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Buddhism and the Modern World

Updated on September 9, 2012

About 2500 years ago, Buddha conveyed the main beliefs of the Dharma. These teachings initially spread over most of Asia but over the years the practitioners of this religion have been declining. Until recently, Buddhists have encountered some conflicts in today’s ever changing modern world. Although there have been many changes in the world over this past two centuries that can account for the decline in practitioners of the Buddhist faith such as the creation of new religions, the surge in materialism and political strife within the founding countries of this religion, there are many more aspects of this religion that makes it appealing to more people, Buddhism is not culture-bound, in that anyone can practice this religion, this along with some of its major principles such as non-violence, awareness and self-reliance that makes it so appealing to so many people

One of the major changes in the modern world that Buddhism had to cope with was the creation of other religions. In the contemporary world, a majority of people are of the Christian or Islam faith. Both these major religions evolved from a religion known as Judaism (Gunasekara, 2001). These three major religions uphold the idea that there is a presence of an omnipotent god; while on the other hand, Buddhism rejected the belief of an all-powerful god. To make matters harder the Buddhist religion could not penetrate into countries where Islam and Christianity had already been established because, both Islam and Christianity have the fundamental goal of converting others and at sometimes persecuting others of different faiths (Gunasekara, 2001).

Despite these conflicts with major religions of the world, over the last few years there has been a surge in the Buddhist religion. Buddhism has provoked widespread notice and consideration over the last few decades. It is now become a worldwide religion; it is no longer centered in Asia and the surrounding areas (Molloy, 2010). Buddhist meditation centers and temples can now be found in Europe and in America. There are many people of high standing in Western societies that are either Buddhist or who are sympathetic towards Buddhism. For example, Albert Einstein in his autobiography remarked although he was not a religious man, if he were one he would be a Buddhist (Buddha Dharma Education Association, 2011). This is quite a surprising remark from a person that was considered the “Father of Modern Science”, but some of the new found allure to Buddhism is because it integrates so well with modern science. When looking at today’s contemporary Western societies, one can see that the Buddhist faith is becoming more popular among scientists and other high ranking officials. For example there is a Buddhist astrophysicist in France, a judge from England who is a Buddhist and at the University of Rome, a well-known Buddhist psychologist (Buddha Dharma Education Association, 2011).

Buddhism was first brought to the Western world during the late 18th century, when Buddhist influences were brought from Sri Lanka and other countries by English missionaries. These missionaries were impressed by the moral foundations that Buddhism is built upon. Over time, people began to appreciate and agree with the moral teachings that are found within the Buddhist religion, for example some people value the view on self-awareness, insight and self-reliance, while others believe that the Buddhist religion integrates itself easier with modern science (Molloy, 2010). The upsurge in the popularity of Buddhism can also be attributed to Buddha’s teaching of a non-violent lifestyle, which was even more exemplified when the Dalai Lama was selected for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 (Molloy, 2010).

Generally in Western Society, Buddhism is seen as being an innovative, refined and very rational religion. But another modern day issue that Buddhism has faced is criticism in its own birthplace. Buddhism is often seen in Asia and other eastern countries as being old fashioned, irrational and tied up with too much superstition. People that are from traditional Buddhist countries are now looking elsewhere for a different religion that is not “old fashioned” or too involved in superstitions (Buddha Dharma Education Association, 2011). Along with the downward turn in popularity its original countries; Buddhism has also suffered some serious damages due to political upheavals in these same areas. When communist governments took over Mongolia and China, the Buddhist religion was almost eradicated and many temples and monasteries were destroyed. These damages continued with the takeover of Tibet in the late part of last century (Molloy, 2010). During the China’s Cultural Revolution thousands of monasteries and works of Buddhist art were destroyed. Although some rebuilding of these destroyed temples and monasteries have begun, there is still subtle resistance from the governments in these countries. For example, in Myanmar, on paper the government supports Buddhism, but yet Buddhist human rights activists have been jailed (Molloy, 2010). Some governments fear that Buddhist monasteries can become the center of anti-governmental activity (Molloy, 2010) but the government officials also realize how much money these monasteries and temples bring to their country through tourism.

Relations with non-Buddhist communities have brought new vigor to the traditional Buddhist principles. For example with the increased focus on environmental issues, there has been a development of what some call “Green Buddhism” (Molloy, 2010). Although early Buddhist teachings do not openly comment on environmental ideals, they do have philosophies that integrate well with environmentalism; Such philosophies such has harmony, reverence, compassion and respect all fit in well into the idea of environmentalism. For example Buddhist monks in Thailand led the way in protecting forests. Due to the high moral authority placed into the hands of Buddhist Monks, they try to convince villagers to plant new trees and reduce tree burning (Molloy, 2010).

Another interaction with the modern world that Buddhism has faced is the increase in materialism. Over the years, people have increased their need to own things or obtain items of value. Much of today’s modern day pressures to reach the top of economic pile or to keep up with the “Joneses” conflicts directly with Buddha’s teachings to find the right livelihood. Buddhism, although not against the amassing of material affluence, does provide that it must result from the pursuit of the right livelihood.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Buddhist religion is entering a new chapter in its long journey. From becoming a religion that was practiced only in a few countries to becoming a worldwide religion, Buddhism has what some can say “rolled with the punches” it has evolved itself in order to fit the modern world, but as maintained its essential principles so it still has its original identity. Although there have been many changes in the world over this past two centuries that can account for the decline in practitioners of the Buddhist faith such as the creation of new religions, the surge in materialism and political strife within the founding countries of this religion, there are many more aspects of this religion that makes it appealing to more people, Buddhism is not culture-bound, in that anyone can practice this religion, this along with some of its major principles such as non-violence, awareness and self-reliance that makes it so appealing to so many people.


References

Buddha Dharma Education Association. (2011). Buddhism: a modern perspective. Retrieved from http://www.buddhanet.net/funbud1.htm

Gunasekara, V. A. (2001). Buddhism and the modern world . Retrieved from http://www.buddhismtoday.com/english/buddha/Teachings/basicteaching11.htm

Molloy, M. (2010). Experiencing the world’s religions: Tradition, challenge, and change (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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