Decline of Buddhism: Can it be stopped?

Many ‘false’ Dhammas are emerging which has become a major threat. Buddha encouraged discussion and discourse but what is happening now is Bhikkus giving their own interpretations to gather a set of followers.

by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

( October 28, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Impermanence is a quality of all things, preached the Buddha. Therefore, His teachings cannot be an exception to this law of nature, one can argue. But, on the other hand, the real crux of Buddha Dhamma are universal truths and how can universal truths decline or disappear? May be, Buddhism as a religion, may decline and disappear but the substance, at least a large part of it, will survive for the foreseeable future. Perhaps, my title should have been ‘Decline of Buddha Dhamma’ than Buddhism. In fact, some may welcome the decline of Buddhism so that rituals are replaced by true practices.

Some believe we are in a ‘terminal era’ where the gradual decline of Buddhism with ultimate demise, is inevitable. They also believe that Buddhism, then, will be non-existent for eons, till the birth of the next Buddha, Maithri. These concepts of previous Buddhas and a future Buddha are scientifically implausible and can only be believed with blind faith. To me, Gautama Buddha is a unique human being who, by the exploration of mind, discovered universal truths. By implying He is one of a cycle of Buddhas, all born in India, diminishes his unparalleled achievements. He was the originator of scientific thinking as exemplified by what he preached in Kalama Suttta but I will not go into details as much has been written on this Sutta. However, there is another Sutta, Kevaddha Sutta, that illustrates how important education is; leading to the avoidance of acceptance without questioning.

When Kevaddha, an ordinary householder in Nalanda, approached the Buddha and requested him to get one of the monks to perform miracles so that the people of Nalanda, a powerful and prosperous kingdom, would have greater faith in the Buddha, He replied: “Kevatta, there are these three miracles that I have declared, having directly known and realized them for myself. Which three? The miracle of psychic power, the miracle of telepathy, and the miracle of instruction.”

The Buddha went on to explain that psychic power may convince the believers but non-believer would say ‘There is already a charm, called Ghandari charm, used by many priests to exhibit psychic phenomena’. Similarly, non-believers of telepathy would say that many priests already use a charm called Manika. Seeing these drawbacks, I am disillusioned with these miracles and believe only in the miracle of instructions; instructing how to use the mind properly and goes on to explain how instruction can lead to enlightenment. Therefore, He called instructions the greatest miracle; instructions not to follow Him blindly but use the mind properly to achieve enlightenment.

While claiming to follow the teachings of such a rational teacher, we believe in the irrational. The occult attracts us and there are many Buddhist priests engaging in activities which the Buddha categorised as practices unworthy of a monk. Though we think ‘Mitya Distika’, (wrong believers) refers to those of other faiths, a surprisingly large number of Buddhists are wrong believers; believing in distorted versions of Buddhism.

Many have argued how long the Buddha Dhamma would last but this seems an exercise in futility and, instead, we should be concentrating on the question, whether there is a threat to the Dhamma and, more importantly, whether we can take corrective action. According to most authorities, the dangers are twofold; external and internal.

External threats

Early writers identified two external threats:

1. Invasion of India from the North West, which did occur but it did not affect Buddhism alone.
2. Regulation of Monks by rulers, which also did occur but more important was the withdrawal of facilities granted.

As far as I can see, the greatest threat, a very successful one at that, came from the Brahmins. Had the words of equality of the Buddha spread far and wise, fearing they would lose their claimed superiority based on an archaic system of caste, Brahmins conceived a cunning plan. They ‘swallowed’ the Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Gradually their concepts crept into Buddhism and that is the Buddhism we practice today.

Internal threats

These are the reasons recorded by various writers and some are definitely stated in Suttas like Saddhammasamosa and Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta.

1. Admission of women to the monastic community
2. Lack of respect toward various elements of the Buddhist tradition
3. Lack of diligence in meditation practice
4. Carelessness in the transmission of the teachings
5. The emergence of divisions within the Sangha
6. The emergence of a false or ‘counterfeit’ Dhamma
7. Excessive association with secular society

Admission of women to the monastic tradition would lead to the halving of the lifespan of Buddha Sasana, the Buddha is supposed to have said and at the first Sangayana, Venerable Ananda was blamed by the assembled Arahants for enticing the Buddha to do this. Are we to believe that Ananda, who had not even got to the first step of enlightenment, could convince the Buddha? Are we to believe that Ananda was needed to remind the Buddha, who breast-fed him following the death of his mother? Are we to believe that the Buddha who preached equality was reluctant to grant equality to women for ordination? This seems an addition by Monks as an act of self-preservation. It is interesting to speculate whether the un-Buddhists behaviour of some monks would be diminished if we had a strong Bhikkuni Sasana. Anyway, it is women who protect the Sasana; obvious when you look at the crowds in any Buddhist religious ceremony where the vast majority are women.

Regarding the second, in Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta, the Buddha has stated that when the Sangha and laity, live without respect, without deference for the Teacher, for the Dhamma, for the Sangha, for the training and for the concentration, it lends to the disappearance of the Dhamma but has also said that reversal of these will ensure the protection of the Dhamma.

Lack of diligence in Meditation practice is very common as even Monks believe it is a practice for those of the monastic tradition. Fortunately, scientists have recognised the value of Mindfulness Meditation, introduced by the Buddha, and treatment modalities based on this are now in common use. Unfortunately, attempts by some to commercialise is bringing disrepute but this is likely to be temporary.

Regarding carelessness in the transmission of teachings, in Pathama Saddhmmasammosa Sutta, (as translated by E M Hare and appearing in it is stated:

Herein, monks, carelessly the monks hear Dhamma;carelessly they master it;carelessly they bear it in mind;carelessly they test the good of the things borne in mind;knowing the good and knowing Dhamma,carelessly they go their ways in Dhamma by Dhamma.

Verily, monks, these are the five thingsthat lead to the confounding, the disappearance of Saddhamma.’

I referred to the divisions of Sangha in my article ‘Men in Robes’ (SATmag, 14 October) and am pleased to note that the Malwatta Chapter is already taking action on some of these misdeeds. Hope all three Nikayas will unite to take stern action against Bhikkus indulging in un-Buddhist activities.

Many ‘false’ Dhammas are emerging which has become a major threat. Buddha encouraged discussion and discourse but what is happening now is Bhikkus giving their own interpretations to gather a set of followers. Though not a Bhikku, the downfall of the Tibetan teacher Rinpoche, which I referred to in the same article, highlighted this problem.

Excessive association with secular society is interpreted by some as Monks indulging in non-religious activities but if Monks take part in activities for the common good, not their personal benefit, what harm is there?

It looks as if we, Buddhists, need to urge our Monks to listen to the words of the Buddha and change some of their ways so that Buddha Dhamma lasts for years to come. Even if Buddhism is in decline, even if actions that can reverse this is not taken, it is gratifying to note that some of the concepts the Buddha introduced, like Mindfulness is in the ascendency. Its application, albeit with modifications, are benefitting vast numbers of people of all races and religions all over the world.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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