On the 6th December I arrived at the centre to give an evening presentation on ‘Buddhism in Britain - An Overview’. This was part of a series of talks entitled ‘Encounters with Buddhism’. Given the diversity of Buddhism in Britain, and the limited time, it was inevitable that the talk and discussion would only be able to touch upon a limited range of topics.
I had considered not giving a formal presentation for the event but simply an extemporaneous talk. However, without really knowing the audience, I decided it would be safer to present some of the photos I had taken during my tenure as development worker for the NBO and to augment these with a few slides and bullet points.
Afterwards we had a question and answer session.
One of the questions concerned my role as NBO development worker. Was I not being compromised by accepting a government grant to work on behalf of the NBO? Did the government not want to use me to spread a particular message to Buddhists? Was the government trying to control or distort Buddhism in some way?
I think that these questions arise from a concern over the potential for corruption or compromise that can be connected with political engagement. Many Buddhists that I meet have little or no sympathy with authority structures, either of a religious or a political nature. There seems at least to be resistance to being organised, and sometimes a more or less anarchic outlook. I guess most of us share this tendency; a deep suspicion of the motives of those in power. However, dogmatic cynicism is a rather dismal philosophy. There is actually a possibility that engagement with government or other authorities might be beneficial and not automatically lead to compromise.
The grant that I am using was applied for by the NBO, (along with lots of other faith and voluntary groups), from the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. The NBO described how they wished to use the money and the Home Office judged that this was a beneficial use of public finds. The policy of this government is to strengthen the ability of faith groups to reach out to faith communities, to improve communication within faiths and between them and government channels, to improve community cohesion and to support faith groups in delivering information and services to their respective communities.
Underlying this, of course, is the government’s wish to deliver services to marginalized individuals more effectively using voluntary organisations. Effectively, the government is grooming voluntary organisations for service delivery. Grants have been made to all of the major faith groups in the UK. One of the stipulations is that the money should not be used for proselytisation purposes.
Although I do make quarterly reports to the Home Office, these reports simply record progress against the targets agreed by the NBO with the Community Development Foundation. At no time during the nine months that I have fulfilled this role have I been contacted (let alone pressured) to deliver a government message. My role has been to make contact with Buddhist groups and to improve their knowledge of the NBO and help them to network. As far as I can see, the grant is being put to good effect, without any compromise to my Buddhist practice or to the detriment of ‘Buddhism’ in some broader sense. In fact quite the reverse.
However, this perception depends where one is looking from, and I guess Buddhist organisations or individuals who have not been awarded grants or who do not sympathise with the NBO or some of its members, might find this whole initiative quite threatening. One of the things that I have picked up from my nine months in this role, is that the UK Buddhist community is diverse; there are different outlooks and quite a lot of isolated groups; the equivalent of left and right-wing positions; what might be called ‘fundamentalist Buddhist stances’, and widely held negative perceptions of particular Buddhist organisations.
There is also obviously a distinction between those Buddhists who take monastic vows and live a renunciant celibate lifestyle, and those who lead a ‘householder’ life with partners, families and mortgages. There are Asian Buddhists and Western convert Buddhists. And there are significant differences of outlook between Buddhist traditions. There is really no such thing as a simple and homogenous ‘UK Buddhist community’.
I must admit that I have my own prejudices and views around some of the groups that I meet; I am not at all sure how they all easily relate to the teaching of the Buddha… as I understand such teachings; although I do not think that I have met any Buddhist who was not sincere. This is the point. We all have personal views of 'Buddhism' and it is helpful to have such views challenged. And surely the main concern is whether a group is behaving well and doing good work.
One of the benefits of the NBO ethos of adopting a neutral and welcoming stance to all sincere Buddhist groups is that it allows dialogue to take place. Any criticism of groups or individuals can be expressed within a framework, hopefully in a direct and yet kind way; and best practice can also be agreed and communicated.
Attitudes or activities which give concern to some Buddhists can be identified and perhaps adjusted or changed, not by some sort of (imagined) ‘supreme NBO authority’ passing judgement, but simply by dialogue and peer review. This is not to say that there is always a simple solution and that we should be aligning to some sort of ‘standard Buddhist' position, but at least we can identify tension points and agree to amicable dialogue. And isn’t this the key to avoiding public conflicts between different groups and inevitable collateral damage to the good name of Buddhism?
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