Application of the Buddha's Teachings - Convocation address by Ven. Professor K.L. Dhammajoti at the 4th Convocation of IBC on 31 August 2011

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Ven. Professor K.L. Dhammajoti

In some developing countries, which also happen to be international commercial centres, there has been in recent years a big fuss made by some Buddhist leaders on the so called “application of Buddhism” or “Applied Buddhism”. One almost routinely sees such hugely publicized events as “The modern application of ancient wisdom”, etc., organized by well known Buddhist figures and Buddhist educational institutions. The main argument of these leading Buddhists and Buddhist institutions is that Buddhism must have important “impacts” on society, or else it is as good as dead! Or, as one of their representatives puts it: “Buddhism must always be in the frontiers of things. It is socially useless to be engaged in historical or doctrinal research of Buddhism.” One well known Buddhist leader once told me that the great Chinese scholar-monk, Xuan Zang’s devotion to unraveling the profound meanings of the Indian Buddhist scriptures and his life-long effort in translating the same were all futile — because the teachings established by him is now no more continued as a living tradition. This Buddhist leader has obviously distorted the historical fact that Xuan Zang’s tradition has in truth been very much alive among the mainstream Chinese tradition throughout the ages — even though it has been manifested in different forms in different times. In China until the Cultural Revolution, the best known Chinese Buddhist scholars, such as those of the Chinese Academy of Buddhist Studies (Zhi Na Nei Xue Yuan) headed by O-yang Jing Wu, and great Buddhist leaders like the Venerable Tai Xu and others, were all promoters of the Xuan Zang’s tradition. In Hong Kong, this tradition survived the Cultural Revolution and has always been actively engaged in the propagation and exposition of the Xuan Zang’s school of thought. Moreover, modern Buddhist scholars, both Eastern and Western, are undeniably inspired and benefited by Xuan Zang’s expositions and translations in their own investigation into the doctrines and history of Buddhism.

The truth is that, this kind of attitude underlying these modernist exponents obsessed with what they call “modern application of Buddhism” betrays, among other things, a strong element of conceit in their mind: They alone truly understand the purpose of Buddhism; they alone can make Buddhism useful to human kind.

I do not necessarily rule out altogether the good intention of such modernist exponents. In some cases at least, we may allow the possibility that they promote such views out of an ardent desire to propagate the Buddhist teachings to the world at large. Moreover, Buddhist studies from the interdisciplinary perspective must be recognized as an important intellectual contribution. However, as a Buddhist, I cannot help being profoundly saddened by such advocacy, which ultimately is dangerously distortive to the true nature of the Buddha-Dharma.

To begin with, the label, “Applied Buddhism” is a misnomer. Is there in fact anything in the Buddha’s teachings that is purely a theory, not to be applied in our life? All Buddhist traditions—whether Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna—correctly represent the Buddha’s “one-taste” message concerning the ultimate purpose of his Dharma: All the apparent varieties of his teachings notwithstanding, the Buddha-dharma has the sole purpose of guiding sentient beings out of the dukkha of saṃsāric existence. They are, to say the least, not philosophical niceties meant for wooing ever greater and greater acceptance by ever larger and larger audience. In this connection, I would like to quote Professor Edward Conze, a professed Buddhist, on the nature of Buddhist doctrines:

Buddhism ... is essentially a doctrine of salvation, and that all its philosophical statements are subordinate to its soteriological purpose. ... each and every proposition must be considered in reference to its spiritual intention and as a formulation of meditational experiences acquired in the course of the process of winning salvation. (Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies, 213)

On the application of Buddhism, these advocates highlight such exciting examples as the scanning of the brain waves of Buddhist meditators, or the writing of school text-books based on the so-called “Enlightenment approach of education”, or the rehabilitation of drug addicts through meditation. Now, at the outset, let me state that I have no objection to any such project—whether properly qualifying as “research project” or merely in the form of ordinary social service—in themselves. Potentially, they can at least serve the positive purpose of gaining public recognition for certain Buddhist teachings and praxis. But the great danger lies in their often over-simplification, and even distortion, of Buddhist doctrines and the whole integrated system of Buddhist praxis. To convey my own concern in this regard, let me once again borrow another comment of Professor Conze:

In an effort to commend Buddhism to the present age, some propagandists have over-stressed its rationality and kinship with modern science. They often quote a saying of the Buddha who told the Kalamas that they should not accept anything on his authority alone, but examine and test it for themselves, and accept it only when they had themselves cognised, seen and felt it. In this way the Lord Buddha finds himself conscripted as a supporter of the British philosophical tradition of 'empiricism'. But who can do the testing? Some aspects of the doctrines are obviously verifiable only by people who have certain rather rare qualifications. To actually verify the teaching on rebirth by direct observation, one would have to actually remember one's own previous births, an ability which presupposes the achievement of the fourth dhyāna, a state of trance extremely scarce and rarefied ... (Buddhist Thoughts in India, 26. London, 1962.)
Now, of course, Conze is here criticizing those who want to make Buddhism a pseudo science or equate Buddhism with the most “respectable” or widely accepted philosophy of the day. But the fundamental point underlying this criticism equally applies to those superficial attempts at creating “impacts” and making Buddhism “relevant” to the modern audience.

