The Unity of Buddhism

< Articles by Urgyen Sangharakshita

The Unity of Buddhism

The Unity of Buddhism

Buddhism has been as much misunderstood in the West as any other of the great Oriental religious systems — including Christianity. This is due to reasons which may be separated into two main classes:

(1) The general unfamiliarity of the Occidental public with Eastern thought — and particularly Buddhist thought, such as the doctrines of Sunyata, Anatta, the Trikaya, etc., and 

(2) That our information was at first derived from translations from the Pali canon, which, although worthy in themselves of respect, we insisted upon regarding as representing the primitive, authentic Buddhism of the Founder, in contradistinction to the perhaps not equally primitive, but certainly the equally authentic, although then inaccessible Buddhism of the Sanskrit, Nepalese, Chinese and Tibetan canons. 

The first reason for our misunderstanding of Buddhism we may designate the a priori reason, that is, it was due to the mental habits and presuppositions, both inherited and acquired by education, which we brought with us to the study of these ancient yet ever-new religious formularies — it was due, in other words, to an Occidental karma. The second reason we may designate the a posteriori, since it arose from lack of sufficient empirical data, in the way of editions, translations, etc., upon which to base our observations, and from which we might draw our conclusions. To put it briefly, in those days, if we were Buddhists at all, we belonged to the Hinayana school. These two reasons for our misunderstanding of Buddhism as a whole coalesce at a certain point, thus making the resulting error of understanding doubly pernicious. The point of coalescence is this: that those doctrines which an Occidental mentality found difficult of comprehension were precisely those which in the Pali canon are only mentioned, or touched upon very lightly — without the profound investigation, the thorough grasp, of the later protagonists in the history of Buddhist thought, such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, etc. Thus were we given only that which we could assimilate without having to reorganize the processes of our cognition, while the equally valuable doctrines which were in later ages developed, or logically expatiated, from primitive Buddhism by the lucid and profound minds above mentioned, we either did not know, or knowing, did not appreciate. 

We had, therefore, a purely one-sided understanding of Buddhism. Read, for instance, J. Barthelemy St. Hilaire's book, published in 1860, Le Boudda et sa Religion – it is a perfect epitome of the views which we are discussing. On almost every page appear side by side the warmest appreciations of the nobility, purity, etc., of the lives of the Enlightened One and his true disciples throughout all ages, and the most unconditional condemnation of the general metaphysical principles upon which those lives were grounded. I will quote two representative passages in order to make my meaning clear. Speaking of the celebrated pilgrims, Fa Hsien and Hiouen-Thsung, St. Hilaire says: 

“What noble lives! What heroism! What disinterestedness [of worldly things] and faith! And in their actions what gentleness, resignation, simplicity, and uprightness. Moreover, what admirable testimony to the doctrine which, at a distance of twelve hundred years, can still inspire so much courage, confidence, and self-abnegation.” 

Many other tributes of this sort are scattered throughout the pages of his volume. But with regard to Buddhist metaphysics the learned author sums up many pages of exhaustive, but often pointless criticism, by saying: 

“Transmigration, which is the starting point of all this doctrine, is but an indefensible hypothesis, which the Buddha doubtless did not invent, but which he accepted, and from which he drew the most deplorable conclusions. . . . Nirvana, or annihilation, is a monstrous conception, repugnant to all the instincts of human nature, revolting to reason, and implying atheism.” 

Those of us who have a more sympathetic, and, we hope, a truer understanding of Buddhism, will easily see that the above censure of Buddhist metaphysics is no more the arbitrary assertion of mere contrary convictions. We can quite clearly see the author's Occidental karma driving him on to a thoroughly unreasonable estimation of what, after all, is an integral and essential part of Buddhism. Buddhist ethics are founded upon its metaphysics. But this state of mind, which cherishes one half of Buddhism and repudiates the other, is by no means a museum-piece; it is still alive among us today — “The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

Nevertheless, since all men, however strongly and exclusively they may hold on to a limited and partial creed, have to admit, albeit unwillingly, the tranquil beauty, the all-round perfections, of the life of the Enlightened One, and of all who follow in the Dharma he taught, we have a ground of unity, or at least a foothold, of which good and fruitful use can be made. But we must make men understand that Buddhism is not merely the daydream of a “beautiful soul,” a solitary muser upon the sorrows of men, but the carefully thought-out, logically consistent scheme of universal salvation of a man (and what a man) who lived among men, – not  secluded or apart from them – teaching, consoling and encouraging them; holding out to them continually, in the simplest parables and in the profoundest philosophical speculation, a reliable ideal which all, according to their several capacities, might possess. He was born, and he lived for, the salvation of all sentient beings. He is therefore all things to all men. To the saint he is the Great Exemplar; to the philosopher—the Lover of Wisdom — he gives Wisdom itself; and so on infinitely. 

