For the Welfare of Gods and Men Buddhism's Mission in the Modern World

Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara
Some twenty-five centuries ago at Buddhagaya in India, a lone
ascetic, Siddhartha Gautama, attained the state of supreme 
Enlightenment and became known to the world as the Buddha. Beholden
neither to gods nor to men for his achievement, yet desiring to show
humankind how it might lift from itself the yoke of suffering and
ignorance, he exhorted his disciples to "Go forth... for the welfare of the
many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for
the good, welfare and happiness of gods and men". Thus began the
Buddhist mission to the world, a mission which has come of age in
modern times with the advent of Buddhism in the West. In the time since
those first itinerant monks began to propagate Buddhist doctrines the
tolerance and spirit of free inquiry which have historically distinguished
that doctrine, as well as the ease with which diverse cultures have
assimilated it, have begotten an optimism in the West that Buddhism may
put down roots in Western soil and reap a harvest of a decidedly
"Western" vintage. Yet we, the trustees of the Buddha's legacy in the
West seem as little aware as those early mendicant teachers of how
daunting is the task with which the Buddha charged us.
After his Enlightenment the Buddha was at first reticent to disclose
his discovery to anyone, doubting that it would readily be understood.
And nowadays, although most people in the West acknowledge
Buddhism's historic claim as a major world religion, it remains for them
something of an enigma. Esoteric doctrine and ritual aside, is Buddhism
after all, really a "religion"? Or is it perhaps, like Confucianism, a "philosophy",
or simply a way of life? But more to the point, does it even matter what we 
call it? Recent scholarship suggests that, for most of the world's people 
who have traditionally followed the Buddhist path, the question whether
Buddhism is a religion has never arisen. Indeed Cantwell Smith has argued 
that "the early Buddhists and their neighbors... were incapable of asking it".
Professor Smith points out that the very concepts "religion" and Buddhism,
are of comparatively recent provenance. And another scholar, John Ross Carter, 
observes that "Buddhist men and women have lived religiously, have gone about 
the process of living life well, without conceptualizing that what they were
doing was practicing Buddhism".
Nonetheless, it is my contention that, at least for Buddhists and
students of Buddhism in the West, the question of Buddhism's identity is
not only relevant, but paramount. The reason is that since Buddhism is
not indigenous to the West, people must talk about it as a "religion", if
they are to discuss it at all. To understand why, let us focus more closely
on the concept of "religion" itself.
Is Buddhism a Religion?
         The term religion as it is used in ordinary discourse is ambiguous. On
the one hand, it may refer to observable phenomena--the trappings of a
particular religious institution, such as its doctrines, its official position on
social and moral issues, or its practices and rituals. As such, a religion (or
for that matter, religion in general) can be studied, analyzed, and discussed. 
On the other hand, if we ask someone whether he or she is a "religious" 
person, we are inquiring into that person's attitude towards life, and his 
or her answers to the "larger" questions which determine a basic orientation 
to the world and to others. Otherwise stated, "religion" used in the first sense 
implies that the speaker is taking an external point of view To prevent a blurring 
of this most important distinction, the two scholars I have cited suggest that 
we use the terms "cumulative tradition", and "faith" to refer to the external 
and internal points of view, respectively. Professor Carter explains:
The cumulative tradition is made up partly by the externals:
the texts, doctrines, institutions, rites, rituals, practices, art,
chants and songs -- the things that have developed over
time, the things one can study. The cumulative tradition is
passed down from generation to generation, changes, and is
part of the historical process. Faith represents that personal
quality of life by means of which one responds to participate
in some authentic way in the cumulative tradition because
one has discerned the point of the tradition, the source of
which the tradition is but a mundane manifestation.
         Approaching Buddhism from an internal point of view, then, requires
more than a scientist's bent for observing phenomena; it entails a quest
for meaning: "One must look at the world, so far as possible, through
Buddhist eyes."
Now, by dint of this analysis, one can understand why the question
whether Buddhism is a religion would not interest people who practice an
indigenous form of Buddhism. In countries in which Buddhism is well
established, in particular Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet, Buddhism is so 
thoroughly integrated into the people's way of life that they are incapable
of conceiving it, except from an internal point of view. Buddhist doctrine,
its rituals, art, and all other elements of its cumulative tradition are quite
indistinguishable from life its. Since Buddhism in these countries has
traditionally enjoyed the patronage of the civil authority, the distinction
between politics and religion is meaningless.
On the other hand, Buddhism in the West presents a very different
picture. Most Westerners see Buddhism and Buddhists as a phenomenon, 
and a somewhat anomalous and paradoxical one at that. What sort of
religion is it that identifies itself as a religion, and yet has no concept of a
Supreme Being? Indeed, it is just this peculiar and esoteric countenance
of Buddhism which attracts many people in the West to its teachings. For
non-Buddhist observers, the only perspective possible is that of the
cumulative tradition, the external point of view. And even the most
devout Western Buddhist cannot easily overcome his self-consciousness 
as a Buddhist. Nor is the strict separation of church and state -- a
notion accepted de facto in the United States -- conducive to the
development of an internal point of view with respect to Buddhism.
