Buddhism for Today and Tomorrow
There is no doubt at all that Buddhism is needed in the
modern world even though it was proclaimed more than 2500 years ago. It is because its
message is ageless. It tells of loving kindness, compassion, joy and peace. Peace is one
quality which the world is now talking about, and which is most desired by world leaders
and organisations alike. Yet, there are still a vast number of people who are not sure at
all of this message proclaimed by the Buddha.
This message of
peace, and of love and happiness to all living beings was preached at a period when
continents were divided by barriers - physical and geographical, linguistic and racial.
Geographical isolation, slow and limited communication restricted the areas. As such,
superstition was rife and knowledge was not shared. In such a situation, the unknown
therefore surpassed the known. Technically and scientifically, the presently developed
areas of the modem world were not developed or even under-developed. Therefore, the people
living in those extensive continents had no opportunity to hear, know, and to understand
even the essentials of the message of the Buddha.
against the spread of the Buddha's message was the then prevalent method of propagating a
religion. Religion was then spread by the sword and by conquest. Compared to this,
Buddhism was the one religion that commissioned no lethal force nor crusading armies for
Yet for all these
factors Buddhism spread steadily to all the countries which India had communications and
contacts with at that time. It spread slowly but surely along the ancient travel routes to
Tibet, China, Korea, Japan and Central Turkistan. Emperor Asoka also sent Buddhist
Missions to kingdoms in the East and West through Buddhist monks and disciples. He sent a
gift of Dhamina to Sri Lanka through his son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta. A sapling
of the Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha attained full Enlightenment was
brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta. This tree survives to this day as the oldest
historical tree in the whole world. It is a symbol of enlightenment to all Buddhists. From
Sri Lanka and India, Buddhism was taken to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and
Today the world has
shrunk in dimensions. The under-developed and the undeveloped have become technically and
scientifically advanced while once developed lands have become the under-developed areas.
In this era travel is easy, quick and unrestricted. Communications are instantaneous.
Hence the wealth of knowledge is everyone's common heritage, and there is no reason for
them to be in ignorance of the Buddha's message.
Yet even with the
knowledge at everyone's disposal, there are still criticisms against Buddhism as well as
misconceptions and misunderstandings towards the teachings of the Buddha. There are
learned people who try to equate Buddhism with Hinduism. There are also eminent persons
who think of Buddhism as not different from any other theistic religion. Some even say
that Buddhism is full of superstitious beliefs and practices. On the surface, these appear
to be contradictions that impede ideological reconciliation. These seeming differences are
due more to misunderstanding, misinformation and misinterpretation of the social dynamics
and cultural heritages whose intricate patterns co-exist in an unobtrusive manner in
diverse societies in diverse ways. Therefore to understand the nature of the teachings of
the Buddha it becomes necessary and essential to study the differences between
Buddhism and any existing religion so that we can be clear about the Buddha's message.
Other religions are
well planned to satisfy the psychological pre-dispositions, questioning attitudes and
curiosities of other people, their ways of thinking and believing so much so that every
conceivable misgiving is provided with the best possible explanation. Some of these
explanations are on a Creator's omniscience,- his universal love and compassion. It is
also said that some of these fundamental factors are not to be questioned. Some accept
religion on blind faith, some on dogmatic theories. Nevertheless, these assumptions have
satisfied the believing minds. of the faithful devotees. Questioning is not fo;r them.
Logic and reason must give way to devotion. Rationalisation, scientific explanation,
logical agreement differs from religion to religion. It is asserted that these methods and
techniques of modern science were not intended and cannot be applied in the case of
religion. Religion was thought to be fundamentally different from science. It is supposed
to be a revelation, a word of god. By contrast Buddhism invites, welcomes and encourages
investigation, inquiry and introspection in a logical, rational, and scientific
manner.'ffiis is proven in the famous Kalama Sutta where the Buddha had said, "Oh,
Kalamas: do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition;
nor upon rumour; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a
notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the
consideration, the monk is our teacher."
It has often been
said against Buddhists that they believe in gods, accept common beliefs, worship trees and
images. It is also said with disparagement that the vast majority of its adherents worship
elements of heaven and earth, moon and stars. Here the critics make a mistake of mixing
cultural values, social customs and traditional beliefs of people in various stages of
social evolution. Either the critics forget or they do not know that Buddhism has never
attempted to eliminate an existing way of life and its cultural values by a novel way of
life on an unwilling person.
In a like manner, if
such doubting and questioning persons, critics or observers were to ask a Buddhist
individual of such Buddhist societies whether he believes in such a medley of concepts he
will answer 'Yes' and 'No' because the believing person's mind is very accommodating.
