Saturday, November 18, 2006

Understanding Buddhism Revisited

Similar to the NBC effort , another effort at fostering inter-faith understanding on a global scale, but using a local example as a microcosm, has started in Malaysia more than two years ago. The local example is the State of Penang, through the Penang Global Ethic Project.

The project “promotes the concepts of 'World Religions – Universal Peace – Global Ethic' by identifying them with Penang's traditions of religious tolerance and diversity” where “people of all nations, ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds can learn about traditions of peaceful religious co-existence.”.

Through organizing such activities as exhibitions, public talks, public forums and workshops, the project aims to highlight “common moral values and ethical standards which are shared by the different faiths and cultures on Earth”.

Spotting a banner containing nine symbols that represent Indigenous Spirituality, Hinduism, Chinese Religion (comprising Confucianism and Taoism), Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Bahai Faith on its main page, the website also contains an introductory article on each of the religions.

The first paragraph on Buddhism asserts that “Buddhism is not a philosophy. It is a religion.” I find such an assertion to be unnecessarily rigid, nor does it reflect the prevailing Buddhist view expressed in English Buddhist texts one of which is “The Collected Works of Venerable Master Chin Kung” translated by Silent Voices and printed by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation .

In Chapter Two entitled “The Four Kinds of Buddhism Today”, Venerable Master Chin Kung enumerated at least four different types as follows:
  • The authentic Buddhism: This entails "the education of understanding the true reality of life and the universe originally taught by Buddha Shakyamuni. Unfortunately, the authentic education is rare and difficult to encounter nowadays".

  • The religious Buddhism: "Originally, Buddhism was not a religion, but now it has become one. We can no longer deny that there is a Buddhist religion because everywhere we look, specially in Asia, it is displayed as a religion ... Today we see people making offerings to the Buddha statues and praying for blessings and good fortune. In this way, Buddhism has been wrongly changed into a religion."

  • Buddhism as the philosophical study of the Buddha’s teachings: "Many universities today offer courses on the study of Buddhist Sutras, considering the teachings as a philosophy. The content of the Buddha’s education is actually a complete university of knowledge and wisdom. Philosophy is only one of its contents. Just as it is wrong to recognize a university as a single course, it is also inappropriate to think of and limit the Buddha’s education to only a philosophy… The Buddha’s teachings are profound and vast, and teach us the truths of life and the universe. It should not be mistaken as only a philosophy".

  • The Deviant and Externalist Buddhism: This "is an extremely unfortunate distortion that came to be in the past thirty to forty years". It thrives on “the weakness of human nature to cheat and harm living beings, disturbing the peace and safety of society. The speech and actions of these deviant and external paths can be very attractive and enticing. One should be careful as not to be misled by these deviant ways and regretting it would be to late.”

So by default, the perception of Buddhism as solely a religion, or a philosophy, misses entirely the central tenet of Buddhism as an educational endeavor in the broadest sense of the word. And to that end, “we should recognize them for what they are and think carefully as to which way is most beneficial to us and the one we will ultimately follow”, so admonished Venerable Master Chin Kung, lest we help propagate the misconception that Buddhism is a religion, and nothing more.

The many facets of Buddhism as expounded by Venerable Master Chin Kung have been similarly addressed in Wikipedia, which describes it "as a dharmic, non-theistic religion, a way of life, a practical philosophy, and arguably a form of psychology".

The last characterization as a form of psychology perhaps springs from one of the recognized schools in Buddhism, the Consciousness Only School (Weishi in Chinese), which “holds that all things exist only as presentations or phenomenological appearances that are manifestations of our consciousness” (from the Glossary of the book blogged here ).

Today's is the concluding class of the Dharma lecture series on the Consciousness Only School delivered by Venerable Master Hui Zheng that I and my wife have been attending for the past two months. I hope to prepare a summary of what I have learned and benefited to share in one my subsequent blog articles.

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