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Buddhist missionaries | Aeon

A Buddhist monk at Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, May 2022. Photo by Matt Hunt/SOPA/Getty

A Buddhist monk at Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, May 2022. Photo by Matt Hunt/SOPA/Getty

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Buddhist missionaries

Buddhist monks have mostly escaped the label of proselytisers, but they’ll still spread the word to those who seek them out

by Brooke Schedneck + BIO

A Buddhist monk at Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, May 2022. Photo by Matt Hunt/SOPA/Getty

In the seminar room in Wat Suan Dok, I found one senior monk, Phra Kyo, standing alone amid a circle of about 15 foreigners from North America and Europe. As soon as he began to speak, Phra Kyo captured the audience’s attention for the next hour with the peaceful and universal nature of Buddhism and its contrast with Christianity.

‘Some of you have been here for a few weeks, a few months already. Have you ever seen a monk outside of the Buddhist temple waving people in with pamphlets talking about Buddhism? Have you ever seen a Buddhist monk knocking on doors telling the Buddha’s teaching?’

The audience laughed and shook their heads. The image of a Buddhist monk actively converting non-Buddhists in this way is somewhat comical. Phra Kyo continued: ‘No, that is not our way. There is no relationship between Buddha and me, just as teacher and student. If a person asks who created the world, the Christian will be happy to respond: “God.” But the Buddhist says: “I don’t care who created the world. But I want to be happy now and relieve suffering.”’

Christian missionaries travel all over the world in order to gain converts through knocking on doors or approaching people in public spaces, or setting up schools, orphanages and hospitals.

Christian missionaries fulfil the Bible’s Great Commission, attempting to emulate the early apostles of Jesus. The Great Commission is in the Book of Matthew (28:18-20), when Jesus proclaims to his disciples: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon Church, sponsors some of the most recognisable missionaries. The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (2011) portrays the missionary process, highlighting two missionaries travelling from Utah to Uganda. While poking fun at the Mormon Church, its creators Robert Lopez, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the latter two of South Park fame, portray for general audiences the experience of going on a mission.

Often dressed in a shirt and tie, these clean-cut young men with name tags are sent in pairs by their Church to an assigned mission location for at least a year. Mormon communities expect that, at age 19, after graduating high school, young men will serve on a mission. During the mission, they report how many people they have talked to, how many copies of the Book of Mormon they have distributed, and how many baptisms they have performed. Each year, more than 50,000 missionaries are sent out to 350 missions around the world. Members of the Mormon Church are responsible for saving souls through their missionary duties, which they believe will bring them spiritual blessings and eternal joy.

Buddhist monks are missionaries too, just in more subtle and indirect ways. Their goal is not to create more Buddhists in the world. Identification as a Buddhist is considered by the Buddhist tradition as unnecessary for reaching the goal of enlightenment, or nirvana. However, it is much easier to reach this goal and be inspired to attain it if one comes into contact with Buddhist temples and monks. Buddhist monks missionise by taking advantage of the rise in popularity of Buddhism in recent years, due to its perceived message of peace, and the benefits of its meditation and mindfulness practices. Instead of approaching people using the methods of Christian missionaries, Buddhist monks make themselves available for those interested ‘to come and see’.

A moment from the documentary film Walk With Me (2017), about the monastic community of the late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022), demonstrates this contrast between Buddhist and Christian missionaries. The monks and nuns from Plum Village, France have travelled to New York City. They lead a slow, walking meditation down a busy street, and then the group sits down to quietly meditate, creating a space for others to observe and join them. Amid their meditation session, a Christian missionary appears, shouting to the meditators, onlookers and passersby, asking: ‘Why would you follow a dead end to Buddha when you can believe in Jesus and have eternal life?’ A young woman intervenes and tells the Christian missionary to stop condemning and judging the Buddhists because Jesus said to love everyone. The monks and nuns meditate silently the entire time, seemingly unfazed by the commotion.

The Buddha told his disciples, who had already attained nirvana, to find those beings who are ready to hear Buddhist wisdom, those ‘with little dust in their eyes’, and teach them. In what scholars have called Buddhism’s ‘great commission’, the Buddha directed these enlightened beings to walk and wander: ‘Let not two (of you) go by one (way). Monks, teach dhamma [Buddhist teachings] that is lovely at the beginning, lovely at the middle, and lovely at the end.’

This is the central idea from Buddhist scriptures, which indicates Buddhism as a missionary religion. Those beings who want to understand the Buddhist teachings will benefit from hearing it. The Buddha told his realised disciples to spread out and be available to help these types of people who are ready for the teachings.

Travellers might have come to Thailand for the beaches, but seeing the temples, they consider exploring Buddhism

Not all Buddhist missionaries have to go out to find people ready to listen. Those who are curious come to them. Buddhist monks in Thailand have established new ways to spread their religion that take advantage of globalisation and religious tourism. Thai monks created opportunities for non-Buddhist travellers to participate in a meditation retreat, join a Buddhist community, talk with a monk, and they allow volunteers to teach English in a temple setting.

