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Some lessons from the World Buddhist Conference 2010

Written by  Tham Ah Fun Thursday, 17 October 2013 14:33

I was fortunate to have attended the World Buddhist Conference on 25 – 26 Sept 2010. The various distinguished speakers from different parts of the world were most frank in sharing their thoughts and lessons with the participants. Their presentations were thought-provoking. I have a much deeper understanding of mindfulness, loving kindness and compassion after the conference.I also become more aware of the development of Buddhism in different parts of the world. The relevance of Buddhism in this 21st century becomes clearer to me.

Some participants may share their views and experiences gained from the conference from a different perspective. I believe many participants have learned important things from the conference. I would just like to share some simple observations with you. Hopefully, my lessons will benefit you in one way or another. That is the whole purpose of me writing this small article.

Among the materials given to participants was a small booklet, produced by a group of Singaporean Buddhists whose website is www.conversion.buddhists.sg. The booklet is entitled “Agree to Disagree”. It provides very useful tips how to say “No” respectfully when we Buddhists are approached by believers of other religions who are rather aggressive in preaching their religions to us and trying to convert us to their religions. I will quote a few examples below just to show how well-written the booklet is. Those who wish to read more, please visit the website as stated above.

EXAMPLE 1: Your family member / relative try to persuade you to take up their religion. The proselytizer says: “As a family, it is important we share the same religion. Do come and join in my religious activities. “

You say A: “I understand that you care about me. Don't worry. In my religion I am taught to do good.”OR

You say B: “I have a different view. As a family, I think each of us can have different religion. Being respectful of each other's religion is important too. “

EXAMPLE 2: A stranger on the street approaches you to share about his religion. The proselytizer says: “Good afternoon. Have you heard of X religion? “

You say: “I have heard of it. I am a Buddhist. Thank you. “After that you just smile and walk away.

I salute our Singaporean friends for their effort in preparing that booklet. It reminded me of the many occasions when I was faced with such proselytizer on the street and in college. I am sure many Buddhists have such experience before too or you will face such situation in the future somewhere.

Certainly, we Buddhists should refrain from being aggressive; but shouldn't we do a bit more in propagating the Buddha Dharma? Relatively speaking, Buddhists tend to be too quiet. Many lay Buddhists due to their lack of understanding of the Buddha's teachings, think that propagating the Dharma is the responsibility of members of the Sangha only.

We must give strong support to the good work of those members of the Sangha who are dedicated in spreading the Dharma. Likewise, we should provide assistance to lay Buddhists who are dedicated in propagating the Dharma. We should in our little way, propagate the Dharma too, at least by setting a good example as a Buddhist and refrain from doing negative things.

I remember very well a dedicated Christian pastor who came to our village to preach when I was a young boy. That was some 50 years ago. During that time, as almost all villagers were poor, parents had to work hard to earn a living, only young fellows below 12 years old were free on each Sunday afternoon to go to the church. There were only about 30 odd of us small fellows in the Sunday class. I was 9 years old then. Many of us could not follow the pastor's teaching. Despite the poor attendance and lack of interest on the part of the young boys and girls, the pastor kept coming every week. He told us many stories about his religion. Each time he would ask us some questions about those stories. For those of us who answered right, he would give a small present: a pencil, an exercise book or something like that. Once a month, the pastor and his colleagues would distribute cans of cooking oil or biscuits or other food stuff to the poor villagers. I was one of those boys who could answer his questions correctly and so did not have to buy pencils and exercise books for two years then. Looking back, although I do not agree with the pastor in many ways, but his dedication is something we should respect and learn.

That was my first encounter with proselytism. Somehow I merely regarded those stories and teachings by the Christian pastor as nothing more than stories. I considered my self lucky that I was not converted. That must be something to do with my good root in Buddhism in my past life, I guess.

The same tactics may be used by the pastor's colleagues in other poor countries until now. Their strategies in Malaysia, which is economically much better off compared to 50 years ago, must be very different now. But one thing for sure, proselytism is going on in Malaysia.

Since Malaysia is a democratic country, we cannot stop other religions from preaching their beliefs to us, but we must know how to interact with them respectfully and politely. In the process, we must get the other side to respect us as well. Keeping quiet and not explaining what are the basic Buddhist teachings to non-Buddhists is not the way to move forward for Buddhism in this present time. Buddhists must communicate more.

Various speakers of the conference stressed the importance of putting the Dharma into practice. Buddhism is not empty talk. It has to be seen to be relevant to today's needs. It was an eye-opener to me to watch monks and nuns from the Plum Village of France chanting and playing guitar and violin. Modern tools have to be employed to spread the Dharma to as many people as possible, especially to the younger generation in Malaysia and elsewhere.

Another thing I learned from the World Buddhist Conference is that we must stand up and state our position. It is not to fight for our individual rights, but more to uphold the interests of a larger group. If only our personal interest is affected we may just smile and walk away.

That reminds me of a recent incident in which a Chinese lady was deeply offended by a government officer and she decided to tell her side of the story to the public with the assistance of a member of parliament. That lady had only 5 years of primary education. But she was brave enough to stand up because she believed she was voicing the feelings of many; she wanted justice not for herself alone, but justice for all those who were given that kind of unfair treatment.

I know that humble lady for about 25 years. Before this, I would never expect a soft-spoken and gentle lady like her to be so courageous in seeking justice. In fact she told me that her children tried hard to persuade her not to be a “busybody”, but she was determined and very firm in defending the rights of a larger community.

I was very much inspired by her, especially her words “I am doing this to uphold the rights of Malaysians.” She is not a politician at all, just a very ordinary house cleaner. She goes to people's houses to do cleaning once a week and earn a small wage for her hard work.

She also related another story to me. She went for a trip to Hong Kong with one of her employers. She paid for the trip just like any other participants in the tour group. So she should be treated like any other tourists. Unfortunately, during the trip that employer of hers asked her to do things as if she was the servant. She was humiliated, but she just tolerated and did not react. She said “ It was something personal between me and that employer. I just smiled and ignored the incident. No point to get angry with that kind of person.”

She is less than 5 feet tall. Because of her small size and very humble background, her courageous deed to stand up has an even greater significance. I have learned something from this friend of mine. What about you? Shouldn't we Buddhists, monastic as well as lay persons, be more out-spoken when the situation warrants it? Of course, it is important that when we stand up, it is not for our selfish interest, but for the interests of the religion, society, Malaysia as a nation, and mankind.