BUDDHISM: A MODERN PERSPECTIVE
We are going to cover what we might call basic Buddhist teachings over a series of twelve lectures. We are going to cover the life of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, Karma, rebirth, dependent origination, the three universal characteristics and the five aggregates. But before I begin the series of lectures, I would like to deal today with the notion of Buddhism in perspective. There are many ways in which different people in different cultures view Buddhism and particularly, I think we can contrast the western or modern attitude towards Buddhism with the traditional attitude. The reason why this kind of perspective study is useful is because when we understand how people of different cultures view a certain thing, we can then begin to see some of the limitation or one-sidedness of our own view.
In the west, Buddhism has aroused extensive interest and sympathy. There are many persons of considerable standing in western societies who are either Buddhists or who are sympathetic towards Buddhism. This is most clearly exemplified by the remark made by Albert Einstein in his autobiography, the remark that he was not a religious man, but if he were one, he would be a Buddhist. This is quite surprising, and off-hand we would not expect such a remark to be made by the Father of Modern Science. Yet if we look at contemporary western societies, we will find an astrophysicist who is a Buddhist in France, we will find an outstanding psychologist who is a Buddhist at the University of Rome, and until recently a judge from England who is a Buddhist. We will look into the reasons for this interest in Buddhism in the west in a moment. But before we do that I would like to compare this situation with the situation that we find in this part of the world.
In Europe generally, the attitude towards Buddhism is that it is very advanced, very rational and very sophisticated. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I came to Singapore and found that a lot of people here view Buddhism as old fashioned, irrational and too much tied up with superstitions. This is one of the two attitudes that work against the appreciation of Buddhism here. The other is that Buddhism is so deep and so abstract that no one can ever understand it. It is a complete turnabout. This is what I mean by perspective, because in the western perspective Buddhism has a certain image, while in the traditional perspective we have another image. This negative image that people have about Buddhism has to be changed before they can really come to appreciate the Buddha’s teachings, before they can get a kind of balanced perspective regarding Buddhism.
One of the first things that a westerner appreciates Buddhism is that it is not culture bound, not bound to any particular society, race or ethnic group. There are certain religions that are culture-bound, Judaism is one example. Buddhism is not. That is why historically we have Indian Buddhists, Thai Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Burmese Buddhists and so forth, and we are going to have in the near future English Buddhists, American Buddhists, French Buddhists and so forth. This is because Buddhism is not culture-bound. It moves very easily from one culture to another because the emphasis in Buddhism is on internal practice rather than on external practice. Its emphasis is on the way you develop your mind rather than the way you dress, the kind of food you take, the way you wear your hair and so forth.
The second point that I would like to make regards the pragmatism or the practicality of Buddhism. Instead of taking an interest in metaphysics and academic theories, the Buddha deals with problems per se and approaches them in a concrete way. This is again something which is very much in agreement with western ideas about utilitarianism. That is, if something works, use it. It is very much a part of western political, economic and scientific philosophy. This attitude of pragmatism is clearly expressed in the Culamalunkya Sutra where the Buddha made use of the example of the wounded man. The man wounded by an arrow wishes to know who shoots the arrow, from which direction it comes, whether the arrow head is made of bone or iron, whether the shaft is of this kind of wood or another before he will have the arrow removed. This man is likened to those who would like to know about the origin of the Universe, whether the world is eternal or not, finite or not before they will undertake to practise a religion. Just as the man in the parable will die before he has all the answers he wants regarding the origin and nature of the arrow, such people will die before they will ever have the answers to all their irrelevant questions. This exemplifies what we call the Buddha’s practical attitude. It has a lot to say about the whole question of priorities and problem solving. We would not make much progress developing wisdom if we ask the wrong question. It is essentially a question of priority. The first priority for all of us is the problem of suffering. The Buddha recognized this and said it is of no use for us to speculate whether the world is eternal or not because we all have got an arrow in our chest, the arrow of suffering. We have to ask questions that will lead to the removal of this arrow. One can express this in a very simple way. We can see that in our daily life, we constantly make choices based on priority. If, for instance, we happen to be cooking something on the stove and we decide that while the beans are boiling we will dust the house, and as we dust the house we smell something burning. We have to make the choice, whether to carry on with our dusting or whether to go to turn down the flame on the stove to save the beans. In the same way, if we want to make progress towards wisdom we have to recognize our priorities and this point is made very clearly in the parable of the wounded man.
The third point that I would like to refer to is the Buddha’s teaching on the importance of verification through experience. This point is made clearly in His advice to the Kalamas contained in the Kesaputtiya Sutra. The Kalamas were a people very much like us in our modern day when we are exposed to so many different teachings. They went to the Buddha and enquired that as there were so many different teachers and as all of them claimed that their doctrine was true, how were they to know who was telling the truth. The Buddha told them not to accept anything out of authority, not to accept anything because it happens to be written down; not to accept anything out of reverence for their teacher; or out of hearsay; or because it sounds reasonable. But to verify, test what they have heard in the light of their own experience. When they know for themselves that certain things are harmful then they should abandon them. When they know for themselves that certain things are beneficial, that they lead to happiness and calm, then they should follow them. The Buddha gives this advice that one has to verify what one hears in the light of one’s experience. In the context of the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas, I think what the Buddha is saying is to use your own mind as a test tube. You can see for yourself that when greed and anger are present, they lead to suffering, pain and disturbance. And you can see for yourself that when greed and anger are absent from your mind, it leads to calm, to happiness. It is a very simple experiment which we all can do for ourselves. This is a very important point because what the Buddha has taught will only be effective, will only really change our life if we can carry out this kind of experiment in our life, if we can realize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings through our own experience and verify it through our own experience. Only then can we really say that we are making progress on the path towards enlightenment.
