The keynote address by Prof. Richard Gombrich to the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st held in Bangkok, Sept /Oct 2010. Reproduced with permission of the author.
I am truly grateful to the Ven Sugandho for having done me the honour of inviting me to give this keynote address. I sincerely hope that I do not give him cause to regret his kindness.
Some years ago two American sociologists of religion, Glock and Stark, wrote a well-regarded book on Christianity and contemporary America, and called it “To Comfort or to Challenge”. To sell their religion, the Christian churches in the United States had to focus on what people wanted from a religion and decide to what extent they were prepared to give it to them. What people want most is comfort. Life is hard, the world often seems unfair, and death is a terrifying prospect unless one is convinced that it is the gateway to something better than life on earth. Just as small children believe that their parents have the power to give them what they want and wipe away their sorrows, people want to believe, and so are very easy to persuade, that the universe works in the same way: that there is someone in charge who basically looks after us and makes sure that it all comes right in the end.
All the world religions except Buddhism offer this comforting picture, and there are even major forms of Buddhism, like Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land Buddhism), which do so too. Religions differ in how much good behaviour the Great Parent in the Sky demands in return for the comfort and consolation he can give. (I say “he”, because the Great Parent is more commonly imagined as a father than as a mother; but I am speaking of a parent of either sex.) In some religions all that is demanded of the little children – that is, mankind – is that they trust in the Great Parent and ask for his help; if they will only recognise his omnipotence, he is prepared to forgive them anything. In other religions, if the children are naughty the Parent will first see to it that they are punished before he shows his mercy. In such cases, the worst punishment is often reserved for those who don’t believe in the Great Parent and so do not deserve to experience his goodness.
Established religious institutions, then, mainly deal in comfort and consolation, and their personnel see offering this service as their primary duty. But if we think of the founders of religion and the great reformers, they have mostly felt the need to challenge their audiences, to criticise the status quo and to demand that people improve their own lives and the lives of those around them. Jesus, for instance, preached forgiveness, but he could be savage about sin; and the Sermon on the Mount shows how he opposed the values by which this world is governed, and promised that in future “the last shall be first and the first last”. For most of us, this is not a comfortable message, and it was not meant to be.
Religions thus face the problem that by and large the very reason why they came into existence is in stark contrast to what most people want of them. Their founders and most of their saints had fire in their bellies: they wanted people to wake up and see that they must become aware of how smug and self-satisfied they had become, how indifferent to evil and how lazy about doing good, that morally most of them had lost all sensitivity and become little better than buffaloes slumbering in the mud.
Carrying such a message is often dangerous. In most countries and at most times in history, those who castigate the people in power have run the risk of serious punishment, even of being put to death. Their followers then call them martyrs, “witnesses” to the truth. I count myself lucky that whether or not you, my audience, like the challenges that I am about to put to you today, I am unlikely to be made a martyr. It therefore requires only a little courage for me to tell you what I see as unpleasant truths. And however much I offend you, I think you will at least have to credit me with sincerity, for I speak out of a passionate conviction. At the beginning of my recent book “What the Buddha Thought” I have written that in my view the Buddha’s ideas “should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilised place, both gentler and more intelligent.” I am, I then say, perpetually horrified by the failure of the Buddhist establishment to understand the Buddha’s message, to teach it and to act upon it. That failure, that tragic and culpable failure, must set the agenda for this overdue conference.
In his write-up explaining the background to the conference, the Ven Sugandho has asked why the dissemination of Theravada Buddhism is no longer as successful as it used to be. After all, Theravada Buddhism is the guardian of the oldest and purest tradition of the Buddha’s message; and I believe that most of us here today consider the moral value and intellectual brilliance of that message among the very finest in the whole of human history. So if we have such a good product, why can’t we sell it?
I propose to offer answers to that question, in as much detail as I have time for. And at least you will have to agree, I think, that if there is nothing wrong with the message, there presumably may be something wrong with the messengers.
To start with, let me revert to comfort and challenge. As the Ven Sugandho has written in the conference document, Theravadin missionaries obviously prefer comforting to challenging. Rather than teaching Buddhism to the indigenous people of their host countries, they mainly run cultural centres for the Buddhist immigrants from their countries of origin, centres which indeed operate largely in Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, etc., not in the language of the country where the missions operate. To run such a centre is not in itself an unworthy thing to do: in the modern world most countries regard providing cultural attachés and consular services as part of their diplomatic mission. But if this is the main and central activity of the mission, it points to an extremely serious underlying weakness in the Theravada Buddhism we find in the world today: its parochial nationalism. It is outrageous that the vast majority of Theravada Buddhists, whether monastics or laity, consider only Buddhists of their own nationality to be true Buddhists; and whatever they may say in public, that is indeed what most of them think.
It is perfectly natural and unobjectionable for people to feel warmly towards their own family, and beyond that towards those for whom they feel an affinity because of shared language, customs and experiences. But there is not a word in the teachings of the Lord Buddha – or for that matter of either Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed – which can justify treating anyone less well than one could simply on the grounds that they differ from us or are in some way a stranger to us. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are called the universal religions precisely because they are for everyone, equally. The great religious traditions all teach that people should love each other, be kind and compassionate. By this, they mean that one should love everybody, not just those whom it is easy to love. Loving someone who is always kind to you is no more than most animals do by instinct. Love becomes an ethical accomplishment when it is directed to our enemies, or others whom it is hard to love.
But how do Theravada Buddhist actually behave? Let me begin with a notorious and indisputable example: their attitude to Mahayana Buddhists. (I know that things may be no better the other way round, but that is not my concern: I am talking here to Theravadins.) I have done extensive fieldwork among Sinhalese Buddhists, and especially among members of the Sinhalese Sangha, from the highest to the lowest. I can say with confidence that almost all Sinhalese Buddhists consider that Mahayanist monks and nuns are not true Buddhists, because they do not prohibit taking solid food after midday.
