The Buddha: The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism

The Buddha: The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism

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ISBN-13: 9781938754296
Publisher: Pariyatti Publishing
Publication date: 09/30/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Trevor Ling was a cleric, theologian, and scholar who pioneered the study of comparative religion in British universities. He was the author of Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil, A Dictionary of Buddhism, and A History of Religion East and West. Paul R. Fleischman, MD, is the former chief resident at the Yale University School of Medicine and was a psychiatric consultant to numerous New England hospitals and clinics. He is the author of numerous articles and nine books, including Cultivating Inner Peace and Karma and Chaos.

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The Buddha

The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism

By Trevor Ling

Pariyatti Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Estate of Trevor Ling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938754-32-6


Buddhism and Religion


To say that Gotama the Buddha founded a religion is to prejudice our understanding of his far-reaching influence. For in modern usage the word religion denotes merely one department of human activity, now regarded as of less and less public importance, and belonging almost entirely to the realm of men's private affairs. But whatever else Buddhism is or is not, in Asia it is a great social and cultural tradition. Born of a revolution in Indian thought it has found sponsors in many of the countries of Asia outside the land of its origin. What is a particularly interesting fact about these sponsors is that very often they were men concerned with public affairs, kings, emperors and governors. Yet it was not only to rulers that Buddhism appealed. Through its own special bearers, representatives and guardians, the orange-robed bhikkhus, it has found its way into the common life of the towns and villages of much of Asia. Especially in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia it has continued to the present day to impart to the ordinary people its own characteristic values and attitudes, and has had a profound influence on the life of the home, as well as of the nation.

Buddhism has its own long and noble tradition of scholarship, and of education of the young, with the result that some of the traditionally Buddhist countries of South-East Asia have an unusually high rate of literacy for Asia. It has encouraged equality of social opportunity but without frantic economic competition. Buddhist values have inculcated a respect for the environment and a realistic attitude towards the importance of material things, an attitude which sees the folly of plundering and extravagantly wasting what cannot be replaced. For Buddhism has not encouraged ideas of dominance, in the sense that man should, by some divine sanction, dominate either his environment, or his fellow men. Neither exploitation nor colonialism have any place in Buddhist civilization; the key word is cooperation, at every level of being. The values and attitudes implicit wherever Buddhist culture survives have proved resistant to the campaigns and the blandishments directed from the West towards Buddhist Asia. From the time of the first contacts with European culture represented by the sixteenth-century Portuguese, hungry for spices and Christian converts, to the more recent work of American, British and French missionaries, the people of Buddhist Asia have not seen in either the doctrines or the fruits of Christianity anything sufficiently compelling to cause them to abandon their own tradition and culture in any large numbers. In Burma in 1931, the year in which the last decennial census under British rule was taken, Christians were 2.3 per cent of the total population, and Buddhists were 84 per cent. Christian missionary activity in Burma had begun in the early eighteenth century. In Thailand, to take another example, according to the official report for 1965 issued by the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Education, 0.53 per cent of the total population were Christians and 93 per cent were Buddhists.


It is clear that in entering the world of the Buddha we are confronted by something more than a religion, if by religion is meant a system of personal salvation. The question could also be raised, and in fact often has been raised, as to whether Buddhism is a religion at all. It is possible from the historical perspective to answer both 'yes' and 'no' to this question.

Some attempts to deal with it appear to end inconclusively, in a circular argument. If one asks, 'Is Buddhism a religion?' it is obvious that one needs to know what a religion is, in order to say whether Buddhism is one or not. And when one asks, 'What is religion?' the definition will frequently be found to include reference to belief in a god or gods. If this is to be regarded as an essential constituent of religion, and if the absence of such belief denotes something other than religion, then the objection is likely to be raised, 'But what about Buddhism?' By this is usually meant early Buddhism, which does not appear to require belief in a god or gods as an essential part of the belief system. Emile Durkheim ran into this difficulty in his attempts to define religion. He pointed out that early Buddhism was not covered by such a definition of religion as E. B. Tylor's: that religion consists of 'belief in Spiritual Beings'. In his support he quoted Burnouf's description of Buddhism as 'a moral system without a god', H. Oldenberg's, that it is 'a faith without a god', and others of a similar kind. Durkheim's argument is that Buddhism is in essence a non-theistic religion, and that in defining religion in general one should have this case in mind, and formulate a definition which will cover both theistic and non-theistic systems. The assumption which Durkheim appeared to be making was that Buddhism must be regarded as a religion, that is, a particular example of a general category, 'religion', a word about whose meaning there is some common agreement. Or he may simply be saying, 'I have a feeling that Buddhism should be included in, rather than excluded from, any survey of religions, for if it is not a religion, then what is it?' It might in fact be more useful, as Melford Spiro has pointed out, to pursue the latter question 'If not a religion, then what is it?' For it may be that no conclusive answer will be found, in terms of any of the other possible conventional categories. If early Buddhism was not a religion, this does not necessarily mean that it was therefore a philosophy, or a personal code of ethics, or anything else for which a category exists. Inability to find any satisfactory answer may have the effect of stimulating further research, not only into the nature of what is generally regarded as 'Buddhism', but into the nature of what is regarded as 'Christianity', or as 'Islam', and so on. It might be found that these titles merely serve to indicate large, complex structures whose constituent factors have to be studied by the psychologist, philosopher, sociologist, the political scientist, the historian, and the economist. If this were found to be the case, then, since the entities concerned ('Buddhism', etc.) are so comprehensive and at the same time so diffuse that they are virtually coextensive with human life itself they should be known respectively as the Buddhist way of life, the Islamic way of life, and so on. Another way of dealing with the matter would be to speak, for example, of 'Buddhist civilization' or 'Islamic civilization'. In the next chapter it will be suggested that this is what they once very largely were, and that 'religions' as we know them are reduced civilizations.