These cultural exchange programmes developed in the early 2000s from the confluence of education, urbanisation and tourism in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Because there are so many opportunities for student monks to attend high school and college, where they also learn English, there are many young monks who are happy to engage in conversation with tourists. Monks from many places within the Theravada Buddhist world of Southeast and South Asia value the English-medium education available in Chiang Mai and the ability to study Buddhism along with secular subjects in English, something less accessible in their countries. The tourist boom in Chiang Mai began in the 1990s and has continued, only abated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These student monks are usually from disadvantaged backgrounds who join the monastic life primarily for the free education it provides. However, monks open their temples in Chiang Mai not simply as a tourist attraction or just a way to practise English, but as part of the missionary duty of Buddhist monks. One student monk said about spreading Buddhism: ‘We are the ones who show, not the ones who know.’ By this he meant that Buddhist monks demonstrate the way by their actions and, if those actions are appealing, then this will pique an interest in new audiences. Travellers might have decided on a trip to Thailand for the beaches or just to relax, but after seeing the beauty of all the temples and the way monks walk slowly and deliberately, they consider exploring Buddhism further. And for those travellers who came specifically to be immersed in a Buddhist society, the monks who participate in cultural exchange programmes are accessible to help show the way.

In 1977, when Thai monks first arrived in England to set up a temple, they went out each morning collecting alms as part of the regular routine of monastic discipline that they would have followed in Thailand. They did not post any announcements or tell the villagers what they would be doing. At first, they received nothing but stares and empty alms bowls. Eventually, their mindful and calm walking attracted followers, who, curious to know more, came to the temple to ask how they could support the monks. Although the alms round appeared to be pointless, because they did not receive much sustenance from the practice, it demonstrated their commitment. The Buddhist monks believed that when people see monks, they are reminded of the possibility of renunciation and of living a life of moral purity.

I observed this ‘showing, not telling’ among Thai missionary monks in Ladakh, India in 2018. Although they could not speak Ladakhi, they found it important to show Thai Buddhism to the surrounding community. They did this, similarly to the monks in England, through the daily alms round. They walked every morning from 8am to 9:30am. During their alms round, they often did not receive much food, but felt that they let ‘the Buddhist people here see Theravada Buddhism, so that faith in the Buddha and the Buddhist tradition would continue’. Through their sacrifice of walking for about 8 km in the heat and cold in bare feet, they were carrying on the traditions of Thai Theravada monks, and thus propagating Buddhism.

Unlike Christian missionaries, who have one life to save a person, Buddhists believe we are continually reborn into new lives. If someone does not get to the Buddhist goal of nirvana in one lifetime, then they have many more chances in future ones. This is a much less urgent scenario than the one for Christian missionaries: if they do not expose people to Jesus, then those people might die and go to hell for all eternity.

Karma and rebirth are Buddhist concepts which allow Buddhist missionaries to take a longer perspective. Karma simply means action. For Buddhism, all our intentional actions count as karma, which over time creates bigger habits and patterns in our lives, thus determining our future rebirth. Karma is often conceptualised as seeds. We plant our actions like seeds that have potential to bear fruit in the future. We can plant good, moral seeds, which allow us to be reborn in situations where we can encounter Buddhism and have opportunities to learn and practise. Or we can plant immoral seeds full of unwholesome desire and anger, which will make it more difficult to understand and be exposed to the benefits of the Buddhist teachings.

Because gods have an entirely pleasant existence, they have little motivation to reach nirvana

Buddhist scriptures reveal a complex cosmology consisting of 31 realms of existence into which a being can be reborn in the cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. Each realm of rebirth is temporary and based on one’s karma. Because of this, the possible circumstances in which a being is born, exists and dies are vast. These realms are usually divided into three parts: the immaterial world, the fine-material world and the sensuous world. Those who are born into the four realms of the immaterial world are gods, who cultivate deep states of meditation. The fine-material world contains 16 realms of gods, who experience high degrees of mental pleasure, because in their past actions they have not expressed any hatred or anger towards others. These two upper worlds are the heaven realms, and are considered favourable births. The lower sensuous world is more diverse with 11 realms, including both beneficial and unpleasant situations. The human realm is favourable, but the lowest four realms, containing animals, ghosts, demons and hell realms are the worst destinations. The ultimate goal of nirvana leaves all of these realms behind and views all of samsara as suffering.

Although rebirth makes Buddhist missionising less forceful and direct, images of the Buddhist cosmos can instil a sense of urgency. Thai Buddhist temples, mural paintings and statues show the repercussions of moral and immoral actions. Inside temple halls are peaceful god figures, looking beautiful and decorated with outfits befitting royalty. These rewards of good karma are in stark contrast to the awful circumstances faced by hell beings. Viewing figures in hell gardens, which are usually part of a larger temple complex, with contorted bodies, including distended genitals, or with animal heads and human bodies, being tortured with violent weapons instils a sense of fear of ending up in a state of torture. Demons spend their time fighting with each other, while animals are focused on their own survival. Ghosts are in a condition of perpetual hunger and thirst, which is a punishment for being stingy, unkind and spiteful, especially towards monks and temples. Because gods have an entirely pleasant existence, they have little motivation to reach nirvana. Only humans are able to experience suffering and have the capacity to understand Buddhist teachings, which are the conditions necessary to pursue nirvana. A visit to one of Thailand’s temples is meant to motivate the cultivation of an understanding of morality and insight on the Buddhist path.

