The vision that inspired Professor G. P. Malalasekara in establishing
the World Fellowship of Buddhists
by Professor Y. Karunadasa
As we all know, during its long history of over 2500 years, Buddhism gave rise to a large number of schools and sub-schools, sects and sub-sects. Today we find them all comprised within three great Buddhist traditions prevailing in three major regions in the continent of Asia: Theravada Buddhism in South Asia, Vajrayana Buddhism in North Asia, and Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia.
It is worth examining why what the Buddha taught gave rise to a wide variety of Buddhist schools and sects? One reason that comes to mind is the clearly expressed idea that the Dhamma, the corpus of the Buddhaï¿½s teachings, is a means to an end and not an end unto itself. In his well known discourse on the Parable of the Raft, the Buddha compared his Dhamma to a raft. It is for the purpose of crossing over and not to be grasped as a theory. The Dhamma has only instrumental value. Its value is relative, relative to the realization of the goal.
As an extension to this idea, it also came to be recognized that the Dhamma as a means can be presented in many ways, from many different perspectives. There is no one fixed way of presenting the Dhamma which is valid for all times and climes. The idea behind this is that what is true and therefore what conforms to actuality need not be repeated in the same way as a holy hymn or a sacred mantra. The Dhamma is not something esoteric and mystical. As the Buddha says, the more one elaborates it, the more it shines (vivato virocati).
In connection with this what we need to remember here is that the Dhamma is not actuality as such. Rather, it is a description of actuality. It is a conceptual-theoretical model presented through the symbolic medium of language. There can be many such conceptual-theoretical models depending on the different perspectives one adopts in presenting the Dhamma. However, the validity of each will be determined by its ability to lead us to the goal: from bondage to freedom, from ignorance to wisdom, from our present human predicament to full emancipation.
We find this situation beautifully illustrated in a Chinese Buddhist saying that the Dhamma is like a finger pointing to the moon. This analogy has many implications. One implication is that any finger can be pointed to the moon. What matters is not the finger as such but whether it is properly pointed so that we can see the moon. Another implication is that if we keep on looking only at the finger we will not see the moon. Nor can we see the moon without looking at the finger, either.
We can therefore approach different schools of Buddhist thought as different fingers pointing to the same moon. If we approach them in this manner then we need to identify their common denominator, the most fundamental doctrine that unites them all? This is a matter on which we donï¿½t have to speculate. For the Buddha himself as well as all schools of Buddhist thought identify it as the Buddhist doctrine of the denial of soul/self/ego (anatta).
From its very beginning Buddhism was fully aware that the doctrine of the denial of soul was not shared by any other contemporary religion or philosophy. We find this clearly articulated in an early Buddhist discourse. Here the Buddha refers to four kinds of clinging: clinging to sense-pleasures, clinging to speculative views, clinging to mere rites and rituals in the belief that they lead to liberation, and the clinging to the notion of self. The discourse goes on to say there could be other religious teachers who would recognize only some of the four kinds of clinging, and that at best they might teach the overcoming of the first three forms of clinging. What they cannot teach, because they have not comprehended this for themselves, is the overcoming of clinging to the notion of self, for this, the last type of clinging, is the subtlest and the most elusive of the group. The title given to this discourse is the Shorter Discourse on the Lion's Roar. Clearly it is intended to show that the Buddha's declaration of the denial of soul is "bold and thunderous like a veritable lionï¿½'s roar in the spiritual domain" (Ven. Bhikkhu Nanamoli).
That the notion of no-self is the most crucial doctrine that separates Buddhism from all other religions came to be recognized in the subsequent schools of Buddhist thought as well. Acarya Yasomitra, a savant of the Sautrantika School of Buddhism (5th c. C. E.) categorically asserts: "In the whole world there is no other religious teacher who proclaims a doctrine of non-self". We find this same idea echoed by Acariya Buddhaghosa, the great commentator of Theravada Buddhism when he says: "The knowledge of non-self is the province of none but a Buddha" (Vibhanga Commentary, 5th c. C. E.).
If there is one doctrine which is unique to Buddhism, it is the doctrine of non-self. If there is a doctrine which is unanimously accepted by all Buddhist schools, whether they come under Theravada, Vajrayana, or Mahayana, it is the doctrine of non-self. If there is a doctrine which, while uniting all schools of Buddhist thought, separates Buddhism from all other religions and philosophies, it is again the doctrine of non-self. The whole world of Buddhist thought is, in fact, a sustained critique of the belief in self, the belief that there is a separate individualized self entity which is impervious to all change.
If we can thus establish the transcendental unity of Buddhism on the basis of the Buddhist doctrine of non-self, we can also establish it on the basis of Buddhism's final goal as well. When Maha Pajapati Gotami, the foster mother of the Buddha, wanted to know how one could separate the Dhamma from what is not the Dhamma, the Buddha said: Whatever that leads to the cessation of greed (raga), aversion (dosa), and delusion (moha) is the Dhamma, and that whatever that leads away from it is not the Dhamma. The Buddha compares greed, aversion, and delusion to three fires with which the unenlightened living beings are constantly being consumed. In point of fact, the final goal of Buddhism, which is Nibbana, is not some kind of ineffable mystical experience, but to lead a life free from greed, aversion , and delusion.
This, in fact, is the goal common to all schools of Buddhist thought, although it came to be described in different ways and from different perspectives.
What we have observed so far should show why what the Buddha taught gave rise to a wide variety of Buddhist schools and interpretative traditions in the continent of Asia. Another question that arises here is why what the Buddha taught came to be communicated through many Asian languages and dialects. Apart from the well known classical languages such as Pali, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian, in the lost civilization of Central Asia alone Buddhist manuscripts in about twelve indigenous languages have been discovered. The reason for this "multi-lingualism" is that from its very beginning Buddhism did not entertain the notion of a "holy language." In point of fact, when it was suggested to the Buddha that his teachings should be rendered into the elitist language of Sanskrit, the Buddha did not endorse it and enjoined that each individual could learn the Dhamma in his/her own language (sakaya-nirutti).
From the Buddhist perspective, thus, the Dhamma as well as the language through which it is communicated, are both means to an end, not an end unto itself. The net result of this situation is what we would like to introduce as Buddhist pluralism, a pluralism that we can see whether we examine Buddhism as a religion, as a philosophy, or as a culture.
One area where we can see Buddhist pluralism is in the very idea of the Buddhahood. According to Buddhism there had been a number of Buddhas in the remote past and there will be a number of Buddhas in the distant future. The idea behind this is that Buddhahood is not the monopoly of one individual, but is accessible to all. What is more, the idea of a number of Buddhas ensures continuity of the opportunities for emancipation for all living beings at all times. Buddhism recognizes the immensity of time and the vastness of space and the existence of an countless number of world-systems. Considered in this cosmic context, to speak of one Buddha for all time and space is, to say the least, extremely parochial.
Another area where we can see Buddhist pluralism is in the Buddhist canonical literature (Tripitaka). If a Buddhist were asked, where do we get the teachings of the Buddha, he would say it is in the Buddhist Canon (Tripitaka). Since there are four Buddhist Canons, one in Pali, one in Chinese, and one in Tibetan, and one in Mongolian, he will have to specify to which Buddhist Canon he is referring. If he were to say, for example, it is the Pali Canon, again the reply is not specific enough because the Pali Canon has many volumes containing the teachings of the Buddha. If he is asked to specify one particular volume or book in the Pali Canon which contains all Buddhist teachings in a summary form he will fail to identify such a volume or book. Buddhism could be the only religion with no single canonical work which contains all what the Buddha taught.
Another aspect of Buddhist pluralism we can also see in the Sangha, the fraternity of monks and nuns. The Sangha, as we all know, is the Buddhist monastic organization. It could perhaps be the oldest social organization in the world, having the oldest constitution. If the Buddhist monastic organization exhibits many elements of pluralism the reason for this is that it was not intended to be a pyramid-like organization, a hierarchical organization, where at the top you find a supreme head. It is not centralized. Its principle of organization is not perpendicular and vertical, but horizontal and linear. This allows for diversity within the Sangha organization as we find it in Japan, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and other Theravada countries.
The best example of what we call Buddhist pluralism we can see in Buddhist culture. What we want to stress here is that when Buddhism was introduced to a particular country it did not level down that country's cultural diversity in order to develop some kind of mono-culture. The various Buddhist countries in the continent of Asia bear evidence to this. The Buddhist culture in Japan, for example, is different from the Buddhist culture in Thailand, and both from that of Sri Lanka.
What we need to remember here is that Buddhism is not a culture-bound religion. Like a bird that leaves one cage and flies to another, Buddhism can go from one country to another leaving behind its cultural baggage.
If Buddhism did not level down cultural diversity, the main reason for this is that Buddhismï¿½s social philosophy does not unnecessarily interfere with the personal lives of its followers. We never hear of a Buddhist Food, a Buddhist Medicine, a Buddhist Dress, or a Buddhist Marriage, or a Buddhist way of disposing the dead. Why? Because these are things that change from time to time and from country to country. Therefore Buddhism does not superimpose on the individual a rigid and totalitarian social philosophy which is valid for all time.
In concluding this speech we would like to draw your attention to another important aspect of Buddhist thinking. It is that as a religion Buddhism does not say that what is good and noble is confined to the words of the Buddha. In this connection a Mahayana Buddhist book says: "What is said by the Buddha is well-said. What is well-said is said by the Buddha." The first sentence is clear. What the second sentence means is that if there is anything well-said in any other religion, philosophy, or ideology, that too is said by the Buddha, in the sense that Buddhism endorses all that is good and noble from wherever it comes.