WACANA 2008 Conference

Hi all,

Just returned from WACANA 2008 Conference! What an experience it was, learning and sharing Dhamma with my fellow venerables of the MahaSangha and Buddhist brothers and sisters.

Due to the 20min cap and my tenacity to do a “ChuanGuan”, I could only share a few key points at the conference. Therefore, I have decided to put up the paper online for your reading and comments.

With metta,


WACANA 2008 Annual Buddhist Conference
Buddhist Leadership in Malaysia – Vision, Values, Vitality

Below is the conference paper on “Leadership Vitality” prepared for WACANA 2008

Leadership Vitality

Factors conducive for fostering it

The section that I’ve been invited to speak on is Leadership Vitality.

What is Vitality?

According to a dictionary, Vitality refers to “1. The capacity to live, grow, or develop and 2. Physical or intellectual vigor; energy.” Leadership vitality is about the capacity for leadership in a group or organisation to live, grow or develop. It is also about having vigor and energy in the leaders in order to lead the organisation towards its goals and fulfill its visions.

For my presentation, I would like to share some factors that can be helpful in fostering Leadership Vitality and also look at some situations which we are facing.

There are three main areas I will be looking at, namely Mindset, Culture and Planning.


Removing Stigma About Youths and Elders

When we think of leadership vitality, it is common to think of youths because they exude energy and are seen as sources of fresh and new ideas. Surely it is obvious enough already, and yet youths seem to also have other traits that may not make them ideal for leadership
roles. Surprised?

“Our youth love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Kids these days.

Interestingly, this was said by Socrates, the Greek philosopher in 400+BC, 100+ years after Buddha. Even today we also tend to think that newer generations are not as good as how past generations used to be. As a scout in my teens, the senior boys would lament on how we are such a lousy cohort, and later when I returned to my secondary in my 20s to volunteer as a rover scout, we also made the same comment. While we recognise their energy and zest, with their new ideas, we also seem to think poorly of them. Apparently such stigma about youths is not uncommon in long ago India.

From the Pali Canon, we learn of King Pasenadi first encounter1 with the Buddha and how he expressed his disbelief in the Buddha’s enlightenment only because of his youth.

The Buddha replies that there are four things not to be undermined for its youth: A Noble warrior, Snake, Fire, a Monk.

In this exchange, the Buddha highlighted the admission that enlightenment, and therein wisdom, is not exclusive to the elderly, but accessible to the young as well. As can be seen throughout the nikayas, many of the monks and nuns were young, black haired, full bodied, in their youth, in their prime, contrary to the traditional Indian practice of leading a full household life in one’s youth and leaving the family to cultivate one’s spiritual life in old age.

This is a dilemma that we should perhaps try to recognise and learn from the Buddha’s example. To see that youths have more to offer Buddhism than we think. At the same time, from the encounter, I would also glean another learning. That just as wisdom is not exclusive to the elderly, vitality is not limited to the young. If the young have preconception about how elders are, then it would be difficult for both groups to work in harmony for Buddhism.

With such stigma reduced or perhaps even removed, then can the other pieces come into play.

Building Trust

Recognising that youths have something to offer and in turn something to learn from the elders sets us on the right foot. We need to then take the next step to trust them to do the right thing.

With confidence in their ability and trust in their motivation, then can we work hand in hand. But let’s not trust blindly. Trust with confidence, trust wisely.

New leaders, young and old, need to be groomed and shown the ropes. Trusting does not mean putting someone into office and assume they would know everything. Doing that often cause us to overestimate, leading to disappointments if not into self-fulfilling disasters. A lack of trust on the other hand can trigger micro-management where the new comer is stifled into boredom or incompetence.

Communication is key towards building trust. In good management style, establish clear goals, determine milestones and flag out failure points. This does *not* guarantee 100% success, but definitely helps reduce surprises.

As new members take up more responsibilities, they are guided instead of being dominated into submission, helping them develop confidence in themselves and confidence in the seniors. The incumbent in turn develop their mentoring skills and foster a sense of trust with the juniors.

The road towards trust and confidence is not an easy one, but in time, it can be developed.

