The Influence of Buddhism on Western Australians
The Ven. Dr Sri Dhammapanda eloquently outlines the symptoms of social discord and universal conflict clearly apparent to us as we confront the 21st century. There is individual Suffering through fear , despair, war, and through the excesses of a economic and social structures based on materialism, sensuality, greed and egocentrism. He proceeds to illustrate how the teachings of the Sammasambuddha can be used to promote social harmony and universal peace. In my paper, I comment upon these Buddhist values particularly in light of my research into Western Australians conversions to Buddhism. The focus is on the Buddhhist values of anicca, dukka and anitta and the Four Noble Truths, which hold the promise for westerners of a path to overcome Suffering, and a meaning structure not dependent on external authority but on personal practice and insight. I respond to Ven. Dr Sri Dhammananda’s comments on the role of The Sangha, by elucidating the critical role of The Sangha in promoting and sustaining Western Australian Buddhists. I proceed to illustrate how social harmony and universal peace is promoted by the actions arising from the key Buddhist values of Metta, karuna, muddita and uppeka. Dr Sri Dhammananda identifies these 4 sublime states as key Buddhist values. Metta ( loving kindness) is explored in context of the actions of The Eightfold Path and the implications for social ethics and social justice are considered and illustrated by Buddhist social justice movements namely Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka and prisoners support in Western Australia.. Karuna ( compassion) is explored as the great spiritual Power that is needed to transform existing discords and conflicts in to harmony and peace through the empathetic recognition of the interdependence of all living things. The spiritually transforming Power of this value is illustrated through personal and social actions transforming the lives of the poor and oppressed as in the social justice movements initiated by Ambedkar and the Buddhist Peace Fellowships in the West. Dr Sri Dhammananda’s call for Buddhist unity is addressessed in my paper when exploring the implications of the great Buddhist value of Muddita or joy in anothers joy. Tolerance of diversity and celebration of merit of all humankind is a unique gift that Buddhism has to offer the world in the promotion of social harmony and universal peace. Upekka ( equanimity in the face of praise or blame) is a profound Buddhist contribution to personal, social and world peace , and one of the values most often cited by Western converts to Buddhism. These four sublime abodes of Loving-kindness, compassion, joy in anothers joy and equanimity , in essence represent the attraction of Western Australian converts to Buddhism, and collectively these four abodes encapsulate the Power of the Buddha’s teachings, to transform the world from social discord and conflict to social harmony and world peace.
The Venerable Dr Sri Dhammananda clearly portrays the problems arising form social discord , national and international conflicts, the sufferings of individuals and communities experiencing social and economic injustices as well as the burdens of materialism, greed, egocentrism and sense gratification. The teachings of the Sammasambuddha clearly provide a path for the liberation from this Suffering. It is a teaching that is increasingly becoming popular in the West . Western Australians acceptance of the Buddha’s teachings is not as a result of proselytizing by Buddhists, but rather it is a personal choice to adopt a meaningful path, the benefits of which can be observed in their friends and their own lives. Moreover, it is a pathway which does not depend for its validity on some external authority but rather on the individual’s own experience and insight. The value of such a path can be experienced through greater personal and social harmony, and it gives a lucid understanding of the conditions of human Suffering and the means to overcome such Suffering. Moreover, the Power of the Buddhism in the west, is not that of another religion demanding conversion that excludes all other practices, but rather its Power to transform the individual’s life in meaningful ways, that create personal and social harmony. This is expressed accurately by the Venerable Dr Rewata Dhamma:
- Amidst a plurality of ideologies, political and religious, it would be best if Buddhism did not draw attention to itself, in a missionary way, as yet another ism. Its ideal has always been to encourage what is in conformity with The Eightfold Path in other faiths and systems. It has always been not so much a religion in its own right as a system of effective practice, of use to the individual whether he or she professes to follow some other religion or none at all. (Jones:1989:348)
In this paper , I will firstly discuss the Power of the Buddhist values of anicca, dukka and anitta and the Four Noble Truths, in terms of attracting western converts and promoting social harmony and peace. Secondly, I will respond to Dr Sri Dhammandas comments on the role of The Sangha , in light of their role among Western Australians. Thirdly, I will address the key values of the Buddha’s teaching identified by the Ven.Dr Sri Dhammananda, as the four sublime states or abodes of Metta, karuna, Mudita and upekka, in light of the Power of these values when implemented, to transform social discord into social harmony, and conflict into peace.
