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Buddhist Sociology


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Buddhism in the Modern World:
Cultural and Political Implication

Bhikkhu Sangharakshita

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In order to determine the cultural and political implications of Buddhism in the modern world we must first define Buddhism itself, and ascertain the general nature of its relation to culture and to politics. A glimpse of the cultural achievements of Buddhism during its twenty-five centuries of history, and of its political status and influence in the same period will be helpful in understanding the cultural implications of Buddhism today, not only in the East but also in the West, besides grasping its current political implications for Asia and the world at large.

1. The Nature of Buddhism

Buddhism, or more accurately, the Dharma, may best be defined simply as the means to enlightenment. The Buddha himself compares it to a raft. Just as a raft, after being fashioned out of grass, sticks, branches and leaves, serves to cross over great stretches of water and is then abandoned, so the Dharma, by means of which we ferry over the waters of birth and death to the other shore, nirvana, is not something to be taken with us but something to be left behind [M. I. 134]. In short, it is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. In modern parlance, its function is purely instrumental and therefore its value only relative. This of course does not mean that it can be dispensed with. When we have arrived safely on the other shore, the raft may indeed be abandoned; but so long as we remain on this shore, or are still paddling across the stream, it is indispensable.

The pragmatic nature of the Dharma is emphasized in the words addressed by the Blessed One to his foster-mother and aunt, Mahapajapati Gautami, who had asked him to give her precept, hearing which she might dwell "alone, solitary, ardent and resolved." The, Buddha replies, "Of whatsoever teachings, Gotami, thou canst assure thyself thus: 'These doctrines conduce to dispassion, not to passions : to detachment, not to bandage : to decrease of (worldly) gains, not to increase of them : to frugality, not to covetousness : to content, and not discontent : to solitude, not company: to energy, not sluggishness: to delight in good, not delight in evil' : of such teachings thou mayest with certainty affirm, Gotami, 'This is the Dharma. This is the Vinaya. This is the Master's Massage [Vin. II. 10]. It is for this reason that the Mahayanists were not only able to say, with Ashoka, "Whatever the Blessed One has said is well said", but also "Whatever is well said is the word of the Buddha [Adhyasayasamcudana Sutra, Siksa Samuccaya of Santideva, tr. by Cecil Bendall and W.H. D. Rouse, London, 1922, p.17].

The means to enlightenment comprise three groups of practices. Ananda, questioned about the Master's teaching some time after the mahaparinirvana, tells his interrogator, a young Brahmana, that the Blessed One taught sila, samadhi, prajna and gives an explanation of each of these terms in turn [D. I. 10]. According to the Mahaparinibbanasutta, these three groups had, in fact, formed the substance of the farewell discourse delivered by the Buddha at the various places through which he passed in the course of his last journey [D. II. 3]. Sila, or ethics, traditionally consists of the five precepts incumbent upon all Buddhists, both monks and laymen, as well as the 227 or 250 binding upon Hinayana and Mahayana monks respectively, and various special precepts observed by the Bodhisattvas. In samadhi, or meditation, are included mindfulness, and self-possession (satisampajanna), contentment (santutthita) the overcoming of the five hindrances (pancanivarana), the attainment of the four (or eight) stages of super-consciousness (jhana) by means of one or more of the forty classical supports of concentration (kammatthana), and the development of various psychic powers (iddhi). Prajna (Pali: Panna), generally rendered as wisdom, includes all the doctrines of Buddhism, that is to say, teachings relating to the conditioned co-production (pratityasamutpada) of phenomena, the three characteristics (trilaksana) of mundane existence, the four noble truths (aryasatya), universal emptiness (sarvadharmanairaimya), the three kinds of reality (svabhava), mind only (citta-matrata), and the three bodies of the Buddha (trikaya). Through each of these three stages in turn must the disciple pass in order to attain nirvana. While some of the practices enumerated under sila and samadhi are found in other traditions, the doctrines which constitute the conceptual formulations of prajna are peculiar to Buddhism.

2. Buddhism and Culture

Culture, which is derived from a Latin word meaning 'tilling,' can be looked at from three principal points of view. First of all, it is the act of developing the moral, intellectual and aesthetic nature of man through education and discipline. Secondly, it is that familiarity with and taste in the fine arts, humanities and broad aspects of science, that enlightened and refined state or temper of mind, which such education and discipline tend to induce. Thirdly, it is those activities and objects which are the effect in the artist, and the cause in the rasika, or savourer of a work of art, of the enlightenment and refinement referred to. Thus, culture comprises the act of cultivation, or education (literally a 'bringing out'), the thing cultivated, in this case a mental state, and the fruits of such cultivation; in short, works of science and of art. Buddhism is obviously connected with culture in all three senses. But what is the nature of the connection between the two? Is it merely a historical and accidental relation having nothing to do with the essential nature of either Buddhism or of culture, or does it spring from some deep and hidden affinity? Buddhism, as we have seen, is the means to enlightenment, and as such threefold, consisting of sila, samadhi and prajna. In order to have an inner, as distinct from a merely outer, connection with Buddhism, culture must be able to function as a means to enlightenment. In other words, it must be possible for us to subsume it under the category of ethics, or of meditation, or of wisdom. Can this be done?

