Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Dhamma In Decline?

Recently the statistics for Singapore’s 2010 censes were released. For local Buddhists they make sad but perhaps not surprising reading. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010 the number of Buddhists dropped from 42.5% to 33.3%. A further breakdown of the figures also showed that the older a person was and the lower their education standard the more likely they are to be Buddhist. During the same period Christianity in the republic grew from 14.6% to 18.3% and the younger a person is and the better educated, the more likely they are to be Christian. The same was true for those who described themselves as having no religion. They grew from 14.8% to 17%. The trend is clear. Even having no religion is a better option that Buddhism. Sorry to say statistics from Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan show a similar trend. Buddhism is failing to speak to young, well-educated, modern people. A visit to a good number of temples and Buddhist societies will show the reasons for this trend; commercialized spirituality, absence of Dhamma education, lack of social engagement, poor leadership, etc. The almost complete absence of networking between Buddhists also doesn’t help either. ‘You do your thing. I’ll do mine’ is the norm for Buddhist groups, temples and organizations. In contrast to this Christian churches in Singapore (and everywhere else in Asia) are dynamic, socially engages, highly motivated and well-organized. Their outreach strategies are also highly effective, although some would describe them as intrusive and aggressive as well. Nonetheless, they bring in the converts. Trying to find out about Dhamma from the average Buddhist rarely works because they rarely know any. Temples and societies emphasise ritual activities rather than solid Dhamma education. During the 1980s the decline of Buddhism slowed somewhat probably because of the introduction of religious knowledge in schools. This meant that a generation of nominally Buddhist kids got from school what they never got from the temple – some basic knowledge of the Dhamma.
Of course the recent statistics could be read from another perspective. It is actually likely that there are more ‘real’ Buddhists (‘real’ in the sense that they are more than just nominal Buddhists) today than there were in 2000. It may be that nominal Buddhists are simply defining themselves differently, as non-religious or as Taoists. Whatever the case, there is no room for complacency, although I suspect that the complacency will persist.


Ben said...

I hope Buddhism dosen't get pigeon-holed into commercialized spirituality, preserving the essence of a personal spiritual experience is more important in the long run, at least until people see how plastic the new-age community orientated, charismatic approach mega churches are.

A born Christian, recently converted Buddhist
20 years old (Is that the "young and educated" group?)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Young and Educated Group Ben, thanks for the feedback.

Branko said...

Dear Bhante, yes statistics are gloomy and Buddhist should cnsider it seriously. But while reading your text I was also thinking that, like everywhere, there is in Singapore also a generational divide: sons and daughters need something to distinguish themselves and don't want the religion of their parents. In the West it is the same: some young people take all kind of eastern religions to distance themselves from the generations of their parents.

Also, there is a novelty factor. Young people are more inclined to accept something new and Christianity if something new for them. And having adopted this new, exciting, so promising belief, it's no surprise they are so enthusiastic and diligent in propagating it. Something similar to the way we young (or not so young) Europeans propagate Buddhism over here :)

And as far as I am concerned, I would be perfectly OK if Christianity and Buddhism simple switch their realm of existence between Asia and West :))

Jeffrey Kotyk said...

Bhante, I think this same phenomenon is occurring across Asia as youth drift away from traditional lifestyles towards western consumerism and with that either Christianity or secularism. In Japan both Shinto and Buddhism play minimal roles in life now. You might take your kid to the shrine on the appointed years, but it amounts to paying a bit of cash for some token and an enjoyable family outing. Buddhism is just for funerals and maintaining pretty tourist attractions.

My friends across Asia, even those who come from Buddhist families, really don't take much interest in spirituality. Taiwan's Foguangshan has an active youth organization, but I suspect a lot of people are in it because their parents are devotees.

My friend, who is a Chinese monk from Singapore, has lamented that Chinese monasteries are especially kind in handling novices because they don't want to lose them. In his day a novice was treated without any consideration and they had to earn their robes through toiling and serving a master. Now they get treated quite nicely.

What can be done? I almost think having westerners in robes somehow might have a positive effect what with the tendency to copy whatever the west does.

yuri said...