1. Power of the Buddhist values of anicca, dukka and anitta and the Four Noble Truths.
Despite material affluence, Westerners faces show little joy and much Suffering. We are driven by multitudes of aversions and attractions , powered by an advertising industry promoting illusions of satisfaction, and a materialistic , hedonistic culture where self-satisfaction dominates. Suicide and violent crime rates are increasing, social discord and injustices are high, and we are haunted by spectre of nuclear war and collapsing world ecosystem. Amid the chaos, disillusionment and discord of it all, Buddhist teachings provide sanity, the promise of a pathway to provide personal harmony and ultimately world peace. The Four Noble Truths provide a succinct, penetrating and powerful way through the Suffering Westerners are experiencing. Western Australian converts to Buddhism frequently mention their relief to find that here is a meaning structure that acknowledges that human experience is one of Suffering, the sanity of an analysis that points to craving, grasping and the illusion of permanence, rather than the acceptance of impermanence (aniccca) as the causes of this Suffering. Finally, there is the promise of a solution to discord and Suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path. It becomes the Dharma or “the way”, magga. The promise of happiness is not in the future or in the past, it is now. the Dharma is “ glorious in the beginning, glorious in the middle and glorious in the end”. The Noble Eightfold Path provides direction for skilful living in the present moment with guidelines for ethical conduct, mental and spiritual discipline that appeal to Western converts because they are relevant to the present moment.. As one Western Buddhist convert said; “It provides one with guidelines for Compassion and Loving Kindness rather that just raging around consuming the most we can and ripping into life in a greedy sort of way”. More-over , Buddha’s teachings show great compassion for human frailty and in his speaking of skilful and less skilful actions many Westerners experience a compassion lacking in the good/bad dualism that has pervaded Western religious and social experience and bred judgement , intolerance and social discord. The great gift to Western thinking of anitta ( not self) is the capacity to experience transcendence, to realise that the dualistic modes of thinking that have dominated Western world are separating and divisive and annitta leads us to transcend separation, distinction and divisiveness. It takes away the grasping for ego over others, for us over them. Joanna Macey ( 1991:189) , a western Buddhist and world leader in the environmental and social justice movement, proclaims the powerfully liberating and transforming nature of Buddhas concept of not-self:
- Buddhism undermines categorical distinctions between self and other and belies the concept of a continuous, self-existent entity. It then goes farther that systems theory in showing the pathogenic character of any reifications of the self. It goes farther still in offering methods for transcending theses difficulties and healing this Suffering. What the Buddha woke up to under the Bodhi Tree was the paticca samuppada, the dependent co-arising of phenomena, in which you cannot isolate a separate continuous self. We think, What do we do with the self, this clamorous I, always wanting attention, always wanting its goodies? Do we crucify it, sacrifice it, mortify it, punish it, or do we make it noble? Upon awaking we realize, “ Oh it just isn’t there.
