Thom Wolf: Three Challenges for Buddhism of the 21st Century | First International Buddhist Conference, Mumbai, India

Oikos Worldviews Journal | Volume 7 Issue 1 Spring 2007

See Thom Wolf, “Three Challenges for Buddhism of the 21st Century” 29-48, in Bhalchandra Mungékar and Aakash Singh Rathore (editors),
Buddhism in the Contemporary World: An Ambedkarian Perspective.
New Delhi: Bookwell 2007.
Thom Wolf is International Director, University Institute, New Delhi India.
Chair, ‘International Practices of Buddhism’ Session, 2550th Anniversary of the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha,
International Conference at Bodhgaya, India, the birthplace of Buddhism, a 2007 Conference of the Government of India, Ministry of Culture.
Bhalchandra Mungékar is a Member of the Planning Commission, Government of India.
Chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; and former Vice-Chancellor, University of Mumbai.
Aakash Singh Rathore is a Reader, Department of Philosophy, Delhi University. Specialising in legal and political philosophy, he has authored Eros Turannos, a study on tyranny, and is translator of the French edition of Maulana Azad’s autobiographical India Wins Freedom.

An Introduction

Bhalchandra Mungékar and Aakash Singh Rathore are the editors of Buddhism and the Contemporary World: An Ambedkarian Perspective (New Delhi: Bookwell 2007).

Aakash Singh Rathore (Ph.D.), Reader in Philosophy, University of Delhi, gives an introduction to the papers selected for publication from those delivered at the First International Buddhist Conference held on 9-10 April 2005 in Mumbai. Here is part of Dr. Rathore’s introduction.


Part One, Buddhism Now: Issues and Challenges, begins with the brilliant paper of Dr. Christopher Queen of Harvard University, who had delivered the Keynote Address at the Conference. Dr. Queen’s address, entitled ‘Buddhism and World Peace: A Turning Point for Humanity’ is wide-ranging and insightful, and it is fitting that we begin with his paper insofar as it highlights many of the themes taken up in the subsequent parts of the book.


Chapter 1 is especially interesting for the manner by which Dr. Queen manages to bring so many of the issues and challenges of Buddhism and the contemporary world together in dialogue with the writings and spirit of Dr. Ambedkar. For, as the author states, “Dr. Ambedkar offered, quite independently of other thinkers at the time, an interpretation of the Buddhist tradition that addresses the crisis of our times in a daring new way.”


In Chapter 2, Dr. Thom Wolf probingly reflects on what he calls three challenges to Buddhism that will be posed by the 21st century.
The first is a challenge to its history. Dr. Wolf asks whether Buddhism can overcome what appears to be a chronic social anaemia.

The second is a spiritual challenge. The author asks, what kinds of results come from being persistently syncretistic with local animistic practices, which has characterized Buddhism since its inception.

Finally, Dr. Wolf suggests there is also a paradigm challenge. He queries: where might we look in the socio-economic domain, for dynamic and sustainable societies, mentored by the Buddhist worldview, to recommend as models for adoption in the global future?

Dr. Wolf’s paper is valuable not only for clearly spelling out the challenges faced by Buddhism itself in the contemporary world, but also for the effort he makes to forge a path toward the resolution of these challenges.


The first Part concludes with the paper of one of the Editors (Dr. Bhalchandra Mungékar), which serves as a transition to Part Two. Chapter 3 makes a beginning in the attempt to demonstrate that Buddhism is a composite philosophy governing man’s life on earth and his relationship to other men in society.

Dr. Mungékar aims to establish that morality is the foundation of Buddhism, and that the religion emphasizes individual liberty, and preaches equality, fraternity, justice, non-violence and compassion.

A version of this article appears as Chapter 2 in Mungékar and Rathore’s Buddhism and the Contemporary World.

Christopher Queen is Lecturer, Study of Religion and Dean of SAR for Continuing Education, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.

Thom Wolf is International Director, University Institute, New Delhi.

Bhalchandra Mungekar is Member of the Planning Commission, Government of India; former Vice-Chancellor, University of Mumbai; Chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; and Founder-President, Dr. Ambedkar Institute of Social and Economic Change.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution of India, is perhaps the premier South Asian standard for a basic tenet of Buddhism: that a person is Buddhist by conviction, not from conception.[1]

Today, many Buddhists are born Buddhist. But originally Buddhism was not a birth religion, as Hinduism and Judaism. Instead, originally Buddhism was a belief religion. That is to say, a person was not born a Buddhist. A person became a Buddhist. One was not Buddhist because of caste or clan. Instead, one was a Buddhist because of consideration and choice.

As such, Buddhism shares a transformational worldview with Christianity and Islam. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all agree that a person may evaluate his life situation and decide to change, to go in a different direction. Therefore, the Buddhist community, it seems to me, faces several challenges in the beginning decades of the 21st century. In raising these issues, I do not presume to answer them for my Buddhist friends. But as a friend and global neighbour in the struggle against darkness, distortion and despair, I do note these as points of contemplation for those who follow Gautama’s path.

In a conflicted world experiencing such intense confrontation of civilizational worldviews, surely no period of history has been any more in need of peace than ours. If Dr. Ambedkar represents the new Buddhism, then much of Buddhist Asia documents the old Buddhism. And even granted that Ambedkar’s neo-Buddhism presents a significant minority articulation, on-the-ground Buddhism remains the overwhelming strong major voice.

