VTC: The Need for Modern Buddhist Education

by Ven. Thubten Chodron

Note: I wrote this article in 1988 and am happy to note that in the years since then that Buddhist education in Singapore has improved greatly. This is due to the efforts of both the monastic and lay Buddhists, and I rejoice and thank you very much!

When the students of the Buddhist societies of Singapore’s tertiary institutions asked me to speak at their Vesak Day celebration in 1988, they told me the theme was “Buddhism Out-dated??” This theme startled me, because implicit in it is the fear that Buddhism is out-dated on one hand, and the wish to understand the contemporary relevance of a religion that has produced so many great masters in the past, on the other. The fact that this question was asked shows that people are unfamiliar with the real meaning of Buddhist philosophy and practices. This is due to the lack of Buddhist education in which the teachings are easily applicable to the lives of the people.

In Asian Buddhist communities, both in Asia and abroad, an increasing number of people who have been raised in nominally Buddhist homes have come to regard Buddhism as mere superstition and turn to other religions. Upon talking with these people, their misconceptions about Buddhism are evident. Again, this is due to a lack of modern Buddhist education.

Buddhism has never been an evangelical religion, nor should it become one. However, clear explanation of the Buddha’s teachings should be made available to people who are interested. The Buddha showed the path to happiness, and it is desirable for this to be made accessible to others, so that they can benefit from it. This is the duty and responsibility of Buddhists who have compassion for others.

In what ways can Buddhist education be made relevant to people today? First, if oral teachings were given in the language with which people are most familiar, the language in which they are educated, then they could understand the meaning better. Colloquial language communicates much better to lay people than does classical language. For scholars and serious practitioners, knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit, and ancient Chinese is necessary, but for the general public and young people who are used to television colloquial language and everyday examples are more suitable. One university student told me that he was reluctant to come to talk with me because he feared that I would use many Pali words and he would not understand! I wonder how many others there are who avoid going to teachings or reading books because they cannot understand the language well.

Secondly, it is essential that Buddhist principles be clearly and logically explained. Today’s youth is well-educated. They have knowledge of science, philosophy, psychology, and so forth. Not satisfied with hearing only the story of Buddha’s life and the Jataka tales and thereby generating faith, they now want to know how the doctrine of selflessness relates to quantum physics and how Buddha’s teachings on patience can be integrated into modern psychology. Young people who have a modern secular education will not believe in rebirth just because Buddha said so. They want to understand the logical proof for it and to know current examples of people who have memories of their previous lives.

Young people are often queried by their classmates and colleagues about Buddhist theory and practice. Why is paper money burned for the deceased? What is the use of praying to a statue? If Buddha was just a man, how can he save us? In which galaxy of our universe is the Western Pure Land located? If the youth do not received a good Buddhist education so that they know what is Buddhist practice and what is not, if they do not understand the purpose and meaning of chanting and rituals, if they do not understand well exactly what the Triple Gem is and how taking refuge benefits oneself, then they become full of doubts and may eventually abandon Buddhism for another religion. Or, they may become tempted to criticize and denigrate other religions in an effort to defend their own. Both of these unfortunate reactions could be avoided by directly dealing with these issues through education. If Buddhism is explained clearly and logically, people will naturally see its validity and worthiness, and they will be able to answer questions posed to them.

In the past, Buddhist philosophical education was reserved for the monks and nuns, with the role of the laity being to have faith and make offerings to the monastic community. However, with the rise in the literacy rate and standard of education, the laity wants to and is more capable of taking responsibility for the practice and spread of Buddhism. People have more time and ability to study the Dharma in a weekly series of teachings, to engage in a daily meditation and chanting practice at their homes, and to attend week-end retreats. They can teach Sunday school classes for children and prepare educational materials about Buddhism. It would be suitable for modern Buddhist education to reflect this increasing capability and changing role of the lay devotees.

Thirdly, Buddha’s doctrine becomes extremely clear in the minds of the youth when it is explained explicitly in relationship to modern, twentieth century lifestyle and problems. In this way the profound meaning of the Buddha’s teachings is directly made relevant to current situations, and the people easily see the value of practicing the Dharma. Teachers can explain how to live according to ethical values in corporate business, how to practice patience in international politics, and how to develop detachment in discotheques. They can answer questions such as: how can one be compassionate towards people who try to take advantage of us? How can Dharma practice improve relationships with our family and colleagues? What is the value of becoming a monk or nun in the twentieth century? Should Buddhists become more involved in projects to benefit society, such as operating schools, hospitals, drug counseling centers and old age homes? How can meditation prevent stress?

One way to make the teachings relevant to contemporary society is by using stories and examples of current situations during teaching sessions. Another is by having discussion groups where people share their experiences and consider how to solve daily life difficulties by employing Dharma methods.

Fourth, Buddhism can be explained by using a variety of media. Traditionally, education was done by the disciple listening to the teacher in a strict teaching situation, or by children mimicking their parents actions. But now videos, television, radio, comic books, weekly articles in the city newspaper, theater, and modern music are viable media for people to learn about the Dharma and to express what they have learned. If these media are used more, then young people will feel that Buddhism fits into their modern culture. I was very impressed when one teenage Buddhist society sang Buddhist songs that their members had written in modern lyrics to the accompaniment of guitar music. The songs created a wonderful atmosphere of faith in the Buddha and spiritual friendship among the devotees. Theater provides a way to use humor in teaching Buddhism, and comic books (for the youngsters) and videos easily catch people’s attention.

Fifth, it is beneficial for explanations of Buddhist theory and practice to be made available to the public in general. The purpose is not to be evangelical, but to avoid misconceptions arising in non-Buddhists’ minds about Buddhism and to give interested people an opportunity to learn about the Dharma without getting involved in rituals and devotional practices. Here Buddhism is explained in a more academic way, without people feeling obliged to call themselves Buddhists or adopt Buddhist practices. To this effect, public talks could be given in libraries and auditoriums, as well as courses on comparative religion or philosophy could be taught in universities and adult education courses.

Lastly, inter-religious dialogue is extremely valuable, especially in multi-religious societies. In our rapidly-shrinking world, people need to respect, and not antagonistically criticize, other religions. This can be achieved only by knowing about other belief systems and emphasizing the common, uniting points. It is important not only that religions be harmonious among themselves, but also that leaders of all religions present a united front in encouraging world peace and better living conditions. This would truly be an inspiring example of openness and tolerance for all peoples of the world.

In short, conventional Buddhism is at a critical juncture. The path to liberation and enlightenment that the Buddha described from his own experience is a timeless one. Compassion and wisdom, the essence of the doctrine, are always needed to make our lives meaningful and beneficial to others. However, if we neglect to express these principles in a form that is easily understood by the people of today, then we are denying them access to the beauty of the teachings. Having huge temples and elaborate statues will not guarantee the continuation of the doctrine in the minds and actions of people. Performing rituals which few understand while neglecting to give advice suitable to people’s mentality and problems is not sufficient to ensure that people actually benefit from the Dharma. For people to touch the real meaning of the Dharma and to enrich their lives through Buddhism, education that is relative to their modern culture, lifestyle and language is necessary. To provide this is the responsibility and the joy of those of us who ourselves cherish having met the precious doctrine of the Buddha.