SOME THOUGHTS ON BUDDHISM AND COMMUNICATIONS INMULTICULTURAL
Tuong Quang Luu, AO
Head of SBS Radio
Luu Tuong Quang
In an age of heightened tensions in Australia and around the
world, the message of Buddhism has never been more necessary to
bring peace to communities and spiritual refuge to individuals. The
challenge is how to elucidate that message so that it speaks clearly
in diverse voices to different people with disparate needs and to
communicate it so that it cuts through an ever-increasing
information clutter. As with other organisations, religious bodies
are applying a variety of methods utilising specific media or a
combination of media, but for Buddhists the central question
remains: ‘How to keep true to Buddhist principles while promoting
French writer/philosopher André Malraux once famously asked Pandit
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, why his country – the
birthplace of Buddhism – had all but lost the religion to Hinduism.
reply, Nehru is reported to have said fine things about Buddhism but in
the end he admitted he really did not know why – he just felt it was a
great loss to India.
is still something of a mystery, though different historians,
anthropologists, religious thinkers and philosophers have turned their
minds to it on many occasions. A Buddhist might think it was just part of
the rise and fall of life – indeed, nothing is permanent.
And it has not just happened in India. The significance of Buddhism to
both national and individual life has risen and fallen and risen again in
many countries throughout the world. Perhaps it is the ebb and flow of the
tides of history.
But it is a question this conference quite rightly addresses as it looks
at ‘Engaging Buddhism in Australia’. In looking at it from the perspective
of someone in the communications industry, I have a special interest in
trying to understand why – at any particular time – Buddhism has been
either weaker or stronger in people’s minds and lives.
When I mentioned that I had been invited to address this conference
today, a colleague at SBS Radio asked me: ‘Why are Buddhists interested in
solving such a question? Surely a Buddhist would simply admit that this is
the way it is. Do they want to market Buddhism?’
replied that many Buddhists – especially members of the Sangha (Clergy) –
want to spread the message so that it will save individual souls. For me,
a humble lay Buddhist, I believe that in a world where there is so much
violence, so much cruelty and selfishness, the message of Buddhism is one
that might bring peace to communities and spiritual refuge to individuals.
is not overcome by Hatred; by Love (Metta) alone is hatred appeased. This
is an eternal law’.
I believe in communicating the message of Buddhism and I am here to
suggest some possible ways in which that might be done to reach more
people with a more effective expression of Buddhist teachings on Love,
Compassion, Wisdom and Peace.
But first, in order to know where we might go, we must know where we are
and where we have come from.
Buddhism goes back a long way in Australia – even though it seems quite
recent compared with many of its Asian neighbours. Some people suspect
that it goes back beyond the establishment of what is now this
nation-state, back to the Fifteenth Century of the Modern Era when fleets
of the Chinese Ming emperors roamed the southern oceans. If this was true,
Buddhism would be the first religion to have been introduced into
Australia, apart from the indigenous system of beliefs.
Certainly Buddhism came to Australia in the 1840s with the arrival in the
goldfields of Chinese labourers. While many returned to China at the end
of their indentures, many others remained and continued to practise their
religions. The next wave came in the 1870s with the arrival of Sinhalese
to work in the Queensland cane fields, though an increasingly anti-Asian
immigration outlook then severely restricted the inflow of migrants from
South-East Asia, including Buddhists.
Interestingly, during the first half of the 20th Century while the
physical migration of Buddhism was prevented by anti-Asian sentiment, its
spiritual migration continued, albeit in small numbers. The Theosophists,
for example, integrated significant elements of Buddhism into their own
belief system, keeping the flame alive among non-Buddhists until the 1960s
when anti-Asian sentiment moderated and Australia began to again open its
borders to migration from the region, especially with the movement of boat
people and other refugees from Indo-China and Tibet.
the Sixties and early Seventies – the era of ‘Flower Power’ – many younger
people in Australia and around the world turned to Buddhist practices and
lifestyles – if not necessarily beliefs – in their search for a more
peaceful and humane world. During the past two decades, the Dalai Lama
came to Australia many times. His visits have certainly enhanced the
public awareness of Buddhism and raised the profile of Buddhist activities
amongst the broader Australian community.
