The 2011 Census results, which came out last week, showed that the amount of people who identify themselves as Christians has declined by four million since 2001. What’s more, 14 million people, about a quarter of the population, say they had no religion at all, a rise of 6.4 million over the decade. With the Church of England receiving such negative press lately, largely because of the decision not to allow women to become bishops and its opposition to gay marriage, the future of Christianity in this country is uncertain.
However, Jnanavaca, the Chairman of the London Buddhist Centre, believes there is an alternative to Christianity. “Whether you are gay, straight or bisexual, it’s completely irrelevant, as long as you’re not exploiting other human beings,” Jnanavaca says, whose Centre follows the Triratna Buddhist Order. “Buddhism is for everyone. There is no sense of being chosen,” he adds.
Jnanavaca, who’s in his forties, was born into a Hindu family – however, the death of his father when he was 11, caused him to seek existential meaning. In his late teens he discovered Buddhism and has been attracted to the tradition ever since.
Buddhism stands out from the other religious dispensations in that there is no concept of God in its teachings. That Buddhism seems concerned with truth rather than faith and myth structures is perhaps what makes it credible in this day and age.
What also makes Buddhism different from other world religions is its realism. Unlike some strains of Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t regard sex as inherently sinful. “In secular, western society, we’ve got lots of sexual freedom. Buddhism would say on the whole it’s a good thing. But sex has become so important to our society it is to miss what is really important.” What’s important, Jnanavaca says, is transcending the human condition, which, by its nature, is one of attachment and egoism.
“Buddhism has the most clarity to how transcendence is achieved. The clarity and practices of Buddhism is exceptional. Christianity doesn’t have these clear mystical practices,” he says.
Although it is inevitable to refer to other religious traditions when talking about one’s own, it seems that Jnanavaca falls into the same trap of sanctimony as religious practitioners of other faiths do. This is made more evident when Jnanavaca says: “Our society desperately needs Buddhism – perhaps more than any other time. I would prefer western secular culture to adopt to Buddhism rather than the other way round.”
Yet, to the question: Why should I follow the Buddhist tradition? Perhaps the answer is: Why not? After all, there is no unsubstantiated supernatural stuff to believe in, the religion is synonymous with inclusivity, peacefulness and tolerance, there is a clear absence of theological dogma and, most interestingly, the NHS has endorsed Buddhist meditative practices like Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
“We’re trying to develop a new western, Buddhism where there is a secular dimension. But we want Buddhism to remain the most prominent practise,” Jnanavaca says.
Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, which often incur negative media attention, Buddhism is rarely targeted. However, to say Buddhism doesn’t have its fair share of problems would be prejudicial. Like Christianity, allegations of sexual abuse sometimes plague the Buddhist tradition, too. Earlier this year, Lama Tempa Dargye of France was imprisoned under allegations by four women of rape and sexual violence. This was not an isolated incident either, as the Guardian has pointed out.
What has been perhaps the most damaging news to Buddhism recently is the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims by Burma’s Buddhist government, which Al Jazeera has described as “the hidden genocide”. “It’s a real travesty. I think any act of violence is not Buddhism. You can not justify it,” Jnanavaca says.
Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in English jails, it is also becoming increasingly popular among British armed forces, with 1,000 believed to have converted since 2005. It seems that Buddhism is embraced when people are in difficult circumstances. Britain, lest we forget, is in the midst of its worst economic recession since the 1930s, so it won’t be surprising if more Brits continue to turn to Buddhism in the near future.
Our country is losing its identity as an Anglican country – and while it seems likely that Buddhism will remain a clear minority, the next Census may not show Islam as the fastest growing religion – as the 2011 one did – but perhaps Buddhism.