Somewhere in the sixth century BCE Buddhism was born, born from a single man Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha. After gaining his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha didn’t think that the rest of the world could handle all that he had learned. He did not want to teach others, nor did he want to spread his wisdom. Until at last his great compassion came over him and he started to gain the respect of a few by going to his old peers first. By starting with other intellectuals he secured that they at least had the capacity to learn what he had to teach. From this point on the spread his philosophy on the middle path with everyone who would listen.
He preached pacifism and that it was wrong to take any life be it a man’s or any lesser being’s. He taught that the noble eightfold path was the route to end all suffering and that the individual was the most important factor in achieving enlightenment. The Buddha taught about the five aggregates, the notion that the human being is made up of matter, sensation, consciousness, perception, and mental formations. In all of his teachings, however, the Buddha did not do so much as a lay the groundwork for which his followers could build a society on.
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The Buddha was acting out of compassion in that he had found the way to end his suffering and wanted to help others do the same. He was not however trying to build himself up as a god, and create a religion under which he was the focal point. Since this was not his goal, he did not get into politics, social formations, or anything else of the like. However, sooner or later, with the rapid growth of Buddhism in India, and the whole of Southeast Asia, these were the things that would determine the survival of its followers.
That is, an entire society of Buddhists had emerged, far greater numbers and organization than even the Buddha had imagined. With this emergence of the community came more and more problems with which the leaders had no frame of reference to combat. For instance, what to do when pacifism doesn’t work in protecting your community. How to maintain peacefulness when outside forces are conquering violently.
In many areas, where this sense of a Buddhist community had been created, the members had a great deal of pride in what they had created and were a part of, but their pride was kept in check by their inability to justify the right course of action. For example, the Buddhists of Sri Lanka believed that they were the custodians of the teachings of the Buddha. It was there, on their Island, where the Theravadan tradition, the only sect of the Hinayana still around, had been born. Buddhism had prospered in Sri Lanka for over sixteen hundred years until the first colonizers came from Portugal in the 1550’s CE. Sri Lanka was then ruled, by one or another European colonizer, until the year 1948.
The reason for their inability to rule themselves was not because of lack of numbers, for 75% of all people in Sri Lanka ascribe to Buddhism, but because of the non-violent nature of their resistance. In the contradiction between pride and pacifism, they had simply seen pride as a vice and continued to try and live their lives in accordance with non-violent virtues. For nearly four hundred years the Buddhists of Sri Lanka had tolerated the overbearing nature of their western habitats, that is until Anagarika Dharmapala began his career as a Buddhist revivalist.
It was Dharmapala who was able to justify a more active resistance; he started by tailoring the innate Sinhala nationalism to correspond to his goals. He cultivated the natives of Sri Lanka to believe in the “good old days”, the days when Buddhism had prospered under King Aschoke and others. When there was a great link between the rulers of their nation and them, the people, a time when temples, the stupa, and great pillars were being erected in the name of the Buddha. And once he had the ear of the people, he used every ounce of knowledge within his plethora of teachings to stimulate change. He integrated the beliefs of Buddhism, with the active nature of Christianity.
This “Protestant Buddhism” was at the heart of the resistance, without the reforms it allowed for, the Buddhists of Sri Lanka might still be struggling under British rule to this day.
The original goal of Protestant Buddhism was for the independence of the Sinhala, and for the building of a stronger Buddhism worldwide. By adapting Christian sensibility the revivalists were able to confidently combat the other main religions. No longer were they at a disadvantage in the educational system, because they created Buddhist “Sunday school”. No longer were they disadvantaged by lack of uniformity drawn out of oral tradition, for they emphasized scripture much like the Christians put their faith in the Bible.
The Protestant Buddhists also took responsibility for “this-worldly” things, such as politics, economics, and other social factors. Therefore, the beliefs of Buddhism were not changed, just adapted to fit the times. Each individual’s personal journey was still at the heart of the Theravadan tradition, only the application of its teachings had changed.
