Manchester hosts over 25 Buddhist ‘schools’ or systems of thought and practice. These include Theravada from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, Chan, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism of all four lineages, Triratna that aims to create an interface between different schools and the SGI that is non-monastic and whose practice is based entirely on the Lotus Sutra.
Given this diversity and wealth of Buddhist thinking, the creation of a Forum to bring these together was inevitable. This was the Manchester Buddhist Convention (MBC). Founded nine years ago, it is an annual event where Buddhists of different systems, the monastic and lay communities, meet to share learning and practice.
The early events focused on providing ‘taster sessions’ and introductions to the different schools. A few years ago we felt it was time to move on from this format and explore wider issues and deeper meanings.
Using the strapline ‘One Root Many Branches’, we began to explore different elements of, for example, Compassion as understood in Buddhism; of Bodhicitta and the Bodhisattva path; of what we meant by ‘mind’; of subjectivity, personal investigation, science and the scientific method. For instance – Buddhism is intensely investigative. This personal investigation uses personal experience as well as other peoples’ personal investigation. It has been argued that it is, evidence based but not necessarily within the Western framework. Does this make it less valid? We continue to explore Buddhist meditation and pain relief. Buddhism gives people strength in their own life and the work they undertake. But increasingly, we aim to address the question of how Buddhists locate ourselves in a world facing multiple crises.
The day is designed to allow people to follow a ‘strand’ throughout the day if they so wish or to ‘mix and match’. They can either choose to attend all practice sessions (from different systems), or Dharma topics, or themes (for example, these could be, ‘Buddhist action in the world’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘Gender’. There are also two discussion sessions that we select through feedback or an assessment of the year before.
This year’s theme was, ‘Buddhism Today: Relevance and Revival
Responding to the challenges we face.
Workshops examined the local, European and global context of Buddhism and the work of ‘intra’ Buddhist organisations like the chaplaincy services and Angulimala. Other workshops posed the question of whether Buddhism had lost its radical edge – relevant in a theme that aimed to address ‘relevance and renewal’. Presenters discussed the use and associated difficulties of ‘mindfulness’ in professional contexts like the NHS. However, such training may be used more creatively in more personalised, professional contexts like the Fire services. (Faith and Fire – a creative partnership between the Fire Services and Buddhists.) One workshop examined the poignant initiative taken by monks in Fukushima who collected contaminated soil from the reactor, transferred it to the monastery and surrounded it with sunflowers. These seemed to absorb the contamination safely. ‘Gender and Buddhism’ asked why full ordination of women was uncommon. If as, many women scholars argue, this was not what the Buddha taught (it is not based on precedence, as the Buddha’s instructions were, but loss of ‘lineage’. So we ask, ‘who was in control of holding the lineage’. Many have said simply – ‘It is andro-centric book-keeping.’) There were examples of people who had simply decided to ignore the ‘rules’ and inspiring women teachers.
MBC participants have suggested that Buddhists need to be more visible in social contexts but I feel we could challenge the notion that Buddhists are not active or responsive to the problems in the world. There are endless numbers of ‘projects’, trusts and processes that Buddhists have founded and/or are involved in. So we, ourselves, seem to have swallowed the notion that we are not active. What is true, and has also been raised, is that there are few intra-Buddhist Projects. I also think, as do others, that we are not very good at meeting each other and can be mistrustful. We do not all approach the world in the same way. Some schools are proactive. Some more reserved. I have seen and heard suspicion between these approaches. Enthusiasm for the Dhamma/Dharma is perceived as an intention to ‘take over’. Terminology is sometimes contentious. Monoculturality was fleetingly mentioned in one session. These may not be an issue in countries where the Dhamma/Dharma is firmly embedded or where there is just one system present.
The MBC is an ‘inter’ and ‘intra’ Buddhist event that aims to accommodate all Buddhists who wish to make a presentation. In the course of a day, the event cannot and does not aim to go into in depth investigation of Buddhist teachings but offers a spectrum of significant topics. It has moved on from introductory sessions to raise and address some doctrinal and issue-based themes in ways that are not dogmatic but discursive and participative. It has been suggested that the MBC should organise other smaller events over the year so we will have an annual event as well as a few smaller ones. Some centres have already interested in hosting an MBC event. The MBC is organised on a zero budget with a handful of volunteers, no established venue and aims to exist on a donation basis (not well established in the West), so the continuation of the events will be contingent on donation and volunteer support.
At the MBC, as we learn more about each other’s specific systems we begin to explore teachings outside the confines of our own Schools and explore what we share and where we differ. I would like to think that what is happening is that instead of avoiding different practices as a threat, we are becoming confident enough to see the reality of what we often like to quote – ie – that the Buddha recognised the needs of different temperaments and so preached a huge amount of methods and paths. These cannot compete but complement each other and are intended to suit the needs of all who turn to Buddhism. The MBC offers an opportunity for us to come together as Buddhists. For me this is the single most important service that the MBC offers. The Dhamma/Dharma has taken wing and arrived in the West. This is our true inheritance. It is Ekayana – One Dhamma/Dharma.
Manchester Buddhist Convention. 2014
First published in the Middle Way Vol 89, No. 3