Reflections: Some ground rules for propagating the Teachings of the Buddha

By Chong Kwek Yan
Originally published 18 Feb 2012 on the writer’s blog

Buddhism is a missionary religion. The Buddha Gautama instructed the first 60 Arahants to go forth and “not two monks take the same road”. Lay patrons during the Buddha’s time also participated in the ministry. Therefore, the answer to some who have asked why Buddhists do not actively share about their religion is not because we have nothing good to share, nor is it because the religion asks us to mind only our own business. It is usually because few so-called Buddhists really know and practice the Teachings, or it could be that here in Singapore, we are shy, or we are just really bad at it.

In Singapore in recent years, however, interest in understanding and practicing the Teachings have grown. The Teachings are also ever more relevant and useful in today’s world. Even if we have benefitted only a little, we have some personal experience to share with others, and it is only right that we do so when the time is appropriate so that everyone can learn from each other.

However, religion necessarily involves some conflicting views, and this can result in ideas that are not palatable or acceptable to either side, even if the best choice of words were chosen. This is fine as long as parties know when to agree to disagree. After all, we are here to learn from and help each other; there is no point in generating ill feelings while doing so.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, and yet at the same time effectively share on our experience practicing what the Buddha and our Teachers have been teaching us, it may be helpful to have ten points to take note of:

  1. Check our intentions. The aim is to share something useful to deal with the challenges in life, or to encourage the cultivation of useful qualities beneficial to our mental welfare. Making converts is never the aim.
  2. Watch our ego: this is not a game to win or lose. Our friend may not agree with us in the end, but we may have picked up many useful things to think about as well. Be confident of the Teachings, but be humble about ourself and our Community.
  3. Never base our sharing on putting down the beliefs of others. We should be sharing how we benefit from practicing the Teachings, not why other teachings are not as good. The Buddha’s Teachings are excellent enough by themselves without having resort to criticizing the teachings of others.
  4. When asked, it is alright to compare beliefs or ideas, but always be careful to state that this is the Buddhist opinion, or this our personal opinion. Controversy can be inevitable, but never state it unqualified as though it is universal truth (even if you think it should be universal truth). It only sounds arrogant.
  5. Make effort to recognize the beauty in other belief systems, and appreciate how they contribute to the welfare of all living things. Yet at the same time, acknowledge that some people within some systems can go to the extremes, and result in actions and views that are unskillful – from the Buddhist point of view. Have compassion for them.
  6. Be careful with value-laden terms like “good”, “bad”, “evil”, etc. Buddhist morality focuses on the mental state behind the actions, the skillfulness of the actions, and the results of the actions. Actions that lead to happiness are desirable. Actions that lead to suffering are undesirable. That’s it.
  7. Stay polite but stay firm, even when being teased or insulted. Never retaliate, but never flinch. Don’t indulge in our emotions, but don’t shy away from stating the facts.
  8. Share what is relevant, useful and appropriate at that point in time.Say it in terms that others can understand and connect with. Delving into complex philosophy, or citing lots of scripture, or gushing with praise and devotion for Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, or using heavy jargon with the wrong audience is not only poor marketing, but also makes others think that we are fanatics.
  9. Know when to stop: when others are uncomfortable, when they are not interested, when they are unreasonable, when they become angry. Know when to help: when they need us, when they are interested, when they are receptive, and when the conditions are suitable.
  10. Always be prepared to apologize sincerely for any offense caused. No matter how careful we are, it is always possible to make a mistake and cause offense, especially if we are inexperienced. Yet, don’t cheapen apologies by using it so liberally just to insure ourselves against censure. If you know it would cause offense, paraphrase, rather than apologize first but say the same thing. Also, be specific about what we are apologizing for: there is a difference between apologizing for our beliefs, and apologizing for not being skillful enough in expressing ourselves.

These apply to both publicity materials as well as conversations.

With increasing sensitivity in both the secular and religious spheres of Singapore, we need to safeguard ourselves and our community from making silly mistakes while we carry out our roles as active students of the Buddhadharma. Even then, let us not be seen as weak in spiritual strength, or as pushovers when mis-characterized. This balance may be a fine one, but ours has always been the Middle Path. We have the bountiful wisdom to find it and walk it.

May all beings be well and happy. May we all swiftly reach the other shore.

Chong Kwek Yan is an alumnus of the NUS Buddhist Society. He is currently a postgraduate student at the Department of Biological Sciences, NUS.


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