Dear SD, my Russian Buddhist friend worked in South Korea a few years ago. When he came back he was sad that Buddhism was losing ground to Christianity there. I told him that he made Buddhism another fetter which caused his sadness. We are not football fans to worry about whose team wins the game. If I remain a single person on earth who is following Buddha's teaching I will still remain endlessly grateful to Buddha. Many seem to be worried about the social status and political influence of Buddhist religion but Buddha taught us not so much to become good citizens but liberate ourselves and help others to liberate themselves from all the fetters of this world. And Buddha was very realistic about impossibility of mass liberation (Dhammapada, 85). What is important is not the number of those who call themselves Buddhists, but enlightened teachers and able and diligent students, whose minds become progressively free from all conditioning, thanks to study and practice of Dhamma. Head-counting is for politics, not for spiritual growth.

Branko said...

Dear Yuri, the only problem I see with your argumentation is that if there is really only one person left who knows and follows the Dhamma, than we wouldn't even hear of it, not speak about being able to follow it. Therefore, I assume, the number matters. And we all should contribute in spreading Dhamma, not sitting back in selfcontentment by the fact that we are the winners of the best prize and not caring for others.

yuri said...

Well, dear DJ Every Day, it is a trick to present just a hypothetical probability (or improbability:) as my main argument. Looks like you missed my point. I wrote not only about reaching personal liberation but also helping others to achieve it. We should do what we can! But not dance in ecstasy if the number of Buddhists is growing, or feel worried and dejected if it diminishes. We simply should do our best out of metta and karuna dealing with concrete people and not numbers. And not just by reading and discussing scriptures or using various tricks in debates but trying to perfect in our own lives all 8 aspects of the 8-fold Path and explain to others why and how to do it! One of the main problems of the present day Buddhism in not numbers but quality. For example the lack of truly qualified teachers. Even best teachers say sometimes what could have made Buddha frown. I communicated with a Bhikkhu, an enthusiast of propagating Tipitaka who said that according to Dhamma recent devastating tornados in the US were caused by lack of "sila" among Americans... And how many students discuss this question of "utmost importance" - how many deva-worlds there are in the Universe...

Ben said...

Agreed. @ above poster

Ananda See施性国 said...

In the Buddha Mandala Society (BDMS),On every Friday Sutta Discussion, before the discussion start, we will do the following invocation :
"With reverence for the Buddha's words and attentiveness of mind, we will strive to know the Dhamma throughly.

With diligence and care and so we can attain what the Buddha attained, we will strive to practice the Dhamma fully.

With love in our hearts and because truth is the greatest gift, we will share the Dhamma generously with others. "

Hence, we really have to share the Dhamma gererousy with others.

yuri said...

Every morning I say a few words to tune me up to the new day: "Let the whole day today be my day of joy and peace. Let me radiate that joy, peace and kind understanding on all those who I may meet, talk to, or just think about". Sharing Dhamma is fine. But to share something we must have it. To share joy and peace we must have them. To share Dhamma we must have it not just in our intellect or memory but in our whole being. It is not about exalted thoughts and feelings regarding Buddha and suttas. It is what we feel and think, how we behave, what and how we say, it is about the way we treat people - about kindness, love and compassion. In Christianity people are told that they must open their hearts to God, and the Lord will take care of them and their lives. He will bestow his love and kindness on them. In Buddhism we - humans - should care about each other, we are to treat people with loving kindness and compassion. Can we do it forcefully? No need - if we reach deep levels of peace in our practice of meditation and mindfulness we will feel its natural flow in our hearts and minds.

CFynn said...

These figures are interesting. By comparison, in the USA a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall.

About 75% of Buddhists in America have an income over US$30,000/- and 22% have an annual income of over US$ 100,000/- signifigantly higher than the national average (69% and 18%).

Buddhism in the U.S. is also primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. Only one-in-three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three-in-four U.S. Buddhists say they are converts to Buddhism.


So Buddhism can speak to young, well-educated, modern people - at least in America.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear CFynn,thanks for those interesting figures. The demographics for Buddhism in Australia, my home country, are very similar. When I said Buddhism is failing to speak to young, well-educated people I meant of course ‘traditional Buddhism’, Buddhism as it has evolved in Asia.

toh said...