According to the Theravada tradition, it can. Speaking of bhavana, or mental culture, Dr. C. L. A. de Silva, a distinguished exponent of this school, writes, 'The volitions arising in the processes of thought during the time of learning the Dhamma Vinaya (the doctrine) or any arts, sciences and so on, too, are included under the heading of mental culture or bhavana [The Four Essential Doctrines of Buddhism, Colombo, 1948, p. 155]. Though the connotation of bhavana is on the whole more active than that of samadhi, the two terms are in the present context more or less synonymous. Culture may be subsumed under samadhi, the second of the path to nirvana, because, like the more direct and specialized methods pertaining to the practice of meditation, the arts and sciences also contribute to the purification refinement and elevation of consciousness. This fact has been recognized, in practice, even if not in theory, by all schools of Buddhism. But since the fine arts, by reason of their greater emotional appeal, are able to heighten consciousness to a far greater extent than the sciences, it is with painting, music and poetry, rather than with mathematics and chemistry, that Buddhism is most intimately related.

This connection is twofold. Art may be either sacred or profane. In the first case, art is deliberately used, in conjunction with other methods, as a means of rising to a higher plane of consciousness. The Buddha image springs to the mind as the best known example of this type of art. By fixing his mind on such an image, instead of on something that is not a work of art, the devotee is enabled to purify and refine his consciousness not only by the act of concentration itself but also by the aesthetic appeal of the image. Buddhist art, in which painting, sculpture, music and poetry, are all integrated into the spiritual tradition, and utilized, not merely as media of religious propaganda, but as objects of concentration and meditation, is one of the most effective means of heightening the consciousness ever devised by man. Profane art, or art which has no formal connection with the Dharma, though capable of producing an effect of the same kind is rarely able to produce it to the same degree. Not being reinforced and stabilized by the methodical practice of concentration, and having, as sometimes happens, no firm foundation in the moral life, whatever heightening of consciousness it is able to produce is of momentary duration only. For this reason art, though it may greatly assist and powerfully reinforce the practice of meditation, the second stage of the Path, can never be a substitute for it. Much less can art be a substitute for religion. The Dharma as a means to enlightenment comprises, as we have already seen, not only Sila and samadhi, ethics and meditation, but prajna or wisdom. Even if it could be shown that art alone is capable of inducing the dhyanas, or states of super-consciousness, that it was capable of producing prajna there is this difference that the former, however high it may soar, is still mundane, whereas the latter is transcendental. Hence the Dharma, since it is not only ethics and meditation but also wisdom does not merely include culture but transcends it.

However, Buddhism is traditionally associated not only with the sacred but also with the profane variety of art. By this we mean that besides making direct use of art for meditative purposes it also recognizes the purifying and refining power of "a thing of beauty", and therefore not only tolerates but also encourages the independent cultivation of the arts. Thus we have not only the images of Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas but statues of yaksas, yaksinis and apsaras, who, though belonging to the mythology of Buddhism, have nothing to do with its doctrine. Asvaghosa composes an epic poem on the life of the Buddha; but Wang Wei sings of mountains, mists, and streams. Broadly speaking, the Mahayana, the liberal and progressive wing of Buddhism, was concerned more with the integration into the doctrine, as a supplementary means to enlightenment, of as many arts and sciences as possible. Thus, its art is on the whole sacred art. The Flinayana, which was somewhat conservative, pursued the cultivation of the arts and sciences parallel to the study and practice of the doctrine. Hence, its works of art are on the whole profane. To these generalizations there are, of course, many exceptions. The Mahayana has produced a great deal of profane art, while the Hinayana has produced a great deal of sacred art.

3. Buddhism and Politics

The relation between Buddhism and politics is not quite so simple as that between Buddhism and culture. For, being concerned with the individual rather than with the group, culture is related to Buddhism as personal religion, but not to Buddhism as institutional religion. Moreover, Buddhism comprises, from the institutional point of view, two groups, one large and one small, the first being the community of lay believers, both male and female, the second the noble Order of monks. These two groups need not have the same kind of relation to politics. In order to understand clearly the relation between Buddhism, both personal and institutional, on the one hand, and politics in the various senses of the term, on the other, it would be necessary to investigate the relations between (a) the Buddhist doctrine and political theories, (b) Buddhism and the State, (c) the laity and the government, (d) the Sangha and the government, (e) the individual monk and the government, (f) the layman and practical politics, and (g) the monk and practical politics.

