A little enlightenment

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On visiting the UK’s first Buddhist Scout Group, we discovered the many ways that Scouting and Buddhism complement each other.

In a sunlit room in the Fo Guang Shan temple in Manchester, a group of Cubs are preparing for their upcoming Chinese New Year concert. ‘ Bring your costume in,’ says one of the leaders. ‘If you want to be a rock star, be a rock star. If you want to be a hawk, be a hawk. I want you to have your own creative idea.’ This welcoming note sets the tone of our visit to the UK’s first Scout Group based in a Buddhist temple. 

Many of the young people and adult volunteers identify as Buddhist, but the Group is open to all. Group Scout Leader Munkit Choy says that members of the public come to the temple for all sorts of reasons, not only to practise Buddhism. ‘Some come to do chanting, some because they like the food, some to learn the Chinese language or for the cultural dances.’ 

Like all Scout Groups meeting in faith buildings, the Group is respectful to the traditions of the space and observes temple etiquette. And so, as we sit in on a Cub session, our shoes are off and we’re walking around a carpeted room in the comfort of our socks. 

Leaders are gently reining in Cubs who have been laughing and cartwheeling around the room, finding that delicate balance between encouraging young people to focus and appreciating their natural unbridled joy – a balancing act familiar to most Scout volunteers. 

Once the Cubs have settled down, they begin practising a poem they’ll perform for their parents and community at the Chinese New Year celebrations. The poem encourages positive elements that we should nurture within us which, translated from Chinese, include: ‘I’m not going to blame other people for my problems, I’m not going to compare myself to other people, I’m just going to do my best and be myself.’ 

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A meeting of minds 

In these words it’s not hard to hear an echo of the Cub Scout Law: Cub Scouts always do their best. And just as the Cub Promise encourages Scouts to think of others before themselves, and do a good turn every day, Munkit explains that here at the temple they value the three good deeds. These are rooted in the belief in three sections of being: the body, the mind and the speech. It’s through these three powerful entities that Buddhism encourages practitioners to do good things, speak good words and keep good thoughts. 

In many ways the basic principles of Buddhism and Scouting are complementary. It was in fact the founder of the original Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan, Master Hsing Yun, who recognised Scouting as a fitting way for Buddhist children to practise Buddhist values. 

Fo Guang Shan temples can be found in major global cities. Within them Mahayana Buddhism is practised. This stream of Chinese Buddhism emphasises Humanistic Buddhism, based on the belief that Buddhist principles can be useful to people in contemporary society. Munkit says that because Buddhist philosophy can be quite complicated, they try to simplify the teachings to communicate the essential principles of their members: give confidence to others, give joy to others, give hope to others, make things convenient for others. 

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Instilling good values 

He goes on to explain, ‘We’re not trying to make everybody Buddhist, we’re just trying to make society better. So that’s the purpose of the temple. And that’s like Scouts as well.’ 

The way in which Humanistic Buddhism simplifies more complicated philosophy into something people can remember and practise easily, also makes it easier for young people to digest. Munkit says if you ask the Buddhist young people what the three good deeds are, they all know. Christina, one of the young Buddhists at the temple, explains things well. She says: ‘Buddhism is really about being a good person. Making life easier for other people. Thinking about people’s wellbeing while at the same time caring for yourself, because to be able to help other people you have to be happy yourself.’ 

Because we want to make sure even more young people can access Scouting and see that it’s relevant to them too, Scouting is taking shape in a great diversity of community settings around the UK. While Scouting at the Fo Guang Shan temple is rooted in Buddhism, the elements of Scouting remain the same. Cubs and Scouts wear neckers proudly, they show off their newly awarded badges with zeal, and it’s no surprise to hear the young people say that their favourite things about Scouting are the activities and making new friends. 

Whatever inflections individual Groups take on, at the heart of it, Scouting is simply young people supported by adults coming together to learn skills and make friends. And – as one of the Scouts in the Buddhist Scout Group reminds us – little will stop them... 

After a recent hiking trip, she learnt: ‘If you go hiking, bring wellies. If it’s been raining, bring wellies. If it hasn’t been raining, still bring wellies.’ It seems that however your Scout Group varies, we’re all at the mercy of the damp British weather. 

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The spirit of Scouting 

Aspects of spiritual development in the Scout Programme are designed to make sure young people explore, learn and appreciate faiths and beliefs different from their own, which is integral to working towards a more peaceful and tolerant society. The alternative Promise creates flexibility to ensure every young person can promise to uphold a shared ethos to be kind and helpful, and to love the world based on their individual beliefs. 

Visiting the temple enlightened us to the many ways Buddhism fortifies and enriches Scouting. Open to all, encouraging young people to do their best, and committed to making society better – Buddhist values are clearly well aligned to our own. But there’s something else familiar in Buddhism, and that is the strong sense of community. 

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At one point between Scouting activities, the Cubs, Scouts and fellow members of the temple lead into the main temple. Here, on the first week of every month, all members gather to celebrate everyone whose birthday has taken place during that month, taking care to honour each individual within a supportive community network.

The young people talk about birthdays with joy. One Cub said, ‘I was born in the tiger year,’ another added, ‘I was born in the ox year.’ ‘I was born in the year of the pig,’ said one more. ‘What year were you born in?’ another asks. ‘You could be a rabbit?’ one Cub suggested. ‘Or there’s a monkey?’ another offered. Although it’s believed that people born in the same animal year share certain traits, when I ask about this, Eloise responds with an important reminder, saying ultimately, ‘we’re all the same.’ 

And on Buddha’s birthday, the community lights lotus lanterns and statues of him are doused with fragrant water, symbolising a fresh start to life. The enthusiastic celebration of birth, and rebirth, makes sense within a religion that honours the preciousness of all living things. As Munkit reminds us, ‘In Humanistic Buddhism there aren’t rigid rules, in many ways it’s up to you, as long as you do no harm.’

As much as Scouting supports the principles of Buddhism, it’s clear that Buddhism does a great deal to remind us of our Scouting values too. 

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