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The Constructive Optimism of Buddhism

by Anagarika Dharmapala (1915)

RELIGIONS are many. They may be divided into two categories constructive and destructive. The destructive religions are either polytheistic, monotheistic or materialistic. Monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism; polytheistic religions are Vaishnavism, Saivism. Materialistic religions are Confucianism, and Shintoism. Vedic religion at first was polytheistic with the worship of Indra, Varuna, Soma, Prajapati, &c. Puranic Hinduism had three principal gods making a Trinity, whose business was to create, preserve and destroy. The creator was Brahma, the preserver was Vishnu, and destroyer was Siva. Polytheistic religion acknowledged the existence of 330 millions of devatas. The religion of Jainas was founded by a contemporary of the Buddha Sakya Muni.

The doctrine that Buddha taught was an analytical ethico-psychology based on the principles of evolution and causality. Buddhism did not deny the devatas of other religions but they were divested of their despotic power and brought under the operation of the law of cause and effect. A Creator who brought a world out of nothing into existence, and created human beings is rejected by the Blessed One. Annihilation of matter and spirit were declared to be unscientific. There is no permanency but change. From the minutest atom to the highest heaven everything is becoming. It comes in to being.. stays for a time and passes away, like the volume of water in the flowing stream. The human being from the state of the conscious germ when it is first conceived in the mother's womb is undergoing change every moment evolving from one stage into another. It is not the same, not another, inasmuch as there is neither annihilation nor an absolute permanency. There is no known beginning of matter or spirit. Every living being is spiritual, and immortal in the sense that there is no absolute death or annihilation.

Christianity is materialistic inasmuch as it posits a known beginning, and ultimate annihilation, at least for those who had no belief in the divinity of Jesus. Islam teaches that only the believers are saved the unbelievers being doomed to destruction. Whatever Christian ecclesiastics may say the earth life is one that cannot be called full of misery. It is here that all philanthropic projects are accomplished, it is here that meritorious work is done. It is here that human kindness and self-sacrifice are appreciated. It is here that man can transcend the gods and save suffering humanity. In all the mythologies it is the gods that come down to save man and to sacrifice themselves. Man in his ignorance not knowing his own potentialities follow the gods and sacrifice animals to get their good will and pray to them soliciting their support and protection.

The constructive genius of the Aryans of India had brought to existence the most wonderful architectural beauties in the form of temples, toranas and dagobas and wall paintings showing their artistic and aesthetic genius, visible in the rock cut temples of Turkestan and India and in the Universities, libraries and colleges, the repositories of Aryan learning of two thousand years. Then India had only Buddhism as the national religion. But soon it fell into a state of decay, for the people for generations had become used to luxury, and the lessons of virile activity and strenuous effort had given place to inaction. The Indian Aryans had never been conquered people, and no foreign foe had dared to touch the sacred soil of Aryavarta. True, Alexander of Macedon came as far as the Punjab, but he could not cross the Sutlej and he found his soldiers were unwilling to march forward and he had to retrace his steps. Buddhism and Brahminism lived in friendly rivalry for nearly fifteen hundred years meeting no opposition from alien foes. In in unlucky hour Mahmud of Ghazni came. The people were unprepared to meet the robber bands of Arabia.

Saivite kings had arisen now and again at intervals with iconoclastic tendencies, who succeeded in injuring Buddhism temporarily. If one Sasanka had been destructive to Buddhism a score of righteous kings became patrons of the Religion of the Tathagato. The best of kings were invariably followers of the Blessed One. The most learned and cultured had joined the Holy Order of the Sangha. In the time of the great king Siladitya the most learned Brahman of Middle India was Divakara, and he had become a Yellow robed disciple of the Blessed One. Down to the Pala dynasty Middle India had Buddhism. The great Dipankara Srignana chief of the order of Buddhist monks in Bengal lived in the 11th century of the Christian era. By the end of the twelfth century Islam had conquered all North India. The Gangetic Valley no more echoed the reverberations of temple bells. Their music had ceased never more to be heard under Moslem rule. Aryan civilization the joint product of the greatest of Brahman and Buddhist devotees had utterly ceased. The sun of Aryan wisdom had set and spiritual darkness entered with the sen suousness of Arabia.

