Buddhism in the modern world is a vast topic and it will need a lot of skills in moving through the cultures and societies to understand Buddhism in the modern world, but some of the trends are significant to understand what is going on the in the modern world. If we begin to map Buddhism based on nationalities, it will be difficult to understand the regional variants of Buddhism in the modern world. For example, the Buddhism in Thailand started becoming “nationalised” when the state started intervening in the monastic education through examination. Pre-nationalised Buddhism in Thailand can be studied through the great masters like Buddhadasa and Ajarn Chah.
Similarly, the study of Chinese Buddhism must take into account what is happening in present-day Taiwan and Chinese dominated the region in Malaysia and Indonesia. They cannot be simply reduced to the “Chinese Buddhism”. Similarly, Buddhism in the west is also markedly different depending on the geography. Therefore, to begin with, the Buddhism in the modern world is not an easy category to understand.
However, like the opportunities and problems are thrown by the modern developments and the increasingly connected world can offer what can be the face and impact of Buddhism in the modern world. If the Buddhism in the regional forms is to survive, it must get connected with the other forms of Buddhism and have a continuous dialogue with each other. When the Buddhism started, it was not evolved into so many varieties that we see today. It evolved with the basic problem of suffering (Dukkha) in the human world and Buddha’s unique understanding of the problems facing the human beings and the human world. He came to the “Noble Eightfold path” as a way to end the problem facing human beings and the human world. Even when the Buddhism is now evolved into many forms, it can be reduced down to the “basic” teachings of the Buddha that are common to all.
This does not mean that we have to make it a point to make every form and school of Buddhism to agree to “basic” Buddhism, but the larger paradigm of Buddhism is not centred around “god”, “soul”, or “holy books”. It is centred on cultivation and development of the human mind to the level that the problems are solved through peaceful processes and methods. This is found in all the schools of Buddhism, but the problem that came from the past to the present is the problem of each form and school got locked in its geography and local cultures, assuming that “geography” and “culture” and “language” is basic to Buddhism than the basic teachings of the Buddha itself.
So when the different Buddhisms met in Chicago for the first time in the modern history in the World Conference of Religions in 1893, they could not identify with each other. And how would they? The Theravada looks so different from Zen and Mahayana looks so different from Buddhism in Thailand. Thanks to the evolving nature of communication in the world, the different forms of the Buddhism have got an opportunity to learn from each and know each other better. If Buddhism is to survive as the global force, it must find a way to have dialogues, and not only dialogue but also endosmosis, which will involve exchanging ideas and checking each other’s understanding on “basic” Buddhism.
This is not going to be an easy process as we as human beings tend to cling to the languages we speak and cultures we are brought up in. If Buddhisms across the different geographies can start interacting with the resurgent Buddhism in India it will give them two benefits: One, it will make them share their traditional understanding of Buddhism with the resurgent Buddhism in India and two, it will make them understand their own Buddhism in the better way. The resurgent Buddhism in India is not going to be one Buddhism because India itself is divided into many languages and cultures, but the unity of Buddhism will be around Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Buddhisms across the world must make efforts to understand Babasaheb Ambedkar and his approach to bring Buddhism back in India. This is more than a must.
Buddhism also must engage with the problems facing humanity all over the world. Basically, the human society is threatened by the increasing polarisation of the human beings into caste, race, class, gender, ethnicity, and other attributes that human beings have constructed to create a wall around them. Can Buddhism engage with the increasing polarisation of the human world into narrow confines? Buddhism will have to do it if it is true with the original spirit of Buddhism of one big family. This is what G.P. Malalasekera, master Tai Xu, Babasaheb Ambedkar did. Malasekera wrote an interesting book on how Buddhism can fight race and caste. Master Tai Xu wanted to break the barriers between various ethnicities in the Chinese speaking world through Buddhism. Babasaheb Ambedkar rekindled the original spirit of the Buddha himself: the fight against Brahminism and caste system. An understanding of the discrimination in every form and how that operates is therefore important for the Buddhists to look into.
The resurgent Buddhism faces that challenge of making one human family through breaking the barriers between the people.
Another problem that the humanity faces is the destruction at mass level created by the market-based economy. Though it can not be turned back to the extent necessary, the Buddhists throughout the world can offer the alternative scheme to tackle the problem facing the world through marketisation, the approach to deal with it will be increasing democratisation of not only societies but also wealth, and the privileges that are only limited to a few. Buddhism offers this model for the world to emulate.
Author – Mangesh Dahiwale, Human Rights Activist