If nothing else, 2010 will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the more interesting years in terms of the growing awareness of Buddhism in the Western world. Among other things, “Buddhism” was a top Google search, PBS headlined a two-hour documentary feature entitled The Buddha, and Burma’s socially engaged Buddhist heroine Aung San Suu Kyi graced the cover of Time Magazine. Within the Buddhist world itself, though, there were certainly many, many important goings-on that bear mentioning and remembering.
As we start the 2011, it seems a good moment to take stock of the past year, and note important stories. How about a Buddhist news stories top ten list? Below, I’ve highlighted the ten Buddhist news items from 2010 that seem to me to be the most significant…
10. The 98th Legislative Assembly of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i Passes Resolution in Support of Marriage Equality
Stories about religion, values, and U.S. politics typically dominate year-end religion news round-up pieces by the American press, and I thought there was one story from the Buddhist world that deserved more attention in this regard: at a time when LGBT justice issues are so divisive within various religious traditions and denominations, the 98th Annual Legislative Assembly of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i spoke up forcefully in support of gay marriage and equal rights for all with a simple, strong resolution. (The assembly also produced an important fact sheet on the matter.) Representing thirty-six temples across Hawai’i as the largest Buddhist denomination in the state, the more than one hundred delegates stood together on this issue in a way that we don’t often see within such religious communities. It was inspiring.
9. Tiger Woods and Brit Hume Keep Buddhism on the Front Pages of the U.S. Press for a Few Weeks
I suppose there’s no avoiding the Tiger Woods/Brit Hume thing – if only because it had that rare effect of getting major media outlets and others talking about Buddhism. The silver lining here is that stories like this give those of us in the U.S. a very rare opportunity to gauge the nation’s understanding of Buddhism. (Though, I think many of us were disheartened or perplexed by what we found out in some cases—including our friend Rod Meade Sperry at Shambhala Sun Space and myself.) In addition, the situation provided opportunities for education on a few issues, including Buddhist bracelets and views on transgressions—as Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist put it, “While I’m not particularly proud of what Tiger Woods has done to his family, I’m still glad that he was able to give the world a poper portrayal of Buddhism in the most public (and delicate) of situations.” That said, I think we’re all ready to focus on something else.
8. The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism Bans Members of South Korea’s Ruling Grand National Party from Temple Entry
Angered over budget cuts for a “temple stay” program for locals and tourists, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism banned members of South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party from temple entry. In addition, they again voiced their belief that President Lee Myung-Bak, a Presbyterian, has a “biased religious position and distorted ideas towards the national culture.” In 2008, over 200,000 lay and monastic Buddhists gathered for one of the largest demonstrations in South Korea in years to essentially make the same point. (Buddhists account for only a scant percentage of the country’s elected officials, while members of Lee’s Somang Church fulfill many important positions within his administration.) Before and after the demonstration in 2008, things have been dicey between the President and South Korean Buddhists, many of whom claim to have voted across religious lines thinking interfaith cooperation would be possible.
Several stories also emerged from Thailand this year, including Buddhist monastic involvement in the anti-government demonstrations early in the year. (I spoke to my friend Erick D. White about the situation and understanding Buddhist participation in it for one of my Shambhala Sun Space posts in March.) The Thai sangha then responded in a few ways when things intensified and turned violent. (The International Network of Engaged Buddhists also issued a statement on the violence.) In an unrelated story, the discovery of two thousand aborted fetuses on the grounds of a Bangkok monastery inspired politicians to take a second look at the country’s laws governing abortion.
6. We Say Goodbye to Robert Aitken Roshi, Gene Smith, and Preah Ros May
Speaking of Buddhists in the public eye, 2010 was not without its sad losses of important figures in the study, practice, and propagation of the Buddhadharma. In August, Buddhists of all stripes mourned the loss of Robert Aitken Roshi, “one of American Zen’s great pioneers,” and co-founder of Diamond Sangha and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. The year ended with the losses, first, of Preah Ros May, president of America’s first Khmer Buddhist temple, and then the luminary E. Gene Smith, founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center.
5. Archaeologists Try to Save the Ruins of a Buddhist Monastery at Mes Aynak
Potential losses also made news this year: In Afghanistan, archaeologists have been struggling to save the ruins of an ancient monastery along the Silk Road at Mes Aynak in the eastern province of Logar. The Chinese government has invested $3.5 billion in the war-torn country’s economy to mine copper deposit beneath the site…a project that will, however, probably devastate the monastery and its relics. The issue is especially sensitive considering the Taliban’s destruction of the statues at Bamiyan and other Buddhist relics in the country at the turn of the millennium. By December, it was decided that the copper mine project will continue with delays while archaeologists work to save Buddhist history at the site.
4. Attacks Against the Jumma People of the Chittagong Hills Tracts
Elsewhere in South Asia, attacks against the Jumma people of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hills Tracts continued at an alarming rate. Comprising various non-Bengali ethnic minorities (the two largest being Buddhist), the Jumma have faced human rights abuses and atrocities since the country’s independence in 1971, when the government started moving Bengalis into the Chittagong Hills Tract. In one of his excellent posts on events in Bangladesh this year, Arun articulated the situation pretty perfectly when he wrote, “Bangladesh’s Chittagong division is home to a large number of Buddhists, including the meditation masters Dipa Ma and Anagarika Munindra. These teachers in particular had a profound impact on Buddhism both in the West and elsewhere in Asia far beyond their native Chittagong. The Buddhists of Bangladesh, however, have no Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi to direct the world’s attention to their plight. They pursue their quest for liberty and justice largely in the shadow of the world’s attention.”
3. The Fallout from the Opening of the “Shimano Archives”
One story that did garner lots of attention from inside the Buddhist community (at least in North America) was the furor around the “Shimano Archives”, a collection of letters held at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library Archives, and what their contents have to say about the behavior of Zen Studies Society abbot Eido Shimano Roshi. Among other things, The New York Times reported on the story (inspiring a response from Eido Shimano and a response to the response from article author Mark Oppenheimer); the Zen Studies Society announced new ethical guidelines, an internal investigation into ethics violations there, and a plan for leadership transitions; and public responses came from Rev. James Ishmael Ford, Grace Shireson, Dosho Port, Taigen Dan Leighton, Jan Chozen Bays, The Buddhist Channel, and Roshi Joan Halifax, among many others.
Among the issues that very much have the world’s attention, there were the perennial concerns about the welfare the Tibetan people and their cultural preservation. It was another rather newsy year on this front, in fact. Among other things, there was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s retirement statement, the WikiLeaks revelation that His Holiness had prioritized Tibet’s climate concerns ahead political concerns in a meeting with U.S. diplomats, and His Holiness’s meeting with President Obama (and his curious exit from the White House). In non-Dalai Lama related news, the terrible Yushu earthquake transformed the local monastic community into a corps of disaster relief workers. Human rights concerns in the region persisted, with various NGOs and non-profits like Human Rights Watch pointing this year to the lack of proper news media access to Tibet “aside from a handful of closely-supervised [Chinese] government-organized tours for selected international media or foreign diplomats.” And despite His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, being denied a visa to travel in Europe, the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism had a banner year between the first North American Kagyu Monlam and the 900th anniversary of the lineage.
1. Aung San Suu Kyi is Released from House Arrest
Finally, one of the world’s great socially engaged Buddhist icons, Burma’s democratically elected Prime Minister and Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from her latest house arrest. While there remains so much to be done for her dreams of Burma to be realized, it was next to impossible not to feel at least pleased about images like this…