Rationality and Beauty of the Buddha Dharma

Courtesy : Vesak Lipi (2007 Edition)

By Prof: Y. Karunadasa PhD.(Lond.)

Introducing the professor
Professor Y. Karunadasa PhD.(Lond) 73, Professor Emeritus University of Kelaniya, presently visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies, the University of Hongkong. He had an early education at the Central Colleges of Welimade and Nugawela. He graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1958 and was awarded the Woodward prize for Pali. He served as an Asst Editor of the Encylopaeda of Buddhism and joined the Academic staff of the Vidyalankara University, Kelaniya. He was awarded a PhD. (Lond) for his dissertation BUDDHIST ANALISIS OF MATTER. Later, he was appointed Director, Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, Sri Lanka.
As you all know, today, on this Vesak Day, we commemorate and celebrate three events associated with the Life of the Buddha. The first is the Birth of the Buddha, the second is the Enlightenment of the Buddha, and the third is the Parinibbana of the Buddha.

As you all know, the Buddha is the founder of the religion that has come to be known today as Buddhism. The word Buddha is a title, and not a personal name. The personal name of the Buddha is Siddhattha Gotama. But what exactly is the meaning of the title Buddha? Both in Pali and Sanskrit the term ‘Buddha’ means ‘One who is Awakened’. We should understand the term ‘Awakened’, not in a literal sense, but in an idiomatic sense. It means the One who is awakened from the slumber of ignorance, from the slumber of delusion. The term Buddha also means the One who is Enlightened, the One who is enlightened to the nature of reality, One who is enlightened to the nature of actuality. What this means is that the Buddha had gained an immediate vision, an immediate insight into things as they they truly are. This is what is called in Pali Yathabhutanana. And this is what Buddhism calls liberating knowledge, the knowledge that leads to complete emancipation from all forms of conditioned experience. If the Buddha is the Enlightened One, the religion he has founded can rightly be described as ‘the Religion of Enlightenment’

What is unique about the Buddha as a Religious Teacher is that unlike other Religious Teachers the Buddha did not claim divinity. According to Christianity, for instance, the Christ is an incarnation of God; according to Islam, Mohommed, the founder of Islam, is a Prophet of God. Hinduism believes in what is called Avatara or Divine Descent. This means that from time to time God assumes different forms and descends downs to the earth, in order to convey to the human beings a divine message.

On the other hand, the Buddha did not attribute his knowledge to a divine source, or to some kind of transcendental reality. What the Buddha discovered through supreme human effort, he did not want to attribute to a divine source. What does this mean? This means that the Buddha took full responsibility for what He taught.

As a religious teacher the Buddha never claimed to be a Saviour, either. The role of the Buddha as a religious teacher is not to save, but to lead, to lead us from darkness to light, from ignorance to wisdom, from bondage to freedom. As the founder of a religion, the Buddha himself defines his position in this way: Tumhehi kiccam atappam/ Akkhataro Tathagata. This means: You yourselves ought to do what ought to be done. You yourselves should work out your salvation, Your emancipation. The Tathagatas show the way. What this really means is that the Buddha is a Guide, a Teacher, one who shows the way. It is up to us to work out our emancipation. This is precisely why in the early Buddhist discourses the Buddha is often referred to as Satta. The Pali word Satta means Teacher. The use of this word brings into focus the role of the Buddha as the founder of a religion. It clearly shows that as a religious teacher the role of the Buddha is not to serve as a Saviour, but to serve as a Spiritual Guide.

No place for miracles in Buddhism

There is another important aspect of the Buddha as a religious teacher, to which I must draw your attention. It is that as a religious teacher the Buddha did not endorse the exhibition of miracles to propagate his teachings. One day when the Buddha visited the city of Nalanda, the people of Nalanda came to the Buddha and said: Venerable Sir, This city of Nalanda is very affluent and prosperous, it is teeming with people. It would be a good thing if the Buddha could perform some miracles, so that the Buddha would be able to convent many people to his religion. On this occasion the Buddha said: There are three kinds of miracles.