Quantity should not be the bench mark nor should it be our priority. Preaching and trying to convert others to acheive the statistical numbers does not reflect well. "To explain if an explanation is sought".Our approach may be slow but surely , those who realises that our "theme" is the Truth - the quality of the small numbers count well.3000yrs ago ... more years ahead.

HM said...

I grew up in Singapore and in the last 30 years all the "Buddhism" I've seen in my limited experience, from my own family,community and mass media, have been about burning joss sticks in front of "idols" to pray for prosperity, flower baths for good luck and the likes. There was no dialogue, no deep understanding of anything. Perhaps the language used for teaching the dhamma was predominantly chinese which was a much harder language to master for most local kids like me then, hence making it inaccessible. I think all that quickly turns one to Christianity and the likes. That was my story anyway. So having resources like your blog and your kind self teaching in English, is wonderful in Singapore for nurturing a Buddhist wisdom and a questioning mind.

HM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caldorian said...

I could imagine that the way Buddhism came to the West (i.e., through scholars mainly) has had a big influence on the trends in the Western demographics. Buddhism is generally conveyed as a "rational" religion here (at least in Germany), mostly atheistic and supported by philosophical reasoning and scientific evidence. It has had a very big impact on modern psychotherapy and Western teachers often use psychological terminology in their Dhamma talks. It addresses the existential suffering that seems to have inflicted our modern secular societies. The Buddha-Dhamma is both intellectually stimulating as well as therapeutical. As such, maybe it speaks more strongly to people with above-average education and associated higher income. (Ignoring the fact, that well-off people have more time for spiritual praxis.)

On the other hand, I have often observed that some Western Buddhists feel conflicted when they realise that they would have to give up many of their comforts and attachments, even become nuns and monks themselves, if they really wanted to make spiritual progress. They read the Pali Canon and see that taking the Dhamma seriously involves more than meditating from time to time. In one weekend seminar that I attended, a monk from Sri Lanka pointed out that the laypeople in the West shouldn't put too much pressure on themselves and start with small things like practicing Dana or Metta. And that we shouldn't forget that the suttas were mainly written for the monks.

I wonder whether this attitude is good in small doses but, if unchecked, can lead to the disconnect between laity and monks that seems to plague modern Asian Buddhism?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Toh,
Numbers should certainly not be used as a benchmark. But they can be an indicator of what it happening, and in this case they indicate a serious problem.

Dear HM,
Your experience is limbed because there are groups and societies that do have sound Dhamma teaching. But as you point out and as the recent figures do indicate, there are not enough.

Dear Caldorian,
An interesting observation. I’m not sure the attitude you point out is that common although it is a problem. I always point out that anything worthwhile takes time and often a bit of sacrifice. Let your critical faculties activate when you here ‘It’s quick!’ ‘It’s easy!’ ‘All you have to do is...’

Ken and Visakha said...

We have no idea about the real numbers of Buddhists in Sri Lanka but the end of this month a new center, to be called “Sanatha Suwaya”, is breaking ground adjacent to Peradeniya University -- it will be dedicated to wholesome practice and while the spiritual advisor, Ven. Sujata, is Sinhalese, his community in the US is made up entirely of Americans.

Dharma Apprentice said...

Can I ask what can we learn from the successful propagation of the Dhamma in the west and how can we replicate the success in Singapore and in Asia? After all, we are becoming more westernise.

One thing we can do is to have more trained Buddhist teachers. Teachers who knows the Dhamma but are also trained in public speaking and knows how to connect with the audience. I don't think many centers have systematic ways of training Dhamma speakers.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Dharma Apprentice,
I think your question is an interesting one. The reality is that the Dhamma has not really been vigorously ‘propagated’ in the West, other than by literature. Buddhist teachers and evangelists are not going around knocking on doors or using each and every opportunity to talk about the Dhamma. For the most part Western Buddhists have converted themselves. The outstanding teachers who teach today generally don’t hold mass rallies, etc. They make themselves available and people come by themselves to hear them. It’s the same in India. The millions who have become Buddhists in the last 50 years have received almost no help from traditional Buddhist countries. For the most part they have converted themselves.
Amongst the main reasons drawing Westerners to the Dhamma are (1) a dissatisfaction with conventional religion, (2) an intellectual curiosity about and attraction to the Dhamma, and (3) the wide availability of good literature on Dhamma. Amongst the main reasons for the growth of Christianity and secularity in Singapore are ‘a dissatisfaction with conventional religion’ i.e. Buddhism. Among the reasons for the decline in Buddhism in Singapore are a lack of intellectual curiosity about and attraction to the Dhamma which means that although quite good Dhamma literature is available it does not have the effect it could otherwise have. There are groups and societies who are diligently promoting the Dhamma, but let’s face it, most do little beyond ritual activities. Let’s all of us who care about the Dhamma do all we can to support those who illuminate the Dhamma.

