Buddhism Vis-a-vis Other Approaches
By Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammanada - From the book "What Buddhist Believe"
The Following Sections are Covered in this Document
Contents Section
Is Buddhism Similar to Other Contemporary Teachings in India? 1
Is Buddhism a Theory or a Philosophy? 2
Is Buddhism Pessimistic? 3
Is Buddhism Atheistic? 4
The Dharma realised by the Buddha was unheard of before.

IN His first sermon, the DHARMACAKKA SUTRA , the Buddha said that the Dharma which He preached was unheard of before. Knowledge of the Dharma which arose was clear to His vision, to His knowledge, to His wisdom, to His penetration, and to His Enlightenment.

Some people claim that the Buddha did not preach a new doctrine but merely reformed the old teaching which was existing in India . However, the Buddha was no mere reformer of Hinduism as some protagonists of this ancient creed make Him out to be. The Buddha's way of life and doctrine were substantially different from the way of life and the religious beliefs that the people in India had. The Buddha lived, taught and died as a non-Vedic and non-Brahmanic religious Teacher. Nowhere did the Buddha acknowledge His indebtedness to the existing religious beliefs and practices. The Buddha considered Himself as initiating a rational spiritual method, as opening a new path.

That was the main reason why many other religious groups could not agree with Him. He was condemned, criticised and insulted by the most noted teachers and sects of the Vedic Brahmanic tradition. It was with the intention of destroying or absorbing the Buddha and His Teaching, that the Brahmans of the pre-Christian era went so far as to accept the Buddha as an Avatara or incarnation of their God. Yet some others despised Him as a vasalaka , a mundaka , a samanaka , a nastika and sudra . (These words were used in India during the Buddha's time to insult a religious man who was not a Brahman).

There is no doubt that the Buddha reformed certain customs, religious duties, rites and ethics and ways of living prevalent at the time. The greatness of His character was like a pin-point that pricked the balloon of false beliefs and practices so that they could burst and reveal their emptiness.

But as far as the fundamental, philosophical and psychological teachings are concerned, it is groundless to say that the Buddha had copied ideas from any existing religion at that time. For instance, the idea of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination and Nirvana, were not known before His coming. Although the belief in karma and rebirth was very common, the Buddha gave quite logical and reasonable explanations to this belief and introduced it as natural law of cause and effect. Although the Buddha used these terms because they were familiar to His listeners, He gave them very original interpretations, quite different from the way the Brahmans understood them. Despite all these the Buddha did not ridicule any sincere existing religious belief or practice. He appreciated the value of Truth wherever He found it and He even gave a better explanation of their beliefs. That is why He once said that the Truth must be respected wherever it is found. On the other hand, however, He was never afraid to speak out against mythology and false claims.

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The enlightenment of the Buddha is not a product of mere intellect.

DURING the time of the Buddha there were many learned men in India who pursued knowledge simply for its own sake. These people were interested only in theoretical knowledge. Indeed, some of them went from city to city challenging anyone to a debate and their greatest thrill was to defeat an opponent in such verbal combats. But the Buddha said that such people were no nearer to the realization of the truth because in spite of their cleverness, knowledge and verbal skills they did not have true wisdom and insight to overcome greed, hatred and delusion. In fact, these people were often proud and arrogant. Their egoistic concepts disturbed the religious atmosphere, and they loved arguing simply for the sake of arguing.

According to the Buddha, one must first seek to understand one's own mind. This was to be done through concentration which gives one a profound inner wisdom or realization. Insight is to be gained not by philosophical argument or worldly knowledge but by the silent realization of the illusion of the self.

Buddhism is a righteous way of life for the peace and happiness of every living being. It is a method to get rid of miseries and to find liberation. The Teaching of the Buddha is not limited to one nation or race. It is neither a creed nor mere faith. It is a Teaching for the entire universe. It is a Teaching for all time. Its objectives are selfless service, good-will, peace, salvation and deliverance from suffering.

Salvation in Buddhism is an individual affair. You have to save yourself just as you have to eat, drink and sleep by yourself. The advice rendered by the Buddha points the Way to liberation; but His advice was never intended to be taken as a theory or philosophy. When He was questioned as to what theory He propounded, the Buddha replied that He preached no theories and whatever He did preach was the result of His own experience. Thus His Teaching does not offer any theory. Theory cannot bring one nearer to spiritual perfection. Theories are the very fetters that bind the mind and impede spiritual progress. Indian and Chinese philosophies originated in religious beliefs, while some other religions are not based on philosophy but dogma. The Buddha however, taught us to see things as they are, observing phenomena and not relying on anything which cannot be experienced by each individual.