The future will bring the new and unanticipated adaptations of the Buddhist movement. The past insists on the old and persistent continuations of the Buddhist traditions. Others are reformulating the new minority expressions. I am here reminding us of the historical and current majority realities.[2]

I think 21st century Buddhism will face three interlocking and insistent worldview challenges.

Challenge 1

Challenge 1 for Buddhism of the 21st century: can Buddhism overcome what historically appears to be a chronic social anaemia?

If the modern/postmodern world created its future out of the progressive disenchantment of nature, the question is: has the perennial Buddhist world of Southeast and East Asia mothered its past by prolonging-the-enchantment of nature?[3]

This is not a new question.[4] Some one hundred years ago A. B. Bruce, university religion professor, Glasgow, Scotland, was surely correct when he said concerning Buddhism: “In spite of all its defects, theoretical and practical, the religious movement originated by Buddha may be numbered among the forces that have contributed in a signal degree to the moral amelioration of the world.” Along with this 100 years old commendation of signal moral amelioration for the world, Bruce makes three significant points.

One, Buddhism’s “ethical idea… is pure and elevated.” Two, Buddhism has “helped millions to live sweet, peaceful lives in retirement from the world.” And three, Buddhism has “soothed the pain of despair.”

But that is precisely the point. On the one hand, A. B. Bruce describes Buddhism as “a virtuous atheism of reaction which sought to replace the prevalent brahmanical pantheism… Life, taught Buddha, is inherently miserable. Therefore let wise men cease to desire it, and abstain from kindling with the taper of karma the light of another life.”[5]

But that is also the difficulty. For on the other hand, according to Bruce, while the ethical ideal is pure and elevated, he concludes historical Buddhism to be one-sided. Because while millions have been assisted to live “sweet, peaceful lives in retirement from the world” they have not, in Bruce’s words, been “nerved… to play the part of heroes in the world.” And finally, while historical Buddhism has soothed despair’s pain, it has “not inspired hope.” Sounding strikingly Marxist in his sentiment, Bruce concludes with Bunsen that historically, Buddhism has “produced the effect of a mild dose of opium” on the peoples of “weary-hearted Asia.”[6]

Max Weber, professor at Germany’s Heidelberg University, is well-known as one of the four fathers of modern sociology. Weber’s Religion of India has been proven wrong on many of the details. And, as with brahmanism, Weber is not always a wholly reliable guide to the practice of Buddhists.[7]

Nevertheless, I agree with David Gellner, social anthropologist, Brunel University, UK, when he notes that Weber’s remarks on the brahmanical worldview are “extremely perceptive” and that “even if today they would have to be supplemented, his conclusions as to the social implications of the most orthodox part of Hinduism [and Buddhism] remain valid.”

The same holds true for Weber’s treatment of the Buddhist worldview historically on South, Southeast and East Asian societies, and “the limitations it placed on the action of its adherents.”[8]

Historical Buddhism has shown itself strong in the “pure intellectual systemization of concentrated meditation and pure contemplation.” But on a historical survey, Buddhism has shown itself lacking, following Weber’s assessment, in the tendency or impulse “toward rational method in the conduct of life in all spheres.”[9]

Overall then, there is a measure of concurrence that historically Buddhism has played the part of an anodyne for the cultures of Asia. An anodyne (Greek: anodynos = painless) is anything that relieves pain or distress. ‘Anodyne’ is a medical term for a therapy or medicine that relieves pain and distress, soothing the feelings. While functioning well as a limitation on actions, Buddhism has not historically proven to be a liberator for action.[10]

From its beginnings, a different course for Buddhism might have been predicted: “The urban origin of Buddhism, its original appeal to the middle classes, it universalism and soteriological egalitarianism, its rejection of magical means to salvation, and its ethical stress on carefulness (Gombrich 1974) might make one think that Buddhism was a South Asian Protestantism.”[11] But that was not the case.

Instead, for the masses of South Asian—and for the masses of Southeast and East Asia, for that matter—and for the masses of the Buddhist laity, there was in no way an allegiance to a single faith. Instead, the simple Buddhist, not initiated into a specific sect, treated the wats and temples of Buddhism much as did the ancient Greeks and the modern Chinese.

According to the occasion, the ancient Greek worshipped Appolo and Dionysus. And according to the occasion, the Chinese Buddhist devoutly attended Buddhist masses, Taoist magic, and Confucian temple ceremonies. Thus, what was constant was not the miracle, but the ever abiding “magical spell”, what Weber calls the “core substance of mass religiosity. This was true above all for peasants and laborers, but also for the middle classes.”

Also, most of social life was in the form of compulsive magic. Or it took the refined form of persuading a god or demon through gifts. But whichever, “with such means  the great mass of the illiterate and even the literate [Asians] sought to master everyday life.” And Weber’s keen conclusion is: “This most highly anti-rational world of universal magic also affected everyday economics. There is no way from it to rational, this-worldly conduct.”[12]

Thus, Buddhism, unassisted or without external intrusion, appears to have functioned on a historical scale as a worldview anodyne. Historically, Buddhism finds itself soothing but not stimulating, restraining by limiting socially detrimental action but not refreshing by liberating for social entrepreneurship.

Two contrasts might help illustrate this configuration as worldview anodyne.

The first is the contrast between the social assignments for the monks and for the masses.