If we could only make men realise all this, if we could only make them realise the Glory of the Universal Buddha, first of all in our lives, and then in their own, then we should be very near to bringing home the truth of Buddhism to the hearts and minds of all sentient beings. I say “hearts and minds” in order to combat that very same false division which I mentioned above. Buddhism is not only (I will not say “merely”) a system of ethics, it is also a philosophy, a religion, a science, and much more besides. It is not one road to Enlightenment, but many — although in a deeper and more hidden sense all ways (dharmas) are one. It is therefore suited to all sorts and conditions of minds; the youthful and the aged, the melancholy and the joyful, the simple and the profound; it is the universal way of salvation. In its all-embracing unity all the polarities which our arbitrary habits of discrimination have built up since beginning of time, all distinctions of colour, creed, and social position, of ignorant and learned, even of Enlightened and Unenlightened—all these are utterly obliterated. 

But we are not asking our reader to repudiate his Christianity—or any other belief, for that matter, which he has clung to and found comfort in since the days of childhood. For although Buddhism, like Christianity, was and still is a great missionary religion, it does not impose itself to the exclusion of all other creeds. Buddhism is not sectarian, since it recognises that the whole of its own teaching, like that of all other religions, is only a finger pointing to the moon — a means, not the end. 

Nevertheless, we feel that Christianity is slowly but surely breaking up. Not because the teaching of its Founder is less worthy of the faith of mankind than is any other creed, but because at the present day, as in centuries past, it is bound up with numberless accretions which are foreign to its spirit. And by reason of these accretions many in the West, and among them some of the purest spirits and keenest intellects of our time, are turning sadly, almost reluctantly away from the religion of their fathers. And to some of these, who cannot, for one reason or another, console themselves for their loss with Modernism, or any other return to Primitive Christianity—to these we offer Buddhism. Not because we desire converts, but because we desire that those who cannot slake their thirst at a stream which men have muddied should slake it at a stream which men have not muddied—at a stream which is pure. 

If we look around the world today, we will see that what we need is a great counterweight. To balance our Ignorance we need a great Wisdom. To balance our Hatred, a great Love. To balance our Egotism, a great Selflessness. We need all these and much more. And they are all found in the Dharma of Buddha. But at the same time, let us remember that —

“In order to refute the bigoted belief of ‘Non-eternity’,
Lord Buddha preached the ‘Eternal Nature.’ 
He who does not know that such preaching is only a skilful device 
May be likened to the child who picks up pebbles and calls them gems.” 

– Sutra of Wei Lang

For neither Wisdom, nor Love, nor Selflessness, nor even Buddhism itself, is ultimate. Buddhism recognizes this and endeavours to release men from bigoted belief in any of its many insidious forms by pointing out the opposite of everything to which they cling. 

If, however, you say that men are blind and will not see; that they will not spare the time or take the trouble to search into and examine a religion whose sacred books are written in strange characters, in unfamiliar tongues, whose commonest terms are obscure and difficult in the extreme — then I reply: Let your light so shine before all sentient beings that they may see your bodily, oral and mental deeds, and glorify the Dharma from which you were spiritually begotten. For men never forget the lesson given them by a good life, since they all are naturally attracted by goodness and naturally reverence it, even the most depraved of them. And in order that lesson may be given by you, remember the vows of the Bodhisattva:

“I vow to serve all beings.
I vow to destroy all evil passions. 
I vow to learn the Truth and teach it to others.
I vow to lead all beings toward Buddhahood.” 

These vows illustrate what I said above concerning the inseparableness of the ethics and metaphysics of Buddhism. For it is not sufficient for beings to be merely “saved,” which is something negative; they must attain to Buddhahood, which is positive. It is not sufficient to destroy all evil passions which cloud the mind; the Truth must be learned also; the sun must shine forth. 

In conclusion, let me repeat that the ethics of Buddhism are founded upon its metaphysics, and are logically derived therefrom; the two cannot be sundered. But, owing to the nature of our habits of thought, we of the West find the metaphysics of Buddhism hard to understand — not because of their intrinsic difficulty, but because of their unfamiliarity. But despair not, for, as I have said, all men are naturally attracted to virtue, and naturally reverence it. Cultivate, therefore, your root of goodness, and use it as a skilful means (upaya) to draw men toward the other half of Buddhism. Nevertheless, remember that ethics and metaphysics are not themselves Enlightenment, although It is in them both, as It is in all things. For all things are produced from Mind and abide in it. But the Enlightened Mind abides not in anything, and least of all in Itself.

