United State of Buddhist Minds

Buddhistdoor Global is presently in New York, accompanying representatives from Woodenfish Foundation and Amitofo Care Centre officers from both Hong Kong and elsewhere for the sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63), which begins today on the 11th and finishes on the 22nd of March at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. 

Woodenfish Foundation is not only renowned for hosting retreats in monasteries across China and organizing academic forums on topical Buddhism around the world. It is one of the only Buddhist NGOs to hold special consultative status at the UN (there are three kinds of consultative status NGOs can be registered with: general, special, and roster). One can count the number of these Buddhist NGOs on the fingers of a single hand.

At a pre-commission meeting between Buddhistdoor Global, ACC, and Woodenfish Foundation, the influential founder of Woodenfish, Ven. Yifa, explained to us her rationale for working so hard to expand her charity’s reach into the UN. Not only was the UN hampered by certain institutional biases in understanding Chinese Buddhism, but Chinese Buddhism itself, as a faith tradition, has only recently engaged at an international level with diplomatic bodies and political functionaries.

International law and norms are themselves political creations sustained by multilateral nodes of influence, with long and checkered histories that need to be engaged with pragmatically but from a position of clarity: in other words, understanding what is needed to expand international awareness of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. She feels that the most effective and inclusive route is through the non-profit one, but even with Woodenfish’s relative specialization and expertise, its size and resources have limits, and to go it alone is to miss the point. She believes that interested Buddhist leaders and organizations need to form a kind of united front at the UN: a sort of “united nations of Buddhists” at the larger United Nations.

This might sound extremely ambitious, or even like wishful thinking. Yet given the relative reticence of Buddhist organizations at the UN (certainly compared to Christian or Islamic NGOs), I think that it is only those propositions that are bold enough to try things differently that will succeed over the long term. She hopes that Buddhist organizations (no matter their sectarian origins or doctrinal affiliations) can unite to form a kind of lobbying bloc at the UN’s events, to expressly articulate and promote the Buddhist agenda amidst a veritable army of Christian and Islamic activists and powerbrokers. These opinion makers and influencers, who come from diverse backgrounds and industries, not only represent far more people numerically, but are far more familiar with the corridors of power that exert the right kind of leverage on governments to act in those religions’ favor.

No reasonable person would assume that this invigorating and exciting vision entails some kind of Buddhist globalism (decentralization was baked into the tradition by the Buddha himself). No one is calling for the primacy of one Vinaya over the other, or for rehashing the old sectarian debates between the three Vehicles that poisoned ecumenical understanding for decades after World War Two and decolonization in Asia. This unity is more about cultivating a different mindset for interested Buddhist leaders. Ven. Yifa is not just talking about it, but putting in the hard work required to demonstrate its worthiness as a high priority among other Buddhists, in China, East Asia, and beyond. Aside from this “united state of mind,” Buddhist organizations also need to be brave and willing to help each other in a spirit of cooperation and mutual giving, so that their respective positions at the UN are fortified by one another’s strengths. 

If this entire project sounds very ambitious, it is because it certainly is. Without the right kind of imagination and execution, even Buddhist groups with considerable resources (networks, funding, and manpower) can fail to make the intended impact. Once more, this is not something that can be taken on by a single Buddhist NGO. It will require patient work and collective action from multiple angles, over decades and perhaps generations. Most noble enterprises usually do. 

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Special Issue 2018: Women of Buddhism
Buddhistdoor View: The UN and Buddhist NGOs—Untested Partnerships

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

In Praise of the Monastic Experience, a Taste of Chinese Buddhism
China’s Harmony and Freedom from Fear

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