The civilization of ancient India was of a spiritual character. India was known as the Middle Country, and the outlying countries were known as border countries. The land of Rishis, and Munis, was the land of Kshatriyas and Brahmans. It was the land of the gods of whom Indra was chief. The power of spirituality was considered of such greatness that the very gods trembled when some spiritual minded human being began his ascetic penances to overcome his passions. The gods were passionate beings. They had their likes and dislikes, they loved to fight and destroy. They were powerful but not Holy. Therefore they were reverential to holy ascetics. For the protection of the holy land a special caste had come to existence. They held dominion over land, and they became the defenders of the Indian homes from the degredations of foreign foes. They were called Kshatriyas from the word Kshetra, a field. The chief of the Kshatriya was called Raja because he loved to delight the hearts of the people. The Brahman was full of Knowledge, and wisdom was personified in him. He was holy, ascetic in his habits, abstained from gaining wealth, and abstained from giving pain to man and animal. Compassion was his weapon and wisdom his armour. In India Brahmachariya was a special institution not found elsewhere, and the qualifications for Brahmachariya life were renunciation and physical and mental purity. They were not satisfied with the sense enjoyments. In the celestial regions of the gods a sublimated kind of sense gratification existed. They ate food but it was called amrita, they wore clothes, they had their desires, and they were fond of fighting the Asuras and their life was one of continual pleasure. Their death was sudden and when death approaching the destined god knew it by the signs which came as messengers of death. The signs were the garments become soiled, perspiration sets in, flowers that they wore fade, and they feel uneasy when occupying their seat. Indra the chief had his fortifications to keep away the Asuras, he had his wife, his son, his celestial elephant, and his palace of Victory and h c had his retinue of gods. The people of India had other gods whom they invoked when they were in danger. They were Soma, Varuna, Prajapati, etc.

The Brahmanical lawgivers had laid down the laws of social communalism. The institution of caste was not the work of gods, but of powerful Rishis who had obtained power by means of their spirituality. They were so powerful that the gods trembled in their seats. Having gained power they instituted rules for the maintenance of their power in their own descendants. The Brahmanical lawgivers like Apastamba, Asvalayana, Gautama, Narada, laid down laws for their own advantage. Manu was not of the Brahmanical caste. He was a kshatriya, and it is said that he was the first earthly king of India. The laws that he had promulgated were codified, and in his name the Manava Dharma Sastra appears to guide Aryan society. How far the original work had undergone modification it is difficult to say. Evidently under Moslem rule, when India was groaning under the misrule of Islamic hordes who came to plunder from time to time, Aryan society could not have retained its social purity, as was possible under the righteous rule of Aryan kings. The most sacred land to the Aryan is the Middle Country of India watered by the Ganges and Jumna, and this most holy land had gone under Moslem rule. The sacred cities of Benares, Kanauj, Sravast, Mathura, Gaya, Buddhagaya, etc. had been sacked and burned to the ground. Universities like Taxila, Nalanda, Odantapuri, centres of classical learning like Benares had all been destroyed by the Moslems.