I hasten to point out that the absence in the West of an indigenous
Buddhism does not preclude the development of a genuine Western
Buddhist faith, or the participation in some authentic way in the cumulative 
tradition of Buddhism. Yet the internal point of view which such faith
requires may prove more elusive than we suppose. At the very least we
can say that it makes no sense for people in the West to play out a script
written by teachers from an indigenous Buddhist culture, or uncritically to
adopt that culture's dogmas, customs, and rituals, without asking whether
they have any meaning to someone for whom they constitute, ab initio,
only that culture's cumulative tradition. Buddhism in the West is a religion
in the first sense of that word, and no amount of esotericism, asceticism,
or ritual can make it otherwise. If Buddhists would take seriously the
mission in the West, they must be prepared to offer non-Buddhists a
"crutch" with which they may take their first halting steps along the
Buddhist path. Or to use the Buddha's own metaphor, they must be able
to fashion a raft which others may use to cross the stream to the opposite
shore (to enlightenment). Once we have determined that Buddhism
does qualify as a religion, it behooves us to inquire what religion means
for practical purposes in a specifically Buddhist context. Put another way,
given the cumulative Buddhist tradition, how can Buddhists fashion a
faith which will embody and reflect the Western experience? The answer
to this question, in effect, defines Buddhism's mission.
Buddhism as Faith
         Last year, in my address to the assembly of the Parliament of the World's .
Religions in Chicago, I adopted a definition of "religion" which had been
proposed 100 years earlier by a delegate to the first Parliament, Lyman 
(Religion is) a perception of such a manifestation of the infinite 
as produces an effect upon the moral character and
conduct of man. It is not merely the moral character and
conduct: That is ethics. It is not merely a perception of the
infinite: That is theology. It is (rather) such a perception of the
infinite as produces an influence on the moral character and
conduct of man.
         I would like to underscore both elements of this definition. First of
all, religion is a perception of the manifestation of the infinite. Now,
whatever our particular religious beliefs are, and whether we acknowledge 
a Supreme Being or not, it is clear that religion must speak to our
yearning for the infinite, our sense that, after all is said and done, there
must be something more to life than mundane experience discloses.
What we make of this yearning, and how we believe it can be satisfied, if
at all, is another matter. Secondly, this yearning, which the Buddha called
craving or thirst (tanha), produces an effect upon the moral character and
conduct of man. Abbott also called this yearning a "hunger", putting it this
What is it that this universal hunger of the human race seeks?
Is it not these things. a better understanding of our moral
relations, one to another, a better understanding of what we
are and what we mean to be, that we may fashion ourselves
according to the idea of the ideal being in our nature...
         What this means to a Buddhist is the question I will endeavor to
Sometimes Buddhists are criticized for calling the Buddha's teaching
a religion because it does not acknowledge a Supreme Being. In my view
this restriction of the word religion to theistic doctrines is unjustified. For
Buddhism does acknowledge a perception of the infinite, even though it
does not deify or personalize it as theistic religions do. Where Buddhists
part company with other religions is in the interpretion of this as a
yearning for what always lies just beyond our grasp. To the great thinkers I
of the theistic religions, the perception of the infinite is a conviction that
although the object of our longing cannot be had in this world, it may be ,
had in the next. As St. Augustine so eloquently put it: "Thou has made
us for thyself, O Lord; and our hearts will find no rest, until they rest in
thee". But to the Buddhist this perception of the infinite is simply a fact,
which must be accepted for what it is. In other words, the Buddhist's
attention is drawn not so much to something outside of us which might I
satisfy our yearning, as to the yearning itself.
Attachment to anything, be it opinions, fame, or wealth, must ultimately 
leave us dissatisfied because all things are inherently unsatisfactory 
(dukkha), impermanent (anicca), and without substance (anatta).
This sense of incompleteness which we all experience, however heroic
our efforts to sweep it under the rug, combined with our ignorance (avijja)
of the fleeting and unsatisfactory nature of things, yields a craving, a
thirst, a longing (tanha) for that which we lack now but might have later, if
only we continue to strive for it. As the Buddha observed: "Those who
leave one thing to take up another, follow attachment and never
relinquish desire. They are like monkeys who let go of one branch to
grasp another, only to let it go again." Despite all we have, or all we
have achieved, we fee that somehow "there must be more to life than
this", that something is missing. On this point it seems most religions
agree Recall that Lyman Abbott called it a "hunger,... this universal
hunger of the human race." The Buddha taught that all conditioned
things are impermanent: and because they are they cannot satisfy the
longing within us. Now, please do not misunderstand the Buddha did
not teach a stoicism. There is an old Chinese proverb which says that if
you cannot get what you want, you can achieve the same result by
wanting only what you can get This is not Buddhism. Since the objects
of our craving are unsatisfactory, impermanent, and insubstantial, the
very yearning itself is suffering (dukkha), regardless of its object
Consequently it is our attachment itself (upadana) which is suffering,
regardless of the object of attachment. It follows that the only
way we can end our suffering is to divest ourselves of our attachments.