Recently, I learned that an Asian university team had performed an important experiment on the neural effects of meditation on cognitive affective functioning. The investigation was carried on one single western meditator who claimed that he was able to enter, progressively, into the “nine sequential meditative attainments” (in traditional terms, they are known as the nava-anupūrva-samāpattayaḥ). When he emerges from each of these states, his “cognitive affective functioning” was tested. Now, if the claim is true, then it means either that the meditator is at least a non-returner (anāgāmin) according to the Theravāda, or that all Buddhist traditions, southern and northern have got it wrong all along — since apparently even an ordinary worldling can just smoothly sail into them. Besides, there is a vast difference between measuring his “cognitive affective functioning” during the meditative state and after his emergence from it. Moreover, if we want to test from a meditator’s most tranquil and peaceful state, we should go for the 4th dhyāna, which, according to Buddhist teachings, is most characterized by praśrabdhi (Pāli… passaddhi; “ease”, “comfort”). More importantly, it is doubtful whether such a claim of correlation between cognitive functioning and meditative state can be properly established or even meaningfully demonstrated just on the basis of a single meditator.

As for such a “research” like drug rehabilitation through meditation, I too, for one, believe that Buddhist meditation is a powerful means for personality transformation. As I understand, there are important works of this nature in Thailand. But the all-important difference is that in the latter case, meditation is done in a monastery or a meditation centre where proper guidance is given by qualified and experienced meditation masters. In addition, there is the integrated context of skillful understanding, awareness, motivation and living environment, coupled with the powerful inspiration of a religious ideal — in brief, meditation is practised within the integrated total context of sīla–samādhi–pañnā.

In contrast, the type of “research projects” conducted in a modernized commercial city where regular meditators are a rarity (this of course exclude the traditionally Buddhist countries or regions such as Thailand, Myanmar, Tibet, Japan, Korea, etc.), some employee is sent on a weekly, or much less frequent, basis to an ordinary institution. In effect, they often amount to no more than a short period of “all is welcome” public sessions comprising essentially preaching and simple meditation sittings. For instance, one such project states that a total of seven workshops were conducted at a rehabilitation centre. The main content of each workshop consists of “reading, singing, and explaining the Heart Sutra (Prajñā-pāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra, translated into Chinese), as well as meditation practice section and sharing.” The “effect” is described as follows: “Some residents reported reduce in smoking. Some reported being more calm and having a more peaceful mind.”

Succinctly speaking, I find it difficult to comprehend how just a few sessions of meditation training and singing and intellectual exposition on as profound a doctrine as “emptiness” (śūnyatā)—much like the exposition on the fundamental doctrine of “anatta” in the Theravāda—could have been capable of effectuating a personality transformation in the drug addicts (unless of course the person concerned is psychologically and spiritually ready to begin with).

Further examples can be easily adduced. But I believe a couple of examples above should suffice to show the inherent danger, and disservice—rather than the supposed service—of such “research projects” which essentially misrepresent and distort fundamental Buddhist doctrines. Yes, Buddhist teachings must be applied in practice. But this first of all means that the Buddha-Dharma must be applied, as much as possible, in the actual living of each and every committed true Buddhist. Sadly, any such modernistic, all-out, ultra emphasis on forcibly interpreting Buddhist teachings in terms of current frontier-appearing domains of ideologies is bound to eclipse the inherent integrated theory–praxis nature of the Buddha’s teachings. They are at best misinterpretations. I do not intend to totally deny the value of such an approach. But we must always weigh such possible values against the presentation of the true Dharma. In particular, application must be on the basis of a proper understanding of and insight into the Dharma involved. In keeping with the Buddha’s own emphasis, it must also be out of a genuine, committed concern for the transcendence of the human predicament of dukkha.

As for “impact” on society, I also must humbly dissent from these modernistic advocates. For me, true, lasting and transforming impact of the Dharma is not to be judged by the great pomp and popularity that a Buddhist event or project is accompanied by. It is to be sought in how an individual is truly transformed through the development of insight on the basis of proper understanding and practice of an inspiring teaching. There is no need to worry about ancient teachings being “out of date” or being as good as dead. Any truthful spiritual teaching—and, for that matter, any truthful and worthy human thought system—will naturally find its ever-renewed form of manifestation and provide inspiration in diverse manners, at different times and places of sentient existence. They are the eternal legacy of mankind.