Is Buddhism relevant in our modern world?
First let us look at what Buddhism is – It may mean many things to many people. To some it can be just the life of Buddha. To another, Buddhism would mean the massive doctrine as recorded in the Buddhist literature, which indeed is voluminous and contains several thousand pages recording the words of the Buddha. And in it is described a very lofty, abstruse, complex and learned philosophy of life. Then based on whatever the Buddha taught, whatever the practices current at the time of the Buddha, there has grown a very rich culture, a culture which has extended to all ‘ parts of Asia for over 2500 years, and to which people from various walks of life with various backgrounds from all these countries have made a lasting contribution. A large number of sects or schools or philosophical systems have evolved and all of them, quite rightly, go under the name of Buddhism. Then comes another definition of Buddhism and that is the kind of ritual that has grown around the doctrine of the Buddha as a result of his teachings and the way of life preached by him, becoming a religion.
Whether the Buddha intended it or not, his teachings became a religion, a religion to which people were prepared to hold allegiance and which has its own ritual, organization, and ways or criteria for deciding what is properly done or what is improperly done. Now that is another kind of Buddhism. If one were to take each of these aspects separately, and try to examine the impact of what he would call Buddhism on modern life, it would certainly be an enormous task.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes a distinction between Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist religion. He says that Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy have a great deal to offer to everyone. We do not need to look at, or be interested in, Buddhist religion in order to benefit from the teachings and insights that are available in Buddhist science and philosophy.
Buddhist science deals with psychology; it is a very deep analysis of how the mind works, how the emotions work, and how perception works. It also has a great deal to offer in the area of logic, and insights into cosmology. Buddhist philosophy deals with reality – how we understand reality and how we deconstruct our fantasies and projections about reality. These are things that can be helpful to anyone, without having to accept the more religious aspects of Buddhism such as reincarnation, liberation, and enlightenment. Furthermore, meditation is an activity that can be useful to anyone, as a way of training the mind and helping to develop more beneficial attitudes toward life.
A Timeless Doctrine
What are these elements that make Buddhism timeless? Let me take just a few of them. First of these would be the recognition of the responsibility of the individual. the Buddha is one of the most remarkable religious teachers who emancipated man from all bonds – bonds of supernatural ties, a Godhead, a creation, sin Of- any other characteristic inherited from anyone else (rather than what you yourself have done). So when the Buddha says that each person is his own master, he promulgates a principle whose applicability becomes stronger as man begins to get more and more confidence in the control of himself and the environment. So if, today, with scientific and technological development, man feels that he has come to a point where his own intellect makes him superior to anybody else or allows him able to solve any problem that he has, whether physical or ethical or political or whatever, would not the principle that man is the master of himself – that he has to be responsible to himself because whatever he does he inherits – become one of the most important ways of looking at himself?
So this fundamental approach to making man free from all bondages, spiritual and otherwise, is one of those very important doctrines of Buddhism that have contributed to its timelessness. As we advance, as greater progress is made by man, there will be the greater need for him to assert that he is the master of himself. The more he asserts himself to be the master of himself, the more is he reiterating the Buddha’s own statement: ‘Atta hi attano natho.”
The main goal of both Buddhist psychology and philosophy (as well as the religious aspects of Buddhism) is to eliminate suffering and unhappiness. All of us have a great deal of mental suffering and psychological problems because of emotional difficulties. We have many problems because of being irrational and out of touch with reality. These are things that the Buddhist teachings can help us to overcome.
Buddhism as a religion is, of course, talking about overcoming problems in future lifetimes, gaining liberation from rebirth, and becoming an enlightened Buddha. But if we look just in terms of the psychology and philosophy, they can help us to minimize our suffering and problems in this lifetime, too.
The main structure of Buddha’s teachings was what he called the Four Noble Truths. “Noble” is a term that is referring to those beings who have seen reality. These are true facts about life that those who have seen reality understand as being true or know as being true.
All existence is dukkha
The Buddha’s insight was that our lives are a struggle, and ultimately we don’t find ultimate happiness or satisfaction in anything we experience. This is the key problem of our existence.
The cause of suffering is craving
The natural human tendency is to blame our difficulties on things outside ourselves. But the Buddha says that their actual root is to be found in the mind itself. In particular our tendency to grasp at things (or alternatively to push them away) places us fundamentally at odds with the way life really is.
The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving
As we are the ultimate cause of our difficulties, we are also the solution. We cannot change the things that happen to us, but we can change our responses.
There is a path that leads from dukkha.
Although the Buddha throws responsibility back on to the individual he also taught methods through which we can change ourselves, for example the Noble Eightfold Path.
The steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Moreover, there are three themes into which the Path is divided: good moral conduct (Understanding, Thought, Speech); meditation and mental development (Action, Livelihood, Effort), and wisdom or insight (Mindfulness and Concentration).
Buddhism is all these. It is the Buddha and his life, the doctrine, the culture that evolves around it, and the ritual that is connected with it. Once we take this to be one large body of human experiences, distilled in the finest form and presented to us in such a manner that each one of us could select that part which appeals to us, we begin to see the remarkable uniqueness of Buddhism. During the days of the Buddha himself he used to emphasize this point. One need not be a scholar and learn everything. Buddhism is not like studying a subject like mathematics where you have to learn all your theorems and different methods of working out the various types of problems. If you know the fundamentals, the basis, a scholarly detailed study is not an important precursor to practice. So out of this vast Buddhist culture, religion, or literature, or the vast body of experiences that come to us as Buddhism, each one of us would find that which is relevant to our life, to our type of problems.