There are detailed instructions for the monks. “The ultimate aim of Buddhism… is to escape death entirely through achieving enlightenment.”[13] The Buddha “put his entire trust into the results obtained by training his disciples through a threefold process of moral restraint, secluded meditation and philosophical reflection.” For all initiates entering the Sangha (the monastery community) a vow is taken to keep the 227 Rules of the Order.[14] Historically, these disciplines of restraint/meditation/reflection and detailed Rules have manifested a most beneficial effect of limiting negative social behaviours.

But what about those masses who were not monks? What about the laity without whom the monks could not possible maintain their meditations? What is the place of the masses in the scheme of things?

For the masses there have been only general directives. Within the Buddhist worldview, for the layman, tied to his home and unable to escape into the homeless  life of the sangha, his salvation is out of the question in this present life.[15] There have been a number of exceptional cases. But they are just that: exceptional cases of laymen recorded as having won deathlessness without previously entering the Order. Generally speaking, the Buddhist layperson’s salvation is out of the question at present. His extinction can be assured only on condition of accumulating sufficient merit now for some future existence. The layman’s one and only religious task in this cycle, then, is to increase his store of merit.

Across and throughout the history of Buddhist Asia, four avenues have been open to the masses:

  • Abstention: the Five Precepts (abstain from killing, abstain from stealing, abstain from sexual immorality, abstain from lying, abstain from intoxicants—drinking or drugs)
  • Devotion: loyalty to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) and household religiosity (an inclusive embrace of local deities and devotions)
  • Generosity: planting merit by upkeep of the field of merit—monks, their upkeep, and religious buildings inhabited by no one
  • Veneration: reverence to the relics of the Buddha (his teeth, bones, objects), the creation and cult of Buddha idol images, and the innumerable shrines and stupas.[16]

The second contrast to illustrate Buddhism’s worldview configuration as anodyne can be seen in the access to the sacred writings by, for example, Protestant laymen as compared to Buddhist laymen.

The original Pali language of the Theravada scriptures is incomprehensible both to the laity who hear it and to many of the monks who chant-recite it—whether one  looks at Theravada Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand; Mahayana China, Korea and Japan; or Esoteric Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Ladakh.[17] The teachings of the Buddha were originally preserved orally for some 300 years. Only then were they written down.

By contrast, Protestantism stresses literacy and reading the Bible for oneself, with comprehension. For example, everywhere evangelical Christianity has spread over the last 500 years, the historical records show a literate and prosperous community, both specifically among Protestant worshippers and in the society at large.[18]

There is also the size of the scriptures. Christianity is based on one relatively short book, the Bible. The Theravada scriptures, however, although limited in principle, are actually very much—very much—more extensive. It is amazing to most that the Brahman-Hindu Vedas are 400 times larger than the Bible. But it is even more astonishing to discover that the Buddhist canon is 700 times larger than the Bible. And, they have not been extensively translated into local dialects or languages. Traditionally therefore, for all practical purposes, Theravada lay Buddhists have had no access to the Buddhist scriptures unless they themselves have spent extensive time as monks.

By contrast, in spite of its individualist and rationalizing tendencies religiously, socially, in ritual practices Theravada Buddhism has always given a large place to the worship of relics. This veneration of relics has never been done by Protestant Christianity, although it is an extensive and persistent characteristic of Roman Catholicism.

Reading and ethical implementation has been the historical emphasis of Protestantism, with enormous social benefits. By contrast, ritual and uncomprehending recitation has largely been the historical experience of Buddhism, with the historical result of an Asia-wide prolonging of what Max Weber calls the “magical spell”, the historical extension of the enchantment of nature and social experience.

Historically, then, Buddhism has produced something of a chronological anodyne.[19] Over the long haul, many would find a measure of reality in Bruce’s conclusion that Buddhism has acted as a “mild dose of opium” on the history of its adoptive cultures.[20]

With this in mind, the first challenge of 21st century Buddhism might well be the reconsideration of the question: can Buddhism overcome what historically appears to be a chronic social anaemia?

Challenge 2

Challenge 2 for Buddhism of 21st  century: spiritually, what kinds of results come from being persistently syncretistic with local animistic practices—a phenomenon that has characterized Buddhism throughout its journey?

Gautama Buddha (along with Buddha Maitreya, ‘the Buddha of the Future’) has always been the primary focus of Theravada Buddhism. Originally, Buddhism began as another interpretation of the Hindu religious system. Gautama rejected selfmortification as well as self-indulgence, advocating for a middle way. As a worldview reformer he rejected the authority of the Vedas, certainly opposed the Brahmans’ system of animal sacrifice, tended to remain silent on the issue of the existence of gods, and introduced the metaphysical innovation that the soul does not exist, but people live in a state of anatman (nonsoulness)—a combination of five aggregates lashed to the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All this is commonly known.[21]

However, in each region where Buddhism has spread, the veneration of the Buddha has been closely correlated with local traditions. Legends were told of his visits to the local area. Relics and images came to be associated with local sites and practices. Among the most famous regional symbols are the Buddha’s footprint on a sacred mountain in Sri Lanka, the Buddha’s tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the Mahamuni image in Myanmar, and the Prabang image that gave its name to the Laotian capital, Luang Prabang.[22]

Wherever Theravada or Mahayana prevailed, Hindu-related or indigenous deities came along side or below Gautama Buddha. These local deities are venerated or propitiated in accordance with local practice across East Asia and throughout Southeast and South Asia.[23]

In Burma, for example, the old Vedic god Indra was identified with a powerful nat (a local guardian deity) who headed a pantheon of lesser nats that resided on a famous mountain. Thus Indra came to occupy one of the important heavens in traditional Theravada Buddhist cosmology and cult.

