The future of Buddhism

- through Francois Leclercq

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As one of the oldest and largest religions in the world, Buddhism has existed for over 2 years. The tradition has had its ups and downs many times, just like any other tradition. At one time it was nearly extinct in its birthplace, India, but it has flourished in new regions far from its original home, such as China, Korea, and Japan.

Today, the number of adherents worldwide is approximately 500 million. * It may not be the largest religion but it may be the largest non-theistic religion, whose tenets do not rely on the existence of a single omnipresent being. The Buddhadharma has been a guiding light for countless people to find the inner wisdom to face the human condition and achieve true liberation, nirvana. It also made rich contributions to human civilization, with literature, philosophy, architecture, art and much more.

Like individuals, religious traditions can have good and bad reputations. Until now, on the whole, Buddhism has been known as the religion of peace and non-violence. Terms such as Buddhist fundamentalism or Buddhist terrorism are rarely heard in mainstream conversation or mainstream news media. Even though most non-Buddhists disagree with Buddhism on a theoretical level, they tend to associate it with non-violence and compassion. There have also been Buddhist luminaries in the international limelight as champions of world peace. All this contributes to the image of Buddhism.

Buddhism has many practical and applicable practices that have universal appeal, so some of these practices go beyond the realm of Buddhism itself. Today, people from all walks of life practice mindfulness meditation. This is a concrete example. It also attracts many newcomers to the West as sincere followers, not because they run after magic or ecclesiastical promises, but because they appreciate the down-to-earth approach of Buddhism.

Unless there is an unexpected reversal in the current and seemingly inexorable trend of geopolitical demographics, the population of Buddhists is expected to decline faster than other major religions. It has to do with many factors. One obvious factor is that East Asian countries that have historically valued and practiced Buddhism are becoming increasingly secular and their populations are drastically declining. Japan is a living example. Many temples attract fewer and fewer adherents there over time. No one has found a perfect solution to reverse this trend. In fact, Buddhism is declining even faster than Japan's aging population.

Ancient Buddhist scriptures made predictions about the end of Buddhism, and some of them even gave a timeline. But what is the barometer that defines the existence of Buddhism? According to vinayaor monastic rules and procedures, taught by the Buddha, it is defined by the fact that vinaya the rites are observed by monks or nuns. Many follow this barometer strongly, even dogmatically. There are other scholars who define the existence of Buddhism by a looser measure. They would say that as long as there is a Buddhist sangha, there is Buddhism at a particular time and place. The latter seems more reasonable, as monasticism itself can be said to be in crisis, with fewer and fewer people entering monasteries to be ordained.

If Buddhism is to endure in the world, we should seriously consider how to raise a new generation of Dharma teachers. They are the ones who will carry our tradition and shape it to meet the spiritual needs of the followers. In the past, only monks were Dharma teachers in many traditions, with a few notable exceptions. During the Meiji era in Japan, monasticism was all but extinguished by the government, due to which lay Dharma teachers and lay Zen masters became the norm.

Photo by Craig C. Lewis

In Tibetan Buddhism, most Dharma teachers are expected to be monks, except in the Nyingma tradition, which allows for ordained, non-monastic Dharma teachers. The Nyingma tradition has many non-monastic masters, such as Rongzom Pandita, Jigme Lingpa, Duddul Dorje, Longsal Nyingpo, Do Khyentse, Dudjom Lingpa, Lerab Lingpa and many others. There are also many Nyingma monastic masters including Longchenpa, Jamgon Mipham and Choje Jigme Phuntsok.

In the Nyingma tradition, non-monastic Dharma teachers are often considered yogis or tantric and held in high esteem by secular communities. people offer them Days, financial donations, and also receive teachings and initiations from them. This custom is not recent but dates back to the time of the Tibetan kings Trisong Detsen and Tri Ralpachen.

In general, people become Dharma teachers in the Nyingma tradition in various ways. Some become by earning a khenpo degree, or by being a tulku ou terton, or having undertaken a long meditation retreat and being invited to teach by a guru. There is no particular path to becoming a Dharma teacher.

Sooner or later, however, Buddhist societies will enter an era when there will be very few people who will accept to be ordained as monks. Thus, they must be open to creating a system by which lay people can be trained as Dharma teachers. This is already happening in all Buddhist lineages in the West.

There is not some sort of Buddhist papal government with the authority to revise and invent new guidelines for Buddhism. Yet there are many pressing issues like this. Buddhist practitioners and institutions need to be alert and ready for new challenges.

* The Global Religious Landscape: Buddhists (Pew Research Center) and The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 (Pew Research Center)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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