Another example of the modernization of Buddhism is the idea of “Socially Engaged Buddhism”. This seemingly new aged phenomenon has been born out of the ignorance of many to the potential extending effects of Buddhism. From the start, meditation, and self-knowledge has been at the heart of Buddhism. However, this does not mean that Buddhism, as it has evolved today is simply an individual thing. Just as laypeople, monks, and nuns make up the sangha, or Buddhist community, creating a give and take relationship among themselves. So should the Buddhist people interact with the outside world in much the same way? Their community fits into a worldly community just as they individually fit into the sangha. And just as the individual can influence, and contribute to the larger group, so can the group influence and contribute on a larger, global forum.
The Buddha himself, though selfish and self-absorbed at first, did not retreat to the safety and serenity of the Bodhi tree, withdrawing from this world, but rather went out and actively spread his wisdom so that others may also have a chance to become enlightened. “Compassion, they seem to say, must ultimately express itself in action, must take form, if it is to be real.”
The world in the 21st century is inextricably different from that of 2500 years ago in the time of the Buddha. We have innumerous “causes” to believe in, from the threat of nuclear destruction to the plight of the rainforests. Buddhism has taught us that it is not just acceptable, but our duty to put effort into the aid of these things. Our compassion must be expressed through action, Buddhists cannot sit idly while this kind of strife goes on in the world. The socially engaged Buddhist aims to live a life based on pure moral principles, while contributing to the lifting of the suffering of all, not just themselves.
One example of a Buddhist view on social reform comes from the Digha-Nikaya, where it teaches that poverty breeds many crimes such as theft and violence. And that in order to eradicate this evil, the government must not punish the wrongdoers, because this just causes more of the same types of action, but rather should do what it can to help the impoverished people. Once poverty is gone the Buddha says, then these crimes of poverty will also vanish.
This is a bit idealistic but holds much more truth than any other leading party will admit, in that if given the chance to earn an honest living most people would rather accept it than deal with a life of “necessary” crime. In this way, peaceful, non-intrusive Buddhist ideals can be coupled with activism.
Buddhists want to create a society where there are no distractions, where everyone can afford to direct their attention towards their own journey to enlightenment. However, in order to reach this lofty goal, the individual must take a supporting role for the time being. The idea that although the enlightenment of the individual is the most important thing to that individual, the ultimate enlightenment of any one member of the community is the most important goal of the community as a whole, and must be true of its members as well.
This view is very similar to the evolutionary explanation for siblcare, one generation of a type of bird staying with the parents and helping them rear the young of the next generation. At first, there doesn’t seem to be any adaptational benefit to that brother bird staying with the family when he could be out spreading his genes directly by means of mating.
The benefit to this puzzling behaviour was finally discovered and explained in that the general ability of birds of this kind to successfully mate in their first year away from the nest was very low. They did not have any nest-building skills in which to attract a viable mate. They actually had a better chance of indirectly passing on their genes by aiding their parents in the care of the young, because every sibling shares at least 50% of their genes with one another. So in a sense, some of their genes are in fact being added to the world.
This is every animal’s most basic goal in life. Also, this bird learns valuable skills from its father so that it can go out the next year and have a better chance of mating and passing off its genes directly. The Buddhist people are in a sense like the brother bird, looking to further themselves, but doing so while helping the whole society at the same time. This is what Nagarjuna, a second-century Buddhist activist, calls the first principle of Buddhist social ethics; individualist transcendentalism.
Nagarjuna continues his teachings with that of compassionate socialism, “based on a psychology of abundance, achieved by generosity.” He insightfully wrote about a number of policies that could be adopted by the government, furthermore, he wrote extensively on why they should be adopted and how they would help everything from the economic situation of nations to the ants and dogs within each community. Nagarjuna was very specific as to how these principles of his could and should be carried out in the building of shelters and the providing of clean water to drink and so forth.
The socially engaged Buddhist wants not only to live a life of good karma and further their journey to a state of enlightenment but also wants to create a society that would be beneficial to be born back into. A society where each person helps each other, every person contributes to the greater community, and especially where the community aids the individual. The only way for this goal to be reached is to do something about it in this lifetime. To address the need for a Buddhist perspective on public policy, in essence, to merge the inner with the outer beings.
Though they came forth from different stimuli, Protestant Buddhism and Socially Engaged Buddhism share a lot in common, mainly as examples of the evolving nature of Buddhism as a whole. Whereas the integrity of the ancient teachings can be preserved, but not with the rigidity that would prevent them from being applicable to today’s world.
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