Manchester Buddhist Convention 2012: reflection

photo feuille pipal

photo feuille pipal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A year of nail-biting, wrangling and laughter ended in a slightly euphoric dénouement on the 13th of October when St. Peter’s Chaplaincy hosted the seventh Buddhist Conference/Convention.

The actual ‘high’ began on the 12th when the MBC team and volunteers gathered for a wonderfully creative and exhausting evening to transform the venue from a meeting for students, academics and staff into a place with some semblance and resonance to a Buddhist Centre with a creative use of tables, chairs, coloured cloths, Buddha rupas, incense holders, candles, pictures and more. Alongside this there was the cooking, cleaning, last minute shopping, cushion collection and sundry emergencies. It was an exuberant, hectic and exciting process and one that was finally fulfilled by the participants and presenters some of whom we had been in dialogue with for 6-7 months.  So thank you to everyone who came; to presenters, volunteers, sanghas and participants.

This was a large conference. We tipped 200 this year, much more cross cultural, more venerables (than the last few years though not as many as in the early years), several new sanghas, and people and organisations working in the social context.  Something particularly gratifying for me was the sprinkling of children, happy to move in and out of the space and lovingly accommodated by the adults.  There seemed to be more young people than the last few years but still perhaps not as many as in the early years.

Feedback was almost uniformly good, even comments about the moments of chaos –‘and then it gets sorted – just like life’ as the venerable Alan remarked. Almost the exact words were used in feedback from one of the workshops. For sure there were moments of unexpected ‘happenings’.  Confusion over the names of rooms (some had been changed since the Programme was printed; over the room numbers and session numbers so people were looking for room 15 rather than session 15 in room 5…)

Changes in the format:

There were changes to the format from other years. Instead of a long ‘keynote’ we had 3 short inputs from three different schools – Zen, Tibetan and Theravada and left some time for discussion. One person remarked that they weren’t quite clear how it related to the theme – ‘One Root many Branches’, but the connection seemed obvious to most people – Zen, Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism but rooted in the Buddha dharma. One person thought 3 ‘inputs’ was too much and timing needed to be ‘stricter’. Questions ranged from the relationship between Science and Buddhism and the Buddhist view on same sex relationships.  A response to the latter was that what mattered was whether anyone was harmed rather that sexual orientation.  In a later discussion it was suggested that this included ‘harm to oneself’ in that if a relationship became obsessive or possessive it would be as destructive as one of  any orientation.

There were several questions about Buddhism and Science. One suggestion was that there was connection but that Science didn’t go ‘far enough’. There is a lot of dialogue between the two. The Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute in Dharamsala has been working with leading neuro and clinical scientists for many years. Matthieu Ricard, a French monk in the Gelugpa Tibetan system examines the relationship between Quantum physics and Buddhism. (In India we have always accepted that the Buddha’s teachings on ‘emptiness’ was parallel to the nature of fine particles.)  Many people are interested in the relationship between Psychology and Buddhism and it is used in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Many meditation practitioners, like Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche are co-operating with mainstream medicine to examine the impact of meditation on the actual neural pathways of the brain. These are just examples that I, who am not a scientist and know one system better than others, know of so there is no lack of co-operation.

Several sessions addressed the question of how Buddhists engaged in the social context.  Keith Munning from Kalayana Mitra led a session on Buddhist chaplaincy to different statutory sectors. The Buddhist Group of Kendal discussed their work with the Fire and police service and the Venerable Piyatissa.  Rigpa led a session on Death and dying’ based on Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’.  Oxana led a session on ‘Feminism and Buddhism’.

Several people remarked on these so they clearly resonated with participants. Since then I have identified several other such groups – Angulimala and Upaya being two.  There are an endless number working in ‘charitable’ situations. Each centre could identify several so we maybe we could change the question to ask how we make the work that is happening more visible and initially to ourselves?

Underlying all this, the heartbeat of the Convention kept faith with themes from the Dharma.  A person who attended the session on the Bodhisattva path remarked, ‘It revealed the fundamental common ground but also the differences with my own tradition, and the struggle and challenge for us as practitioners of meditation to realise the high aspirations of the Buddhist path of spirituality .  There were some ‘touchy’ moments as with the meaning  of ‘Hinyana’ and ‘Mahayana’.  There were meditation sessions on Light, Vipasyanna, Samatha, Mindfulness and Zazen.

