Friday, September 09, 2005

Reflections on Buddhism, Christianity and Jesus in the Contemporary West

The Dalai Lama's recent visit to Switzerland was incredibly popular. Tens of thousands of people turned up to his public lectures, quite apart from the private visits which were possible for the really rich and distinguished.

I have been reflecting on why India, the country in which Buddhism was founded, eventually rejected Buddhism. Equally, I have been reflecting on why, while the Churches continue to be surprisingly popular in the contemporary West, Jesus himself is so unpopular with the Western elite.

It is worth recollecting that Buddhism was, in essence, a movement to break the hold of the corrupt and corrupting Hindu caste system, which had come into existence some centuries earlier. At one stage, something like half of India was Buddhist - the other half gave its allegiance to the competing reform movement of Jainism, which is now practically unknown outside Indian circles. Buddhism, however, was internationalised as a result of the missionary activities of the Emperor Ashoka who sent out missionaries with diplomatic status to all the surrounding countries. As Buddhism grew in numbers and in countries which were geographically diverse, it absorbed many of the features of these cultures (as happened with what is now the Roman Catholic Church in Europe initially, and has now happened with it worldwide). The result was that a corrupt priestly caste developed in Buddhism too. And, as far as I can discover, that is the main reason that India then rejected Buddhism - if Buddhist priests were going to be as corrupt as the Hindu priests has been earlier, then there was no reason to be Buddhist! This rejection was facilitated by Hindus who incorporated the best aspects of Buddhist thought and learning into our own philosophy and practice (for example, in what came to be called "Advaita" philosophy). For a fuller discussion of the history of the development of Indian religion and philosophy, see my short publication, Indian Spirituality, available for free download on my website.

In any case, the story of the Buddha (the enlightened one) provokes many questions. Here is a young man who suddenly awakens to human suffering, gives up his life of princely comfort, trains himself in the disciplines of yoga and undergoes the physical trauma of other ascetic practices, faces tremendous temptations, eventually awakens to enlightenment, and goes on to teach others how they too can find his way to enlightenment.

It is worth asking:

- Where did this young Prince's intense awareness of suffering come from? And from what source came the compassion he felt? Why do some people feel such compassion more than others? Why do some people apparently never feel such compassion? Why do those who feel it, not always follow its impulses?

- Why in all his seeking and thinking and teaching, did the Buddha neglect or ignore the question of the existence of social and political evil?

- To fight such evil in the world, is it enough to simply focus on the psychological dimension of individual peace as Buddhism does?

- Does the peaceful idividualism of Buddhism actually explain its lack of interest in tackling political and social evil, as is clearly seen (with few exceptions) in countries which have been Buddhist for centuries?

- Might it be the case that we have here also the secret of the popularity of Buddhism in the West as well as the secret of the current unpopularity of Jesus in the West? Is it possible that Westerners are so exhausted by the emotial battering of daily life that they are attracted to the Buddhist offer of personal peace and comfort, and are equally happy with the comforting rituals of Christian Churches, but do not wish to cope with the demands of the teachings of Jesus, who offers us a living relationship with God on condition that we are willing to die to our own interests and spend our lives fighting ignorance, disease, scientific and technological irresponsibility, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, political oppression and social injustice worldwide? Sphere: Related Content

No comments: