Buddhism and Problems of the
Dr. G. P. Malalasekera
salvation or Nibbana completely within the reach of man. It does not, however, come to him
as a gift from outside himself; it has to be won. There is no one who seeks him out and
cures his alienation from ultimate values. In other words, Buddhism has no place for a
Saviour who takes upon himself the sins of others and obtains for them redemption
Buddhism admits the
existence of many categories of gods, who are called devas or radiant ones. None of
these devas, however, is permanent and eternal. 'Mey are to be found in various
planes of existence; some of them have longer life-spans than others. Though none of them
is almighty, some of them are credited with superhuman powers and their favours could be
won, though not by prayers or sacrifices. According to Buddhism, devotees can share merits
and radiate thoughts of loving-kindness to them to invoke their protection.
Their existence in
the deva world and the lengths of their lives there depend on the good deeds they
had done in previous lives and when their 'store of merit' is exhausted, they disappear
from their celestial abodes and are born elsewhere. Many, if not most of them, are
followers of the Buddha whose goodness they know. They are not as fortunate as human
beings because in the human world there are more opportunities for good deeds than in the
realm of the devas. Humans can 'share' the merit which they attain by their good
acts to the devas.
2. Sharing of Merit
The doctrine on
'sharing of merit' is part of the Buddha's teaching. Such sharing is made by the doer of
the good deed resolving that 'so and so' may partake of the 'merit' of his good deed. The
sharing becomes really effective when the intended recipient becomes aware of the good
deed and rejoices therein. This is called anumodana (rejoicing therein). The anumodana
can be done even without the knowledge of the doer of the deed. The rationalisation
behind it is that when one finds joy in another's good deed, with or without the knowledge
of the latter, one's own mind is cleaned and purified and this produces its own
meritorious effects. The anumodana can be done by anyone as a conscious, deliberate
act. The 6sharing of merit' is itself a good deed and, therefore, adds to the 'merit' of
the good deed already done. The 'person who shares' loses nothing thereby but adds to his
store of merit.
There are special devas
or deities of great power, who are considered protectors of Buddhism. Each Buddhist
country has its own pantheon whose sphere of influence is largely local, though there are
a few who could be invoked anywhere. Many of the local deities have been borrowed or
adopted from the followers of other faiths, chiefly from Hinduism in the case of Theravada
lands. In Myanmar, for instance, the Buddhists seek the favour of the Nats, who preside
over the destinies of Myanmars. In Japan, on the other hand, various Bodhisattvas (Buddha
Aspirants) are invoked.
There are various
shrines dedicated to these deities, where devotees make offerings of fruits and flowers as
a token of homage, their praises sung or chanted and requests made for their favours. No
animal is ever sacrificed. This form of worship has been greatly influenced by the
practices of the theistic religion. This corresponds to what the Buddha said when He
declared that in times of distress or anxiety, people are prepared to go anywhere to seek
protection. But the favours asked for are concerned with mundane affairs. No Buddhist
believes that the worship of devas, however powerful they are, would lead to
The question is often
asked as to what place Faith (Pali, Saddha) occupies in Buddhism. It may be useful
in this connection to recall that in the original Pali canonical texts, there is no word
equivalent to the term 'Buddhist'. People are divided into various categories according to
the degree of their spiritual development. We thus have that ordinary man, one of the
'many folk' (puthujjana), the good man (kalyana-puthujjana), the noble man (aiiya),
and the perfect man (arahant). The texts do speak of people who go to the
Buddha, his Teaching (the Dhamma), and his Noble Disciples (the Sangha) for 'refuge' (sarana).
In Buddhism, there is no formal act of 'baptism' though there is a stereotyped formula
used by Buddhists in Buddhist lands to express his act of 'taking refuge'which merely
means that the devotee accepts the Buddha as his Teacher and Guide, the Doctrine as his
philosophy and his Way of Life and the Sangha (the Community of Monks) as the exemplars of
this Way of Life.