Today, Buddhism has become Australia’s second largest religion after
Christianity. The 2001 Census showed for the first time that the number of
Buddhists had overtaken the number of Moslems. Islam had previously been
the second largest religion after Christianity.
This growth has, of course, been largely due to the migration of people
from Asia who grew up as practising Buddhists, though we now find
ourselves – in Australia – in the interesting position of having
overlapping groups of followers, all living harmoniously together and
within the wider society.
There are those who have grown up as Buddhists in Buddhist families, with
their belief as part of their sense of who they are. Then there are those
who have adopted Buddhist beliefs in adult life and now worship at the
temple. And there are those who follow the practices of Buddhism without
necessarily accepting all the tenets of the faith or the religious
rituals. They might be vegetarian, practise meditation and believe in the
sanctity of all life yet not have a personal faith in the spiritual world
course, there is a fourth and largest groups – people who have yet to
become Buddhists! To all of these groups Buddhism in Australia must find a
way of reaching out in voices they can understand, articulating ideas to
which they can each – in their own way – connect.
goes without saying that this is the great challenge of all religions: how
to speak to new or non-adherents in a language that connects with them
without demeaning the message to those who already have a deep and
One answer is by leading by example. Buddhists of all people should be
able to do that. Buddha himself was the first and greatest practitioner
and the rest of us seek ways of following in his footsteps, constantly
balancing a self-conscious desire to share our beliefs with others with
the teachings of selflessness and service to all sentient beings so deeply
rooted in the basic tenets of Buddhism. It is the conundrum my colleague
alluded to when he wondered how Buddhists may proselytise.
Strangely, he had part of the answer before him in his daily work at SBS
The Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (SBS) has clear policies on
the treatment of religions, including Buddhism. It is that while we cover
religions in our programming, we do not produce religious programs. It is
a fine point, which, until one appreciates it, seems contradictory. Then,
when it is understood, it is like a moment of enlightenment. I am tempted
to say it is Zen in its simplicity.
practice it means that while we do not broadcast religious ceremonies to a
radio congregation – to use a Christian term – we might broadcast
religious ceremonies to listeners who may or may not be believers, to
inform and educate everyone. More often, of course, our coverage of
religion is simple newsworthiness, perhaps the announcement of a policy
change by a specific religion or a comment on an event from a religious
is with a certain amount of pride in my staff – more than 300 people
either making programs or supporting them behind the scenes – that I can
say SBS Radio has become quite adept at successfully walking the narrow
line between religious broadcasting and religious coverage. This is
especially commendable when one considers how intimately connected some
religions are with some of our listening communities. The majority of
Vietnamese speakers, for example, are Buddhist adherents, yet they and our
program makers co-exist in mutual understanding of each other’s commitment
to principle but also the limitations on what can be done on air.
True to its multicultural Charter, SBS Radio often deals with religions
at their philosophical level as well as their practical application across
Australia’s culturally diverse communities. Programs on Islam during
Ramadan, or Christianity at Christmas and Easter, or Buddhism on the
occasion of Vesak and Ullambana help our listeners of all religious
backgrounds understand better their fellow Australians of different
Now, if I remove my hat as head of SBS Radio for a moment and replace it
with my cap as a Buddhist, I ask the question how – with Buddhism often so
specifically attached to many linguistically or culturally-distinct
communities - can we cross those divides to deliver our message? How do we
make sure that we communicate it properly to Vietnamese speakers who
follow Vietnamese Buddhist practices and also to, for example, Burmese or
Thai speakers who follow Burmese or Thai Buddhist ways? If we think that
communicating our message is problematic in English, let us also spare a
thought for how we do it in the dozen or more languages which serve
distinct Buddhist communities here in Australia in such a way as to unite
them in service as the 2001 Census united them in numbers.
