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Basic Buddhism
A Modern Introduction to the Buddha's Teaching
by Dr Victor A. Gunasekara

Buddhism and the Modern World

The Buddha delivered the fundamental principles of Dhamma some 2500 years ago. Initially it spread over most of Asia in some form or other, but since then it has been declining until it now has much less adherents than the other main religions (31) . There has also been many changes in several other areas and it might to appropriate to consider the Buddhist position with regard to some of them.


The Dhamma and Theistic Religion

Theism essentially means the service of an unseen God. Since this God never addresses individuals directly, but through "prophets" there has never been a shortage of the latter. And when the rival prophets make irreconcilable and conflicting claims, and impose mutually inconsistent rites, rituals, and codes of behaviour on their followers, it is not difficult to see in these a potent cause of conflict. Indeed a large part of the violence and crimes we see in history has been caused by the attempt of the followers of one "prophet of God" to impose dominion over those of another.

In the modern world the bulk of the people owe formal allegiance to Christianity and Islam, religions which arose long after the death of the Buddha. They are offshoots of another religion Judaism which has remained confined to a small ethnic group. All three religions affirm the existence of an all-powerful creator God . The Buddha had long ago repudiated the notion of a supreme creator God. The Buddhist views of the subject of God has already been dealt with in an earlier chapter.

Both Christianity and Islam have been fundamentally intolerant religions dedicated to the goal of converting others, and persecuting those of different faiths. In the last century or so Christianity has been forced to give up some of its traditional methods of persecution, but it has not abandoned its evangelical zeal. Islam continues very much in the way it has even though conquest by the sword is becoming less easy. As a result of these attitudes Buddhism has not been able to penetrate into those countries where Christianity and Islam have established themselves historically.

Buddhists should seek to spread its message of religious tolerance and the peaceful dialogue between religions. Whether it will succeed in this has still to be seen.


The Dhamma and Materialism

The great development in the last century has been the rise of materialism. Quite apart from philosophical system that have extolled materialism there has also been a growth of materialist objectives in many people.

Philosophical materialism may not be very detrimental to Buddhism because much of the argument which materialists have directed at religion have been against theistic religion. However political movements which have formally proclaimed materialism as their creed have acted against religions, and Buddhism has suffered perhaps relatively more from such movements.

What is unsatisfactory if philosophical materialism is that it often denies the existence of absolute, objective moral standards. Buddhism of course insists on the existence of such a moral code. The failure of materialism is been mainly due to its lack of a universal norm of goodness, truth and justice.

The increase in the materialist motivation of people has been seen even in people who would consider themselves as being religious. Where this leads to an increase in greed it would reduce the ability of these people to practice Buddhist values. However Buddhism is not against the growth of material affluence provided that it results from the pursuit of right livelihood. But much of the pressures that result from the scamble to reach the top of the economic pile often lead to an abandonment of the principles of right livelihood.

The growing conflicts of the modern world arise from a continuous proliferation of greed and craving. The ethical systems of both the leading forms of theism and materialism encourage and endorse this tendency by giving a license to humans to prevail over other forms of life, and encouraging the "prudent" and ceaseless accumulation of material wealth as an individual and social blessing. While such ethical systems may have given a measure of material affluence to their followers, this material gain has been at the cost of seriously heightening conflict within these societies as well as in the world at large, even endangering the very future of mankind itself. The Buddhist ethic, which involves the pursuit of a middle policy, by dampening the acquisitive instinct, could offer mankind with a viable and more appropriate alternative.


The Dhamma and Science

The Dhamma is closely related to what is understood by Science or Philosophy. Science investigates the nature of phenomena, and some of the latest discoveries in the areas of the physical and the psychological sciences are in conformity with Buddhist principles. However Science has a self-imposed limitation - it has no procedure to move from the positive to the normative. The Dhamma can make this transition, and thus has the ability to transcend Science. It is also in this sense that the Dhamma can be considered a Philosophy. However a substantial part of philosophy in the west since the time of Aristotle has been concerned with metaphysical speculation. The Buddha however looked on most such metaphysical speculations as being baseless and unprofitable, and very often a cloak for ignorance.

An outstanding feature of the modern world has been the triumph of science and the explosion of knowledge. These have posed a serious challenge to theistic religion. Many of the dogmas that lie at the basis of revelatory religions have been exploded by scientific developments. While one section of theists have been busy in reinterpreting the old dogmas in "metaphysical" terms (a hopeless task as it has proven to be), and other group of "fundamentalists" have turned their backs on scientific discovery and by boldly using modern methods of propaganda and psychological conditioning have tried to reassert the old dogmas in all their simplicity. These developments have raised the real possibility of a return to the "dark ages". Materialism seems to have been better in coping with scientific discovery, but has been totally helpless in evaluating correctly the uses to which such discovery has to be put. Buddhism on the other hand has been able to reconcile scientific discovery with its basic laws, and the path of practice that Buddhism proclaims has provided a norm for the optimal use of man's ever increasing knowledge. For the Buddhist there is no conflict between the claims of science and religion (as there is for the theist), nor a quandary as to how knowledge could be applied for the betterment of man (as it is for both the materialist and the theist).


