The Role of a Missionary: A Buddhist Perspective

In May this year, I met a Roman Catholic nun at the Inter-religious Council in Kampala, Uganda. She asked me whether we have Buddhist missionaries. I answered, “There are some Buddhist missionaries in Asia, America and Europe but very few in Africa and Latin America”. She advised me to invite more Buddhist missionaries to Africa. How can we make Buddhist missionary activities more effective in Africa, Latin America and the rest of the world?  How can we spread the knowledge of and familiarity with Buddhism, not only to the privileged people in rich industrialized countries but also to the poor countries like Uganda, Africa? If we hope to effectively spread the Buddha’s message of peace, harmony and freedom to the rest of the world, it is important to uphold four indispensible guidelines – the four “P” s – of a true missionary, namely: Purification of one’s mind, Purpose of spreading the Dhamma, Propagation of the excellent Dhamma, and Patience with people’s receptivity to the Dhamma. Before “sending forth” His sixty fully enlightened beings to various places to propagate the Dhamma, the Buddha said:  “Free am I, O Bhikkhus, from all bonds, whether divine or human. You, too, O Bhikkhus, are freed from all bonds, whether divine or human”. “ Go forth, O Bhikkhus, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of humans and gods…Let not two go by one way.” “Preach, O Bhikkhus, the Dhamma, excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, excellent in the end, both in spirit and in the letter. Proclaim the Holy life, altogether perfect and pure” “There are many beings with little dust in their eyes, who, not hearing the Dhamma, will fall way…There will be those who understand the Dhamma” These passages provide us with the framework for the Buddhist missionary to follow in the spreading of the Buddha’s teaching… Purification of ones’ mind: The first step to take for a Buddhist missionary is to purify the mind by removing all bonds (greed, hatred and ignorance). Such a degree of freedom, even on a temporary basis, is necessary for spreading Buddhism to the rest of the world. In order to get rid of the “bonds”, it is necessary to undergo mental purification or training (meditation practice).  Of course, the act of going forth will help to accelerate this mental purification process. I am very glad that the World Buddhist Summit is building the Nalanda University, which will be a centre for training the Buddhist missionaries for the much-needed missionary work in the world. Purpose of spreading the Dhamma: The second step is to ascertain the purpose of spreading the Dhamma.  A true missionary spreads the Dhamma neither for financial gain nor to convert others followers but rather for the welfare and benefit of all beings who are willing and able to internalize the Dhamma.  Such a missionary should be motivated by compassion – the mental quality of opening ones heart for the suffering of beings in the world. In Uganda and other parts of the world, this suffering is particularly acute. I would like to extend my invitation to all Buddhists to come to Uganda to carry out such missionary work of spreading Buddhism. It would be wonderful if the Sixth World Buddhist Summit, out of deep compassion and wise consideration would focus on facilitating such missionary work in traditionally non-Buddhist areas like Africa and Latin America. Propagation of the excellent Dhamma: The Buddha advised us to propagate the excellent Dhamma: excellent in the beginning (Ethical conduct), excellent in the middle (Mental training), and excellent in the end (Penetrative wisdom).  How can we proclaim this teaching? We have to demonstrate the Holy life in its perfection and purity. We have to teach by example and precept.  Only then can we win our supporters/followers faith and confidence in the Dhamma.  In Uganda, I have taught the people in our community with this type of example and precept. A couple of years ago, for instance, we installed a borehole at the Temple and many people from our local community can now gain access to clean water.  I wanted to teach our community the practice of generosity and compassion. The local people have learned this lesson and the net effect is that they are very friendly to us. Whenever I pass through the village, the kids always say, “Bye Buddha!”  Sometimes they say, “I greet you in the name of the Buddha”, doing this greeting with palms together in the traditional sign of respect. Patience with people’s receptivity to the Dhamma: When spreading the Dhamma, one needs to be patience with other people and the way they respond or react to the Dhamma. People receptivity to the Dhamma varies a lot and we have to be patient in order to accommodate their views. Many people outside Africa always ask me whether African people understand the Dhamma. I always reply: “ Why not?” During my missionary work in Africa, I observed that many African are thirsty for the Dhamma. Please do not hesitate to come to Africa because of your uncertainty of people’s understanding of the Dhamma. However, we have to teach people who are inclined to receive the Dhamma.  Of course, sometimes the people will have no clue about the Dhamma. And these encounters can generate even humorous misunderstandings. For example, a few years ago, I met some of my fellow Africans who asked what I was doing. I told them that I was meditating. They said, “Oh sorry…! You are taking medication!”   I patiently twice repeated the word “meditation”, but they did not get it.  Sometimes, people are not receptive or prepared to understand our message, but there other Africans who understand meditation as a science that can benefit with happiness and peace. The future of effectively spreading Buddhism beyond traditionally Buddhist countries is going to hinge on the way we understand the Buddha’s original message on the spreading of the Dhamma. Firstly, we have to begin with purification of our mind (in order to be free from mental impurities). Secondly, we should remember the purpose of spreading the Dhamma – out of compassion. Thirdly, we have to use proper means (ethical conduct, mental training and penetrative wisdom) to propagate the Dhamma in its pristine way and finally we have to be patient since people’s receptivity to the Dhamma varies. Some people are ready to listen to the Dhamma and others are not. There is a high chance that people who suffer a lot, are ready to listen to the Dhamma. Let us join hands and spread the Dhamma in Africa and other parts of the world. The Dhamma is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, and excellent in the end. May all beings be well, happy and peaceful. By Venerable Bhikkhu Buddharakkhita,

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