Clearly we are not going to achieve a unified voice throughout the world
of Buddhism, even if this was desirable. We cannot – perhaps we should not
– attempt to overturn thousands of years of history that have seen the
development of many different schools of Buddhism. There is strength in
pluralism where a similar message can be delivered in different languages.
As SBS Radio is proud to say, we are ‘The many voices of one Australia’.
communicating the message of Buddhism, we must acknowledge there are
different methods to achieve different outcomes. To reach within
communities speaking one language, we should speak in that language about
the Buddhism associated with that culture. In reaching out across
communities – especially to those who have no tradition of Buddhism in
their culture – we must use one language but many approaches.
might look at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC) to see how
this can be achieved. The ABC has established religious affairs units and
produces programs about religion and belief on both radio and television.
Many of these have been very successful in informing listeners and viewers
about the world’s religions. ‘The Spirit of Things’, ‘The Religion
Report’, ‘Compass’ and other programs examine a variety of religions and
religious issues. The Buddhist congregations of Australia must ensure that
their voice is heard among the many voices seeking the attention of the
listeners and viewers.
Both the ABC and SBS television run frequent series looking at the
world’s religions. SBS Television in February 2004 ran a two-part
documentary on ‘The life of Buddha’. Rather disconcertingly, it was part
of a series titled ‘Lost Worlds’, which perhaps says something about the
task we face to convince non-Buddhists that Buddhism is more than a two
thousand five hundred year old religion of strange gods and crumbling
idols (in the eyes of non-believers). While we can never shed – nor should
we wish to - the images of traditional Buddhism – for example the temples
clinging to the mountainside of Lhasa, the shaven monks kneeling and
chanting prayer amidst clouds of incense – we must also communicate the
modern reality of Buddhism as a living, breathing and evolving religion
here in Australia.
is interesting to look at how other religions have shared their message
and how successful they have been in retaining or increasing adherents.
Probably the most successful in raw numbers have been the evangelical
Christian churches. Their numbers are multiplying rapidly for many
Obviously a principal reason they would ascribe would be that God is
speaking to the hearts of more and more people through their churches. In
a social and cultural sense, it has to be acknowledged that the ‘service’
(for want of a better word) that they provide is something increasing
numbers of people want – perhaps a sense of community, a set of moral
values to guide their lives, even the comfort of ceremony in its widest
they have also been extremely successful in getting their message ‘out
there’, especially to non-believers.
The great success started in the United States, where some evangelical
churches expanded to hundreds of thousands of adherents almost overnight
and raised millions of dollars in church funds. Some of them were able to
start their own radio networks and television channels, which itself
multiplied the effect. Of course, as we all know, some of these churches
and their leaders turned out to be less than ethical in their practices or
personal lives, but many of those which have survived – and many of the
evangelical churches in Australia – provide faith, service, community and
support to their expanding congregations.
Television, as we all agree, is perhaps the single most powerful medium
in Australia today. Viewers to the top-rating network – Channel Nine –
regularly number in millions across Australia. It is a good medium for
communicating clear messages but it suffers two major shortfalls: it is
limited and it is expensive.
Television is limited in that just five channels – three commercial and
two publicly-funded – control the free-to-air market across Australia.
While cable and satellite subscription services are growing, their
multiple services fragment the market and lose the kind of mass coverage
of the free-to-air networks. Cable is not yet a mass medium.
Television is also expensive to produce and expensive for advertisers. A
prime time spot on a commercial television can cost between $17,000 and
$27,000 for 30 seconds, depending on the time slots, and double that for
top rating shows. Few but the largest corporations can afford such
advertising. As you would expect, SBS Television’s rates are much more
reasonable – between $4,000 and $7,000 for 30 seconds, depending on the
the other hand, programs broadcast during the day or late at night on the
commercial networks are cheaper to produce and to place. Of course, they
do not reach the same size audience as prime time TV and they can still
cost millions of dollars a year, but anecdotal evidence from the churches
that use them suggests they do get their message across, either directly
by people viewing them or by word-of-mouth.
One effective and affordable electronic means being utilised widely at
present is the Internet. Most temples, monasteries, and other Buddhist
organisations have their own websites to communicate locally and globally
with believers and non-believers alike through text, sound and voice.
