K S Palihakkara, ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’, Stamford Lake Publishers, Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka, 2003. Pages: 140.
Epigraphs: The highest expression of religion lies in the practising of morality. Gandhi
The Buddha is not someone you pray to, or try to get something from. Nor is the Buddha someone you bow down to. Steve Hagen (Zen Buddhist priest)
It may seem strange to write on a book published two decades ago and now out of print but my aim is to draw attention to some of the author’s observations on Buddhism for the benefit both of non-Buddhists and also for Buddhists so that they can make comparisons with their beliefs and behaviour. The author, Dr Palihakkara, is deceased but a friend (whom I’ve never met; a Sinhalese Buddhist in Colombo) said she was translating the work into Sinhala. I quote from the book’s back cover: Dr Palihakkara (hereafter, the Author) was Director of Education; also the Director of Pirivena Education, and the Secretary to the Oriental Studies Society which conducts examinations mainly for the Buddhist clergy. He has many publications on Education, written in Sinhala: this book too can be seen as an attempt at education. Martin Luther was a Christian monk whose aim was to cleanse Christianity of accretions which he believed led to beliefs and practices not in the original doctrine; indeed, which went against and violated original teaching. I see Dr Palihakkara as something of a Buddhist Martin Luther but, unlike Luther, without an impact: as far as I know, the book has not provoked discussion. I will return to this aspect at the end.
Buddhism has long attracted me because of its rationality and ‘reasonableness’; its emphasis on practical, daily, response and conduct, and what I may call its serene quietness. I see similarities between Buddhism and Stoic philosophy, particularly the Stoicism of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his ‘Meditations’. (As I wrote elsewhere, adopting the words of Ben Jonson on Shakespeare, I honour Aurelius this side of idolatry as much as any.) There’s also a link between Buddhism and Existential philosophy with the latter’s emphasis on individual responsibility. For example, in Buddhism it’s not a case of “Thou shalt not kill” where the command comes from outside, but from within the individual: “I undertake not to kill” (page 54). It’s ironic and most unfortunate that Buddhism has been politicised and racialized; turned into a vociferous and violent weapon of intolerance and domination. As the Author comments, to know true Buddhism is to know more than Buddhism: it enhances knowledge about human nature and life.
I have elsewhere pointed out the distinction between ‘religious doctrine’ and ‘religion’. The former is divine in origin (Jesus Christ) or from a special, a unique, person: the Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed. On the other hand, religion with its hierarchy, its rituals, rites and ceremonies is a human construct. Unfortunately, we are careless and don’t bother to make clear whether we are talking about religious doctrine (as preached) or religion as it is actually practised and finds expression in private and public life. On somewhat similar lines, the Author makes a distinction between ‘Early Buddhism’ (what the Buddha actually taught) and ‘Popular Buddhism’. His aim is “to extricate Buddhism from the mesh of myths and miracles and metaphysics, and to present it as close as possible to the actual words of the Buddha.” Buddhism’s unique and wonderful nature has been lost, and it has now been made into just another of the major religions (Author). Early Buddhism must be rescued from the Popular Buddhism of the present. The essence of Buddhism is there in the Four Noble Truths: First, the truth or the fact of duhkha. This word, the opposite of sukha, can be variously translated as sorrow, pain or dissatisfaction. Secondly, the causes of duhkha. Thirdly, the eradication of ‘Thanha’ (or desires, of various kinds), leading to Nirvana. Fourthly, the Noble Eightfold Path. Of the three ‘Tri-Pitaka’ (the Vinaya Pitaka, Sutra Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka), the ‘Sutra Pitaka’ is the source for what the Buddha actually taught, but even here one must be cautious because the Buddha died in 483 BCE and the scriptures were written down four hundred years later (page iii). Further, the Hindu tradition of memorizing certain sacred texts did not then exist among Buddhists, so what was written was what his close followers could remember (page 7). The Author’s aim is to sieve, sift and recover the gems; to re-present what the Buddha actually said.
As Dr Walpola Sri Rahula expresses it in his ‘What the Buddha Taught’, among the founders of religions, the Buddha is the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being; did not claim inspiration from any god or external power. Man is his own master and there’s no higher being or power that sits in judgement over his destiny. As the Buddha’s well-known parable of the man shot with a poisoned arrow makes abundantly clear, the Buddha was an agnostic. (Etymologically, agnostic is from ‘gnostos’, meaning ‘known’. The ‘a’ in agnostic is a negating particle: unknown or, as here, unknowable. Similarly with “Asoka“: A + soka or sorrow. Hence, one who has, through wisdom and effort, risen above sorrow.) But as Stephen Batchelor writes in his essay ‘The Agnostic Buddhist’, today monks “who control the institutional bodies of Buddhism” have confident answers on “whether the world is eternal or not; what happens to the Buddha after death; the status of the mind in relation to the body, and so on.” The Buddha’s caution and openness have been replaced by certitude. Certitude has led to a closing of the mind, resulting in harsh dogmatism. As Charles Darwin wrote: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.
The Buddha did not indulge in magic, mystery and mysticism but dealt with the here and now. I cite two examples from ‘The Dhammapada’: Hunger is the foremost illness. Old age in itself does not make one an “elder”. Religion has many components: doctrine, the supernatural, beliefs and myths; rituals and prayers but central to the Buddha’s teaching is reason. Indeed, the very first lines of the copy of ‘The Dhammapada’ that I have declare the essential, the crucial, role that our mind plays: “All experience is preceded by mind; led by mind; made by mind”. We are given to separating the mind and the heart, and that great poet, Yeats, seems to have erred when he wrote: God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone”. I am an ignoramus on medical science but understand that our emotions arise from tissue, not in the heart but in the brain. When the Buddha said that greater in combat than a person who conquers a thousand times a thousand people is the person who conquers himself, how else is this victory, this control of self, to be achieved other than by the vigilant exercise of the mind? It’s those who are not in control of themselves, not true Buddhists, who seek to dominate others. I used to offer students the proposition that though we see through our eyes, finally we see with our minds. For example, it’s the mind which “sees” whether a little child is delightful and endearing or some ‘thing’ to be brutally slaughtered, perhaps because it belongs to another group. The Buddha’s ‘Dependent Origination’ (Paticca Samuppada) can be seen today as rational cause and effect: “I shall teach you the Dhamma: When this exists, that comes to be […] with the cessation of this, that ceases.” Sam Harris (neuroscientist, philosopher, best-selling author) in his book, ‘The End of Faith’, comments that Buddhism is not a religion of faith but of reason and morality. Buddhism is not belief but knowing. Unfortunately, “Buddhists are so tradition bound that they just do not check the veracity of what they believe” (Author, page 20). Irrationality of some kinds is impervious to reason. ‘Maitree’ or loving kindness to all beings (the non-human included) is a central feature of Buddhism but, as the Author notes (page 63), it’s the kind mind that leads to kind speech and kind deeds. Conflict and wars begin in the mind. Much of the sorrow in this life arises from ‘Avijja’ or ignorance, be that ignorance of one’s self; of others and of the nature of life. But how is ignorance to be dispelled, other than through knowledge, that is, through the use of the mind? (A witty variation of the saying, “It’s the thought that matters” is to omit the definite article and say, “It is thought that matters”.) Enlightenment leads to ‘Anatta’ and the freeing of oneself from ‘Maya’.
Again, the Buddha is unique among religious teachers in that he urged his followers not to accept anything he said because he said it. They must think independently so that, if they come to accept his teaching, it will be their truth and no longer his. As the Author states, true Buddhism is rational (page 5) but now to question what Buddhist monks say that the Buddha said is seen as an outrage; an insult to be erased by ostracism, execration or by physical violence. So far has Buddhism drifted away from what the ‘Enlightened One’ attempted to inculcate.
A question asked in the past as in the present is why we should lead moral lives if there is no God or gods to punish or reward us. But the answer is there in the question itself: if there are no gods, it leaves only us. We then are, if not the only, the primary source of the happiness we enjoy or of the pain we experience and endure. In Buddhism, there’s no creator god; no gods to propitiate or ask for assistance. In the Four Noble Truths, the core of his teaching, the Buddha does not refer to earlier or future births, not even once (Author, page 39). In what initially may appear to be a digression, I turn to an essay, available on Google, by the Nobel Prize Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, titled ‘The Contemporary relevance of Buddha’. Sen argues that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than exists in any other classical language. Madhava Acharya, the remarkable 14th century philosopher, “discussed all the religious schools of thought within the Hindu structure. The first chapter is ‘Atheism’ – a very strong presentation of the argument in favour of atheism” (Sen). Though the concept of ‘India’ did not then exist, today we’ll call the Buddha an Indian, and the Hindu tradition has a moral element, even where it is atheistic. The widespread conviction that you cannot have a well-grounded morality if you do not somehow invoke God was firmly repudiated by the Buddha (Sen, op. cit.).
