Vietnamese Buddhism is witnessing a turmoil and crisis unprecedented in its history. Organizational models and everyday ceremonies, from funerals to weddings, are hastily trying to copy the Western models, which undermine Vietnamese spiritual traditions. Additionally, under the impact of consumerist society, the pressure of political power gives rise to negative consequences. This morbid standpoint results from a secular and religious doctrine that lacks a basic foundation in Buddhism. That course, in turn, has a negative impact on Buddhist education plans for Vietnamese youth. Today, when talking about Vietnamese youth (in Vietnam and abroad), perhaps one can construct two figurative parallels that intersect at the point of consumerist society.
These two figurative parallels are the development of the youth in Vietnam and abroad. Even though youth, both in Vietnam and abroad, have been educated based on a Western educational model, they exist in different social institutions. In Vietnam, the education of youth is based on political power rather than following a natural growth trend. This artificial difference is like living in a mud puddle, not knowing where to find a real place to gain enough footing to escape. Vietnamese youth are being uprooted, and face a great risk of losing their life direction; some have indeed already lost their life direction. The Buddhist youth in Vietnam are no exception, and it is not easy to overcome this loss of direction in life. Here, the emphasis on the loss of direction is from the standpoint of Vietnam as a nation. The Vietnamese youth abroad have either temporarily or permanently forgotten their Vietnamese origins, so their direction in life is determined primarily when entering college age. In other words, overseas Vietnamese youths do not have their life direction and culture entirely eradicated, but are in a state of acclimatization and assimilation (into their new environment). When tangerine seeds from the South are planted in the land of the North, they could be sweeter, they could be more sour, or the crop could be meager because of an inappropriate climate and soil.
Vietnamese youth in the home country are like the trunk of a tree that still has its indigenous roots. The drive to survive and to grow rapidly means the attraction for development from external forces; this could bring the risk of uprooting the entire tree. The majority of Vietnamese youth today know very little about their family’s personal past, about their parents, or ancestors. They don’t know how their parents fell in love with each other, or what their thinking is about the universal spiritual values of mankind.
One can believe that Buddhist youth in Vietnam are still trying to cling to traditional roots to grow. The lack of obligation and responsibility or a lack of awareness about the direction of modern society by those who are in leadership roles, in both spiritual and educational settings, are like a doctor who does not know any better therapy for an illness, and just gives sleeping pills so the patient will forget their aches. The lack of proper education and leadership is the ache and agony of the times. The youth currently need proper education and leadership in order to plan for a better direction and future in life. On the other hand, due to political pressures, youths need to be gathered into institutions which protect the regimes. Teaching Buddhism to young people is controlled and not allowed to spread beyond the ‘temple gates’. Inside the gates, youths are taught the meaning of impermanence and no-true-identity (selflessness), not as a philosophy of knowledge campaigning for survival, nor the development and destruction of natural processes as well as society, but as an overall pessimistic picture of life, one that is filled with hopelessness, aging, and exhaustion with the successes and failures that have thwarted the will.
In a society where traditional spiritual values are decaying, some youth in large urban areas are acting out based on the political power of their parents, or with the illicit money of their parents. Others study and work hard just to make ends meet—these are modern slaves loyal to the wealthy boss. Others, doomed to poverty status and illiteracy, endure humiliating poverty and backwardness. In that dire situation, the presence of the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association (GĐPT) gathers the youths, to guide and nurture them to find meaningful reasons for better living for themselves. It is really a challenge in society, because the politically powerful feel them as a threat that can’t be manipulated to serve their dark ambition. Because of that dark ambition, sometimes those with political power are willing to sacrifice their country for their own desire for power. Thus, it is, of course, an illusion to say, “We gathered the youth to teach religious doctrine, and they do not need to know anything else.” A metaphor is just like deer being herded into a room for the tiger to easily target.