(a) As far as our knowledge goes, the Buddha confined his attention strictly to questions of religious discipline, and refrained from making any pronouncement upon the relative merits of rival political theories and system. During his lifetime, as is well known to historians, two types of government prevailed in north-eastern India, the monarchical and the republican; but the Buddha did not praise or condemn either. His statement that so long as the Vajjians, a confederacy of republican tribes, would "assemble repeatedly and in large numbers, just so long their prosperity might be looked for and not their decay" [D. II. 73] cannot be regarded as favouring republicanism, any more than if he had said that King Ajatasatru could, if he was clever enough, break the confederacy, his statement could have been interpreted as approving autocracy. He merely stated the facts of the case without passing any ethical judgement. On one point, however, the Buddha, and after him the entire Buddhist tradition, was quite explicit: the government must uphold the moral and spiritual law. Being the means to enlightenment, Buddhism naturally demands that the State should recognize the fact that the true goal of life is not to eat, drink and reproduce the species, but to attain nirvana, and that, therefore, it has the duty of providing for its citizens a political and social organization within which both monks and the laity can live in accordance with the Dharina. Between Buddhism, on the one hand, and any political theory which recognizes, either implicitly or explicitly, the supremacy of the moral and spiritual law and makes provision for its individual and collective application, on the other, there can be no disagreement. From the Buddha's social egalitarianism, as well as from his deliberate decentralization of authority in the Sangha, it may be inferred that a form of government, in theory democratic, in effect aristocratic (for an intelligent electorate would naturally elect the best man), would be most in accordance with his Teaching. Buddhism has no objection to either a socialistic or to a capitalist state provided it makes provision not only for the material but also for the moral and spiritual well-being of its subjects.

(b) The nature of the relation between Buddhism and the State will vary in accordance with two factors, one being, of course, the nature of the State itself, the other the relative strength of the Buddhist population. In a predominantly non-Buddhist State, Buddhism would expect to enjoy the same rights as other religious minorities. That is to say, it would demand complete freedom to practise and propagate its tenets. Whether persecuted or tolerated, however, Buddhist citizens would always remain loyal to the State to which they belonged. In a predominantly Buddhist State, Buddhism would naturally expect official recognition as the State religion. Under democracy, the State is the people, and the government is only the agency through which the will of the people is carried out. If in their individual capacity the citizens support Buddhism it is only logical that they should do so in their collective capacity too. Also, Buddhism being divided not into sects but schools. Its recognition as the State religion is attended by no difficulty. In Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Laos only the Theravada exists. In Mahayana lands, such as China and Japan, the laity generally respect and support all schools, and the State would do the same. Buddhist schools are tolerant, in fact, not only of each other, but also of non-Buddhist traditions.

(c) Not much need be said about the relation between the individual Buddhist citizen and the government, because Buddhism has no means of enforcing among its adherents uniformity of action in the affairs of secular life. It is true that Buddhism does not only inculcate certain principles but-also indicates the main lines of their application; the details of the application are left to be worked out by the individual Buddhist, each for himself. Buddhism exhorts, it does not command. It tells us, for example, that to take life is morally wrong; but it leaves us free to determine for ourselves whether the acceptance of this teaching obliges us to be a vegetarian or a conscientious objector. A Buddhist, however, should take an active interest in whatever concerns the material, moral and spiritual well-being of his fellow-citizens. In short, it should be his endeavour to live his social and political life in accordance with the Dharma.

(d) The relation of the Government to the Sangha is the same as that of the individual lay Buddhist to the individual bhiksu: it is the Sangha-dayaka, the patron and supporter of the Sangha. Just as it is the duty of the individual devotee to build temples, and monasteries, publish religious books and periodicals, so it is the duty of the government of a Buddhist State to finance similar undertakings which, either because of the greatness of the cost involved or the complexity of the organization required to carry them out, are beyond the capacity of private citizens. In the same way, the relation of the Sangha to the Government corresponds to the relation between the bhiksu and the layman. Just as the monk, in his capacity of -guide, philosopher and friend-, indicates to the lay, devotee the path of righteousness, so it is the right and duty of the Sangha, in the person of its seniormost members, to advise the government not only on the propagation of the Dharma but also on its application to the soical and political life of the nation. The Sangha must also be able to draw attention to and freely criticize deviations from the Dharma on the part of the government, the people, and the political leaders. Objection should not be levelled against such a connection between the Sangha and the Government on the ground that monks should not meddle in politics. Unless the Dharma is applied to the national life, it will gradually lose its hold over domestic life. Being concerned with the preservation of the Dharma, the Sangha is inevitably concerned with its application also, whether to politics or any other sphere of life. And in any case, there would be no question of the Sablia's becoming involved in the rought and tumble of practical politics. Needless to say, it is unthinkable that the advice of the Sangha should ever tend to the promotion of anything but peace and prosperity both at home and abroad. For whether it spoke to a king or to an emperor, to a President or to a Party Chairman, the Sangha would have but one message: Never in this world does hatred cease by hatred : it ceases only by love. This is the Law Eternal [Dhp. 5].

(e) The individual monk should have no relation with the government as government except through the Sangha, or with the consent of the Sangha. Unless there happens to be a separate portfolio for religious affairs, or a special rovision for ecclesiastical councillors, as there is in Siam, he should not accept any off-ice in the government, and even in such cases as these he should not accept any remuneration. A monk cannot be required to undertake any form of national service; neither is he liable to conscription. In a Buddhist State these rights would be recognized automatically. Monks suspected of committing offences against the civil and criminal law should, in a Buddhist State, first of all be tried by an ecclesiastical tribunal. If found guilty they should be disrobed and handed over to the civil court for further trial and punishment.