And once we have done that, there is nothing to crave, nothing to yearn
for. It is this state of being which Buddhists call Nirvana. G. K. Chesterton, 
no apologist for Buddhism, expressed the matter admirably "Christ
said, "Seek first the Kingdom and all these things shall be added unto
you." Buddha said, "Seek first the kingdom and then you will need none
of these things."
Now, what does all this mean in practical terms? It means that so long
as we are dissatisfied with what we are or what we have now, and cling to
the belief that what lies just beyond our grasp will be ours tomorrow, we
live in the future, and forget that we are alive today, here and now. We
imagine that life today is but a "dress rehearsal" for life in the future, and
that since we do not really feel "complete" or fulfilled now, we can put our
life on hold until we have what we want. But the really tragic consequence
of this conviction is that the present becomes but a means for getting into
the future; and everyone and everything we encounter today is likewise
seen as a means to some remote end. Since in our mindless rush into the
future we cannot help stumbling on what is right in front of us, we
perceive everyone and everything in the present as an impediment to
our imagined future objective. Thus they become objects of our anger
and hostility, unless we somehow find them to our purpose.
The philosopher Pascal stated the matter nicely:
We never live in the present. We anticipate the future which
is felt to be too slow coming, as if thought hastens its arrival;
or we recall the past to slow it down if if goes too fast; we are
so imprudent that we wander through the ages which are not
ours and never give a thought to the only one that exists. It is
because the present is usually painful. We push it out of
sight because it hurts us; and if it is agreeable we are sorry to
see it pass away. We try to prop it up by means of the future;
and think we can regulate things that are not in our power for
a future which we are by no means sure of reaching. Let
each of us examine his thoughts, and he will find that they
are occupied with the past or the future. We can scarcely
think of the present; and if we do think of it, it is only to find
our bearings for mapping out the future. The present is
never our goal; the past and present are our means; the
future alone is our goal. Thus we never live, but we hope to
live. And as we are always preparing ourselves to be happy it
is inevitable that we are never happy.
         Unfortunately, we are sadly misguided. For if we cannot treat others
here and now as our very reason for being, rather than as an obstacle or
means to our own enterprise, then we will not treat them any better
tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes. The Buddha taught that 
Nirvana is not to be found in some future, more perfect world, but here
and now. It will not do for us to put life on hold while we go in search for
an elusive Garden of Eden. Nor will it do for us to put our moral
sensibilities in safekeeping, for better times, sacrificing them to the
exigencies of the moment, believing that the end justifies the means. For
what we mistake for means in the present, are in fact the ends -- the only
ends we will ever know. The philosopher Kant taught that the Supreme
principle of morally is this: "Treat the other person always as an end,
never as a means". And the Buddha would have agreed with him. Jesus
admonished his disciples. "do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow
will worry about itself each day has enough trouble of its own."  The
Buddha taught the same lesson:
The past should not be followed after, the future not desired.
What is past is got rid of, and the future has not come. But
whoever has vision, now here, now there, of a present thing,
knowing that it is immovable, unshakable, let him cultivate it.
Swelter at the task this very day; who knows whether he will
die tomorrow? There is no bargaining with the great hosts of
death. Thus abiding ardently, unwearied day and night, he is
indeed Auspicious called, described as a sage at peace.
         So long as the future is seen as the only good, then everything and
everyone in the present must appear imperfect, flawed, and unworthy of
our attention. The people with whom we live and work will always be seen
as "in the way", an obstacle to be stepped over or pushed aside. There is
a saying in Mahayana Buddhism that "if your mind is pure, everyone is a 
Buddha; if your mind is impure, everyone is ordinary." Yet now you may
say, "That sounds so simple, indeed too simple. Surely there must be
more." Not at all. For it is precisely our frenetic, vain search for that
"something more" that is dukkha, suffering. Nirvana is here, now, in each
step we take, in each breath we draw, in each word we speak to one
another. If we spend our entire lives oblivious to it, it is because we have
lost the ability to wonder, to see everything new in each moment. It is just 
that simple. Lao Tzu said, "My words are very easy to understand and
very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand
them or put them into practice". And did not Jesus tell us that "God
hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and
God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things
which are mighty." We must not seek peace in some future world, in
some remote age, but here and now. If "something is missing", it is only
because we have not opened our eyes to see it. As Jesus said: "The
Kingdom of God is within you".
I would emphasize, however, that Buddhism is neither a system of
dogmas, nor a doctrine of salvation, as that term is generally understood
in theistic religions. The Buddha exhorted his followers to take nothing
on blind faith, not even his words. Rather, they should listen, and then
examine the teaching or themselves, so that they might be convinced of
its truth. Once, when the Buddha was visiting a market town called I
Kesaputta, the townspeople, known as the Kalamas, sought his advice.
The wandering ascetics and teachers who visited Kesaputta from time to
time were not content to propagate their own doctrines, but insisted
upon disparaging the teachings of others. What the Buddha told the
Kalamas is as rarely heard nowadays as it was then:
It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain... Do
not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Do not be led
by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or
inference, nor by considering appearances; nor by delight in
speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by
the idea, 'This ascetic is our teacher". But rather, when you
yourselves know [that] certain things are unwholesome and
wrong, [that such] things are censured by the wise, and
when undertaken, such things lead to harm, [then] abandon
them. And when you yourselves know [that] certain things
are wholesome and good, [that such] things are approved by
the wise, and when undertaken such things lead to benefit
and happiness, [then] enter on and abide in them.
