May 12, 2015 – Vancouver Buddhists strive to overcome ethnic silos with big birthday

Many of Metro Vancouver’s eclectic Buddhists groups acknowledge they’re sometimes more divided and even competitive than they would like.

In an attempt to overcome language and other differences, different Buddhist groups are coming together to build bonds on Saturday for Vesak (Buddha’s birthday).

The coalition of 38 Buddhist monastics is called “United Sangha.”

Their group has arisen in response to the realization, say organizers, that Buddhists in Canada are often sequestered and isolated in their own ethnic groups, whether Vietnamese, Burmese, Tibetan, Taiwanese or Western.

Shifu Zhihan, a key organizer of Saturday’s event from 1 to 7 p.m. at the Italian Cultural Centre, said some of the disconnection between various Buddhist groups in Metro is because many leaders are not adept in the English language.

Shifu Zhihan believes there would be more unity among Metro Vancouver Buddhists if more teachers were adept at English. He's a key leader of United Buddhism.

Shifu Zhihan believes there would be more unity among Metro Vancouver Buddhists if more teachers were adept at English. He’s a key leader of United Sangha.

“The truth is, it’s hard to be rivals when there is no common language to argue on. However, I am aware of the healthy competition that exists between the different temples within each ethnic community, depending on the size of the community,” said Zhihan, who is with the Bodhiyana Buddhist Education Society.

“I wish there was more competition among the temples on teaching Buddhism in English. How can Buddhism become relevant in the mainstream if it is not being express in the local language?” (Read more from Zhihan below.)

United Sangha is hosting its first Metro-wide celebration of Vesak from 1 to 7 p.m. on May 16 at the Italian Cultural Centre, inviting Buddhists of all ethnicities and non-Buddhists of all religions to unite for world peace.

As I once noted in a posting, Toronto’s earlier efforts to have a united Buddhist event were cancelled. But this United Sangha hopes to bring Metro Vancouver together through a shared desire for community.

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Here is an excerpt from a news release on Saturday’s Vesak event:

On Saturday May 16, the ‘United Sangha’, a group of local Buddhist monastics (monks and nuns) from various traditions, is hosting the first city-wide Vesak 2015 to celebrate the birth of Buddha and to unite the city for world peace.

The Buddhists who gather on Saturday in Vancouver for a United Sangha event will sing John Lennon's Imagine.

The Buddhists who gather on Saturday in Vancouver for a United Sangha event will take part in a performance of John Lennon’s Imagine.

What: Vesak 2015 for World Peace – a celebration of Buddha’s birthday
When: Saturday, May 16th – 1 pm to 7 pm
Where: Italian Cultural Centre: 3075 Slocan Street, Vancouver

Program highlights:
1:00 – 1:20pm: Purification ceremony and reception
2:00 – 3:00pm: Chanting, the Ritual bathing of the baby prince
3:00 – 3:30pm: Offering of the seven treasures
3:50 – 4:50pm: Dharma Talks: Introduction to Buddhism

4:50 – 5:30pm: Guided Meditation and Contemplation
5:30 – 5:40pm: Chanting in Pali language
6:00 – 6:40pm: Panel Discussion on global affairs
6:40 – 7:00pm: Guided loving-kindness meditation, and performance of the song “Imagine”

These are some of the participants in United Sangha (provided by Jenny Lee-Leugne):

Monastic Sangha Executive organizations
*   Burmese Buddhist Society (Burmese Theravadin tradition) – 2 monks
*   Bodhiyana Buddhist Education Society (Taiwan Mahayana Tradition) – 1 monk and 2 nuns
*   Chan Nguyen Monastery (Vietnamese Mahayana tradition) – 7 monks and 8 nuns
Participating monastic sangha organizations
*   San Hui Buddhist Society (Taiwanese Mahayana Pureland tradition) – 4 nuns
*   Bilingual Buddhist Association (Taiwanese Mahayana tradition) – 2 nuns
*   Ni Vien Lien Hoa (Vietnamese Mahayana tradition) – 2 nuns
*   Surrey Buddhist Centre (Canadian Vajrayana tradition) – 1 monk
*   Phap Hoa Temple (Vietnamese Mahayana tradition) – 2 nuns
*   Buddhist Vihara Society in BC (Sri Lankan Theravadin tradition) – 3 monks
*   Lao Canadian Buddhist Temple (Lao Theravadin tradition) – 2 monks
*   Gawa Ling (Tibetan Karma Kagyu tradition) – 1 nun
*   Tepthidaram Temple (Cambodian Theravadin tradition) – 3 monks
As well as…
*   Other participating individual monastic members who are not part of any particular monastic organization – 3 monks and 5 nuns

