Buddhism’s appeal in the western world

thera.jpg (13154 bytes)by Ven. Nanadassana Thera
Dear Friends in the Dhamma. I must firstly thank the German Dharmaduta Society for inviting me to give this talk. It was several years ago that the Ambassador for Sri Lanka in Italy came once to Mitirigala Forest Hermitage, where I am staying and had a conversation with me. He used to travel in Europe and gave me a bit of information about Buddhism in those countries and the reasons why Europeans are turning to find solace in Buddhism. Once he spoke particularly about Germany, which lies in the heart of Europe. He told me something, which can be, I think, a brief and comprehensive reply to what people in Europe actually want and need from Buddhism. The German Buddhists have a motto, he said, which is their guiding principle. The motto is: "We don’t want religion. We want peace and this is what Buddhism gives us".

It is well known that the prevailing religion in Europe is Christianity. It is derived from Jesus Christ. His life and so forth as reported in the New Testament by the Evangelists are the basis of the Christian message and religion. In spite of the fact that Jesus Christ is depicted to have delivered the message of love to each other or love your neighbour, yet there are several passages in the New Testament contradicting this message of love and these should not be overlooked by anyone who wants to understand this European religion. One such passage is found in Mathew Book 10. Jesus Christ delivers his speech thus: "Think not that I came to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace but a sword". Other passages are found in Luke Book 12 and 14. Jesus Christ speaks thus: "I came to send fire on the earth", and again, "if any man comes to me and hates not his father and mother, and wife and children, brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple". One may wonder if the language here is figurative or literal.

However, if one looks back at the structure of Christianity, it’s history reveals that it is literally not a peaceful history at all. It is full of hostilities, persecutions, martyrdom, violence, bloodshed, slaughters, wars waged to propagate or defend the new faith, crusades, forced conversions and baptisms, inquisitions and even terrible wars between Christians with Christians. According to modern historians, far more Christians have been killed in religious wars between them than through persecution by the Romans. The two world wars started in Europe. They are almost forgotten and today there are no political or religious wars, at least not in Central Europe. Yet the people today cry out "We do not want religion. We want peace, and this is what Buddhism gives us".

What is meant here is mental or spiritual peace. A peace which springs from a deep knowledge. A knowledge that comes from seeing directly the real nature of the inner and outer world. A knowledge that pacifies mental defilements and frees the mind from mental vexation. Thus what is required in Europe is a spiritual peace which gives a real knowledge of the world which Christianity cannot provide to its followers for it is unable to give them the guidance, advice, precepts, hints, answers and techniques which fulfil the deep demand of the human spirit and the spiritual dimension of man.

The first contact of any significance between Buddhists and Europe came about as a result of European colonialism. Although the Indian Emperor Asoka is known to have sent envoys to Greece in the third century BC, Buddhism could not take root there due to the prevailing unfavourable conditions. Later Islamic expansion throughout the near East erected a formidable barrier between Europe and India. By the beginning of the 19th Century, however, interest in Buddhist ideas was clearly beginning to emerge in Europe. Of course, a few independent thinkers had earlier recognised the rationality of Buddhist thought. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who lived in the 19th Century must be given pride of place.

To Schopenhauer, Buddhism was the best of all religions because it was preferable to Brahminism with its Caste system and even more preferable to Christianity with its fallacious ideas about God and its defective code of ethics, which has no moral consideration for animals, and sometimes not even for human beings. Schopenhauer’s knowledge of Buddhism was based on the rather incomplete and inaccurate source materials then available. Nevertheless, the affinity between his philosophy and Buddhism is in many ways striking and a close look at Schopenhauer’s teachings reveal it as a kind of incomplete Buddhism. Schopenhauer’s philosophy became popular during the later part of the 19th Century and his high regard for Buddhism has definitely contributed towards the interest in it not only as a subject of study but also as a way of thought and life with which one can identify. It was only during the later years of his life that systematic attempts were first made to arrange and translate the huge volumes of Buddhist scriptures.

Hermann Hesse, a German author and essayist, and Nobel Prize winner, once wrote about the pacifying essence of the Buddha’s discourses. He wrote "Whoever attentively reads a small number of the countless discourses of the Buddha is soon aware of harmony in them, a quietude of mind, a smiling transcendence, a totally unshakeable firmness, but also invariable kindness, endless patience. As ways and means to the attainment of this holy quietude and peace of mind, the Buddha’s discourses are full of advice, precepts, hints".

Thus, however dimly most people in all Buddhist countries may apprehend the doctrinal content of Buddhism, their conviction of its depth and wisdom is shared almost instinctively by intelligent men and women everywhere. No religion, other than Buddhism, has set a higher value on the states of spiritual insight and liberation, and none has set so methodically and with such a wealth of critical reflection the various paths and disciplines by which such wholesome states are reached as well as their ontological and psychological underpinnings that make those wholesome states so valuable and those paths so effective.