         What the Buddha's teaching offers is an intellectual and spiritual
"crutch"; that we may use until we are able to tread the path to liberation
and enlightenment alone. And go it alone we must, as the Buddha
emphasized to his closest disciple Ananda shortly before his death:
"Therefore, Ananda, dwell, making yourselves your island, making
yourselves, not anyone else, your refuge; making the Dhamma your
island, the Dhamma your refuge, and nothing else''. While the
teachings of other religions do have much in common with Buddhism,
the latter is unique in its emphasis on this point: "One is indeed, one's
own savior, for what other savior could there be? When one is in control
of oneself, one obtains a savior difficult to find." Indeed, the Buddha
spent forty-five years showing people how to find that "savior" within
themselves. Yet the Buddha did not devote those forty-five years to
teaching others his discovery only to abandon them in the end. His
doctrine, the Dharma, he compared to a raft which one uses to cross over
a lake or stream, but is left behind when one reaches shore. It would
make no sense to continue lugging the raft about, once it had served its
purpose. Doctrine for its own sake, be it religious, be it political, or be it
ideological, becomes dogma, and the Buddha would have none of it.
Buddhism as Ethics
         Recall the definition of religion I cited earlier. It is a perception of such
a manifestation of the infinite as produces an effect upon the moral 
character and conduct of people. Traditionally Buddhism has recognized
the Five Precepts (panca sila) as the minimum moral conduct of anyone
who professes to be a Buddhist. Yet the precepts are not peculiarly
"Buddhist": they articulate the basic concepts of conventional morality
and decency recognized by all religions, indeed of all civilized communities. 
They are: (1) to abstain from taking the life of any living being; (2) to
abstain from taking what is not given; (3) to abstain from sexual
misconduct; 4) to abstain from lying and harsh or idle speech; and (5) to
abstain from intoxicants. Now, some commentators insist that the raft is
a metaphor for conventional morality, and for the moral philosophy which
informs the precepts. If these precepts are like the raft, then it follows that
they may be set aside when we achieve our objective, when we
experience the Truth at first hand. The question, however, is what it
means to set aside the precepts. These commentators suggest that it is
because we are hard ridden by conventional notions of morality, that we
are unable to experience genuine insight. They urge us, therefore, to
abandon them, and endeavor to return to our state of primordial 
innocence, which is a manifestation of our innate "Buddha Nature".
Conduct at odds with society's expectations, and indeed whith all accepted
canons of decency and propriety, they argue, may be a manifestation of
ones profound insight, one's direct experience of the nature of things
"crazy wisdom."
I cannot, however, agree with this interpretation of the Buddha's use
of the Metaphor of the raft. It is axiomatic that no perception of the infinite,
revelation, or insight is of any value unless it makes an observable difference 
in the way we live. This means that no experience or intuition,
however sublime, is self-vindicating or self-explanatory. Indeed, if we are
to apply it to our lives, we must be able to discern its meaning -- to 
interpret it. One who achieves insight into reality, as did the Buddha,
interprets it by his conduct, by some activity of body, speech, or mind
in short, by sila, moral conduct or discipline. A book of precepts is like a
musical score; it is not music until it is interpreted, and it is interpreted by
being performed. If an arahant (one who achieves such insight as to have
put an end to craving) does not have to recite the precepts in order
to live them, it is not because he has gone beyond morality as it is
generally understood, but because he behaves morally out of inclination,
rather than by constraint. One need not be told that one must not lie or
take what is not given if one has no propensity for such conduct. And
one will have no propensity for such behavior when one clearly perceives
that it is a cause of suffering.
Buddhism teaches that our spiritual development comprises three
stages: (I) virtue or moral discipline (sila), (II) mental culture or development 
(samadhi), and (III) insight, or the direct experience of truth (panna).
So far, I have touched upon the role of virtue (sila). Because it forms the
very ground work of a viable Buddhist social morality, I would like to
develop the concept of sila in somewhat greater detail and show how it
reinforces mental development (samadhi) and insight (panna).
Earlier I spoke of the non-dogmatic disposition of Buddhism, which
has traditionally distinguished it from many other religions and philosophies, 
and for which it has the explicit authority of the Buddha in his
discourse to the Kalamas. I also mentioned that, unlike most religions,
Buddhism acknowledges no "savior" upon whom we can rely for
deliverance. Salvation is a task which rests squarely on our own
shoulders; while the Buddha offers us a raft to cross the stream, he
cannot himself carry us to shore. Now, it is implicit in the Buddha's
teaching that if each person must work out his own salvation, he must be
afforded the freedom to do so. The Buddha never urged his disciples to
spread his teachings by the sword. Since no one can save another,
nothing is accomplished by coercing others to accept a religious dogma
For if others do not wish to be liberated, they will not be. Enlightenment is
difficult to achieve, even for one who earnestly desires it. But if it is not
within another's power to save us, then it avails us no more to act in
accord with the other's will for fear of reprisal, than if we acted freely.