To get a glimpse of ancient Aryan society when no alien barbarian soiled the homes of the Aryan people we have to go back to the records left by the holy Bhikkus before the birth of the Semitic gods of destruction. When one reads the Puranic stories about the valorous deeds of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saturn, he finds how similar they are to the mythological stories of ancient Greece. It is only when people are given to the gratification of senses that such stories become public property. Society purified by a high ethical code cannot but blush when hear of the sexual victories of the he-gods and she-gods of mythology. Rome too had her days of sexual glory when her people cared nothing better than the enjoyment of sense pleasures. India in the tenth century began to decline. By the twelfth century she had become physically [azal ?] on purifying morality which was given to the Aryan people by the Blessed One had been forgotten. The physical path had become too exalted and too difficult for the people to observe. Later generations neglected the moral observance and the psychical discipline so necessary for human progress. Morality is the most solid foundation that is needed to build up a lasting society. The Lord Buddha again emphasised that the Aryan religion shall only last so long as the disciples would strictly follow the path of purifying morality. When morality disappears society degenerates.

What do we see today in Europe? Society is too much absorbed in the enjoyment of sense pleasures, the gratification of the senses has become the be-all of life. Science has made wonderful progress in the physical plane. Luxuries in manifold forms have been introduced by physical scientists. Morality is on the decline. Wealth and pleasure are what the people seek wherever they go. The one idea is how to increase the delights of the senses. Amusements in various forms have helped to hasten the demoralization of Western society. The weaker races find that their existence is doomed. Everywhere in Europe capitalism is introducing class hatred. The poor have no place in society. Plutocracy has destroyed love. There is no sympathy between man and man. Animals slaughtered for mere amusement. Millions of cattle are killed to give food for man. Birds of beautiful plumage by the thousands are killed for their feathers to adorn the head dress of foolish women. Churches are to be found throughout Christendom by the hundred thousand, but they are used more as meeting grounds of the rich. Love, compassion, charity exist in very small measures, not sufficient to satisfy the yearning hearts of the millions who are struggling for existence. Destruction is the creed of Christendom. Germany and England are the two leading Protestant countries in the world, and today the two countries are engaged in a death struggle. Germany hates England, and vice versa. Austria and Belgium are Roman Catholic countries and yet the former has formed an alliance with a Protestant country which is waging war with Belgium. France is anti-Clerical and republican, but she has formed an alliance with two great countries one of which is Greek Church and governed by an autocrat, and the other monarchical, the Triple Entente is mutually opposed in religion and politics and yet they are fighting in concert with a monarchical parties.

During Buddha's life time the kings, princes, great Brahman philosophers, bankers, high and low without an exception paid homage to his incomparable greatness, in as much as they all found in His personality qualities supremely holy, transcending human and divine. Therefore the gods worshipped Him. He the supreme Lord having found Truth did not care for human appreciation, and when the Bhikkus assembled to hear the final words of their loved Teacher, He exhorted them not to be engaged in paying homage and worship to His memory and to his Relics, but that they should qualify themselves by strenuous effort to become the heirs of a greater inheritance than the joys of heaven. Nirvana the crown of holiness was to be achieved not by worship and ritual and ceremonialism, but by personal effort, renunciation, and activity in following the principles of the Noble Path. Before the majestic figure of the All Compassionate, gods who were satisfied with the holocausts of bullocks, cows, sheep and goats pale into insignificance. To the follower of the path of Supreme Wisdom the gods appear foolish and muddle-headed when their actions are analysed. The sensual minded people fond of sense pleasures yearn to be born in the region of the gods, but the follower of Wisdom looks with loathsome disgust on the pleasures of the senses, whether human or divine. Religions that preach a heaven as the goal of existence were the creations of men who had reached the supreme heights of Truth. They had not tasted the sweets of Nirvanic ambrosia, which is only within the reach of those who had renounced the joys of the lower and the higher heavens.