Sharing Common Values

Another factor that helps nuture trust is having Common Values. This may seem contradictory to vitality, after all, vitality is about having zest, energy and new ideas. Having common values here refer to being grounded in the Dhamma. Having the Dhamma as our beacon, our guide. We may and perhaps should differ in our abilities or skillful means, but we should share
common values or more correctly having Right Views with regards to the Dhamma.

Having that in mind, we can then be different in our approach, but we will have confidence in the other’s motivation, because we know we share common values, and are grounded in the same Dhamma.Needless to say, we need good strong Dhamma education for this to take place.


Language. Tool vs Barrier

Language is the means with which two or more parties to communicate. Education can take place only if language is not a barrier.

Our forefathers came from countries like China, India and other places while Buddhism itself came from India. When Buddhism spread to foreign lands, the monks and nuns adopted the native language in order to spread the teachings to these countries. If they had insisted on teaching in Indian languages and not give teachings in the local language, then surely Buddhism would not have taken root and flourished subsequently. If this paper is written in a foreign language, then it will be useless to you.

In some ways, the younger generation are like foreigners, different from the other generation in terms of language, thinking, lifestyle etc. Likewise, to the younger generation, the elder generation are like foreigners. Shouldn’t we then be open to utilise the appropriate language so that it becomes a tool and not a barrier for the young to learn Buddhism and adopt its teachings into their lives?

In one account2, some monks requested the Buddha to allow recitation (and/or teaching?) to be restricted to a specific language (Sanskrit). The Buddha declined and instructed them to use the local language. There are some scholastic dispute as to what local language means. It could mean the local language of whatever foreign land the monks find themselves in or it could be the local language of the Buddha. Seeing how the Buddha spent forty-five years explaining the teachings to the monastics and lay, including those from other sects (or faith if you will), very often repeating himself tirelessly to different people, it would appear unlikely that he intended people to learn a particular language. Can you imagine giving a Dhamma talk with *ONLY* Pali or Sanskrit? How many today can really comprehend the Dhamma if this was the restriction?

I think it suffice to say that we need to do more translation work and adopt new languages if we are to see vitality in Buddhism, much more to say in Buddhist Leadership.

Activities. Monastic and Lay

Buddhists go forth out of a genuine wish to firstly, learn and practise the Dhamma so that they may experience the Truths for themselves, and if conditions allow, to share the Dhamma with others so they may benefit. The activities in the temple or monastery should support such goals.

In some monasteries I’ve visited, they have a policy in place where monastics take turn to go on retreats within the monastery itself. In such places, the monastics get to learn and grow on the path, while providing services to the communities. Such monasteries also tend to have its hardware infrastructure designed to support such a system where those on retreats have a inner sanctum or area that is off-limits. Because the policy stipulates such a practice, there is no pressure for appearing like they are neglecting community duties. The policy requires them to “neglect” their community duties so that they may focus on their personal development duties. Those not on retreats also do not feel envious because everyone gets their turn.

Such a setup prevents two ends of a spectrum: 1) Monasteries in constant retreat mode where little service is provided to the lay communities in terms of teachings or guidance and 2) Monasteries in constant service mode where the monastics have little time and space for their own practices. Present situation for most communities involves monastics shuttling between service and retreat modes where monks go abroad to learn
and practice, and come back mainly to serve. This led to some monastics who do not return to their communities after returning because they find the constant service mode less than conducive or ideal for furthering their personal goal of practising and attaining Nibbana. Some choose to stay abroad altogether leaving the old preceptor to hold the fort for years to come. This in turn leads to a vicious cycle where monastics who are keen to practise are either not inclined to go forth altogether or are not inclined to go forth locally.

The suggested structure need to be refined to suit individual communities but if to be implemented at all, must have the policy and hardware in place simultaneously.

While the Buddha prohibited monastics from growing their own crops and doing businesses, and thereby become independent of the lay community for the four requisites, the lay community should also see that the Buddha speaks of the four-fold community and not two-fold of paired communities etc. Just as the monastics should not isolate themselves into stand-alone bodies, lay communities should not start Buddhist societies comprising only of lay members and exclude the mahasangha from it. While the mahasangha may inspire non-buddhists into the faith, the lay community is not empowered to start new monastic communities. If monastics and lay go their separate ways, the monastic community will in time die out while the lay community will be incomplete as well.

