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Buddhism: A Modern Perspective
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In Part One of this book, it is my intention to cover what I would like to call the fundamentals of Buddhism, that is, the basic teaching of Buddhism. This survey will include the Life of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, karma, rebirth, interdependent origination, the three universal characteristics, and the teaching of the five aggregates. Before the actual treatment of these basic topics, I would like to deal first with the notion of Buddhism in perspective, and that a modern perspective. There are many ways in which people of different times and different cultures have approached Buddhism, but I believe it may be especially useful to contrast the modern attitude toward Buddhism with the traditional attitude toward it. This kind of comparative consideration may prove useful because understanding how people of different times and cultures view a particular phenomenon can begin to show us the limitations of our own particular perspective.

Buddhism has awakened considerable interest in the West, and there are many persons who enjoy positions of some note in western society who are either Buddhist or sympathetic to Buddhism. This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the remark said to have been made by the great twentieth-century scientist Albert Einstein, that although he was not a religious man, if he had been one, he would have been a Buddhist. At first glance it may seem surprising that such a remark should be made by one regarded as the father of modern western science. However, if we look more closely at contemporary western society, we find a Buddhist astrophysicist in France, a psychologist who is a Buddhist in Italy, and a leading English judge who is one, too. Indeed, it would not be too much to say that Buddhism is fast becoming the favorite choice of westerners who belong to the elite in the areas of science and art. I will look at the reasons for this in a moment, but before doing so, I would like to compare this situation with that found in traditionally Buddhist communities and countries. Take, for example, the situation among the traditionally Buddhist communities of Southeast and East Asia.

In Europe and America, Buddhism is generally believed to be more than usually advanced in its thought, rigorously rational, and sophisticated. I will not attempt to conceal the fact that it came as quite a shock to me when I first went to Southeast Asia and found that many people there view Buddhism as old-fashioned, irrational, and bound up with outdated superstitions. This is one of two prevalent attitudes that obstruct the appreciation of Buddhism in such traditionally Buddhist communities. The other popular misconception that afflicts Buddhism in such communities is the notion that it is so deep and so abstract that no one can ever possibly understand it. Perhaps it is the intellectual arrogance of the West that has saved Europeans and Americans from this aberration. In short, when I look at the common attitudes prevailing in the West and in the East toward Buddhism, I find a radical contrast. This is why I want to begin our examination of Buddhism with a consideration of alternative perspectives.

In the West, Buddhism has a certain image in the popular mind, while in traditionally Buddhist communities, Buddhism has an altogether different image. The dismissive attitude that prevails in such communities has to be overcome before people there can really begin to appreciate the teaching of the Buddha. In this way people everywhere can acquire the balanced perspective needed to approach Buddhism without prejudice and preconceived ideas. Consequently, this introduction to Buddhism is intended not only for people in the West but also for people in traditionally Buddhist communities who may have become estranged from the religion for a variety of social and cultural reasons. It should also be said, of course, that the image of Buddhism common in the West may be limited in its own way, but I hope that, in the chapters that follow, a clear and objective presentation of the traditions of Buddhism will, finally, emerge.

For the moment, to turn again to the western attitude toward Buddhism, one of the first features we can appreciate about it is the fact that it is not culture-bound, that is to say, it is not restricted to any particular society, race, or ethnic group. There are some religions that are culture-bound: Judaism is one example; Hinduism is another. However, Buddhism is not similarly constrained. That is why, historically, we have had the development of Indian Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and so on. In the near future, I have no doubt that we will see the emergence of English Buddhism, French Buddhism, Italian Buddhism, American Buddhism, and the like. All this is possible because Buddhism is not culture-bound. It moves very easily from one cultural context to another because its emphasis is on internal practice rather than external forms of religious behavior. Its emphasis is on the way each practitioner develops his or her own mind, not on how he dresses, the kind of food he eats, the way he wears his hair, and so forth. The second point to which I would like to draw your attention is the pragmatism of Buddhism, that is to say, its practical orientation. Buddhism addresses a practical problem. It is not interested in academic questions and metaphysical theories. The Buddhist approach is to identify a real problem and deal with it in a practical way. Again, this attitude is very much in keeping with western conceptions of utilitarianism and scientific problem-solving. Very briefly, we might say the Buddhist approach is encapsulated in the maxim, "If it works, use it." This attitude is an integral part of modern western political, economic, and scientific practice.

