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
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
Another factor 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 its propagation.
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 Indonesia.
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
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 of life.
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.
Wherever Buddhism 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
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
- Because of six senses arise contact.
- Because of contact arises craving.
- Because of craving arises attachment.
- 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.
Therefore, the 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
The perfect state of Buddha's
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
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 explained?
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.
Special thanks to
Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for transcription of this article.