BUDDHISM AND THE TRUE VALUE OF REALITY
This is the discussion paper delivered at the conference on "Religion
and The Modern Way of Life", organized by the Catholic Solidarity Committee
at Hochiminh City in December 1996.
First of all, we would like to thank the
Catholic Solidarity Committee of Hochiminh City for inviting us to participate
in the seminar on "The Religions Way of Life in Modern Times". Today,
as a Buddhist participant in this non Buddhist conference, I would like to focus
my discussion on one of the most important, unique but also the most complex concepts
in Buddhism. That is the true value of living reality.
I- BUDDHISM AND
THE CONCEPT OF RELIGION.
A- Man's search for the meaning of Religion :
following and practicing any religion, first of all, one has to know what that
religion is all about and how it would guide him to his ultimate liberation. Otherwise,
the religious experience that he tries to realize will be a sheer illusion and
of course, there will be no real spiritual growth whatsoever.
In the noble
but arduous attempt to understand what religion is all about, many philosophers
of religions, both ancient and modern, have tried very hard to define religions,
including Buddhism. But so far, their efforts have not been very productive, especially
in the case of Buddhism. Most of the definitions of religion which have been often
built on conceptual reasonings have been unable to grasp the vastness, depth,
and vitality of Buddhism. Before we come to a tentative definition of Buddhism,
I would like to reexamine some definitions of religions by some of the most respected
thinkers and / or from some of the most reliable sources of knowledge in recent
+ Oxford Dictionary : "Religion - belief in the existence of
god or gods who has / have created the universe and given man a spiritual nature
which continues to exist after the death of the body... particular, system of
faith and worship based on such a belief..., controlling influence on one life
; something one is devoted or committed to". (1)
+ Thomas Carlyle, the
Scottish essayist and historian (1795 - 1881) : "Religion is the thing a
man does practically to heart and knows for certain, concerning his vital relations
to this mysterious universe and his duty and destiny therein" (2)
S. Mill, the English philosopher and economist (1806 - 1873) : "The essence
of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the conditions and desires
towards an ideal object recognized as of the highest excellence, and as rightly
paramount over all selfish objects of desire". (3)
+ Aldous Huxley, the
English novelist (1894 - 1963) : "Religion is, among many other things, a
system of education, by means of which human beings may train themselves, first
to make desirable changes in their own personalities and, at one remove, in society,
and, in the second place, to heighten consciousness and so establish more adequate
relations between themselves". (4)
+ Fiedrich Engels, the German socialist
(1820 - 1895) : "Religion is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's
minds of those external forces which control their early life". (5)
Sir. Edwin Ray Lankester (1847 - 1929) : "Religion means the knowledge of
our destiny and of the means of fulfilling it. We can say no more and no less
of science". (6)
+ Alfred North whitehead, the English mathematician
and philosopher (1861-1947) : "Religion is what the individual does with
his own solitude. If you are never solitary, you are never religious" (7)
There are two trends of thoughts in the above statements. First is the trend
in which religion is defined as the moral and ethical system that man can recognize
and understand with his reasoning mind. Second is the trend in which religion
is presented as a miraculous mode of existence which requires man's direct perceptions
and reflections. Besides these two trends of thoughts, there is the third one
which is based purely on reason. American political philosopher Thomas Paine (1737
- 1809) represented this school with his saying at the last moment of his life
: "The world is my country, mankind are my brotherhood and to do good is
my religion". (8) Last is the case of modern Indian philosophy. Many Indian
philosophers proclaimed that religion is not a series of profound theological
doctrines but an inner experience derived from man's direct recognition of the
divine existing in him.
