Yao delivers enlightening Buddhism lecture

by Jess Cheng, The Signal, Nov 28, 2007

New Jersey, USA -- What comes to mind when we think of Buddhism? Is it the monks? Is it the monasteries?

Whatever our preconceived notions are when we think of Buddhism, they are certainly not of a kind-looking man in a neat suit giving a lecture in a college auditorium.

Yet this was the exact scene on Nov. 15 when Zhihua Yao, a world-renowned defender of the Buddhist religion, came to speak.

Yao is a professor of philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Although it was a lecture about religion, Yao made it a specific point not to mention anything about faith.

"I (tried) to approach the speech from a scientific view and not from my own religious background," Yao said. "Some use the phrase, 'a leap of faith,' to describe Buddhism. I do not like that approach."

Yao steered clear of anything to do with personal faith.

Instead, he focused on the philosophical, or what he calls the "scientific," side of Buddhism.

Consequently, his presentation was backed up with numerous citations from philosophers from both Eastern and Western thought.

He mentioned thoughts from everybody from Plato to Friedrich Nietzsche to Buddha himself.

The main element about the Buddhist philosophy Yao discussed was eternal recurrence, which stemmed from the philosopher Nietzsche.

Simply put, eternal recurrence is the idea that everything that will happen has already happened and will continue happening over and over forever.

According to this thought, when we die, we will relive our life again and again until we can break from that cycle.

While some may see this as an opportunity to have time to accomplish many more things, Yao likens it to "failing a required class and having to take it again several times."

Ultimately, the goal is to "pass" and break this circular cycle.

The lecture centered on this idea. Since the idea of eternal recurrence is so controversial in the world of philosophy, it provoked a lot of feedback from the audience.

Pierre Le Morvan, professor of philosophy at the College, asked, "How is (eternal recurrence) consistent with the Hindu and Buddhist views that you can improve your station over many lives?"

To this, Yao responded that in the grand scheme of things the repetition is still unbearable, even if there is a little improvement.

The purpose of the presentation was very clear. "When I was invited here, I was asked to give an introduction of Buddhism. My purpose was to present the religion while especially not placing an emphasis on faith, but on the philosophical side of it," Yao said.

"Although I do not agree with some of (Yao's) ideas, such as eternal recurrence," Le Morvan said, "I found the lecture interesting."