Moving to true or Early Buddhism, the Author is of the opinion that most Buddhists, particularly in Sri Lanka, “are not aware of what their religious leader the Buddha” actually taught” (page 131). One may add: Nor are they told by the monks who should correct and educate. Indeed, it’s quite the contrary. Not knowing, people can’t practice Buddhism “in the way it should be practised” (ibid). The Buddha gave Buddhists the freedom of thought over 2500 years ago, but that freedom is not used; applied and practised today (page 94). On the contrary, “staunch Buddhists” (page 110) will take as truth anything “their religious mentors” tell them. To question, to think independently, is seen as a “sacrilege” (page 131). Indeed, to accept unthinkingly is taken as a sign of their religiosity.
The Buddha’s father was not a king (page 32). Of the four kingdoms of Magadha, Kosala, Vatsa and Surasena, King Suddhodhana was head not of “a kingdom but a small province of Kosala” (ibid). The king of Kosala was King Pasenadi (page 18). Nor was there anything magical or even extraordinary in the Buddha’s birth and early years. The introduction of magic and the supernatural is “an insult to the Buddha’s religion” (Author, page 5). These may lead to Buddhism being thrown to “the dust heap as a lot of unbelievable trash” (page 19). When the Buddha was born, “the Guardian Gods” did not come down to earth to receive the baby; nor soon after did the infant walk seven steps, treading on seven lotus flowers that had miraculously sprouted (page 18). The Buddha was not sheltered from the rain by the king of the cobras. He did not visit Sri Lanka, the distance being about 2000 km. It’s irrational to believe this because there is no reference to the Buddha visiting even any other part of India “outside the Gangetic Plain” (page 25). The Buddha did not visit the heavens to preach to his mother who had died seven days after his birth (page 26). The Buddha’s death, contrary to popular belief, was not attended by anything miraculous.
The Author’s intention in rejecting such naive beliefs is not to denigrate but, on the contrary, to enhance Buddhism; to show, where world religions are concerned, its unique nature; to place it again at the rational and ethical (therefore noble) height which, in the Author’s belief, “the Master” had originally constructed. The Buddha, to use the Author’s image, had made a clearing but, over time, the jungle of myths and mystery has overrun that space.
As stated above, Buddhism in Sri Lanka is highly politicised and racialized. Though not all Sinhalese are Buddhist, all Buddhists are Sinhalese. Similarly, not all Tamils are Hindu but all Hindus are Tamil. Therefore, the domination of Buddhism is seen as domination by the Sinhalese; the denigration of Hinduism as a denigration of Tamils and their culture. Abroad, Buddhism is presented as compassionate and all-embracing; immune to the disease of colour, race and caste. But within Sri Lanka, Popular Buddhism is narrow and rejectionist, racist and violent. In this context, it will shock, outrage and incense some Buddhists to read that “almost all Buddhists practice more of Hinduism than Buddhism” (page 109). The Author states that belief in rebirth and Karma are from Hinduism (I will return to Karma later), and that many stories in Popular Buddhism, as wonderful as they are improbable, are from Indian folklore. Hinduism’s rebirth had “a deep impression on Buddhism especially after the Buddha’s death” (page 35). Given the shared ground between Hinduism and Popular Buddhism, Buddhist and Hindus may have co-existed amicably in Sri Lanka (as elsewhere in Asia and East Asia) but for the racialisation of Buddhism.