According to his mental make-up, there is nothing illogical in his way of thinking, in his
logic and organization of the forces and elemental powers of the old and new, the unknown
and mysterious. To this individual, Buddhism and its precepts stand above the substratum
of the pyramid of old beliefs and superstitions with the moral codes and "Tiratana"
(Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) placed high on the peak of the pyramid.
One of the most
consistent remarks made about Buddhism is that Buddhists have faith in the gods of their
society. Such a Buddhist, when he supplicates, must not be mixed up with the real Buddhist
who is seeking Nibbana. He must not be personified with Buddhism, the Dhamma taught by the
Buddha. It is a misconception of the observers and the critics with regards to the
believer who is fully conscious of his pyramidal structure of his religious beliefs. He
believes there are good and evil spirits; beneficient deities, and benevolent
super-powers. He also believes that the Buddha occupies the highest position in that
hierarchy of gods in order of rank. With his limited scientific knowledge he believes
perhaps that all manner of help can be commissioned during crisis of life. Therefore, he
does many things for this purpose and in relation to the realization of dire human needs
during mental distress. But never has any such individual asked the Buddha and his
disciples to intervene. The thinking Buddhists do not ask such favours. It is naturally
understood that traditional values in certain societies formed the fundamental basis of
the people's very existence and continuation. And it is also understood that every society
still has remnants of its ancient traditions. Therefore it is not impossible for these
traditional beliefs to be absorbed and to be practised along with Buddhism. It is the way
What Buddhism did not
do, other religions may have done and may attempt to do. In a zealous desire to convert,
missionaries of other religions have destroyed the spirit of society and reduced them to
dull and drab prototypes of an alien race and culture. Their eagerness to change the
cultural values, traditional beliefs and the social patterns take the form, shape and
spirit of an attempt to force an alien religion with its alien cultural make-up on what
they thought to be an inferior group. Thus, they attempted to change the socio-cultural
and national spirit of a group of people. Such situations create irreparable damage
socially and mentally because the missioners have suppressed the urge to live, and in turn
paralysed the will to progress. On the surface, such proselytisation may appear
successful. But, in the inner regions of the people's minds the ancient beliefs and values
still persist which blur all the outer light of new religions. Hence, within this society
there will ensue a conflict not only of culture and race, but also of religion.
found its way or was introduced by the Sangha (community of monks), the teachings of the
Buddha were never in conflict with the traditional values of the new societies. The old
and the new; the ancient and the modern co-existed side by side. As the mind progressed
with the growth and advancement of knowledge, the areas of magic and superstition,
medicine and science became reduced. Synthesis took place, wholly or partially, and the
process continues to this day. Therefore to the superficial observer, to the die-hard
critic and to the missionaries, these appear as contradictions which are irreconcilable.
As a result, they condemn Buddhism out of ignorance and the difference in manner in which
they view the teachings of the Buddha. They interpret the association with magic, even as
a means of temporary human mechanism to satisfy a psychological tension or emotional
crisis as unwarranted irreligion. And added to this is the ironical fact that they have
yet to accept that man's need for survival to attain the ultimate state of peace and
happiness can only be achieved through the elimination of evil. By contrast, the Buddhist
knows that all beings are impermanent, unsatisfactory and are without a soul.
The Understanding of Buddha's Message
To the statement that
religion is fundamentally different from scientific rationalization, we can answer through
Abhidhamma. Basically, this higher teaching of the Buddha proceeds to the world of
scientific thinking of mind and matter (nama-rupa). The fundamental teaching of the
Buddha is "the avoidance of evil, cultivation of good, and the purification of one's
mind." To this is added that all component things are subject to the
fundamental laws of change and impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha),
and without a permanent living entity (anatta). A being is therefore nothing
but "nama-rupa". Rupa is the manifestation of forces and qualities. The
ancients knew them as atoms (paramanu). The Buddha termed them as fundamental units
of matter. From this we know that Buddhism is up to date with the latest scientific
discoveries of the nature of living beings.
Birth in the Buddhist
sense is termed as becoming. The process of becoming has therefore evolved in the course
of time owing to ignorance in a series of causes and effects (paticca-samuppada). These
may be formulated thus:
- Because of
ignorance arises volitional activities.
- Because of
volitional activities arise consciousness. Because of consciousness arises mind and
matter. Because of mind and matter arise six senses.
- Because of six
senses arise contact.
- Because of contact
- Because of craving
- Because of
attachment arises karma conditions.
- Because of karma
conditions arise birth.
- Because of birth
arises old age and death.
Naturally, if the
cause ceases, the effect will also cease. That means, if ignorance can be completely
eradicated, that will lead in stages to the cessation of birth and death.
Having explained the
origin of material things, mental desires and human emotions, Buddhism attempts to explain
the changing of life as one continuous cycle of being and becoming. This process is
unsatisfactory. Therefore this proves that even the achievements of the highest
technological advancements of the modern world are still subjected to this universal law
(Dhamma). Life itself is subject to this law. No being can evade or escape it.
