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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Comfort or Challenge? - 2

Comfort or Challenge? - 2

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To start with, let me revert to comfort and challenge. As the Ven Sugandho has written in the conference document, Theravādin missionaries obviously prefer comforting to challenging. Rather than teaching Buddhism to the indigenous people of their host countries, they mainly run cultural centres for the Buddhist immigrants from their countries of origin, centres which indeed operate largely in Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, etc., not in the language of the country where the missions operate. To run such a centre is not in itself an unworthy thing to do: in the modern world most countries regard providing cultural attachés and consular services as part of their diplomatic mission. But if this is the main and central activity of the mission, it points to an extremely serious underlying weakness in the Theravāda Buddhism we find in the world today: its parochial nationalism. It is outrageous that the vast majority of Theravāda Buddhists, whether monastics or laity, consider only Buddhists of their own nationality to be true Buddhists; and whatever they may say in public, that is indeed what most of them think.

It is perfectly natural and unobjectionable for people to feel warmly towards their own family, and beyond that towards those for whom they feel an affinity because of shared language, customs and experiences. But there is not a word in the teachings of the Lord Buddha – or for that matter of either Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed – which can justify treating anyone less well than one could simply on the grounds that they differ from us or are in some way a stranger to us. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are called the universal religions precisely because they are for everyone, equally. The great religious traditions all teach that people should love each other, be kind and compassionate. By this, they mean that one should love everybody, not just those whom it is easy to love. Loving someone who is always kind to you is no more than most animals do by instinct. Love becomes an ethical accomplishment when it is directed to our enemies, or others whom it is hard to love.

But how do Theravāda Buddhist actually behave? Let me begin with a notorious and indisputable example: their attitude to Mahāyāna Buddhists. (I know that things may be no better the other way round, but that is not my concern: I am talking here to Theravādins.) I have done extensive fieldwork among Sinhalese Buddhists, and especially among members of the Sinhalese Sangha, from the highest to the lowest. I can say with confidence that almost all Sinhalese Buddhists consider that Mahayanist monks and nuns are not true Buddhists, because they do not prohibit taking solid food after midday.

Since they receive no proper guidance from the Sangha, the laity may be forgiven their prejudice. But at least the Sangha should know that the need for universal love goes beyond teaching how to do mettå bhåvanå. They should also know that the Buddha declared, in his wisdom, that there are three fetters (in Pali: tīni samyojanåni) which bind us to saµsåra and are basic obstacles to spiritual progress; and the second of these is adherence to ritualism. In Pali this is called sīlabbata-paråmåso. To give an adequate sermon on this vitally important topic would take me too long, but the point is so crucial to my argument that I must expand on it.

The Buddha declared that ethical value lies in intention alone. The individual is autonomous and the final authority is his conscience. Reciting words, even such words as the five precepts, is useless and pointless unless one is consciously subscribing to their meaning. By contrast, the point of ritual lies in doing, not in intending. Therefore ritual can have no moral or spiritual value. Please keep this in mind.

The Buddha often gave new meanings to old words. He took the brahmin word for ritual, karman in Sanskrit, and used it to denote ethical intention. This single move overturned caste-bound ethics; for the intention of a brahmin cannot plausibly be claimed to be ethically of a completely different quality from the intention of an outcaste: intention can only be virtuous or wicked.

That the Buddha replaced ritual action by ethical intention is the very foundation, the very bedrock, of his teaching as a system of ideas. It is no less the foundation of Buddhism’s historical success. Since intention is the same in all human beings, Buddhist ethics apply in an identical way in all societies. For example, the third precept, not to engage in sexual misconduct, is universal, but its application varies, because the customs of societies differ: for instance, some societies admit polygamy, some polyandry, and some neither. Differences in local custom were thus no obstacle to the spread of Buddhism. As I have written: “Since Buddhism was attached neither to community nor to locality, neither to shrine nor to hearth, but resided in the hearts of its adherents, it was readily transportable.” So Buddhism could go wherever men went, and take root wherever they resided. But what can spread is the Buddhism, the Buddha’s Buddhism, which cares only for moral good and evil and measures that by intention. The Buddhism which measures action by ritual and custom can never spread anywhere: it is just like the brahminism which the Buddha set out to criticise, which has never been and never will be adopted by any other society than the one where it started.

