Buddhism teaches a rational approach to life

By Arun Ranjit, Gorkhapatra, Oct 28, 2007

Kathmandu, Nepal -- A Zen master once reprimanded a novice for sitting before him statue-like, saying that he had enough stone Buddhas around him in the monastery.

What is important, this parable reminds us, is not a blind imitation of the Buddha?s posture but a conscious following of his path. Buddhist thought is marked by a rich diversity: the core tradition underwent considerable diversification with its spread across the Himalayas.

It entered into dialogue with foreign belief systems and traditions like Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism; simultaneously, it maintained communication with the parent faith.

While this provides Buddhism with a continuing vitality, it also presents a unique problem: is there a single Buddhist outlook that is held in common by all the different sects or schools of Buddhism?

The essence of Buddhism lies in the Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path., without the knowledge of which one can hardly claim to be a Buddhist. the Buddha had this to say on life: first, that life is full of suffering ? dukha, second, that the cause of this suffering is craving or attachment; third, that suffering ceases by ending this craving or attachment; and fourth, that the way to this goal lies in the eightfold path.

The steps of this Path can be classified under three divisions: wisdom, ethics and mind training. Right understanding and right aims form into wisdom, right speech, right action and right livelihood are the ethical steps. Right efforts, right mindfulness and right concentration constitute mind training. From mundane wisdom at the beginning of the Path, one reaches transcendental wisdom at the end of it; and so the seeker attains enlightenment, nirvana, the end of suffering.

The conflicting claims of reason and religion can, perhaps, best be reconciled in the Buddhist outlook. Indeed, the Buddha expected his followers to "probe the truth of his teaching".

This non-theistic approach to religion- with its rational approach to life- marked a revolution in Indian thought. The Buddhists approach is an intensely practical one. The Eightfold path lays hard work and austere living. It is not obligatory for everyone to wander in the jungles as an exile form society; the Buddha?s disciples were divided into two classes, the upasakas or lay disciples who practiced his teaching in daily life as householders and the bhikchhus or monks who had renounced the world.

The monks were organized into sangha, or community, and discourses were worded in the language understood by all.

It is interesting to recall in this context that in Europe, at a much later stage in history, the transition form traditional to modern industrialized societies was largely expedited by a process of secularization and acquired a definite shape during the Protestant Reformation, from which emerged the capitalist spirit.

The outlook of people was transformed under the secular spell, providing a new pattern of motivation and a new sense of morality conducive to saving and investment, productivity and utilitarian pursuits. The psychological factors brought forth religious sanction for enterprise. Similarly, the Buddhist approach bears its own socio-economic relevance, particularly for the developing countries.

The under developed regions are underdeveloped in an economic sense; but the shackles of backwardness are perpetuated by the malaise of social inhibitions and regressive attitudes.

Low income, little savings, less investment and inadequate capital formation constitute a vicious circle; with its marked propensity for luxurious living, the rich minority ensures that a large portion of the income generated is dissipated in conspicuous consumption instead of contributions to economic growth.

The eightfold Path is an admirable exercise in self-discipline and austere living. It eschews extravagance, lays stress on one?s own efforts and initiative and seeks to achieve a high standard of morality.

"Monks, work out your own salvation," said the Buddha. Buddhism should not be thought of merely in terms of an institutionalized mode of private salvation.

It has a social dimension: emphasizing cooperation, it utterly rejects domination and exploitation.

There is no reason why the curse of extravagance should not be curbed.

Long-drawn, expensive rituals are a national waste in a society where a majority of the population lives below the poverty line.

Scarce resources must be diverted to the production of basic needs, instead of being frittered away to meet the demands of ostentatious living. A rational outlook and self-discipline are two of the greatest gifts the Buddhist faith has offered to mankind struggling for socio-economic advancement.