(f) Since the Buddhist layman is connected with the government, he is obviously obliged to take part in practical politics, and all that can usefully be said in this connection is that here, too, he should act in accordance with the Dharma.

(g) The monk, however, is under no such obligation. On the contrary, by virtue of the rules which, at the time of his ordination, he undertakes faithfully to observe, he is obliged to refrain from participation in practical politics. "Onepath leads to wordly gains, quite another path leads to nibbana. Let not the bhikkhu, the follower of the Buddha, yearn for honour, but let him, on the contrary, develop dispassion." [Dhp. 75]. In order to conform to this advice, the monk should not join, or support, or even vote for, any political organisation. Neither should he participate in meetings or any other public functions of a political or quasi-political nature. For those members of the Sangha who feel, as some of Burma and Ceylon have felt in recent times, that their duties as citizens have a stronger claim on them than their obligations as monks, the only honourable course is to leave the Sangha. Enlightenment and elections cannot be won together.

4. The Cultural and Political Heritage of Buddhism

Since the heritage of Buddhism constitutes, in one way or another, the theme of practically everything that is discussed in these pages, all that need be done here is to indicate such broad trends and basic principles a relate to (a) culture, civilization and education, and (b) war and peace.

Since culture generally, and in particular the fine arts, can be subsumed under the heading of samadhi or meditation, they may be included within the means to enlightenment. Culture is part of Buddhism. It is not an ornament on its apparel but one of the limbs of its body. Where Buddhism is, there is culture. Whither in the world Buddhism goes, thither goes culture too. This is, indeed, one of the Most obvious lessons of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia, and it is repeated here only because its significance for the modern world in general, and for modem India in particular, is not always sufficiently appreciated. Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Laos, Japan, Tibet Mongolia, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Ladakh received with Buddhism not only their religion but practically the whole of their civilization and culture. How much the introduction of Buddhism meant to the people of Japan, for example, has been clearly stated by Dr. D. T. Suzuki. Speaking of the eagerness with which they took up the study of the Dharma in the Nara period, he remarks, "Buddhism was to them a new philosophy, a new culture, and an inexhaustible mine of artistic impulses." ["Japanese Buddhism," Essay in Zen Buddhism, Rider, London, 1953, p. 340]. Again, speaking of the reasons which led the government of that period to build temples and monasteries, maintain monks and nuns, and erect a gigantic bronze image of Buddha Vairocana, he reminds one of the fact that "In those days the Buddhist temples were schools, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, refuges, for old age; and the monks were schoolmasters, nurses, doctors, engineers, keepers of free lodges, cultivators of land, explorers of the wilderness, etc. When the community was still in a primitive stage of evolution the Buddhists were leaders in every sense, and the government naturally encouraged their activities." [ibid, 340]. The monks were also poets, painters, sculptors, carvers and metallurgists. Suzuki's statement, together with our own rider, is true not only of Japan but of all the other countries that have been mentioned. Is It not more than a coincidence that Milarepa, the greatest poet of Tibet, should also have been at the same time her most famous yogin, and that Siri Rahula, who occupies in Simhalese literature a corresponding position, should have been the Sangharaja of Ceylon? China alone, of all the nations of Asia, had developed a civilization and culture of her own prior to the advent of Buddhism; but even China is indebted to Buddhism, if not for her culture, at least for its finest flowering. Buddhism was, in fact, a spring wind blowing from one end of the garden of Asia to the other and causing to bloom not only the lotous of India, but the rose of Persia, the temple flower of Ceylon, the zebina of Tibet, the chrysanthemum of China and the cherry of Japan. Asian culture is, as a whole, Buddhist culture. Therefore, as Suzuki says at the conclusion of the article already quoted, "If the East is one, 1 and there is something that differentiates it from the West, the differentiation must be sought in the thought that is embodied in Buddhism. For it is in Buddhist thought and in no other that India, China, and Japan, representing the East, could be united as one. Each nationality has its own characteristic modes of adapting the thought to its environmental needs, but when the East as a unity is made to confront the West, Buddhism supplies the bond." [ibid, 348]. The Full significance of this declaration will emerge later. Here it would suffice to emphasize the fact that if the history of Buddhism in Asia has any lesson for the world today, it is that, in their long trek from the burning marl of the Gangetic valley to the gem-encrusted rocks of Ceylon in the South, the wind-swept uplands of Central Asia in the North, and the sun-confronting islands of Japan in the East, Buddhism, culture, civilization and education were inseparable friends and companions.

