World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) urged to campaign for Official Recognition of Buddhism in non – Buddhist countries
Posted on October 27th, 2016

Senaka Weeraratna

This is an expanded version of an address delivered by Mr. Senaka Weeraratna, Hony. Secretary of the German Dharmaduta Society, on Sept. 28, 2016 in support of his Resolution entitled ‘Recognition of Buddhism as an official religion in non – Buddhist countries’ at the First Plenary Session of the 28th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) held in Seoul , South Korea from Sept. 26 – 30, 2016.

Respected members of the Maha Sangha, Mr. President, Vice –Presidents, Members of the Executive Council of the WFB, the President and Members of the Jin- Gak Buddhist Order, Distinguished Delegates and Observers, Brothers and Sisters in the Dhamma

Thank you Mr. Chairman, for giving me an opportunity to address this august assembly.  It is undoubtedly a great privilege and honour.

The World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) being the leading international Buddhist Organisation, was founded by a great visionary, Dr. G.P. Malalasekera, in 1950 in Colombo, to unite all Buddhists despite glaring ideological differences between the various traditions, under the umbrella of ‘Fellowship’.

There were 129 Buddhist delegates from 27 countries representing Asia, Europe and North America ( including Hawaii) at this historic meeting which saw the founding of the WFB. It is now generally accepted that this meeting marked the first event in Buddhist history when Buddhists (laity and sangha) of nearly all sects in the globe were duly represented and attended with the singular purpose of contributing to the spread and advancement of Buddhism through fellowship. This was undoubtedly a laudable and ground breaking move.

Among the notable figures present on this occasion was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the then Minister of Law and Chairman of the Drafting Committee of India’s Constitution (also known as the father of India’s Constitution and regarded by some as the ‘Modern Manu’). More importantly he was greatly instrumental in the revival of Buddhism in India in the modern era being the leader of India’s Dalits (so called – Untouchables) who converted to Buddhism.

Ambedkar’s advice to WFB

In the Book ‘Ambedkar and Buddhism’ by Sangarakshita (1986), an interesting account is given of Ambedkar’s stance at the Inaugural meeting of the WFB which took place at the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy on May 25, 1950. Sangarakshita says as follows:

On 25 May (1950) he ( Dr. B.R. Ambedkar) arrived in Colombo by air with his wife and Rajbhoj and the same day attended the inaugural meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Since he was not attending the meeting as a Delegate (for that would have implied that he considered himself a Buddhist), he declined to speak at the official session and, instead, addressed the Delegates after they had adopted the resolution inaugurating the Fellowship. There were people in India, he told them, who thought that the time had come when the effort might be made to revive Buddhism, and one of the objects of his visit was to observe Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, which the people of India had no means of witnessing. Another object was to find out to what extent Buddhism was practised in its pristine purity and to what extent its teachings had been encrusted with beliefs incompatible with its basic principles. He was also interested in finding out to what extent the religion of the Buddha was ‘a live thing’ and whether it existed merely because the people of Ceylon happened to be Buddhists in the traditional sense of the word.

Having thus explained the purpose of his visit, Ambedkar turned to the conference itself. He was not fully satisfied, he said, with the resolution that had been passed calling for a World Fellowship of Buddhists. What was wanted was a declaration on the part of all the Buddhist countries that they were determined not merely to have a Fellowship but that they would propagate the religion and make sacrifices for it. Whether the delegates realized it or not, what Ambedkar was really saying was that the Buddhist countries of Asia should be less inward-looking and more outward-looking. He himself was, as usual, sufficiently outward-looking.

After the conclusion of the Conference he not only saw as much as he could of the ceremonies and rituals of Ceylon Buddhism but found time to address the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, Colombo, on ‘The Rise and Fall of Buddhism in India’. Buddhism had not disappeared from India, he asserted. Though its material form had disappeared, as a spiritual force it still existed. What had led to the decline of Buddhism in India was not clear. He himself was still studying the subject, but he believed that Buddhism had faded away in India because of the rise of Vaishnavism and Shivaism and because of the Muslim invasion of India. ‘When Alla-ud-din marched into Bihar, he killed five to six thousand Bhikkhus. The remaining Buddhist monks fled to neighbouring countries like China, Nepal, and Tibet. Efforts were, subsequently, made by Buddhists of India to raise another priesthood in order to revive Buddhism. But these failed as by then ninety per cent of the people had embraced Hinduism.’ Answering the question why Hinduism had survived in India and Buddhism had died, Ambedkar observed, ‘Buddhism as a religion is difficult to practise while Hinduism is not.’ Shortly afterwards he addressed a meeting in the Colombo Town Hall and appealed to the Untouchables there to embrace Buddhism, saying that there was no need for them to have a separate organization. He also urged the Buddhists of Ceylon to accept the Untouchables and look after their interests with paternal care”.

No Mechanism to help protect and save Buddhist communities and Buddhist Nations in danger.

Dr. Ambedkar’s advice to the WFB was that it must not confine itself to mere ‘fellowship’ but must be forthright and determined  to make sacrifices in fostering (and protecting Buddhism), and have an impact on the unfolding major events in the world. In other words, WFB must be outspoken, engage in advocacy for noble causes like the Buddha did and give leadership for the cause and progress of Buddhism.

If we look at the world today we see powerful  and influential organizations like the ‘Organisation for Islamic Co – operation’ and ‘ World Council of Christian Churches’ who will stand by and publicly support the cause of their co –religionists unequivocally. Leading Buddhist organizations must do likewise. We must evolve mechanisms to help protect and save Buddhist communities and Buddhist Nations in danger. The protection and preservation of Buddhism must be placed high on the WFB Agenda. This is because it is Buddhism more than any other religion that has lost more ground and space to other religions during the last 1000 years.

