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Comfort or Challenge?

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Richard Gombrich

This is Richard's keynote address for the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya, Bangkok, Sep/Oct 2010.



I am truly grateful to the Ven Sugandho for having done me the honour of inviting me to give this keynote address. I sincerely hope that I do not give him cause to regret his kindness.

Some years ago two American sociologists of religion, Glock and Stark, wrote a well-regarded book on Christianity and contemporary America, and called it “To Comfort or to Challenge”. To sell their religion, the Christian churches in the United States had to focus on what people wanted from a religion and decide to what extent they were prepared to give it to them. What people want most is comfort. Life is hard, the world often seems unfair, and death is a terrifying prospect unless one is convinced that it is the gateway to something better than life on earth. Just as small children believe that their parents have the power to give them what they want and wipe away their sorrows, people want to believe, and so are very easy to persuade, that the universe works in the same way: that there is someone in charge who basically looks after us and makes sure that it all comes right in the end.

All the world religions except Buddhism offer this comforting picture, and there are even major forms of Buddhism, like Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land Buddhism), which do so too. Religions differ in how much good behaviour the Great Parent in the Sky demands in return for the comfort and consolation he can give. (I say “he”, because the Great Parent is more commonly imagined as a father than as a mother; but I am speaking of a parent of either sex.) In some religions all that is demanded of the little children – that is, mankind – is that they trust in the Great Parent and ask for his help; if they will only recognise his omnipotence, he is prepared to forgive them anything. In other religions, if the children are naughty the Parent will first see to it that they are punished before he shows his mercy. In such cases, the worst punishment is often reserved for those who don’t believe in the Great Parent and so do not deserve to experience his goodness.

Established religious institutions, then, mainly deal in comfort and consolation, and their personnel see offering this service as their primary duty. But if we think of the founders of religion and the great reformers, they have mostly felt the need to challenge their audiences, to criticise the status quo and to demand that people improve their own lives and the lives of those around them. Jesus, for instance, preached forgiveness, but he could be savage about sin; and the Sermon on the Mount shows how he opposed the values by which this world is governed, and promised that in future “the last shall be first and the first last”. For most of us, this is not a comfortable message, and it was not meant to be.

Religions thus face the problem that by and large the very reason why they came into existence is in stark contrast to what most people want of them. Their founders and most of their saints had fire in their bellies: they wanted people to wake up and see that they must become aware of how smug and self-satisfied they had become, how indifferent to evil and how lazy about doing good, that morally most of them had lost all sensitivity and become little better than buffaloes slumbering in the mud.

Carrying such a message is often dangerous. In most countries and at most times in history, those who castigate the people in power have run the risk of serious punishment, even of being put to death. Their followers then call them martyrs, “witnesses” to the truth. I count myself lucky that whether or not you, my audience, like the challenges that I am about to put to you today, I am unlikely to be made a martyr. It therefore requires only a little courage for me to tell you what I see as unpleasant truths. And however much I offend you, I think you will at least have to credit me with sincerity, for I speak out of a passionate conviction. At the beginning of my recent book “What the Buddha Thought” I have written that in my view the Buddha’s ideas “should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilised place, both gentler and more intelligent.” I am, I then say, perpetually horrified by the failure of the Buddhist establishment to understand the Buddha’s message, to teach it and to act upon it. That failure, that tragic and culpable failure, must set the agenda for this overdue conference.

In his write-up explaining the background to the conference, the Ven Sugandho has asked why the dissemination of Theravāda Buddhism is no  longer as successful as it used to be. After all, Theravāda Buddhism is the guardian of the oldest and purest tradition of the Buddha’s message; and I believe that most of us here today consider the moral value and intellectual brilliance of that message among the very finest in the whole of human history. So if we have such a good product, why can’t we sell it?

I propose to offer answers to that question, in as much detail as I have time for. And at least you will have to agree, I think, that if there is nothing wrong with the message, there presumably may be something wrong with the messengers.



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