The pragmatic approach of Buddhism is expressed very clearly in the Chulamalunkya Sutta, a discourse in which the Buddha himself made use of the parable of a wounded man. In the story, a man wounded by an arrow wishes to know who shot the arrow, the direction from which it came, whether the arrowhead is bone or iron, and whether the shaft is one kind of wood or another before he will let the arrow be removed. His attitude is likened to that of people who want to know about the origin of the universe--whether it is eternal or not, finite in space or not, and so on--before they will undertake to practice a religion. Such people will die before they ever have the answers to all their irrelevant questions, just as the man in the parable will die before he has all the answers he seeks about the origin and nature of the arrow.

This story illustrates the practical orientation of the Buddha and Buddhism. It has a great deal to tell us about the whole question of priorities and scientific problem-solving. We will not make much progress in the development of wisdom if we ask the wrong questions. It is essentially a matter of priorities. The first priority for all of us is the reduction and eventual elimination of suffering. The Buddha recognized this and consequently pointed out the futility of speculating about the origin and nature of the universe--precisely because, like the man in the parable, we have all been struck down by an arrow, the arrow of suffering.

Thus we must ask questions that are directly related to the removal of the arrow of suffering and not waste our precious time on irrelevant inquiries. This idea can be expressed in a very simple way. We can all see that, in our daily lives, we constantly make choices based on priorities. For instance, suppose you are cooking and decide that, while the pot of beans is boiling, you will dust the furniture or sweep the floor. But as you are occupied with this task, you suddenly smell something burning: you then have to choose whether to carry on with your dusting or sweeping or go immediately to the stove to turn down the flame and thereby save your dinner. In the same way, if we want to make progress toward wisdom, we must clearly recognize our priorities. This point is made very nicely in the parable of the wounded man.

The third point I would like to discuss is the teaching on the importance of verifying the truth by means of recourse to personal experience. This point is made very clearly by the Buddha in his advice to the Kalamas contained in the Kesaputtiya Sutta.. The Kalamas were a community of town-dwellers in some ways very much like people in the contemporary world, who are exposed to so many different and often conflicting versions of the truth. They went to the Buddha and asked him how they were to judge the truth of the conflicting claims made by various religious teachers. The Buddha told them not to accept anything merely on the basis of purported authority, nor to accept anything simply because it is contained in sacred text, nor to accept anything on the basis of common opinion, nor because it seems reasonable, nor yet again because of reverence for a teacher. He even went so far as to advise them not to accept his own teaching without verification of its truth through personal experience.

The Buddha asked the Kalamas to test whatever they might hear in the light of their own experience. Only when they came to know for themselves that such and such things were harmful should they seek to abandon them. Alternatively, when they came to know for themselves that certain things were beneficial--that they were conducive to peace and tranquillity--then they should seek to cultivate them. We, too, must judge the truth of whatever we are taught in the light of our own personal experience.

In his advice to the Kalamas, I think we can see clearly the Buddha's doctrine of self-reliance in the acquisition of knowledge. We ought to use our own minds as a kind of private test tube. We can all see for ourselves that when greed and anger are present in our minds, they lead to disquiet and suffering. By the same token, we can all see for ourselves that when greed and anger are absent from our minds, it results in tranquillity and happiness. This is a very simple personal experiment that we can all do. The verification of the validity of teachings in the light of one's own personal experience is very important, because what the Buddha taught will only be effective, will only really succeed in changing our lives, if we can carry out this kind of personal experiment and make the teaching our very own. Only when we can verify the truth of the Buddha's teachings by recourse to our own experience can we be sure that we are making progress on the path to the elimination of suffering.

Again we can see a striking similarity between the approach of the Buddha and the scientific approach to the quest for knowledge. The Buddha stressed the importance of objective observation, which is in a sense the key to the Buddhist method for acquiring knowledge. It is objective observation that yields the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering; it is observation that verifies one's progress along the steps of the path; and it is observation that confirms the realization of the complete cessation of suffering. Therefore, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the Buddhist path to liberation, the role of observation is essential.

