January 06, 2012

Buddha Buzz: Bartending Monks and Hungary's New Constitution

On January 1, Hungary's new constitution was passed—one that many say removes a system of checks and balances on the central government and also endangers constitutional rights

One of these violations of constitutional rights was a withdrawal of official recognition for over 300 religious denominations that exist in Hungary. In fact, only 14 organizations—3 Jewish and the rest Christian—were granted official status (you can read the full list here, on page 17). This means that all other religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other Jewish and Christian denominations have lost their tax exemptions and state subsidies. 

In response to the international backlash to this new law, the Hungarian government has clarified that Hungarians are free to practice whatever religion they so choose, even if that religion is not officially recognized. But as this open letter to the Human Rights Commissioners of the European Commission and the Council of Europe, written by Hungarian politicians and journalists points out, the law does impinge upon these now unofficial religions' social work.

As they write,

Not only were these communities pushed into a pariah status overnight, but all of their social, healthcare and educational services were stripped of their lawful subsidies.  

 Many of the now de-registered churches have been leaders in social services for the homeless, the elderly and the poor. They have provided assistance for tens of thousands of persons in need, including Roma, inmates, children and young people. Withdrawing their subsidies leads the way to a social disaster. 

 Several of the cast-out churches have been running successful middle and higher education schools which now will be denied accreditation.  

 This unabashed violation of freedom and equality of religions is paired with an open about-face from the separation of religious and political institutions that was achieved in our democratic transition twenty years ago.

 What I haven't been able to find so far is exactly why Hungary has eliminated the recognition of these religions, Buddhism among them. Is it a purely financial matter or something more sinister? 

Such limitations run as interesting counterpoints to nearby countries who have recently recognized some dubious new religions. This week, for instance, Sweden recognized copying and file sharing as an official religion. And about two weeks ago, the Czech Republic made headlines for the 15,000 Czechs who answered "Jedi Knight" as their religion on the latest census forms. 

In another piece of news that challenges traditional concepts of religion, an article on The Buddhist Channel caught my eye last week: "The Real Buddha Bar, Tended by Tokyo Monks." Some Japanese monks, it seems, have opened a bar—ironically, called Vow's Bar.

From the article:

A pair of younger monks—conspicuous with their shaved heads, bare feet and religious garb—man the bar. For a non-Buddhist American like me, they shake up an order of the house specialty, shakunetsu jigoku, or "Burning Hell," and boy, they're not kidding.

Serving cocktails aside, the bar has turned into a place for Japanese laypeople to seek advice from the monks, who "say they are asked about everything from wayward boyfriends to office politics."

The bar is part of a movement, the monks say, to get out of the temples and connect with everyday Buddhists— to once again put Buddhism in the center of community life. What does everyone think about this: clever way to renew interest in Buddhism or an encouragement that runs counter to the fifth precept? 

One thing that all these countries make clear is that the ways religion is recognized and practiced in the modern world are continuing to change. I'm just not sure if it's for the better or for the worse.


Photo: A monk bartending at Vow's Bar. From http://wisdomquarterly.blogspot.com/2011/12/real-buddha-bar-tended-by-monks.html.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

The Lotus Sutra describes a bodhisattva named Hearer of the World's Sounds. The name denotes this bodhisattva's ability to fully and compassionately listen to people's deepest concerns. Hearer of the World's Sounds can take on the appearance of any kind of person, from farmer to merchant to housewife to little girl. Certainly of bartender.

veronika.mathe's picture

The previous law (1990) is said to have granted too much independence to the religous groups/churches, including state funding for social- and educational projects and favourable taxing. Many of the nearly 400 groups registered in 1990 exist only in name by now. So besides financial ones (and claiming that Hungary is a Christian country) the aim of the new law is let these so called 'business churches' drop from this circle of supported religious formations. This effort seems to have run too wild, I guess.

Buddhists are said to be obliged to create an umbrella organisation containig all (26) groups to qualify as a church. It may prove difficult given the many shades of Buddhism present in Hungary (see: http://www.blogisattva.org/2011/01/bawt-buddhism-in-hungary.html).

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

Thank you for the information and the link! It seems like Buddhism in Hungary is growing, as it is in many central European countries. If it is possible to bring all 26 groups together, I wonder if there are any plans to apply to be considered an official religion by the government.

veronika.mathe's picture

In the second round (February, 2012) the 4 largest Buddhist communities and one of the two Chinese communities eventually got the official recognition as a church. One of the largest communities is an umbrella organization, so in fact it means the recognition of 12 Buddhist groups.

The most painful loss is that the Jai Bhim community (http://www.jaibhim.hu/) did not get recognized.

veronika.mathe's picture

Still about the Buddhists in Hungary.

The law limiting the number of officially recognized religious groups/churches was annihilated (February 26, 2013) due to a Constitutionality review. It is not clear (yet?) what happens with the state support of social activities (education, social care etc.) by these religious groups/churches.

In the meantime I have made a map of Buddhist churches, monasteries and dharma centers: http://goo.gl/maps/iOiV7 It is in Hungarian, but you can surely get the gist of it. :)