Opportunities and challenges for Buddhist education in Europe

Speeches delivered to the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations, Symposium on Buddhist Universities, 27 May 2007

Dr Tamas Agocs Foreign Relations Manager & Director of East –West Research Institute Budapest Buddhist University, Hungary

In contrast with most Asian countries represented in this symposium, Europe does not have a tradition of Buddhist education. This is not surprising. The Dhamma actually arrived to Europe fairly recently, just about one century ago, which is not a very long time for the Dhamma to take root. Every beginning is difficult – and one-hundred years can only be considered as a beginning. Even the very concept of Buddhism is quite problematic in the Western setting. It is generally characterized as a religion, but as the Venerable Dr. Yifa also said: many western Buddhists are uncomfortable or are getting uncomfortable with that classification and they prefer to treat Buddhism as a science, psychology or philosophy. These western concepts, whether we talk about religion or science, do not do justice to Buddhism, because it seems to cut across all of these conceptual categories.

Individual people who practice the Dhamma may overcome these conceptual distinctions and realize that the Buddha’s teaching is a method to see through dukkha [pain/suffering]. Nevertheless, Buddhism cannot be considered a scientific method – in the western use, or western sense of the word, because it comes from a completely different cultural background – with quite different suppositions.

But when we consider Buddhism as a religion, it can be basically studied in two ways: from within, or from without. Non-historical religions, in the European sense, those not rooted in the European culture are traditionally studied from without – that is, scientifically, objectively – without any emotional or personal involvement. As Europeans started to become fascinated with the [East] about two or three centuries ago, the eastern cultures became objects of scientific investigation. Consequently, European universities developed the tradition of oriental scholarship, focusing mainly on the study of texts. Insofar as these texts are Buddhist, we may speak of the study of Buddhism in those institutions. However, these studies come under the rubric of linguistics or philology, or history of religion, and thus cannot be considered as examples of Buddhist education in the traditional sense – with textual studies as only part of the training. More recently, based on the study of various Buddhist sources and combining methods of philology and cultural anthropology, the science of Buddhology developed, which aims to study Buddhism in its historical context. Though these studies may greatly enhance our understanding of Buddhism, they do not go beyond the academic style of objective inquiry and, hence again, cannot rightly be characterized as Buddhist education. Individual development in a mental or spiritual sense, which is the ultimate goal of traditional Buddhist training, is clearly outside the scope of Western academia, which, thus cannot be expected to host Buddhist educational programs.

Now, Buddhism can also be studied from within in Europe, in different Dhamma centers, but their training programs do not have any academic accreditation; and, thus, do not qualify as higher education, however high their academic standards may otherwise be. So we come to the conclusion here that Buddhist education, Buddhist higher education is virtually non-existent in Europe.

Now, about why it should exist. First, a fully qualified Buddhist education in Europe must meet two quite different sets of criteria: one set by the Buddhist tradition and another by western scholarship. These two are not easy to bring into line. Generally speaking, Western standards are based on the objective measurability of one’s knowledge and skills in a certain area, without much concern for the rest of the person’s demeanor. In the Buddhist sense, however, the development of skills and understanding goes hand in hand with personal advancement with morality, concentration – and these mental skills are not easy to measure. But more significantly, academic commitment demands impartiality towards one’s object of study which is in striking contrast with what is expected in a traditional Buddhist school. So the basic difference between these two sets of expectations seems to lay in their respective understanding of the use of knowledge, that is: what knowledge is good for – that is, why we study. In Europe, it is shown by some post-modernist thinkers that knowledge is power, in the first place; so, it is a means to control and manipulate the world around us, ourselves, and the environment, and by objectifying one’s field of study – rendering it manageable. Also, we define ourselves in relation to that object. Learning in the Buddhist sense is something quite different. It cannot be used to control or manipulate. (Quite on the contrary, it reveals the futility of these human concerns.)

All of this goes to show that Buddhism does not conform to our western categories and expectations of what a religious or scientific discipline should look like. This distinction between science and religion is a European cultural heritage, which can be traced to a split in between reason and faith – as Christian dogma failed to accommodate the findings of scientific observation. As the scientific method proved more and more successful in predicting the behavior of objects in the natural world, religious modes of understanding came to be discredited or relegated to a transcendent world. These two seem to have no relation to each other. This characteristically western duality is reflected in the epistemic compatibility between objective scientific study and subjective religious experience. When Buddhism is considered as a religion, it is reduced to a belief system; when it is treated as a science, it tends to be divested of its devotional aspect. So, institutionally speaking, the challenge for Buddhist education in Europe, in the 21st Century, seems to be to develop an institutional framework, which is free from the academic/religious distinction, and we should also devise programs which avoid one-sided emphasis on either intellectual or spiritual training, thus helping to restore the integrity of human experience. This is one of the main messages which I would like to put across, here: let us try to get rid of this duality! Spiritually speaking, our main challenge seems to be to heal that very split, in the western mind, or psyche, which makes the categorization of Buddhism so difficult. It is the dominance of reason, resulting from that split that lies at the heart of the so called ‘evils’ of modern society and what we associate with globalization. But from its internal dimension, the divided western mind sought to control its surroundings and set out to conquer the outside world – intellectually by developing science, economically by applied technology, and physically through imperialism. The technical revolution, which changed the face of the Earth so drastically, also derives from the dominance of the rational ego. Starting out from Europe, the white-man colonized the people of other races, exploited their natural and human resources, and still continue to do so, albeit in a different guise. So thinking along those lines, we can see that Buddhism can give us key insights into the re-evaluation of our culture.