In Laos, Theravada Buddhist rituals are performed at the great stupa in the old capital of Luang Prabang. Buddhist rituals were included in the Laotian worship of ancestral deities. These spirit deities purportedly had created the natural and social order of  the Laotian people. The outcome is that the cosmic and cultural creation ceremonies  of reenactment by Laotian Buddhist priests encompass the local deities within the Theravada ritual.

In China, Buddhism was introduced to the ruling elite, creating a gentry Buddhism. But Buddhism spread far beyond the court. In the countryside, Buddhist monks functioned “both as teachers of the Dharma and as experts in magical practices. Monasteries were established, pagodas (Chinese stupas) were constructed, and devotional cults spread broadly among the people.”[24]

For more than 250 years (589-845 A.D.), in its golden age, Buddhism in China enjoyed substantial support from the imperial court and aristocracy and widespread integration into the lives of the common people. Buddhist institutions were sponsored. Ritual practices flourished. And the “chanting of Buddhist sutras, or spells, and the performance of all sorts of merit-making acts became ubiquitous, both at the royal court and among ordinary people.” Festivals, pilgrimages to sacred mountains associated with Buddhas and bodhisattvas were pervasive.

In Tibet, Buddhism bonded to local bon religion, the fearful worship of demons. But Reynolds and Carbine of the University of Chicago note that “many of the elements and tendencies that became primary characteristics of the third major branch of Indian Buddhism, the Esoteric tradition, were present from the early years of Buddhist history.”[25]

What is only present throughout Theravada and Mahayana traditions is highlighted  in Tantrayana. And it is this persistent phenomenon that takes us to the heart of the second challenge for Buddhism of 21st century: spiritually, what kinds of results come from being persistently syncretistic with local animistic precepts and practices?

To Edward Conze “the most important event in India during [the Third Period of Buddhism, A.D. 500-1000] is the emergence of the Tantra”, the Esoteric tradition. Also, “the Tantra is the third, and last creative achievement of Indian Buddhist thought.” In the first Mantrayana phase, “what it did was to enrich Buddhism by the appurtenances of magical tradition, utilizing them for the purpose of facilitating the search for enlightenment. In this way many mantras, mudras, mandalas and new deities were more or less systematically introduced into Buddhism.” The Vajrayana second phase co-ordinated all previous teachings with a group of Five Tathagata with prominent schools stressing meditation practices taught by riddles, paradoxes and concrete images. Kalacakra is the last phase, marked by “the extent of its syncretism and by its emphasis on astrology.”[26]

Absorbing ideas from India, China, Central Asia and tribals, this Esoteric tradition, Tantra, “endeavoured to assign an honoured, though subordinate, role to all the spirits, sprites, fairies, fiends, demons, ogres and ghosts which had haunted the popular imagination, as well as to the magical practices so dear to all nomadic and agricultural populations.”[27] In so doing, Tantra departed from the early Mahayana in its goal, ideal person, method of teaching, and role of Gautama.

The goal of Esoteric Buddhism is buddhahood now, in this very body, and no longer  at a distant future. The ideal person shifts from a bodhisattva to the ‘siddha’—the occult magician with fully developed wonder-working powers. This meant that the method of teaching was not longer the public sutras and sastras (available to anyone sufficiently interested) but secret documents destined for only a very elite few who were properly initiated by a guru or lama. And thus teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha were decisively transferred to “some mythical Buddha who is said to have preached them at some remote and distant past.”[28]

The trend of Esoteric Tantric practice was for the shamanistic trance to replace sutra facts and for the guru to supplant sangha fellowship. Magic, prayer wheels, occult powers and mythical beings were more important in the protection of Buddhism than were argument and instruction. Female deities multiplied, with promises ranging from giving childbirth to warding off small-pox. And lastly, but widespread and persistent and not insignificant, Tantra Buddhism was erotic and even macabre. The point is: all such practices were certainly allowed, and none of the above was ever disallowed or refuted.[29]

Belief in the occult, in magic and in siddha miracles “has at all times been an integral part of Buddhism” and in the Esoteric Tibetan tradition, given legitimate space through ritual, magical circles and diagrams. “These were employed to both guard the spiritual life of the elite, and to give to the unspiritual multitude that which it desired. ‘Mudras’, or ritual gestures, often reinforced the efficacy of the spells. Moreover, the construction and designing of mandalas, the evocation of gods, and the explanation of mythological deities were governed by “strict rules and well defined ritual observances.”[30] In such a context, the prolongation of the magical—Weber’s “enchantment of nature”—transmutes into the institutionalisation of magic.

One further note on this point. Esoteric/Tantric Buddhism is a major face being presented today around the world in the global discussion. Anyone who has heard of the Dalai Lama and/or Richard Gere, or Brad Pitt will recognize the truth in R. Yamamoto’s summary that Tibetan Buddhists are in a period where they are “exiled from their homeland, extolled in the West.”[31] The five trends of Western cultural life affected by Buddhism—noticed by German scholar Ernst Benz over 25 years ago— continue today: psychiatry and psychotherapy, Christian meditation, public awareness via media and education, Buddhist missionary evangelism, and the intellectual crisis among Western postmodern secular thinkers.[32]

All of these combine to bring to the fore what is actually being said and intended for implementation for individuals, households and nations of this emphasis of Buddhism—what Edward Conze calls the “creative achievement of Indian Buddhist thought… the belief in the occult, in magic and miracles… [that] has at all times been an integral part of Buddhism.”[33]

In the West, secular thought has addressed spirits and the world of spirits by denial  of their very existence. Roman Catholicism in the West and Buddhism in the East have largely taken a posture of benign neglect or open incorporation. Evangelical Christianity, along with early Christianity, has accepted the essential reality of the domain of spirits/demons. But the consistent posture has been one of exorcism of spirits, rejection of idols and idol veneration, and a rational and providential view of personal and global history.

