Buddhism in Singapore has come a long way since the 80’s and 90’s. For this, we have to thank the local leaders and volunteers who have dedicated their time and effort to help spread the Dharma. In areas including education, organisation, talent building and retention, we have made leaps and bounds in improving ourselves.
Still, there are much room for improvement. In this post, I’ll focus on 3 areas, Education, Communication and Fellowship, where I think major improvements can be made.
I’ve also narrowed the analysis to Singapore, as the historical and social context of every country differs, so too will the challenges be different. Having only sufficient knowledge of Singapore, I’ve decided to focus only on this tiny island.
The importance of Education should not come as a surprise to those who have been in the Buddhist circle. Buddhism is a profound religion, anyone who had studied it in-depth would attest to. Yet at the same time, it has one of the least well-established educational systems in the world of organised religion! This is especially true for the lay community whom forms the bulk of the Buddhist population.
There seems to be 2 opposite extremes. On one hand, many temples still provide no more than chanting and blessing services to the faithful. Which is not contributing to creating greater awareness of what the religion actually teaches. On the other hand, a lot of materials have also been made available in recent years; including deep philosophical teachings and the experiences and teachings of great meditation masters. Much of these material that were originally meant for monks and nuns (who have spent many years developing their minds through meditation and who were under the guidance of good teachers) have been put into public access and distributed freely.
This has the opposite effect of confusing people who were not grounded firmly in basic Buddhist concepts. I have no doubt of the good intentions of those who support the printing of these materials, but not enough efforts have been spent teaching these teachings properly. My experience has been that books can only serve as supplements in Buddhist education. What we need most are good Dhamma teachers who can teach and guide in an interactive and “small classroom” environment.
The next question to ask is “what is basic Buddhism?” The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path? Interestingly, the Suttas and the Vinaya seems not to define these teachings as basic at all. The below extract from the Udana is an example of this:
“… the Blessed One gave him a progressive talk [on the Dharma], that is to say: talk on giving, talk on moral virtual, talk on (the joys of) heaven, and explained to him the dangers, the degrading nature, the defiling nature of sense-pleasures and of the advantages of renunciation.
When the Blessed One know that Suppabuddha the leper was ready, his mind malleable, free of hindrances, uplifted, and clear, then he explained the Dharma-teaching common to all the Buddhas: suffering, the arising, the ending, the path”
- Ud. 5.3
This passage shows the Buddha’s skillfulness in teaching the Dhamma to Suppabuddha the leper. He would give a progressive talk, starting with generosity and morality. Only when Suppabuddha is ready, when his “mind malleable, free of hindrances, uplifted”, then the Buddha would teach “the Dharma-teaching common to all the Buddhas: suffering, the arising, the ending, the path”. This same format of teaching the Dhamma has been repeated many times in the suttas to different individuals or group of people.
This contrast strongly with how the Dhamma is taught today. Most Buddhist’s first introduction to “Basic Buddhism” today starts with the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold path, Non-self, Dependent Origination. All these are commonly being taught as Basic Buddhism.
In another part of the Udana, the Buddha likened the practice of the Dhamma to be like the ocean:
“Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch.”
- Ud 5.5
And in the Maha-cattariska Sutta, the Buddha said that there are 2 kinds of Right Views:
There are 2 kinds of Right View: There is that affected by taints, which brings merits and ripens in the essentials of existence; and there is the noble ones’ Right View, without taints, which is supramundane and a factor of the path.
The format of today’s Dhamma education seems to focus mostly on the Noble ones’ Right View. While the effort is amenable, for those who is new to Buddhism, it is like throwing them in the deep end of the ocean even before they learned to swim.
Personally, I feel that inadequate emphasis and focus have been placed on teachings about issues most relevant for the lay Buddhists community. – When we think of the Buddha’s teachings to the lay community, we often think only in terms of the Five Precepts, forgetting that the Buddha have also gave teachings on friendship, on how to be good parents, children, bosses, workers, teachers, students, on the proper use of wealth etc (this blog has been setup in part to create greater awareness of these teachings, that numerous suttas on these issues do exist and that the Buddha himself encouraged lay Buddhists to develop themselves in these areas).
I strongly believe that as people becomes better educated and society more complex, we will not be able to reach out to more people or fill their needs if we do not promote these teachings.
The next challenge the Lay Buddhist community in Singapore has to overcome is Communication.
Good communicators have a way of inspiring people, lifting them higher and making them want to achieve more than what they thought they could. Good communicators don’t always have something new to say, but they are able to say things in a way that connects with people.
Not everyone are born communicators, but with enough practice, everyone can become better (not to mention having good speakers and communicators is a sure way of bringing in the crowd, just think of Ajahn Brahm).
Yet it is rare to see any Buddhist organization conscientiously putting in effort and resources to train Dhamma teachers and speakers. This is one instance where I think, our Christian brothers and sisters understood the law of cause and effect much better than we do. They put in effort to train their preachers and leaders in areas including communication, for they understands that it is through practice (cause) that they become better communicators (effect). And it is through good communication (cause) that you can better get your message across and connect with people (effect). And it is through connecting with people (cause) that you win their hearts (effect).
