Theme: ‘Buddhism Today: relevance and responding to the Crises of our times
MBC 2014 took place, as usual on the second Saturday of October – ie Saturday 11th, at St. Peter’s Chaplaincy, Oxford Road. As always, our thanks go to Rev. Terry Biddington and his team who made the Venue available to us.
The theme was decided from feedback received over the years, discussion with the Venerable Piyatissa and among ourselves – ie – the MBC Planning group.
As always, the programme develops through dialogue with people who respond and/or are invited to make an input. Over the years we have become familiar with areas of work that some Centres and presenters are interested in. But there is enough difference and variety to keep us lively and on our toes! Last minute withdrawals and additions make programme planning an open-ended process almost to the day before.
The day started with a short ceremony in the Foyer. We created a small shrine and began with chanting from different schools of Buddhism and in several different languages – Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan and English – a moving and unifying start. One person came to me and said, ‘that’s it Jaya. This is what I came for…’.
Responding to suggestions, we decided that instead of short ‘keynote’ inputs we would have discussion groups before lunch. So after a short ‘setting the scene’ session in the Auditorium, we broke into three discussion sessions – ‘Buddhism in Action’, ‘Tzu Chi: Buddhism as Compassion in Action’, and ‘Gender and Buddhism’. This was followed by lunch after which the programme continued in the normal pattern – ie – themed strands that could be followed through the day – Practice, Dharma/Dhamma topics, Buddhist based activity and human rights. People could choose to follow a strand through the day or vary their choices. (1)
As I could not split myself into 5 to attend each sessions (which I sometimes wish I could!) the report is a mixture of hearsay, feed-back and attendance.
‘Buddhism in Action’, explored what was happening in the national, European and Global context. (2) It addressed different levels of engagement – the national, European and International. The point was made that there are over 250,000 Buddhists in the UK but they seem not to be ‘connecting’ with their social and political power to ‘create change’. A similar point was made in the session, ‘Has Buddhism lost it’s radical edge?’(3) This could stem from the notion that ‘politics’ is somehow beneath or outside the Buddhist framework. Others say that they take it into their personal work. (4)
Tzu Chi ‘spoke on their activities in the UK’. Here is a comment about this session, ‘a most illuminating exploration of Engaged Buddhism with clear reference to contemporary examples of how Buddhist concepts and ideas relate. The discussion explored how the principle of rebirth and karma relates to repentance and service.’ Tzu Chi works on several fronts in Manchester – with women, with refugees and does environmental work in Cheetham.’ (5)
The third discussion was ‘Gender and Buddhism’(6). The session was concerned more with the ‘how’ questions rather than ‘if’– no one questions the notion that women are capable of reaching Enlightenment. We were concerned, among other things’, on gender disparity in general, epitomised by the loss of full ordination for nuns. The accusation has been made that this was a case of ‘male book-keeping’. Patriarchy holds power. There is neither precedence nor directive from the Buddha. What had/was being done about it, and how the lineage of Bhikunis could be restored were concerns. (7) Examples were given of people who had taken matters into their own hands – Ajahn Brahm in Australia who has ordained nuns as have Patriarchs in various Zen traditions. The case of Shih Chao Hwei of Taiwan who tore up the garudharmas was identified. Others spoke of nuns in the FGS, Tzu Chi (founded by the nun, Master Chen Yen), Lama Shenpen in Hookham. A visit is suggested. Tibetan Buddhism has women lamas but doctrinal positions as well as attitude towards nuns and women vary within and between lineages. ‘Equality’ needs to be the norm not a ‘gift’ of a patriarchal hierarchy. So there is some way to go!
‘Maple Leaves in Autumn’, presented an inspiring project undertaken by a Monastery in Fukushima after the Tsunami which had had a massive impact on the psyche of the people. The abbot and monks collected contaminated soil in large plastic bags; transported and stored this monastery grounds. Sunflowers were planted to help transform the soil and remove radioactivity. (A symbol of transformation and hope to 2 million people; it creates a ripple effect outwards) (8); a session by the Sale Buddhist Centre – ‘This was a most thoughtful, sensitive and articulate exploration of four key aspects of Buddhist belief and practice;’ Stonewater Zen ‘explored perspectives on contemporary issues and raised the question (which arose throughout the day) of ways to respond to what can appear to be overwhelming events in the world…’. Jeremy filled in at the last minute for Alan Smith of Soto Zen who was unwell. FGS, SGI, the Chaplaincy and Faith and Fire updated us on their work and led practice sessions.
There were two later discussion sessions. ‘Mindfulness in the NHS’ was well attended and explored, ‘the difficulties as well as delights of retaining the authenticity of mindfulness within a secular organization that is driven by targets and outcomes. Opinion ranged from a sense of ‘anything is better than nothing’, to concern that mindfulness was being stripped of its ethical mooring. (9) ‘Buddhism in the West was led by panellists. (I was handed notes from this session and write from these). The general view seems to have been that while aspects of Buddhist expression needed to change, the core elements should be retained. Some points raised questions in my own mind – eg – the dichotomy between ‘science and the spiritual’, generalisations about ‘gender equality’, ‘taking Buddhism back to the East’ where the Dharma has ‘stagnated’. I would suggest caution in these assumptions which may be views from the best intentioned and influential of teachers from the East, or from Western practitioners who travel there. There is a difference in how Buddhism is practiced in countries where it is established. This doesn’t mean it is ‘stagnating’. We may have lessons to learn from this – the value and need for Dana; respect for symbols of the Buddha. Also what Western people ‘do’ will be judged within a post-colonial discourse. ‘Working together’, is a less problematic notion. Personally, what I find alarming and painful is the growth of militancy within the monastic community in some ‘traditional’ countries. Is this not something we need to be aware of? What could be our response? Are there lessons we can usefully learn? It will be worth writing this session up as it seems to be topic to which we will return over the years – so watch this space and send us your thoughts/notes.