Buddhism has been as much misunderstood in the West as any other of the great Oriental religious systems — including Christianity. This is due to reasons which may be separated into two main classes:

(1) The general unfamiliarity of the Occidental public with Eastern thought — and particularly Buddhist thought, such as the doctrines of Sunyata, Anatta, the Trikaya, etc., and 

(2) That our information was at first derived from translations from the Pali canon, which, although worthy in themselves of respect, we insisted upon regarding as representing the primitive, authentic Buddhism of the Founder, in contradistinction to the perhaps not equally primitive, but certainly the equally authentic, although then inaccessible Buddhism of the Sanskrit, Nepalese, Chinese and Tibetan canons. 

The first reason for our misunderstanding of Buddhism we may designate the a priori reason, that is, it was due to the mental habits and presuppositions, both inherited and acquired by education, which we brought with us to the study of these ancient yet ever-new religious formularies — it was due, in other words, to an Occidental karma. The second reason we may designate the a posteriori, since it arose from lack of sufficient empirical data, in the way of editions, translations, etc., upon which to base our observations, and from which we might draw our conclusions. To put it briefly, in those days, if we were Buddhists at all, we belonged to the Hinayana school. These two reasons for our misunderstanding of Buddhism as a whole coalesce at a certain point, thus making the resulting error of understanding doubly pernicious. The point of coalescence is this: that those doctrines which an Occidental mentality found difficult of comprehension were precisely those which in the Pali canon are only mentioned, or touched upon very lightly — without the profound investigation, the thorough grasp, of the later protagonists in the history of Buddhist thought, such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, etc. Thus were we given only that which we could assimilate without having to reorganize the processes of our cognition, while the equally valuable doctrines which were in later ages developed, or logically expatiated, from primitive Buddhism by the lucid and profound minds above mentioned, we either did not know, or knowing, did not appreciate. 

We had, therefore, a purely one-sided understanding of Buddhism. Read, for instance, J. Barthelemy St. Hilaire's book, published in 1860, Le Boudda et sa Religion – it is a perfect epitome of the views which we are discussing. On almost every page appear side by side the warmest appreciations of the nobility, purity, etc., of the lives of the Enlightened One and his true disciples throughout all ages, and the most unconditional condemnation of the general metaphysical principles upon which those lives were grounded. I will quote two representative passages in order to make my meaning clear. Speaking of the celebrated pilgrims, Fa Hsien and Hiouen-Thsung, St. Hilaire says: 

“What noble lives! What heroism! What disinterestedness [of worldly things] and faith! And in their actions what gentleness, resignation, simplicity, and uprightness. Moreover, what admirable testimony to the doctrine which, at a distance of twelve hundred years, can still inspire so much courage, confidence, and self-abnegation.” 

Many other tributes of this sort are scattered throughout the pages of his volume. But with regard to Buddhist metaphysics the learned author sums up many pages of exhaustive, but often pointless criticism, by saying: 

“Transmigration, which is the starting point of all this doctrine, is but an indefensible hypothesis, which the Buddha doubtless did not invent, but which he accepted, and from which he drew the most deplorable conclusions. . . . Nirvana, or annihilation, is a monstrous conception, repugnant to all the instincts of human nature, revolting to reason, and implying atheism.” 

Those of us who have a more sympathetic, and, we hope, a truer understanding of Buddhism, will easily see that the above censure of Buddhist metaphysics is no more the arbitrary assertion of mere contrary convictions. We can quite clearly see the author's Occidental karma driving him on to a thoroughly unreasonable estimation of what, after all, is an integral and essential part of Buddhism. Buddhist ethics are founded upon its metaphysics. But this state of mind, which cherishes one half of Buddhism and repudiates the other, is by no means a museum-piece; it is still alive among us today — “The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”

Nevertheless, since all men, however strongly and exclusively they may hold on to a limited and partial creed, have to admit, albeit unwillingly, the tranquil beauty, the all-round perfections, of the life of the Enlightened One, and of all who follow in the Dharma he taught, we have a ground of unity, or at least a foothold, of which good and fruitful use can be made. But we must make men understand that Buddhism is not merely the daydream of a “beautiful soul,” a solitary muser upon the sorrows of men, but the carefully thought-out, logically consistent scheme of universal salvation of a man (and what a man) who lived among men, – not  secluded or apart from them – teaching, consoling and encouraging them; holding out to them continually, in the simplest parables and in the profoundest philosophical speculation, a reliable ideal which all, according to their several capacities, might possess. He was born, and he lived for, the salvation of all sentient beings. He is therefore all things to all men. To the saint he is the Great Exemplar; to the philosopher—the Lover of Wisdom — he gives Wisdom itself; and so on infinitely. 

