issue 20 summer 03
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A Richer Mixture

In December 2002 Malaysia hosted the Global Conference on Buddhism, at which a gathering of 900 explored 'Buddhism for a Richer Life'. Dhamma teachers and academics from around the world were invited to share a platform with local Buddhist speakers. Rows of monastic sangha from across Asia presided over the occasion, while our dark-suited Chinese Malaysian hosts clasping hand-phones ensured maximum efficiency.

I was there to accompany Locana, who was speaking at the conference, and to cover the event for this magazine. For a few days our grand hotel near Kuala Lumpur was transformed into a Buddhist world: robed orders of all shades rubbed shoulders with practitioners from Bhutan, Korea and Japan in their finest garb – the Mongolians standing out with their splendidly colourful regalia.

This Buddhist microcosm was put in context (and our sleep punctuated) by intermittent calls to prayer from Malaysia's largest mosque just outside. The conference opened with the aspiration for greater dialogue between Islam (the country's official religion) and the non-Islamic faiths, and for more energy to be given to interfaith work. Buddhism is the faith of almost all Chinese Malaysians – about one third of the population – and is tolerated by the government. Hosting such a prestigious conference was a landmark for the Malaysian Buddhist community.

The conference centred on five topics. Firstly, a session entitled 'Open heart, clear mind' considered how to develop compassion and clarity, with Geshe Tashi (a London-based Tibetan lama) reminding us of humans' potential for Enlightenment, and Nicholas Ribush from the US offering advice for cultivating compassion in daily life.

I was stimulated by the discussion on science and moral conscience. Bhikkhu Mettanando suggested that genetic engineering and human cloning were neither intrinsically skilful nor unskilful, and that banning research would obstruct human knowledge and encourage illegal experimentation. Academic David Loy (quoting Gandhi) said that our greatness as humans lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves; and explained that the best way to evaluate bio-technology was to examine the motivation behind our eagerness to exploit it. Neither speaker thought we could be absolute about ethical issues in this rapidly-evolving area.

Addressing 'Modern Lifestyle and the Family', Locana (Elizabeth English) spoke about bringing the Dhamma to young people, emphasising the need for spiritual friendship and encouragement. She offered ideas for communicating Buddhist values – using modern myths, the media and popular culture – in ways that might engage youthful energies. And Patricia Sherwood from Australia explained how Buddhist ideas of mental health are increasingly used in western psychotherapy.

In 'Dhamma Therapy through Meditation' Ajahn Brahmavamso humorously explained how if we live meaningfully we can approach dying joyfully. And, in praise of mindfulness, Victor Wee from Malaysia offered impressive statistics to prove the health benefits of meditation – from promoting alpha waves to healing tumours.

The final session was a forum on 'Sangha for a New Millennium'. The panel included a Theravadin forest monk with a conservative approach to monasticism and strictly opposed to the ordination of women; a Malaysian lay elder who, while critical of the status-quo, argued passionately that monks must be the role model for the laity; and Sumi Loundon putting forward case studies of attempts in the US to move away from monastic institutions and develop more modern, urban models of sangha.

This was the least satisfactory session, with little time to address the complex range of issues. Monks' responses to contemporary demands vary widely, while the laity with its many needs is eager for guidance. And discussion of monastic or lay options failed to acknowledge the possibility of a middle ground. This is a topic that western Buddhists, with neither an established body of monks nor a supportive lay community, have had to address directly. The organisers plan to devote more time to the issue of sangha in the modern world at the next conference.

In Malaysia rural Buddhist communities tend to be Chinese-speaking and affiliated to Pure Land and Ch'an, whereas the urban, English-speaking communities favour a more modern, eclectic approach. Conference delegates were in the latter category, and have largely moved away from popular Mahayana Buddhism (often mixed with Taoism), and what they regard as its empty superstitions and rituals. Encouraged by bhikkhus who began teaching here in the past 50 years, they are embracing a 'more rational' Theravadin approach.

Eastern Horizon

The conference was organised jointly by three leading groups: the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia, the Buddhist Gem Fellowship and the Buddhist Missionary Society of Malaysia. 'These organisations are ecumenical and non-sectarian. Such a broad approach would not have been possible 20 years ago. '

As there are so few resident Dhamma teachers in Malaysia, the laity has taken on certain traditional monks' roles – Dhamma teaching, running retreats, chanting at funerals. Yet many Buddhists are hungry for spiritual guidance, so input from any branch of Buddhism is greatly appreciated. For most people at our talks it was a novelty to encounter ordained female Dhamma speakers. Many, particularly women, told us they found it encouraging. And we were struck by the generosity and receptivity of those we met.

According to Liow, who has been tireless in promoting Buddhism: 'Active Dhamma teachers here can be counted with the fingers. Luckily we have visiting monks who conduct retreats. Our main Dhamma teacher is Dhammananda, a Sri Lankan bhikkhu based at Brickfields temple in Kuala Lumpur. He has done so much for the Dhamma in Malaysia – but even he is quite eclectic. He invited the Dalai Lama to Brickfields, and members of the Western Buddhist Order have spoken there.'

Many locals are examining how western movements have adapted Buddhist principles for the modern world. Three years ago Liow launched Eastern Horizon, a pan-Buddhist magazine that reflects the local thirst for a contemporary and non-sectarian approach. Contributors include Buddhist writers from many traditions and various parts of the globe. Educated urban Chinese Buddhists are eager for a sophisticated interpretation of the Dhamma – how to apply its teaching in their hi-tech executive world.

'Our lay leaders are short of time to teach because it is taken up elsewhere, with careers and family life.' However, young people are keen to learn, and Buddhism is being taken to the whole family: Sunday mornings at most temples attract all ages with Dhamma talks, hymn singing and children's activities – and there are many study camps and family retreats.

Ethical practice is emphasised, but meditation hasn't been especially encouraged - perhaps partly due to the traditional view that lay people should focus on sila (ethics) and dana (generosity). 'People were not really open to meditation,' said Liow. 'And currently we are trying to clear up misconceptions about Buddhism and explain that meditation is vital. There used to be a more sectarian approach, and what little meditation instruction there was focused, Burmese-style, on the 'rising and falling of the breath'. I only learnt loving kindness meditation 10 years ago, and it is still not widely practised.'

Even among Theravadin traditions, meditation teaching is varied. The relative merits of vipassana (insight) and samatha (concentration) approaches are hot topics. Meditation retreats tend to be silent with little instruction and at least eight hours of sitting practice, which is quite a challenge for the less experienced. Many people I spoke to struggled with lack of guidance and the need to make meditation more approachable.

There are also moves within the English-speaking sangha towards a broader approach: for example, no longer dismissing key aspects of their Chinese cultural heritage, such as ritual and devotion. The view that Theravada is intellectually superior is now changing – partly due to the impact of Tibetan Buddhism (which, ironically, is taught in English). Meanwhile Liow is compiling a puja book to encourage chanting and ritual (influenced by the FWBO approach to puja). 'Currently we don't recite the traditional Pali puja,' he says. 'We've incorporated a lot of English because our devotees understand English – and I don't think they know much Pali! So, again, a mixture is appropriate and meaningful.'

Vajrasara is Managing Editor of Dharma Life