Buddhism is my religion and has been for nearly 43 years. I consider the Buddha to have been the greatest mind in human history. I believe that the Dhamma is the closest humanity has come to ethical and spiritual perfection. I have been teaching Dhamma for about 25 years and I have never got tired of it, and I still discover aspects of it that I had not noticed before. As an outgrowth of all this I have also developed a deep interest in Buddhist societies and cultures and have been fortunate enough to visit nearly every region where Buddhism prevails. During my travels I have generally found Buddhists to be open, gentle, generous and kindly folk.
But I am not blind. As samsaric beings Buddhists have their defilements just as people of other faiths do. They are capable of being stupid and greedy, prejudiced and uncaring, provoked and provoking, self-centred and inflexible, tradition-bound and superstitious. They practice their religion as often as they fail to practice it – just as people of other faiths do. Despite this there has long been the illusion in the west that Buddhists, unique amongst humanity, practice their religion with complete fidelity - that because the Buddha taught gentleness, understanding and love, Buddhists follow these teachings unfailingly. Well, it looks like those with such illusions might be about to be disillusioned. It started some years ago with news reports of Sri Lankan monks being involved in racist politics and ethnic violence. The Dorje Shugden and the Karmapa rumpus had little impact on public opinion because of the obscure issues involved, although they shocked and perhaps disillusioned some western Tibetan Buddhists. Then the riots in Tibet gave a rather un-Shrangri La picture of the troubles in that country. Now it’s the ethnic riots in Burma. I quite understand that thoughtful people are deeply disturbed by these happenings. I am too. But there is an added dimension to the reports about these as opposed to troubles beyond the Buddhist world. And it is this. Commentators and observers continually express their surprised to discover that Buddhists, monks included, can be provoked to violence, that they have chauvinistic feelings, that they are capable prejudices, and that they can resort to violence.
On the one hand this disillusioning worries me. Why? Because it tends to happen that when an illusion gives way to reality there is often a strong reaction in the other direction. When the deluded finally see the real situation they do not blame themselves for being unrealistic, they blame that which they were previously deluded about. I suspect that Buddhists, and by implication Buddhism, previously held so unrealistically high is gradually going to be put down far lower than it should be.
On the other hand I am not entirely unhappy that a more realistic view of Buddhists and Buddhist lands is beginning to emerge. Why? Because I have long seen the danger, not to say the foolishness, in the “ethnic” approach to Dhamma. When a western monk in the west asks to be addressed as ahjan or gelong, saydaw, roshi or sensei rather than their English equivalent he is identifying himself, not just as a Buddhist, but with a particular ethnic expression of Buddhism. When they chant in the Tibetan or the Burmese or the Chinese way the same impression can be created. When you tie yourself to a particular culture or country you involve yourself in people’s minds with that culture or country. And when that country or culture looks bad people see Buddhism as bad. Dhamma is universal, it transcends culture and ethnicity. The practice of the Dhamma is not the special preserve of any particular ethnic group. Let us practice the Buddha’s teaching, not Thai Buddhism, not Tibetan Buddhism, not Burmese Buddhism or any other culturally-specific expression of the Dhamma. Let us practice the Dhamma with a minimum of cultural trappings.