It would be easy to think that because Theravada has such ancient and apparently deep roots in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia that it will be there forever. But this would be a dangerous assumption. Religions allegiances can and do change very fast, particularly in the modern world. For 800 years Buddhism flourished in Udyana in what is now northern Pakistan, but for reasons that are not clear it eventually withered away. When the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited in the 7th century (before the advent of Islam it should be noted) he was able to write: ‘There are some 1400 old monasteries although they are now generally ruined and desolate. Formerly there were some 18,000 monks in them but gradually their numbers have dwindled so that now there are very few.’ For nearly a millennia Indonesians were predominately Buddhist/Hindu and they raised spectacular monuments to their respective faiths. But within a remarkably short period and without any apparent persecution, both gave way to Islam. During a recent visit to Cambodia I was shocked to see how many evangelical Christian churches there were and how many people they attracted. Just 30 years ago there were almost no Christians in the country, now they make up a significant minority and all indications are that their numbers will continue to grow. When one sees the smiling but passive and backward-looking Cambodian monks it is hard be optimistic about the future of the Dhamma in that unlucky country. Theravadins congratulate themselves that their Buddhism is taking the West by storm but the statistics do not bear this out. Many more people are attracted to yoga and Vedantic groups let alone to Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. More tellingly, evangelical Christianity is growing much faster in Theravadin countries than Theravada is growing in the West. And of course Christian missionaries are many times more motivated, better prepared and well financed than their Buddhist counterparts. Whatever Theravada’s future in Asia it certainly has no long term future in the West. Western Buddhists must develop confidence enough to stop accommodating Theravada, rationalize it or copying it. At present Western societies are very receptive to all types of Buddhism but there is no guarantee that this trend will continue. It would be a tragedy if Buddhism fails to take advantage of this rare and wonderful opportunity. Now is the time to evolve a new Buddhism that can speak to a new millennium.
Andhakarena onaddha padipam na gavessatha?