Buddhism Today: A Personal View
What points about Buddhism do you like?
I find Buddhism appealing because it is voluntary, open, personal and peaceful.
By “voluntary” I mean it’s not a “sin” to turn away from the Dharma or teaching. We make efforts to share the teachings and our experiences, but if people are not interested we simply wait for them to become interested. When the time is right they will seek answers to their questions. The Buddha called out, “ehi passiko” (come here and see!!) if people are interested.
“Open” means that Buddhism is open-minded about other religions and sects. Buddhists think there are 84,000 ways to enlightenment. Of course, although Buddhists would like others to take an interest in the Dharma, they just don’t think it’s right to force people to take interest. What’s more, we don’t think people are doomed to be punished if they walk other paths.
By “personal” I mean that there is much value given to personal understanding. Dharma cannot come alive without speaking directly to our unique experience. We do not accept the Dharma blindly. We test how it woks in our everyday life. Just before he died, the Buddha said, “Make yourself the light, and make the Dharma the light.” Also he cautioned:
Do not accept a statement on the ground that it is found in our books, nor on the supposition that “this is acceptable,” nor because it is the saying of your teacher.12
But he did not mean to imply that we can do whatever we please because there is no standard. No, the standard is the Dharma. The Buddha was telling us to see how the teachings work in our lives before we accept them.
I am also impressed by how peaceful Buddhism is. Throughout history, Buddhists have taught not to be violent towards others just because they believed differently. In modern times the Dalai Lama of Tibet is a great example of a Buddhist leader acting peacefully. Even though the Chinese regime has taken over his Buddhist country and made life miserable for his people, the Dalai Lama works without rest to find a peaceful way to free his homeland.
This is not to claim that the Buddhist communities were or are completely immune from violent actions against each other. There have been skirmishes to be sure, but they were motivated more by institutional jealousies than doctrinal differences. I suppose all religious institutions sometimes fail to live up to the pure ideals of their teachings; Buddhism is no exception. It seems to me, however, that Buddhism has exhibited, relatively speaking, a high degree of peace that many observers, including non-Buddhists, regard as the hallmark of the tradition.
Are there any other any other points that you like?
Yes. I am attracted to the teaching that “All sentient beings possess Buddha nature.”13 This means that not only humans, but animals, birds, fish, and other creatures are all sacred and should be treated with respect. Humans do not have any right to rule over them. When their lives are taken so we can have good, we must be grateful to them for their sacrifice. The East Asian Buddhists expanded this way of thinking to even include inanimate things such as the mountains, rivers, grass, and soil.14 We humans must also live well together. We are part of nature, not rulers of nature. We must cherish and protect it.
What accounts for these qualities in Buddhism?
According to Prof. Gananath Obeyeskere, these qualities derive from the very nature of the religions that originated in India, particularly those of the lower Ganges valley in India such as Jainism and Buddhism. In regard to their central message, ethics and relationship to other religions, these Gangetic religions stand in contrast to western religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The contrast can be summarized as follows:
1. In the Western religions the prophet is the vehicle for communicating to the world the message of transcendental God. In the Gangetic religions the ascetic formulates his own message, derived from his own inner experience of awakening. Gods and deities wield no great power and at best help to validate the message of the ascetic.
2. The ethics or morality is expressed as “commandment” in the former and as “precepts” in the Gangetic religions. The commandment is an expression of the God’s will, while the precepts are followed because of their inherent rightness.
3. The above differences become more pronounced when they are institutionalized. Because the prophetic message comes from God, it takes on an uncompromising attitude toward the world and tends to see other messages as inferior. In contrast, because the ascetic message comes from inner realization of individual ascetics, it is vulnerable to compromise and revision and tends to regard others with tolerance.
4. The uncompromising character of the prophetic religions leads to conflict with the other religious and secular orders and threatens their leaders. On the other hand, the flexible character of Gangetic religions does not threaten the existing social order, for it is neutral and open towards it.15
There are, of course, limitations and exceptions to these generalizations, but I believe these points offer some explanations for the Buddhist featured that we find today.
Yes, the explanation helps to clarify the historical roots in the differences between Buddhism and the Western religions. One major difference I see has to do with the teaching of reincarnation. Do Buddhists believe in reincarnation?
Some do and some don’t. Some take it as fact, while others see it as symbolic. The idea of reincarnation goes back to ancient India. Buddhists in the past believed in this idea because it fit in with their worldview. Many people in the West have also believed in reincarnation, starting with the ancient Greek philosophers.16 But in Buddhism belief in reincarnation (we prefer “transmigration” or “cycle of births and deaths”) was not an absolute requirement for reaching the religious goal of enlightenment.
