Sunday, October 15, 2006

Suggestion for Buddhist groups for outreach

I have been hearing and reading about outreach concerns for some Buddhist organizations, and as the representative example, let's take the BCA (Buddhist Churches of America). This would be an example of a group that is historically a form of "Ethnic Buddhism", which is to say that it is rooted in communities of people who immigrated from Buddhist countries and their descendants. The other mode would be "Conversion Buddhism", which refers to a group that is primarily composed of people who se ancestry is not Asian and who grew up with some other sacred tradition or none at all. Of course, not every sangha or study center is going to be 100% one or the other, but each has issues that have been debated and discussed ad nauseum.

For example, both tend to suffer from demographic stagnation. That is, the ethnic Buddhist enclaves are predominately composed of people from a particular cultural heritage, i.e. Japanese, or Chinese, or Korean, or Vietnamese, etc. The centers populated by converts tend to be white upwardly mobile college educated members. With the notable exception of Soka Gakkai, there is a dearth of individuals engaged in Buddhism in the US who don't fall into one of these two camps.

Many approaches for broadening outreach have been suggested. For ethnic-rooted Buddist temples and centers, there has been discussion of making the teaching explicitly relevant to all visitors and encouraging outreach though more visibile community service. There is also talk of giving a more transparent structure to the purpose and function of the organizations as related to the welfare of sentient beings. For the convert community, there is an echo of the same issues as the ethnic community - people walking into an all-white, fairly well-off group who don't match that demographic may feel awkward and out of place. Then there is the common problem of built-in divisions in the larger community. If a Zen-center is in a mostly white neighborhood, and if the people who attend have mostly white neighbors and friends, who do people expect to find out about/be interested in/show up to that center?

Being more visible to a the broader community, by participating in well-advertised events such as candle-light vigils, clothing or food or blood drives, special ceremonies, etc, is definitely a very valid aproach that needs to be initiated or expanded at many temples and centers. But the there is another issue. I read about all sorts of interesting events that happen in other cities. "Oh, I like a particular Chan group, but alas, there is no local chapter. Oh, I want to visit or check out a particular Shin organization, but there is no temple in my area." I think this is a major issue for many would-be Buddhists or Buddhists who might be interested in other traditions.

Now, it is true that even for online access there are demographic biases, but I think that the internet remains a really underutilized tool for Buddhist outreach. As an example of what I mean, consider the Unitarian Universalist Association. They have congregations across the United States, but for those who live in areas where there are no congregations and for those who are homebound, they have started and continue to develop the Church of the Larger Fellowship. I really think this is the kind of approach from which many groups like the BCA could learn something.

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