Why Charismatic Buddhist Leaders Are Important
Why Charismatic Buddhist Leaders Are Important
If we look through history, all the great religions' major spurs of growth are largely spearheaded by charismatic leaders. For instance, the compassionate and wise His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is generally seen as the overall spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, though the four respective lineage leaders of the Vajrayana traditions lead their own followers. More examples are the great Venerable Hsing Yun, who founded Fo Kuang Shan, and the great Venerable Sheng Yen, who leads Dharma Drum Mountain. Both these organisations are multi-national in nature. Whether we like it or not, charismatic leaders are the ones who can and will shape religion and society - because no one else can do so as equivalently "en masse". Personal charisma however, can be abused - just think Hitler, whose cult of personality still influences pro-Nazis who are attracted to him today, despite his death years ago. But even so, personal charisma is a necessary "evil" to change the world to a better place.
Even a meditating student, who is mostly silent, quietly inspires through his mindful behaviour - this is passive charisma. To more efficiently affect others positively with the Dharma, we need both passive and active charisma. Active charisma can be exemplified in the engaging and outspoken public speaking of the Dharma, coupled with putting it into action to benefit society. Perhaps the most charismatic leader history has ever seen, both in the passive and active sense, is the Buddha Himself, who not only engaged in active debate for the Truth, but also engaged in silent and private radiation of Loving-kindness to all beings. Without His charisma in teaching to the masses of His time, the Dharma would not had been passed down to us successfully through the generations.
With the physical "absence" of the Buddha, the ones naturally taken to be the next best spokesmen of the Dharma will always be the charismatic leaders, simply because the non-charismatic ones do not adequately attract the masses enough to listen to them. The masses, being largely unenlightened, and being attracted to and attached to forms, will always prefer a living person in the flesh to learn the Dharma from; instead of gazing at a lifeless Buddha image to vaguely imagine how the Buddha was like, and what the Dharma is really about. Leaders, especially the charismatic ones, thus have this great responsibility to be "as Buddha-like" as possible, as examples of ideal Buddhists living life in the ideal way.
Even when charismatic leaders have leading students or key proteges, it is perfectly natural and understandable that the masses will still tend to flock to the main leader - if he/she is available (not busy, in retreat, ill or deceased) - even if he/she strongly encourages the followers to more greatly support his/her disciples. What is crucially important is that all leaders take the Buddha as his/her real leader, and as all his/her followers' real leader. Otherwise, his/her ego might swell dangerously, eventually lead to leadership abuse. The Buddha is always right; but even the best of followers of the Buddha are not always right. As followers, it is extremely important to point out any wrong views of leaders, even those of monks and nuns, since most of them are not perfectly enlightened yet - so as to safeguard the Dharma, in case they unknowingly spread their wrong views to others.There is the phenomenon of charismatic Buddhist masters whose words are quoted more often than the Buddha's. What does this show? It can mean one or more of several points (the following list of possibilities is not exhaustive) - 1. The Buddha's actual words, though eternally valid, are less contemporarily quote-friendly in modern day's settings, by nature of vastly different language style and social context. 2. The Buddha's teachings are better accepted by the public by occasional non-literal "translation" into simplier terms of living language. 3. The Buddha is not taken as important or relevant anymore, as the leaders' words outweigh the Buddha's.If we observe the successful major Buddhist organisations, it seems that the last reason is the least probable why the masters' words are more oft-quoted. It is interesting to note that when the public media (such as the press) want a Buddhist perspective of a contemporary issue, it is present Buddhist leaders they want to hear from, not the Buddha from the past, as quoted from the sutras. Likewise, if we reflect carefully, a Dharma talk by a master itself is largely a session of his own words or personal commentary, and not the verbatim recital of a sutra of the Buddha's words. Though there is the danger of not teaching literally leading to the loss of the true essence of the Dharma, there is also the danger of excess literal teaching leading to loss of context and modern attractiveness of the Dharma. There is thus a tricky balance to be maintained. We need to walk the Middle Way beyond either extremes.An effective Dharma speaker quotes the sutras and enlightened masters, translates their teachings into modern contexts, and uses stories from the Buddha's time to illustrate the Dharma, while not losing the personal touch of relating relevant personal experiences from practising the Dharma. The most popular speakers are always those who follow the above methods to attract the masses, which balances the otherwise impersonally and classically recorded Dharma with 'live' examples of it in "action".
As Buddhists aspiring to share the Dharma with more, we should all be as charismatic as we can in our own ways - not to hypocritically win followers for ourselves, but to inspire others to be followers of the Dharma. Charisma, as mentioned, is a two-sided coin, a knife that can cut both ways. Since so, we should always be mindful as to why we want to be charismatic through embodying the Dharma in body, speech and mind - it is solely to benefit others in the spiritual sense, not to benefit oneself in any worldly sense. Let us strive to be as spiritually charismatic as the Buddha, till we become Buddhas!