I think the idea of transmigration is used to explain some basic things about our existence; that is, each person’s life is far more than just the years we spend in our present life. Each of us arrives here because of thousands of little things that have happened since the beginning of time. All those little things come together at just this moment so that we can be here right now. For us to even be here is a wonder that no logic can ever explain.
Another Buddhist teaching that we hear often is karma. What is karma?
Karma does not mean “fate” as is so often believed. Karma means “our action.” There are numerous ways to explain karma, but basically it means that our mental and spiritual well-being is determined by our own actions (karma), not by fate, not by chance, not by miracle, and not by divine being. One is able to determine his or her spiritual well-being through his or her own actions; through what he or she thinks, says, and does. Karma is optimistic! (See Chapter 11 devoted to karma.)
By cultivating correct awareness about life, we gain an upper hand over the “ups and downs of life” and remain generally at peace with ourselves. Karma works somewhat like a computer data base. By inputting and storing more correct information, the data base expands our capability to resolve new problems that may arise. For example, by inputting “impermanence,” we are able to cope far better than without it to the changes in our lives (e.g., illness, divorce). We then grow from those experiences through a conviction that “karma offers immense possibilities to create our lives!”
Do you pray?
Yes we do, but not to the same extent or in the same manner as in Western traditions. This is partly because we emphasize meditation and reflection more than prayer. The other reason, of course, lies in the absence of a supreme divine being to whom one can pray.
I understand there are many kinds of prayer in Christianity, including thanksgiving, blessing, intercession and invocation. In the Buddhist tradition, too, gratitude (similar to Christian “thanksgiving”) plays a vital role in the thoughts and actions of Buddhists. This is especially true among the Jodo-Shinshu Buddhists for whom gratitude constitutes the primary motivation for much of their religious and worldly actions. Similarly, Buddhists seek blessings for the happiness of all beings. “May all beings be happy” is the constant refrain in the Loving Kindness Sutta (or Sutra) that is most frequently chanted as a blessing by Buddhists of Southeast Asian background. Also, the Buddhists do “intercede” on behalf of others when they hear about misfortunes of others such as an illness. Particularly the Buddhists of Southeast Asian background mindfully direct their thoughts to others. “May they get well; may they be happy.”
But our concern for them should not simply stop here. To pray is easy, but a true test of our concern for others lies in our deeds, such as visiting them at the hospital or assisting the family with the chores during trying times.
Do you celebrate Christmas?
Most American Buddhists celebrate Christmas as a national holiday that promotes charity and goodwill. While we do not put up nativities (display of the birth of Jesus), most put up Christmas trees and exchange gifts, especially when children are involved. As explained earlier, the openness of Buddhism encourages us to look beyond form to see the spirit behind rituals. The spirit of sharing, giving, and appreciation is deeply cherished in Buddhism.
What are the major Buddhists holidays?
The ones that are common to all the Buddhists have to do with the events of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life: his birth, enlightenment and death. But Buddhist schools observe them on different dates. For example, the Theravada Buddhists from Southeast Asia observe all three events during what they call Vesak on the full moon of the fifth lunar month. Other Buddhists observe each of the three events on different dates; for example, Japanese schools observe Buddha’s death on February 15th (Nirvana Day), his birth on April 8th (Hanamatsuri or Flower Festival) and his enlightenment on December 8th (Bodhi Day). Another major holiday for East Asian Buddhists is Ullambana (Yu-lan-p’en or Obon) celebrated in July or August for expressing gratitude to their deceased family members.
Thank you. I feel I have a much better outline of the basic Buddhist teachings. It is often difficult to get a straight picture of Buddhism because I feel there are in the West some old images about your religion.
One good example of that are the views expressed by Pope John Paul II in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope.17 I found the Pope’s comments disappointing, particularly given his position in the world that cries out for greater understanding among groups. The Pope’s views, in my opinion, reflect a stereotypical and superficial understanding of Buddhism held by many Westerners, particularly those of the older generation to which the present Pope belongs.
Could you give me an example from his book?
The Pope states, “The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world” (p. 86). Nirvana, however, does not mean a total indifference to the world. “Indifference” implies “lack of interest” and “uncaring.” To the contrary, Shakyamuni Buddha devoted forty-five long years to sharing the Dharma in order that others may realize the same joy and inner peace of nirvana. One of the very reasons for the success of the early Buddhist community can be found in its desire and ability to forge strong ties with the lay community.