So the activities for monastics and lay alike must foster stronger mutual support and not draw them apart.

Activities for the lay that can attract the youth do not have to transform the temple into a dance hall.
Think about it. Would those who are so into pubbing and dancing venture into a temple just because you have some song and dance?

The Buddhist dilemma. To expose one’s child to Buddhism or not. Enough so that they may learn good values and know of the Good Dhamma, but not enough so that they won’t take up the robes. We need to give, not just money or time, but to give wholeheartedly, to give even our own precious child to Buddhism so that future generations may still hear of the Dhamma and benefit from it. Give.

Dhamma. Main-course vs side-dish

The Buddha mentioned that there are fewer who attain to Arahanthood than those who do not. That there are fewer who have faith-confidence in the teachings than those who do not. Yet, the Buddha did not start teaching farming or some trade or the vedas so as to attract the masses. The activities we conduct should be suited to attract youths, but must not miss out the Dhamma core.

In the Upaddha Sutta3 — Half (of the Holy Life), we hear the Buddha point out that having admirable friendship is not half but the whole of the holy life. We need to recognise that having good Dhamma fellowship or friendship is important.

I observe that people come together for two things: 1) Fellowship, friendship etc and 2) Content. If temples start focusing totally on Dhamma content, then fellowship may dry up, and it becomes difficulty for the community to learn, develop and practise together. If the focus falls totally on having fellowship by having non-Dhamma content, then we end up having a typical clubhouse, a community centre.
We need to balance the activities so that it nutures fellowship and Dhamma learning and practising. In this way, the community can grow healthily and new leaders can be groomed, grounded in the Dhamma.


“Failing to plan is planning to fail”

Organisation Structure

Most constitution already encourage succession planning but often, training of new leaders are not part of the year plan. Rather, year plans usually consist of annual activities that are part and parcel of Buddhist festivals. We being good Buddhist, are sometimes too content with status quo. Consider how universities have recruitment exercises targeted at
recruiting new students and intellects. The Buddha himself instructed the sixty arahants to go to different parts of India to spread the teachings. He didn’t wait passively for people to seek him out in the forest. We should learn from him and try to be proactive in terms of recruiting new blood. Such initiatives must be integrated into the organisation structure itself so that the recruitment exercise do not just die out after a change of leadership.


It is one thing to recruit fresh blood, it is another thing to appoint them into office and entrust them with suitable leadership roles. Bluntly put, there is little point in having rubber-stamps in the office. Those who have vigor and energy will be disappointed with such an organisation and may persist but will leave if their role in the organisation is nothing more than a messenger. In the long term, such an organisation in an extreme case will retain more of those who are followers than leaders.

Education for all ages

In order for vitality in leadership to take place, education is a must. And it has to be for all and not just the young. We come back again to our original point about aligning our mindset so that we move in unity. Recognising the value in vitality, that we are ever changing *and* replaceable, we plan for the change so that the organisation benefit from a smooth transition. At the same time, this gives the young a clear path as to how they can learn, grow and contribute to the organisation in due time.


Venerables of the Mahasangha, brothers and sisters, I have shared three main points and they are

1.Mindset – Removing Stigma, Building Trust, Sharing Common Values
2.Culture – Language, Activities, Dhamma
3.Planning – Organisation Structure, Empowerment and Education

I hope we can come together to further brainstorm and share our experiences in these areas, enriching this list so that we can grow together and spread the Dhamma for the sake of benefiting more sentient beings.

I thank the organising bodies, the Nalanda Institute, Buddhist Gem Fellowship and the Buddhist Maha Vihara for organising this conference and inviting me here to learn to share, to share to learn.

Lastly, I would like to share a quote for us to bring back

We may doubt their skillful means, but let us have trust in their intentions” – Unnamed source

Chuan Guan bhikkhu, www.buddhavacana.net/blog


1 – Samyutta Nikaya 3.1 Dahara Sutta Young, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn03/sn03.001.than.html

2 – Cullavagga, V. 33.1, http://www.chibs.edu.tw/publication/LunCong/004/69_90.htm
3 – Samyutta Nikaya 45.2 Upaddha Sutta, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn45/sn45.002.than.html

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