Soe am i said...

Dear Bhante, I think in Singapore, as a young nation and fledgling society, even though we have taken off the industrial coats that have propelled us into a competitive economic stage in the 90's, the culture of working harder to earn more money is still very much influencing most of our lives.

So we have a generation of blue collar minded taking on white collar jobs, working on average 72 hour weeks. The prosperity gospel of the charismatic mega-churches might be just the "nitro" needed to boost their money making race. So the intellectual curiosity of most young adults lie in the how to make more money, faster and supposedly in this case, with divine guarantee. Its all very superficial when you step back to think, but imagine seeing so many thousands in a congregation sincerely believing/ wanting to believe, what they have found is the true (not to mention rich) way to salvation, it's no wonder most would be tempted. Unless of course you happen to go in well prepared with an intellectual curiosity for how they do it.)

Dharma Apprentice said...

HI Bhante,

That is interesting. But I suppose those who take active interest to explore different religious believes and then pick one are few in numbers, be it in the east or west.

Interesting that the number of Singaporeans who do not have any religion grew at almost the same rate as Chrisitanity. All of which is without the help of any organised movement. (Or should I say, its with the help of comsumerism and commercialism)

Personally I feel that Buddhism has not been express in a way that most Singaporeans can easily relate to. - Too quick are we to jump into teachings like 4 Noble Truths, non-self, dependent origination (which is fundamental Buddhism, but not basic Buddhism). While most SIngaporeans, first of all, wants to live a more meaningful live.

gg said...

Dear Bhante
My situation may offer a different perspective to the discussion. Also, I am trying to seek answers to my plight as well.
My family is Christian but I embraced Buddhism and meditation when I became a young adult. I am in a same sex relationship, more than a decade and current, and therefore I have no kids. My partner is now working overseas and I began to feel depressed and lonely. I have felt loneliness before but this time, I am on my own a lot more.
Being gay, I am apprehensive of Christian churches and have felt the local buddhist monastery in Perth like a second home to me. I often attend the Friday meditaion, Saturday meditation, and occasional Sutta classes whenever it is given on certain Sundays. I listen to the Dhamma talk and Sutta classes online as well.
I don’t know anybody personally at the Buddhist centre. Sure, there are families plenty but they stick to themselves. There was even a point in time when I felt alienated because they welcome local Australians more warmly than me, a Singaporean implant, and some of these people are not Australians themselves. I never realize how I actually feel till I am writing this now.
I have felt such desperation of loneliness. Meditation is a living practice for me and I realize the dread of waking up to silence in the morning. I tried to visualize the walls torn down bridging me to the dwellers in the houses around me, which helps a little. Being a sexual minority, I don’t trust people generally, also the product of passing years.
I am now contemplating going back to church, with the chance that I may be shamed or ostracized for being gay. But I am desperately lonely. I am all by myself in Perth, my family is in Singapore. I am seeking fellowship and feel that under the moral wings of the Church , I may be able to trust and rely on the support, solace and company of those church-goers, strangers yet. I am persuaded and comforted by the thought of a pastor coming to my aid should I need help. I have acquaintances but they won’t come, and I don’t have some of their phone numbers. It is hard to find friends as one get older. I remember a passage from the Bible about a woman saying that even dogs deserve scraps from the table, and realize I am willing to have scraps at this stage.
I am just reflecting on the time spent at the monastery watching talks after talks, committee president after president. I am beginning to feel that it is all about them, and I am now drowning in loneliness. I had an epiphany when I realize that even Ajahn Brahm has a community of monks where he lives, and the adulations of people at the monastery, he is not alone.
I hope my plight can throw light to the dwindling number of Buddhists. In the end, who is going to really care for people like me when thoughts of loving kindness can only go so far? Should my partner dies, I will have to go back home. At least I have my cousins and their kids there but can I count on the monastery for pastoral care?