Thus, the tolerance for which Buddhism is renowned is but a logical
extension of Buddhist doctrine itself.
Yet if tolerance and freedom of religion are corollaries of the
Buddha's teaching, so is an earnest resolve to allow that teaching to
guide our lives. For again, if we alone must bear the responsibility for our
own salvation, then there is no one to excuse us if we fail -- no one to
'Forgive" us, no one standing ready to "redeem" us. The chief impediment 
to personal spiritual development, and thus to peace and social
justice, is our uncritical, even dogmatic, acceptance of the notion of
freedom without responsibility, our belief that even if we do not personally 
take on the burden of doing good and avoiding evil, someone else
will, or already has~ Implicit in the dogma of "salvation by faith" is the
notion that we do good, if at all, only by divine dispensation. Whatever
merit there is in the moral universe has already been earned for us, and
we have only to avail ourselves of it by believing in a deity or personal
savior. If, however, as Buddhism maintains, there is no personal god or
savior, then there is no repository of merit in this world or any other.
Unless we decide to pursue the path of virtue, and to set an example for
others by so doing, the world will abound in evil and suffering. Nor is
there a middle ground. The Buddha admonishes us to make haste in
doing good. "Check your mind from evil, for the mind of him who is slow in
doing meritorious actions delights in evil. And again: "Do not think
lightly of evil, saying it will not come nigh unto me,; by the falling of drops
even a water jar is filled; likewise the fool, gathering little by little, fills
himself with evil."
Such a firm resolve to pursue the path to Enlightenment does not,
however, seem very appealing. Since the Buddha exhorts us to "strive
with diligence," we realize that we must renounce the things for which we
yearn and to which we remain attached. Consequently, we hedge about
our decision with reservations. We place our virtue in a moral "safe
deposit box," where we imagine it will be preserved, until we have
savored what worldly life has to offer, and we are ready to take seriously
the quest for Enlightenment. Like the youthful St. Augustine, we pray
that we might achieve moral perfection, "but not yet." We are deaf to the
Buddha's admonition: "Not in the sky, nor in mid-ocean, nor in a mountain
cave, is found that place on earth where abiding, one may escape from 
the consequences of one's evil deed." 
This slight-of-hand is, however, not only unavailing; it renders us
oblivious to the social price we must pay for purchasing salvation on 
an installment plan. It is no accident that a philosophy which countenances
our continued pursuit of wealth, power, and sensual gratification also
fosters the illusion that these things, like the divine dispensation we
invoke to justify ourselves, are in infinite supply. Of the three "unwholesome 
roots" (mula) of our conduct, recognized by Buddhist doctrine,
namely greed (lobha), anger (dosa) and delusion (moha), greed
(lobha) is the manifestation of our attachment to the things we have and
of our craving (tanha) for the things we lack. Again, it is the illusion of
freedom without responsibility. Until the Eighteenth Century, European
monarchs justified their despotic rule by claiming to govern by "Divine
Right." The sovereign owned the land as his personal freedom, as well as
his subjects, with whom he could do as he wished. It was the genius of
the Enlightenment thinkers to debunk this notion and replace it with the
notion of the sovereign as a trustee of the people's lives and property.
Nowadays we in the so-called "developed" countries treat nature, as
well as each other, much as the traditional European monarch treated his
subjects, though with less benevolence. Most kings believed that they
were at least answerable to God. To whom are we answerable? In thrall to
the superstitious belief that we "own" the land and its resources, we
consume it and dispose of it as if it were in infinite supply. We fell the
great trees, monuments to nature's genius and bounty, and build in their
place shopping centers and amusement parks, monuments to our own
vanity and folly. In the book of Genesis we read: "And God created great
whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought
forth abundantly, . . . and God saw that it was good." Do we now imagine 
that we are gods, that we can kill the great whales and other living
creatures for our own amusement?
The contempt with which we regard our natural environment
bespeaks a loss in us of any sense of the sacred. Once we abide the
notion that nature is a mere means to an end -- the end being our
obsession with acquiring material things at any cost-- it follows that it may
be bought and sold, exploited, used, and then discarded when it is no
longer of any use. Our natural resources thus have a price, but no
intrinsic value. Inasmuch as nature is powerless to resist our folly, our
depredations on her continue unchecked. On the other hand, since
people can and do resist such conduct when it is directed against them, 
the result must be conflict. If greed (lobha) induces us to acquire
something our neighbor has or wants, then we view him as a foil on our
designs, as being "in the way." If we cannot eliminate him, he becomes
an object of our anger or hatred (dosa). And when this becomes the rule
of conduct for all, there necessarily ensues a breakdown of order in
society. Thus, we see how greed (lobbha) sets the stage for hatred (dosa).
