Welcome Speech 2014 - Peter Stuart

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The Venerable Vello Vaartnou, Head of the Estonian Nyingma in Perth, Honourable Liz Behjat, MLC for North Metropolitan, distinguished visitors, speakers and participants.

I acknowledge the original people and this land that is theirs on which we meet today.

It is truly an honour for me to present a welcome address for the third time at this 3rd International Buddhism in Australia Conference in Perth.

Once again, welcome to this event. You have come freely. When you have finished, go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring for others to share. The title of one of the key speeches today to be delivered by Prof Ian Cook --- Buddhists without Buddhism totally intrigued me and I am eagerly waiting to hear him and Dr Mark Toole on his view of Buddhism in the World.

As a non-Buddhist, my perception (and that of many others) of Buddhism today is of a faith that is self-focused: That the ultimate objective is prayer for protection in one’s current life to be born into a better life in future. Right or wrong, this is a widely held perception.

However, those faiths that still exist over the past 3000 years show certain very interesting trends, namely, an evolution that appears to be trending along a similar path towards re-discovering themselves in a 21st century environment. Sure, the radicals or fundamentalists are very present and evident.

But, the trend that I see amongst the major faiths is best put in the words of Cindy Sui, a noted journalist in Taipei. “Within the mainstream middle sector of Buddhism in Taiwan there is a quiet, yet powerful movement that has turned traditional Buddhism on its head, converting many Buddhists into doers, not just believers”.

The focus now is on what the Taiwanese call "humanistic Buddhism" - caring for others and for society. It returns Buddhists to the core principles of Shakyamuni’s Buddhism - speaking good words, thinking good thoughts and doing good deeds. This is the Buddhism I experienced as a young man in Calcutta, not too far from Bodh Gaya.

"According to Buddhism, it's not enough to have benefits for oneself only -- you must also have benefits for others. We should try to help as many people as we can to be relieved of suffering," said Head Abbot Hsin Bao of another major Taiwanese Buddhist association, Fo Guang Shan.

Taiwan’s Tzu Chi Foundation - which is at the vanguard of the movement - has seven million followers, including two million overseas.

Its 100,000 volunteers in Taiwan are seen everywhere in their trademark blue shirts and white trousers. They recycle plastic bottles to raise charity funds, check on elderly people living alone, provide support to poor and at-risk families, tutor children and help respond to natural disasters. Is this a workable model for Buddhists in Australia? These same social problems exist here too.

It is unclear how many Buddhists there are in the world. Buddhism is not an institutionalised religion and many Buddhists also believe in other faiths. Some estimates suggest there are over 600 million Buddhists globally, making it the world's fourth largest religion.

The uniqueness that has me focused on Taiwanese Buddhism is its strong emphasis on helping society. Although Buddhist groups have traditionally been less active, compared to Christian counterparts, in spreading their religion, that is definitely changing. Buddhists do not appear to be trying to convert non-believers. There is no overt or covert move to proselytise. Shakyamuni taught people to help those who are suffering, without conditions, and not to want anything in return.

And it is interesting to note a somewhat different trend in thinking by a Ramsey Margolis in New Zealand, who conceives a secular Buddhism needs to emerge and reshape Theravada Buddhism (Way of the Elders) and Mahayana Buddhism (Great Vehicle). His thoughts seem to embody a structural and format change -- different to the Taiwan paradigm shift.

Changing the way Buddhism is practiced has not only led to a revival of the religion in Taiwan, but its expansion overseas. Another question that rises in my mind is -- “Is this happening in Australia?”

Taiwan's groups were also influenced by Christianity, adopting practices such as doing charity work. The growing wealth of the middle class everywhere, especially amongst older people, is being evidenced in there being more money and time to help others, as this middle class seeks meaning in life. I do not see this happening in Perth. I am unable to make observation about Australia in general.

As the Honorary Consul for Mongolia in Western Australia, I regularly meet the small Mongolian community resident in Perth. I have asked several about their involvement with and attendance at the Buddhist temples within Perth. The response is dismal. Negative. I asked several if they knew about this Conference happening today. None of them had heard about it until I sent out an email to the whole community last week. ((I see one has joined, Chimge is her short name. I’m sure she will contribute much at this Conference)).

Last Tuesday evening I attended the 66th Independence celebration of Sri Lanka. I was fortunate to meet a few Buddhist believers and I asked them if they were aware of this Conference. Most said no.

In my address to this conference last year I spoke of the rapid growth of Buddhists by number in Australia. But this has been through the rising number of migrants from countries where Buddhism flourishes. Not an increase in practising followers, regardless of path. I asked last year’s conference participants to reflect on how they would bring Buddhism to a younger population that is so heavily i-pod screen addicted – the same dilemma facing the Christian groups across Australia. I feel that had Shakyamuni existed today, he would surely have used social media to spread his message.

Today’s young Australians, regardless of faith they follow or do not follow, are increasingly responding to the call for help for others – by a wide range of organisations. Will the Taiwan model have a place in Australia?

There is at least one point in the history of any society when it must change dramatically to rise to the next level of achievement, performance and outreach. Miss that moment - and that society will surely start to decline. Is this the moment in the history of Buddhism in Australia?

Marju, I thank you once again for giving me the privilege and honour to deliver this welcome address – and challenge. I pray that you find answers and challenges through the dialogues that will take place over these two days, which should lead to action and not simply stop at dialogue.