2. Role of The Sangha among Western Buddhists in Australia
The Venerable Dr Shri Dhammananda points to the critical role of The Sangha in fostering the spirit of transcendental Buddhism and in promoting social harmony and peace. In Western Australia we have been particularly privileged to have developed over the past 15 years a large Sangha, trained in the forest tradition of Thailand by the Theravadin teacher Ajahn Chah. The Sangha was founded in 1982 at the request of the Western Australian Buddhist society by Ajahn Jagaro and Ven Brahmavamso. They cam from a forest tradition that provided powerful Dharma teachings:
- not directed toward ritual Buddhism or scholastic learning, but toward those who wish to purify their hearts and vision, by actually living the teachings of the Buddha. (Adams:1995:26)
I can personally testify that these teachers have been a living manifestation of the Buddha’s way , and many Western Australians have been influenced by Buddhism simply by the peace and compassion manifest in the lives of these Buddhist monks. There very presence in a room was sufficient to instil a sense of calm and peace and their Dharma teaching inspiringly insightful into the human condition and the way through Suffering. When I was teaching the five Great Religious traditions at University , Ajahn Jagaro spoke on Buddhism. At the end of the course I asked over 100 students to identify which of the religious traditions they felt most relevant to them, Over 50% of the students mentioned Buddhism. They were impressed with the teaching but particularly with the harmony and peace that emanated from the Buddhist monks. Westerners influenced by Buddhism in Western Australia, repeatedly mention that they are impressed by the daily relevance of the Buddhist teaching. As one of the Western converts explained:
- Buddhism works in everyday life...every aspect of my life in the family, in the workplace, in my social activities, in everything I do.
I cannot comment on the monastic needs in the East, but in Australia , The Sangha need to manifest the Wisdom, compassion and Mindfulness of the Buddha’s. way. We are so distraught by mental stress, aversion, desire, isolation and tattered meaning structures that we desperately need The Sangha to manifest the qualities of personal peace and harmony, and to be teachers of a way through Suffering. Ajahn Chah has bequeathed a priceless gift to the western world through his disciples who are now teachers in Sanghas in most English speaking countries of the world. This gift is beautifully portrayed in, Seeing the Way : Buddhist reflections on the Spiritual life (1989), an anthology of western Dharma teachers trained by him and now serving throughout the English speaking world . This Sangha in Western Australia has also demonstrated compassionate service in counselling, schools , prisons and organised for social workers to work from the Vihara centre. As a result of mounting concern among Western Australian Buddhists about the lack of suitable opportunities for the development of a female Sangha, a historic event occurred this year with the purchase of a 650 hectare forest site for the establishment of a female Sangha in Australia. As Venerable Dr Sri Dhammananda so accurately reminds us, women have made and continue to make a profound contribution to the promotion of social harmony and peace and it is essential Bhikkuni orders be reestablished .
In Western Australia the resident Theravadin Sangha has played a critical role in balancing the needs of the western laity who are primarily interested in the Dharma teaching, and meditation with needs of the ethnically diverse Buddhist migrant communities in Australia of Thais, Cambodians, Burmese, Laotions, Sri Lankans and Chinese. This means that The Sangha members must be educated to be sensitive and aware of different cultural expressions of the Buddhist tradition and to create opportunities for the diverse cultural groups to celebrate Buddhism through their particularly significant festivals and through their dedicated practical support to The Sangha. In a comprehensive survey of the roles of the Buddhist society in the lives of Asians compared with English speaking Buddhist Australians Adams, (1995:97) discovered that of all the variables the most significant difference was over the Vihara providing a place of retreat. More westerners(76%) emphasized this need ,compared to Asian members (27%). Western Buddhists need to withdraw to a place of quiet and retreat to pursue meditation, is repeatedly expressed as their highest need. This is an essential service provided by The Sangha in Western Australia with its forest monastery. As Ajahn Jagaro so insightfully comments:
- “We now have an influx of varied Buddhist traditions in the West. Australia is already a multicultural and multirelgious society. It is now a multi-Buddhist society, a meeting place for Buddhism. ( Adams: 1995:115).
