Buddhism has made a comeback in urban India because it addresses our current needs, observes Mona Joshi
The year 1998 brought with it a personal loss that changed my life: my father passed away. I searched desperately for a way to come to terms with this bereavement, a search that eventually led me to Buddhist philosophy. I was gently guided to celebrate the parent I had lost by honouring the values he stood for, and to recognise that he lives on in me. I learnt to appreciate what I do have, especially my loved ones, and to live in the here and now. For many urban Indians like me, Buddhism delivers the tools and templates needed to deal with life.
The Buddha dharma, which was born in this soil only to fade away, is making a comeback. The vast majority of Buddhists in the country today are Tibetans or Dalit converts, whose numbers remain highly contested. But what is abundantly clear, even if anecdotally, is that there has been a surge in Buddhist practise among urban Indians.
Gurgaon-based business consultant Teesha Kochhar feels she has much to be grateful for. She has been chanting daimoku (the mantra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo) for eight years and credits Buddhism for saving her life and that of her daughter’s. Teesha, 39, is one of the 12 million worldwide followers of the teachings of the 13th–century Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren, and is part of the Bharat Soka Gakkai (BSG), the Indian chapter of Soka Gakkai International.
She reports her “victories”, as Soka Gakkai members call them: overcoming infertility and a complicated delivery, and later undergoing a successful kidney transplant. “Small things came together mystically,” she told me. When she joined BSG, she “had no specific compulsion, no worries in life”. She simply went along with some close friends to a meeting in Gurgaon as she “wanted to do something spiritual and this seemed like a pragmatic way of life”. Later, when faced with health issues, the leaders of BSG encouraged her to have faith and chant, that all would be well. They would also chant for her. While chanting for others or for personal gain, Soka Gakkai members equally pray for kosen-rufu (world peace through individual happiness). According to Teesha, there’s a different kind of joy in praying for others.
In today’s angst-ridden world where loneliness is so common, Nichiren Buddhism seems to deliver a much-needed support system. Arshdeep Singh, a commodity trading manager in Singapore, emphasised the “tremendous community support from within the Soka Gakkai. Members rally around you, chant with you and for you, giving you the courage to face life’s battles and emerge triumphant”. Born a Sikh, he was “loosely” practising that faith until he, too, was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by a friend.
Kochhar pointed out that not having to give up on being a Hindu was an important factor for her, as it is for most BSG members. “I am religious. I read the Hanuman Chalisa daily, but I don’t believe in the rituals of Hinduism.” Nor is this confined to India: not having to discard one’s religion in favour of another has led to a happy adoption of various Buddhist practices the world over. Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh maintains that “there are many, many Christians who practice Buddhism and they become better and better Christians all the time.”
Buddhism empowers the individual by not handing over power to a God. Plus, there is no priestly class or complex ritual system, at least at the level that most urban Indians are experiencing it, while sin and damnation are marked only by their absence. When people question blind belief and rituals, the Buddha dharma presents itself as a practical alternative. According to Dharamshala-based Tibetan filmmaker Tenzing Sonam, “Since the onus for achieving happiness is not on some omniscient other it is easier to make sense of at a rational level. I think this attracts younger people who may be dissatisfied with traditional forms of religion but are still looking for some spiritual meaning in their lives.”
Though born into a devout Buddhist family, Tenzing doesn’t find himself particularly drawn to the more esoteric aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. He considers himself a Buddhist in the sense that he tries to live his life according to its tenets, especially trying to be aware of the interdependent nature of existence and the consequences of one’s actions. To him, “the most appealing thing about Buddhism is that essentially—if you strip away its religious and ritualistic accoutrements—it is a philosophy that stands up to rigorous intellectual and logical examination.” The young identify with the rationale that nothing is to be accepted as the truth—not even what the Buddha expounded—until one experiences it for oneself. Adi Radia, a 20-year-old studying at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in the University of Southern California, relates to this spirit of enquiry: “You question everything and do not believe anything until it agrees with your own reason and common sense.” A tattoo of the Buddha’s teaching “As you think, so you are” is on his forearm: it serves as a constant reminder to be attentive to his thoughts since thoughts translate into words and actions.
Other people turn to Buddhism since it best suits their nature and needs. Born in London and currently living in Mussoorie, Dharmacharya Shantum Seth, an ordained teacher in the Zen lineage of master Thich Nhat Hanh, is a case in point. As a young political activist he was deeply involved in several anti-isms—anti-nuclear, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-establishment—and eventually burnt out. Seth realised he was becoming part of the problem by being so angry and felt he had to do something about it. He experimented with different traditions and ultimately took to Buddhism. “I started delving deeper into the Hindu dharma I had been brought up in and then Christianity, and even studied with Sufi and tribal teachers. Finally, I found that the Buddha dharma suited my temperament,” he said. “The practice of mindful awareness showed results, in making me a more peaceful person.”
The faith’s spiritual leaders—the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Taiwanese dharma master Cheng Yen, American author and vipassana meditation teacher Jack Kornfield and others—serve as role models for the young, in contrast to other leaders, especially political, whose actions have been disappointing at best. That many celebrities whom the younger generation idolise also espouse Buddhism further encourages them to delve into it, whether in the shape of short meditation courses, downloading Buddhist apps on their cell phones, or the more involved practise of daily mindfulness. Moreover, the Internet gives people easy access to the teachings of the Buddha and other spiritual masters.
Clearly, doable practices like chanting and meditation are the visible, approachable techniques that urban Indians are taking to. The fact that you can customise it according to your requirements is definitely part of its pull factor. Tiger Woods, a self-avowed practitioner of Buddhism, has taken “bits and pieces of it”. Much like customising your own cell phone package, you get to choose which options best suit your lifestyle and inclination: culture, literature or the various practises that make up the spiritual landscape of Buddhism today.
Ancient forms of meditation are more in demand, as are Buddhist centres where they are taught, since there is a growing feeling that material comfort doesn’t necessarily translate to happiness. Many people have turned to vipassana, one of India’s earliest techniques of meditation that was rediscovered by the Buddha, and is now taught as a ten-day course in a secular setting. It is said that any form of meditation not only alleviates stress but also sharpens mental faculties, making it attractive to the young. For students and professionals it becomes a mantra for success—practicable, yet again.
The uncertainty over the number of Buddhists both in India and globally could possibly be due to the Buddha dharma’s ease of application. With millions of “freelance Buddhists”—those who have not officially converted to the religion, or follow its practices without joining any organisations—it becomes difficult to define who can be regarded as Buddhist. In an interview for the Australian daily, The Age, Gary Bouma, Anglican minister and sociology professor at Monash University, Melbourne, made a pertinent point: there are many more people who profess a vague allegiance to the principles of Buddhism than actual card-carrying members. He called it “the religion to have when you’re not having a religion”. Could anything be more appropriate for our current spiritual climate?
Buddhism clearly resonates with educated, urban Indians. There is something in it for everyone, which they can select, apply and experience for themselves. Above all, it is a pragmatic, practicable dharma. Thich Nhat Hanh quotes the Buddha in Old Path White Clouds: The Life Story of the Buddha:
“My teaching is not a philosophy. It is the result of direct experience . . . .
My teaching is a means of practice, not something to hold onto or worship.
My teaching is like a raft used to cross the river.
Only a fool would carry the raft around after he had already
Reached the other shore of liberation.”
Mona Joshi is a Delhi-based editor and writer. Since 1992, she has worked in print, radio, advertising, Internet, television and audio interpretation. She is currently senior associate editor at The Indian Quarterly.