Ethics and the non-religious essence of Buddhism – II
Posted on December 20th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

The Buddhist teaching has been described by scholars as exoteric, and not esoteric. As we know the word ‘exoteric’ means ‘fit to be known by the uninitiated; suited to the general public…’, and its antonym ‘esoteric’ means ‘intelligible or intended for the initiated only, confidential, secret, mystical’. Buddhism is not esoteric. The ‘initiated’ are those who have been tacitly accepted or ceremonially admitted to the membership of a special society or social group governed by its own rules and sharing some kind of exclusive knowledge. A person need not undergo any such esoteric religious or mystical  initiation into the Buddhist community to become a follower of the Buddha Dhamma, because it is ‘fit to be known by the uninitiated; suited to the general public…’. Buddhism which is meant for all humans is to be learnt and practiced by them in accordance with their native intellectual capacity.

It is necessary for us here to have some idea of how we should label Buddhism, that is, whether we should call  it a religion, a science, a philosophy, or a religious ethical system. Labels, of course, are not important in Buddhism. The purpose of this essay is to show that the Buddha’s teaching is a unique kind of religion, science, and philosophy, all in one with an excellent ethical system for the moral guidance of common humanity, well in tune with the rational scientific spirit of our times.

Science is systematized knowledge about objects, forces, and phenomena of the physical universe gained through the scientific method (which involves observing natural phenomena, identifying problems, formulating explanatory laws and hypotheses, and verifying them empirically); scientific facts are open to challenge, are ready to be modified or falsified and discarded altogether in favour of new hypotheses that are proposed to explain fresh observations; there is nothing mysterious or sacred about science; scientific knowledge is always in a state of flux. There are various branches of science such as physics, chemistry, geology, cosmology, and biology; but, as an approach to the study of reality, science has no alternative or conflicting versions; science is science; various branches of science follow the same scientific method. Science does not insist on our accepting anything as true or real which is not supported by evidence.

Religion, on the other hand is a pretty kettle of fish to handle. Unquestioning belief, not verifiable/falsifiable knowledge, is central to religion. Unlike science, religion, when conceived as a single notion, comprises a multiplicity of different (usually conflicting) versions of  belief in a supreme being/god/brahma (or a number of gods) who, having created the earth and heavens, controls them, gives the earthlings life here and hereafter, and metes out rewards and punishments to them when they die according as they have obeyed or disobeyed his ethical dictates during their earthly existence. Since each religion demands of its adherents unquestioning, unwavering belief in its own dogmas as a duty and a devout obligation, religious fundamentalism (even in the harmless sense of being uncompromising in observing a particular religion’s basic doctrines) does not usually make for peaceful coexistence with neighbours following other religions or even with co-religionists subscribing to different interpretations of those same dogmas. The violent type of religious fundamentalism has today become a lethal, sometimes fratricidal, issue that humanity must tackle. Some religious fanatics are ready to murder those who don’t share their religious beliefs and consider it a shortcut to heaven. In some religions, rational thinking is discouraged as far as their central dogmas are concerned, and blind unquestioning faith is upheld as a supreme virtue.

Independent thinking is the basis of philosophy as it is of science. Philosophy is the investigation of the ultimate nature of existence, reality, knowledge, virtue, etc. Buddhism also involves such a study of the nature of existence, meaning of life, and moral goodness. It is philosophic in that sense. But it goes beyond mere sterile philosophy, while acknowledging the ultimate unknowable nature of the world (universe). Buddhism is an eminently practical philosophy that is to be experienced; it is an experiential philosophy, as we may describe it.

Every religion is philosophic in the sense that it embodies a certain worldview, or  specific ideas about the nature of life, existence, goodness, etc. But the Buddha dhamma (in its most authentic form, Theravada, which I am chiefly basing my arguments on) is not a religion in the generally accepted sense. The existing reality is that it is being adopted as a religion in different forms in an increasing number of countries, as it has been for millennia, particularly in Asian countries including ours. Buddhism offers an excellent ethical system based on rational thought, wisdom, and compassion. In that sense it can be described as a religion, though it does not advocate belief in a creator god. The elements of faith and ritual which are the vital components of most religions are minimal in Buddhism, where practice and realization are upheld instead. As far as verifiable truth is concerned,  the Buddha Dhamma tends towards science. As Dr Sam Harris (2006) says, in the practical application of the Buddha dhamma One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being). This spirit of empiricism animates Buddhism to a unique degree. For this reason, the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity”. A reader who knows something about the Buddha’s teaching will notice that, in this quote, ethics, meditation and wisdom correspond to sila, samadhi, and panna, which are the three categories of activities that constitute the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

(To be followed by the third and final of my essays on the subject)

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