Among the most conspicuous manifestations of hatred in our time
are wanton violence and violence motivated by racial, ethnic, or religious
bias. President Clinton recently announced that in the last four years
there have been 90.000 murders in the United States, almost twice the
number of Americans killed in Vietnam!29 When we consider the growing
malignancy of racial hatred and indigenous violent crime, it is hard to
avoid the conclusion that we are rushing headlong into a Hobbesian state
of nature, in which life is increasingly "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and
short," and many live in "continual fear of violent death." As a resident
of Los Angeles, I speak from experience. We were appalled when police
authorities recently uncovered a plot by a white supremacist group to
bomb a church in our Black community. Again I am reminded of the
Buddha's words: "Whoever harms a harmless person, one pure and
guiltless, upon that very fool the evil recoils like a fine dust thrown against
the wind."
The tragedy of increasing violence and lawlessness is that laws must
themselves gradually become more draconian, ultimately rendering
nugatory the very rule of law. In the United States, our constitutional law
has traditionally been informed by the belief that it is the government
which is to be feared, not "the people." Consequently, our laws brook
little government meddling in people's lives, and our criminal courts afford
those accused of wrongdoing every benefit of the doubt. But laws do not
fall from heaven like manna; they evolve to serve society's needs, real or
imagined. And when people come to fear their government less than
they fear each other, they will readily countenance a loss of personal
liberties for the sake of survival. If people believe that harsher laws are
necessary to protect them from urban violence or international terrorism,
so be it. Like frightened children whistling in the dark, we dutifully recite
the mantras of "freedom," "democracy," "privacy," and "civil rights,"
imagining that the mere recitation of the words creates the fact. Yet, even
as we extol our society by our words, we condemn it by our actions. To
what extent are we "free," in what sense do we enjoy "privacy," when we
fear leaving our homes, when we secure our communities with gates and
armed patrols, when many deem it necessary to own weapons for protection? 
It is a spurious sort of "freedom" indeed, which must sustain itself
on fear and anger.
Earlier I emphasized the non-dogmatic character of Buddhism. It was
not the Buddha's intention to debunk all doctrine, but only "wrong views''
(miccha ditthi). The Pali term for "view,, is ditthi, and it carries the connotation 
of belief or speculative opinion. If it is not qualified, as samma ditthi
   ("correct view"), it generally refers to wrong or evil views or opinions.
One species of "wrong view" frequently discussed in the canonical texts
is the "ego-illusion" (atta ditthi); a form of delusion. The Buddha's
teaching on this point is subtle and frequently misunderstood. It is
however, the practical import of the belief in a concept of an abiding self
which interests us now, and not so much for what it is but for what it
does. When the Buddha exhorted his disciples to abandon views, he
was not urging them to scuttle their analytic or critical faculties if this were
his meaning, his advise to the Kalamas would have made no sense. What
the Buddha did mean becomes clearer when we consider the pathogenesis 
of hatred, one of the three unwholesome roots of conduct I mentioned earlier.
Hatred is engendered by a particular kind of attachment (upadana)
an attachment we have to our opinion of others. It was Plato who
observed that the wise man speaks because he has something to say;
the fool speaks because he has to say something. In any case, why is it
that we take so much satisfaction in listening to ourselves speak, and so
little in listening to others? The Buddha's answer is straightforward: we
are attached to our opinions, to our view, to our philosophies, our
religious dogmas, in short, anything we can call ours. This attachment, or
clinging (upadana) is in reality an attachment to some idea of self (atta),
which we fear to relinquish, lest we confront the reality of the impermanence 
(annica) which pervaded our being, and that of all things. Of course, it is 
not only opinions or views that we cling to; anything that we imagine 
to be conducive to self-definition suffices: wealth, power, or sense gratification. 
But it is our opinions to which we are most inexorably drawn like a moth 
to a flame, and which ultimately consume us as the flame consumes the moth. 
So in thrall to our opinions are we; that we become oblivious to the ideas of 
others, and to the reality which stares us the face.
Needless to say, not everyone shares our view of things When they
confront us with the ideas which are not in accord with those to which we
have already committed ourselves, we respond in anger. Invective and
diatribe replace reasoned argument and persuasion. The Buddha well
understood all this, for he tells us "It is not proper for a wise man who
would protect the truth to come to the conclusion, "This alone is the truth;
all else is falsehood." The upshot of our attachment to our opinions
can only be bigotry, intolerance, dogmatism, and strife; in a word,
suffering (dukkha), which we inflict upon ourselves and others. The
Buddha's teaching is not, however, a defense of obscurantism. Ideas,
doctrines, and theories are a necessary part of our quest for truth. But we
go astray when we think that by clinging to them, we have found the
truth. All we have done is to take upon ourselves a useless burden
Recall the metaphor of the raft.
Buddhism as Political Philosophy
         Earlier I mentioned the three stages of spiritual development, virtue
or moral discipline (sila), mental discipline (samadhi) and insight (panna).
Our discussion thus far has been focused on the first of these stages,
I moral discipline, which is expressed in our determination to do good and
avoid evil. Yet if our resolve to assume the burden of creating a just and
peaceful society is a necessary condition for the realization of such a
society, it is not a sufficient condition.