From this stage the
Buddha then proceeded to analyse the present state of beings and to find a way to end this
unsatisfactoriness and impermanence of all component things. Therefore, His message is
clear. It was not one for running away in fear due to lack of human courage and human
endeavour. It is a way of finding a solution to a problem - a haunting human problem - and
of knowing a way out of a dangerous situation. Such situations will always be present in
the world; now and hereafter, and they can best be described by the use of a parable:
Anyone enveloped by a fire can escape only by getting away from it and not by remaining
within it. The way to survive a flood or to cross a river is by getting onto a raft and
floating on to safety. The way to overpower a snake is to get it out of the way.
So the fire of hatred
can be avoided and extinguished by love. The flood of attachment has to be overcome by
detachment, and the river of 'samsara' has to be crossed by cleansing the
impurities of the mind. The sting of delusion can be removed by developing the quality of
understanding. In this regard the Buddha taught one not to resort to extremes, but to
follow a practical rational path which is the middle way. To keep to one extreme of
suffering or the other extreme of pleasure is liable to lead a being to danger. This
spiritual danger is still a prevalent feature in the modem world. It is not restricted to
the ancient ages, and modern science and technology has not been able to overcome it
because it deals with mental states and not the material states.
difficult and sure way is the middle way. This is the path of righteousness, and is also
called the Noble Eightfold Path. It is an answer to our human problems. It consists of
eight virtues arranged under three categories viz, morality (sila), concentration (samadki)
and wisdom (panna). Under sila are grouped right speech, right action
and right livelihood. Under samadhi are grouped right effort, right mindfulness and
right concentration. Under panna are classed right understanding and right
thoughts. The realization of these lead to the attainment of the final state of Nibbana.
At this stage one is
bound to raise the question: Why do people want to deny themselves the best things of this
life - since the Noble Eightfold Path is difficult to follow? Why should they not enjoy
the pleasures of the world with all its happiness? For, after death what does it matter
what happens to anyone? Who knows? Who can tell? In the first place, man is a social
animal. He is above all a rational being, the only single species which has enforced its
full mastery over its environment; both space and outer space. Even in such a society man
cannot live by himself. He has to Eve with his family, his group. And there can be no
orderly life of happiness if everyone always fives in fear of one another.
A code of morality is
therefore essential for man to five at peace in his society. Today the virtues that remain
uppermost in the minds of all living beings are those moral codes preached by religious
founders. And more than ever before the world is fully aware of the dangers facing
advanced urban population on account of the horrors of war, racism, inequality and
poverty. These are so inter-connected that one finds it difficult to separate one evil
from the other. People talk -of peace but they are not averse to going to war and taking
life. Life is the most precious gift of nature. Here is little difference between these
two species in terms of life elements. So it is hypocritical to talk of peace without
talking of abstaining from taking any form of life. Why then are all living creatures
excluded from this message of peace to prevent suffering? Is it because man is a
super-animal and the rest lesser ones? Is it because man cannot and will not live by bread
alone? Is it because man must strive or thrive at the expense of his fellow creatures? In
spirit, this is the same argument affecting the minds of the leader of states trying to
eliminate weaker ones; the stronger, the less strong. It is the law of the jungle, of the
survival of the fittest in terms of physical, chemical and biological power.
It is the same with
the other virtues: To abstain from illicit sexual gratification, to abstain from lying,
and to abstain from taking intoxicants. As society evolves and as moral values become
essential, the five precepts (pancasila) will provide the way of living for man of
all present and future societies. The social rational animal must necessarily abandon the
primitive way of an amoral life of the irrational beast in order to live in harmony within
his society. Some will accept and adopt the moral way sooner than others. Some may do so
in parts and some wholly, but in the end humanity will adopt them all. It is doing so
already though not under these names but as a virtuous way of decent living.
What man really
wishes for all living beings is happiness. Man, the animal, should by now have really
changed to man the moral being whose interest in his fellow beings will begin to grow.
Every nation talks of peace and every person at heart desires peace for himself. But what
about others near and far? Leaders talk their voices hoarse and cry out peace from all
conceivable platforms. But without this very virtue being generated in the mind of the
individual no man nor nation can expect peace in the community, either at home or abroad.
It is a happy sign to see this quality of understanding develop in the minds and hearts of
the people who have been fighting the fiercest and bloodiest of wars and nations which
have acquired the most potent weapons of mass destruction. With this understanding, other
virtues of loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joy in the
happiness of others (mudita) and a mind full of equanimity (upekkha) will
also develop. Man can be truly great, peaceful and peace-loving only when he has
cultivated these virtues and when he realises and practises them. He is then nearer to the
realization of mental happiness both in this world and the next.
The perfect state of Buddha's Message
The question now may
be asked, why should we take all this trouble when the being has come to an end with the
dissolution of the body in the world. In brief, why such pess sm? Is there a world beyond?
