by Bhikkhu Bodhi
At the same time that Buddhism has begun to gain a firm foothold in the West, its fate in its traditional Asian homelands has been moving, sadly, in the opposite direction, towards atrophy and decline. Already in several Asian Buddhist countries Buddhism has been forcibly suppressed, while even in those countries which have preserved their political integrity the Dhamma no longer occupies the same sovereign place in people's hearts that it held in an earlier era. Although devotional piety and a sense of Buddhist personal identity still remain strong, throughout the breadth of Buddhist Asia cultural and ideological forces of great power have been unleashed which daily challenge the hegemony of the Dhamma as the key to meaning and value for those who profess it as their refuge.
Among the changes taking place in current patterns of thinking, perhaps the most detrimental to the Dhamma has been the rise to prominence of a materialistic world view which focuses upon the present life as the only field for all human endeavor. This world view need not be assented to intellectually, with full awareness of its implications, for it to become a major determinant of our attitudes and conduct. Often a curious ambivalence prevails in our minds, where with one part of the mind we profess our confidence in the lofty principles of the Dhamma, while with the other we think and act as if the present life were the sole occasion for human happiness and the achievement of worldly success were the true mark of the accomplished individual.
The rapid spread of the materialistic world view has in turn brought about a far-ranging secularization of values that invades every nook and cranny of our lives. This transformation of values gives precedence to goals and attitudes diametrically opposed to those advocated by the Dhamma, and under its impact the scales have tipped far away even from a reasonable balance between material and spiritual goods. Now we see acquisitiveness replacing contentment as the reigning ideal, competition taking the place of cooperation, fast efficiency the place of compassionate concern, and selfish indulgence the place of abstinence and self-control.
The attempt to live simultaneously by two conflicting sets of principles -- those being ushered in by secular materialism and those grounded in the Dhamma -- generates a tension that contains within it a seed of very destructive potential. Often the tension is only dimly felt by those in the older generation, who accept the new outlook and values without clearly perceiving the challenge they pose to traditional Buddhist ideals. It is when the contradiction is pushed down to the next generation, to the Buddhist youth of today, that the inherent incompatibility of the two perspectives comes into the open as a clearcut choice between two alternative philosophies of life -- one proposing a hierarchy of values which culminates in the spiritual and sanctions restraint and renunciation, the other holding up the indulgence and gratification of personal desire as the highest conceivable goal. Since the latter appeals to strong and deep-seated human drives, it is hardly puzzling that so many young people today have turned away from the guidance of the Dhamma to pursue the new paths to instant pleasure opened up by the consumer society or, in their frustration at missed opportunities, to take to the path of violence.
Since it is the younger generation that forms the vital link in the continuity of Buddhism, connecting its past with its future, it is of paramount importance that the Buddhist youth of today should retain their fidelity to the Dhamma. The Dhamma should be for them not merely a symbol of cultural and ethnic identity, not merely a focus point of sentimental piety, but above all a path to be taken to heart, personally applied, and adhered to in those critical choices between present expediency and long-range spiritual gain. The problem, however, is precisely how to inspire the young to look to the Dhamma as their guide and infallible refuge.
It must be stressed that our present dilemma goes far deeper than a breakdown of moral standards, and thus that it cannot be easily rectified by pious preaching and moral exhortation. If conduct deviating from the Dhamma has become widespread among today's youth, this is because the Buddhist vision has ceased to be meaningful to them, and it has ceased to be meaningful not because it has lost its relevance but because it is not being presented in ways which highlight its timeless and ever-immediate relevance.
The most urgent task facing those concerned with the preservation of Buddhism must be the attempt to communicate to the young the central vision at the heart of the Dhamma, the vision from which all the specific doctrines and practices of Buddhism issue forth. This does not require a mastery of the technical details of the Dhamma, but it does require that we ourselves understand the Dhamma's essence and are actively striving to make that understanding the foundation of our lives. Both by precept and example we must show that true freedom is to be found not in uncontrolled license, but in the control and mastery of desire; that true happiness lies not in a proliferation of goods, but in peace and contentment; that our relations with others are most rewarding when they are governed not by conflict and competition, but by kindness and compassion; and that true security is to be achieved not by the acquisition of wealth and power, but by the conquest of self with all its ambitions and conceits.
Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #11 (Winter 1988)
Copyright © 1988 Buddhist Publication Society
For free distribution only
Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi index page
Renunciation by Ayya Khema