If we could only make men realise all this, if we could only make them realise the Glory of the Universal Buddha, first of all in our lives, and then in their own, then we should be very near to bringing home the truth of Buddhism to the hearts and minds of all sentient beings. I say “hearts and minds” in order to combat that very same false division which I mentioned above. Buddhism is not only (I will not say “merely”) a system of ethics, it is also a philosophy, a religion, a science, and much more besides. It is not one road to Enlightenment, but many — although in a deeper and more hidden sense all ways (dharmas) are one. It is therefore suited to all sorts and conditions of minds; the youthful and the aged, the melancholy and the joyful, the simple and the profound; it is the universal way of salvation. In its all-embracing unity all the polarities which our arbitrary habits of discrimination have built up since beginning of time, all distinctions of colour, creed, and social position, of ignorant and learned, even of Enlightened and Unenlightened—all these are utterly obliterated. 

But we are not asking our reader to repudiate his Christianity—or any other belief, for that matter, which he has clung to and found comfort in since the days of childhood. For although Buddhism, like Christianity, was and still is a great missionary religion, it does not impose itself to the exclusion of all other creeds. Buddhism is not sectarian, since it recognises that the whole of its own teaching, like that of all other religions, is only a finger pointing to the moon — a means, not the end. 

Nevertheless, we feel that Christianity is slowly but surely breaking up. Not because the teaching of its Founder is less worthy of the faith of mankind than is any other creed, but because at the present day, as in centuries past, it is bound up with numberless accretions which are foreign to its spirit. And by reason of these accretions many in the West, and among them some of the purest spirits and keenest intellects of our time, are turning sadly, almost reluctantly away from the religion of their fathers. And to some of these, who cannot, for one reason or another, console themselves for their loss with Modernism, or any other return to Primitive Christianity—to these we offer Buddhism. Not because we desire converts, but because we desire that those who cannot slake their thirst at a stream which men have muddied should slake it at a stream which men have not muddied—at a stream which is pure. 

If we look around the world today, we will see that what we need is a great counterweight. To balance our Ignorance we need a great Wisdom. To balance our Hatred, a great Love. To balance our Egotism, a great Selflessness. We need all these and much more. And they are all found in the Dharma of Buddha. But at the same time, let us remember that —

“In order to refute the bigoted belief of ‘Non-eternity’,
Lord Buddha preached the ‘Eternal Nature.’ 
He who does not know that such preaching is only a skilful device 
May be likened to the child who picks up pebbles and calls them gems.” 

– Sutra of Wei Lang

For neither Wisdom, nor Love, nor Selflessness, nor even Buddhism itself, is ultimate. Buddhism recognizes this and endeavours to release men from bigoted belief in any of its many insidious forms by pointing out the opposite of everything to which they cling. 

If, however, you say that men are blind and will not see; that they will not spare the time or take the trouble to search into and examine a religion whose sacred books are written in strange characters, in unfamiliar tongues, whose commonest terms are obscure and difficult in the extreme — then I reply: Let your light so shine before all sentient beings that they may see your bodily, oral and mental deeds, and glorify the Dharma from which you were spiritually begotten. For men never forget the lesson given them by a good life, since they all are naturally attracted by goodness and naturally reverence it, even the most depraved of them. And in order that lesson may be given by you, remember the vows of the Bodhisattva:

“I vow to serve all beings.
I vow to destroy all evil passions. 
I vow to learn the Truth and teach it to others.
I vow to lead all beings toward Buddhahood.” 

These vows illustrate what I said above concerning the inseparableness of the ethics and metaphysics of Buddhism. For it is not sufficient for beings to be merely “saved,” which is something negative; they must attain to Buddhahood, which is positive. It is not sufficient to destroy all evil passions which cloud the mind; the Truth must be learned also; the sun must shine forth. 

In conclusion, let me repeat that the ethics of Buddhism are founded upon its metaphysics, and are logically derived therefrom; the two cannot be sundered. But, owing to the nature of our habits of thought, we of the West find the metaphysics of Buddhism hard to understand — not because of their intrinsic difficulty, but because of their unfamiliarity. But despair not, for, as I have said, all men are naturally attracted to virtue, and naturally reverence it. Cultivate, therefore, your root of goodness, and use it as a skilful means (upaya) to draw men toward the other half of Buddhism. Nevertheless, remember that ethics and metaphysics are not themselves Enlightenment, although It is in them both, as It is in all things. For all things are produced from Mind and abide in it. But the Enlightened Mind abides not in anything, and least of all in Itself.