Feedback from the Convention was generally good. These are some comments, ‘ An inspirational event’. An event for the good ‘of many sentient beings’. ‘Discussion and thoughtfulness…’ One comment regretted the loss of the ‘inspirational’ input at the start of the day’. This is something that we will need to re-consider. Others felt that there were not enough ‘practice sessions’ (however, having looked at the Programme, I think this must be a matter of personal choice); a suggestion that the sessions were ‘too wordy’. Buddhist action needs to be embedded in Dharma/Dhamma. (Again, this could have been a matter of specific presentations but also something we need to remind would be presenters.) Several people remarked that though there was interaction on one level, people who came in groups tended to remain in their group but we could all benefit from learning about each others practices and work. One person was impressed by how the topics fitted neatly with each other and the theme though each was a whole and had been developed separately. Interesting…
Practice and Dharma sessions will underpin future Conventions. This is, after all a Buddhist Convention, not a Convention about Buddhism.
Themes that seem likely to continue are ‘Buddhism in the West’. This has come up over the year and comes up in different sessions. Others could be Gender/human Rights and Buddhism; Buddhism and social action’. ‘Obstacles to practice and possible remedies’; has been requested. Hearing from others would help us develop what we do in the future.
The Convention planning group started out with just 6 people – a small number for an initiative that is growing in size as well as complexity. Later in the year we were joined by a cohort of energetic friends– all of whom have indicated that they want to remain in the planning group. This will indeed be a boost to planning. Sharing responsibilities will facilitate the organisation of the event. We are happy to have ideas from the attendees whether or not they want to participate in meetings. It’s good to feel that we are planning with a group of people who are interested in what is happening in the MBC.
Apart from personal commitment, a Convention of this size and range requires resources. The Convention started on a ‘dana’ (donation) basis. We have decided not to indicate even a ‘suggested donation’. We take seriously the notion of giving as an opportunity to give, for all. If people attending the Convention give generously, we cover our costs, offer our host a decent share and have a small ‘roll over’ for the next event. So we urge you to reflect on whether you want the MBC to continue. Perhaps as part of the discussion on ‘Buddhism in the West’, we can reflect on the place of ‘generosity/dana’ as a core Buddhist principle.
Several ‘older’ supporters and even Centres are not as visible as they used to be. On the other hand, certain Centres that have not attended or didn’t particularly support the MBC attend in greater numbers. Smaller centres are more involved in the planning group. There are more people from some ‘traditional’ Buddhist countries. There are quite a number of younger faces but fewer students. More people from different ‘faith’ systems are attending. It is interesting that we seem to have many new attendees at successive Conventions.
My Centre is in Scotland and I practice in several different centres and feel ‘at home’ and welcomed. Because I coordinate the MBC, develop the Programme, do some personal liaison and contact and meet with individuals from different centres who are interested and concerned with the development on the Dharma/Dhamma in the West, I hear and engage in conversation to try and understand what is happening and what people and centres think. This is always a privilege, interesting, sometimes a bit disheartening. Here in the west we are privileged with a huge range of different lineages and schools of Buddhist thought. The core teachings have to be the same but approaches and attitudes can be strikingly different. There are also long memories that have created dissent and suspicions about motivations among individuals as well as Centres. Because the style of an individual or group is outgoing does not mean that s/he or it is trying to ‘take over’ or dominate the Buddhist scene. It may be just enthusiasm for the Dharma. Other Centres maybe more introverted and ‘outreach’ is more about bringing people into Centres than becoming involved in ‘intra-Buddhist’, inter-faith’ or social dialogue. I’m sure there is a need for different approaches but not a need for distrust. My hope for the next decade of the MBC is that while we continue to strengthen our own Centres, we will find some time to support the MBC or other networks trying to build a cohesive and trustful Dharma/Dhamma in the service of society and humanity as a whole.
The Convention serves different. It may be social, to meet other groups or to learn. For me, it constructs a Mandala, a sacred space, within which to explore meaning and exchange ideas of service, healing, love, compassion, peace, identifying what is already being done; what else could/needs to be done; provides space to investigate our own inner space, ability and commitment and re-commit to these aims.
- We will post presentations and discussion session notes on the website over the year.
- Notes will be posted
- Presentation will be posted.
- The Buddha may not have been overtly ‘political’ but he made political interventions and gave advice when it was sought. His work and teaching had social and political implication stemming from the injunction that these engagements should be rooted in compassion.
- The MBC is grateful to Tzu Chi for their generous donation (as in other years.)
- Will be a post.
- Some men say that discussions on Gender are a ‘turn-off’. Here are a couple of sites and books: Bhikkuni Websites: Sakhyadita, Alliance of Bhikkunis. Books: Religion and Society; on our own: An Agenda for the 21st Century; Buddhist Women and Social Justice – Ideals, Challenges and Achievements. We can also explore the Buddha’s own teachings.
- Will be a post.
- Maybe a post. There will also be an MBC event on this topic