Saturday, January 30, 2010

Buddhist Missionaries

We rarely hear of "Buddhist missionaries".

Do you think we should?


  1. Hi Michael,

    The question of the nature of Master Bodhidharma's mission from the West seems to be an established thing that people still hear about.



  2. Hi Michael,

    Harry's answer was nice! I think we have those "missionaries" all around us. Just go into your local zendo. :)


  3. Yeah, Uku, too nice maybe. Some zendos and Buddha clubs seem much like self-help groups, on the other hand.



  4. Actually, many of the early Buddhists in the U.S. and Canada anyway either considered themselves missionaries, or would fall into that category, even if what they did looked different than, say Christian missionaries. Jodo Shinshu priests in the late 19th century, as well as Zen leaders Suzuki Roshi, Sokei-an, and Katagiri Roshi, just to name a few.

    The precedent is already there. Don't know if that means there should be more of it, but it's already happened.

  5. I think it's natural that Buddhism is full of missionaries. Buddhism is a religion and a religion means connection between different kinds of people. And spreading Dharma by a teacher is being a missionary although it's quite different compared to Christian tradition for example. But teachers are teaching about Dharma and zendo's are full of devoted practitioners who want to get to know more familiar with themselves and the reality. I don't ashame to admit that I'm a religious person. I'm officially a Buddhist, that's my religion. That's why I have a teacher and that's why I sit with other practitioners. But that's my religion, that's my path. Without those Buddhist missionaries like Brad Warner or Gudo Nishijima Roshi or Peter Rocca or Dogen Zenji or Kodo Sawaki Roshi or historical Gautama himself, we wouldn't be aware of this path called Buddhism. Like Nathan mentioned. And I agree with you Harry that sometimes some Buddha-clubs might be too self-help places. But that's why I think it's important to have authentic tradition and teachers. Yes, we have to create our practice by ourselves but teachers and zendos can help us, I think. Relying on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. That's lovely and concrete and not idealistic at all. :)

  6. Over the years I have come to know quite a few Dharma Teachers (mostly Zen) and I have found that there is a well defined delineation between those teachers who are teachers for the purpose of the free transmission of the dharma and those who consider being a Dharma teacher their “Job”.

    Those who are protective of their jobs and are obviously looking for converts to help keep the Dana coming in, while the others who are merely interested in transmitting the dharma. While some are in effect pressing for converts to boost sangha membership, others see themselves more as emancipators, liberally offering the Dharma without expectations.

    I would say that there are indeed Buddhist Missionaries and they are of two camps, those who want to transmit the Dharma and those who want to make their living as Dharma teachers. This is big business in Japan and Zen teachers are, nearly without exception, in the Iemoto system (family business) and therefore very business oriented. They are very protective of their “business” and we in the West have apparently, for the most part, inherited this business model.

    I have been a carpenter/woodworker all my life, building everything from barns to yachts and I have seen this clearly in the trades. There are craftsmen and there are tradesmen, the craftsmen become very good at what they do and share their skills and knowledge freely, while the tradesmen keep their “business” within well guarded guilds or unions.

    So, I believe the real question we have to ask is not whether or not there are Buddhists Missionaries(clearly there are) but rather, what are their motives?

  7. As you chaps have listed, there are people who teach Buddhism. However, I would contrast this generally passive model (you go to them for teaching) with the active model (Hey! You! Listen, Buddhism's great!) used by some other contemporary religions, such as Christianity.

    When I go into Oxford there's always some religious group in the main pedestrian street transmitting their version of dharma to anyone who will listen - Christians, Muslims, Hare Krishnas, of course, Brahma Kumaris, the occasional Mormon - but never Buddhists.

    So may I rephrase my question, please?

    Should Buddhists be actively seeking converts?

    (In keeping with "right action" I would assume this would be on a basis of respect from other religions, seeking to augment others' belief systems rather than shred them.)

  8. Michael,
    I think maybe your questions is: “Should Buddhists Proselytize?” To phrase it as “Should Buddhists actively seek converts?” is open to a lot of interpretation. One can open up any Buddhist Magazine and see the ads “actively seeing converts”

    I see this the same way Uku does when he states; “Buddhism is full of missionaries.” I believe that all of us are acting as missionaries when we express ourselves as Buddhists. As Uku states, “Buddhism is my religion” and like him/us, I would not have found my religion if it had not been for the Missionaries. Those who have made Buddhism “public” have made it possible for others to experience the Dharma in a very real way.

    However, to actively proselytize, that is to say; seek to converts, takes us back to the question of motive. If one is motivated to share the Dharma because it will help people and be of benefit of all, then one’s motive is sincere, but if one is seeking converts to act as a personal “support group” (financial or otherwise) then the motives are suspect.

    As I stated earlier, I have been a Buddhist for a very long time and I have experienced no small number of those who “use” Buddhism (my religion) as their business calling card. This has often led me to question whether or not they were actually Buddhists. Many of these people have had some pretty impressive pedigrees and some of them are now “famous” teachers.

    So, I guess my answer to your question is “It depends…” and I am sorry I cannot be more definitive. Buddhism is indeed a religion and as such is full of charlatans, those who are using Buddhism for self promotion and personal gain. This is why I have tended to believe that the “student seeking teacher approach” is far superior to the “teacher seeking students” approach. At least when the student finds the teacher, it is based on the students motives, not the teachers.

  9. I accept the point about motive.

    Assuming a pure motive, I still wonder, because...

    I set up our Zendo here in Kidlington about three years ago. To get someone to sit with I had to spread the word. I posted leaflets locally. (Not so much "missionary work" as a junkmail "lonely hearts" ad.) The result was a small yet growing sangha - and some people who have attended have reported great benefit from the Buddhist experience.

    Now, if instead of just leafleting locally I went out and told loads of people, then potentialy loads of people would enjoy such benefits.

    I have no plans to do this - I'm still learning how to supply dharma even on a miniscule scale - but extrapolating from the benefits of my accidental "lonely hearts" evangelism I just was wondering whether it was something more experienced teachers should be doing on a larger stage.

    Tell more people, and more people get liberated - what do you think?

  10. Kaishan's remarks about the two types of "evangelists" makes me think about how dana, generosity, is turning (or turned long ago) into exchange, trade and business and how it is exploited and misused nowadays.


    your question "Should Buddhists be actively seeking converts?" has many holes or better a big big hole: "buddhists" is just an empty bowl that can be filled with anything: should buddhists be vegetarians? Should buddhists live in celibacy? Should buddhists be peace activists? Should buddhists go to war?

    Buddhists "should" comprehend suffering and realize its end.

    About "Tell more people, and more people get liberated" I don't know either. The more people you put in a room, the more chances for conflict there are.

    But then you have the "all-inclusive" posture or if you like, the "non-doing" attitude where you just flow and "accord to conditions". Every action, every gesture, word, thought of yours is an expression of the Way. How could you avoid be a missionary? What's the need of telling "buddhism is great, come and see"?

    You perform your function naturally(this takes already a lot of energy). The rest is not in your hands.

  11. Maybe "Those who speak do not know. Those who know do not speak" could appropriately apply to missionaries.

    As for telling more people resulting in more people being liberated, kind of like spreading "the good news," i don't see it. Liberation is liberation, and like Zen, has nothing to do with words, teachings, teachers, or symbols.

  12. I am grateful that Lao Tse and the Buddha both went against our bloggers' advice!