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Call it ism or logy, it offers little significance to the ones in search for truth, deliverance


A sign-board at the parting of the road, for instance, indicates directions and it is left to the wayfarer to tread along the way watching his steps. The board certainly will not take him to his desired destination.

By Sanjoo Thangjam

Though we call the teaching of the Buddha ‘Buddhism’, making it one of the ‘isms’ and ‘logies’, it does not really matter what we label it. Call it religion, philosophy, Buddhism or any other name you like. These labels are of little significance to one who goes in search of truth and deliverance.

Some prefer to call the teachings of the Buddha a religion, others call it a philosophy, still, others think of it as both religion and philosophy. It may however be correct to call it a ‘Way of Life’. But that does not mean that that Buddhism is nothing more than an ethical code. Far from it, it is a way of moral, spiritual and intellectual training leading to complete freedom of mind. The Buddha himself called his teaching ‘Dhamma-vinaya’, the Doctrine and the discipline.

But Buddhism in the strictest sense of the word cannot be called a religion, for if by religion is meant ‘action or conduct indicating belief in reverence for and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice of rites or observance implying this…; recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny and as being entitled to obedience, reverence and worship. Buddhism certainly is not such a religion.

In Buddhist thought, there is no awareness or conviction of the existence of a Creator or God of any form who rewards and punishes the good and ill deeds of the creatures of his creation. A Buddhist takes refuge in the Buddha but not in the hope that he will be saved by the Master. There is no such guarantee. The Buddha is only a teacher who points out the way and guides the followers to their individual deliverance.

A sign-board at the parting of the road, for instance, indicates directions and it is left to the wayfarer to tread along the way watching his steps. The board certainly will not take him to his desired destination.

A doctor diagnoses the ailment and prescribes; it is left to the patient to test the prescription. The attitude of the Buddha towards his followers is like that of an understanding and compassionate teacher or a physician.

The highest worship is that paid to the best of men, those great and daring spirits who have with their wide and penetrating grasp of reality, wiped out ignorance and rooted out defilements. The men who saw Truth are true helpers, but Buddhists do not pray to them. They only reverence the revealers of Truth for having pointed out the path to true happiness and deliverance. Happiness is what one must achieve for oneself; nobody else can make one better or worse. ‘Purity and impurity depend on oneself. One can neither purify nor defile another.’

While lying on his death-bed between the two Sala trees at Kusinara the 80-year-old Buddha seeing the flowers offered to him, addressed the Venerable Ananda thus: ‘ They who, Ananda, are correct in life, living according to the Dhamma – it is they who rightlyhonour, reverence and venerate the Tathagata (the Perfect One) with the worthiest homage. Therefore, Ananda, be ye correct in life, living according to the Dhamma. Thus, should you train yourselves? This encouragement of the Buddha on living according to the Dhamma shows clearly that what is of highest importance is training in mental, verbal and bodily conduct, and not the mere offering of flowers to the Enlightened Ones. The emphasis is on living the right life.

Now, when a Buddhist offers flowers or lights a lamp before the image of the Buddha or some sacred object and ponders over the supreme qualities of the Buddha, he is not praying to anyone; these are not rites, rituals or acts of worship. The flowers that soon fade and the flames that die down speak to him and tell him of the impermanency of all conditioned things. The image serves as an object for concentration, for meditation, to gain inspiration and to endeavours to emulate the qualities of the Master. Those who do not understand the significance of the simple offering, hastily conclude: ‘This is idol worship.’ Nothing could be more untrue.

As to where Buddhism is a philosophy that depends upon the definition of the word; and whether it is possible to give a definition that will cover all existing systems of philosophical thought is doubtful. Etymologically philosophy means to love wisdom. ‘Philosophy has been both the seeking of wisdom and the wisdom sought.’ In Indian thought, philosophy is termed darsana, a vision of truth. In brief, the aim of philosophy should be to find out the ultimate truth.

Buddhism also advocates the search for truth. But it is no mere speculative reasoning, a theoretical structure, a mere acquiring and storing of knowledge. The Buddha emphasizes the practical aspect of his teaching, the application of knowledge of life – looking into life and not merely at it.

For the Buddha, the entire teaching is just the understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of all phenomenal existence and the cultivation of the path leading away from his unsatisfactoriness. This is his ‘philosophy’.

There are many instances where people gained enlightenment and release from taints by merely watching a leaf fall, the fall of water, a forest fire, the blowing out of a lamp. This struck a chord in them and realizing the impermanent nature of things, they gained deliverance. Yes, the lotus awaits the sunlight and no sooner does the sunshine than the lotus opens and brings delight to all.

Here in this teaching, no attempt is made to probe into the ultimate origin of man and things – to inquire into the question: ‘Is the universe eternal or not? Is it finite or infinite?’

The Buddha was not concerned with such metaphysical problems which only confuse man and upset his mental equilibrium. Their solution slowly will not free mankind from misery and ill. That was why the Buddha hesitated to answer such questions, and at times refrained from explaining those which were often wrongly formulated. The Buddha was a practical teacher. His sole aim was to explain in all its detail the problem of dukka, suffering the universal fact of life, to make people feel its full force and to convince them of it. He has definitely told us what he explains and what he does not explain.

Some scholars, however, do not appreciate this attitude of the Master; they even doubt his enlightenment and label him as agnostic. Scholars will ever argue and speculate. These are not questions of today or yesterday, they were raised in the time of the Buddha.

Even Sakuludayi the Wanderer, for instance, asked about the past and the future and the Buddha’s reply was categorical:

‘Let be the past, let be the future, I will teach you the Dhamma.

“When this is, that comes to be,

With the arising of this, that arises,

When this is not, that does not come to be,

With the cessation of this, that ceases.”

This in a nutshell is the Buddhist doctrine of conditionality or Dependent Arising. And this forms the foundation of the Four Noble Truths, the central conception of Buddhism.

(The writer is a journalist and columnist based in Imphal)

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