Although cultural traditions deserve respect and expression, I agree with Ven Dr Sri Dhammananda that the Sangha members must also take the lead in establishing a culture of transcendental Buddhism, where the essential tenets of the Buddhas teachings are the key focus, not particular differences of particular theological traditions. This has been achieved by the Theravadin Sangha, now numbering almost 20 monks. I had been associated with Buddhism for two years before I became aware of competing traditions within Buddhism. I had always associated the differences with differences in culture, and was challenged by a Tibetan Buddhist I met one day as to why I was not a Tibetan Buddhist. Only then did I become aware of the complex theological differences in interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. To many of the western converts to Buddhism ,such differences in theological tradition have little significant meaning for their daily lives. What is critical is the broad tenets of the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path: that which will lead to personal and social harmony and peace and liberation from Suffering.
The Sangha members have also played a significant role in promoting social harmony, and Ajahn Jagaro has sat on the multicultural religious education curriculum development committee for the Ministry of Education to develop a interfaith educational package for Western Australian schools. Other monks have been involved in prison visits, teaching of public meditation classes and extensive talks among community and government organisations to foster understanding and goodwill between Buddhists and other members of the community. Other Buddhist traditions in Western Australia that have at least one resident Monk include the Australian Mahayana Buddhist society, Deva chen Sanctuary, the Dharmapala Buddhist Centre, and the Tibetan Buddhist Society.( Adams:1995:177-80).
The Ven Dr Sri Dhammananda points out that in order for social harmony to ensure we have to forsake the false notion that everything is made for man’s pleasure and to recognise that everything is dependent on everything else, and that man’s ultimate happiness lies in ensuring the safety and happiness of others. Loving kindness is the fundamental gesture of social movements that have as their goal the well-being of the community. Macy (1991:40) states that meditation to arouse and sustain loving kindness was a staple of the Sarvodaya shramadana movement for community development in Sri Lanka. This movement is known internationally as an effort to create social harmony through grass roots development of essential village and community based projects, and mobilising communities of individuals to work together for the common good. Summoning participants to enter the boundless heart of Buddha, the seat of loving kindness, ennobles what appear to be menial or repetitive tasks, helps defuse conflict and inspire the community to give energy. The Eightfold Path offers the principles along which to direct the energy. Right knowledge and right attitude arise through the understanding of the interdependence of self and other, right speech , action and livelihood as this is expressed through honesty and compassion. These qualities become immediate nad tangible as the community’s collaboration to build a well, a hall, or to mend a road. Right Mindfulness and composure direct the quality of participation in such community projects. A socially engaged Buddhism, promoting social harmony arises from the implementation of The Eightfold Path in the individual and community life. Underlying this movement to restore social justice and harmony, is the recognition that every act has an effect on every other act. One’s personal awakening is integral to the awakening of one’s village and both play integral roles in the awakening of one’s country and the world to possibilities of social harmony and world peace. As the Ven. Dr Sri Dhammananda accurately explains, the first arena for the development of harmony and peace is within the individual. Key to the development of individual qualities is Metta. It is the fundamental attitude necessary to cultivate noble motivation for service, the capacity to work harmoniously with others and above all non-violence. Metta or loving kindness is the cornerstone of social harmony; an attitude of being that transcends the empty egocentrism of western capitalism. Buddhist Peace fellowships in Australia are likewise concerned to promote an attitude of Metta as the cornerstone of peace making activities in the world.(Jones:1989:227).
Compassion is the translation of Metta into action for the well-being of others and is so beautifully expressed through the image of the Boddhisattva, the one who having achieved Enlightenment returns to the world in compassionate service of the Suffering. The compassionate One of Buddhism appears in many forms: the Kuan yin of China, Kannon in Japan, Tara in Tibet, and everywhere she is the “Hearer of the cries of the world”. The Boddhisatva is symbolic of the compassionate Power of Buddhism to transform the world from a place of Suffering and conflict to a place of social harmony and peace. She represents engaged Buddhism, action in the world.
