Buddhism: Membership and Tolerance | 13
The Buddha stressed several key issues with regard to membership within the Buddhist tradition, among these the following 2:
first, Buddhism was open to anyone, regardless of social status or gender (this would later become an issue within the Sangha, however, as women were excluded in at least some Buddhist schools);
and second, that becoming a Buddhist was an entirely self-motivated act.
In a sense the Buddha and his early followers did engage in missionizing activities,
but they did so not so much to gain converts to their new religion as to share the dharma out of compassion, out of an attempt to alleviate the suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha) that, according to the Buddha, characterizes life.
The first formal Buddhist mission was initiated by Ashoka (3rd century B.C.E.), who sent his son, Mahinda, to Śrī Lanka to establish a lineage of monks in that country.
Buddhists have never been particularly zealous in spreading their religion:
Rather, Buddhist ideals have historically been imported and incorporated into indigenous practices, such as the integration of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism in China or the integration of Buddhism and the indigenous Bon tradition in Tibet.
This has meant, in practice, that Buddhism has typically grown and spread through would-be converts coming to the religion rather than the religion actively seeking them out.
One important way Buddhism has grown in the modern era is through immigration of Asians to Europe and North America, particularly since the end of World War II:
These immigrants gradually set up temples in their adopted countries, and frequently curious non-Asians were drawn in. Furthermore, because temples were often begun by lay Buddhists, new and expanded roles for the laity emerged.
In Asia, also, many popular new movements have emerged during this same period:
The lay movement Soka Gakkai International, which began in Japan but has spread throughout the world, adopts the teachings of the 13thcentury Lotus Sūtra teacher Nichiren and focuses on a kind of practical self-transformation through chanting.
In Śrī Lanka the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has expanded Buddhist membership by focusing on practical, village-oriented development projects with a decidedly Buddhist orientation.
In Thailand the Dhammakaya movement, founded by a laywoman, has become enormously popular.
And in India there has been a resurgence of Buddhism among the untouchable population, Dalit Buddhist movement since the public conversion of the famous politician and social reformer of India, B. R. Ambedkar, in 1956 (there are now some 6 million Ambedkar, or Dalit, Buddhists in India).
Because of its emphasis on self-effort and its recognition that people learn and progress at different rates, Buddhism has always been a profoundly tolerant religious tradition,
tending to view other religions not so much as competitors but as different versions of the same basic quest for truth and salvation.
Indeed, the Buddha never proposed that his was the only path but rather that it was the most efficacious;
a person following some other religious tradition, an early text states, would be like a man slowly walking to his destination, whereas the Buddhist was like a man riding a cart to that same place.
Certainly the walker and the rider would both, in time, reach their destinations, but the latter would arrive much sooner.
This is not to say that Buddhists have not engaged in polemical attacks against other religions:
Certainly they have, such as the scholarly attacks on Hinduism that were common in Buddhism in the medieval Indian milieu.
This is also not to say that Buddhists have not clashed, sometimes violently, with members of other religions:
In modern Śrī Lanka, for instance, Buddhists and Hindus have been fighting against each other in a civil war that has taken the lives of tens of thousands;
however, this and other such clashes tend not to be wars about differing religious ideologies so much as they are about ethnic and political tensions.