This is not very different from the role played by objective observation in the scientific tradition of the West. The scientific tradition teaches that when we observe a problem, we must first formulate a general theory and then a specific hypothesis. The same procedure obtains in the case of the Four Noble Truths. Here the general theory is that all things must have a cause, while the specific hypothesis is that the cause of suffering is craving and ignorance (the second noble truth). This hypothesis can be verified by the experimental method embodied in the steps of the Eightfold Path. By means of the steps of this path, the soundness of the second noble truth can be established. In addition, the reality of the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering, can be verified, because through cultivating the path craving and ignorance are eliminated and the supreme happiness of nirvana is attained. This experimental process is repeatable, in keeping with sound scientific practice: not only did the Buddha attain the end of suffering but so, too, we can see historically, did all those who followed his path to the end.

Therefore, when we look closely at the teaching of the Buddha, we find that his approach has a great deal in common with the approach of science. This has naturally aroused a tremendous amount of interest in Buddhism among modern-minded people. We can begin to see why Einstein was able to make a remark like the one credited to him. The general agreement between the Buddhist approach and that of modern science will become even clearer when we examine the Buddhist attitude toward the facts of experience, which, like that of science, is analytical.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the data of experience are divided into two components, the objective component and the subjective component; in other words, the things we perceive around us, and we ourselves, the subjective perceivers. Buddhism has long been noted for its analytical approach in the fields of philosophy and psychology. What is meant by this is that the Buddha analyzed the facts of experience into various components or factors. The most basic of these components are the five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. These five aggregates can be viewed in terms of the eighteen elements, and there is also an even more elaborate analysis in terms of the seventy-two factors.

The procedure adopted here is analytical inasmuch as it breaks up the data of experience into their various components. The Buddha was not satisfied with a vague conception of experience in general; rather, he analyzed experience, probed its essence, and broke it down into its components, just as we might break down the phenomenon of a chariot into the wheels, the axle, the body, and so forth. The object of this exercise is to gain a better idea of how these phenomena function. When, for instance, we see a flower, hear a piece of music, or meet with a friend, all these experiences arise as the direct result of a combination of component elements.

This has been called the analytical approach of Buddhism, and again, it is not at all strange to modern science and philosophy. We find the analytical approach very widely applied in science, while in philosophy the analytical approach has characterized the thought of many European philosophers, perhaps most clearly and recently that of Bertrand Russell. Studies have been done comparing his analytical philosophy quite successfully with that of early Buddhism. Consequently, in western science and philosophy, we find a very close parallel to the analytical method as it is taught within the Buddhist tradition. This is one of the familiar and recognizable features that has attracted modern western intellectuals and academics to Buddhist philosophy. Modern psychologists, too, are now deeply interested in the Buddhist analysis of the various factors of consciousness: feeling, perception, and volition. They are turning in increasing numbers to the ancient teaching of the Buddha to gain greater insight into their own discipline.

This growing interest in the teaching of the Buddha--provoked by these many areas of affinity between Buddhist thought and the major currents of modern science, philosophy, and psychology--has reached its apex in the twentieth century with the startling suggestions advanced by relativity theory and quantum physics, which represent the very latest developments in experimental and theoretical science. Here, again, it is evident not only that the Buddha anticipated the primary methods of science (namely, observation, experimentation, and analysis), but also that, in some of their most specific conclusions about the nature of man and the universe, Buddhism and science actually coincide.For example, the importance of consciousness in the formation of experience, so long ignored in the West, has now been recognized. Not long ago, a noted physicist remarked that the universe may really be just something like a great thought. This very clearly follows in the footsteps of the teaching of the Buddha expressed in the Dhammapada, where it is said that the mind is the maker of all things. Likewise, the relativity of matter and energy--the recognition that there is no radical division between mind and matter--has now been confirmed by the most recent developments in modern experimental science.

The consequence of all this is that, in the context of contemporary western culture, scientists, psychologists, and philosophers have found in Buddhism a tradition in harmony with some of the most basic principles of western thought. In addition, they find Buddhism particularly interesting because, although the principal methods and conclusions of the western scientific tradition often closely resemble those of Buddhism, western science has thus far suggested no practical way of achieving an inner transformation, whereas in Buddhism such a way is clearly indicated. While science has taught us to build better cities, expressways, factories, and farms, it has not taught us to build better people. Therefore people in the contemporary world are turning to Buddhism, an ancient philosophy that has many features in common with the western scientific tradition but that goes beyond the materialism of the West, beyond the limits of practical science as we have known it thus far.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 3-12].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for transription of this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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