Similarly did the Lord Buddha reject the erroneous belief that man is destined to go through suffering according to the karma of the past. This belief destroyed human effort and made man the creature of foolish fate. Therefore the Buddha rejected it as unworthy of acceptance. It was a despicable doctrine that taught man to depend on the past and on some imaginary Creator. Equally did the Buddha despise the materialistic doctrine that made man to hold to the nihilistic idea of incontinuity of cause and effect. The result of the threefold teachings may be seen in the people who accept them. Effort all in all. Effort is the basis of karma. Even the effort to think is karma. Good efforts produce good karma, bad efforts produce bad karma. Every thought is dependent on a previous thought. We go to sleep in the night and mind is in sleep, but is still active in dreams. Man being immortal and spiritual no Creator is needed. Creation means a known beginning, but in Buddhism it is a fundamental doctrine that man has no known beginning. We admit gods but we decline to make autocrats of them, which has been the curse of humanity. In countries where monarchs are despotic and absolute power is divided between the monarch and the priesthood, the people have to obey and suffer. The Buddha combatted the supremacy of the muddleheaded gods, showed them that they too are under the law of cause and effect, that some day their habitations are destroyed, and that they too shall have to change their positions. A permanent god with human attributes to sit on an eternal throne is an impossibility. In the Brahmanimantanika sutta of the Majjhima nikaya, Baka Brahma, sitting on the throne in the highest heaven gave vent to the thought “Here is permanency, here is the uncreated, beyond, there is none”. The Buddha having known what was going on in the mind of Brahma ascended to the heaven and appeared before Brahma. The god greeted him and said “Here is permanency, here is eternity, here is bliss, here there is no birth, no death, no decay, and there is no beyond”. The Buddha thereupon said “Brahma has gone into the net of Ignorance”. In the sutra, Mara the Buddhist Satan appears among the gods and pleads on behalf of Brahma and tells Buddha not to speak disparagingly of Brahma for he is the Creator, the Chief, the Father of all. The Buddha rebukes Mara, and begins the conversation with Brahma, who is tested by the Buddha by asking him to work a miracle and Brahma fails. When illuminating wisdom came to Buddha He taught the way to the Brahmacharis to destroy ignorance and realize the highest emancipation of Nirvana where the gods and the devils have no power.

When a nation is politically dependent on another nation the weaker nation loses its individuality. A subject race could not produce heroes, and truth is born from the sacrifice made by the truly great. A slavish race is prevented from speaking the truth, and the man who attempts to represent Truth is soon brought into his senses by persecution or by imprisonment in gaol. A nation that is politically not free, and is under the rule of another could not expect to produce heroes. Jesus was born of a subject race, and he had to be on his guard when speaking to the people. He was asked the question which had a political aspect, and the answer he gave was that of a diplomatist. The priests were ever ready to implicate him as a political demagogue and a disturber of the people working to upset the government of the Roman oligarchy. No truth can come out of the man who is not absolutely free to express his highest convictions. Absolute freedom is a needed factor when we are in search of Truth. Mohammed fought his way through opposition, defeated his opponents and asserted his supremacy, and his subsequent career was one of triumph.

In the life of Buddha we see no obstacle in his Path. India was always tolerant. The religious devotee was always free to say what he has found to be truth. This freedom is the spiritual inheritance that India gives to the Brahmacharis. The religious exponent is in India a privileged person in the time of her own kings. This unique freedom India lost with the advent of Islamic hordes who invaded India in the ninth century. Since then India is religiously and politically subject to the conquering foe. India the land of religion where the gods came down to hold conversation with the holy devotees of Truth, India that gave birth to the great Teacher, Sakya Muni, India today is the hunting ground of the foreign missionary, who occupying a politically higher status than the people, is able to assert the superiority of his Arabian god. Morality is not the criterion of greatness in India today. When morality is made subservient to filthy lucre and high office then Truth disappears. Nihilism, blind faith in destiny, ceremonialism, outward display are what we see today in this land where once Truth reigned supreme. Today, it is the political religion that dominates the gods. There is an absence of a higher morality in the atmosphere of Indian religion. Many things that the ancient Aryan teachers condemned as evil and demoralizing are today held up as worthy of imitation. The holy teacher has no place in India. The religion of the Middle Path that makes man to follow wisdom, and practise love is relegated to the limbo of oblivion. In the ancient days the kings in India followed religion and listened to the teachers who were more than divine in their life. Self-help, self government were the bases of Buddhistic ethics and psychology. To a slavish race three religions are suited, viz. an all powerful creator who is the object of adoration of the weak of will that suffering is the law of previous action, and that nothing can make us reach a higher place of sublimated consciousness ; and that as we are deprived of freedom of will and action the best that we can do on this earth is to eat and drink and be merry, and after death annihilation.