Regardless of that these definitions of religions
are different and contradictory, they share one common ground. That is the emphasis
and embrace of loving-kindness as the highest religious value as Thomas Paine
eloquently and succinctly declared : "To do good is my religion". (9)
B. The Buddhist definition of Religion.
D.T. Suzuki, the well known Japanese
Zen master and Buddhist scholar once said : "Buddhism is a religion that
refuses to be objectively defined, for this will be setting a limit to the growth
of its spirit". (10a) However, if Buddhism has to be defined, in any case,
we should then first examine what Buddhism has to say about man and his world,
both at the conceptual level and the deep psychological one. At the conceptual
level according to Buddhism, language and logical thinking can only be used to
observe and analyse the surface of the human world and the universe. They can
deal only with the manifestation of the physiognomy. On the contrary, at the deep
psychological level ; the spiritual experience is an implicit hermeneutical struture.
It transcends the monistic, dualistic and pluralistic world. It goes beyond all
linguistic formations because it is invisible and formless. It belongs to the
realm of metaphysics. This does not suggest that Buddhism tries to lead man into
the world of fantasies filled with "incense mist". Buddhism only aims
to cut through the logical thingking of man's ego and shows him a way to get in
touch with the divine nature or the Buddha nature in himself.
D. T. Suzuki
then put forward his definition of Buddhism which, he argued, must be that of
the life-force which carries forward a spiritual movement called Buddhism.(10b)
Suzuki 's definition of Buddhism means that from the Buddhist point of view religion
can never be discussed without any refenence to the spiritual realm and / or the
inner experience of the individual involved. It should be made clear that here,
according to Buddhism, returning to the primordial essence of man or the true
nature does not mean an advocacy of egocentrism. On the contrary, it means, in
order to take the first step to return to the primordial essence of man, first
and foremost, man must completely cast off all the attributes of his ego, namely
his infatuated feelings, solid attachment, sensuous desire, mental formations
such as "I", "mine" and "myself". Neither does the
return to the inner spiritual experience means non-egocentrism. According to Buddhism,
precisely at the moment that one get in touch with his devine nature, he establishes
in himself an ultimate reality which by nature is essential, original, and eternal
- This is called Tathata (Suchness) or Buddha nature which is an everlasting,
living stream of present consciousness.
As a consequence, Buddhism is not
the faith that one has to accept blindly. Neither is it a series of sacred principles
that are created, transmitted to man's soul and guided by some mysterious power
from outside. It is the teachings that show us the path to reach enlightenment
through our inner individual experience. In Dhammapada, Lord Buddha said : "Like
earth, a balanced and well disciplined person results not. He is comparable to
an Indakhila. Like a pool unsullied by mud, is he, to such a balanced one life's
wandering do not arise". (11)
II- BUDDHISM - ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR
RELIGIONS OF THE MODERN WORLD
Albert Einstein, the famous German physicist,
in his Testament wrote that : "The religion of the future will be a cosmic
religion. It should transcend a person God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering
both the natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense, arising
from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.
Buddhism answers this description". (12) How will Buddhism be understood
through this inclusive and thoughtful statement of one of the greatest scientists
of the 20th century ?
A. Buddhism - The Religion Which Transcends A Person
God, Dogmas, and Theology and The Doctrine of Dependent Origination and The Doctrine
of Cause and Effects.
In essence, Buddhism is a system of teachings which
shows us the way to return to our primordial nature or our true nature. Once standing
on the ground of our true nature, we will recognize the true nature of other human
existences as well as other existing beings around us like bird, stone, branch
of tamarind tree. This is the interdependent relations or the Dependent Origination
of the reality. Simultaneously, with the realization of his true nature and those
of other existing beings, man also realizes that, it is his volitional actions
that create and shape his own destiny-as Lord Buddha said : "Owner of their
karma are the beings, heirs of their karma, the karma is their womb from which
they are born, their karma is their friend, their refuge". (13) In Dhammapada,
Lord Buddha also taught us : "By oneself alone is evil done, by oneself alone
is evil avoided, by oneself alone is one purified. Purity and impurity depend
on oneself. No one can purity another". (Attanaø 'va katam paøpam,
attanaø sankilissati, attanaø akatam paøpam, attanaø
'va visujjhati ; suddhi asuddhi asuddhi paccattam naønno annam visodhage)
(14) This sugests that The Buddha did not recognize any super natural power which
exerted over control human life. In Buddhism, man is the only sentient being who
has volitional actions. He has to harvest and accept the consequences of these
actions and, doing so, he lives his own fate...
