The Future of Buddhism

Does Buddhism Have a Future?

Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies
August 7, 1991

In asking whether Buddhism has a future, I feel that an ambiguity needs to be resolved right at the outset. When asking about the future of the Buddha-dharma, is one asking about the future of the values and virtues for which the Buddha stood or is one talking about the future of the established institutions that claim to (but in fact only rarely do) serve as vehicles for the values of the Buddha?

When I think of the values and virtues that the Buddha repeatedly taught, I think of simplicity of lifestyle, uncompromising integrity and impartiality, and active responsiveness to the sufferings of others. It is pretty obvious without even thinking about it that these values haven't got a prayer in North America.

This is destined to remain an obscenely materialistic and consumerist society for quite some time to come; no more than a handful of people will strive for simplicity and being content with what is merely sufficient.

Integrity is almost impossible to find on a large scale in any sector of today's society; people occasionally get irritated at being victimized by unscrupulous politicians, bankers, lawyers, doctors, university professors and religious leaders, but the irritation motivates precious few people to stop and think about what they are doing to victimize others.

Impartiality doesn't have much of a chance in a society as fractious as ours has become. On the contrary ours is a society that thrives on the spirit of individual and collective competitiveness. As long as people fly American (or Canadian or Quebec) flags and have nervous breakdowns when their favourite team loses the Super Bowl, the spirit of impartiality will be muted on these shores.

Active compassion in this society seems to consist in bombing the Billy Jesus out of any third-world country that begins to show signs of no longer wishing to be a colony of the American economic empire.

So forget about the Buddha-dharma ever being more than the refuge of a tiny minority of people. This is not alarming news, actually. The Buddha himself only had a little over a thousand followers, some 500 of which he won in a debating contest with a rival teacher. Once the number of his followers grew to over a few hundred, he had constant headaches, and more than once he said that he found it extremely tiresome and troublesome to have to settle all the petty disputes that rose up among his followers. In numbers lies confusion, and in confusion the dharma dies.

The Buddha himself always saw the dharma as something that would appeal only to a small group of people, never to the puthujjana (the majority of people). Indeed, the only times when more than a small minority in any society have even pretended to embrace the Buddha-dharma has been when Buddhism became a state-supported religion. It has flourished best as an institution under the auspices of brutally repressive governments.

I am not a praying man, but if I were I would pray that Buddhism never becomes successful in North America as a government-supported institution. Fortunately, there is no need to pray about this matter just yet. The United States constitution legally stands in the way of that in your country; and in Canada, where there is no constitutional provision for separation of church and state, there is a de facto unlikelihood that Buddhism will become the state religion within the next decade or so. In both countries I'd guess that the Church of Shirley McLean has a better chance than Buddhism of becoming the established state religion.

So what lies in between being a marginalized fringe group of bald people in tattered yellow robes and being a fully established state church with military support and massive subsidies? Well, the status quo. Institutionalized Buddhism in North America now consists of a multiplicity of fairly small, fiscally impoverished but spiritually strong, independent communities with no central authority but with fairly good lines of communication with each other. Most Buddhist groups are to Buddhism as Congregationalism is to Christianity. (A major exception, of course, is the BCA, which still has strong ties with the headquarters in Kyoto.)

The congregationalist status quo seems to me just the way things ought to be, and it seems to me just about exactly how things will continue to be. In that respect, the future will probably be quite a bit like the present.

Less than one half of one percent of the North American population is Buddhist. That seems to be just about enough. Buddhists are not so rare as to have no mutual support at all, but we are not so big as to be a serious threat to anyone. As individual Buddhists and small Buddhist communities, we can be very effective simply as low-profile private citizens who try very hard to have integrity and sanity in a corrupt and crazy world.

I can't imagine why anyone would want things to be any other way.

Richard Hayes

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