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Pragmatical Significance of Buddhism
Dr. Siddhi B. Indr

In its long history, Buddhism has always laid special stress on its practical essence. It signifies that one should "come and see" "try and experience" by oneself for one’s own purpose and interest; that the Buddha did not recommend metaphysical speculations which in his view had no practical utility or value for human good and welfare.[1] In this contention his teachings are based, not the experimental realization of truth, together with trustworthy advice on how to act, statements starting from moral modes of behaviour and experiences the practical possibilities of which are laid stress upon. As we saw above, this relationship of truth to utility further shows the consistency and coherence between the doctrines themselves and their applications and between the personality of the expounder and his statements.[2] In this sense, it is claimed by the Buddha himself that ‘he has practised.[3] De la Vallee Poussin Calls early Buddhism "pragmatic"[4] while Mrs. Rhys Davids finds herself in agreement with Ewing’s suggestion that the Buddha be called an "utilitarian" in the sense of being a pragmatist, for whom "truth is what works."[5] She refers to the Kalamasutta[6] and conclusively observes that the one test to be used here is ‘what effect this teaching will produce on my life.[7] Accordingly, the truth claimed is to be tested, to be attained to and to be lived; the point is to become, to realize and to benefit the truth. It is a state of being, not a matter of mere cognition, but of understanding, creating, practising and living.[8] Thus in order to pursue the temporary as well as the ultimate value of life, Buddhism has turned its constant attention to the conditions man must provide for himself: what he must do and what he must know, after examining the words of the tradition, if the good in question is to be attained.[9] Summarizing: "If you want to get there, then you must do this, and if you do this, you will experience this", Conze observes in this connection: ‘We can, therefore, say with some truth that Buddhist thinking tends in the direction of what we call '"Pragmatism."[10]

The Buddhist doctrine is primarily a medicine, a spiritual medicine, [11] and the Buddha is claimed as one of his epithets "bhisakka" i.e. a spiritual doctor.[12] In the expression of the text: "Just as a clever physician (bhisakka) might in trice take away the sickness of one sick and ailing, grievously ill even so whenever one hears his honour Gotama’s Dhamma, whether in the sayings…..or in marvels, grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair vanish away.’[13] Now, the question may be raised why human experiences of grief and so on are still prevalent in the world, even though a doctor (the Buddha) and his medicine (his Dhamma) are given facts. In answering this question, we should always remember that the Buddha never uttered any promise to the world that he, by himself, would redeem or release it from such conditions. What he affirmed implies that "he realized and preached the truth," the nature of which necessarily requires "practising" and can be justified only by being put into practice.[14] For him, what he taught would not bring fruit and advantage to one who does not practise it, but it would bring great fruit and advantage to one who earnestly puts it into practice: "Just like a beautiful flower that possesses colour but lacks perfume, so also well-spoken words are fruitless to one who does not practise them; conversely, they are fruitful to one who will practise them, like a beautiful flower that possesses both colour and perfume."[15] This also brings out the fact that the value of the doctrine taught is to be judged and measured by what man does with it and by the quality of his life which results from it. The way has already been shown by the Buddha and any man can follow it in order to further his interest, to achieve his welfare and well-being and to attain the highest good of his life.[16] "My doctrine is capable of bearing fruit (for one who practises if already) in this life;[17] – the doctrine which is well-expounded… which is not conditioned by time, which invites a man to ‘come an see’, and ‘try and test,’ which leads him to the goal and which is to be realized by the wise in their own experience."[18]

A certain brahmin asked to Buddha, "….As to your claim ‘bring fruit for the one who practises it already in this life is (your) doctrine (dhamma)’ pray, Master Gotama, how far does (your) doctrine bear fruit (already) in this life? How far is it a thing not conditioned by time, inviting one to ‘come and see’, to ‘try and test,’ leading a man to the goal, to be realized by the wise in their own experience?" The Buddha explained; One who is ablaze with passion, depraved with malice, and bewildered with delusion, plans his own distress, that of others, the distress both of himself and others, and thereby experiences suffering and dejection. If passion, malice and delusion be abandoned, he no longer plans thus, no longer experiences dejection. Thus, the doctrine bears fruit (already) in this life…. Again, one who is ablaze, overwhelmed and infatuated, depraved and bewildered with passion, malice and delusion, and thereby practises wickedness in action, speech and thought, does not know his own profit, nor the profit of others, nor the profit both of himself and of others. But it passion, malice and delusion be abandoned, he does not practise wickedness in action, speech and though; he knows, as it really is, his own profit, the profit of others, and the profit both of himself and others. Thus brahmin, the doctrine bears fruit (already) in his life."[19]

