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Buddhist students in the United Kingdom

by Mrs. Fuengsin Trafford

If one looks back, even as far as the Sixties, one can see a large number of people of different nationalities and religions in London and other big cities. However, the sight of a monk in saffron-colour robe was rare enough for a Buddhist to be surprised and excited. On the other hand most people here would be wondering who the shaven man in the robe was.

There were some stories of curiosity, resentment, ignorance and rudeness when the encounters between the monks and some local people took place. A monk on his alms round about 12 years ago in Birmingham was stared at while some people thought that his begging bowl was a drum - they didn't realise that he was walking around in silence according to the Vinaya or monks' rules.

At that time the majority of the British had not been to the East before. There were only two temples, the main Buddhist Society in London and a dozen smaller groups all over the country. As a result there were not enough communities for a lot of overseas students and the ones who could not speak good English would not be able to understand lectures or take part in various discussions on the profound philosophy. Moreover, in the beginning, most English Buddhists were from the middle class and intellectual, though some were hippies.

Some overseas students did not feel at home with these people because of the different cultural backgrounds. It was inevitable that a lot of them had very little spiritual support and comradeship. They could rely only on their own effort and inner resource. Now and again they met other practicing Buddhists from their own or other countries and benefitted a great deal from the experiences.

Looking around The United Kingdom once more today, one can immediately see that things have changed dramatically. People get used to seeing Buddhist monks of every school in all areas as more and more immigrants and students arrive from the East. Naturally monks and nuns are invited to come to teach and perform ceremonies. Temples can be found in both urban and rural areas. More people here go to the East on holidays and start to know more about the faith. On top of this a large number of Westerners and local Indians converted to Buddhism.

So the present overseas students are very fortunate to have help and support from the monks and communities which belong to the same race and culture. If their English is good, they can join societies or groups at some colleges and universities where discussions, lectures by visiting monks or laymen and meditation classes take place.

As there are different schools of Buddhism in this country, it can be confusing, not only for people of other faiths, but also for Buddhists themselves to know and to relate to the different coloured robes worn by monks, nuns and lay ministers who belong to different countries, schools, speak different languages, have different cultures and possess different sets of rules. Some students who have not travelled anywhere before and were brought up in Theravada countries where monks are celibate may feel uncomfortable in the presence of married clergy from Mahayana countries. There are three main Schools of Buddhism:-

  • The Theravada School: is the School which follows the original tradition of Buddhism. The followers respect and observe the discipline of the Buddha along with the Thera Elders. They have followed and practised the teaching without any change since the Buddha's time. It is still practised in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Kampuchea, Laos, Bangladesh, Nepal, and some Western countries. This school is sometimes called Hinayana (Small vehicle).

  • The Mahayana School: was established about 1st. century A.D. Mahayana means Large Vehicle as the followers believe that their school can bring its followers en masse across Samsara (The cycle of existence). This school spread over the Northern part of India, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. At present a lot of Westerners follow the teaching of this school.

  • The Vajrayana School: branched out of Mahayana School in the 8th century A.D. It spread to Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkhim and Mongolia. There are four main schools - the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Gelugpa School as well as the Tibet's political and spiritual leader. The Karmapa is the head of The Kagyu School which is also a very important one. Tibetan Buddhism is also popular among Westerners.
The temple is a very important place for Buddhists because it is a social, cultural and spiritual centre. Some lonely students go there to meet others, or to volunteer to do various jobs for the monks. They may attended chanting sessions, meditation classes, discourses, stay for a weekend retreat and perhaps be ordained as monks, novices and nuns for a fixed period, such as during summer holidays. Students can take some food to offer to monks and share with others as part of the practice of supporting the spiritual communities. The monks and nuns are spiritual teachers who can also fill the roles of psychotherapists or even the Samaritans.

In Buddhist countries every holy day is fixed according to the lunar calendar. There are official holidays for most of these occasions. Here the celebrations have to take place on Sundays to allow Buddhists to attend as most public holidays are geared for Christians. So a lot of students feel left out or lonely during that time. So a list of temples and societies or groups should be provided for them at the universities or colleges so that they have opportunities to visit.

Students also have need of "quiet zones" or "rooms" in which to meditate but they should not be offended by religious symbols of other faiths being present in such rooms. After all Buddhism is a very tolerant religion. Not all Buddhists meditate but a lot do regular chanting and venerate the Buddha with Puja regularly. There is no hard and fast rules about what foods should be eaten or avoided. What is important is that spiritual guidance should be available to students, and this becomes very important when a person is very ill or dying. A monk or spiritual friend should be there to guide or support him or her. This is why the appointment of Buddhist monks or lay ministers to the Chaplaincies would be appreciated.

To sum it all up, students in the United Kingdom are very fortunate to study in a country where people in general are very tolerant. They can practise their religions with the support of Buddhist monks and communities. However more can be done to help them by acquiring more information about their religion in order to be more understanding. Besides the appointment of Buddhist monks to the Chaplaincies, books and magazines should be provided for students who wish to study in depth and be up to date with Buddhist events.

The article appeared in 'The Journal of International Education', Vol. 4, No. 1, March 1993.
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