Here is an excerpt from an earlier piece of mine, which the members of United Sangha have cited, headlined “‘Nice’ Buddhism growing in Canada, despite rivalries:

…. Even though the academic contributors to the book, Wild Geese: Buddhism in Canada, bend over backwards to avoid offending Buddhists with Asian origins… a closer reading of the book reveals that things aren’t always “nice” within Buddhism in Canada.

Many Westerners associate Buddhism with meditation, non-theistic philosophy and avuncular teachers like the Dalai Lama.

But the book’s authors reluctantly acknowledge that Asian-Buddhist groups and others in Canada are not above rivalry, seeking converts, promoting supernaturalism and doing good works in the questionable pursuit of cosmic “merit-making.”

Buddhists are not above the factionalism that has struck Christianity, Judaism and all other major religious and secular movements. Different Buddhist groups in Canada vie for the claim to superiority.

Buddhists are not above the factionalism that has struck Christianity, Judaism and all other major religious and secular movements. Different Buddhist groups in Canada vie for the claim to superiority, acknowledges Wild Geese.

The chronic lack of communication and even rivalry among ethnic and Western Buddhist groups in Canada was exemplified in Toronto recently when long-standing efforts to co-celebrate Vesak, Buddha’s birthday, on the first full moon in May were cancelled.

“Despite the surface agreement that the many cultural forms of Buddhism are equally legitimate, there is jockeying for privileged position,” conclude the authors of Wild Geese.

One example of status-seeking among Buddhists has been the competition between two large missionizing Taiwan groups in Canada — the charitable Tzu Chi movement and the educational Fo Guang Shan organization.

Ethnic Asian Buddhist groups, in addition, can be just as hierarchical and patriarchal as any of the more conservative manifestations of Western religion.

As Shiu writes, “The organizational structure of Fo Guang Shan bears striking similarity to the papal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church….”

 

Below is a more complete statement from Shifu Zhihan, who was born in Taiwan but grew up in Vancouver. He has been a monk for more than 20 years, teaching Buddhism in Argentina and Brazil, in Spanish and Portuguese respectively.

Zhihan returned to Vancouver two years ago to take care of his ailing father, which is when he began researching and trying to understand the dynamics within the different Buddhist communities. This year, with the help of his sister who is a Buddhist nun, they worked on uniting the Sangha to celebrate Vesak. They began planning in January with five monks and nuns and are now at 38 monastics strong.

Shifu Zhihan says:

    During the course of uniting the different sanghas, we have come to learn that our vision is actually shared by many senior monastics and their students…. They wanted to unite the Sangha but did not know how to go about it.

The difficulty was having the right people initiate the conversation and create a communication platform…. I am sure more monastics will be joining us since they are just a bit shy.

As for our relevance in the mainstream public, the United Sangha needs to prove that Buddhism can be a compassionate force in society, an agent of positive change. The Buddha’s teachings from 2,500 years ago have always stood for equality, peace and harmony, and compassion for all living beings. Whether the Sangha of the 21st Century can convey effectively such teachings, only time will tell.

In regards to why Buddhist communities are segregated into their own ethnic communities: It is my understanding that many monastics from Asia were invited by the different Buddhist ethnic communities, i.e. from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, etc. to be the spiritual guides of their respective communities.

Their command of the English language was never a requirement. Due to the lack of teachings and programs in English, the second and third generations of the Buddhist immigrants have no way of learning about Buddhism, though there are always some rare exceptions in the Buddhist communities where the monastics do teach in English.

In regards to tensions within the Buddhist communities in Vancouver: The truth is, it’s hard to be rivals when there is no common language to argue on. However, I am aware of the healthy competition that exists between the different temples within each ethnic community, depending on the size of the community.

I wish there was more competition among the temples on teaching Buddhism in English. How can Buddhism become relevant in the mainstream if it is not being express in the local language?

The unity is not merely a gesture of getting monastics of different ethnicity and traditions together, but to actually vote on all major decisions regarding the Vesak planning via the Sangha’s democratic process.