Hardly less striking is the almost invariable association of Buddhism with peace. The exceptions were not only extremely rare but of merely local importance. King Aniruddha of Burma made war upon the neighbouring kingdom of Thaton in order to seize a copy of the Tripitaka which the king of Thaton refused to have copied. This was, of course, not the most Buddhistic way of obtaining the precious documents. The monks of mediaeval Japan, who lived in huge fortress monasteries, raised and fought in their own armies, and for seven hundred years, until the destruction of their strongholds, Hieizan and Negoro, by the Nobunaga and Hideyoshi in the sixteenth century, were a menace to the secular arm. [Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1951, p. 65]. Even the most industrious research has been unable to dig out from the two thousand five hundred years of Buddhist history, during which time it spread over more than a quarter of the land surface of the globe, as many as ten incidents of this kind. Not a single page of Buddhist history has ever been lurid with the light of inquisitorial fires, or darkened with the smoke of heretic or heathen cities ablaze, or red with the blood of the guiltless victims of religious hatred. Like the Bodhisattva Manjusri, Buddhism wields only one sword, the Sword or Wisdom, and recognizes only one enemy - Ignorance. This is the testimony of history, and is not to be gainsaid.

But even admitting the close association of Buddhism with peace in Asia it may be questioned whether Buddhism was really the cause and peace the effect. Perhaps their association was fortuitous. Buddhism has a bloodless and Christianity a bloody record, it might be argued, not so much because of any difference between their teachings but because one was propagated among the warlike tribes of Western Europe and the other among the peaceable nations of Asia. The contention is unfounded. Tibet, before the introduction of Buddhism, was the greatest military power in Asia. The early history of Burma, Siam, and Cambodia shows that the people of those countries were originally of an extremely warlike, even aggressive, disposition. The Mongol hordes at one time overran not only the whole of Central Asia, but also India, China, Persia and Afghanistan, and thundered even at the gates of Europe. China exhibited at various periods of her history considerable military activity. The martial spirit of Japan is far from being subdued after nearly fifteen centuries of Buddhism. With the possible exceptions of India and China, the nations of Asia were originally no less pugnacious and predatory than those of Europe. Their subsequent peacefulness was due very largely to the influence of the pacific teachings of Buddhism. But one can hardly expect to be able to pacify turbulent and warlike nations by preaching to them a God of Battles. It may therefore be concluded that the association between Buddhism and peace is not fortuitous but inevitable. Buddhism has been in the past, is at present, and will continue to be in the future, a factor contributing to the establishment of universal peace.

5. Buddhism and Culture Today

After four or five Hundred years of comparative stagnation, the present century is witnessing a resurgence of Buddhism in many parts of Asia. In Japan this resurgence began as long ago as 1868, when the disestablishment of Buddhism at the commencement of the Meiji Era and the mild for in of persecution which for some years overtook the religion and its adherents acted as a stimulus. A few years later Buddhism again raised its head in Ceylon, where the activities of Meggetuwatte, Gunananda, H. Sumangala and Col. H. S. Olcott precipitated a landslide in the direction of the national religion, Buddhist revival in India began as an organized movement in 1891, when Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Maha Bodhi Society.

In China, the Buddhist awakening began with the work of His Eminence T'ai-Hsu, while the resurgence of the Dharma in Burma is associated with the name of another great scholar-saint, Ledi Sayadaw. Now, culture being subsumed under samadhi as part of the means to enlightenment as has been seen already, the most important of the cultural implications of Buddhism today, is, naturally, the fact that its resurgence and revival in Asia is sowing the seeds of an efflorescence of culture. Shoots are springing up in many places, and even a few scattered blossoms can be seen. Brief mention must therefore be made of the stimulus which Buddhism has given to culture in certain Buddhist countries of Asia and in India, the original home of the Buddha's teachings. Since from the East Buddhism has now spread to the West, some note must be taken of its cultural implications for that part of the world also.

