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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > European Buddhism: Challenges and Opportunities

European Buddhism: Challenges and Opportunities

Alexander Berzin
The Second Conference on Tibetan Buddhism in Europe
Fribourg, Switzerland, April 2013

Introduction

Buddhism has become quite widespread and well-established in Europe. There are a large number of Buddhist centers in almost all countries, extensive study and practice programs, including online study with written, audio and video teachings, as well as retreat facilities, publishing houses, programs for children, hospices, and so forth. Study and practice materials are available to a varying extent in most of the European languages. The various Buddhist organizations cooperate among themselves, with most countries having Buddhist Unions, as well as a European Buddhist Union to coordinate their efforts.

This is not the occasion to document everything that has developed over the last decades. Suffice it to say that more can be done in all these areas. Let me focus, instead, on some of the challenges that Buddhism will need to address in the decades to come, both specifically in Europe, as well as worldwide. Let me also outline the opportunities these challenges present for the further development of Buddhism in Europe through the use of Internet technology. Many of the suggestions I shall offer are based on features we have developed to meet these challenges and already implemented on my web site, www.berzinarchives.com.

The Large Amount of Information Available

With an ever-increasing amount of translations and teachings available in books and online, students have difficulty in evaluating them. Especially baffling for newcomers is the question of where to begin. If one Googles a Buddhist topic such as karma, not only do millions of items come up, but a large number of them have nothing to do with Buddhism. This makes it extremely difficult to find reliable information through the major online search engines. Moreover, all traditions of Buddhism are now readily available and students often study with more than one. This often results in confusion because of mixing everything together without understanding the distinctive features of each tradition.

These challenges provide an opportunity for the Buddhist Unions in each European language region to prepare web sites and apps containing lists, with short resumes, of published and online written, audio and video Buddhist materials in their languages, together with their prices. These need to be arranged by both general and specific topics and levels of difficulty, for instance sutra, tantra, mahamudra, dzogchen, Theravada, Zen and so on, and within sutra, for instance, karma, bodhichitta, voidness, etc. The web site could operate like a Wikipedia, overseen by an editorial staff. The technical staff could also create online search engines that locate terms only in specifically Buddhist web sites.

The Large Number of Dharma Centers

Similarly, with so many Dharma centers from so many Buddhist traditions, not only Tibetan, available in many major European cities, it is also difficult for newcomers to decide where to go. It would be helpful if the Buddhist Unions in each country could provide online, in both web site and app form, not just a list of the Buddhist centers in their countries and web sites available in their languages, but also a description of the types of programs each provides and the costs for each.

Because the expenses at many of these centers and web sites are high, Dharma study has become increasingly more expensive. Despite reduced fees for those who are unable to pay in full, many people can still not afford to take full advantage of the facilities offered. They need to be able to easily find programs that are free of charge.

The Wide Variety of Translations of Buddhist Terms

Perhaps the greatest challenge Dharma students face is the wide variety of translations used in each language for Buddhist technical terms, such as ye-shes. Because of this, students are unable to put together what they read or hear from various teachers and translators. Also, when students encounter technical terms, such as “wisdom,” without also having the definitions, they often misunderstand them. The Tibetan glossaries and dictionaries presently available online are arranged according to the Tibetan terms and designed to provide translators information about how others have treated the specific terms. They are of little use to Buddhist students who don’t know Tibetan.

To meet this challenge, Buddhist teachers and translators into European languages need to provide in their written works the Tibetan and, if possible, also the Sanskrit for the major translation terms they use and they must try to use these translation terms consistently, also in their oral presentations. They also need to compile glossaries of these terms, together with the Tibetan and Sanskrit, plus their definitions.

On the basis of these glossaries, an enormous online data base of Buddhist technical terms and their definitions in the major European and Asian languages can then be created, both as a free-of-charge web site and a free-of-charge app. It is important that all the major European languages are included in one data base – English, Russian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian – since many Europeans get a better understanding when they look at terms in several languages. By linking in the data base each of the translation terms to the Tibetan original, it will then be possible for a user to key in a term they read in the work of one translator and then click to find how another translator translates and defines the same term. In this way, they can put together what they read in the works of both these translators and learn that they are discussing the same thing.

Multiple Languages

Although many Buddhist prayers, sadhanas and pujas are available in most European languages, most study material is available in either only one or sometimes two European languages. The challenge is to make these study materials available in all the major European languages. If all the language versions are available online in one web site, multilingual readers can toggle between languages to gain greater clarity.

Further, by providing online transcripts of audio files accessible with a stationary audio player, listeners for whom the language spoken is a second language can follow the talks more easily. An additional benefit of providing online transcripts is that they are searchable with search engines, whereas audio and video files are not. Moreover, transcripts make the oral teachings available to deaf students and can more easily be translated into other languages.

Religious Harmony

To promote religious harmony, His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes making correct information about each tradition available to the others. As a multi-religious, multilingual continent with many Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants, Europe can lead the way in fulfilling this aim. We need to prepare more translations of Buddhist works into the languages of the various Islamic countries and into the languages of the Southeast and East Asian countries in which the various other Buddhist traditions flourish. These translations need to include not only Indian scriptural texts and Tibetan commentaries, but also the teachings of modern masters, since these are often easier for lay people to understand.

The Tibetan Community

His Holiness also emphasizes the importance of preserving the Tibetan language and identity among the Tibetan community in exile. With many Tibetan immigrants settled in the West, especially in Switzerland, one of the greatest challenges is reaching out to the Tibetan youth. Having easily understandable Dharma books and transcripts of oral Dharma teachings translated from European languages into Tibetan and put online could help fulfill His Holiness’s wishes.

This summer, the Office of Tibet in New York will be holding its second annual Buddhism retreat for university students of Tibetan, Himalayan and Mongolian descent. If there were a similar summer study program here in Europe, such online materials in European languages as well as Tibetan and Mongolian would not only be of use to the young students during the retreat, but would also help them prepare for the retreat and sustain their study of both Dharma and language after returning home.

As you can see from these few suggestions, a great deal can be done with information technology to facilitate the study and practice of Buddhism in Europe. As I’ve demonstrated with my web site, extensive online projects like these can not only be done, but they can be accomplished on donation basis only, so that they can be offered to the world free of charge for the benefit of all. Thank you.