The Author makes several references to the non-existence of the soul and to rebirth. The Buddha “categorically dismissed the existence” of the soul “as all Buddhists know” (page 117). The “Buddha was the only religious leader of repute who did not preach of life after death. However, all Buddhists seem to believe in it” (page 49). The Buddha did not mention a word about another life or other worlds (page 46). “As all Buddhists know, Buddhism preaches ‘Anathma’ or no rebirth” (page 41). “We Buddhists speak of ‘sasara duk’”, sorrow in the rounds of rebirth, but the Buddha never spoke of it (page 118). Reference in the ‘Sutra pitaka’ to past lives has been slipped in by “persons who would not give up the idea of rebirth” (page 39). Gaining merit for the dead, either through prayers or offerings, is not true Buddhism because the Buddha clearly said that one person cannot benefit from the merit of another (page 78). Evil is done by oneself alone; no one can purify another (The Dhammapada). Monks chant ‘pirith’, starting in the late evening and reciting all night, changing groups as they get tired. The practice is thought to bring blessings to the place or to the people listening. However, “it is hard to believe that a rationalist like the Buddha who rejected prayers and recitals of the Brahmins to their gods, would have himself resorted to chanting ‘pirith’” (page 66). It is yet another Hindu influence. Though it will not be admitted, Buddhism in Sri Lanka is highly ‘Hinduised’.
The Author dismisses much of what the Mahavamsa (compiled about a thousand years after the death of the Enlightened One) records about the Buddha. As already mentioned, the Buddha did not visit Sri Lanka: Author, page 25. That the dying Buddha entrusted Sri Lanka to the god Sakra is not mentioned, neither in the Maha Parinibbana Sutra (which deals with the Buddha’s last days) nor in the Sutra Pitaka (page 101). The Author, perhaps ironically, wonders why the Compassionate One did not chose his own home region for special protection rather than far distant Sri Lanka.
‘Nirvana’ and ‘Thanha’ are allied. The latter term can be translated as desire, craving or longing, and is of various kinds. The Four Noble Truths explain that the eradication of Thanha leads to Nirvana. Nirvana is not a geographical place, as in other religions, but a state of mind. One hears monks wishing Nirvana after death (page 50) but Nirvana, when it is attained, is reached and enjoyed in this life: there is no after-life in Buddhism; neither paradise to be enjoyed nor hell to be endured. “Attaining Nirvana after death is a serious misconception” (page 118). The Author says that some monks may attain Nirvana in their present life but lay people, being as it were “in the midst of life” (Christian ‘Book of Common Prayer’) cannot. All that the latter can do is to strive and struggle to reduce Thanha, and so increase Nirvana. In other words, Nirvana is to be approximated to rather than reached. (Christians may recall the saying that there are no Christians but only those who, day after day, try to be Christian, that is, to lead a Christian life.) The author advises that rather than praying and offering gifts to non-existent gods to grant their wishes and desires, they should try to reduce their thanha.
‘Karrma’ means action but as the Author stresses (Chapter XV111), karma applies only to volitional, conscious, intentional acts. And ‘action’ here denotes not only the physical but also the mental and the verbal. Karma too is related to, and arises from Thanha. Since there is no rebirth, Karma is the consequence of action in the past of the present life. To link Karma to a previous birth is entirely against Early Buddhism (page vii). The concept of Karma, like that of rebirth, came into Buddhism from Hinduism (page 108). The Buddha in his Four Noble Truths, did not attribute sorrow to sins committed in past births (page 111). If a child is born with a physical or mental handicap, it is explained on the basis of a totally unknown past birth. But today, medical and genetic sciences help us with answers (page 106). As with politics, a people’s religious beliefs and practices indicate their level of education, intelligence and mental sophistication. However, belief in karma can be very useful to political and religious leaders “for when the poor and the outcastes suffer in their poverty, sickness and squalor in their hovels” (page 120), the responsibility can be shifted, and the blame placed on “inheriting bad karma from past births”. It’s yet another instance of “Blame the victim” adopted by those with power, wealth and success. Monks who preach this non-Buddhist version of Karma are conniving and collaborating with ruling groups and individuals. Religion, no less than politics, has to do with power.