Thinker says that war is a biological necessity and that man who does not fight goes to the wall. A weak people forfeits the right to live. They live as helots. Their life is a burden. Heroes always fight and dominate. Those who die in the battle field are born in heaven according to the ancient Kshatriya Dharma of India. The weak lives here in a state of despair, and death is preferable to such a life. Ignorance is so powerful a factor that the Indian mind has lost all ideas of how to get rid of their fetters. Ritualism and sensualism are the fetters that bind the man to slavery. A highly moral race cannot be made to live as a dependent people to be dictated by another of less morality. The morality of a nation becomes the foundation of progressive advancement. Great nations have lived and died. During the time that they were active in pushing on their culture and influencing other people, we have seen to what extent moral force is employed. Certain nations spread their civilization at the expense of weaker races, whom they destroy by weakening their will. The highly moral race in extending their culture never departs from the path of compassion. It was for the sake of Mammon that the European races sailed in their ships. Portugal, Spain, Holland, Venice, France were the competing rivals that carried on mutual warfare to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean and Yellow Sea. Of culture they had none to speak. In the 18th and in the first five decades of the 19th century the Europeans had not much to give to Asia in the way of science and civilization. Sanitation, Hygiene, Electricity, Ethics, Science as opposed to theology were unknown to the freebooters who came to Asia to plunder and destroy ancient civilizations. What evil did not these early navigators backed up by the Pope and King commit on the nations that lived peacefully in their own way in their native lands. These devils invoked god to massacre helpless peoples to obtain their possessions. They only destroyed, but were unable to give anything in return. For a century European culture that was presented to the ancient races of Asia was the very opposite of what they had learnt to observe. Instead of temperance and sobriety, they learnt their opposites. Instead of compassion and kindness to animals the westerners taught the Asiatics to slaughter animals for pleasure and for food. Before the Western civilization invaded Asia another wave of destruction came from Arabia under the flag of Islam. The Moslems too had no compassionate doctrine to give to the civilized races of India and China. They too plundered and destroyed and gave a doctrine that lacked the element of mercy.

The Guruparampara traditions were lost and the new generations imbibing the habits of Western materialism lost faith in their own self. They became feeble minded, patriotism was never given the opportunity to manifest itself, and as a result paralysis of will had set in bringing degeneration of the many races that were brought on the ethical basis. What did they get in return for the many precious treasures that they abandoned under Western compulsion? European science, European industries, European arts, ship building, engineering, building of bridges, railways, and experimental chemistry, and all the economic sciences that have helped to make the European races were not taught. They were taboo. Teachers who did not know anything of economic industries and science were sent as teachers to impart instruction to the youths of Asia.

For the last 100 years the Asiatics have had the opportunity to pass judgement on European culture. We have had the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the British having dealings with the ancient races of Asia. Asia with the exception of Japan is today in a state of moral, physical, industrial, political and economic decay. India, the land of the gods, the land of the Brahmans, the land of the Buddhas, the land of the great righteous monarchs like Asoka, Siladitya, Vikramaditya, the land of Aryan culture. What is India today but a corpse 1 Millions of starving people, illiterate, ignorant, living like dumb beasts, without high ideals, living in a state of moral inferiority, without any hope, victims of fatalism, full of fear, superstitious to an abnormal degree, receiving not a word of sympathy? This is the India that gave a beneficent civilization built on ethical ideals.