In another place, Bhaddiya the Licchave asked the Buddha, "Sir, as to those who say: ‘Gotama the recluse is a juggler who knows a trick of subjugation by which he draws towards himself the followers of those holding other philosophies,’ pray, Sir, do such people express the views of the Exalted One and do they not accuse the Exalted One falsely?"" Here also the Buddha related his doctrine to its practical context and purpose, as he did in his discourse to the Kaalaamas by adding: ‘Now, Bhaddiya, all worthy men in the world incite a follower thus: ‘Come, my fellow! Restrain your greed and keep on doing so. If you do that, you will not do a deed caused by greed with body, speech and thought…So also to malice, delusion and impetuosity. Keep on doing so, and you will not do a deed caused by malice, delusion, impetuosity with body, speech and thought." And after that when Bhaddiya asked the Buddha to accept him as a lay follower, the Buddha said: ‘But, Bhaddiya did I say thus: ‘Come, Bhaddiya, be may pupil only, I will be your teacher’?" "It is not so, Sir," "Thus some recluses and brahmins falsely, groundlessly and without truth accuse me who speak and expound thus, saying: ‘A juggler is Gotama the recluse, who knows a trick of subjugation" " A goodly thing, Sir, is this trick of subjugation … Sir, if all my dear kinsmen… all the nobles….all the brahmins…all the vessas…all the suddas would let themselves be drawn by this trick (of yours) it would be for a long time to their welfare and happiness." "It would be so, Bhaddiya, if all the nobles….all the suddas and even the whole world were to be drawn (not to me, but) to the ‘abandoning of unwholesome things and to the suddas and even the whole world were to be drawn ( not to me, but) to the ‘abandoning of unwholesome things and to the undertaking of wholesome things’, it would be to their welfare and happiness for a long time. Bhaddiya, if these big sala-trees could be drawn..., it would have been to be their welfare and happiness for a long time,- that is, if they could think,- to say nothing of one who has become human.[20]

Another example is the following instruction of the Buddha to Mahaapajaapati Gotamii who requested him to preach her some practical doctrine, instructing: Gotamii, of whatever states you can assure yourself that they conduce to dispassion and not to passion; to absence of bondage and not to presence of bond ate; to absence of accumulation and not to presence of accumulation; to frugality and not to covetousness; to content and not to discontent; to seclusiveness and not to indulging in association; to the application of energy and not to sluggishness; to delight in committing evil,- of such states you may, with certainty, affirm: ‘This is the Doctrine, this is the Discipline, this is the Teacher’s teaching.’[21] In conclusion, the more realistic, practical suggestion may be found in the following statement: ‘One should not wish back the past (atiita"m naanvaagameyya), should not indulgently worry about the future (nappa.tika"nkhe anaagata"m); what is past is got rid off and the future has not yet come; but whoever with clear sight in all cases concentrates upon his present concern by realizing that it is immovable and inevitable, this very day he should himself in practising it: who know whether he will die tomorrow….?’[22]

Notes and References

All the references and translations are from Pali Text Society editions

[1] Cp. D. I. 187ff; M. I. 285ff; See also DB. I. 188.

[2] Cp. Radhakrishnan, Indian philosophy, II. 472. Here he regards "early Buddhism" as being "positivist" in its outlook, when comparing Sa"mkara's view of the "absolute an the empirical truth" with the Buddha's view of these concepts.

[3] It. 122, for instance.

[4] De la Valle Poussin, Bouddhisme, p. 129.

[5] A.C. Ewing, The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy, p. 56.

[6] A. I. 190ff.

[7] C. A. F. Rhys Davids, Wayfarer's Words, III. 1103.

[8] Cp. M. II. 173ff.

[9] Cf. Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, p. 29.

[10] Cf. E. Conze, Buddhism, p. 16. He regards Buddhism as a "philosophy" in the sense of a "dialectical pragmatism" with a psychological term," mentioning two grounds: a) It discourages metaphysical speculation, but assumes its intensely practical attitude, and b) it adds a psychological to its pragmatical contribution contention based on the doctrine of "meditation."

[11] Cf. H. Oldenberg, The Buddha, p. 205.

[12] A. IV. 340.

[13] A. III. 238. Cp. Book of Gradual Sayings. III. 173; E. Conze, op.cit, p. 17.

[14] In this connection, Hiriyanna observes that Buddhism does not indeed promise joy on earth or in a world to come as some other doctrines do, but it admits the possibility of attaining peace here and now, whereby man instead of being the victim of misery will become its victor. He comes to the conclusion: "Thus, the Buddha's teaching in its essence may be described as excluding whatever is not "positively" known," M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, p. 136f.

[15] The Commentary of the Dhammapada, 383.

[16] Cf. M. III. 4ff; The Commentary of the Dhammapada, 402.

[17] S. I. 117.

[18] Cf. D. II. 93. Cf for instance DB. II. 99.

[19] A. I. 156f. Cf. Book of Gradual Sayings, I. 140.

[20] A. II. 160ff.

[21] Vin. II. 259; Cf. BD.V. 359.

[22] M. III. 187.


[Taken from Siddhi Butr-Indr,. The Social Philosophy of Buddhism. (Bangkok: Mahamakut Buddhist University, 1st ed. 1973), pp. 59-64].


Updated: 3-5-2000

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