Tazzie said...

Hi GG, I am sorry that you are feeling lonely and isolated and that the Buddhist mainstream has been unhelpful for you. I am, however not surprised. I am a western convert to Buddhism for some 25 years, so I have been able to watch how Buddhism has grown in Australia during this time. I should say that I have found The Buddha’s teachings inspiring and helpful for my spiritual journey and that I have been lucky to find supportive and helpful teachers and friends too. Sadly however I would say that I am more of an exception rather than the norm. My feeling is that the western style of Buddhism so far has been, rather insular, complacent and inward looking. Theravada Buddhism especially so. Notwithstanding all the glittering Temples, Monasteries and retreat centres etc . Buddhist centres such as those you mentioned tend to operate more like sports clubs. You get to belong to an organization that is largely about supporting a team of
(Monastics) not a bad thing in and of itself, but if that’s the clubs only function then you get a disenfranchised sub group of lay people such as yourself who remain unnoticed and eventually, fall by the wayside. Now for any other club this may be ok, but for a Society entrusted with nurturing the liberating universal message of the compassion of Buddha, this is truly unbalanced. I can put this another way, now that I think of it. Post world war two western societies have grown in great wealth and material Happiness but this has come at the cost of increased social isolation family breakdown and so on.
In my experience Buddhism’s Journey to the west so far has not shown itself to be much of a refuge for those such as yourself, and believe me there are many whose stories are similar to yours. Unlike you they went away quietly and were left to their fate. The good news is that there are some who have been vigilant and have moved away from this organized and wholly Monastic centred form of Buddhism and have sought to find refuge outside of these organizations in smaller, more welcoming
and less vertically integrated groups. We don’t necessarily believe that its only a monastic that can truly be a worthy practitioner of The Dharma and that support for one another as wel l as for Monastics may be the real way forward for Buddhism in Western countries. A kind of second wave of Western Buddhism if you like. I hope that we can offer you at least some helpful Buddhist options to assist you through your current difficulties. GG stay tuned and thanks for your posting.
“Try to live harmlessly , try to increase the happiness of the world and keep your mind as pure as a shining diamond.” This is the saying of all The Buddhas.

gg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gg said...

thank you for your kind words. They made me feel better.

Anandajoti said...

Dear GG,

Bhante Dhammika’s computer is not working so he has asked me to post his comments to you

Thanks for your interesting although rather sad story. I am fairly sure your situation is not unique. I have often joked that a person’s first visit to a Buddhist society or group is a bit like going into a refrigerator – people who already know each other are clustered around talking to each other, others sit in meditation, eyes closed and with stern expressions on their faces – and the newcomer is left to themselves. They don’t make an effort to welcome you or get to know you; you have to make the effort to know them. I have dealt with this issue at Unfortunately, this is one of several important person-to-person matters that we Buddhists are far behind. A list of 6985 are available on request. Some years ago I read the findings of a survey done by a large church here in Singapore. When asked why, after you visited the church you came again, 78% of people said because they received a warm welcome.

Concerning your particular situation I might make several suggestions. Normally making friendships and building relationships is a two-way thing. It requires one party making the effort to reach out and the other party the effort to respond. If you find people at the group you attend a bit self-absorbed (a common Buddhist syndrome) then it may require you making an extra effort to reach out to them. Perhaps being gay has made you overly cautious and withdrawn (a common gay syndrome) and this holds you back. If this is so, think of strategies to gradually modify this habit. Again, consider the meditation you are doing. Whatever it is, I do think that the Recollection on One’s Virtue and particularly Metta Bhavana are extremely helpful in enlarging the heart and building a self-directed and other-directed warmth. Too much vipassana without the warm glow metta sometimes leads to a gloominess that Theravadins mistake for ‘detachment’. Finally, you might contemplate this. Closeness to a partner is good - it enlivens, invigorates, and strengthens the heart muscles. But being dependant on a partner (one’s well-being and happiness are due ‘entirely’ to them) is not. One should be able to love and cherish someone, enjoy the happiness this gives, while still having the emotional resources to survive their absence. This way you can love without fear. And one last thing. Consider writing to your Buddhist group explaining (politely and fully) your reception there. They might be unaware of how new-comers feel and want to do something about it. And if you think I can help in any way please feel free to contact me.

gg said...