The doctrine of causes and
effects in Buddhism asserts that both good karma and bad karma are the end results
of man 's psychological and physical actions ; and that through the relation of
cause and effect, man establishes his own karma with his good and evil actions.
It also affirms that man has the potential capacities to liberate himself from
the life which he has created and lived with his own psychological attitude and
actions accumulated in successive previous lives ; that is the orientated biological
As a consequence, the doctrine of causes and effects awakens in
man the inner power which makes him to be himself and transforms him into his
own creator with responsibilities and obligations. In other words, the doctrine
of causes and effects liberates man from the ruling power of person God, dogmas
and theology. Once liberated, man would understand that he has to be responsible
for all the consequences of his own psychological states and volitional actions
and should not look for any salvation outside himself. St. Paul 's famous statement
that : If Christ be not raised in you, your faith is vain, ye are yet in your
sins" (15) - seems to acknowledge man 's self liberating power (once he is
aware of the causes and effects of his own actions).
B. Buddhism - The Religion
Which Comprises Both The Natural and Spiritual ; and The Doctrine of Sunyaøta.
If Buddhism cuts through the natural world with prism of Dependent Origination
(paticcasamuppaø - anatta), it illuminates the metaphysical world by spot
lighting at the latter 's emptiness (Sunyaøta). The metaphysical world
is empty because it does not reside in forms and sounds and goes beyond all appearances
(Buddhist terms called Naõma - Ruõpa : mentality and corporeality).
It is in the realm of non-dualism (Asunyataø-Abhaøvaø).
discussed above, in Buddhism, the process of becoming (Bhava) and existence of
human beings and nature is viewed as the operation of a myriad interconnecting
causations and conditions (yakti). In this intricate operation, there is no single
object that can live independently, without being interconnected with its surrounding,
and / or in disharmony with its constituents.
On this irrefutable interconnecting
conditions of the human and natural world, Buddha said :
"No God, no
Brahma can be found
No matter of this wheel of life
Just bare phenomena
Dependent on Conditions all" (16)
In other words, there is no
prime force which sets in motion the operation of the human and natural world.
This is the foundation of doctrine of Paticcasamuppaø - anatta, which consists
of the teachings of non-ego (pudgalanairaõtmya) and non-substantiality
of things (dharmanairatmya). It is also called the doctrine of Sunyata or Emptiness.
As a philosophical concept, Sunyata (Emptiness or E'tat de vacuiteù)
is the nature of the original reality, or the absolute reality. Man recognizes
and is conscious of Sunyata when he becomes one with the absolute reality. However,
it is important to note that Sunyata is not the opposite of substantiality like
the Have not versus the Have or the Negative (asat) versus the Affirmative (sat).
Neither does it mean a complete absence of content. In trying to understand the
Buddhist concept of Sunyata, many people tend to turn to logical reasoning and
different sets of opposite categories and subcategorizes such as "to be"
or "not to be" to define it with the irsecular philosophical mind -
set. However, in doing so, they are entangled in an endless web of dualistic concepts
such as to be (bhava) not to be (abhava), birth or death, permanence or impermanence,
coming or going without directly experiencing or living with the original and
ultimate Reality which exists right in this very life. Lord Buddha taught us that,
all phenomenon (dharma) do not have a true self (svabhava) ; neither birth or
death that is pure and Tathata by nature or it is Sarvadharmaøsuønyataø
(all is Emptiness). Consequently, Sunyata and Tathata are the same. They are omnipresent
Following is the examination of the concept of Sunyata according
to the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of knowledge-only (Prajnaøtimatra).
First, Sunyata is the true nature of dharma or the existing substantiality.
When man recognizes the entirely of Sunyata, he becomes enlightened. Saying that
does not mean to negate the existing substantiality or the world of phenomena,
but to affirm that man or the subject which recognizes and the world or the object
which is recognized are created, and exist in a great number of causes and effects
systems. They are not independent and self contained entities. They are non-entities.