Theories are products of the intellect and the Buddha understood the limitations of the human intellect. He taught that enlightenment is not a product of mere intellect. One cannot achieve emancipation by taking an intellectual course. This statement may seem irrational but it is true. Intellectuals tend to spend too much of their valuable time on study, critical analysis and debate. This is unbalanced because they usually have little or no time for practice.

A great thinker (philosopher, scientist, metaphysician, etc.) can also turn out to be an intelligent fool. He may be an intellectual giant endowed with the power to conceive ideas quickly and to express thoughts clearly. But if he pays no attention to his actions and their consequences, and if he is only bent on fulfilling his own longings and inclinations at any cost, then, according to the Buddha, he is an intellectual fool, a man of inferior wisdom though rich in factual knowledge. Such a person will indeed hinder his own spiritual progress.

The Buddha's Teaching contains practical wisdom that cannot be limited to theory or to philosophy because philosophy deals mainly with knowledge but is not concerned with translating knowledge into day-to-day practices.

Buddhism lays special emphasis on practice and realization. The philosopher sees the miseries and disappointments of life but, unlike the Buddha, offers no practical solution to overcome our frustrations which are part of the unsatisfactory nature of life. The philosopher merely pushes his thoughts to dead ends. Philosophy is useful because it has enriched our intellectual imagination and diminished dogmatic assurance which closes the mind to further progress. To that extent, Buddhism values philosophy, but philoso­phy fails to quench one's spiritual thirst. Philosophy is to know but Buddhism is to practice.

Remember that the chief aim of a Buddhist is to attain purity and enlightenment. Enlightenment vanquishes ignorance which is the root of birth and death. However, this vanquishing of ignorance cannot be achieved except by the exercise of one's confidence. All other attempts—especially mere intellectual attempts are not very effective. This is why the Buddha concluded: ‘These [metaphysical] questions are not calculated to profit; they are not concerned with the Dharma; they do not lead to right conduct, or to detachment, or to purification from lusts, or to quietude, or to a calm heart, or to real knowledge, or to higher insight, or to Nirvana'. (MALUNKYAPUTTA SUTTA —MAJJHIMA NIKAYA ). In place of metaphysical speculation, the Buddha was more concerned with teaching a practical understanding of the Four Noble Truths that He discovered: what Suffering is; what the origin of Suffering is; what the cessation of Suffering is; how to overcome Suffering and realize final Salvation. These Truths are all practical matters to be fully understood and realized by anyone who really experiences emancipation.

Enlightenment is the dispelling of ignorance; it is the ideal of the Buddhist life. We can now clearly see that enlightenment is not an act of the intellect. Mere speculation does not help a person to come into contact with life so intimately. This is why the Buddha placed great emphasis on personal experience. Meditation is a practical scientific system to verify the Truth that comes through personal experience and insight. Through meditation, the will tries to transcend the condition it has put on itself, and this is the awakening of consciousness. Metaphysics merely ties us down in a tangled and matted mass of thoughts and words.

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Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic but a realistic religion.

SOME critics argue that Buddhism is morbid, cynical, hovering on the dark and shadowy side of life, an enemy of harmless pleasures, and an unfeeling trampler on the innocent joys of life. They claim that Buddhism is pessimistic, fostering an attitude of hopelessness towards life, encouraging a vague, general feeling that pain and evil predominate in human affairs. Even the current Pope in Rome has stated that Buddhism teaches a negative attitude to life. These critics base their views on the First Noble Truth that all conditioned things are in a state of suffering. They do not see that not only had the Buddha taught the cause of Suffering, but He also taught the way to end Suffering. In any case, is there any religious teacher who praised this worldly life and advised us to cling to it? Every religion talks about salvation, which means liberation from uncertainty and unsatisfactoriness in this world.

If the founder of this religion, the Buddha, was such a pessimist, one would expect His personality to be portrayed on more severe lines than has been done. The Buddha image is the personification of Peace, Serenity, Hope and Goodwill. The magnetic and radiant smile of the Buddha is the epitome of His doctrine. To the worried and the frustrated, His smile of Enlightenment and hope is an unfailing tonic and soothing balm.

