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Malaysian Buddhism and Youth

Malaysian Buddhism and Youth

Buddhist Youth Groups in Malaysia are becoming less active and smaller - and we must make them great again.

Malaysian Buddhism is unique, for being taught and having prayers in four modern languages - with English (the main), Mandarin, Tamil and Bahasa Peranakan, as well as liturgical languages like Traditional Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit and Tibetan.

Unfortunately, Malaysian Buddhist organizations are left behind. Australian Buddhists are doing better than us. The Buddhist Society of Western Australia has over 145,000 subscribers. In Malaysia - the Buddhist Maha Vihara hardly has over 2,400 subscribers on YouTube. The Buddhist Missionary Society of Malaysia? Measly 8 subscribers. Popular Malaysian Buddhist bands haven't had active social media platforms until this Covid-19 pandemic started.

To put into perspective, these organizations had a large following and drew crowds every Sunday - as much as concerts, so much so, a hall the size of a concert hall was built in Melaka's Buddhist Missionary Society (now Seck Kia Eenh). But as time went on... somehow, Malaysian Buddhists forgot one of the key concepts of Buddhism - adaptability. Somewhere in the 1990s to 2000, this huge decline of interest in Buddhism happened. This spilled over to neighbouring Singapore as well.

Here's Why.

Firstly, the internet. I'm not talking about the internet itself, but rather, the failure to use the internet. Yes, the internet is beneficial in so many ways. I mean, look where I'm writing this on. Also, aren't we grateful we have the internet and smartphones during this pandemic? However, a relative of mine, who was and still is active in Buddhist groups said that they were "having too much fun" that they didn't realize the internet was going to be a massive thing here, and international pop culture would spread as fast as it does. Membership declined. People now looked to other religions that were predominant in international pop culture and the internet.

The second thing - lack of Buddhist education. Back then, most Buddhists had an understanding of Buddhist values and teachings to a certain extent. However, when the internet took off, and interest dropped, people learned what they saw their parents do at home. All the praying for good luck, chanting, incense, talismans, amulets, statues - failing to realize that these are not the core values or teachings of Buddhism. Heck, some people have no clue the Buddha was born in India or what the Triple Gem is.

The third one - a mistake with demography and socials - when social media took off in 2009, most Buddhist organizations failed to join early. By the time they started joining (average date 2013), they were a little too late. And the age limits for some events - are simply horrendous - either too low or too high.

Final one - most religions have their symbols, like the Crescent, Cross or "Om". Most religious organizations have either their religious symbol, or a unique contemporary one like a circle, crown, or other special religious symbolism.

Buddhism also has the Dhammacakka or Dhamma Wheel, Lotus, and Bodhi Tree, but the Dhammacakka, a very simple yet elegant symbol is underutilized by Buddhist Organizations. The use of contemporary logos are also found less often in Buddhist Organization logos. Instead, organizations prefer the Lotus, Bodhi Tree and even Buddha himself. Logos are a huge representation and imagery of an organization.

Lotuses might be an important Buddhist symbol, and the Bodhi Tree is an important symbol too, but let's face it - the Dhammacakka sells. Okay, this isn't marketing, but I set up a social media account with Buddhist quotes. The initial logo was a lotus - no followers for weeks. Then a Bodhi Tree - still no followers. When the Dhammacakka logo surfaced, it shot up to 10 followers over 1 week. I stopped posting for now, so the follower count will probably remain there for a while.

But the point is, we need to start using the Dhammacakka and more contemporary imagery like minimalist one word, circular or square uniform logo designs.

So, the younger generation left, the parents - some were spiritual Buddhists, but not all, some just prayed or rather chanted blindly, lit incense in front of statues and put talismans and amulets all over. Logos had... different imagery now. This gave the impression that Buddhists are:

  • Idol Worshippers, due to overuse of Buddha imagery in logos and statues (We are not, a Buddha statue isn't necessary to begin with, but when we look or pray in front of the statue, we are simply respecting and remembering the Buddha's qualities and teachings, not the statue.)

  • Superstitious (Buddhism is far from superstitious. Any superstition you see me commit is completely personal.)

  • Anti-social media (Hi guys, my name is Rain Lee and I'm a Buddhist who loves social media!)

  • Traditionalist (No, where the heck did some people get this idea? Maybe it's the incense and chanting being overemphasised at home)

None of the above are true.

However, because of all that, Buddhist Youth don't feel the need or motivation to join Buddhist organizations. University Buddhist Club? Maybe two dozen people. People of other faiths going to their clubs? Like Buddhist Missionary Society's concert hall sized crowd - in the 1970s. Buddhist temple youth? Youth Camp? I never got to attend one because there were always "too little participants", or the minimum age just kept changing. The year I met all requirements (2019), I fell sick 2 days before camp and couldn't go. Oh, there are times when you're actually really alone alone - it feels pathetic to be the only, sole Buddhist Youth at my temple since 2015. Okay, that's off my chest. (P.S. Join us please!)

Look, a reminder that Buddhism's main goal isn't to make others join Buddhism - my goal is to get Buddhists to understand more and be more active themselves. Like the Dalai Lama Says, if you think Buddhism is for you, then - you do you. If not, you do what's for you.

But fellow Buddhists, we need to change, and move forward, before we turn into a chapter of a history book or internet archive faster than intended.


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