Though this topic is ignored in most discussions and in the literature, I think that a major challenge to Buddhism in the 21st century will be how Buddhism addresses its historic position on the topic of tantric trance, magic and the mystical Buddhistic teachings as well as the incorporation of local and regional versions of animistic perspectives and practices.[34]

Thus, the second challenge for Buddhism in the 21st century is: spiritually, what kinds of results come from being persistently syncretistic with local animistic practices—a phenomenon that has characterized Buddhism throughout its journey?

Challenge 3

Challenge 3 for Buddhism of 21st century: where might we look in the socio-economic domain, for models of a dynamic and sustainable society that are mentored by the Buddhist worldview?

Many have noted before that throughout the history of Buddhism as a movement, a non-government-supported Buddhism is a stressed Buddhism. “Buddhism has generally relied on the support of kings and where that was wanting it has usually been in difficulties.”[35]

Thanh-Dam Truong is senior lecturer in Women and Development Studies at the Institute of Social Sciences, The Hague, Netherlands. Truong says, “Buddhism cannot provide insights on ‘modern’ political institutions for reasons related to its history and emphasis.” Historically, according to Truong, two central characteristics of Buddhism have been limiting factors: cultural diversity and “the absence of a claim to  a universal rationality.”[36]

And yet Michael Mandelbaum at the School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, a worldview’s ability to feed the political, social and economic institutions is crucial, absolutely crucial, to sustaining wholistic prosperity. According to Mandelbaum, the “deeper reason” for the wholistic social prosperity of states at the outset of the 21st century is “culture, defined as a society’s values, attitudes, and beliefs.”[37]

Harvard historian David S. Landes, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor, goes even further. He says, “If we learn anything from the history of economic development it is that culture… in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population… makes all the difference.”[38]

Thanh-Dam Truong’s alert to this formidable challenge is striking, but not eccentric. Another voice that points to this third challenge of 21st century Buddhism is that of Dipankar Gupta. Gupta is professor of sociology, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has also taught economics at Delhi University.

In Ethics Incorporated: Top Priority and Bottom Line, Gupta makes several comments on Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian worldviews. Whether or not professor Gupta is totally accurate, he points us toward the issue I am raising. He writes:

Contrast the Ten Commandments with the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism and what is the first thing that strikes you? The Ten Commandments are worded negatively in terms of ‘thou shalt not’ while the Buddhist imperatives are worded positively. In Buddhism the censor is within, but Christianity provides objective and verifiable criteria for judging the faithful…

The Ten Commandments need not be just a biblical doctrine confined only to those who are declared Christians. The corporate world can take a cue from the format of the Ten Commandments, especially in the crafting of a code of conduct. Just as the Ten Commandments clearly spell out what is forbidden for everybody, so also it is necessary for a corporate code of conduct to unambiguously list what cannot be permitted…

Buddhism emphasizes inner states and worldly renunciation, while Christianity insists that those who belong to the faith submit more readily to external authority in matters of religious doctrine and approved conduct.

Does this make Christianity more amenable to material pursuits that require collective participation? Can this trait corroborate somewhat the general conclusion among social historians that of all religious persuasions, Christianity is the most conductive to modern corporate enterprise?[39]

Gupta highlights here a point just singled out by Truong: a universal rationality. “The Ten Commandments need not be just a biblical doctrine confined only to those who are declared Christians.” That is accurate.

The Judeo-Christian worldview has always claimed what I call “creation standards”,  a kind of spiritual ISO-9000, an international and cross-cultural standard of conscience and moral behaviour. The Ten Commandments are not just to be seen— nor do they strike most people—as just culture-specific, or guru-specific, and thus bound to a select group of initiates. Gupta’s concerns about the Buddhist ethic are of significance.

Secondly, Gupta gives a terse summary of the “general conclusion among social historians”: that Christianity is the most conductive to modern corporate enterprise.[40]

For our purposes, I note that both Truong and Gupta direct our attention to the zone of what I am calling the third challenge to Buddhism in the 21st century: where might we look in the socio-economic domain, for models of a dynamic and sustainable society that are mentored by the Buddhist worldview?

The Indian Buddhist population is concentrated in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Mizoram, Maharashtra, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh. The total number of Buddhists in India is some 65 lakh and constitutes approximately 0.76 percent of the total Indian population.

The national Buddhist case study options that come to mind at this time are Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Nepal, and perhaps Tibet or even North Korea.[41]

Thanh-Dam Truong’s concern for a universal rationality and a worldview to provide insights to political institutions is a practical, as well as a pressing concern. And Dipankar Gupta’s quandary over the adequacy of a worldview that emphasises worldly renunciation and inner states to guide the work-a-day world is also insistent and practical.