Nowadays there is no dearth of "activists," who lament the social ills
begotten by greed, hatred, and delusion, and sense a moral imperative
simply to "do something" about it. Yet our lot goes from bad to worse.
Why? Because the first moral imperative is not to do something," but to
know thy self." We too easily forget that war and civil strife are not brute
facts; they spring from human conduct, and as such have a meaning
The Buddha put the manner succinctly: "Mind is the forerunner of all evil
states. Mind is chief; Mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with a
wicked mind, because of that, suffering follows one, even as the wheel
follows the hoof of the draught-ox." Except for its origin in the mind,
the evil human beings do would have no greater moral significance than
an earthquake or flood.
When social pathology is diagnosed in economic or political terms, as
it usually is, the prescribed cure is predictable: economic or political
development. But any concept of development which does not take into
account the moral dimension of human life is unavailing. Recently,
foreigners have been having second thoughts about visiting the United
States, for fear of never returning home -- a matter that used to be of
concern only for American tourists in the "less-developed" countries.
Clearly we have to rethink our concept of "development." Buddhism
offers an alternative model, that of mental development or culture
But what is mental culture? Recall that Buddhism is concerned first
and foremost with the present, not with the past or the future. The
Buddha taught that all the things for which we yearn are inherently
unsatisfactory. Although we all have a sense of this unsatisfactoriness,
our misinterpretation of it begets the conviction that what is "missing" in
our lives can be found, if we take "time out" to search for it. Unfortunately, 
while we are occupied with our ill-conceived quest, we overlook what 
we already have, including relationships with the people closest to
us. Indeed, unless we regard them as useful to our designs, as a means
to the end we are pursuing, we either brush them aside with contempt, or
make them objects of our anger. Contempt and anger, however, reveal
themselves not only in our words and deeds, but in our thoughts, as an
incessant mental chatter." For most of us, this chatter or internal
dialogue is so much part of the way we view the world that we are no
longer even aware of it. 
The Buddha taught "Right Mindfulness" (samma sati) and "Right
Concentration" (samma samadhi) as part of his Noble Eightfold Path to
Enlightenment. These two facets of mental culture Buddhists refer to
simply as "meditation." Meditation is the art of bringing back the mind from
its idle reveries, to the reality of the present moment. And far from being
an ascetic practice, it provides the crucial link between personal moral
discipline (sila), and the social virtues of justice, benevolence, and
compassion. It is the very bedrock of mental culture or development,
which in turn is essential to any civilized community. Notwithstanding the
complexity and sophistication of our institutions, the level of our
technology, and the standard of our material well-being, we can hardly
fancy ourselves civilized if the better part of our resources are consumed
in the production and maintenance of instruments of destruction Wars
[begin] in the minds of men, and . . . the defenses of peace must be
constructed there." Trying to establish order without mental discipline
is like trying to produce a work of art by throwing paint at a canvas. We will
never learn the fine art of living in each others company until we have
mastered the subtle art of being in solitude.
The reason why the experience of reality (panna) which the Buddha
achieved, and to which we aspire is so elusive, is not that it is "mystical''
rather, it is because our vision is blocked by the dark clouds of ignorance
(avijja) and false views The voice of Truth, which speaks not in a shout but
in a whisper, is drowned out by a steady barrage of noise, begotten of our
craving for material things. It is because we so readily succumb to the
siren song of wealth, sensual pleasure, and power, that we run aground
on the shoals of greed, hatred, and delusion, and shatter the raft which
might otherwise help us reach the distant shore of enlightenment. We
are so in thrall to the distractions and allures of "the good life" as society
has defined it, that we are blind to the very truth before us.
It is one thing, however, to prescribe the treatment for our social ills
and quite another to administer the treatment, especially in a country like
the United States, which prides itself on its religious, ethnic, and political
pluralism. One reason why "development" is defined only in economic or
political terms is that we have scrupulously maintained a rigid distinction
between religious or moral issues on the one hand, and the matters of
state on the other. Mental development (bhavana), as I have explained it
here, is a religious notion, and all the more so for being associated with
Buddhism. Yet, it must soon occur to a thoughtful observer of the
American political scene to ask whether our uncritical adherence to the
dogma of church-state separation is really working. Shortly before his
death, the Buddha outlined seven conditions which ensure a nation's
well being. The relationship between ecclesiastical and secular
institutions began at that time, and continues to this day. Especially
under the influence of Buddhism, kings recognized moral constraints on
their prerogatives -- limits implied by the principles of generosity (dana),
virtue (sila), and mental culture (bhavana). It is clear that whatever its
attitude toward particular religious sects, the state cannot limit its attention
to human material well-being alone. Some public role for religion is
inevitable. The only question is what form it should take.
Given that the American polity is an open society, it is clear that some
sort of dialogue is necessary, both between religious and political
leaders, and among the various religious denominations. Since
Buddhists will be participants in such a dialogue, it is worth our while to
ask what we can contribute to it.