Dhamma talks can now reach an audience beyond the temple gate as a low
cost way for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and life experience.
Perhaps it is time for Buddhists in Australia to consider making the
electronic media a more integral part of sharing the message? If such a
decision were to be taken, a major consideration would be how to fund it.
Considerable sums of money could be involved, because no matter how
expensive a spot on television might be, that is really only the start of
Successful promotion of anything on television cannot be achieved with an
occasional advertisement here or a feature story there. Communications
campaigns have to be well planned and fully integrated. They have to have
clarity of purpose and reality of targets. To be most effective, they also
need to be coordinated across a variety of media, so the messages leverage
off each other, to use the language of the advertising world. By that I
mean that buying one 30 second spot on television – whether SBS or a
commercial network – will have little effect. You will only ‘hit’ a small
proportion of viewers tuned in during that 30 seconds amidst approximately
21 hours of TV viewing per week by the average Australian.
However, repetitive spots linked to perhaps a campaign on radio and some
print media advertising will be much more effective. Even more effective
is coverage in editorial programs, segments or sections of a newspaper or
magazine. Australians are increasingly skilled in ‘reading’ the media.
Young people in particular are taught in school and learn by consuming the
media that advertising is quite distinct from editorial. They are
bombarded with advertising day and night and learn to be quite cynical
about the claims that are made for products and services – and even
religions. On the other hand, there is still enough credibility in
Australian journalism for people to consider news, current affairs and
other journalistic programming to be more factual, accurate and objective.
In advertising terms, a story that is part of editorial programming has
greater ‘cut through’ than advertisements. In a world of communications
clutter, people will start to notice it and start to think about the
is the message above all else that matters. Unless we have a clear concept
of what we want to communicate, no amount of advertising, press releases,
media conferences or special events are going to keep people coming back.
They may dip in because of curiosity, but to improve their lives in the
long term one needs to have something worthwhile for them to share.
One of the most interesting and perhaps also very valuable outcomes of
this conference could be a redefinition of Buddhism in Australia. If we
can draw together the main elements of what it is, we can then interpret
them in terms which ordinary Australians as well as believers can
understand. We can get the message clear.
This is especially important in communicating with younger people because,
although as I said earlier young generations are increasingly adept at
‘reading’ the media, they will still struggle as generations before them
have with the core issues such as faith, practice and ethical behaviour.
Each person arrives at enlightenment in their own way, making their own
footprints on the earth, however well worn the path might be and however
often it has been travelled and will continue to be travelled.
Education is still a vital element in guiding younger people to the truth.
The education system today is vastly different to that which applied when
monks taught their novices in temples in Lhasa or Hue and Saigon a few
decades ago, so we must adapt to that too, while retaining the guiding
light of meaning and belief.
Many religions in Australia are increasingly turning to their own school
systems to fill in the spiritual gaps left by secular education which
concentrates on such valuable skills as the ‘three R’s – reading, writing
and arithmetic – as well as science, history, social and cultural studies
and even physical education, but which cannot – and perhaps should not –
attempt to instill religious belief. Currently it is a live debate in
Australia, recently given new impetus by the Prime Minister when he spoke
of teaching values in state schools. It is not a debate I have time to
enter into here, but I mention it because this too is an issue we must get
clear before we can attempt to communicate the message of Buddhism.
Some people like the challenge of complexity and contradiction. Some
people even thrive on it and might respect a religion more if it contains
challenging contradictions. But others, when they are new to a belief,
search more for the certainties under whose shade they can rest for a
while before continuing their journey to their chosen spiritual goal in
all means let us have debate and even disagreement within and about
Buddhism – as long as it is done in the true principles of Buddha – but
let us also try to distil from that debate the essences of what makes
‘Australian Buddhism’ relevant and valuable today, then let us communicate
that message loud and clear across the continent.
Thank you for your attention.
Australian Buddhist General Conference: ‘Engaging Buddhism in
Australia’ at Victoria University,
Melbourne, from 20th to 22nd February 2004.