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Authentic Buddhist Leadership

September 1, 2013

Q: If you think that Buddhism is having a leadership crisis, then what would be a positive answer?

The Arahant: First we need to establish a platform from which we can successfully challenge the wrong assumptions about leadership in Buddhist society. That means a new kind of Buddhist community organization, respectful of the tradition but not limited by it.

The world is changing so rapidly now, traditional Buddhist organizations have no way to engage intelligent people. Where have we seen good contemporary Buddhist music, art, drama or cinema? Where is there any good Buddhist new media, interactive websites, graphic novels, animated films? We should not change the Buddha’s teaching, but how we present it, to engage meaningfully with the way people learn today.

We need a way to challenge wrong assumptions people continually make about spiritual leadership. For example, even leaders themselves often assume that self-realization alone is sufficient qualification for a spiritual leader. Of course, self-realization is always good—the more the better. But in general, domain knowledge is not enough to make one a leader. Leadership is a unique skill set, deserving specialized training.

Another common wrong assumption is that studying external, peripheral topics is equivalent to leadership knowledge. So people study the lives and thoughts of previous great leaders and try to imitate them. There are two problems with this: first, it’s inauthentic, imitation; and true leadership ability is not based on knowledge or action, but on having the being of a leader.

By the same token, having knowledge and even experience in management is not equivalent to having leadership skills. Of course there is a place for management, but it comes after the inspiration, the visionary and creative activities of leadership. Real leadership means radical change, not simply extending or implementing an existing form.

We also need to clean up bad philosophical habits transmitted from India. About 1500 years ago, Śāṅkarācārya developed a bogus method of scriptural interpretation based on redefining the terminology of primary sources. Then the redefined terms were used to reinterpret the source materials to give a predetermined conclusion. Of course, Śāṅkara’s methods trickled across to Sri Lanka and unduly influenced Buddhist scholarship. This problem needs to be understood and addressed.

The bad scholarship is a symptom of the general lack of integrity in South Asian culture. People will be agreeable to your face, especially if you outrank them on some social scale. But behind your back there will be all kinds of intrigues. How can leadership flourish in this rotten kind of culture? Your lieutenants will give you all kinds of false reports because they know what you want to hear. Meanwhile they are surreptitiously countermanding your programs. We need effective training in truthfulness and integrity to create lean, efficient organizations.

All this means we have to establish state-of-the-art leadership training for monks and lay people. Real leadership is not based on position, knowledge or even self-realization, but on having the being of a leader, and becoming the future that you want to lead people into. Like enlightenment, true leadership cannot be taught, but it can be learned. The Buddha did this, and he gave us the theory of Dependent Origination to guide and facilitate this process of organic leadership.

There is too much unthinking worship of tradition. We need to develop a dynamic, creative, risk-taking leadership style, free to experiment without being made wrong just for being different. There needs to be support for innovation, experimentation and failure. Otherwise, how will we be able to learn new ways of interacting?

We need fresh ways of presenting the Buddha’s teaching so we can target & recruit intelligent youth. Right now the first- and even second-class young people are going into business; the monks are mainly those who cannot make it anywhere else. Many of them want the free schooling and other benefits of being a monk, or are just lazy and want an easy life. If we really want to spread the Buddha’s teaching, we must learn to use contemporary forms of media to reach the higher class of students and interest them in the holy life.

We need to de-emphasize temple ritual, and the material benefits offered to lay people for supporting it. The Buddha’s teaching is about enlightenment, not material enjoyment. We should concentrate on our strengths: self-realization and meditation training. Theravāda meditation methods are much faster and more potent than other styles of Buddhism. We should bring this benefit out and make it the focus of a global new-media promotional campaign.

That would be a good start.

From → Leading by Being, Q&A

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