The Buddhist quality
of Saddha means this acceptance in the belief and knowledge that these Refuges are
worthy of such acceptance. There is no 'blind faith' involved, no case at all of 'believe
or be damned'. The Buddha agreed that there were many teachers and many Ways of Life
preached by them and many followers of such teachers and their Ways of Life. Everyone is
left completely free to make his choice; there is no restriction at all on the
individual's autonomy in this respect. In fact, there were instances when followers of
other teachers repudiated them and wished to transfer their allegiance to the Buddha, He
discouraged them and asked them to give the matter further thought. When they further
persisted, He advised them to continue their benefactions to their earlier teachers.
passage in the Kalama Sutta, which is so often quoted in this context, is
undisputed evidence of this freedom of choice. It states quite categorically that nothing
should be accepted merely on the grounds of tradition or the authority of the teacher, or
because it is the view of a large number of people, distinguished or otherwise. Everything
should be weighed, examined and judged according to whether it is true or false in the
light of one's convictions. If considered wrong, they should not be rejected outright but
left for further consideration. Not only is doubt not considered a heinous sin; it is
4. Right Views and Wrong Views
Buddhist has no
specific definition for the terms sammaditthi (right views) and micchaditthi (wrong
views). They refer to views which are intrinsically right or wrong whether held by
Buddhists or others. No view is to be considered sacrosanct and beyond question. Freedom
of thought is a matter of human dignity. Even the validity of the Buddha's own statements
could be questioned. The Buddha claims no authority for his doctrine except his own
personal experience. Real authority is the authority which truth itself possesses, the
truth which authenticates itself. Such truth has great power, the power even of performing
miracles (saccakiriya), as shown in so many Jataka stories, which are part of the
Buddhist cultural heritage. Saddha should, therefore, be better translated as
confidence, trust or conviction, rather than faith, because faith has connotations not
found in the concept of Saddha.
5. Happiness of All Beings
The Way of Life
taught by the Buddha is not, as sometimes suggested, meant specifically for those who live
the monastic life. It is true that the spirituality of non-attachment which should be
developed to attain Nibbana could be achieved more quickly by the monk rather than by the
layman. But, it is quite wrong to say that full liberation can be achieved only by the
monk and not by the layman living a family life. The Buddha's discourses, as collected and
edited by the Council of Elders which met after the Buddha's passing away, consist largely
of sermons addressed to monks because it was they who mainly formed his immediate
audiences. But, there are numerous discourses addressed to laymen as well. Sometimes they
are addressed to a single individual.
In his very first
sermon, called Establishment of the Rule of Righteousness, he developed the concept of the
welfare and happiness of all beings, without any discrimination whatsoever, 'out of
compassion for the but world'. It was the first time in human history, as we know, that
the idea of a general good or a common good is envisaged, affecting not only the common
man but also the peoples of the world and even more the inhabitants of the universe. It
was also described as a teaching which gives results in this life, without delay, meant
for all time, verifiable and inviting investigation.
6. Unity of Mankind
The Buddha taught not
only the necessity of an inner revolution of the individual for human happiness but also
the need for an outer revolution in the life of Society. Thus, for instance, he preached
the fundamental oneness and unity of mankind, irrespective of colour or race or other
physiological characteristics - as in the case of animals - and created a revolution for
the abolition of the caste system which was prevalent in India in his day. In order to
demonstrate his concept of the oneness of mankind, he moved not only with kings and
capitalists and aristocratic ladies, but also with the poorest of the poor, with beggars
and scavengers, robbers and courtesans.
He admitted into the
Order (the Sangha) which he founded, men and women from all grades of society, regardless
of their birth or origin. He ministered to the sick and the destitute, consoled the
stricken and brought happiness to the miserable. It is said that the first hospitals in
history were organised under his direction. He did not retire from the world after his
Enlightenment lived for forty-five years in the community, constantly seeking out those
whom he could help.
He valued greatly the
liberty of the individual, freedom of thought and. expression and the ideals of democracy.
A commitment to Buddhism is not contradictory to openness. The Order of the Sangha is
considered the oldest democratic institution in the world and it was set up as a model for
lay organisations, including political institutions. The ideal state envisaged in Buddhism
is a democracy, working for the material and spiritual welfare of the people, guaranteeing
political, religious and personal freedom as well as economic security with full
8. Economic Welfare
Planning for economic
welfare is clearly emphasized as part of the functions of the king or the state. 'When
that is properly done,' says the Buddha, 'the inhabitants, following each his own mission,
will no longer harass the realm, the state revenue will increase, the country-will be
quiet and at peace and the populace, pleased with one another and happy, dancing with
their children in their arms, will dwell with open doors.' A Buddhist text, the Mahavastu,
says, 'The world rests on two foundations: the acquisition of wealth and the
conservation of what is gained. Thherefore, to acquire wealth and conserve what you have
gained, make firm efforts, within the bounds of righteousness.'