Since they receive no proper guidance from the Sangha, the laity may be forgiven their prejudice. But at least the Sangha should know that the need for universal love goes beyond teaching how to do metta bhavana. They should also know that the Buddha declared, in his wisdom, that there are three fetters (in Pali: tini samyojanani) which bind us to samsara and are basic obstacles to spiritual progress; and the second of these is adherence to ritualism. In Pali this is called silabbata-paramasa. To give an adequate sermon on this vitally important topic would take me too long, but the point is so crucial to my argument that I must expand on it.
The Buddha declared that ethical value lies in intention alone. The individual is autonomous and the final authority is his conscience. Reciting words, even such words as the five precepts, is useless and pointless unless one is consciously subscribing to their meaning. By contrast, the point of ritual lies in doing, not in intending. Therefore ritual can have no moral or spiritual value. Please keep this in mind.
The Buddha often gave new meanings to old words. He took the brahmin word for ritual, karman in Sanskrit, and used it to denote ethical intention. This single move overturned caste-bound ethics; for the intention of a brahmin cannot plausibly be claimed to be ethically of a completely different quality from the intention of an outcaste: intention can only be virtuous or wicked.
That the Buddha replaced ritual action by ethical intention is the very foundation, the very bedrock, of his teaching as a system of ideas. It is no less the foundation of Buddhism’s historical success. Since intention is the same in all human beings, Buddhist ethics apply in an identical way in all societies. For example, the third precept, not to engage in sexual misconduct, is universal, but its application varies, because the customs of societies differ: for instance, some societies admit polygamy, some polyandry, and some neither. Differences in local custom were thus no obstacle to the spread of Buddhism. As I have written: “Since Buddhism was attached neither to community nor to locality, neither to shrine nor to hearth, but resided in the hearts of its adherents, it was readily transportable.” So Buddhism could go wherever men went, and take root wherever they resided. But what can spread is the Buddhism, the Buddha’s Buddhism, which cares only for moral good and evil and measures that by intention. The Buddhism which measures action by ritual and custom can never spread anywhere: it is just like the brahminism which the Buddha set out to criticise, which has never been and never will be adopted by any other society than the one where it started.
My venerable friends, this is the very heart and gist of my message today. I am begging you to give up obsession with ritual and custom, to follow the Buddha’s teaching about ethical intention, and thus bring his message to the world.
I was mentioning that hardly any Sinhalese Buddhists are prepared to regard Mahayana Buddhists as fellow-religionists, on the grounds that the Mahayana Sangha allows food to be consumed after midday. Of course, the Mahayana Sangha ordained in the Chinese tradition are equally contemptuous of their Theravadin brethren because they consider it obligatory for a true Buddhist to be a vegetarian; but few Sinhalese know that. In any case, I am not concerned with tit for tat arguments of this kind, but with the real and massive damage that such attitudes do to Buddhism. The Sinhalese Buddhist establishment is so little prepared to recognise the validity of Mahayana Buddhism that in the late 1950s, when the Chinese invaded Tibet, killed many monks and ransacked many monasteries, and the Dalai Lama had to flee, the government of Sri Lanka refused to join the worldwide chorus of condemnation. That ostentatiously “Buddhist” government still refuses to recognise the Dalai Lama as a great spiritual leader and he has never been invited to visit the country. What can an outsider who is trying to assess the value of Buddhism think of such disgraceful treatment of the person whom the world regards as the greatest living Buddhist?
But let us concede, just for the sake of argument, that Mahayana Buddhism is not real Buddhism and we don’t want anything to do with monks or nuns who, whatever their personal morality or spirituality, are so vile that they are prepared to eat after midday. So let us direct our gaze away from Sri Lanka to another home of the Theravada tradition, Myanmar. I doubt that there is a person in this hall who cannot guess what I am about to say. Within the last few years the whole world, despite all the Myanmar government’s frenzied attempts to exercise censorship, has been able to witness on television how monks peacefully expressing their disagreement with the cruelty and inhumanity of government policy have been murdered and tortured. Of course, we have only been able to see a tiny part of the atrocities committed, but even the little we have seen must have been enough to convince any sincere Buddhist of the utterly ruthless disregard that the government shows both for human rights in general and for the living representatives of Buddhism in particular. And what have other governments which claim to support Theravada Buddhism done about it? Nothing: not even a diplomatic protest. All right; they are politicians, you may say, and we don’t expect much ethical conduct from them. But what about the leaders of the Sangha? There have been a few brave individuals, I know, who have quietly exerted themselves to relieve a little of the suffering caused by the Myanmar government. A few Buddhist organizations in Thailand have publicly expressed disapproval of torturing and murdering monks. But in every Theravada Buddhist country, unless I am most grievously mistaken, the hierarchy has turned a blind eye, and shown no more concern than if the Myanmar government were merely squashing a few mosquitoes.
I am sorry to have to say it, but one of the main things that attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak out against cruelty and injustice. Where are the Theravadin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh? True religious leaders are not frightened to be controversial. As I have said, they must offer challenge. Among the leaders of the Theravada Sangha of today, even debate, let alone challenge, appears to be tabu. They prefer the comfort of endless self-congratulation; they prefer to lead the world in vapid rhetoric, framing resolutions about world peace which have never got a single soldier to lower a gun or persuaded a single politician to love his neighbour.
I know that some people are likely to have an answer ready to my objection that Buddhists hierarchies have raised no protest against the persecution of Buddhism, even the murder of monks, by foreign governments. That answer is that the Sangha should not concern itself with politics. Let us consider this view.