First, there is the question of Durkheim's hunch, referred to a little earlier, the conviction which he seems to have had that Buddhism belonged in the category of community belief-systems of a certain kind. What distinguished such belief systems, said Durkheim, was a sense of the sacred which each of them manifested, and which differentiated them from secular belief systems. Furthermore, Durkheim suggested where the source of this sense of the sacred was to be found: it was in the human individual's awareness of his own dependence on the values and the collective life of the society to which he belonged, something which greatly transcended him, with his own short span of life, something to which he was indebted, which upheld him, and which provided the sanctions for his conduct. One might say that that which totally sanctions the life of the individual is the sanctus, the sacred. This need of the human individual for a collective with which he can identify, and which 'sanctions' his existence can be seen as underlying a good deal of what goes by the name of religion, and may be seen, also, as providing a powerful source of motivation for much of the activity which is called 'political'.

It was this, rather than belief in a spiritual, superhuman being or beings, according to Durkheim, which was the dominant strand in 'religion'. This very useful distinction provided by the concept of the sacred will be taken up later, in connection with the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, where the classical Theravada form exists in association with local beliefs in gods and spirits.

The answer to the question whether Buddhism is a religion is thus both Yes and No. It is not necessary to regard it as a religion if by that is meant a system of beliefs focusing in the supposed existence of a supernatural spirit being or beings, a god or gods. For in at least one of its major forms, the Theravada school, prominent in India in the early centuries, and still the dominant form in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, Buddhism has no essential need of such beliefs. Later on in India a form of Buddhism emerged, alongside the Theravada, which was characterized by beliefs in, and practices associated with, heavenly beings who possessed superhuman spiritual power, and who were known as Bodhisattvas. This form of belief seems to be virtually indistinguishable in practice from polytheism (or transpolytheistic monism), whether of India, or China, or Japan. In both senses of the word religion (belief in spiritual beings and belief in the sacred), the Bodhisattva school of Buddhism, sometimes known as Bodhisattva-yana, sometimes as Mahayana, was a religious system. The common element which it shares with the Theravada (the one survivor of eighteen schools of non-Mahayana, which collectively are called Hinayana) is the sense of the sacred. But even here an important distinction between the two schools has to be made. For Mahayana Buddhism the sacred has its special focus in the heavenly realm where dwell the Bodhisattvas, the superhuman spiritual beings who are said to exert their influence to help poor struggling mortals. In directing their attention to this supramundane heavenly community the Mahayanists showed themselves correspondingly less concerned with the need to order the earthly society of men in such a way that would facilitate the pursuit of the Buddhist life, and would enhance and encourage human effort. More reliance on heavenly power meant that less attention needed to be given to earthly factors. The Mahayanists became more concerned with devotions to the heavenly beings, with ritual and speculation, and less with the nature of the civilization in which they lived.

On the other hand there was the hard core of Buddhist tradition which never totally disappeared from Buddhist India even in the period when Mahayana flourished in such great citadels as Nalanda (in Bihar). This tradition was that reliance on the saving power of heavenly beings is contrary to the teaching of Gotama, the Buddha, who emphasized that men's supreme need was for sustained moral effort and mental discipline. Where this point of view prevailed there was also a general tendency to realize Buddhist values as far as it could be done in the life of the society concerned; wherever possible this would be at the national level. In the areas where Theravada has been influential there has been a strongly developed sense of the need for a Buddhist state. It has been in the Theravada countries that Buddhism has most clearly expressed its character in this way, and that Buddhist civilization has been most strongly developed and has endured.

This should not, of course, be taken to mean that Mahayana Buddhism is of less significance for the sociological study of religion. In a sense a much greater refinement of approach is needed in dealing with the sociological interrelation of, say, economic factors with certain kinds of belief. That is an important task for the cross-cultural sociology of religion, but it is one which is not undertaken in the present work. The focus of the present study is in the idea of a Buddhist civilization, and the particular form this takes in the Buddhist state.