What nature of world is it? The common answer is either heaven or hell. That 'nay not be
the final answer in Buddhism. A being does not cease becoming until he attains a perfect
state of mental happiness. This can be achieved by the attainment of the final state of
cleansing the mind of all defilements, such as attachment (raga), ill-will (dosa) and
ignorance (moha). It may be attained in this world by those who have been
cultivating the mental states, leading step by step to this perfect state of beatitude. It
may be in due course, during the course of becoming, when one day, becoming ceases. How
can that be? And how does this operate? One's deeds can be good or bad, moral or immoral.
One's mind may be developed or underdeveloped. One's attainments may be quick or slow. The
being continues in a series of births and rebirths here or elsewhere according to his own
deeds (karma). In accordance with the Law of Karma a being is reborn in the course
of transmigration (samsara). Ibis continuance of life, of mind and matter, this
state of mental flux due to karmic: force and effect reproduces this being in a series of
fives. The process of mental purification should continue. The stages of mental attainment
should develop until the man's mind is clean and he becomes a perfect man and attains
perfect peace of Nibbana.
It was stated earlier
that birth and rebirth continue in this and other states through the continuation of the
momentum of mental flux according to one's own deeds. This process is explained in
Buddhism by the doctrine of karma and rebirth. Birth continues until the karma that helps
to sustain each resultant existence ceases. 'Me ultimate cessation of birth brings about
the perfect state of happiness called Nibbana in Buddhism. This way of life so far
outlined can be followed in this life both in the advanced and less advanced societies
alike. But this desire of becoming leads no being to ultimate happiness. The being must
cease to become. 'Mat should be the ultimate aim and objective of every being. It is the
goal of a Buddhist and he practises the moral code in this hope and for this purpose. The
state is within the grasp of everyone. It has to be realized by oneself.
Here the laymen and
particularly those of the West come up against problems unfamiliar to them, their
philosophy of life and their accustomed religion. It is the idea of life after death in a
series of rebirths in a variety of forms. Can such a thing be possible? But the Western
thinker and the Western mind can now, better than previously, feel that such a thing is
not impossible. Certain happenings and certain misfortunes in this existence cannot be
explained except by such a belief. Certain aptitudes of children at an abnormally young
age cannot be explained altogether. So far only transmission of aptitudes through heredity
can provide an answer. But the recollection or any remembrance of certain incidents
narrated by children present a problem for which a possible explanation may be rebirth.
The parapsychologists are studying this phenomenon and the number of cases recorded is
increasing. It is of course stated in Buddhism that the knowledge to recollect Previous
existence (pubbe nivasanussatinana) is attained during the 3rd stage of meditation
by the person who has attained the five kinds of knowledge (panca abhinna). So far,
those who find it difficult to believe and grasp have found some evidence of practical
possibility in rebirth.
What about the
operative mechanism of this doctrine of rebirth? Karmic potential of the righteous sort or
the evil sort is posited as the regenerating power and as the determinant of the continuum
of the life cycle. It is not an equation in which the good and evil get cancelled as plus
and minus elements, leaving a sum to the debit or credit account. It is a concept whereby
the good deed will, somewhere, somehow, someday at sometime get its pleasant reward;
likewise the evil deed will get its unpleasant reward. The transmission of this potential
karmic force has a medium which is psychic and not physical. It is a psychic process like
electrical energy in an electronic device. Its power to reproduce itself is inherent in
the very force itself, like electric energy or sound and light waves. Here the particular
sound wave or virtual ray of light has within it the entire potential for reproduction of
itself if the proper setting is just right to receive it. Perhaps karmic force in action
may be explained somewhat like this in ordinary language. The last and final equation is
the identity of the karmic force which reproduced the effect, i.e. the resultant new being
during the stages of the continuum of life. What about its identity? How can this be
These are problems
that must find an answer. The layman finds it more difficult to reconcile these elements.
And the laymen of the developing and not so developed world find it even more difficult to
believe it is possible. It has to be stated that these are philosophical concepts,
religious doctrines which have been discussed, debated and commented upon. An explanation
of certain simple things is not possible unless actually realized or experienced by
oneself. Light can be explained easily. But a blind man will find it almost impossible to
say what it is like. One can describe the way and the means to go to a place. One can even
describe what the place is like if one has been there. But no one can feel it or realize
it unless one has been there oneself. Likewise, these things are to be realized by the
individual for himself and by himself. Buddhism has stated the path preached by the
Buddha. It has been explained. Others can be enjoined to follow. Beyond that no one can
help. One is one's own saviour. No one can save another. "Attahi attano
natho." When one has followed the path, practised the religion, and developed the
mind, one cannot fail to attain that perfect and highest state of Nibbana. That state is
still within our reach.