We, especially the lay community, have left the responsibility of teaching the Dhamma rather haphazardly to anyone who dare to speak in front of an audience. And when a good speaker does appear, every so often, we would attribute it to some good karma the speaker has accumulated or the practice of the paramis over many past life. While this may (or may not) be true, we forgot that most good speakers put in hard work to train themselves to be better speakers; We forget that even Ajahn Brahm had to spend many years on perfecting his public speaking skills.
Buddhist societies and organisations needs to conscientiously put in time, effort and resources to train Buddhist speakers and educators.
Next part of communication is the message itself. Too often, we Buddhists are too eager to jump right into the most profound aspect of the Dhamma and not enough emphasis has been placed on the basics (Lay Dhamma). This is not surprising because most Buddhist do get won over because of these sublime yet beautiful teachings. Unfortunately, most people (at least people in general that I know) often do not understand or appreciate these teachings.
The honest truth is that most people will not become monks or nuns, or get enlighten in this life time. But everyone wants peace of mind, friendship, trust, a good career and stability in their life and for their love ones. For the lay community and certainly for someone new to Buddhism, if we emphases too much on the Dhamma the Buddha gave to the monks and nuns, they are going to feel dissociated (not uncommon to find people saying Buddhism is boring or dry or “too profound for me”) and may walk away and never come back again.
If you offer these “newbies” the Buddha’s teachings on generosity, friendship, relationship etc, there is a much higher chance that they will connect to these teachings and may coming back again, and ironically in the long term, be more willing to explore the deeper aspects of the Dhamma.
Next, we need to develop a common compelling “mission statement”. Having compelling Mission Statement is important because it helps to define who you are and what you represents, thereby helping people to remember and understand you better.
Our christian brothers and sisters has one and it sounds rather compelling “God loves you and he wants you to share eternal live with him” and “we have suffering in live because we are sinners, but God loves us and will forgive our sins and with God’s love, we will have the courage to deal with the difficulty in life“. While I certainly don’t believe in it, I have to agree that it is rather compelling.
The current Mission Statement we have are “Avoid evil, do good purify the mind.” and “Suffering, and the path leading to the end of suffering”. While the first one summarise the Buddhist path neatly, it is not very compelling (unless one already knows the Dhamma) and in our present world where there is generally much more happiness than suffering, it is hard for a newbies to connect to the second “mission statement”.
A possible candidates for a compelling Mission Statement could be:
“Buddhism believes that in each of us, there is the potential for happiness & goodness. Buddhism is about how each of us can develop this happiness and goodness for the benefit ourselves and those around us.”
We will need to put in more effort to come up with more compelling “Misison Statements”.
The final challenge that I would like to focus on is Fellowship. In a recent Straits Time article on religion in Singapore, it was said that fellowship is one of the key reasons why people are attending church. It should not come as a surprise considering that human beings are social creatures and social bonds are an important part of human life.
The importance of human relationships can’t be underestimated. In our fast changing and turbulent world, relationships provide us much needed support, comfort and guidance.
People who are able to develop healthy relationship with others also tends to be happier and more successful in life. While does who are not able to form social bond with others tends to have more problem in life, both physically and emotionally.
For Buddhist, friendship and fellowship can provide us encouragement and support along the path which often goes against the stream of the world. With fellowship, we can encourage each other and teach and guide each other. When this Buddhist fellowship grows to form a Buddhist Community, we can even begin to change and improve the world.
Thus, it is not surprising that in the suttas, we find the Buddha stating the importance of having good friendship:
“With regard to external factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much..”
Yet fellowship is exactly what is lacking in many Buddhist organisations. Today, it is still possible to attend Dhamma talks at various Buddhist centers over a long period of time and yet not talk to anyone. If fellowship is indeed so important as what the Buddha said, why is it that few centers put in effort to cultivate this among their patrons?
Our single minded focus on promoting Buddhist education has helped to raise the bar on Buddhist knowledge and understand, but the lack of focus on building fellowship and a community has led to a generation of “hermit Buddhist”.
So what are some of the characteristics of a strong lay Buddhist community? What consititue Buddhist fellowship? Wisdom, compassion, virtures and generosity of cause! And on add to that, the Buddha’s guidelines to lay Buddhist on our relationship with people around us.
The Buddhist community here in Singapore have shown that they have the dedication, capability and sincerity to transform the religion from something that was no more than a “folk religion” into a “modern” religion. More importantly, in doing so, rediscovered the Dhamma that have been buried behind hundreds of years of rites and rituals and present it to others.
In order to make the religion more accessible to even more people and to jump to the next S-curve, Buddhist organisations and societies needs to reinvent themselves again. I believe that improvement to education, communication as well as fellowship as mentioned in this article will greatly contribute to the next quantum leap.