According to The Buddhist philosophy of Knowledge-Only, in Buddhism all existing
beings has three natures :
- Temporary nature (Parikalpita - svabhava)
Dependent nature (Paratantra - svabhava)
- Absolute nature (Parinispanna -
1. Temporary Nature :
Ordinarily, man has a habitual tendency
to control and to posses the objective world. This is resulted in the idea that
the world are made up of living independent objects. But in reality, these object
do not have any intrinsic attribute. Their nature is emptiness and no-self. So
the so called independent nature that men imposed on the world is called the temporary
nature. The temporary nature is formed in the process of interaction between man
's senses which are determined by his physical and psychological make up and the
objective world. In Buddhist terms man 's physical and psychological make up is
called Skandhas (five aggregates of body), AØyatana (six spheres of sense
organs), and Dhatus (body remains).
2. The Dependent Nature :
the temporary nature is unreal, it does not suggest that thing are not actually
existing. The key issure here is to explain and illustrate the process of becoming
And yet this process of becoming is made up of the consequences
of paticcasamuppaøda or interconnecting causations. Therefore the nature
of the process of becoming of things is impermanent, ever changing, and self annihilating
(anitya - uccheda). This view of the objective world refuses all man 's attempts
to reduce the world into an individual, unique and self contained entity. It also
rejects the theories of "Chances" and "Coincidences" which
advocates the simplistic and mechanical operation of the material world. As a
result, if one rejects the dependent nature of the world, he will automatically
and inevitably become the victim of nihilism. And he also rejects the reality
which is actually becoming through the operation of the myriad of interconnecting
3. The Absolute Nature :
Existing beings are Tathata (Suchness)
because by nature, they do not have temporary natures in themselves. Neither do
they have the dependent nature in themselves because the dependent nature consists
of series of causes and effects and by nature is non substantiality. That is to
say they are empty. As a result, at the level of language and logical thinking
what we call the inherent nature of things never really exist. It is non-self
In summation, of the three natures of things. The temporary nature
to shows that by nature the world is empty, the dependent nature illustrates that
man and his world are dependently originated and the absolute nature asserts that
the Tathata essence or Nirvana exists right in physical and psychological world,
not in any other worlds regardless of how fantastically this other world is imagined.
As a result to experience the Emptiness of the world one has no other way except
to live or to merge with the three natures of the existing world. This is the
actual process of living with reality and attaining the Enlightenment in the Buddhist
III. BUDDHISM - THE RELIGION FOR
SPIRITUAL AND RATIONAL WHOLENESS
To practice Buddhism is to lead a way of
life with the motto : "Not to do evil, to do good, to purity one's mind".
The Buddha's enlightenment is the end of the spiritual journey, full of hardships
and deprivations. It was the supreme will power and the extraordinary energy which
has transformed Prince Siddhartha from a man with a deep religious consciousness
and a wholesome life into a Buddha. Buddha is the sentient being who had reached
enlightenment and obtained great wisdom.
Therefore, it is necessary to affirm
that it is the inner experience of each individual that would lead him to the
supreme enlightenment and that enlightenment is the moment that the supreme wisdom
or The Boddhicitta in one individual blossoms and radiates to all sentient and
natural beings. Lord Buddha said that : All sentient beings can become Buddha.
On the path to enlightenment, one has to light the torch and hold it to show the
way for himself ; in the ocean of samsara (Cycles of life), each individual has
to be an isolated island ; I, Tathagata is merely a teacher in principle. (17).
According to Buddhism, the religious consciousness and the inner individual
experience are the two extremely important factors in man 's path to his enlightenment.
They are the keys which control man's thinking and action in his relations with
the outside world. As a result, consciousness or mind is always the bases of Buddhist
training. Buddha said : "Mind is the forerunner of all (evil condition) -
Mind is chief ; and they are mind - made. If, with an impure mind, one speaks
or acts, then pain follows one even as the wheel, the hoof of the Ox". "...