To which of  these  nations,  then,  mentored  by  the  Buddhist  worldview,  should all other nations of the 21st century look for inspiration and guidance in their daily lives, their political institutions, and their business ventures?


These then, are three challenges to Buddhism as we all seek a more compassionate and peaceful world. These three issues are not totally unique to Buddhism. But these three challenges will, I think, have particular relevance for Buddhism as the 21st century global world matures:

  • historically, can Buddhism overcome what appears to be a chronic social anaemia?
  • spiritually, what kinds of results come from being persistently syncretistic with local animistic practices—a phenomenon that has characterized Buddhism throughout its journey?
  • paradigmatically, where might we look in the socio-economic domain, for dynamic and sustainable societies, mentored by the Buddhist worldview, to recommend as models for adoption in the global future?


[1] B. R. Ambedkar, “Buddha or Marx” in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 5. Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra 1989; B. R. Ambedkar, Conversion as Emancipation. New Delhi: Critical Quest 2004. James Massey, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: A Study in Just Society. Manohar: Centre for Dalit/Subaltern Studies 2003; Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution of India. Bombay: Oxford University Press at the Clarendon Press 1979; R. R. Sundara Rao, A Critical Look at Ambedkar’s Conversion. Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and  Research  Institute  1989;  Sanghaharakshita,  Ambedkar and Buddhism. Glasgow: Windhorse Publications 1986; Samuel Jayakumar, Dalit Consciousness and Christian Conversion: Historical Resources for a Contemporary Debate. Oxford and New Delhi: Regnum International 1999; Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan 1990; K. Raghavendra Rao, Babasaheb Ambedkar. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi 1993; K. N. Kadam (editor), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of His Movement. Bombay: Popular Prakashan 1991; P. V. Rathnam, Socio-Political Philosophy of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Hyderabad: Ambedkar-Lohia socialist Centre 2003; and Shyam Tagade, Buddha Dhamma Mission of Bodhisatta Ambedkar. Nagpur: Rradnya Maitri Pratisthan 2004.
[2] On the Indian and Chinese cultures P. Lakshmi Narasu, The Essence of Buddhism. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services 1993; Phra Sunthorn Plamintr, Basic Buddhism Course. Taipei: Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation 1991; Ajahn Chah, Food for the Heart. Ubol Rajathani:  Wat  Pah Nanachat 1999; K. Sri Dhammananda, Food for the Thinking Mind. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia 1999; an brief contemporary statement can be seen in Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000.
[3] See various approaches to this issue in Stephen Sahrot, A Comparative Sociology of World Religions: Virtuosos, Priests, and Popular Religion. New York: New York University Press 2001, “Nirvana and Spirits: Buddhism and Animism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia” 131-65; B. J. Terwiel, Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand. Bangkok: White Lotus 1994, 1-36, 59-82, and 241-80; and for a comparison that includes Marxism along with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, John Bowker, Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1970; Eugene McCarraher, Max Weber and the Enchanted Cage, Books and Culture September/October 2004 Volume 4 Number 5: 6-10.
[4] Nor is this question for the Buddhist worldview alone. See Lawrence E. Harrison, Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success. New York: Basic Books 1992; Gerhard Lenski, Patrick Nolan and Jean Lenski, Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. 7th edition. London: McGraw- Hill 1995, 52-77 and throughout. On the challenges facing the judeo-christian worldview, see Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002.
[5] A. B. Bruce, The Moral Order of the World in Ancient and Modern Thought. London: Hodder and Stoughton 1899, 27-31.
[6] Bruce 1899, 32-33. Bruce’s full statement is, “The Buddhism even of Buddha was at most an anodyne, sickly in temper while morally pure. The sickliness has been a more constant characteristic of the religion he founded than the purity. It has entered into many combinations which have marred its beauty, not even shrinking from alliance with the obscenities of Shiva-worship. But no religion can afford to be judged by all the phases it has passed through in the course of its development. Let us therefore take Buddhism at its best and think of it as kindly as possible.” His final, 19th century judgment is somewhat jarring: “But what it gives is not enough. Humans need more than more than a quietive, a soothing potion. They need militant virtues as well as meekness, gentleness, and resignation. The well-being of the world demands warriors brave in the battle against evil, not monks immured in cloisters, and passing their lives in poverty and idleness, wearing the yellow robe of a mendicant order” (33-4). For the same issues from different perspectives, see Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, A Short History of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999, 79-99, 1-25, 175-78, 291-305; Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1964, 471-86, for ten contributions of Buddhism to Chinese culture, and 241-96 on the monastic order and popular Buddhism; and Thanh-Dam Troung, “‘Asian’ Values and the Heart of Understanding: A Buddhist View” 43-69, in Josiane Cauquelin, Paul Lim and Birgit Mayer-König, Asian Values: Encounter with Diversity. Richmond UK: Curzon 2000.
[7] Max Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. New York: The Free Press 1958
[8] David N. Gellner, The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001, 34, 36-37.
[9] Max Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. New York: The Free Press 1958, 222.
