Photo: Mahidol University that co-hosted the 1st Makhapuja International Conference on ‘The Future of Buddhism in Asia’. - Photo: 2019

Consumerism and Proselytism Threatening Buddhism in Asia

By Natcha Lim

This article is the 28th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate. Click here for previous series.

BANGKOK (IDN) – Buddhist scholars attending the 1st Makhapuja International Conference on ‘The Future of Buddhism in Asia’ have warned that consumerist trends within the monastic order and aggressive proselytism by Islamic and Christian groups are a threat to the future of Buddhism in Asia.

Governments in the region lack adequate political solutions to defy “anti-Buddhist movements”, and this poses a huge challenge, said Professor Kapila Abhayawansa, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs at the International Buddhist College in Thailand.

And this at a time when Buddhism is “widely accepted as a way of life which can offer solutions to almost all the human problems emerging from the mal-effects of globalization everywhere in the world today”, he added.

The Centre for Chinese Studies of Mahidol University in association with Wat Yannawa and Wat Thepthidaram organised the conference that wrapped up on February 20, and focused on both internal and external threats to Buddhism, a religion that has shaped the Asian identity for centuries.

“The most prominent challenge to Buddhism in my opinion, emerges from the global consumerism” noted Prof Abhayawansa, adding “the popular belief that happiness can only be achieved from indulging one’s desires in acquiring infinite wealth, and of limitless commodities”.

He pointed out that this trend is still new to people of Asia compared to the West, and thus they embrace it with passion, unable to understand its danger to both spiritual and physical aspects of life. Rather than teaching about these dangers, he lamented, many Buddhist monks are performing rituals on a commercial basis.

Dr Charoon Wonnakasinanont, leader of Thailand’s Mahabodhi Party argued that though Islamic terrorism is limited in Asia, yet they indulge in many subtle ways to undermine Buddhism and turn Thai society Islamic. “They have developed a joint-venture with others. Neighbourhoods have come together (to) encourage people to follow Islam.”

He listed three plans the Islamists have devised to gradually turn Thailand into an Islamic country: Inciting conflict in the south of Thailand (where a lot of the Thai Muslims live) by using violence; and getting more Muslim people into universities and the public service using a minority rights argument; and Gathering a “tax” from Thai people with the registering of the Halal mark.

“These strategies are dangerous to Thailand,” argued Dr Wonnakasinanont. He identified in particular the Halal mark demands on food, drugs and cosmetics as a way of Muslims making money out of the predominantly Buddhist population without investing anything. “Most Thai people are completely ignorant of all the plans of the minority Muslims in Thailand which makes the whole situation even more dangerous,” he warned.

“Ignorance is dangerous for our spiritual wellbeing. We have to change our minds and be alert to everything that is happening (around us) that may harm our lives,” said Dr Wonnakasinanont, pointing out that this is what Buddha also taught 2500 years ago.

Conference convener Dr Tavivat Puntarigvivat of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Mahidol University noted that there is a revival of Buddhism in China and this growing movement is crucial to the survival of Buddhism in Asia because many Buddhist communities are poor and need the support of economically powerful nations. Yet, he warned that both international Muslims and the West are using the Uyghur Muslim issue in Xinjiang to undermine China’s rise.

“Among the Uyghur minority, the teenagers are the most vulnerable,” argued Dr Puntarigvivat. “They have been incited by extremist ideology from the Middle East to divide the people according to their race and religion, disobey marital law and family planning, resist modernity, and to consider non-Muslims as heretic and the government as an enemy.” He also added that the western media has purposely increased its attacks on China, particularly by distorted news reports on the issues in Xinjiang.

“By distorting the principles of human rights, the West has been causing misunderstanding and distrust among people in China,” he added, noting that the western media often sounds like the “spoken voice of terrorists”. He argued that the media need to ask the question why the Muslims “almost everywhere in the world do not seem ready to adjust themselves to local culture and society into which they migrate and reside”.

The Evangelical Christian threat to Buddhism in Asia was the theme of a keynote speech by Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, founder of the Singapore based Lotus Communication Network. “Christian threat is two-pronged,” he argued, “(one is) missionaries masquerading as welfare agencies to infiltrate poor Asian communities (and the second) is their popular culture via gospel music and other modern communication tools painting Christianity as ‘cool’ to urban Asian youth”.

He pointed out that a 2015 study done by Dr Terrence Chong of the National University of Singapore had warned about a rapidly growing Pentecostal Christian movement driven largely by upwardly mobile wealthy ethnic Chinese use use their business networking and financial resources to reach poor Buddhist communities for conversions.

Citing an All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) study in 2012, Dr Seneviratne pointed out how these Christian movements infiltrate rural Buddhist communities via NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that bribe local government officials to facilitate their activities among grassroots Buddhists. According to the report, between 2002 and 2009 (at the height of the civil war) such NGOs have mushroomed in Sri Lanka from 110 to over 400. ACBC has called for tighter control of foreign funded NGOs in the country.

Dr Seneviratne further argued that Asian Buddhists needed to mount an international campaign to give collective rights higher priority than individual rights in the international human rights agenda.

“There is a notion that when a community is in the majority in the country, it is protected by the state, and is privileged,” he noted, adding: “This is not the case with Buddhist communities across Asia, especially because the damage done to these communities by European colonization.”

Under the individual human agenda, he said, “minorities enjoy all the rights and majorities none”. This must change because for the Buddhists, their treasured religious and cultural heritage is under attack by Christian and Islamic movements with superior financial resources.

“Buddhists must demand that protecting their cultural heritage is a part of human rights and they should not be labeled as ‘extremists’ (by western media) when they do that,” argued Dr Seneviratne. He also called on Asian Buddhists to reinvent Buddhist heritage by using new media tools like video clips, music clips and podcasts to present Buddhism as “cool” to young Asians.

In an eye-opening presentation, Prof Tilak Kariyawasam, Dean of the Graduate School, International Buddhist College in Thailand showed how Buddhism flourished in Central Asia at one time and after the collapse of the Chinese Tan Dynasty and with Arab invasions from the West and East, Buddhism gradually vanished from the region. The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia are today all Islamic nations.

The theme of most presentations was that Buddhists needed to empower particularly their grassroots communities, to withstand the current onslaught from Christianity and Islam. Dr Seneviratne also called for the reform of the Bangkok based World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), which has become a sleeping white elephant. WFB, he said, should spearhead empowerment movement with a more energetic leadership.

“It cannot be denied that there are hidden forces which need to discredit Buddhism because of its growing demand in the Western world,” observed Prof Abhayawansa. “With such ulterior end in view, they even hire some Buddhist monks who are greedy for wealth. If the Buddhist order is corrupted, it is the biggest harm that can be done to Buddhism, since Buddhism mainly depends on the purity and unity of monks (for it to prosper),” he warns. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 February 2019]

Photo: Mahidol University that co-hosted the 1st Makhapuja International Conference on ‘The Future of Buddhism in Asia’.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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