The Secular vs. the Spiritual: Is India Squandering Its Top Export: The Buddha?

Secular values are the values that citizens share regardless of their religious differences; secular policies are policies to which citizens can be expected to give rational consent regardless of their religious commitments. – Jay Garfield

You might have read the quite harsh essay by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche on the Indian Huffington Post Blog, called “How India Is Squandering Its Top Export: The Buddha“. In that essay Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche essentially argues that India and Nepal should respect more deeply “their Buddhist heritage” and should deal with it in far better ways. Rinpoche called India’s and Nepal’s “lack of concern” to be “both a leadership failure and an endemic societal blindness.”

Jay Garfield wrote an intelligent reply, “In Defense of the Secular“, pointing out some issues in Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s essay. One of Jay Garfield’s points is that the usage of the word “secular” as a pejorative term as well as its contrasting with the “valorized spiritual” is a mistake because “it creates a pernicious duality between the secular and the spiritual that denigrates the civil society that is the best protection that a minority tradition like Buddhism could ever have.”

There are some other issues in the essay by Dongsar Khyentse Rinpoche that might need to be addressed or thought/discussed about. For instance, the demise of Buddhism in India. The demise of Buddhism in India is a complex issue as Thierry Dodin pointed out in an interview. One of Dodin’s points was that Buddhism in general is no form of religion that reaches out to the masses. “The Buddhist elites, whether in the Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana – all three were represented in Southeast Asia – care little about whether the people understand the teachings. Among the lay people, Buddhism has always been more addressed to educated and relatively wealthy people who had time and leisure to devote themselves to the great metaphysical questions – suffering, cessation of suffering, etc. For the masses it has tolerated traditional forms of religion as the prebuddhist spirit worship or even introduced Indian gods like Brahma or Ganesha that were tangible. Other religions – Islam, Hinduism and Christianity – are in many ways closer to the people: they give the people’s daily lives a structure and put the individual in a social system of coordinates.” (translation by me)

I have also strong reservations about Dongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s portrayal of China’s efforts with respect to Buddhism in such a positive light and that he is using China as a positive example to criticise India and Nepal while not spending a single word about the often questionable motivations of China’s engagement for Buddhism. The efforts of the Communist Party in China or the PRC in general to do something for Buddhism is mainly a means to control people and to exert soft power. (see for instance: “Seminar held to reinterpret Tibetan Buddhism to justify China’s policy in Tibet” by TibetanReview)