9. Ownership of Property
Public ownership of
property is favoured in many parts of the world, especially where socialist principles
hold sway. As far as it is known, the first consistent and thorough going application of
the principle of common ownership in a specific community or society is to be found in the
Vinaya rules which govern the Order of the Buddhist Sangha, where all property,
movable and immovable, of any significant economic value, is held in common trust, without
any sort of compulsion. Life in the Sangha is a corporate life based on the principles of
10. Buddhism and Mankind
From what has been
already said, it will be seen that Buddhism is very much concerned with this world and the
life of mankind therein. It is by no means a world-denying religion. The Buddha described
his teaching as being Sanditthika, primarily concerned with this world, with this
life. Even the highest happiness, that of Nibbana, is to be striven for in this
very life. It lays the greatest stress on the absolute need for making the best of the
ever-fleeting present, so as to ensure that the future is controlled for our well-being.
The past is gone beyond recall. Only the present is available to us for the good life. The
future is yet to come and what we make of it depends entirely on us.
The Buddhist does not
regard the world as a prison from which man must escape to enter heaven. Rather, he seeks
to build heaven here. He is not a materialist, nor does he scorn the advantages of a
material civilization. His problem is not that of a choice between the senses and the
spirit but the domination of the spirit. The Buddhist ideal is to establish an equilibrium
between the outside and the inside, between the externalities of nature and the world
around us and the spiritual progress through the conquest of selfishness. To him, Life is
a great adventure, often a dangerous adventure. The main problem is how this greatest of
all adventures could be directed to a happy ending.
The Buddhist ideal is
that of arahantship, i.e. perfection. To achieve this ideal, all those factors that
militate against such well-being must be removed, not only for oneself but also for all
things that have life. The Buddhist cannot seek his personal welfare, regardless of
others; his welfare is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole world. Hence
the Buddha's injunction that the good man must be sabba panabhutahitanukampi, deeply
concerned with and actively working for the happiness and welfare not only of human beings
but of all living creatures.
found its way, it encouraged the growth of a civilization and a culture marked by
tolerance, humanity, sympathy and understanding, the twin virtues of karuna (compassion)
and panna (wisdom) which form the two main planks of the Buddhist doctrine.
12. The Modem World
feature of the modern world is the acceleration and magnitude of the process of change. We
witness today almost unbelievable change in the drastic and revolutionary transformation
of all human institutions in every field of human activity. It is true that the
breathtaking advantages of science and technology have destroyed the solid moorings of a
more stable way of life, which had its own ethical character, and cast large masses of men
adrift in a strange and difficult world. The world is fast changing out of recognition.
But these advances
have also brought emancipation to humanity in many directions. They have given us great
social and intellectual gains and the means whereby to destroy hunger and poverty.
Societies have been knitted together closer than ever before, and made more responsive to
men's needs and demands. 'Me fault will not be in the products of scientific and technical
advancement but in our failure to make wise and proper use of them.
In any case, we
cannot stop the world; it will go on changing, for change, says the Buddha, is the
fundamental fact of life. No revolution can put an end to change itself. That is the
beauty of change. Without constant change, yesterday's revolution becomes today's
convention and today's convention is tomorrows tyranny.
Our very survival is
tied up with change. This is where modern man must find Buddhism to be particularly
relevant to his age. Buddhism accepts change; in fact, it is built on the truth of
constant change and flux. We must learn to take the rivers as they flow.
We must cultivate the
quality of resilience, the ability to adopt, adapt and be flexible. The moment we come to
rigid conclusions and refuse to consider different points of view, we cease to be
intelligent. Our views tend to harden into dogmas and dogmas make us mulish in our
obstinacy. New challenges call for new responses. If each individual takes care to avoid
dogmas, the entire community becomes an open society which makes the good life possible.
13. Problems Facing Mankind
The problems facing
mankind are many. We have problems of food, industry, labour, wages, unemployment,
inequality of opportunity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, to mention but a
few. They appear very complicated, as indeed they are, but the aspiration of the common
man is a simple one. He merely wishes. to be able to live in peace and happiness, with
freedom to build his own little world, in human dignity.