The Buddha radiated His love and compassion in all directions. Such a person can hardly be a pessimist. And when the sword-happy kings and princes listened to Him, they realised that the only true conquest is the conquest of the Self and the best way to win the hearts of the people was to teach them to appreciate the Dharma—Truth.

The Buddha cultivated His sense of humour to such a high degree that His bitter opponents were disarmed with the greatest ease. Often they could not help laughing at themselves. The Buddha had a wonderful tonic; He cleansed their systems of dangerous toxins and they became enthusiastic thereafter to follow in His footsteps. In His sermons, dialogues and discussions, He maintained that poise and dignity which won for Him the respect and affection of the people. How can such a person be a pessimist?

The Buddha never expected His followers to be constantly brooding over the suffering of life and leading a miserable and unhappy existence. He taught the fact of suffering only so that He could show people how to overcome this suffering and move in the direction of happiness. To become an Enlightened person, one must have joy, one of the factors that the Buddha recommended to us to cultivate. Joy is hardly pessimistic.

There are two Buddhist texts called the THERAGATHA and THERIGATHA which are full of the joyful utterances of the Buddha's disciples, both male and female, who found peace and happiness in life through His Teaching. The king of Kosala once told the Buddha that unlike many a disciple of other religious systems who looked haggard, coarse, pale, emaciated and unprepossessing, His disciples were ‘joyful and elated, jubilant and exultant, enjoying the spiritual life, serene, peaceful and living with a gazelle's mind, light­hearted.' The king added that he believed that this healthy disposition was due to the fact that ‘these Venerable Ones had certainly realized the great and full significance of the Blessed One's Teachings' (MAJJHIMA NIKAYA ).

When asked why His disciples, who lived a simple and quiet life with only one meal a day, were so radiant, the Buddha replied: ‘They do not repent the past, nor do they brood over the future. They live in the present with contentment. Therefore they are radiant. By brooding over the future and repenting the past, fools dry up like green reeds cut down [in the sun]' (SAMYUTTA NIKAYA ).

As a religion, Buddhism teaches about the unsatisfactory nature of everything in this world. Yet one cannot simply categorize Buddhism as a pessimistic religion, because it also teaches us how to overcome this unsatisfactoriness. According to the Buddha, even the worst sinner, after paying for what he has done, can attain salvation. Buddhism offers every human being the hope of attaining his or her salvation one day. Other religions, however, take it for granted that some people will be bad forever and have an eternal hell waiting for them. In that respect, such religions are more pessimistic. Buddhists deny such a belief.

Buddhism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It does not encourage human beings to look at the world through their changing feelings of optimism and pessimism. Rather, Buddhism encourages us to be realistic: we must learn to see things as they truly are.

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Atheism is associated with a materialistic doctrine that knows nothing beyond this world.

THE Buddha has condemned godlessness by which He meant the denial of worship and renunciation, the denial of moral, spiritual and social obligations, and the denial of a religious life. He recognized most emphatically the existence of moral and spiritual values. He acclaimed the supremacy of the moral law. Only in one sense can Buddhism be described as atheistic, namely, in so far as it denies the existence of an eternal omnipotent God or God-head who is the creator and ordainer of the world and who can miraculously save others. The word ‘atheism', however, frequently carries a number of disparaging overtones or implications which are in no way applicable to the Buddha's Teaching. Those who use the word ‘atheism', often associate it with a materialistic doctrine that knows nothing beyond this world of the senses and the slight happiness it can bestow. Buddhism advocates nothing of that sort.

There is no justification for branding Buddhists as atheists, nihilists, pagans, heathens or communists just because they do not depend on a Creator God. The Buddhist concept of God is different from that of other religions. Differences in belief do not justify name-calling and slanderous words.

Buddhism agrees with other religions that true and lasting happiness cannot be found in this material world. The Buddha adds that true and lasting happiness cannot be found on the higher or supra-mundane plane of existence to which the name of heavenly or divine world is given. While the spiritual values advocated by Buddhism are orientated to a state transcending the world with the attainment of Nirvana, they do not make a separation between the ‘beyond' and the ‘here and now'. They have firm roots in the world itself, for they aim at the highest realization in this present existence.

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Moral Foundation for Humanity - Next
Buddhist Teachings Buddhism Vis-a-vis Other Approaches