Of all the Buddhist countries of Asia, it is in Ceylon and Burma perhaps, the Buddhism is now most triumphantly resurgent. The achievements of Ceylon, considering that it is a tiny island with a little more than five million Buddhist inhabitants, have indeed been remarkable. It gave birth to two great international Buddhist organizations, the Maha Bodhi Society and the World Fellowship of Buddhists. With the possible exception of Japan, Ceylon, out of her scanty resources, has sent abroad for more dharmadutas, or messengers of the Dharma, than any other Buddhist land. Her contributions to culture have been no less significant and far-reaching. Scholars like Coomaraswamy, Malalasekera and Buddhadatta, painters like Manjurri Thera and George Keyt, and writers and poets like Siri Nissanka, Dhanapala and Tambimuttu are known and respected far beyond the confines of their native land. Within the country itself, the indigenous arts and crafts, customs and traditions are being revived. Link by link the chains of various alien and anti-Buddhist cultures, in which the Simhalese people had for centuries been fettered, are being snapped. With the attainment of self-government within the Commonwealth of Nations, Simhalese had begun to rival English in importance, and though modern Simhalese literature has not yet produced any figure of more than local significance, there is every possibility of its doing so before long. Similar trends can be observed in Burma; her political independence has led not only to a sudden and striking resurgence of Buddhism but also to a revival of Burmese Buddhist culture. No international figure has, however, yet emerged, nor any religious or cultural achievements of more than national interest and value. If in Siam, Cambodia and Laos the resurgence of Buddhism and the revival of Buddhist culture are less noticeable, it is largely because, being less subject to foreign influence, neither Buddhism nor its associated arts, crafts, customs and institutions ever declined to the extent that they did elsewhere. A certain benumbing lethargy did, however, creep over these lands, and even though they may not have needed a revival, in the sense of bringing back to life something that was dead, they did need a more vigorous circulation of the blood. That such a quickening of the pulse did eventually take place in the present century is demonstrated by the publication, in forty-five volumes, of the entire Pali Canon in Siamese script. This magnificent edition, known as the Royal Siamese Tripitaka, is still the only complete and uniform edition of the Theravada Canon to have been printed in Asia. In Japan, which has been subject to the influence of modern industrial civilization to a far greater extent than any other Asian country, the resurgence of Buddhism has led not so much to a revival of Buddhist culture, which here too, was never dead, as to an attempt to preserve and consolidate it amidst the essentially alien and hostile environment of modem life. Though that attempt seems to be succeeding on the whole, it is so great a drain on the spiritual vitality of Japanese Buddhism that there can be little energy to spare for fresh cultural achievements. Yet it is a Japanese, Dr. D.T. Suzuki, who through his writings and lectures exercises on European and American thought and culture a deeper and wider influence than any other Buddhist. In China, Tibet, Nepal and other parts of the Buddhist world, politics have temporarily assumed paramount importance, so that little can be said on the present cultural implications of Buddhism in those countries. However, the recent action of the People's Republic of China in presenting to Burma two grains of the Buddha's relic bones, one set of the Chinese Tripitaka, two suits of robes used by the Han and Tibetan monks, one alms bowl and one cane staff, is perhaps not without significance. [see Sangayana Bulletin, Rangoon, April 1955, p. 2].

The revival of Buddhism which has been going on in India for the last sixty years, but particularly during the past decade, is one of the strangest and most striking events in the history of religions. Nowhere else in the world does one find a parallel case of a religion being revived centuries after its disappearance, not by the command of a despot, not as the result of foreign conquest, but simply because it is the will of the people. Yet this is what is happening in India today. Less than a century ago Buddhism was unheard of in the land of its birth: if remembered at all, it was as an objectionable but fortunately extinct heterodoxy which had for a brief space troubled the placid waters of Brahminism. Today it is a household word. Over the chair of the President of the Republic of India, in the House of the People, the message dharmachakara-pravarttanaya, 'to turn the Wheel of the Dharma' flashes forth in electric light to the assembled representatives. At the very centre of the national flag as it floats over ten thousand public buildings, the same historic symbol reminds the nation not only of the sublime doctrine of the Buddha but also of the dharmavijaya or Conquest by Righteousness of Ashoka. Similarly, the lion-capital of Ashoka representing the fearless proclamation in the Dharma to the four quarters of space, has been adopted as the official seal of the Republic.

It is hardly necessary to insist that the revival of Buddhism is inseparably linked with a renaissance of culture. Such a renaissance has, of course, been going on in India for some time and the revival of Buddhism, despite its importance, is by no means the only contributing factor. Indeed, from another point of view the revival of Buddhism is itself part of the great movement for the regeneration of the religious, cultural, economic and political life of the nation that has been agitating the whole sub-continent for more than a hundred years. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that the revival of Buddhism in India is, for this reason, linked with the renaissance of culture only to the extent that it contributes to the renaissance of Indian, in the sense of non-Buddhist, culture. It is also linked with the renaissance of a culture specifically and distinctively Buddhist. This Buddhist culture, as far as its manifestations in India are concerned, is an integral part of Indian culture.

India has recognized the importance of studies in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese for a full understanding of Buddhism and the subject has been discussed elsewhere. These naturally have had their effect on writers in the modern Indian languages, who either translated Buddhist works from the original or were inspired to write independent, books that reflect Buddhist thought. Rabindranath Tagore's magnificent invocations to the Buddha, his drama, Natir Puja (The Dancing Girl's Worship), and his narrative poem, Abitisar, are fine examples of the free handling of Buddhist themes. Other writers whose work has been deeply influenced by Buddhism include Yashpal, one of the greatest masters of the modem Hindi short story and novel, Gurubaksh Singh, whose Asia da Chanana, a prose translation of Sir Edwin Amold's The Light of Asia, is regarded as a classic in modern Punjabi literature, and Kumaran Assan, one of the three greatest Malayalarn poets of the twentieth century. But like hundreds of less well-known poeis, dramatists and novelists, they are all Hindus who have been deeply moved by the sublimity of the Buddhist ideal and the beauty of its cultural manifestations. Only two or three Indian Buddhists have succeeded in carving niches for themselves in the temple of literary fame. Dharmananda Kosambi's numerous writings on Buddhist subjects-described elsewhere'-have secured him a name in marathi literature, while the writings of Rahul Sankrityayan and Anand Kausalyayan are outstanding contributors to Hindi belles-lettres.

