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Humanistic Buddhism: a vision for the future.

Humanistic Buddhism for Social Well-being: An Overview of Grand Mater Hsing Yun's Interpretation in Theory and Practice by Ananda W.P. Guruge, Buddha's Light Publishing, Los Angeles, USA. (pp.123).

Colombo -- In describing Buddhism we use such terms as 'hinayana' and 'mahayana' to refer to its main traditions or 'early' and 'later' to refer to its chronological developments. Often we do talk about Thai or Sri Lankan Buddhism referring to particular characteristics of Buddhism as practised in different localities in the Buddhist world.

The term 'humanistic Buddhism', however, does hot seem to connote any of this. It is neither a historical tradition of Buddhism; nor is it a chronological or a geographical development of it. The term sounds more like one referring to a particular orientation or an emphasis in understanding and practising the teachings of the Buddha. In this sense the term seems new in Buddhist studies and the work being reviewed is meant to provide an overview of it as it is understood and practised by one of its most prominent advocates of our times, Grand Master Hsing Yun of Taiwan.

The Grand Master is the founder of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order and the 48th Patriarch of the Linji Chan tradition. In the author's own words, he is 'the foremost Chinese scholar of our times' (p. 1). Fo Guang Shan founded by the Grand Master is. undoubtedly, one of the leading Buddhist Organizations in the world. Founded in Taiwan several decades ago, now, the Organization has spread far and wide in the world with thousands of followers comprising monks, nuns and lay men and women.

A landmark in the services of the Organization is the Hsi Lai University, Los Angeles, California where the author of the work under review serves as the Dean of academic affairs. The author, Dr.Guruge is also the Director of the International Academy of Buddhism belonging to the University. In addition to being formerly an International Civil Servant at UNESCO and diplomat representing Sri Lanka Dr.Guruge is a Buddhist scholar of recognition who has 45 full length books and 150 research papers on various aspects of Buddhism, Buddhist and Indian history and education, for his credit.

In his latest book, Guruge sets himself upon the task of defining 'humanistic Buddhism' as practised by the Grand Master. In doing this Guruge makes use of his deep knowledge in early Buddhism represented by the Pali Canon and attempts to show that this particular interpretation is nothing other than highlighting of what is already in the early teachings of the Sakyamuni Buddha.

In Grand Master's way of thinking there are two trends in Buddhism which incidentally are not unfamiliar to Buddhism in Sri Lanka, namely, (a) the need to arrive at what can be called core Buddhism by laying stress on similarities rather than on differences and (b) developing a deeper social consciousness among the Buddhists. One of the early people to lay emphasis on the first aspect was G.P. Malalasekera, Founder President of World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB).

In establishing this world body he was motivated by the conviction that there are more reasons for the Buddhists all over the world to unite than there are reasons for division. Associated with this move was the recognition of the need for Buddhists to work for the welfare of their fellow Buddhists in particular and the entire humanity in general. It is therefore nothing but appropriate that WFB has appointed the Grand Master its Honourary President for Life. It is also interesting to note that the author Dr.Guruge is one of the prominent members and the Vice President of this Organization.

In the Grand Master's interpretation of Buddhism one can see these two trends, establishing a core Buddhism and social activism being harmonized. In discussing early influences to Grand Master, Guruge discusses the Master Taixu who lived in the early decades of the last Century. This Chinese master identified the following to be some unwholesome characteristics in Chinese Buddhism as it was practised during his time:

(i) The overriding focus on the theory of self-cultivation and its consequent isolation of Buddhists from society;

(ii) "Empty talk of Mahayana theories and the neglect of practice"; and

(iii) the failure to be inspired by the great spirit of compassionate love in Buddhism, In addition to these characteristics the Master also saw 'the need to orient Buddhists to serve nation, the state and the world' (p.3).

It is also interesting to see that Master Taixu was inspired by the Buddhist practice in Southern Buddhism practised by Theravada Buddhist countries such as Myanmar (then Burma), Sri Lanka and Thailand. In particular he noted how in these countries theory and practice in Buddhism go hand in hand among both monks and laity, and how studies in Buddhism are thriving.

In particular he noted "that Buddhists are engaged in many causes such as social welfare, culture, education and so forth and thus benefit the state, society" and "even broad masses in the world" (p.3). This is somewhat of a revealing perception by a Mahayanist of Theravada which is the only extant example of so-called Hinayana Buddhism, largely believed to be other-worldly and anti-social.

However, When we see the evolution of Buddhism through the last century or so we know that Mahayana Buddhism has been in the forefront in activities related to human welfare, in addition to the relative economic prosperity of the societies where Mahayana is practiced, there is no doubt that its emphasis on Bodhisatva practice has played a crucial role in this. The Bodhisatva ideal, on the other hand, is common to all Buddhist traditions and there is more than one way to be a Bodhisattva in the present-day society. What this means is that the Buddhists all over the world can more profitably explore ways and means to be a community of Bodhisattvas which strikes a balance between one's own spiritual and material welfare and those of others, As Guruge has amply demonstrated, humanistic Buddhism requires us to look at our fellow pilgrims as we would look at ourselves.

A key insight in the Grand Master's message is that we Buddhists must come out from out passivity and inactivity which make us be satisfied with merely 'following conditions rather than creating them by themselves'. The following words of Grand Master serve as the road map for the future: The world is changing quickly. To grasp these changes and use them for our good, we must fully comprehend the inter-workings of societies, science, economics, governments and the environment. If Buddhism is to develop as a viable religion in the world, it must adapt itself to the conditions, which are present in the world. Every choice we make of the future of Buddhism should be founded on clear reasoning and good intentions (pp. 9-10). As these words make clear humanistic Buddhism is not the mere service factor in Buddhism; it is the future of Buddhism as a religion in contemporary world.

In this book, the illustrious author has demonstrated how humanistic Buddhism or socially engaged Buddhism, as its known in the West, is not incompatible with the early teachings of the Buddha, An ardent Theravadin might wonder whether this emphasis leaves the aspect of achieving Nirvana behind or whether its value has been underplayed. My personal answer for this query is that it is not so. What we need to understand is that Nirvana as understood to be one's personal emancipation without reference to any Social context is not what the Buddha really meant. It seems that both Hinayana and Mahayana have subscribed to the same misunderstanding that it is purely personal. An examination of the way of the Buddhist monastic life amply shows that Nirvana has to be achieved within a community in which mutual advice and mutual support (annan'anna vacana, annam'anna vutthapana) are the key pillars.

The broader message of the book is that the time has come for Buddhists all over the world to learn from each other and support each other to work for the 'happiness and welfare of the multitude' (bahujana-hitaya bahujana-sukhaya) as the Buddha's own words exemplify. In this sense, I see Guruge's book as a timely contribution towards growing social consciousness among Buddhists. It challenges Buddhists to come out from their safe cocoons and assess the world anew and to be active. It invites Buddhists all over the world to assess their own situation and role in the global Context and respond to its implications. My wish is that this book gets the attention it deserves and be an eye-opener to the Buddhists beyond boundaries.

Prof.Asanga Tilakaratne, Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne is the Head of the Department of Buddhist Philosophy, Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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Author:Tilakaratne, Asanga
Publication:Yasodhara-Newsletter on International Buddhist Women's Activities
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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