He also needs
fellowship and understanding and love, and something that will provide hope for himself
and his children, both for this life and in the next. In many parts of the world even
these basic needs are not available. Neither security nor justice is to be found
universally. Uncertainty and insecurity have become a deadly almost universal curse, both
among the rich and the poor, producing sometimes apathy and indifference, sometimes
unrest, tension and revolution. Science has failed to find the secret of happiness. 7he
'Conquest of nature' has not succeeded in achieving either plenty or peace. This is not
surprising to us, because the Buddha taught us that happiness is to be found in living in
harmony with the Dhamma, i.e. with Nature, with its beauty and grandeur. The truth is that
mankind, as a whole, is unhappy, desperately miserable.
therefore, would appear to be extremely complicated and probably incapable of solution.
Yet, if we were to examine the matter carefully, with knowledge and understanding, we
should realize that our modern problems are not fundamentally different from the perennial
problems that have afflicted people at all times and in all climes. If our modem problems
differ from those of our forbears, it is largely in the matter of their greater number and
Now, the fundamental
teaching of the Buddha, as we have seen already, is that nothing happens except as a
result of causes. Once the causes are investigated and understood, the solutions could be
found. It is aft too frequently assumed that the teachings of ancient sages, such as the
Buddha, are too simple to be efficacious enough to help us in the solution of the
exceedingly complex problems which affect the individual and society in contemporary life.
The message of the Buddha is addressed to the basic human predicament and this makes it
both timeless and timely. It is a guide to action in terms of thought, word and deed. Each
succeeding generation can and must rediscover the relevance of that message to the
solution of its own problems.
14. Highest Happiness
It is the Buddha's
teaching that the highest happiness is peace and that there can be no real happiness
without peace. The world is distraught with fears and threats of wars. Countries involved
in war have become awesome arsenals of military hardware, ensuring continued business and
profit to merchants of death and destruction: Following conflicting ideologies, not only
military personnel but thousands of innocent men, women and children are being mercilessly
massacred and incalculable damage is inflicted on land and property. Nothing escapes the
fury and the frenzy of battle, and to what end? 'Hatred never ceases by hatred,' declared
the Buddha, 'but only by love', and again, 'Victory breeds ill-will, for the conquered are
unhappy.' In many other parts of the world, war-clouds hang menacingly near. The air is
full of violence in thought, word and deed.
This, then, is the
task of religion - all religions. It is religion alone that can affect the necessary
change of heart -religion which consists not in the performance of rites and ceremonies
and the preaching of sermons, but in a life of holiness and inner tranquility, resulting
in the disarmament of the mind, which is the only real disarmament.
15. Root-causes of War
The Buddha also
teaches us that the only way to achieve peace is by eliminating the root-causes of war -
greed, hatred and ignorance. Today the world is divided into people of various ideologies,
with their power-blocs, who devote most of their minds and energies to the sterile,
negative, cruel business of wars. The world cannot have peace till men and nations
renounce selfish desires, give up racial arrogance and cleanse themselves of the
egoistical lust for possession and power. Ideology divides, it brings about conflict.
Ideology takes multifarious forms - political, religious, economic, social and
educational. Ideology is an escape from reality. It brutalises man and holds him in
bondage to fanaticism and violence.
It is in men's minds
that conflicting ideologies are born, resulting in tension and war and it is from the
minds of men that these conflicts should be eradicated so that humanity could be filled
with thoughts of harmony and peace. The Buddha declared that the mind is foremost, the
forerunner of all things, good or bad, that, when the mind is cleansed of evil, peace and
happiness will reign.
Religion, if it is
true religion, must take the whole of man as its province and not merely certain aspects
of his life. The good man, i.e., the man who follows his religion, knows that there can be
no happiness or peace on earth as long as there is poverty and starvation, injustice and
oppression, discriminative legislation, racial segregation, social disabilities and
inequalities, corroding fear, mutual distrust and suspicion. Self-respect is as necessary
to happiness as food, and there can be no self-respect among those who do not have the
opportunity to achieve the full stature of their manhood.
16. World Problems
The problems that
face mankind today and threaten the very structure of humanity are world-problems and not
isolated in this or that geographical area. Their solution, therefore, has to be sought in
world-terms. This involves new conceptions, on our part, of human relations, not only in
the family and the home, our city, village and our country, but in the context of the
world. There is the need to educate men and women with regard to the evils of narrow
nationalism, racism, colour and creed. Intolerance, arrogance and bigotry which seek to
deprecate and denigrate other peoples, other cultures, other religions, other ways of life
different from our own - these must be eradicated, if we are to find peace.