The first is the miracle called iddhipatihariya This means the ability to perform such super natural acts as levitating, that is, going in the air like a bird, or walking on water, like a fish, or going through walls and parapets, or appearing in two different places at one and the same time The second kind of miracle is called adesana patihariya. It is some kind of hypnotism or mesmerism It is the ability to hypnotize or mesmerize someone and reveal the kind of thoughts that the person is having. Then the Buddha goes on to say that, he does not recommend, he does not endorse two kinds of miracles. The Buddha says that he is ashamed of these kind of miracles, that he ‘detests1 them, that he rejects them categorically. Further, the Buddha goes on to say that there is another kind of miracle. It is called anusasani patihariya. Anusasani patiyariya means the miracle of instruction. It has nothing to do with exhibiting supernatural acts in order to win over others or to convert others. What is called the miracle of instruction is nothing but teaching the Dhamma through rational persuassion. Thus we see that the Buddha has elevated what we call teaching, through rational persuasion to the level of a miracle.

The Buddha said that this is the only miracle that he recommends, that this is the only miracle that he endorses. If the Buddha endorsed only the Miracle of Instruction, this has many implications. One implication is that the Buddha did not resort to unethical conversion by resorting to cheap and vulgar exhibition of supernatural power. If people resort to unethical conversion, this shows the bankruptcy of the message that they want to propagate. What I say here has great relevance to modern times when we see all around us some fundamentalist religions, resorting to unethical conversion. If the Buddha is called the Buddha, it is also because He attained the highest level of moral perfection, and the highest level of wisdom. Therefore the Buddha is considered and venerated as the Highest among all living beings, whether they are human or whether they are divine. Although Buddhism does not believe in a Creator God, according to Buddhist cosmology, there are gods or divine beings. Most of these divine beings are pre-Buddhistic gods. They have been adopted and assimilated by Buddhism, under certain conditions, in such a way that their recognition in no way goes against the fundamental teachings of Buddhism.

According to pre-Buddhist Hindu/Brahmanical teachings, these gods are eternal, all-powerful; some are omniscient. By performing petitional prayers people could get favours from them. But according to Buddhism they are no more eternal; they are no more all powerful; they are no more omniscient; they are no more the objects of petitional prayers. Like us human beings, they are all wayfarers in samsara. What is more, all these gods are inferior to the Buddha. Why? Because they are not free fom raga (passion), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion). Buddhism even recognizes the Creator God of Hinduism who is called Mahabrahma. However, according to Buddhism he is no more the creator world, nor is he omniscient. There is this interesting story in one of the early Buddhist discourses to show that the Buddha is superior to Mahabrahma whom the followers of Brahmanism regard as the creator of the world. According to this account during the time of the Buddha there was a monk who was very much prone to metaphysical speculations. One day he came to be disturbed by a serious metaphysical problem.

The problem was this: where do the four primary elements of matter come to cessation without any residue. In modern terms, this means where does matter come to end. As you all know, this is a question to which nether religion, nor philosophy, nor science can give a satisfactory answer. So this monk thought no one in this human world will be able to solve this problem. Therefore he thought of referring this problem to gods. Since he had powers of levitation he first went to the lowest heaven, and put this question to the gods living there. There said that they themselves do not know the answer to this question. And that he should go to the next heaven. In the next heaven too he got the same answer. So he went from heaven to heaven, until he came to the topmost heaven where the Mahabrahma lives.

You may not believe this hilarious story. What matters is the message that is sought to be conveyed by it. Through this hilarious story, a profound message is sought to be conveyed. The message is that exalted humanity is very much higher than divinity. A human being who is free from passion, aversion, and delusion is superior to Mahabrahma whom the followers of Brahmanism consider as the creator God.