Thank u bhante for your kind words.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear GG,
A group of Buddhists in Perth have contacted me offering to welcome you. If you’re interested contact me on pitijoy@yahoo.nom and I’ll give you their contact number.

gg said...

Thank you Bhante.

Adam said...

Bugs Tan's response to the article written by Ven Dhammika "The Dhamma in Decline"

Anonymous said...

Dear Shravasti Dhammika, thanks for the article. From my limited vision and point of view, I think Buddhist community are working as intended, there are a lot of people pending of the opportunity to get closer to teachings and meditation, people that just need a little push to dedicate his life to practice and spread the teachings to all those who are thirsty of Dharma. In my case I live in Cuba and it have been very difficult to me to find guidance, and I know I'm not the only one that want to be part of the Sangha but several people. I wish I could travel to any place in order to learn and take refuge in the Three Jewels but I can't from now because of the political and economical issues of my country. So that's the point I think: to get to the right people not to become more commercial and proselytizing as many churches and religious organizations use to do...

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Alejendro,
Thanks for your message. I hope some day you are able to travel or that Buddhist teachers can travel to Cuba. In the meantime, if you click the Good Question Good Answer picture on the right side of my blog you will be able to find this book in Spanish. This might be of use to your non-English speaking friends. And if you are able to receive books from other countries and you send me your address I’ll gladly post you some books.

Walter said...

I find much of what Yuri said made sense. To be a "real Buddhist" is difficult, because it is a matter of understanding. To be a Christian, one needs only "faith".

Anonymous said...

Dear Shravasti Dhammika, thanks a lot, I´m very grateful for your response, it encourage me to be patient. I hope some day to be part of the Sangha, surely I will. I´m working on that, meantime I´ll try to be worthy of it. No doubt the books will be helpful to us. If it isn´t complicated to you, send it to:

-- "Calle La Cruz No. 6 e/ Independencia y Céspedes, Santa Clara, Villa Clara, Cuba, CP:50100" --

My full name is Alejandro Ordetx Glez. Thanks again.

May Rulers of the World Be Righteous said...

Buddhism Inc. is flourishing everyhwere especially in major affluent cities where there are more people with disposible income to give away as donations for merit-making. Also Buddhist-Tourism is also on the rise as millions of dollars are poured into erecting new temples or refurbishing historical Buddhist sites for revenue dollars from Tourists around the world. On the surface, Buddhism seemed to be flourishing all over but how many of these Buddhist followers do learn and really understand what the Buddhs did really teach?

Anonymous said...

Greeting Bhante,
I totally agree with your opinion. I am from Indonesia, in Indonesia everyone must have a religion. Since my parents are Buddhists so I'm also a Buddhist. However, my parents and I really did know nothing about Dhamma. I knew Buddhism 4 years ago, when I went to Yogya for college. Fortunately, in Yogya there is a youth Buddhist community which always try to introduce Dhamma to new students.

That's why I also agree with you when you described Dhamma as a light switch [in Vihara Karangdjati few weeks ago]. It's a pleasure to meet and hear you in person. :) thanks a lot for your answers.

IMO, we must think ourselves not only as one who wants to be free from hatred, ignorance and greed , but also as one who is a part of a society. Monastery should not only become a place for learning Dhamma and meditating, it should become a place for people to build relationships with other people. People who have same goal, Nibbana. So, we can build the same bond just like Christians.

In Indonesia, usually there are some conflicts in the monastery's organization itself. that's why there are a lot of monasteries here. Every time a conflict arises, at the end there'll be a new monastery built. This is also a weakness. The Lord Buddha told us to let the ego go, but what we do is let the ego act. :(