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A Broad Survey of Buddhist Boom and Bust

Buddhism grew from an Indian religion/philosophy into a world belief system. It succeeded not only by transmitting its core teachings and beliefs but also by adapting to the culture of the host country.

A critical factor that facilitated this growth was the ancient Silk Road, linking China and Central Asia to Southern Europe. It was in Gandhara, during the Kushan (c. 30–c. 375 AD) and later the Hephthalite rule (440s–560) in Bactria, that Indian Mahayana Buddhism flourished.

This is where the belief of the "superhuman Buddha," the Sambhogakaya, the heavenly manifestation of the historical Buddha, became widespread. From here, through the trade network of this route, used by both mendicant monks and traders, the Buddha's Dharma, mainly Mahayana Buddhism, spread beyond India through the land-based Silk Road.

In China, we have what is called Chinese Buddhism, such as Pure Land and Tiantai. In Japan, it became Zen and other denominations featuring Japanese ways of life, such as Jodo Shinshu. In Sri Lanka, we have the Theravada tradition, with its own Sinhalese slant. The same goes for Thailand. And the most spectacular transmission of all was the Vajrayana stream, which is now mainly practiced through Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism became global because it successfully integrated into the host culture. While we should not overlook the role of royalty in converting to Buddhism and the role of feudalism in those days in converting whole populations, we need to appreciate the ability of Buddhist teachings to be pliable and unorthodox in their structure. This enabled them to be diffused into the host's language, culture, and tradition.

After Buddhism died out in India, its growth became isolated within regions and countries. The era of Western colonization in Asia, beginning from the 15th to early 20th century, further dampened its relevance.

However, by the late 19th century, interest in Buddhism, particularly in the Western world and among immigrants within Asia, grew again after some works of the teachings were translated into English and German. Archaeological discoveries by "explorers" such as Aurel Stein in India and China and the transportation of these "stolen treasures," such as sutra scripts, statues, and artifacts, to be displayed in museums in the West further piqued Buddhist revivalism, mainly through academic research and some scholar monks.

This newfound "Westernized" Buddhist awareness was not entirely faithful to the original Buddhist message. At times, translation efforts were influenced by Christian thought and academic standards of the period in which the translators operated. For instance, the Victorian translators from the Pali Text Society (PTS), often being intellectually and religiously informed by Christianity, might have brought their own biases or understanding into the translations of Buddhist texts.

No matter how "less pure" this initial platform was, a foundational base was nevertheless established. From here, a new generation of Buddhist teachers, both local and foreign, began to practice Buddhist teachings culled from this newfound knowledge.

Western Buddhists became the forefront of Buddhist revival. In Sri Lanka, for instance, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) — a journalist and agricultural expert — converted to Buddhism and was celebrated as a Buddhist revivalist in Sri Lanka. "The Word of the Buddha," originally published in German and written by Nyanatiloka Bhikkhu (1878-1957) — a German himself and one of the first Westerners to become a Bhikkhu — became the first systematic exposition of all the main tenets of the Buddha's teachings.

Even in Malaysia, the co-founding father of the Young Buddhist Association (YBAM) was the American-born Ven. Sumangalo (1903-1963). From British-colonized Asia, a slew of English-language-trained monks from Sri Lanka and Myanmar were then sent to other countries to become head monks of their adopted temples. From here, "true Buddhist teachings," those linked to the historical Buddha, became known to the local population.

After World War II, when most Asian countries extricated themselves from colonial yoke, Buddhist roots were still weak, as most of these economies were poor. Industry and economic development efforts aimed at pulling large swathes of the population from destitution became paramount. Moreover, the mid-20th century was also mired in the Cold War, during which, in communist China, religion was banned, including Buddhism. This was also true for Vietnam and Cambodia (for a time).

Roots of Chinese Buddhism, especially those of Pure Land and Ch'an, began to grow in non-communist Taiwan. It is from this island that Mahayana Buddhism spread to the rest of the world, such as the Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen Temple (佛光山东禅寺) founded in 1996 by Master Hsing Yun (星云法师).

From the 1960s, things began to settle economically in most of Asia (except for the communist countries). With political and economic stability, people began visiting temples, and in many cases, the young began learning Buddhism through Dharma classes set up by the temples. Within the next three decades, one can say that Buddhism flourished again in South, East, and Southeast Asia, this time with the propagandists being mainly the locals themselves.

The aim of this article is to give an idea of the boom and bust cycles experienced by Buddhism and the influencing factors involved. Due to the teachings of dependent origination, the idea of boom and bust fits nicely with prevailing causes and effects, which Buddhists accept wholeheartedly.

But what lessons can we learn here? How do we look at existing causes and conditions, see where Buddhism is right now, and then take steps to nurture its growth or counter its degeneration?

While the past provides clues and answers in terms of cultural and political expediencies, looking at these factors alone to gauge where Buddhism is heading doesn't make much sense. The world today is profoundly different. Buddhist minds are molded with secular and capitalistic ideas. People have more free time now to indulge in "numerous sense desires".

So the question begs: given the social environment that we are in, what factors should we look into so that we can understand what is required to draw people into embracing the Buddha Dharma more wholeheartedly? What methods can we use to understand current mindsets? Can we even do this without dumbing down the Dharma?

We will attempt to address this in the next article.


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