Knotty Veneer wrote:The arrival of Dharma in the West since the ‘60s has seen the creation of a new animal – the “Professional Buddhist”. Previously, the only professional Buddhists were monks or nuns or yogis. Now day we’ve got all sorts of people who make a living (or some of their living) by writing about Buddhism, teaching meditation (or more latterly “mindfulness”) as well as selling Buddhist artefacts.
Here in Taiwan various Buddhist organizations engage in active marketing. You visit their temples and there are gift shops complete with customized merchandise and products. It isn't just books on Dharma, but attire, statues, incense and so on. You'll see donation boxes strategically placed in clear view. The brochures and booklets are glossy and professionally designed. There are a few Buddhist television stations, too. Each of the major organizations has their flavour and image which they present to the world. Unlike the west, they got a lot of money. In the name of propagating the Dharma they build big.
Foguangshan recently finished construction of their Buddha Memorial Center. I visited recently:
At the front gate there is, by Taiwanese standards, a sizeable indoor shopping mall complete with Starbucks and gourmet chocolate shop. They have any number of nuns staffing information desks and answering questions. You can have your photo taken and have Master Xingyun digitally inserted into the photo. You pay for that of course.
As your proceed through the mall and out the stupa there is the above scene. Inside the stupa there is marble flooring. A gift shop on the left is in clear view. They have a special chamber in the back for the Buddha tooth relic, which the whole complex was built for.
Everything in the facility is new, glossy and sharp. The staff all have uniforms. It houses some special exhibitions, too. It looks like a western museum inside.
Here in Taiwan this is the natural result of capital intensive religion. Taiwanese Buddhism is sponsored by industrialists and businessmen, both from Taiwan and elsewhere. Acquiring vast sums of wealth is not seen in a negative light. It is seen as just karmic reward for having done good in the world.
So, what you see in the west is small fish. Taiwanese Buddhist organizations have adapted themselves to the consumer culture. They're all aware people might criticize them for it, but they've gone ahead with it nevertheless. The idea, it seems, is that it is just an appropriate modern adaptation. If you need to run a website or gift shop selling people Buddhist related items or build tourist attractions, then so be it. They feel merit will still be generated and people will make a connection to the Dharma (just what is supposed to happen afterwards other than blessings remains unclear to me).
One downside, though, is that when this concern becomes overriding, the traditional notion of practice is disregarded. Hence in Taiwanese Buddhism you often hear "work is practice". The idea of sitting in a meditation hall for several years comes to be seen as selfish and unnecessary. Sitting in an office doing the administrative work necessary to keep a huge organization running, or manning a station to help visitors, is simply seen as more important.