By Kapila Abhayawansa –
Articles “God In Buddhism?” and “From Siddhartha Gautama to God” written respectively by Mr. Shyamon Jayasinghe and Dr. Jagath Asoka appeared in Colombo Telegraph gave me the idea to write something revealing the true nature of popular Buddhist practices. It seems to me that not only both writers but also many amongst us who criticize popular Buddhist activities fail to understand the complex nature, different dispositions and the levels of the understanding of the masses in the world. We cannot put all the people in one category due to diverse mental capacity of the people. There is no one single medicine for all the ailments. The Buddha has understood this situation of the world. He made use of different skillful means to take all the people onto one platform. Once, the Buddha proclaimed: “I do not say that one can win the final knowledge at the very beginning. It is had from a gradual discipline, a gradual mode of action and conduct”. (na āyatkeneva aññārādhanam vadāmi. Apica anupubba-sikkhā anupubba-kiriyā anupubba-patipadā aññārādhanam hoti.-M.I.479).
Most of the Buddhists not only in Sri lanka but also in all the Buddhist countries irrespective of their traditions such as Theravada, Mahayana and Tantrayana perform popular religious activities in their day to day life. We cannot say that all such activities are based on wrong beliefs. It is true that people practice them with the blind faith without understanding their true values. Originally, such popular practices were introduced to the ordinary people by the Buddhist monks in order to keep them away from the unrighteous and bad activities which are harmful to both themselves and others (pāpā nivārenti) and to encourage them to cultivate Buddhist virtues such as liberality, generosity, gratitude, unity, collective responsibility, respect to the worthy ones and so on (kalyāne nivesenti). Usually, ordinary people are unable to grasp anything without an object or a symbol. Direct lessens of ethics or philosophy wouldn’t be fruitful on them. Moral sense can be implanted in their mind through the symbols. For an example, statue of the Buddha has been taken as an object for veneration as a means to be mindful on the virtues of the Buddha. It should be mentioned that early Buddhism recognizes mindfulness on the virtues of the Buddha (buddhānussati) as one of the meditation subjects. We have to understand original implications of all those activities although most of the people make use of them in the wrong way. I do not find anything wrong there if the people practice them grasping the virtues involved with them as a preparatory measure to reach the subsequent step on the path of wisdom acknowledged by the Buddha.
It should be accepted that the masses belonging to any religion do not have deep knowledge about both doctrinal aspect and the practical aspect of their religions. Therefore, they do not know what their religions mean. They merely take the religion only as a means of help in their grievances. On the other hand, only the popular rights and rituals introduced by the religious hierarchy become their religion as well as their culture. In this respect, it seems that Sri Lankan Buddhist rites and rituals were formed in compatible with the Buddhist virtues. Buddha-pujā, Bodhi-pujā, Cetiya-pujā, Daladā-pujā, calibration of Vaisakha and the like of the Sri Lankan Buddhists came to practice not only as the religious activities but also as the cultural activities. In the real sense they were introduced by the Buddhist monks who were responsible for establishing Buddhism in Sri Lanka as substitutes for the existed religious customs in the Sri Lankan society when Buddhism came to Sri Lanka. They provide the Buddhist masses the way to achieve good qualities introduced by Buddhism as well as cultural entertainment and recreation.
I read an article written by Sharmini Serasinghe appeared in the Colombo Telegraph entitled ‘Mahawamsa – an Insult to the Buddha’ where vain attempt has been made to ascribe the introduction of religious-cultural events of the Sri Lankan Buddhists to the author of Mahawamsa. What is interesting there was that the writer suggested not reading the article by those who oppose to the contents of the article implying that the facts given there are absolutely true. In reality, Mahanama, the author of Mahawamsa has nothing to do with those events. What he has done was that he has recorded what he has seen in the contemporary socio-cultural background and what he heard from the already existed literature. Even prior to Mahanama there was a tradition of keeping records by the Mahā Vihārins about Buddhist religious events took place time to time in the Sri Lankan Society. Really they were the sources for the later written chronicle literature which include the chronicles such as Bodhiwamsa, Thupawamsa and Dāţhāwamsa. Dipawamsa which is the first chronicle of Sri Lanka written prior to Mahavamsa records most of the facts given in Mahawansa. Therefore, it is injustice to put all the blames on the shoulders of Mahanama.