If, with a pure mind, one speaks or acts, then happiness follows one even as the
shadow that never leaves" (Manopubhanga ; manasaø le padutthena, bhaøsati
vaø karoti vaø, tato nam dukkhamanveti, cakkam 'va vahato padam...
manaøsa le pasannena, bhaøsati vaø karoti vaø, tato
nam sukhamanveti, chaøyaø 'va anapaøyinì". (18)
To lead a Buddhist way of life, whether it is to cultivate
faith in Buddha or to take refuge the three jewels, man has to have the correct
consciousness or the pure mind. The Buddhist term for this is Ehipasiko, which
means "Come and recognize". Buddhism does not teach man to believe in,
obey and worship anything that he does not know or cannot recognize ; the term
Ehipasiko also implies the inner experience of enlightenment that is only known
by the individual himself. In a Buddhist life, not the idol of worship but man
is the most important matter. As a result, a real Buddhist has to develop for
himself a life of religious sense and an inner spiritual experience. The combination
of these two elements will ultimately give rise to the absolute truth or the spiritual
value. With them, one will develop the omniscient mind which rises above all delusions
and defilements. Only then, a life - force will surge from within and brilliantly
radiate into the world. This inner life-force will fearlessly and gladly receive
any infringements and not be hindered by any obstacles. On the path to reach the
highest perfection in the spiritual life, each step forward is a belittlement
of the ego. Only when one reaches a totally egoless state, Nirvana will rise in
his life and right in this world.
To conclude this paper I would like to read
Venerable Thich Thien Sieu 's statement about Nirvana : "Nirvana is something
which outrightly rejects the ego. Nirvana is indefinite and spaceless. It is very
difficult to enter Nirvana because it is formless (Aristaka). To enter Nirvana,
we must also be as formless as Nirvana. The entrance to Nirvana is very narrow.
It is as thin as hair feather, so thin that we cannot go through it, if we still
carry our possessions with us, be it our body, our concept of the "I"
and the "ego". The bigger our ego becomes, the further we will be away
from Nirvana. So it is ruled that ego will lead to Samsara ; non-ego to Nirvana"
OXFORD Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Jonathan Crowther, Oxford University Press,
New York, 1992, p. 762.
(2) Why Religion ?, K. Sri. Dhammananda, The Buddhist
Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, 1966, p. 06.
(3) Ibid, p. 06.
(5) Ibid, p. 07.
(6) Ibid, p. 07.
(7) Ibid, p. 07.
Ibid, p. 08.
(9) One should be cautions about the do-goodlism that Thomas
paine advocated here. Not all the people who do good are religious. Further more,
doing good does not mean the same thing to different nations, peoples and races.
Taking the issue of family planing by modern medical devices for instance. It
may mean loving kindness to some but unkindness to others.
(10a and b) Essay
in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, Vol I, p. 53.
(11) reference omitted
Extracted from, Ñaïi Cöông Trieát Hoïc Phöông
Ñoâng, Haø Thuùc Minh - Minh Chi, Tröôøng
Ñaïi Hoïc Toång Hôïp, TP. Hoà Chí
Minh, HCMC, 1994, p. 10.
(13) Majjhima Nikaya. 135, from Buddhist Dictionary
Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Nyanatikola, Frewin & Co. Ltd. Colombo,
Ceylon, 1972, p. 77.
(14) Dhammapada, Thích Minh Chau, Buddhist Institute
of Hochiminh City, 1990, p. 97.
(15) Essay in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki,
Vol I, p. 57.
(16) The Path of Purification, Bhadantacariya Buddha-Gkosa,
translated from the Pali, Comlombo, Ceylon, 1956.
(17) In Nikaya and Mahayana
(18) Dhammapada, Naørada, Vajiraøraøma, Colombo,
(19) Nirvana is Non-self, Thich Thien Sieu, Buddhist Institute of Vietnam,
Hochiminh City, 1990, Statement quoted on the back cover. (Ven, Thich Thien Sieu
is the Head of the Buddhist Central Educational Committee in Vietnam).