Before Buddhists can enter into any discussion, they must not only
know what they want to say, they must be able to communicate it to
others. Much of the message will already have been sent before the
participants get to the conference table. In an age of mass media and
electronic communication, any message is inseparable from the medium
in which it is conveyed. When the Buddha sent forth his first disciples "for
the welfare of the many . . . out of compassion for the world," the only
medium for propagation of his doctrine was word of mouth. Nowadays,
information can be transmitted to every corner of the world in a few
seconds. Thus, any religious sect has the ability to influence public
opinion in a way that could scarcely be imagined in the Buddha's time.
Yet, neither Buddhists nor anyone else will succeed in molding
public opinion unless they are seen to speak with one voice. This is
extremely difficult, however, when not only our message, but our sectarian 
differences become common knowledge in a relatively short time.
The tolerance and spirit of inquiry for which Buddhism has been
renowned, as well as the absence of religious wars and persecution in its
history, make it well suited to set an example for interreligious dialogue.
Indeed, the Buddha himself frequently engaged in debates with his
contemporaries. Recall that when the Kalamas approached the Buddha
for advice he did not offer them solace in their own doctrines. Rather, he
said, in effect, "Think for yourselves." There is no more solid foundation
than this advice for any dialogue. Yet it is this very openness which
informs the exchange of ideas among Buddhists themselves that is
problematic for Buddhists' participation in a dialogue with other faiths.
Since Buddhists recognize no central authority, (Indeed, the very idea is
anathema to Buddhists -- the Buddha himself rejected it), there is no
"official" Buddhist doctrine. Consequently, even though Buddhists do
not themselves speak with one voice, the media do, for reasons I have
alluded to. The upshot is that ideas expressed by a particular Buddhist
sect, although perhaps not representative of what Buddhists in general
believe, will be labeled "Buddhism" by an uninformed public. Buddhism
will then be "criticized on the wrong grounds, and admired for the wrong
Mindful of the power they wield to shape public opinion, Buddhist
leaders and clergy should take care not only to state their positions in a
responsible manner, but also to conduct themselves in a manner consistent 
with the doctrines they espouse. Virtue and moral discipline
require not only that we live according to certain precepts, but that we set
an example for others by so doing. The Buddha observed that, "If a man
practices himself what he admonishes others to do, he himself, being
well-controlled, will have control over others." In a world in which evil is
ubiquitous, the role of the ordained clergy as exemplars is paramount.
And for the Buddhist sangha, it is of the essence. For if, as Buddhism
teaches, it is the task of each individual to work out his salvation by
adhering to the path of virtue, he can take solace in the knowledge that it
is possible, because others are doing it. Nor should we be oblivious to
the influence which the good example of even one person can have on
the course of events. In South Africa Nelson Mandela spent a third of his
life in prison, sustained by the hope that some day his country would reap
the rewards of his sacrifice. If anyone had cause for hatred and resentment, 
surely he had. Some twenty-five centuries earlier, the Buddha had
said: "In this world, hatred never ceases through hatred; through love
alone does it cease. This is an eternal law." By adhering to this
principle, Nelson Mandela set an example which wrought a change in a
political system, such as many years of conflict had failed to accomplish.
         I have pointed out that Buddhism, unlike other religions, teaches
self-sufficiency; it placed the burden of salvation squarely on each
person's own shoulders. No savior is at hand to protect us from the
baneful consequences of our folly. Thus aware of our solitude, and the
daunting responsibility which is our legacy, we are bound to ask: But
does Buddhism itself really work? In light of the dubious achievements of
religion in general, can we actually follow the Buddha's exhortation, "Try
to accomplish your aim with diligence?" Will our efforts improve our
world? Happily there is evidence that Buddhism works, and the Buddha
himself was the first to provide it. Once a quarrel arose between farmers
who lived in the valley of the River Rohini, which separated the Sakyan
   and Koliyan kingdoms. The farmers on each side of the river attempted to
divert its water to their fields, and in time petty squabbles over irrigation
rights led to full-scale armed confrontation. The Buddha arrived just as
the two factions were poised for battle. Instructing them on the advantages 
of peace and the futility of war, he was able to persuade them to
settle their differences amicably. And too, we have the example of the
great Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka, who, after invading, conquering
and annexing the kingdom of Kalinga, embraced Buddhism and put
down the sword, never to raise it again. Nor is there any evidence that
after Asoka had forsworn war and conquest, any neighboring monarch
took advantage of his peaceful disposition to attack him, or that his
subjects seized the opportunities to foment revolution or sedition.
The benevolence, tolerance, and lack of dogmatism which have
characterized Buddhism over the centuries have won it universal
admiration. Yet some people express misgivings that Buddhism's
greatest strength may at once be its greatest weakness. A frequently
voiced concern is that when Buddhism takes root in an industrialized
country, it will either be "corrupted" by pseudo-religious movements, or
succumb to moral indifference and materialism and be extinguished.
What will happen to Buddhism in Europe and America remains an open
question, since it has not been in the West long enough to justify a
prediction. But whether the Buddhist mission succeeds, by securing
"the good, welfare, and happiness of gods and men," will depend not
upon whether there are more Buddhists in the world in the twenty-first
century, but rather upon whether our progeny in that century are heirs to
a more peaceful world, and are wiser and more compassionate because
of the Buddhists who preceded them.