Strictly speaking, Buddhism aims at cleansing the mind of impurities, agitation and disturbances, such as lustful desires, hatred, hate, anger, ill-will, indolence, worries, restlessness and sceptical doubts, and at cultivating good qualities such as concentration, awareness, intelligence, will, energy, the analytical faculty, confidence, joy, friendliness, compassion, tranquillity and so forth, leading finally to the attainment of the highest wisdom that sees the nature of ‘mind and matter’ as they really came to be and realising the ultimate truth, peace, Nibbana. Thus peace can be found in one’s own purified mind.

Greed, hate, delusion and vulgar behaviour mainly caused by the mental defilements and passions, have existed in humanity before and during the Buddha’s time. All these exist also today in the same and even worse manner. For those who abhor any kind of base bodily, verbal and mental behaviour and wish to attain a state of moral and spiritual purity, the Buddha’s Teaching offers an excellent guidance. Moreover, it is a Teaching that is not restricted to any historical times, and the moment one puts it properly into practice one gets immediately good results. Therefore it is called ‘akalika’.

Educated Westerners can gradually acknowledge Buddhism to be not only a message of great sophistication but also one of exalted ideals. Perhaps the most striking evidence that Buddhism continues to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration is the fascination it now holds for the Western World.

To many in Europe and also America, Buddhism seems to be a spiritual movement well-suited to mankind’s future, being grounded in reason and therefore in harmony with the prevailing spirit of scientific empiricism. Offering a path to salvation from all suffering, Buddhism requires no blind faith and no belief in the supra-natural. Those who encounter its refined morality and profound wisdom can only regard the Buddhist tradition as one of the greatest achievements of Man. It is, therefore a reassuring thought that despite recent reversals of fortune, Buddhism would not merely survive but may possibly be on the brink of a new age of appreciative revaluation.

Many remarkable men have worked to spread Buddhism in the world. Out of those great Buddhist workers who deserve to be honoured today is the late Sinhalese monk, Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thero, well known also by his lay name as Mr. Asoka Weeraratna. Seeing the necessity to propagate Buddhism, especially in Germany, he succeeded with his heroic efforts, sacrificial labours, devotion and energy in establishing the German Dharmaduta Society and a Centre for Buddhist Missions in Berlin for the benefit of the German people. In his missionary enthusiasm to spread the Buddha’s message in the world, he directed his efforts not only to spread Buddhism abroad but also in his own mother country, Sri Lanka.

At a time when Buddhism had lost its most supportive and protective structure, namely meditation, he established in 1967, a Forest Hermitage not very far from Colombo to enable Buddhist Yogi Monks to meditate and contemplate in a suitable and peaceful environment. The Forest Hermitage was named Nissarana Vanaya where thirty fully equipped independent dwellings for yogis were constructed for meditation. He brought there the most respectful meditation teacher, the late Venerable Matara Sri Nanarama Maha Thera, widely recognised as one of Sri Lanka’s outstanding meditation masters of recent times, to be the guide and instructor. Apart from Sinhala Buddhist monks and laymen, many foreign monks and laymen alike got the opportunity to pursue here the practice of meditation with full dedication, unhindered by other tasks and duties. Some of them came from USA, some from Canada, England, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, India, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

In August 1972, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna himself became a monk under the monastic name Ven. Dhammanisanthi. As a layman and afterwards as a monk he served the cause of Buddhism in these and many other ways abroad as well in his mother country, Sri Lanka. His name will be included in a historical book now in preparation by the Sri Kalyani Yogashrama Sansthawa, an association of forest monks in Sri Lanka. May he, by the vast accumulation of this merit attain Nibbana.

May also the noble objective of the German Dharmaduta Society to propagate Buddhism in Europe be achieved in increasing measure in the years to come, thus spreading peace and happiness in this life itself among the good people in Germany and also in other countries in Europe, and guiding them ultimately towards the attainment of the supreme bliss of Nibbana.

Ven. Nanadassana is a Buddhist monk from Greece who has lived in Sri Lanka for the last 20 years. He resided in the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage for over 19 years. He has studied and practised meditation under the guidance of the late Most Venerable Matara Sri Nanarama Mahathera, the first Meditation Master at the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage. Ven. Nanadassana was well acquainted with Ven. Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thero (Asoka Weeraratna), the founder of the Mitirigala Forest Hermitage. He has studied the Tripitaka under Sinhala Theras and Mahatheras and has thus acquired a theoretical and practical knowledge of Buddhism. He is fluent in several languages (including Sinhala) and is the author of the book ‘Bhikkhu Patimoksha’ in German.