Protection of Buddha Gaya

There are threats even to the sanctity of the Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya. It is subject to constant disturbance from sound amplifiers i.e. loudspeakers, installed at a nearby Mosque situated only 60 meters away from the Maha Bodhi Temple. The tranquility and serenity that one associates with the most sacred place on earth for Buddhists i.e. place of enlightenment of the Buddha, is not possible due to management of the Temple not being under the control of Buddhists. It is tantamount to humiliation of Buddhists to be forced to listen as a captive audience to shrieking sounds in a foreign language amplified many times over in the most sacred site for Buddhists. The Govt. of India which has taken special steps to attract tourists from all over the world to visit important Buddhist sites in India must address this issue on an urgent and serious footing without any further delay. WFB must add its voice and urge the Govt. of India to act effectively to put a stop to highly amplified sounds of another Religion that disturbs the tranquility and calm of the main Maha Bodhi Temple at Buddha Gaya.

Official Recognition of Buddhism in non – Buddhist majority countries

The Resolution before this House is a call to the WFB to set in motion suitable arrangements to lobby the international community to extend official recognition to Buddhism in countries outside Asia.

The World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) is mandated in its Constitution to propagate the sublime doctrine of the Buddha (Article 3.3). A reasonable construction of this mandate empowers the WFB to take all possible lawful steps to facilitate the spread of the Buddha Dhamma in both Buddhist and non – Buddhist communities and countries world –wide.

It is estimated that there are now altogether between 1 and 4 Million Buddhists in Europe, the majority being in Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Despite a commitment to ‘multi – culturalism’ and ‘religious pluralism’ in Europe, the official recognition of Buddhism is confined only to two States i.e. Russia and Austria.

In most Muslim countries in West Asia the existence of Buddhism as a religion is denied because it does not subscribe to the belief in a creator God. This translates itself into denial of any form of freedom of worship including access to places of worship for Buddhists in the Middle East despite over One Million expatriate Buddhists working and living in these countries. In some Muslim countries including Maldives, Buddhists are not allowed to enter these countries with Books on Buddhism or any artifact that resembles affinity or respect for Buddhism e.g. Buddhist statues. In some Airports they are pulled out from the possession of the foreign visitor by Customs Officers and dashed to the ground. This is a clear violation of a fundamental Human Right. The Right to choose one’s religion and practice it. Many International bodies including the UNHRC are complicit tacitly in such Human Rights violations through conduct of omission and deafening silence.

Buddhist adherents make up just over 0.3% of the total population of the Middle East. Many of these Buddhists are workers who have migrated from Asia to the Middle East in the last 20 years, many from countries that have large Buddhist populations, such as ChinaVietnamThailandSri Lanka, and Nepal. A small number of engineers, company directors, and managers from JapanTaiwanHong KongSingapore, and South Korea have also moved to the Middle East”

Buddhism in the Middle East (Wikipedia)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_the_Middle_East

However in contrast to the practice of countries in the Middle East, several Muslim Majority countries in South East Asia i.e. Indonesia and Malaysia, and South Asia e.g. Bangladesh, have given Official Recognition to Buddhism and declared Vesak as a Public Holiday.

Pakistan officially recognizes Buddhism and held the first – ever Vesak Festival organized by the Government of Pakistan at Taxila commencing in year 2016. Celebration of the Vesak Festival at Taxila is intended to be an annual event in which Buddhists from all over the world will be invited to participate.

In Europe, so far only Russia and Austria, have granted Official Recognition to Buddhism, despite Buddhism being one of the oldest religions and accepted as a global religion by the UN which has allocated a special day in its Annual Calendar for celebration of Vesak (Buddha’s Birthday).

The non – recognition of Buddhism as an Official religion in Europe has led to discriminatory treatment such as categorizing Buddhists as being members of ‘sects’ and ‘cults’ among other things. The absence of State recognition to Buddhism in almost all European countries bar Russia and Austria functions as an impediment to the proper practice and development of Buddhism in Europe.

There are no public holidays for Buddhism or any other non – Christian religion in the Public Holiday calendar of European nations i.e. with a Christian heritage. This is in stark contrast to the conduct of traditional Buddhist countries e.g. Sri Lanka, which has granted public holidays on days of religious significance to adherents of Abrahamic religions i.e. Christianity and Islam, and Eastern Dharmic Religions i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism.

Even UK denies Official Recognition to Buddhism. It does not allow the construction of new Buddhist Temples. But allows Buddhists to occupy existing Buildings and use them for their religious functions. This is also true of several other West European countries.

What does Official State Recognition of Buddhism mean?

Official Recognition would allow Buddhists certain rights such as access to the media, financial support, legal standing, and recognition equal to those of Christian Churches, and right to teach in a school. It would allow them the legal right to form voluntary societies as exclusive Buddhist Societies with membership restricted only to Buddhists.

However, despite restrictive laws, there is growing public acceptance and accommodation of Buddhism in several European countries including UK, France and Germany.

Conclusion

The WFB must take leadership in association with the Governments of Buddhism friendly countries and other Buddhist organizations and Buddhist communities, in lobbying for greater official recognition of Buddhism by nations outside Asia. Buddhists in these countries are entitled to equal rights similar to those enjoyed by the followers of the Abrahamic faiths. This task is long overdue for the World’s premier International Buddhist Organisation, namely the WFB.

Senaka Weeraratna

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