We can see a striking parallel between the Buddha’s own approach and the approach of science to the problem of knowledge. The Buddha stresses the importance of objective observation. Observation is in a sense the key to the Buddha’s method of knowledge. It is observation that yields the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering. Again at the final stage of the Buddha’s path, it is observation that characterizes the realization of the total end of suffering. So at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the Buddha’s path, observation plays an extremely important role. This is similar to the role that objective observation plays in the scientific tradition which teaches that when we observe a problem we must first formulate a general theory followed by a specific hypothesis. We find the same thing happening in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths and here the general theory is that all things have a cause, and the specific hypothesis is that the causes of suffering are craving and ignorance. This truth that the causes of suffering are craving and ignorance can be verified by the experimental method. In the context of the Four Noble Truths, the experimental method is the path. Through the path, the truth of the Second Noble Truth (the truth of the cause of suffering), and the Third Noble Truth (the truth of the cessation of suffering) are verified because through this cultivation of the path one eliminates craving and ignorance. And through the elimination of craving and ignorance one eliminates suffering. This experiment is repeatable just as in science because not only did the Buddha attain the end of suffering, but so too did all those who followed His path.
So if we look closely at the Buddha’s approach to the problem of knowledge, we find that His approach is very similar to the scientific approach and this too has aroused a tremendous amount of interest in the west. We can now begin to see why it is that Einstein could make a remark like the one that he did. We will see more clearly why this is not as surprising as it seems initially because I would like to talk about the Buddhist method of analysis and we can begin to see it operating very clearly when we look at the Buddhist approach to experience.
Experience in Buddhism is comprised of two components - the objective component and the subjective component. In other words, the things around us and we the perceivers. Buddhism is noted for its analytical method in the area of philosophy and psychology. What we mean by this is that the Buddha analyzes experience into various elements, the most basic of these being the five Skandhas or aggregates - form, feeling, perception, mental formation or volition and consciousness. The five aggregates in turn can be analyzed into the eighteen elements (Dhatus) and we have a still more elaborate analysis in terms of this seventy two elements. This method is analytical as it breaks up things. We are not satisfied with a vague notion of experience, but we analyze it, we probe it, we break it down into its component parts like we break down the chariot into the wheels, the axle and so on. And we do this in order to get an idea how things work. When we see for instance a flower, or hear a piece of music, or meet a friend, all these experiences arise as a result of components. This is what is called the analytical approach. And again this analytical approach is not at all strange to modern science and philosophy. We find the analytical approach very substantially used in science. In philosophy, we see the analytical tradition perhaps best in Bertrand Russell. There have been studies that compare quite successfully the philosophy of Bertrand Russell with the philosophy of the Buddhist Abhidharma. So in western science and philosophy, we find a very close parallel with the Buddhist analytical method and this again is one of the familiar features that has attracted western thinkers and academics to Buddhism. In the area of psychology, psychologists are now deeply interested in the Buddhist analysis of the various factors of experience - feeling, idea, habit and so forth. They are now turning to Buddhist teachings to gain a greater insight into their own disciplines.
This growing interest in Buddhism and these many areas of affinity between the teachings of the Buddha and the tendencies of modern science, philosophy and psychology have reached their apex at this very time in the suggestions now proposed by quantum physics, the latest developments in experimental theoretical physics. Here too we find that not only is the method of science observation, experiment and analysis anticipated by the Buddha, but that some of the very specific conclusions about the nature of man and the universe that are indicated by the latest developments in quantum physics were also indicated by the Buddha. For instance, the importance of the mind. A noted physicist not long ago remarked that the Universe is really something like a great thought. And it is said in the Dhammapada that the mind precedes all things, that the mind is the maker of all mental states. Similarly, the relativity of matter and energy is mentioned. There is no radical division between mind and matter. All these indications are now gradually being revealed by the latest developments in science.
So what has happened is that in the western contexts, academics, psychologists, and scientists have found in Buddhism a tradition which is in harmony with some of the basic tenets of western scientific thought. In addition to this, they find that Buddhism is particularly interesting because although the methods and the discoveries often resemble closely those of Buddhism, they find that in science so far, there is no path or method of achieving an inner transformation. They have methods of building better cities and expressways but they have not had any system which will enable them to build better people. So people in the west are turning to Buddhism. As an ancient tradition, it has many aspects that closely resemble practices in the western scientific traditions and yet goes beyond the materialism of the western tradition, beyond the limits of the scientific tradition.