I was ordained as a novice twice as a young child. It certainly wasn’t fun, but then if being a Buddhist novice was supposed to be entertaining, what would be the point? My parents might as well have sent me to an amusement park instead and saved me all the trouble of going without three meals a day and munching sweets whenever I felt like it.
The Dhammakaya Temple has defended its latest controversial bid to appeal to Buddhists. Its new innovation is the so-called “Power Card”. It functions as a score card by which novices are given points for every “good deed” they do. Naturally, when you have a 2-point card, you want a 5-point card, and on and on.
The card helps instil the teaching, keeps the novices focused, and motivates them to be consistently and progressively “good”, the temple says. The frivolous fun that comes with collecting the points is harmless and nothing compared with the spiritual benefits, it insists. Religion, after all, is like a dentist’s clinic to kids, so what’s wrong with having a few toys to calm them down?
Criticising the Power Card is like calling for schools to be banned, its supporters would say. We live in a society where kids compete all the time, so if scoring novices on their performance is bad, why not shut all classrooms too? In other words, what Dhammakaya is doing is no different than what happens in every school.
Exactly. But the real question is why Dhammakaya doesn’t strive to be different. Kids face plenty of contests in school. In fact, their whole lives are about competition. Shouldn’t Dhammakaya offer them a break?
Don’t expect the kids to keep the cards to themselves. If one child achieves a 10-point card, the first thing he’s likely to do is flash it to anyone with 5 points. A minority might choose not to show off, but if any boy refuses to flaunt his holier-than-thou credentials, he doesn’t need the card’s help in the first place.
There are in fact many other ways to take the pain out of religion. Novices can be told bedtime stories featuring compassionate and selfless deeds. Chanting time can be cut short to allow children to read colourful books or comics that, again, promote sacrifice and selflessness. Dhammakaya novices should have gained long-term spiritual resources when they leave the temple. When their parents come to pick them up, the last thing the families should do is discuss their card points.
Dhammakaya can’t claim the critics are nitpicking. Their scepticism is justified because the temple’s financial practices and teachings encourage followers to make big donations as a way of gaining spiritual merit. The apparently harmless Power Card will instil the same dubious competition in kids, making those who obtain the highest scores the “best” novices.
It’s true that a little competition won’t hurt, but it’s also true that competing to be good can lead youngsters astray. Competition can even threaten peace and sometimes create cheats. Novices should be taught to do good when nobody is looking, not when points are being dangled in front of them.
Religion, they say, is losing influence. A recent international study found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, children brought up in “non-religious homes” are more generous and altruistic than those who receive a religious upbringing. Non-religious kids are also said to be less judgemental and more likely to be guided by compassion.
The findings are not that shocking, but perhaps they should alarm sects like Dhammakaya. If religious kids are now less likely to share and more likely to judge, it’s the duty of religious groups to remedy that failing. Making good behaviour into a competition is probably not the right medicine.
Several other studies have shown that a strong sense of morality does not depend on having a religious upbringing. In other words, more and more people believe that they can be good, decent human beings without conventional religious faith.
Genuinely good deeds are motivated neither by reward nor the desire for recognition. Religions must teach that. The Power Card may look like a small matter, but it is dealing with a very important link as far as Buddhism is concerned. Children are the ones who will pass Buddhist values on, and
they must be raised to pass them on properly.