The Buddha’s Dharma is Alive

I hear some people say now that the Buddha is not living, how can the Buddha help us? What is the purpose in taking refuge in the Buddha if the Buddha is not living now? Our answer to this: It is true that the Buddha is not living now, but the Dhamma he has taught is very much with us. We can make use of the Dhamma although the Buddha is not living now. To give an example: Some of the scientists who had discovered many kinds potent medicine are not living now. However this does not mean that we cannot make use of these curative medicines even though those who had discovered them are not living now. When we use the term Buddha, we sometimes use it in the plural to mean many Buddhas. According to Buddhism, besides the historical Buddha who was known as Siddhattha Gotama, there had been an innumerable number of Buddhas in the remote past, and there will be an innumerable number of Buddhas in the distant future. This idea of a number of Buddhas has many important implications. One is that truth is not the monopoly of one individual being, of one particular Buddha. Buddhahood or Enlightenment is accessible to all. This idea of plurality

of Buddhas assures us that there is unbroken continuity in the discovery of Truth. It also provides with a rational explanation that living beings in the remote past as well the living beings in the distant future have the opportunities of realizing emancipation. This idea of a number of Buddhas contrasts well with some other religions which speak of a one single Incarnation or one single Prophet for all time, for all eternity. When we consider the vastness of space and the immensity of time and when we consider the almost infinite universe with its millions of world systems to speak of one saviour or one prophet for all time appears rather parochial The Buddhist idea of a number of Buddhas provides a cosmic dimension to the idea of the Buddha.

On this Vesak Day when we reflect on the spiritual qualities of the Buddha it is also important for us to reflect on the nature of the Dhamma. The Dhamma, as you know, is the body of teachings taught by the Buddha. This is what we call Buddhism today. Although Buddhism is called a religion in many ways it is different from many other religions. In point of fact, most of the ingredients that go to make the definition of religion are conspicuously missing in Buddhism. As you are perhaps aware, all other religions believe in a Higher Reality in the form of a God. In the case of theistic religions this Higher metaphysical reality is God. In the case of Hinduism it is the Cosmic Soul or Brahman. This idea is completely foreign to early Buddhism. So is the belief in a soul and immortality of the soul as final salvation. The soul is supposed to be the thing that connects man with that Higher Reality. When Buddhism denies the existence of the soul it also denies the existence of Higher Reality. This fact has many implications for Buddhism as a religion. That is why we have in Buddhism anthropology instead of theology, psychology instead of metaphysics.

No Ethical Injunctions On Humanity

Let us take the Buddhist teachings relating to ethics, what is called the theory and practice of moral life. Buddhism does not recognize a moral authority in the form of a God who imposes moral injunctions on us However. Buddhism recognizes a moral order which operates according to the principles of causality. This is what is called Kammaniyama The Buddhist morality is therefore not based on a theory of reward and punishment. If we do good things we will not be rewarded. If we do bad things we will not be punished. What Buddhism says is that unwholesome acts bring about evil consequences, wholesome acts bring about good consequences. Therefore it is up to us to do what
ought to be done, and refrain from doing what ought to be not done.

As we all know Buddhism is the Religion of Enlightenment. Therefore it is through wisdom and insight and not through blind faith and devotion that the final goal can be realized. In Buddhism the accent is more on self-understanding, self-verification, and self-realization. This should explain why Buddhism gives its followers full freedom to inquire, to investigate, to examine. The Dhamma itself is described as ehi-passika.This means come and investigate, come and examine. This attitude of free inquiry is very well brought into focus in the well known Kalama Sutta. It’s a discourse addressed to people who are confused when they are exposed to a number of contradictory views. In this discourse the Buddha says one must not accept anything just because it is laid down in religious texts, just because it is handed down from generation to generation, just because it is based on logic and reasoning, just because it conforms to our likings and inclinations, or simply out of respect to the teacher. What the Buddha says is that it is only when one is convinced that certain things are wholesome and that certain are unwholesome that one must decide to accept what is wholesome and reject what is unwholesome. There is a general belief among some that a critical attitude and a spirit of inquiry are not consistent with spiritual life. What is necessary is faith, and devotion. But the Buddhist position is otherwise. From the Buddhist perspective a critical attitude and a spirit of inquiry, rather than being detrimental, is very much salutary to the practice of spiritual life.