[10] Thomas Stearns, Cultures in Motion: Mapping Key Contacts and Their Imprints in World History. New Haven: Yale University Press 2001; Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2003; and for the larger Hindu worldview though not Buddhism in particular, see V. S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilization. New York: Knopf 1977; and Pavan K. Varma, The Great Indian Middle Class. New Delhi: Viking Penguin Books 1999, especially The Inner Landscape” 123-69.
The root problem of the interface between worldview and worldvenue is given brilliant exposition in Lawrence E. Harrison, Underdevelopment is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case. Updated Edition. Oxford: Madison Books 2000. See the crux of his argument in xv-34. For social change possibilities embedded within Buddhism, see D. N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow. New Delhi: Verso 2002, 61-89 and 138-147.
[11] Gellner 2001, 37.
[12] Weber 1958, 335-6.
[13] Donald S. Lopez, The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 2001, 18. Lopez is Belser Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at University of Michigan.
[14] 227 Rules in the Theravada tradition, 253 in the Mulasarvastivadin tradition in Tibet, and 250 in the Dharmaguptaka code in China. See Lopez 2001, 140-48.
[15] Even more out of the question for women: see Meredith B. McGuire, Religion: The Social Context. 4th edition. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1997, 131-2; Lorna Rhodes AmaraSingham, The Misery of the Ebodied, 101-26, in J. Hoch-Smith and A. Spring (editors), Women in Ritual and Symbolic Roles. New York: Plenum, 1978; Gregory Schopen, Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997; and Liz Wilson, Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
[16] In the development of these thoughts, see my dependence on Edward Conze, A Short History of Buddhism. London: A Mandala Book Unwin 1988, 11-16 and 38-42.
[17] See R. F. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1988, 72f.; and David Gellner, The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001, 47-8. See also R. F. Gombrich and G. Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1988; and John Snelling, The Buddhist Handbook: A Complete Guide to Buddhist Schools, Teaching, Practice, and History. New York: Barnes and Noble/Inner Traditions International 1998. For experiments in change, see Richard Gombrich, “A New Theravadin Liturgy” in Frank E. Reynolds and Jason A. Carbine (editors), The Life of Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press 2000, 180-93.
[18] Thom Wolf, “Protestantism: The 500 Year History Lesson” in Global History: The Oikonomia of God in World History. Bonn, Germany: University Institute 1999, 42; Octavio Paz, “Mexico and the United States.” [New York Times September 17, 1979] San Francisco: Kim School of Intercultural Studies 2000, 1- 9; Anne Motley Haltum, The Anti-Poverty Dynamic of Religion: Protestants in Guatemala. London: Regeneration Quarterly 1996, 24-31; and Alain Peyrefitte, The Trouble with France. New York: New York University Press 1985, 99-125, where he discusses this “irritating regularity” and the “blinding enigma.”
[19] See the analysis of aims and achievements in history by Gordon Graham, The Shape of the Past: A Philosophical Approach to History. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997, 1-44, especially “Decline” 112-40, and “Recurrence” 141-65; and James K. Feibleman, Understanding Oriental Philosophy: A Popular Account for the Western World—India, China, Japan. New York: Horizon Press 1976, 47-105.
[20] With Bruce’s conclusion in mind, see the discussions by Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. New York: Vintage Books 1972, 48-51 and 377-388; Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 1998, of Buddhism in India (177-271), China (272-321), and Japan (322-378); S. Radhakrishnan and P. T. Raju (editors), The Concept of Man: A Study of Comparative Philosophy. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India 1995, 252-272; and Barry Buzan and Richard Little, International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 203-209 and 223-226.
[21] On the history of Buddhism, see Joseph M. Kitagawa and Mark D. Cummings (editors), Buddhism and Asian History. New York: Macmillan 1989, who give Buddhist history three periods: Buddhism as sectarian, as civilizational, and as cultural; Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson. The Buddhist Religion. 4th edition. Belmont: Wadsworth 1996, a useful historical survey; and the concise but most insightful fourfold arrangement by Edward Conze, A Short History of Buddhism. London: A Mandala Book Unwin 1988.
[22] John S. Strong, Relics of the Buddha. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2004; J. Gerson Da Cunha, Memoir of the History of the Tooth-Relic of Ceylon. New Delhi: AES [1875] 1996; “China’s Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha Arrives in Thailand” People’s Daily (Beijing) Monday, December 16, 2002; Harvey Rachlin, “The Tooth of the Buddha” 3-11. In Jumbo’s Hide, Elvis’s Ride, and the Tooth of the Buddha. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000; Tun Shwe Khaing, “Mahamuni tradition and its influence over Rakhaing people” The Rakhaing Tanzaung Magazine Number 18 February 1995 uence+over+Rakhaing+people.
[23] Robert K. C. Forman (general editor), with Niels C. Nielsen, Jr., Norvin Hein, Frank E. Reynolds, Alan L. Miller, Samuel E. Karff, Alice C. Cowan, Paul McLean, Grace G. Burford, John Y. Fenton, Laura Grillo, and Elizabeth Leeper, Religions of the World. 3rd edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1993, 162219, for conceptualisation and documentation in this section. Also, Roger Eastman, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999.
[24] Forman 1993, 203.
[25] Reynolds and Carbine continue: “These elements and tendencies were maintained within a variety of Buddhist contexts, especially among forest monks. But it was not until the fourth to sixth centuries that a clearly differentiated Esoteric pattern began to emerge on the fringes of the Mahayana community. During the centuries that followed, the Esoteric branch became an important component in many forms of Buddhist monastic and social life, both inside and outside India. In India, the Esoteric tradition came to be known by several names including Vajrayana, Mantrayana, and Tantrayana.” Cf. Frank E. Reynolds and Jason A. Carbine (editors), The Life of Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press 2000, 9-10.
