28 March 2008

You say you want a revolution?

The environment is going belly up. Wars, violent insurgencies, armed conflicts are the norm; kids with guns turn up at school and shoot their classmates, or shoot each other in the streets. The list goes on. What the world needs now, more than anything, a Buddhist might say, is the Dharma, even a Dharma Revolution.

Buddhism has always been, along with Islam and Christianity, a missionary religion. Right from the beginning the Buddha set out to convince people that his Awakening was accessible to all, to convert them. In the past Buddhism has been a great force for good in Asia - spreading education, literacy, and positive values, promoting stable societies. Buddhist states, contrary to popular opinion, have not always been at peace with themselves, or with the neighbours. But I do see Buddhist teachings and practices as a practical solution to life's problems, large and small. There's a vocal minority who are antithetical to spreading the Dharma. In the UK, for instance, those organisations which have been most active in going out to people with the Dharma, that have spread the Buddhavācā most effectively are frequently attacked for "empire building" - almost as though spreading the Dharma was a bad thing! The more people who take on Buddhist precepts the better as far as I'm concerned.

In the 1960's and 70's the hippies took to the Dharma like ducks to water. They were ready willing and able to start practising and to take it all seriously enough to be transformed by it. Many of the current leaders of various Western Buddhist movements came out of that counter-cultural undercurrent. However the 1980's followed: I could sum the the Zeitgeist of my era as "a loss of idealism". The result was nihilism and hedonism. The hippies were hopelessly naive, and the X generation knew it. The result is that Western Buddhism is largely still drawing converts from the hippy generation. Sanghas across all divides are getting older on average. We are not attracting young people to Buddhism.

Creating a "Dhamma revolution" will not be easy in the West. I actually see more potential in India with its massive under-classes who are enthusiastically embracing Buddhism. If we are going to do it, then I believe that Malcolm Gladwell has much to tell us on the subject of spreading our message. Its a while since I read his book "The Tipping Point" so this isn't a formal review, but a paraphrasing based on memory. I do think that any revolutionary manifesto must take into account what Gladwell says - he draws his examples from the most successful revolutions, mega-trends, and plagues in history.

The successful revolutionary committee comprises three basic skills: the Maven, the Networker, and the Persuader. The Maven knows stuff. It is the Maven who will see what needs to happen, what people really need or want. They see the trends in society - in which case Gladwell himself is a Maven. In a Buddhist context we don't need to worry too much about this. The Buddha was our Maven. He discovered what we should do about suffering.

However knowing what to do is not enough. One has to get other people on board. Other people must be persuaded that what the Maven says is correct. Ironically, perhaps, the Maven is often not a good persuader. Persuaders are able to get the message across. Someone has to sell the message. I think the Dalai Lama is probably the best example of this. Bookshops are full of his books - they have crowded other authors out in many cases. He gets amazing press coverage as well, and is as far as I know, always portrayed positively in the West. It's not enough to have the Dharma for ourselves. I would count us as having been successful, for instance, when the whole creation/evolution debate broadens out to include a Buddhist perspective.

However even the ability to know what to say, and how to say it, is insufficient. One must know who to say it to. And this is the skill brought to the mix by the networker. They know everyone, and they know who does what. They know who, if persuaded, will make all the difference. For instance the Dalai Lama meeting George Bush is not going to create a Dhamma Revolution because Bush is on his way out, he a fundamentalist Christian. Those meetings may well help to secure the safety of the Tibetan refugees in exile - an admirable goal - but they won't make much difference on a larger scale. Elected leaders have a problem that the emperors of China and Japan did not have - they were not subject to the will of the people. In Asia it was often the adoption of Buddhism by the aristocracy that made the difference in its survival - just as the adoption of Christianity by Roman Emperors resulted in a Christian Europe. And yet its clear that royal patronage is fickle. The question then is who do we reach in order to make a difference? I'm not sure that we know the answer to that yet, but I suspect that "ageing hippies" is not going to be it.

Propagating the ideas of Buddhism - such as personal responsibility for actions, and the revolutionary transformative power of kindness and generosity - in the West will be difficult. People are on the whole wealthy, governments are popularist, personal responsibility is no valued, individualism is the rule. But if we are going to do it then I think Gladwell is offering us a blueprint. Working out the details will be interesting.

image: Malcolm Gladwell, from PomeRantz
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