Buddhism and Humanism

The primary appeal of Buddhism was to the dignity of man, not the glory of God. In this sense the Dhamma is primarily a humanistic philosophy. In describing Buddhism as a humanism some care must be taken in defining the latter term. Theists have defined humanism broadly as embracing "any attitude exalting man's relationship to God, his free will, and his superiority over nature". Such definitions leave out an essential quality of humanism, viz. the primacy of man and the inconsequence of God. There is no implication in Buddhism that human beings have some prior claim over other forms of living beings, or for that matter over "nature", as is implied in the definition of humanism quoted. Buddhists however hold that of all forms of existence possible, the human form is the one most conducive to deliverance. These aspects of Buddhist humanism make the Dhamma once again unique.

Another aspect of Buddhist humanism is that it makes an individual the master of his own destiny. On his death-bed when asked by his followers as to whom they should follow when he was gone, the Buddha replied: "Be ye a lamp (dīpa) unto yourselves; work out your own salvation with diligence". The Pali word dīpa also means an island, and the Buddha's final exhortation could also be rendered as "Be ye an island unto yourselves..." etc. In either case the fundamental idea is that of self-reliance rather than reliance on an external agency. The Dhamma, as could be reconstructed from the Pali Canon remains the source of the Buddha-word. The follower of the Buddha would need to understand this, if need be with the help of a teacher but be alone has to practice it. In this respect it may be mentioned that the Mahāyāna Schools of Buddhism have introduced the notion of salvation by the grace of beings called "Bodhisattvas", i.e. beings who have achieved enlightenment but postponed their entry into Nirvāna in order to help others to get there through their grace. This notion is foreign to early Buddhism or to present-day Theravada Buddhism.


The Relevance of Buddhism

In the modern world Buddhism has to contend with two broad alternatives to itself. These are theism and materialism. Paradoxically the Buddha had to contend with the very same ideologies in his own day. And now as then Buddhism offers the better alternative for the realisation of the greater happiness of all beings inhabiting the world (and not just humans alone).

The relevance of Buddhism for the contemporary era would depend on its ability to meet the challenges posed by the contemporary world better than the rival ideologies of theism and materialism and very often a combination of the two.

The unbridled exploitation of the earth's resources, almost amounting to a rape of these resources, has been another example of this greed. Buddhism teaches that man should live in harmony with the Universe. We have seen the extinction of many species of birds, animals and fish, and the threat of extermination of many more, because of the dominance of theistic and materialistic ethics, which have consistently refused to conceded the "right to life" to non-human forms of existence. It is only a step from this position to the exploitation of natural resources to the extent that eco-systems have been destroyed beyond repair, and has put into question the long-term possibility of survival.

The lack of tolerance of diverging viewpoints has been one of the most potent causes of misery and war. Even though we would like to think that the worst excesses of sectarian conflict are behind us, we have no real ground to such optimism. The world meeds a measure of Buddhist tolerance. It has been said that the flavour of the Dhamma is the flavour of freedom (vimutti). The freedom that is meant here is primarily the freedom of the mind unburdened by crippling dogma (be they of ego or of God); but such mental freedom is the basis of all other freedom, even those of the more "worldly" kind, like political, social or economic freedom. In a world where freedom is constrained in many ways the liberating effect of the Dhamma is sorely needed.

True freedom cannot be attained until the mind is set free. The Dhamma actually provides a therapy for the freeing of the mind from mental defilement. Modern society seems to have aggravated rather than lessened the need for mental purification and calm. The pace of change has quickened, and external pressure on individuals increased. A balanced mind, created by a true understanding of the world and man's place in it, coupled with the practice of the Buddha's path, could serve as a radical new therapy.

The importance of the Buddhist principle that a person should be free to believe according to one's freely formed and informed opinions, can hardly be overstated. The current practice of indoctrinating children with the religious views of their parents is one that comes to mind. Many religious organisations carry this process into formal schooling, and reinforce it later by using the latest technology of the information revolution. It then becomes a veritable "brain-washing" no less insidious because it has the full approval of the establishment. The right of a child to have its mind free of religious indoctrination until it can made a decision on this vital matter in full maturity with all the information at its command, is a right that is rarely mentioned, but one in which Buddhists can take a lead.

Basic Buddhism is relevant for the problems of modern society in several other ways. But it must be remembered that the traditional practices of Buddhism in several of its schools, including to some extent in the Theravāda tradition, departs considerably from the principles enunciated by the Buddha. Here too what is needed is a return to the principles and practice of basic Buddhism.


Updated: 1-2-2001

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