By Jeff Wilson
Predicting the future is always a difficult task, since so many factors are involved. Twenty-five years ago, how many of us could have predicted the culture-altering effects of the internet or the collapse of global Communism, two major developments that have had serious implications for Buddhism? It is thus with trepidation that I gaze into my crystal ball to imagine what changes Buddhism may face in the next few decades.
Challenges are many, of which I see four as particularly pressing. First, in the next couple of decades, Buddhism will lose many of its most charismatic and internationally-influential spokespersons, such as the 14th Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Hsing Yun, among others. The passing of such major figures may well usher in a period of decreased global attention to Buddhism and decline within the movements built around them. Some organizations are clearly well positioned to continue after the death of their central figures -- such as the network of Vipassana lineages organized by S.N. Goenka -- while others will fall apart over factional infighting and lack of strong leadership.
Second, political developments in Asia will play a major role in the health of Buddhism, especially military conflicts. China/Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Burma seem most poised to experience war or serious civil conflict in the immediate future. Wars in any of these countries will weaken their Buddhist infrastructure and create refugee populations, and, depending on local circumstances, may result in governmental persecution of Buddhism or the transformation of Buddhism in nationalistic and ethnocentric directions. The relationship of Tibet and China is likely to remain a source of perpetual friction, with China unable to convert Tibet into a fully Chinese province and Tibet unable to pull itself out of China's influence.
A third challenge facing Buddhism is the ambition of global Christianity. Evangelical churches across the West and in Asia keep colored maps depicting where Christianity has been preached and what people remain beyond its grasp. Well-funded efforts to Christianize Asian cultures will continue to erode Buddhism's traditional heartlands, especially economically and socially vulnerable areas such as Mongolia and Cambodia. Beyond the appeal of Christianity's religious message, its status in the eyes of many Asians as modern, Western, and progressive will present a serious challenge in places where Buddhism is associated with traditional elites, superstition, or cultural stagnation.
Fourth, secular materialism may be the greatest challenge for Buddhism. While alternate ideologies, such as Christianity or Communism, can compete with Buddhism for adherents, none have the same potential to pull people away from religion altogether as the rising tides of materialism in Asia and secularism in the West. For Asian cultures that have recently or are only now undergoing a shift toward materialism, the siren song of personal wealth, consumer goods, and individual consumption presents a strong challenge to older, more communal and religious, values and ways of life.
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.