buddhist groups out there (which are the vast majority, imho), but it is horrible for those who wind up with a quack or charlatan skilled in manipulating naive seekers. More easily available information could provide balance that would benefit everyone. Leaders of various traditions could discuss ethical codes that work and those that don’t, treatment for mentally ill practitioners, and diverse ways of preserving traditions while adapting to new circumstances.

Some of this is already happening. Buddhist Geeks, as far as I know, draws people from various traditions. So does the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. There is also the International Association of Buddhist Universities, which regularly hosts Buddhist monastics and educators from around the world to discuss general issues facing Buddhism and the global community. And of course our loose-knit association of bloggers brings issues from particular traditions into the awareness of others. But these are all niches that, important as they are, aim at particular audiences or toward particular activities within the global Buddhist community.

As a Kantian, I see such cosmopolitan organizations as a positive step in global societal development. As imperfect as things like federal governments and the UN are and will be, they still stand as a unifying power that we can appeal to when fringe elements become destructive to themselves and those around them.

When this was posted on the new American Buddhist Perspectives facebook page all of the responses were against such an organization, so I see that I may be the contrarian here to some extent. But that’s a bit of a case for such an organization (and note that what I envision goes beyond what the confederation is currently undertaking).

What are your thoughts, for or against? Can (and should) Buddhists of the world unite?

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  • jamesiford

    I’m curious, Justin, if you know what organizations are represented in this confederation? Specifically, are the non monastic churches out of Japan, Shin, Zen, Lotus, etc, all hardly “new” religions, with ordination models now a thousand years old, but not part of the Vinaya; are they part of this conversation?

    • justinwhitaker

      Good question, James. Who is invited to the table is as important as how the table is shaped – or something like that. They have a participants page from their 2011 meeting here:

      http://asokamission.in/page/participants

      It seems like a broad list. And from Japan specifically it includes heads of what appear to be major Buddhist organizations there:

      His Eminence Kouno Taitsu, Chairman, All Japan Buddhist Association, Japan
      His Eminence Enami Kakuhan, President, Japan Association of Buddhists for World Federation, Japan
      Most Rev. Her Eminency Otani Kiyoko, President, All Japan Women Buddhists Federation Japan
      Most Reverend Hashimoto Shonen, Chief Abbot, Shinshouji, Japan
      Most Reverend Nichiko Niwano, President, Rissho Kosei-kai International, Japan

      • Thomas Armstrong

        There appear not to be any regular people that are named.

        – His eminence the glorious and swell and nice smelling with luxurious hair and a brain as big as a basketball Thomas Ezekiel Gladimeyer Fop Jumpkin Armstrong, the Third Earl of Sandwich

        • justinwhitaker

          Ha! I’ve heard that if you’re ‘regular’ long enough, you get one of those titles. I’m not sure how it works in practice though, your eminence.

          • Thomas Armstrong

            You just make something up. Or write a dissertation such to add some alphabet soup to the end of your name.

            • justinwhitaker

              Aw, you know I’m an alphabet soup-lover, Tom. :)

  • Ambaa

    Hmmmm. You make great points about the ways it could be beneficial. I don’t know, though. One of the features of Buddhism is its lack of central authority (as with Hinduism too). I could see having a group to organize and explain, I guess, but I’d worry about the prescriptive side of it.

    • justinwhitaker

      Good point, Ambaa. The prescriptive side, if any, would likely be extremely minimal. But something that it could do is host and foster conversations. Participation there would be optional and following prescriptions also would be optional. The main purpose could simply be informational though. There seems to be a lot of amazing information out there just scattered here and there… I’m not sure though exactly what it would be best modeled on…

  • justinwhitaker

    via a fb group I was directed to this (http://www.wfbhq.org/) “The World Fellowship of Buddhists Headquarter” – it appears to be an honest attempt at an umbrella group, but its activity is pretty sparse…

  • Thomas Armstrong

    Buddhists of the World SHOULD NOT unite. I’d be OK with the group if they were independently, but with excellent discernment, passing out something equivalent to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, now and again, for gurus and such, that people could honor or spit at and completely ignore as they please. But if the group intends to play God, to hell with them. It would be destructive to have Overlords deciding who is the most Buddhist and peddling off to the media their Golden Opinion, interceding between people who perceive themselves to be Buddhists and practices that work for them.

    Besides, Justin, as a Kantian Buddhist, you would be on the outs. The Hume-ian Buddhists are in the ascent, soon to take over the universe. Bwa-ha-ha. BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA.

  • Amalie Austin Aseltine

    Of all beliefs in the world, it’s the Buddhists of the world should be the ones who could find a consensual process for unity. As a clearinghouse for information and as a monitor of things Buddhist around the world, this would be a wonderful notion. The sticking point is in identifying those charlatans whose motives are not in keeping with Buddhist beliefs, so what standards to use? In a world where one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, there’s no one authority that will ever be accepted by all as being unbiased. But, for what my voice is worth as an American who has lived in Asia for most of my life, I vote “yes” if the organization would serve to bring Buddhists together who otherwise might not have that opportunity.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for your comments, Amalie. I agree that identifying charlatans will never be easy or perhaps even necessary for such an organization. But perhaps sections could just be built in where people like Buddha Maitreya here are discussed, by happy students, unhappy students, scholars, and teachers alike. Ideally then when someone hears about this guy and ‘google’s him, they don’t just get his fancy website, but also a more objective (or ‘multi-perspectival’) discussion of his merits as a teacher.

  • honey butter

    I think it’s a good idea, in theory, but my guess is Buddhists are too anarchist at heart to really get behind (or perhaps more correctly, under) one umbrella coalition. I’ll eat my zafu if I’m wrong…
    (by the way, this is Maia Duerr posting… honey butter is my disquis pseudonym!)

    • justinwhitaker

      I think you’re right, Maia, as long as we’re talking convert-Buddhists. Although I’d add that some of that anarchism is also individualism. Yet my experience with Buddhists in the West, is that they love things like governmental environmental protection laws, healthcare, etc, and usually big umbrellas like the UN.

      So I wonder if there is some sort of disconnect going on where Buddhists like anarchy when it comes to their own religion (beliefs/practices) but not when it comes to social/global issues ‘outside’ of religion.

      • honey butter

        Good point about individualism… I’m sure you’re right on that one, since it’s such a pervasive marker of U.S./western culture. I just remember my experience directing the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for a few years… it was remarkably challenging to pull people together to work toward a common goal. Actually, now that I think about it, that kind of mirrors the dynamic that generally happens in leftist circles.


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