“By converting the philosophy into a religion, Buddhist monks, also converted the Buddha, into a ‘God’, and themselves, as his ‘Messengers’, who must be revered and worshiped; totally disregarding the Buddha’s words” says Sharmani Serasinghe. This statement is totally wrong in Buddhist point of view. Buddhism is not a philosophy in the modern sense of the word. It is really a way of life based on a doctrine which supposed to be personally verified by the Buddha. If we think that Buddhism is a philosophy for a moment, then what is the use of such a philosophy when it is not used into the practice? Most important requirement for a doctrine for its application in the life of the people is to have a confidence on the master and his doctrine. In this respect there is no problem with the intelligent people to have a confidence of the doctrine as they can understand the value of it. But, in the case of ordinary people some other method should have to be followed. Target of the Buddha was not only the intelligent people. Therefore, Buddhist monks who understood the value of Buddhism wanted to have shared it with maximum possible number of people. Therefore, the master, his doctrine and the followers of the doctrine (Buddha, Dhamma and the Samgha) should have to be highlighted in the mind of the people. No one can find anything wrong there. Buddhist monk did not want to have Buddhism as a philosophy confined only to the scriptures. We must not forget fact fact that today we are fortunate enough to talk about Buddhism as the result of the works of those monks. If they did not appear as “his messengers who must be revered and worshiped’ there would not have been even the scriptures of Buddhism.
Here I am not trying to say that all these religio-cultural activities of the Sinhala Buddhists are taking place in Sri Lankan society in the pure form without any blemish. As they are living practices, they also are subject to the admixture of corruptive elements which, is taking place in every sphere of the modern global human society due to different reasons. That the most of the present monks in Sri Lanka who are under the sway of currant global craving for luxuries abuse those practices for their living means is an another story.. What is important in this respect is not to uproot the whole thing but to present constructive critics in order to highlight the hidden values involved in them and to enlighten the people to choose what should be taken and what should be abandoned by them in their practices. That may be the duty of those who think themselves as broad minded and wise in the words of Sharmani.
When we come to the point of God in the Buddha, it is certain that no any Buddhist take the Buddha as the creator God who is the object of prayers in theistic religions. Specifically, Theravada Buddhists who have the religious education believe that the Buddha was a human being who acquired super human qualities (uttari munassa-dhamma) by his own effort with his enlightenment. And also they know that the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha are not in a position to give the followers what is expected from the God by the theistic followers. But, the ordinary Buddhists also as the human beings have an idea in a corner of their mind to the effect that there is a hidden power in an unseen world which can help them for the requirements where their material means are unsatisfactory to achieve them. The deviating point of the Buddhists from those who are theistic is that Buddhists ascribe that hidden power to the virtues of the Buddha or Triple Gem. On the other hand even the ordinary Buddhists do not believe that the hidden power of the virtues of the Buddha has anything to do with the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world which are assigned to the work of the Almighty God.
“If you are a Buddhist, you need God more than the Buddha”. Says Dr.Jagath Asoka. I cannot understand on what ground he expressed this Idea. On what data he can have generalization to the effect that “It is a fact that God resides in our minds”. Further, It seems that he does not want to criticize his view when he says that “I think they are not only fooling themselves but also are trying to fool the rest of us: He has already labeled one who is going to reject his idea as fool. But, I say even with JA’s label of fool that God resides in the mind of one who has no proper critical knowledge of the concept of God. The concept of God is quite similar to the concept of soul in their origin for both arise in the speculative mind and not in the actuality. Emanuel Kant, a great German philosopher going in the line of Buddhism is of the opinion that both soul and God are a Priori concepts of the pure reason which is the faculty of speculation. Both are subject to affirmation and negation which result nothing. When one is conscious of the conflicts in reason generating from affirmation and negation, the concept of God ceased to be in one’s mind.
According to Dr. Jagath Asoka that the Buddha’s first two verses in Dhammapada about mind are an allusion to God. This is really a gross misunderstanding of the characteristics of the mind presented in those two verses in the Dhammapada. In this respect another misconception of JA is reflected from his explanation of the term ādicca-bandhu. It is true that one of the epithets of the Buddha is ādiccabandhu which means relative of the sun. The Buddha gets this epithet as the sākya clan to which Siddhārtha Gautama belonged is believed to be descended from Surya-wamsa. It seems that the description given in the Buddhist Proper names by G. P. Malalasekera is wrongly taken by JA. The term ādiccabandhu does not anyway suggest that the Buddha is considered as God. What I have to emphasis here is that touching the teaching of the Buddha from here and there leads to the misrepresentation of the Buddha.
*Prof. Kapila Abhayawansa, Vice Rector, International Buddhist College, Thailand