Hardly less stimulating has been the effect of Buddhist revival on the visual arts. Inspired by the frescoes of Ajanta, then newly discovered, and guided by the great art critic, E.B. Havell, the Bengal school of painting developed a style which, for the first time in centuries, handled Indian themes in a traditionally Indian manner. Both Abanindranath Tagore, and Nandalal Bose, the two great masters of this school, exhibited a marked fondness for subjects drawn, not only from the life of the Buddha but also from Buddhist history and legend. Contemporary Indian art is, in many cases, only superficially Indian. The best known painters, one or two of whom enjoy international fame, derive their technique, style and inspiration almost exclusively from the latest European and American models. Those who remain faithful to the indigenous tradition and whose work is inspired by an awareness of spiritual values, regardless of their very high standard of achievement, seem unable to obtain anything like the recognition and appreciation they merit. Among these neglected artists are many whose work reflects deep Buddhist influence. There is, however, no professedly Buddhist painter of outstanding eminence. Once again the influence of Buddhism, deeply and subtly felt penetrates far beyond the formal boundaries of Buddhism.

Though the Dharma is resurgent in Ceylon and Burma, and undergoing revival in India, the latest Buddhist renaissance has a long way to go before it reaches its peak. One swallow does not make a summer, and the cultural manifestations of Buddhist resurgence and revival, though at times strikingly beautiful, in comparison with the efflorescence of past ages do not yet amount to much more than two leaves and a bud. Even more so is this the case in Europe and America. Though Buddhism seems to have struck firm roots in Western soil, the roots have not had time to go very deep, and the cultural flowering which has so far taken place, perhaps prematurely, though beautiful, is inconspicuous. As in India, it relates chiefly to literature and the visual arts. Here too we must distinguish between non-Buddhist writers and artists whose work exhibits traces of Buddhist influence and the creations of those who, being professed Buddhists, derive their main inspiration from Buddhism.

From the historical point of view, perhaps the most striking feature of the Buddhist movement in the West is its absolute spontaneity. For reasons largely academic, about a century ago -oriental religion and culture in general, and Buddhism in particular, started attracting the attention of Western scholars. Sanskrit, Pall, Chinese, and Tibetan became subjects of study at the universities. This led first to the publication and then to the translation of a number of Buddhist texts. Though Csoma de Koros (1784-1849) was undoubtedly the inaugurator of Buddhist studies in the West, it is to the great French scholar, Eugene Burnotif, that the credit for having placed them upon a scientific basis belongs. Thereafter a number of distinguished savants devoted themselves to the study of Buddhism. Prominent among them were Max Muller, who besides editing the two well-known series, The Sacred Books of the East (in which a number of Buddhist works were included) and The Sacred Books of the Buddhists, himself edited and translated some important Buddhist scriptures, and T.W. Rhys Davids, who in addition to publishing texts, translations and what are still standard works on Buddhism, founded the Pali Text Society, which since its inception has published considerably more than one hundred volumes of texts and translations, as well as the famous dictionary. Hard on the heel's of the scholars came the popularizers. Sir Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia (1879), easily the most widely known English book on Buddhism and the stories and other writings of Paul Carus are the literary landmarks of this period. At the turn of the century Buddhism had begun to attract the attention not merely of philologists and historians but of men and women looking for a religion and a way of life more satisfying than Christianity. Schopenhauer, as early as the second decade of the nineteenth century, had declared himself a Buddhist, and his Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung had for more than half a century been popularizing a version of Buddhism all over Europe. But though of far-reaching influence, his was an isolated case and it was only towards the end of the century that Buddhism began to strike root in the West. Buddhist groups sprang up in a number of European capitals and in many parts of the United States. The Theosophical Society, especially during the lifetime of its founders, also helped in the dissemination of Buddhism. At present the Dharma may be said to be firmly established in England, Germany, France, and the United States. Though the number of adherents is still small, their sphere of influence is steadily expanding. Since the end of World War II, not a year has gone by without the publication of important books on Buddhism in at least one European language, and there is an increasing tendency for such books to be the work of practising Buddhists. References to Buddhism (not always intelligent) are becoming more and more frequent in modem literature and in the daily press. Rainer Maria Rilke, the greatest German poet since Heine, has written a beautiful sonnet on the Buddha [Neue Gedichte, I. 1907] and John Masefield, the present Poet Laureate of England, a creditable narrative poem. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) contains a striking reference to the Buddha's Fire Sermon [line 308] while the imagery of a short passage in Edith Sitwell's "the Coat of Fire" is derived from The Tibetan Book of the Dead [Selected Poems Penguin Biiks, 1952, p. 12, lines 23-5]. W.B. Yeats' Hermits upon Mount Meru of Everest and Caverned in night under the drifted snow [Collected Poems, Macmillan, 1950, p. 333] are probably Buddhist hermits. Many of the poems rendered from the Chinese by Arthur Waley are Buddhist in theme or sentiment, and two or three of these have been included in anthologies of modem verse as English poems in their own right. The voluminous writings of Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Carl Gustayjung, all of whom enjoy world-wide reputation, carry important and, on the whole, appreciative references to Buddhism. Jung's interest in Buddhism is, in fact, well known, while Russell has gone so far as to declare that if he were compelled to choose between the religions of the world he would choose Buddhism. None of the poets and writers so far mentioned are Buddhists, however, and a Buddhist has yet to make a name for himself in modern European and American literature.