From the standpoint of Buddhist morality if we are to judge the effects of the civilization that has been in existence since the European advent, we can unhesitatingly say that it is an unmoral civilization without spiritual advancement. Now the civilization of Europe before the dawn of modern science is what is called monkish. It had nothing to offer to the yearning minds that were not satisfied with the dry bones of materialistic theology. This earth was to the Christian a place of sorrow and sin. It is the place where Satan reigns. Christianity has no science of economics, no psychology, no sublime ethic. The religion of Jesus was built of a post-mortem heaven. It had no past cosmic history, no cosmic background. The world was created by the fiat of a despotic deity for his pleasure, and when he failed to get pleasure he cursed man and. he cursed the earth and promised never again to create! But the evil that he has done can only be rectified by the offering of his own son. According to theological geology the world is only about 7,000 years old, and some time after it will be destroyed, and the inhabitants will be either sent to heaven or to an eternal hell to keep company with satanic majesty.

For nearly twenty centuries Christian morality guided the destinies of European nations, and what do we find today? Christianity has no influence on the masses or on the politicians. Science has taught certain secrets of nature, and the philosophers have found that a post mortem existence of the namby pamby kind is not what they would like to have. They examined, they investigated, they analysed, and they found that life if well spent is capable of producing noble deeds, and that the ignorant and the illiterate could be reformed to live better lives, that sanitation, hygiene, electricity could be brought into play for the all round progress of humanity. From the Buddhist point of view, European nations who are engaged in destroying the ancient civilizations have yet to learn the first principles of compassionate wisdom. They have not given the Asiatics knowledge helpful for their economic progress. Although the Asiatics have associated with the European races for so many hundred years what economic science, what technical industries have the former learnt? Their association have been for their own destruction morally, industrially and socially. They have lost their economic independence which they had maintained for many thousand years, and they lost their political independence without which a nation could not make progress. As slaves no social or economic progress is possible. With economic independence and the enjoyment of national freedom progress is easy. The four requisites necessary for human progress are clothes, nourishing food, seats and residences to live in comfort and in health, and medicines to cure human ills. These are necessaries absolutely essential for human advancement. If a community has to depend on another race to supply these requisites for their existence it is impossible to expect that the nation that is depending shall ever prosper. If the nation that is able to supply their own wants find themselves handicapped by the obstacles that are set forth by a superior race no progress is possible.

Christian culture as represented by the three European races in Asia has been an absolute failure. The higher virtues which belong to the noble born are not manifested in the people that hail from Europe. The education that is given by the teachers who hail from Europe is not the kind that Europe is giving her children. An effete antiquated uneconomic unprogressive education is unsuited to the times. The theologian who presides in the school in Asia has no place in the schools of modern Europe. The discarded refuse of Europe is what Asia gets to obtain culture.

Instead of science we are taught a religion that was rejected by the ancestors of modern Asiatics when they were in a high state of civilization. This rejected Asiatic creed; will it be accepted now by the degenerate sons of noble ancestors? Before they accept it the cultured Europeans, it is hoped, will renounce it as being utterly unfit for human progress. The moribund ethics of Jesus were copied from the Samaritan and the Jew. The examples that Jesus held before his disciples for acceptance were neither Christian nor Jewish. A religion that kills individuality, that holds up prayer instead of action, that speaks of a heaven hereafter, making life here pessimistic, that breaks down social sympathies, that speaks of eternal damnation, that knows no redemption for the sinners - such a religion is unsuited for a civilized Aryan community.

Hygiene, sanitation, medical science, architecture, laws of dietetics, textile manufacture, floriculture, aesthetic science were unknown to the Carpenter of Galilee. Devils, prophetic sayings about the coming end of the world, miracles, and the teachings suited to a nomadic community presided by rain doctors, such is Christianity as taught by the master exorcist of Nazareth.

(Maha Bodhi Journal, Vol.23, May 1915)

Dhamma Essay:
Spiritual Faculties by Ayya Khema


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