1. Buddhist Culture, The Cultured Buddhist

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    By Robert Bogoda

    BUDDHIST CULTURE

    For over twenty-five centuries, Buddhist ideas and ideals have guided and influenced the lives and thoughts of countless human beings in many parts of the world. As lay Buddhists, our own experiences and discoveries in life are not enough to give a true perspective on life. To bring ourselves closer to the ideal of a well-balanced man or woman, we need to acquire, at least in outline, what is called a cultural grounding in the Buddha-Dhamma.

    Culture reveals to ourselves and others what we are. It gives expression to our nature in our manner of living and of thinking, in art, religion, ethical aspirations, and knowledge. Broadly speaking, it represents our ends in contrast to means.

    A cultured man has grown, for culture comes from a word meaning “to grow.” In Buddhism the arahant is the perfect embodiment of culture. He has grown to the apex, to the highest possible limit, of human evolution. He has emptied himself of all selfishness — all greed, hatred, and delusion — and embodies flawless purity and selfless compassionate service. Things of the world do not tempt him, for he is free from the bondage of selfishness and passions. He makes no compromises for the sake of power, individual or collective.

    In this world some are born great while others have greatness thrust on them. But in the Buddha-Dhamma one becomes great only to the extent that one has progressed in ethical discipline and mental culture, and thereby freed the mind of self and all that it implies. True greatness, then, is proportional to one’s success in unfolding the perfection dormant in human nature.

    We should therefore think of culture in this way: Beginning with the regular observance of the Five Precepts, positively and negatively, we gradually reduce our greed and hatred. Simultaneously, we develop good habits of kindness and compassion, honesty and truthfulness, chastity and heedfulness. Steady, wholesome habits are the basis of good character, without which no culture is possible. Then, little by little, we become great and cultured Buddhists. Such a person is rightly trained in body, speech, and mind — a disciplined, well-bred, refined, humane human being, able to live in peace and harmony with himself and others. And this indeed is Dhamma.

    In order to grow we also have to be active and energetic, diligent in wholesome conduct. There is no place for laziness and lethargy in Buddhism. We must be diligent in cultivating all aspects of the Dhamma in ourselves at all times. If we develop as good individuals, we automatically become cultured members of our society, mindful both of rights and duties. Buddhism addresses itself only to the individual thinking person. It has nothing to do with mass movements, for “masses” are just collections of individual men and women. Any true social development must therefore begin with the transformation of each individual person.

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    In this way the ethical dilemmas of an economically developing country like Sri Lanka, with a background of Buddhist culture, are resolved, for a true lay Buddhist will aim at personal progress in worldly matters only on the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path. Progress by way of adhamma — unrighteousness — well inevitably bring in its trail disaster, pain, and suffering to individual, community, and nation.

    Such a misguided policy implies disbelief in kamma and its effects. Reject kamma and one is rootless. Rejection is the result of blinding greed for quick material gain and sensual pleasures, conjoined with delusion about the true nature and destiny of man and life. It also signifies acceptance of the philosophy of expediency — that one should “get the most that one can” out of this single fleeting life on earth guided largely by one’s instincts, subject to the laws of society, which the affluent and powerful often circumvent with impunity. Such a short-sighted and mistaken view ultimately leads to individual and social tensions, to restlessness and conflict, and to the spread of indiscipline, lawlessness, and crime.

    Buddhism distinguishes between emotions that are constructive, such as metta and karuna, and those that are destructive: anger and jealousy, for instance. It encourages the cultivation of the former to eliminate the latter. Human beings can both think and feel. When the Buddha taught the Dhamma, sometimes he appealed to reason, sometimes to the emotions, and sometimes to the imagination, using such means of instruction as fables, stories, and poetry. Buddhist culture, too, manifests in other forms than that of a fine character, such as in the field of literature — the Jatakas, the Theragatha and Therigatha, for examples — philosophy, art, architecture, and sculpture.

    Art is basically a medium of human communication. It can help in the education of the emotions and is one of the civilizing agencies of humankind. The work of the artist, whether painter, dramatist, sculptor, or writer, is worthy of study because it has a certain expressiveness that both reveals and stimulates fresh insights. The artist sees new meanings in objects and experience that ordinarily escape the rest of us, and thus he creates new values and insights in life.

    Rightly viewed as the expression of the good life, and as an aid to living it — and not for mere enjoyment and appreciation — art can therefore ennoble us. For example, the tranquillity and peace that one sees in the Samadhi statue of the Buddha elevates the mind, stimulates confidence, and induces reverence for the Dhamma. In all Buddhist lands, the images of the Buddha and the Bodhisatta have become the typical form of artistic expression.

    Buddhist culture is perennial and so is as fresh today as it was in the Buddha’s time 2500 years ago. It is also self-sufficient, self-consistent, and self-sustaining. Based as it is on eternal verities, verifiable by individual experience, it is never obsolete, and animates the progress that seems to kill it. Nor does its content change with context.

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    The impact of Buddhism on world culture was truly significant. In it, there is no intellectual error, based as it is on reason and on the bedrock of personal experience. It is free from moral blindness, for its ethics is truly lofty, guided by a rational basis for such an ethic, namely, personal evolution in terms of one’s own kamma. It engendered no social perversity — hate and intolerance were for none, limitless loving-kindness and compassion were for all. The doors to deliverance were open to anyone who wished to enter them. Its thrilling message of reason, universal benevolence, flaming righteousness, social justice, hope, and deliverance in this very existence by one’s own exertion — all had a fertilizing and liberating influence on thought and action wherever Buddhism spread.

    To the thinking person, Buddhism offered a rational, practical, and balanced way of deliverance from all life’s sorrows, and the certainty of the perfectibility of man, here and now solely by one’s own effort. To the humanist it gave an all-embracing compassionate vision, inspiring ameliorative action as a pre-condition for the realization of the highest spiritual attainments.

    Even to have a general idea of its achievements, in the manifold ways it has expressed itself in society, is an education in the art of living. Buddhism gives perspective to the whole of life. Nothing in life is seen as more important than it really is. A cultured Buddhist can tell the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the true from the false. He can weigh the evidence skillfully, and his Buddhist cultural background makes his judgment a wise one.

    THE BALANCED PERSONALITY

    The Buddha-Dhamma is not a fiction to be read and forgotten. It deals with life — with real life, the life that you and I lead every day, the value and worth of which is greatly enhanced when the Dhamma is translated into action and built into our character by constant effort and practice.

    The ultimate aim of the Buddha-Dhamma is Nibbana — emancipation from suffering. The immediate objective is to help us to understand and solve the problems that confront us in our daily life, to make us well-rounded, happy, and balanced men and women, able to live in harmony with our environment and our fellow beings. Balance, however, though it is an aim worth striving for, is not easily struck in the contemporary world, with its false ideologies and illusory values.

    In contrast to the relative, often false values of our age, the Buddha’s teaching is a revelation of true and absolute values. Its truth can be tested and tried in one’s own experience. Buddhism teaches clear thinking, self-control, and mental culture as means to these ends. One who builds his daily life upon this firm foundation of appropriate knowledge and clear-sighted ideals is assured of progress and success even as a layman.

    The Buddha-Dhamma is, then, a guide to daily life, and its basic principles are of great practical value in the art of living. The householder, while involved in his responsibilities and commitments, will not lose sight of the ultimate goal, Nibbana. Rather, he should consider lay life as a preparation and training ground for its realization. Continue reading


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