My venerable friends, this is the very heart and gist of my message today. I am begging you to give up obsession with ritual and custom, to follow the Buddha’s teaching about ethical intention, and thus bring his message to the world.

I was mentioning that hardly any Sinhalese Buddhists are prepared to regard Mahāyāna Buddhists as fellow-religionists, on the grounds that the Mahāyāna Sangha allows food to be consumed after midday. Of course, the Mahāyāna Sangha ordained in the Chinese tradition are equally contemptuous of their Theravādin brethren because they consider it obligatory for a true Buddhist to be a vegetarian; but few Sinhalese know that. In any case, I am not concerned with tit for tat arguments of this kind, but with the real and massive damage that such attitudes do to Buddhism. The Sinhalese Buddhist establishment is so little prepared to recognise the validity of Mahāyāna Buddhism that in the late 1950s, when the Chinese invaded Tibet, killed many monks and ransacked many monasteries, and the Dalai Lama had to flee, the government of Sri Lanka refused to join the worldwide chorus of condemnation. That ostentatiously “Buddhist” government still refuses to recognise the Dalai Lama as a great spiritual leader and he has never been invited to visit the country. What can an outsider who is trying to assess the value of Buddhism think of such disgraceful treatment of the person whom the world regards as the greatest living Buddhist?

But let us concede, just for the sake of argument, that Mahāyāna Buddhism is not real Buddhism and we don’t want anything to do with monks or nuns who, whatever their personal morality or spirituality, are so vile that they are prepared to eat after midday. So let us direct our gaze away from Sri Lanka to another home of the Theravāda tradition, Myanmar. I doubt that there is a person in this hall who cannot guess what I am about to say. Within the last few years the whole world, despite all the Myanmar government’s frenzied attempts to exercise censorship, has been able to witness on television how monks peacefully expressing their disagreement with the cruelty and inhumanity of government policy have been murdered and tortured. Of course, we have only been able to see a tiny part of the atrocities committed, but even the little we have seen must have been enough to convince any sincere Buddhist of the utterly ruthless disregard that the government shows both for human rights in general and for the living representatives of Buddhism in particular. And what have other governments which claim to support Theravāda Buddhism done about it? Nothing: not even a diplomatic protest. All right; they are politicians, you may say, and we don’t expect much ethical conduct from them. But what about the leaders of the Sangha? There have been a few brave individuals, I know, who have quietly exerted themselves to relieve a little of the suffering caused by the Myanmar government.  A few Buddhist organizations in Thailand have publicly expressed disapproval of torturing and murdering monks. But in every Theravāda Buddhist country, unless I am most grievously mistaken, the hierarchy has turned a blind eye, and shown no more concern than if the Myanmar government were merely squashing a few mosquitoes.

I am sorry to have to say it, but one of the main things that attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak out against cruelty and injustice. Where are the Theravādin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh? True religious leaders are not frightened to be controversial. As I have said, they must offer challenge. Among the leaders of the Theravāda Sangha of today, even debate, let alone challenge, appears to be tabu. They prefer the comfort of endless self-congratulation; they prefer to lead the world in vapid rhetoric, framing resolutions about world peace which have never got a single soldier to lower a gun or persuaded a single politician to love his neighbour.

I know that some people are likely to have an answer ready to my objection that Buddhists hierarchies have raised no protest against the persecution of Buddhism, even the murder of monks, by foreign governments. That answer is that the Sangha should not concern itself with politics. Let us consider this view.


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