- A Boddhisattva resolves : I take upon myself the burden of all Suffering , I am resolved to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn or run away, do not tremble, am not terrified, nor afraid, do not turn back ...At all costs I must bear the burdens of all beings. ...The whole world of living beings I must rescue from the terrors of birth, of old age, of sickness, of death and Rebirth, of all kinds of moral offence, of all states of woe, of the whole cycle of birth and death, of the jungle of false views, of the loss of wholesome dharmas, of the concomitants of ignorance, from all these terrors I must rescue all beings (Burtt:1982:153).
Robert Thurman notes eloquently that:
- the coming to Buddha hood is a social event , involving a whole field of Sentient beings, whose collective existence must be developed to the point where the whole land is transformed, from an impure land of violence and exploitation and Suffering into a Pure land. We need human qualities such as moral scruples, compassion and humility ( Jones;1989:323-4)
Compassion then, implies radical action to transform ones own consciousness and that of the social order into one which is based on social justice and a recognition of the rights and needs of all living things. Vietnam has provided examples of such Buddhist inspired movements with the School of Youth for Social Service and the Third way movement led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh whose social justice work and non-violent actions for change, are profoundly admired among Westerners, both within the peace movement and within the green political community. The compassion of Buddhism is present in society demanding social changes that will produce social harmony. The exponents of this social action may be viewed as radical, as was the Indian Buddhist Dr Ambedkar, but the demand for social justice and equality of opportunity is a morally powerful force in transforming society. There can be little harmony in a society where exploitation and oppression of individuals or groups occur. Buddha himself in the Sonadanda Sutta questioned brahminic supremacy ( Jones:1989:1990). Buddha was a great exponent of values today that are widely held as egalitarian and democratic and essential pillars of a harmonious society. Such egalitarinism does not impley uniformity but recognises diversity and uniqueness. A tolerant acceptance of difference;such pluralism is essential for a global fraternity and Universal peace. As the Ven Dr Sri Dhammananda so insightfully reminds us, we Buddhists should first ensure that we are tolerant of the diversity among ourselves. We can have meaningful dialogue between each other and cooperate in many areas.
Compassion is a powerful force because it arises from the Power of the open heart to the sufferings of others and it gives one the Power to act. It is one of the great weapons of the Warriors of Shambala spoken of in the Tibetan Buddhist prophecy as the metaphysical army that has come to transform darkness into light, to dismantle the mind-made weapons of destruction, conflict and discord. And the companion weapon for the Warriors of Shambala is insight into the profound interrelationships of all life, insight into the human being knowing that the line between good and evil is within each mind and heart and the knowing that the war which must be fought is first within. It is compassion and insight that can sustain the transformation from conflict to harmony within the individual and society. The Ven. Dr Sri Dhammananda reflects these sentiments when he writes that it is the teaching of the Buddha that will be a powerful civilizing force turning humanity from violence to compassion.
Mudita is the other side to compassion with anothers sorrow. It is a celebration of the strengths and joys of human goodness. A popular meditation among some western Buddhists is The Great Ball of Merit adapted from the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 lines which focuses on visualising the countless deeds of merit of humanity and recognising the Power of such accumulated actions for the healing of the world and the transformation from social discord to harmony and peace. Mudita encourages us to see the best in humanity , to see the goodness in those around us and the potential for the victory of peace on earth. Dr Sri Dhammannada recalls the immortal words of the Emporer Asoka which reminds us that the great victory is the victory of the Dhamma.
Mudita also means that we celebrate diversity of culture, respect the needs of all living beings, recognize the delicate interdependence of all life . This means the development of a state of mind which is harmonious, not concerned with warlike activities based on greed and delusions of nationalism. This must occur individually and socially . Dr Sri Dhammananda highlights the role of the modern technology through the media and education systems to propound values that promote harmony and peaceful attitudes to diversity. He emphasizes the need for Buddhists themselves to abandon derision fear and suspicion of different Buddhist traditions and come to celebrate their richness and variety, to use the rich treasure from different traditions to spread the Dhamma and thus to help all humankind gain peace and happiness.