17. Sinister Past
It has been admitted
that religion has, in many respects, a sinister past to redeem. Too frequently, its
mission to mankind has been submitted to exigencies of provincial or national politics and
nefarious schemes for aggrandizement and conquest. In earlier ages, most national wars
were also religious wars. Too often, also, religion has buried itself with details of
ritual and dogmas, questions of ministerial organisation and the infallibility of books
and persons. It thus narrowed itself down to priestcraft and sacredotalism, looking after
its endowments and establishments.
Modern man has,
therefore, the right to ask, what use religion has for us of this age. They would argue
that religion has served its purpose; let it, therefore, die. This is the main cause of
secularization which religion everywhere has to face. Since the problems arising from
secularization are more or less common to all the World Religions, there is no need to
examine them specifically here.
The gravest of them,
however, are the problems connected with the youth of the world about whom there exist
many misgivings among the older generation and chiefly among the leaders of the various
religions. These misgivings centre mainly round the violence prevalent among many youth
movements and the use of narcotics and drugs by large numbers of young men and women. Both
these factors seem to be symptoms of a deeplyrooted disease, which, like all other
diseases, must be the result of certain causes. It is the causes that we must discover
before we can think of remedies.
19. Strata of Culture
In almost every
country in the modern world, there seem to be three, fairly distinguishable strata of
culture. First there is the traditional culture of simple virtues, conservative in
outlook, which might be called the culture of normalcy striving to maintain ancient values
which have been tested in the crucible of experience. The second is the modern
technologically organised society, liberal in outlook, trying to adapt itself to changes
taking place around it, with almost breathtaking rapidity. The third is what has been
called counter - culture, represented in the popular mind by so-called hippies, with their
long hair, unkempt appearance, questioning the beliefs and values, with their penchant for
rock-music, uninhibited sex, indulgence in narcotics and drugs with noisy demonstrations,
turning to a communal or tribal life-style, going back to Nature in what they call 'sheer
group is generally looked upon with fear and disgust by the other two cultures. However,
there are those, who, having made a close study of counter-culture, maintain that the
popular image is wrong, shallow and superficial, and that their unorthodox behaviour is
only a means of protest against established society which they regard as completely
motivated by prejudice and self-interest.
In the fight of what
has thus been stated, what should be the attitude of religion to those of the modern age,
who are to be found everywhere, in numbers large or small? Surely, it should be an
attitude of tolerance and sympathy and, above all, of understanding, flexibility and
Let us not forget
that some of the leaders of religion have themselves been revolutionaries. The Buddha, for
instance, was one of the greatest rebels in human history. He denied the assumptions on
which religion in his day was based and gave the religious quest an entirely new
orientation. He refused to accept the sincerity of the Vedas or the power of the
priesthood. He refuted the illusion that human problems could be solved with sacred
rituals and incantations. He was a sworn enemy of the caste-system on which the whole
structure of Indian Society rested. He was ridiculed and persecuted and several attempts
were made on his life.
20. Salient Characteristics
During the 2500 years
of its history, Buddhism has successfully faced the challenges that confronted it.
Resilience and tolerance have been among its salient characteristics. It has no
hierarchical institutions and no rigid dogmas. Its benign influence on humanity is
proven by the cultures and civilizations which have grown in countries into which it has
spread. It has a message for modern man as potent as in the days of the Buddha. Buddhism
does not promise that the ills from which humanity suffers can be alleviated in any
fundamental way by some grand, overall organization of society. While denying any innate
sinfulness in man, it declares that salvation is an individual affair and can be achieved
only by virtuous conduct and mental culture. Its whole teaching has been summarised by the
Buddha himself as:
of all evil; the accumulation of the good; the purification of one's mind - this is the
message of the Buddhas."
During the last four
or five centuries, Buddhism has suffered from colonialism in many Asian countries, by
external and internal wars and the deliberate efforts of the followers of other religions
to weaken and destroy it. The Sangha which has kept the teaching alive and which enjoyed
the patronage of those in power has been disorganised and weakened as a result of forces
beyond its control.
But, the outlook is
once more bright. Buddhist unity has been forged by such organizations as the World
Fellowship of Buddhists and the World Sangha Council which have brought together Mahayana
and Theravada in order to follow a joint programme of action. There is a great deal of
illiteracy and poverty among Buddhist peoples to be overcome. The Sangha must be educated
to meet modern needs. Buddhism has never been a passive, docile religion. It has been one
of the greatest civilizing forces of the world.