Some felt that 6 parallel sessions were too many to have. However, we have make choices all the time and as the conference grows we’ll have to cater for many needs.  There is also the question of logistics and how we would cater for 200+ people without so many parallel sessions. There was a comment about the need for ‘focus and incisiveness’ which sounds a bit forensic.  A suggestion was made that we should choose speakers because they are ‘known as good speakers, diverse and interesting’ as well as a chair to direct conversation.  A suggestion was made that we should ‘choose speakers who are known to be ‘good speakers, diverse and interesting’. But how will such a judgement be made? Are we talking of people who can make skilled, fluent presentations or about practitioners whose lives are embedded in the practice of Buddhism? For people who know the dharma well and for whom meditation is a lifestyle choice, or people who know ‘about’ Buddhism?  There are people who combine these elements and other deep practitioners for whom English is not a first language.  So here is a ‘tension’ – are we a Conference ‘about’ Buddhism – viz-an academic exercise or are we a conference about the Dharma/Dhamma? The two could be compatible but a Conference ‘about Buddhism’ that insists on a certain type of presenter and presentation would change the nature of the event. ‘Experts’ on Buddhism are not all Buddhists. Would we then lose the inclusiveness that people love? Many non Buddhists attended this year. An observation made by several was on the inclusiveness of the event. One Church has requested a presentation on Buddhism. So the jury’s out on this one and any feedback would be useful.

A useful and wise suggestion was that a good plan would be to have a strand running through horizontally rather than vertically, as we did this year, so that people could follow through on a particular interest if they wanted. So there would be sessions on meditation, work and theory running throughout the day. This would allow people to follow a particular strand throughout the day if they so wished. This may be how we plan next year.

Most people who gave feedback, verbal and written, liked the broad based approach that could include different themes. A few felt that specific themes would give more ‘focus’.

These are some of the suggestions

Feminism and Buddhism /Gender and Buddhism

Human Rights, Animal Rights and/or Environment

Buddhism and Western Psychotherapy

Meditation for health and wellbeing (was suggested for part of a convention. Both could be part of a Science and Buddhism theme)

Other themes were inclusive, for example:

Practice in Daily Life   or

Pitfalls on the Way or

The Ten Paramitas

Random Comments:

Wonderful to meet you and everyone else.  Wasn’t it a lovely atmosphere?  I felt no friction, just great compassion and brotherly/sisterly affection from all sides and all schools and vehicles of the sangha.

‘…  no need for a traditional conference structure: i.e., no Keynote speech – instead, we could divide the audience in groups, have a facilitated discussion within the groups, and then have a speaker from each group deliver the conclusions to the whole group…’

… thank you for presenting at the convention, and drawing it together so skilfully.

An intertradition practice day could be really simple. Perhaps in fact it could just be an hour or so’s practice before the convention starts?

…we need to be discussing the actual age we are living in with its unemployment, social distress, and financial collapse …

Some people said we had too many options but so what – don’t think we should reduce this especially if we have enough speakers with good ideas of what to speak about.

It was a real pleasure to have been asked to speak at the convention. It is great to see such a good event being offered to the Buddhist community (and wider than this too!). Well done building this up over the past few years.

… a bout of vertigo, which left me housebound for the day. I heard some very good comments about the convention, from several people who went, so well done and hope to see you soon

There was a mood of genuine trust and willingness to listen, try and share with others; a sense of promoting the Dhamma together, rather than one’s own particular ‘tradition’. The question was, ‘ How do we practice Buddhism today?’

The general message? Compassion and love (from non Buddhist attendees)


Some reflections:

Bearing in mind that the Convention was originally aimed at young people and to bring the lay and monastic community together, how can we continue to attract more young people to the event? (There were more this year but maybe not as many as in the early years.)

Should we have more than one event? It would be difficult to organise more than one large one. Could we manage a smaller one?

Should we/can we have self run ‘study groups’? For instance on ‘Feminism and Buddhism’? And/or the Hinayana/Theravada/Mahayana systems?  These could be hosted by different Centres and self-facilitated. Any takers?

Are there other tasks can the MBC facilitate? Can we use the Website to become a forum of much needed discussion? Advertise events?

Can we go forward to a simpler format ?

A last word … it has been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in the planning and implementation of this Convention. There were many challenges on the way. It took energy, time and reflection. Some of it was necessary and swathes of it were not – part of the ‘unknown territory’ we were exploring.  But on the 12th evening, as we began the final countdown, it became clear how very worthwhile it all was.  As the mood of the venue changed, the smell of the food wafted out, the rooms transformed and laughter rang out around the building; as last minute hitches were quickly resolved (or not – there was a bit of trouble shooting the next day), it was clear that this was a task well worth undertaking. It is also a task that needs non-sectarian support from the Buddhist community to continue.

Yours in the Dhamma/Dharma


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