[26] Edward Conze, A Short History of Buddhism. London: A Mandala Book Unwin 1988, 72.
[27] Ibid., 73.
[28] Ibid., 74.
[29] Lewis M. Hopfe, Religions of the World. 6th edition. Oxford: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994 154-8.
[30] Ibid., 75-6. See further D. N. Gellner, Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1992, 45-8, 191-2. Also his The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001, 276-92; and for a contrasting worldview response, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997, 26-77.
[31] R. Yamamoto, Tibetan Buddhists: Exiled in Their Homeland, Extolled in the West. CRI Statement DB565-4. University Institute educational edition. New Delhi: University Institute 2003.
[32] Ernst Benz, Buddhism in the Western World 305-22, in Heinrich Dumoulin and John C. Maraldo (editors), The Cultural, Political and Religious Significance of Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Collier 1976. See Hopfe 1994, 159-60; Reynolds and Carbine, Buddhism in the West: An American Example 207-11, and Philip Kapleau, Transmitting the Dharma 211-20, in Frank E. Reynolds and Jason A. Carbine (editors), The Life of Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press 2000; and Jan Nattier, Buddhism Comes to Main Street, The Wilson Quarterly Spring 1997.
[33] Conze 1988, 72, 75.
[34] James William Coleman, The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2001, 72-7, with 42-6, may give some indication of contemporary Buddhist intellectuals’ evaluation of Tibetan Buddhism’s various forms of divination, astrology, and ceremonies provided by monks, as well as their ritual performances and the magical protection they provide for the average Tibetan laity.
[35] Conze 1988, 99; Geoffrey Blainey, A Short History of the World. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee 2002, 150-8.
[36] Thanh-Dam Truong, “‘Asian’ Values and the Heart of Understanding: A Buddhist View” 44, in Josiane Cauquelin, Paul Lim and Birgit Mayer-König, Asian Values: Encounter with Diversity. Richmond UK: Curzon 2000. This is also the basic position of University of London scholar Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 97-10, and the contemporary “dilemma Buddhism faces” in the encounter between Buddhism and the West, 110-25. But see Walpola Rahula, “Buddhism” 19-48, in Way to Peace: A Compendium of Spiritual and Moral Principles of Various World Religions. Lucknow: Sarva Dharma Milan 1981; and Kancha Ilaiah, God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism. Kolkata: Samya 2001.
[37] Michael Mandelbaum, The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Public Affairs 2002, 179, 178-82.
[38] New York: Macmillan 1998, 516.
[39] Dipankar Gupta, Ethics Incorporated: Top Priority and Bottom Line. New Delhi: HarperCollins India 2004, 52-4. See Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism. New York: Philosophical Library 1955; Richard S. Cohen, “Shakyamuni: Buddhism’s Founder in Ten Acts” 121-232 in David Noel Freedman and Michael J. McClymond (editors), The Rivers of Paradise: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad as Religious Founders. Cambridge: Eerdmans 2001.
[40] Gupta’s statement, it must be noted, is simple and in a popular mode. I might add for clarity that Protestant Christianity is the unspoken kind of Christianity that is especially referred to by Gupta and social historians. And it is not just corporate enterprise that is usually referenced. Instead, evangelical Christianity has a particular historical tract record of creating a progress-prone culture. But that is another story. See Piero Gheddo and Thom Wolf, Christianity: A Note on the Source of Progress-Prone Cultures. Chiang Mai: University Institute 2001.
[41] For Southeast Asia: G. Aloysius, Iyothee Thassar and Emancipatory Buddhism: Dalit-Subaltern Emergence in religio-Cultural Subjectivity. New Delhi: Critical Quest 2004; Niels Mulder, Inside Southeast Asia: Religion, Everyday Life, Cultural Change. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books 1996; Mary Somers Heidhues, Southeast Asia: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson 163-84; Ram Pratap Thap and Joachim Baaden (editors), Nepal: Myths and Realities. Delhi: Book Faith India 2000; David K. Wyatt, Siam in Mind. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books 2002, 98-103.
For South Asia: On Indian Buddhist statistics in India, see James Massey, Minorities and Religious Freedom in a Democracy. Manohar: Centre for Dalit/ Subaltern Studies 2003, 39ff; and see David S. Gellner, Monk, Householder, and Trantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993; Uma Chakravarthi, The Social Philosophy of Buddhism and the Problem of Inequality. New Delhi: Critical Quest 2004; Gail Omvedt, Buddhism in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications 2003, especially “Buddhist Civilisation” 117-48, for an historical case study of ‘Buddhist India’; Kameshwar Choudhary, Intellectuals and Society: A Study of Teachers in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004 in comparison with Ahmad Sadri, Max Weber’s Sociology of Intellectuals. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992 and Ralph Schroeder, Max Weber and the Sociology of Culture. Oxford: Sage Publications 1992; and K. M. Panikkar, Caste and Democracy and B. R. Ambedkar, Prospects of Democracy in India. New Delhi: Critical Quest 2004, 3-27 and 28-31.
For some of the interrelationships of worldview and economics, see Thom Wolf, ‘Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures: Worldview Issues and the Baliraja Proposal of Mahatma Phule’ Oikos Worldviews Bulletin Volume 7 Issue Spring 2007: 1-40; and what Harriss-White calls “the economy of the India of the 88%” in Barbara Harriss-White, India Working: Essays on Society and Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003.

One thought on “Thom Wolf: Three Challenges for Buddhism of the 21st Century | First International Buddhist Conference, Mumbai, India

Leave a Reply