In the field of the visual arts the converse is true. While Buddhism seems to have had no influence at all upon modern Western painting and sculpture, the Buddhist movement in the West has already produced Buddhist artists of outstanding brilliance, Nicholas Roerich, who achieved international fame with his decor for Diaghilief s ballet version of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, subsequently produced, mainly under the inspiration of Tibetan Buddhism, of which he had direct knowledge, series after series of canvases marked by powerful composition, brilliant colouring and profound symbolism, and all not only bathed in "the light that never was on sea or land- but pervaded by a mighty rushing wind of inspiration which would have been demoniacal had it not been so divine. Earl H. Brewster, though in his later years he lost touch with Buddhism, produced his best work under its influence. Only his own retiring disposition prevented his sculptures and paintings of the -Buddha from being more widely known. Like Roerich, Lama A. Govinda, who is not only an artist but a writer, scholar. Thinker and mystic of no ordinary calibre, derives his main inspiration from Tibetan Buddhism. He is, in fact, a member of a Tibetan religious order, and his art is perhaps even more deeply and purely Buddhist than that of either Roerich or Brewster. Not without significance is the fact that all three artists eventually made their home in India. Roerich and Brewster spent their last years here, while Govinda still works in the shadow of the Himalayas. All three, again, have shown .S that in its westward no less than in its eastward movement Buddhist art can retain the spiritual elevation, the sheer sublimity, which has ever been its, most striking and characteristic feature. The influence of Buddhism on Western music has been negligible. Mention should, however, be made of Berg's "Musicfor Wesak."

6. Buddhism and Politics Today

Though mere numbers have little cultural significance, they do count politically, so that the political, unlike the cultural, implications of Buddhism in the modem world are necessarily confined to Asia in which continent alone it counts its adherents by the million.

From what has been said above, it should already be clear that in the present, no less than in the past, Buddhism implies peace. But this peace is not a condition of unstable political equilibrium but rather a state of mind purified from all feelings of antagonism and thoroughly permeated by that impersonal and universal love which the Buddhists call maitri. Buddhism works from within outwards. Its hierarchy enjoys no international diplomatic status, and chooses to act not by means of behind-the-scenes political wire-pulling but by the open parctice and propagation of the pacific teachings of the Buddha. On the political plane, Buddhism does not take sides. Love, in the sense of maitri, is the most powerful force in the world; but it is a neutral force. Whether one's love be directed towards concrete persons and things, or whether it be directed towards abstract conceptions and ideals, if it causes one to feel hatred towards some other object, of a different kind, it is of a limited extent, and therefore, not true love but only a species of attachment. Similarly, if peace, which is a form of love, is not universal it is not peace at all. The conclusion of a private peace between two or more nations to the exclusion of the remainder, is in reality impossible. Should such a peace in anyway threaten the security of any other state, even its observance would be on no, higher a moral plane than the honesty that is popularly supposed to exist among thieves. India having accepted Ashoka's great ideal of dharmavijaya or Conquest by Righteousness, it was inevitable that this very Buddhist maitri, or love and goodwill towards all, should form the ultimate spiritual basis of her policy of dynamic neutrality in world affairs. It is the raison d'etre of the fact that, while working unremittingly for world peace, the Government of India consistently refuses to align itself with any power bloc. Such an attitude has naturally drawn her closer to the Buddhist countries of South-East Asia, whose respective policies are naturally inspired by one and the same ideal. But by its very nature, such a relationship does not and cannot imply hostility or even indifference towards any other country or group of countries. In fact, it is not one political group among other groups, with its own exclusive preferences and limited loyalties, but rather a slowly expanding centre radiating to the world the impersonal, universal and neutral power of maitri. It is in this light that one must view the Government of India's attempts to renew her ancient ties with the countries of Asia. It is because Buddhism alone can provide the necessary basis for these attempts that its political implications for Asia, and through Asia for the whole world, are so enormous and so important.

7. The Future

Prophesying is a proverbially hazardous game; but it may be confidently asserted that if we had the power of dipping into the future "as far as human eye can see," we should behold there Buddhism softly pacing through the centuries hand in hand with culture and peace. So far as the immediate future is concerned, there is little doubt that the tempo of Buddhist resurgence and revival throughout Asia, as well as that of it is propagation all over the non Buddhist world, will be accelerated with the passing of every remaining decade of the present century. The culture manifestations of Buddhism will bloom more and more profusely while the grey-green olive of peace, lovingly tended by the ever-stronger growing hands of the Dharma, will put forth their black, shining fruits for the healing of the nations in ever greater abundance. If the cultural and political implications of Buddhism in the modern world succeed in working themselves out along the present lines of their development, our two leaves and a bud will soon grow into a whole forest of flowers.

 


Source: www.buddhismtoday.com

Update: 01-12-2001

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