As some will knowl, the focus of a recent unsuccesful bid for funding from the Community Development Fund was about researching and implementing support for Buddhist groups on campus. Recently I attended a day’s training on Student Leadership run by the Coexistence Trust at the Houses of Parliament.
There were about 60 young students representing predominantly the Jewish and Moslem faiths, but with some Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Bahai and others. There were also around 10 representatives from various interfaith groups such as the Tony Blair Foundation, Interfaith Action, Three Faiths Forum, Faith matters, the City Circle and others.
The day itself was run by the Coexistence Trust which focuses on Jewish – Islamic links and explains why the audience was predominantly from these groups. The purpose was to encourage young people of faith (particularly Jewish and Islamic) to initiate joint campaigns, social action, and interfaith projects on campus.
I seemed to be just about the only Buddhist there and was asked a few questions by students I spoke with. They asked me why there was not a Buddhist Society at some of their universities - in particular LSE (with a large Asian presence) and Nottingham. They also noted that Buddhism seemed largely absent from what might be characterised as the ‘public square’. They knew little about Buddhism and found it quite hard to make contact depending on their locations. I also became aware of the energy being devoted by other faiths towards involving and reaching out to young people.
Given the acknowledged ‘greying of Buddhism’ it seems to me that there is an important area of work here for Buddhist organisations and groups to be aware of and contribute to – namely making contact with and supporting students on campus. Unless we get a bit more organised and active with young people and university students – tomorrow’s leaders, parents and activists – then it is likely that Buddhism will decline in the UK.
Although there are debates to be had about just what Buddhism is and what sort of engagement Buddhists might undertake in the ‘public square’, my own view is that if we at least accept that Buddhist teachings are helpful and lead to human flourishing and reduced suffering, then we must be prepared to share these teachings and practices with others. Buddhism is in the unique position of offering a non-theistically based way of life and thus avoiding the endless conflicts caused by different interpretations of ‘god’ and god’s will. (This is perhaps why those from theistic and especially Abrahamic faiths sometimes try to ignore or marginalize Buddhism – they bracket it with atheism or humanism).
Perhaps if Buddhist teachings continue to have a strong imfluence in western psychology and therapy, then this is a good legacy. However, I cannot help feeling that such an outcome would lose a lot of great value – the ideas and practices inherent in community and Sangha, the subtle and profound insights into the relationship between emptiness and form, and the ethical teachings of Buddhism, come together in a unified way to form a complete path, a path that is not present in the deconstructed and packaged products created for therapeutic consumption.
Accordingly I suggest that a high
priority for the NBO and the Buddhist Society is to plan and implement a joint
range of activities intended to reach out to young people on campus, to provide
support to Buddhist Societies, to provide local Buddhist contact information for
students, to identify a range of good speakers and teachers who are prepared to
visit universities, to create and maintain Buddhist student internet sources and
to think of creative ways to engage young students.
Perhaps we can create a UK Student Buddhist organisation
as has been done with most other faiths
Such a project has the possibility of bringing a broad
range of Buddhists together in a productive and good cause and can perhaps help
reinvigorate and give some focus to the broader ‘Buddhist community’.
I must add that there are already many good Buddhist activities going on in Universities – Manchester is the one I know most about – although Cambridge and Oxford have various significant Buddhist initiatives. I am also aware that All Faiths and None (AFAN) is active in further education and has some excellent ideas and initiatives.