Western converts to Buddhism are profoudly moved by the notion of Mudita which they experience as producing a tolerance , kindness and harmony towards others who may otherwise be viewed as different and judged by ones own set of narrow cultural values. Mudita is seen as producing an attitude that fosters peaceful co-existence of different cultures and groups and this lessens social discord and diffuses potential conflict. Ophuls in his article on Buddhist politics ( Jones1989:327) sees the profound potential of such a value to world peace:
- A tolerant and convivial pluralism which rejoices in the richness of human diversity implies a global fraternity, in which powerful countries encourge others toretain and develop their own distinctive cultures and self-reliant socieities.such a plural society would, at all levels, have the same untidy harmony as nature itself, with co-operation and conflict resolution as its great social arts.
“upekka’ equanimity in the face of praise or blame
Western buddhist converts are most profoundly drawn to buddhism trough this quality of upekkka which promises sanity and peace in an increasingly reactive, explosive and stressed social milieu. Upekka is the abode sought by western buddhist converts as they cometo realise through the noble truths that it is their cravings and their reactions that are the buildign blocks for personal and social discord and conflict. Frequently Western buddhist convertsmention that buddhism has enabled them to see that they can determine the quality of their lives by the quality of their thinking. This the Ven Dr sri dhammananda points out when he cites the dhammapanda saying :
- Self conquest is indeed far greater than th conquest of all otherfolk; neither a god nor a Andhabba, nor Mara with Brahma, can win back the victory of such a person who isself;-subdued and ever lives in restraint.
Such a conquest leads to the abode of upekka/ Here the individual is master of his mental states, aware of his reactions and his aversions and desires. Stress, the great malaise of western society is replaced by personal harmony. Relief from stress and its associated ill health is a commonly cited reason for Westerners who are drawn to Buddhist meditation. Increasing numbers of western health practitioners are referringtheir patieisn to meditation classes for stress managemetn in their life. Upekka is one of the most sought after jewels of western society. It is the teachings of the buddha that reveal the pathway to the finding of this priceless gem. When this gem has been found by enough individuals then social harmony will prevail and world peace will not be the elusive butterfly it now appears to be. When we live in upekka then Mindfulness and insight will be our constant companions and we will manifest Metta, karuna and Mudita. When the four abodes are realised , humanity at last will have found the hallway of universal peace.
I wish to conclude with a conversation from the Sutta Nipata which concisely captures the need to follow the Buddhist values reflected in the Four Noble Truths, the Ten Paramis and The Eightfold Path, if we are to achieve Social harmony and Universal peace:
What is it said Ajita to the buddha, that smothers the world/ what makes the world so hard to see? What would ou say pollutes the worldl, and what threatens it most? It is ignorance which smothers, said the Master, and it is carelessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of Suffering. In every direction, said Ajita, the rivers of desire are running. How can we dm them and what will hod them back? What can we use to close the flood gates any river can be stopped with the dam of Mindfulness said the Buddha, I call it the flood stopper. And with Wisdom you can close the flood-gates.
As we follow the Dharma teaching and open to the path of Mindfulness, compassion and insight there arises “a still forest pool within us from which as ajahncha so beautifully describes; strange and rare creatures will come to drink, and we will know the nature of all things . It is the place where freedom and clarity arise which are beyond wither hop or despair. We come to know an inner peace and it is from that place that we can make the most effective contribution to outer peacemaking. It is here where individuality melts away in the rrecognition of the interdependence of all things and our finiteness no longer oppresses us. All is interconnected in a theprocess dependent coarising. This recognition of our essential nonseparateness from any part of the world dismantles the walls erected out of fear and greed. It is the Dharma gift of kindness, compassion, non-violence and sharing, which alone can transform social discord and conflict into social harmony and Universal Peace.
Dr Patricia Sherwood
Edith Cowan University
Dept of Cultural Studies
Sherwood, P. (1998) The Influence of Buddhism on Western Australians. International Conference of Buddhist Monks and Scholars, Sri Lanka, 1998