There are various ways in which one can study the teaching of some outstanding figure such as Gotama the Buddha (or Jesus, or Muhammad). Ultimately, however, the various ways will be seen to resolve themselves into two main ones. The first of these may be called the literalist approach. The sayings of the Buddha are regarded as propositions to be understood literally without any necessary reference to the context in which they were spoken; as they stand they can be examined (if one is an historian of ideas), or thought about (if one is an interested enquirer), and acted upon (if one is a devotee). Usually it has been the devotee (of a certain type) who has been responsible for encouraging the literalist approach. For he who, in the first instance, has come to regard the total teaching of the founder of his religion, contained in the canon of scripture, as the truth will also very easily apply such an evaluation to this or that particular saying which he finds in the canon; such sayings become invested with the quality of 'eternal truths', propositions which are universally valid in all circumstances and under all conditions. The historian of ideas and the interested enquirer note this claim and proceed to work within these terms of reference: to be a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, is to accept the canonical words of Jesus or Muhammad, or Gotama as inspired eternal truths. From such absolutist claims there follows all too easily the clash of rival 'absolutes', as well as the alienation of the more thoughtful.

The second approach may be called the historical- critical. In this case the teaching of the Buddha is related to the historical situation in which it was delivered, so far as it is possible to reconstruct and understand that situation. Attention is paid not only to the substance and meaning of the words spoken, but also to the fact that they were spoken to certain hearers in a given, concrete situation.

In order to know what weight is to be given to a particular saying it is necessary to remember that the words were not uttered into the empty air, but to a specific audience. The nature of the audience, their level of understanding, their preconceptions or prejudices, and so on, all need to be taken into account in assessing how profound or how ephemeral the words are. In following such a method, difficult though it may be to apply in all cases, one is enabled to see that some aspects of the teaching have permanent validity because they are relevant to some enduring feature of the human situation, whereas others will be understood as having only limited validity since they refer in a very particular way to special situations which existed in the teacher's own day and which now no longer exist, or to beliefs which were current then but which are not held now. This second approach, like the first, may be adopted with equal appropriateness whether one is an historian of ideas, an enquirer, or a devotee.

Severe limitations attend the literalist approach. These show themselves specially clearly when one is attempting to evaluate the message of a teacher such as the Buddha in relation to the teachings of other prominent figures in the history of ideas. An extreme example will serve to highlight the difficulty. Karl Marx wrote a good deal concerning the alienation or estrangement (Entfremdung) which he saw as a feature of the human situation, but to search for a saying of the Buddha on this subject is to draw a blank, since Marx was dealing with industrial, capitalistic society in nineteenth-century Europe, and nothing of this sort existed in the India of the sixth century BC. To attempt to relate the teaching of the Buddha to that of Karl Marx purely in terms of propositions is likely to be an unprofitable exercise; it is like trying to get a telephone conversation going between two men who speak different languages, and one of whom cannot hear the other.

However, those who have by common convention been regarded as in some sense or other 'religious' teachers have this much in common, that they have all ultimately been concerned with a dimension to human existence other than the material and the temporal, a dimension which, in the interests of brevity, may be called the transcendental dimension. This applies to the Buddha as to other so-called 'religious' teachers, even although, in his case, unlike most of the others, belief in the existence of a supreme divine being is not integral to his teaching. It is this transcendental dimension which invests the life of the human individual with a significance it would not otherwise have, and which it does not have in purely materialistic schemes of thought. 'There is, O monks' the Buddha is reported to have said, 'that which is not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded. If that not-born, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be no release from this life of the born, the become, the made, the compounded.' Another feature of the teaching of the Buddha which, in general terms, is shared with the other great systems which have come to be called religions is the importance given to proper moral conduct and moral attitudes on the part of the individual. This may be seen as the counterpart, at the level of human response, of the importance accorded to the transcendental dimension.


Excerpted from The Buddha by Trevor Ling. Copyright © 2013 Estate of Trevor Ling. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Editor's Note,
Part 1 — Perspectives,
1 Buddhism and Religion,
2 Religions and Civilizations,
Part 2 — North India in the Sixth Century BC,
3 The Physical, Economic, and Social Environment,
4 Monarchy, the City and Individualism,
5 The Religious and Ideological Environment,
Part 3 — Buddhist Civilization in Principle,
6 Profile of the Buddha,
7 The New Wisdom,
8 The New Society,
Part 4 — Buddhist Civilization in Practice,
9 The Ashokan Buddhist State,
10 The Buddhist State in Sri Lanka,
11 The Fate of Buddhist Civilization in India,
12 The Survival of Buddhist Civilization in Sri Lanka,
Epilogue: Beyond the Present Horizons,
List of Works Cited in the Notes,

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