Gold is known as an incorruptible metal. Chaucer (1342-1400) rhetorically asked: If gold rusts, what will iron do? The greater the power held and the respect accorded, the greater the responsibility. And if there is a fall, the bigger and more shameful it will be. Monks are highly respected and implicitly trusted by the folk. So if they peddle fantastic tales of “myths and miracles”, devout and credulous people will take it as literal truth. If some members of the clergy “rust” in terms of veracity, then lay men and women will follow suit. The Buddha was saddened that many who wore the saffron robe had evil traits and lacked restraint; that they are immoral and unrestrained, feeding on what the people give (Dhammapada, Chapter 22). The Buddha spoke gently, and he “advised the monks to speak slowly” (Author, page 63). This, I take it, was for the benefit of both listeners, so that they could grasp and digest what they heard, and for that of the monk who spoke; that he thought of, and weighed, his words. (As the philosopher Husserl said: My words take me by surprise and teach me what I think.) But the speech of many monks today is hasty and, worse, harsh. When the Soul of Great Compassion entered a home on invitation, he washed his feet himself: today, monks expect those of the house to do it for them (pages 22-23). I quote from page 101: “The Buddha had never encouraged his followers to pray to gods, but in almost all the temples of Sri Lanka there are images or pictures of various gods in separate rooms or sections. Historians often say that this practice started with the South Indian invasions and also as a gesture to the South Indian queens whom our monarchs married. This is only partly true…” Some monks, the Author states, encourage this “practice because praying to gods “is a source of income” (page 101). Of the two ‘schools’ of Buddhism, the Theravada (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar) and the Mahayana, the former term can be glossed as The School of the Monks. The Author boldly states that today Thervada Buddhism is the ”Buddhism of the Theras (monks) rather than of the Buddha!” (page 101). “I personally think that it is high time we go back to Early Buddhism and be with the Buddha than with Theras” (Author, page 108).
To borrow words from the poet Wordsworth, the Buddha heard “the sad music of humanity” and set out to understand its causes. Turning to yet another poet, John Keats (‘The Fall of Hyperion’) writes of those to whom “the miseries of the world are misery” and will not let them be indifferent and inactive. The Buddha was the Maha Karunika, a being of the greatest kindness and, as the Venerable Rahula expresses it, so perfect in his ‘human-ness’ that he came to be seen as super-human. He was “a man endowed with super intelligence, determination and all-embracing loving kindness” (The Author, page 1V. Note: the Author writes that the Buddha was a man; not a god, not a divine being in human form). The “Buddha can stand as the greatest human being in history with his sharp intellect and bold and gentle character”. Myths, miracles and the supernatural detract from, rather than enhance his stature (page 135). The enlightenment of the Buddha is “one of the greatest events in world history, for this was the starting point from which man began to think rationally (page 41).
This work is radical (some may describe it as iconoclastic) and those with political, religious and social influence will not draw attention to it. The most effective way to “sink” a book is to ignore it; to pretend it doesn’t exist. But why, as the Author argues, was Early Buddhism made into Popular Buddhism? What the Buddha preached were attributes such as rational understanding, morality, self-control and compassion. He did not believe in the existence of a creator God or of minor gods; he rejected the existence of a soul; denied past or future lives. Karma was the consequence of volitional action in this life. There being no future life, Nirvana should be aimed at in the here and now. The above leads to questions such as: What is religion? Is what the Buddha taught a religion, as normally understand, or a moral code? Should he be grouped with religious leaders or with philosophers? Some have argued that we should not talk of “Buddhism” with its noun-forming suffix, but of the Buddha damma or darma, that is, the teaching of the Buddha. However, such theological questions are beyond my competence – even to attempt an answer.
Voltaire (1694-1778), a Deist, said that if there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him. Despite humanity claiming it is sapient; despite our self-confidence, we need God and religion. The poet A E Housman (1859-1936) wondered how can we face our bedevilment and bewilderment, we who are strangers and afraid in a world we did not make? In the words of Matthew Arnold’s well-known poem ‘Dover Beach’, the world which seems so various and beautiful, in reality has no “certitude” nor “help for pain”. We are not safe and clear on some high mountain but are confused on a dark plain where “ignorant armies clash by night”. God may not need us, but we certainly need God who is at once both mystery and explanation; fear and reassurance. To the Author’s “myths and miracles”, we can add hierarchy and authority; ritual and ceremony.
As a non-Buddhist, I found this work very interesting and instructive. I hope Stamford Lake will republish the book, and that my friend finishes her work of translating it into Sinhala. The latter is far more important than the English edition. More important than talking about the people is to speak for them but most important of all is to talk with the people. And to do that, one must speak in their language.
I regret the Author is no longer here to further explicate and, if necessary, defend himself from attack. But his love of true Buddhism; the highest admiration he had for the Buddha, and his impressive scholarship cannot be doubted.