The tasks of religion today | Daily News

The tasks of religion today

Here I will mention several challenges that confront the major religious traditions today, and I will also sketch, very briefly, the ways such challenges may be met from within the horizons of the religion which I follow, Theravada Buddhism. I leave it to the Christian scholars involved in this dialogue to decide for themselves whether these points are of sufficient gravity to merit their own attention and to work out solutions from the perspective of their own faith.

The Philosophical Bridge

The first challenge I will discuss is primarily philosophical in scope, though with profound and far-reaching practical implications. This is the task of overcoming the fundamental dichotomy which scientific materialism has posited between the realm of "real fact," i.e., impersonal physical processes, and the realm of value. By assigning value and spiritual ideals to private subjectivity, the materialistic world view, as I mentioned earlier, threatens to undermine any secure objective foundation for morality. The result is the widespread moral degeneration that we witness today. To counter this tendency, I do not think mere moral exhortation is sufficient. If morality is to function as an efficient guide to conduct, it cannot be propounded as a self-justifying scheme but must be embedded in a more comprehensive spiritual system which grounds morality in a transpersonal order. Religion must affirm, in the clearest terms, that morality and ethical values are not mere decorative frills of personal opinion, not subjective superstructure, but intrinsic laws of the cosmos built into the heart of reality.

In the Buddha's teaching, the objective foundation for morality is the law of kamma, and its corollary, the teaching of rebirth. According to the principle of kamma, our intentional actions have a built-in potential for generating consequences for ourselves that correspond to the moral quality of the deeds. Our deeds come to fruition, sometimes in this life, sometimes in future lives, but in either case an inescapable, impersonal law connects our actions to their fruits, which rebound upon us exactly in the way we deserve. Thus our morally determinate actions are the building blocks of our destiny: we must ultimately reap the fruits of our own deeds, and by our moral choices and values we construct our happiness and suffering in this life and in future lives.

In the Buddha's teaching, the law of kamma is integral to the very dynamics of the universe. The Buddhist texts speak of five systems of cosmic law, each perfectly valid within its own domain: the laws of inorganic matter (utuniyama), the laws of living organisms (bijaniyama), the laws of consciousness (cittaniyama), the laws of kamma or moral deeds and their fruits (kammaniyama), and the laws of spiritual development (dhammataniyama). The science that dominates the West has flourished through its exclusive attention to the first two systems of law. As a Buddhist, I would argue that a complete picture of actuality must take account of all five orders, and that by arriving at such a complete picture, we can restore moral and spiritual values to their proper place within the whole.

Guidelines to Conduct

A second challenge, closely related to the first, is to propose concrete guidelines to right conduct capable of lifting us from our morass of moral confusion. While the first project I mentioned operates on the theoretical front, this one is more immediately practical in scope. Here we are not so much concerned with establishing a valid foundation for morality as with determining exactly what guidelines to conduct are capable of promoting harmonious and peaceful relations between people. On this front I think that the unsurpassed guide to the ethical good is still the Five Precepts (pancasila) taught by Buddhism. According to the Buddhist texts, these precepts are not unique to the Buddha Sasana but constitute the universal principles of morality upheld in every culture dedicated to virtue. The Five Precepts can be considered in terms of both the actions they prohibit and the virtues they inculcate. At the present time I think it is necessary to place equal stress on both aspects of the precepts, as the Buddha himself has done in the Suttas.

These precepts are:

1. The rule to abstain from taking life, which implies the virtue of treating all beings with kindness and compassion.

2. The rule to abstain from stealing, which implies honesty, respect for the possessions of others, and concern for the natural environment.

3. The rule to abstain from sexual misconduct, which implies responsibility and commitment in one's marital and other interpersonal relationships.

4. The rule to abstain from lying, which implies a commitment to truth in dealing with others.

5. The rule to abstain from alcoholic drinks, drugs and intoxicants, which implies the virtues of sobriety and heedfulness.

In presenting the case for these precepts, it should be shown that quite apart from their long-term karmic effect, which is a matter of faith, they conduce to peace and happiness for oneself right here and now, as well as towards the welfare of those whom one's actions affect.

Diagnosis of the human condition

A third project for religion is to formulate, on the basis of its fundamental doctrinal traditions, an incisive diagnosis of the contemporary human condition. From the Buddhist perspective I think the analysis that the Buddha offered in his Four Noble Truths still remains perfectly valid. Not only does it need not the least revision or reinterpretation, but the course of twenty-five centuries of world history and the present-day human situation only underscores its astuteness and relevance.

The core problem of human existence, the First Truth announces, is suffering. The canonical texts enumerate different types of suffering - physical, psychological and spiritual; in the present age, we should also highlight the enormous volume of social suffering that plagues vulnerable humanity. The cause of suffering, according to the Second Truth, lies nowhere else than in our own minds - in our craving and ignorance, in the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. The solution to the problem is the subject of the Third Noble Truth, which states that liberation from suffering must also be effected by the mind, through the eradication of the defilements responsible for suffering. And the Fourth Truth gives us the method to eradicate the defilements, the Noble Eightfold Path, with its three stages of training in moral discipline, meditation and wisdom.

A practical method of training

The next point is a practical extension of the third. Once a religion has offered us a diagnosis of the human condition which reveals the source of suffering in the mind, it must offer us concrete guidance in the task of training and mastering the mind. Thus I think that a major focus of present-day religion must be the understanding and transformation of the mind. This requires experiential disciplines by which we can arrive at deeper insight into ourselves and gradually effect very fundamental inward changes. Buddhism provides a vast arsenal of time-tested teachings and methods for meeting this challenge. It contains comprehensive systems of psychological analysis and potent techniques of meditation that can generate experiential confirmation of its principles.

In the present age access to these teachings and practices will cease to remain the exclusive preserve of the monastic order, but will spread to the lay community as well, as has already been occurring throughout the Buddhist world both in the East and in the West. The spirit of democracy and the triumph of the experimental method demand that the means of mind-development be available to anyone who is willing to make the effort. The experiential dimension of religion is an area where Christianity can learn a great deal from Buddhism, and I believe that Christianity must rediscover its own contemplative heritage and make available deeper transformative disciplines to both its clergy and its lay followers if it is to retain its relevance to humanity in the future. 

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