Of course, the country needs its youth in order to develop. Religion also needs youth to carry out its missions and doctrines that are beneficial to the youth themselves, other beings, and society, both in the present and in the future. According to this skeptical perspective, Buddhist education for youth is not only for the purpose of luring them into the four walls of the temple to insulate them from pubs, nightclubs, and other depraved, tempting environments. However, the foundation of Buddhist education is about moral training, developing ethical values and spiritual knowledge. First, let’s talk about ethics training. Here, there is absolutely no brain-washing or stuffing the youths with dogmatic religious doctrines. That means, do not tell young people, “Do not to do this, do not to do that.” Youths can do anything, if they find themselves adapting to the times. But also don’t let the youth fall into the trap of harmful elements of the era, or deflect and abandon their guided principles, core values and awareness when they interact with different movements of the current era. Thus, one must establish a safe space, mobile and dynamics. That safe space is bodhichitta. The mobility and dynamics are the selflessness and non-abiding (no-abode or “non-stationary”) of the Bodhisattva. We need to address more about these two points.
Growing up in prosperous cities, and then stepping into society with a proper higher education, and a stable life, some youths rarely have direct contact with the suffering of other young people in remote or unknown lands. The lack of empathy for the suffering of fellow human beings leads to the lack of knowledge of the essence of life; they can not understand the core significance of aspirations for life. Thus, bringing Buddhism to youths mean asking our youths to confront the reality of life, of existential survival, that is, to develop and arise their bodhichitta: “Wherever there is danger, I vow to be the means to reach the safe haven. Wherever there is darkness, I vow to be the guiding light.” (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva). This may be a farfetched aspiration, even a cliché for some people. But it is the vajra ground, the diamond foundation, for the youth themselves to plan their own life direction, and self-regulate their real core values for their own lives.
Regarding mobility and dynamics, which means to be open-minded, and not being confined in a narrow social space, and being able to have more foresight, beyond prejudices and the closed traditional society in which we live. In particular, youth are taught to always be in ready to take off; set foot in anywhere, any place on this earth, where suffering would be experienced more realistically, real happiness would be tasted. In a sense, such mobility and dynamics are synonymous with adventure. Since living in urban areas is considered stable, mankind has extinguished the adventurous minds of the youths; on the other hand, it has aroused tourist characteristics where adults seek new tempting pleasures to add variety to their everyday tastes.
The spirit of selflessness and the “non-abiding” nature of the Bodhisattva has many different viewpoints. It means not to become attached either to the world or Nirvana. It is the liberal spirit, not tied to any traditional values. Youths need to learn to live with the spirit of openness and tolerance, to self-assess the value of human civilization, to choose appropriate personal direction that demonstrates harmonious development with all of human civilization, despite differences of beliefs, practices and viewpoints, and even different demeanors in everyday life activities.
Regarding the development of the youth’s moral value and spiritual knowledge, here we emphasize learning of the canonical scriptures. TheTripiṭaka or the Three Baskets of Sacred Texts, hold an immense wealth of knowledge and wisdom. Based on the fundamental teachings of the Buddha on the value of life, the nature of suffering and happiness, in which a lot of laws of nature, society, psychological factors, linguistics have been disclosed through the ages in many geographical areas in different traditions. However, we also know that, in the entire history of human civilizations, those that still exist and those that have disappeared, not a single theory goes without being tested or without ever being surpassed by later finding. There are theories that existed in the past and were eliminated forever. There are theories that have been surpassed and then revived. But there are very few theories that are revived without being changed or transformed or deformed– deformed to the point that when compared with the past, it sounds monstrous. The teachings of the Buddha affirm the law of impermanence, so the problem when teaching Buddhism is whether the content and level are proper and appropriate or not, rather than the issue being whether or not the Teachings of Buddha are overtaken and eliminated.
Our young people study Buddhism not to become researchers of Buddhism or Buddhist scholars, but to study and practice critical thinking skills, to be dynamic, flexible, and have the ability to look into the nature and reality of life. Therefore, studying Buddhism does not hinder learning of secular education; Buddhist knowledge does not conflict with mundane knowledge. The only difference is when studying Buddhism we begin with the actual situation of human suffering in order to realize true happiness. Compassion (love) and Wisdom (truth) will give young people the wings to support and nurture them throughout their search in the endless space of life.