In Mahayana Buddhism (see Chapt. 3), the Bodhisattvas sacrificed their own complete enlightenment (nirvana) in order to be among others to lead them to liberation. Further, the living Buddhist exemplars that I know are far from being uninterested, but are passionately devoted to helping others. Of course, these enlightened ones are not enamored by materialism, politics and such worldly affairs, but that would be true also of the Christian saints as expressed in Jesus’ statement: “in the world but not of the world.”
Doesn’t the Pope’s remarks reflect the perception that Buddhism like other Asian religions is world-negating?
Yes. The Pope expresses this when he stated, “The ‘enlightenment’ experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and suffering for man” (p. 85). The source of suffering is not the world. Rather it is our personal attachment rooted in greed, hatred and ignorance. The world is neither all positive nor negative, but how the world is experienced is dependent on one’s outlook. “With my mind, I make the world” goes the famous Dhammapada passage. Buddhism is subjective or psychological in nature, for it is based on the optimism that we are capable of transforming the way we experience the world. The Pope imposes a more objective or metaphysical Christian framework in looking at Buddhism.
This perception that “the world is bad,” I believe, is partly influenced by the failure to understand the meaning of “suffering.” The Buddhist suffering (duhka) is a state to be overcome, while Christians tend to understand suffering as a way of life of a true Christian. “Suffering” is a virtue. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus state, “ Blessed are those who are humble, those who are just, those who try to do right, those who suffer—all of them will be rewarded in the Kingdom of Heaven” (emphasis added). It is, then, no great surprise that Christians often see Buddhism as a religion of pessimism, since “suffering” appears as the first truth in its hallmark doctrine, the Four Noble Truths. But that is a mistaken view.
Did you find problematic any other views expressed by the Pope?
Yes. The Pope believes that Buddhism is not as involved as Christianity (along with science) in the active attempt to transform the world. God and Christ are the driving force for change: “The truth about God the Creator of the world and about Christ the Redeemer is a powerful force which inspires a positive attitude toward creation and provides a constant impetus to strive for its transformation and perfection” (p. 88). While I am in agreement with this observation that Western civilization exhibited an active push toward “transformation and perfection,” it is curious that the Pope gives Christianity credit along with the Greek philosophical traditions as being the roots of science and technology. I would, of course, not deny any Christian contribution to the social transformation of the Western world, but even a cursory study of European history reveals a long and intense confrontation between the Church and the Renaissance/enlightenment movement that directly lead to the development of modern science.18
Do you feel that these perceptions about Buddhism will soon go away?
That the Pope has not gone beyond the mistakes of earlier Western bias toward Buddhism is disappointing and unfortunate. The Pope’s views follow those of Max Weber, a noted sociologist of religion who helped in shaping the perception that Buddhism is concerned only with personal salvation but not with the welfare of others in society. This is certainly misguided (see pages 207). But I have reasons for hope. In recent years, for example, the progress in the studies of comparative religion and Buddhist Christian dialogue19 has contributed to a more sympathetic and accurate understanding of Buddhism in the West. This has no doubt been helped by the enormous increase in the number of books and magazines on Buddhism for the general, nonacademic readership.20
12 Anguttara-Nikaya IV, 382.
13 This view is expressed in the Mahayana texts that espouse the Buddha-womb or Buddha-nature thought, for example, Mahaparinirvana-sutra.
14 For example, see Shinran, Notes on ‘Essentials of Faith Alone. (Kyoto: Hongwanji Int. Center, 1979), p. 42. “Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain Buddhahood.”
15 Gananath Obeyeskere, The Rebirth Eschatology and Its Transformation: A contribution to the Sociology of Early Buddhism, in Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press), pp. 162-164.
16 “… the concept of rebirth occupied a central concern in Greek thought from the time of Phecerides of Ciro (6th cent. B.C.E.), the mentor of Pythagoras (c. 582-507 B.C.E.), and came into full flowering in the writings of Plato (424-347 B.C.E.) and Plotinus (205-270 C.E.).” Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 12 (N.Y.: MacMillan Publishing Co.), 268A.
17 John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 84-90.
18 As a poignant example of this tension between the two camps, the Catholic Church finally pardoned Galileo in 1995 for his “incorrect” ways.
19 For example, an academic association called the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies boasts a membership of approximately 400 members, publishes an annual journal, meets annually in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion and convenes a major conference of its own approximately every three years.
20 For example, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (quarterly) presently claims a circulation of approximately 40,000 readers and growing.