The human birth is considered a rare and precious opportunity. The Buddha declared that the human state is so hard to attain; as likely as a blind turtle accidentally poking its neck through the hole of a ring floating on the ocean as it very infrequently comes to the surface. Therefore, our duty as humans is to take advantage of our current circumstance and follow the path leading out of suffering to nirvana.

Because being born as a human is such an important opportunity, I have encountered Buddhist monks, acting as missionaries for Buddhist teachings, who have instructed me and my students not to waste our time. In 2019, when I took my American college students to stay overnight at a Buddhist temple, many of the monks emphasised that we all should follow Buddhist morality, so that we would not be reborn into one of the unfortunate births. Several of the monks told us that our main goal in this life should be to secure a human rebirth. While the students were surprised that Buddhists would be so ‘fire and brimstone’, as they commented to me, the rhetoric makes sense when you understand the role of the Buddhist monk in spreading their religion and the significance of human birth in the Buddhist cosmos.

Monks who participate in the cultural exchange programmes of Chiang Mai believe that travellers to their temples must have some karmic seeds from their past coming to fruition now. At the same time, if a traveller entered a temple, but was not really that interested or was just following a friend, wholesome karmic seeds might still have been planted in that person, which would come to fruition later. In either case, the Buddhist monastic duty requires them to encourage those seeds to sprout.

Because of this ‘come and see’ approach, scholars of Buddhism, as well as travellers, often have not noticed that monks are missionaries. The student monks in Chiang Mai themselves would not call their work missionising in the same vein as the Christians they have encountered. They contrast their openness to ‘show the way’ with Christian missionaries, who go out to find potential converts. Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai are not advertising their way of life, asking for support, or offering the possibility to become a Buddhist. Instead, they conclude that when the karmic connections arise, travellers will arrive at the temple and monks will be ready to share their teachings.

Although well-respected Buddhist teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh from Vietnam and Buddhadasa Bhik­khu (1906-93) from Thailand, have sought dialogue with Christianity, for many student monks in Chiang Mai the idea of a Christian missionary’s work of conversion seems to be in opposition with Buddhist values.

However, missionising through showing, not telling, has its advantages and disadvantages for Buddhism on the international stage. At the same time as Buddhists hope to increase their influence, the global population of Buddhists is expected to decline by almost 2 per cent by 2050. Lack of concern about religious affiliation and conversion can have consequences.

Foreigners who come to Buddhism through meditation might eventually embrace the entirety of the religion

Phra Raja Sittimuni Chodok (1918-88), one of the monks who resided at Buddhapadipa temple, established in England in 1966, strategised some of the best practices for presenting Buddhism to foreigners. As the head of the missionaries of London, he wrote the small booklet Dhamma of Interest for Foreigners, which was printed in 1966. In it, he advocated beginning with the rational, practical meditation technique of vipassana, as he found this training to be the most important when beginning to present Buddhism to non-Buddhists. Only once the foreigner can practise well should the Buddhist missionary introduce study of the Pali canon. And the last step for his students is to learn rituals such as bowing, prostrating to Buddha statues and monks, reciting the Five Precepts, chanting in Pali, and delivering protective blessings. This Buddhist missionary agrees that practice is the most important for non-Buddhists, and only after this understanding can the non-Buddhist move on to more devotional and committed activities.

In the small book Thai Buddhism, published by the Monk Chat programme at Wat Suan Dok, the main author, Phra Saneh Dhammavaro, wrote in the foreword that the booklet’s purpose is to be beneficial to foreigners and encourage them in their pursuit of the essential teachings of the Buddha, which Phra Saneh believes will lead to real peace, enjoyment and happiness. Here, he encapsulates some of the ways monks approach teaching Buddhism to foreigners. They want to make it available so that the teachings can lead to less suffering in each individual. Like much of the framing of Buddhist missionaries, the rhetoric is not interested in commitment or religious identity.

Student monks of Chiang Mai are happy that foreigners are interested in meditation and believe this opening will eventually lead them to embrace the entirety of the religion, in this life or a future one. The monks typically foresee a trajectory where foreigners come to Buddhism through the door of meditation, and can grow in their understanding and interest from there.

Although Buddhist missionaries exhibit a polite way to engage outsiders, there are challenges with this approach. Instead of a real commitment to the dhamma, one that could create a radical transformation in people’s lives, parts of the tradition are separated out. When Buddhist missionaries focus on adding Buddhism as a complement to one’s life, possible outcomes such as the creation of new monastic and lay communities, and a future generation of Buddhists who will hand down the teachings to their children, are less likely. For Buddhist monastics with a duty to spread the teachings, as long as Buddhist teachings and practices are available to those interested, the whole tradition will eventually be discovered.

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