A living religion - in the hearts and minds of people
(from Buddhayana Quarterly of August 1999)

This question is most likely very familiar to Buddhists in the West. This article however, originally comes from Sri Lanka (Daily News). The question is therefore directed towards Sri Lankan Buddhists, but that doesn't make the answer any less interesting for westerners.

Buddhism is listed under the great world religions. That could just mean that it is one of the religions that is still followed and is not yet dead, like so many of the great religions that lightened the life of the Egyptians and Greeks.

But we are ask the question as to whether Buddhism is a living religion in particular as to whether the teachings of the Buddha are not to difficult for modern day Buddhists to apply to their daily life. Do we think that the Buddhist discipline is outdated and irrelevant for modern day situations? Has the philosophy of Buddhism proven not to stand up to modern science and technology?

Is the fact that we are world citizens in conflict with a religion that was taught to people coming from a small part of India 2,500 years ago? Do we find that the absence of an external authority who lays down the discipline taught by the Buddha has gradually led to the disintegration of that discipline?

That Buddhism is written about in books and on the Internet does not make it a living religion. It is about its use by living people.

Keeping Buddhism alive means that the Buddhist values are kept alive, not through public celebrations, but because individuals strive to live up to them. The most noticeable Buddhist characteristic is the deep and lasting understanding of the suffering which is an unavoidable part of existence. If we by our way of thinking, speaking or acting add to human suffering, then we also damage the foundations on which Buddhism stands. If we take our refuge to violence as the only way of bringing about an end to social and political conflict, if we as members of society earn our living by means which damage the hearts and minds of others through alcohol, tobacco and drugs, if people find it easy to life with the human shortcomings of greed and longings, then don't we contribute to bringing the Buddhist religion in danger.

More and more people leave Buddhist values behind them and argue: Buddhism is Buddhism, business is business. What they are doing is divorcing Buddhism from their political, economic, social and cultural life.

This is one of the unavoidable consequences of the modern trend towards the awareness of human rights. Whilst this movement has thrown light onto much of the suffering in the world, there is also a tendency in our society to lay too much emphasis on the individual. Most people are given an misleading sense of what human freedom is. Individuals tend by their nature to stand up for what they believe their rights to be, to strive after pleasure, to give expression to their feelings and to follow their longings. The unhappy result is that they are a part of the wider society. Easy access to weapons, or being members of organised structures often makes them forget their responsibility for the community whose well-being is also their own well-being.

On the other hand: when leaders have let go of Buddhist principles of responsibility for the well-being of those they serve, and when, as a result, the servants of public order revolt both against the leaders and public order, then of course a society degenerates. If the society degenerates, then Buddhist principles no longer have fertile ground.

We Buddhists, especially the so called learned amongst us, become more and more preoccupied with exalted, abstract ideas of Buddhism such as metta, karuna, peace and understanding. Unfortunately there is less preoccupation with their actual practice, with putting them into practice in daily life situations, at work, in society.

We have for example brought nearly everyone up to be a good person, but not to know when hate or jealousy arises in their mind and therefore they give expression to these things. They feel happy in their preoccupation with rituals and celebrations which for them are an unmissable source of pleasure. The true value of their religion is in danger of dying out through non-use.

What is urgently asked of learned Buddhists is to make clear the practical relevance of Buddhist principles in the context of aggressive norms and values which are increasingly make up part of modern society. What we need is a way of celebrating Vesak, etc. with a programme of activities to bring particular Buddhists practices into use.

We should not forget that it is not only reminding people of Buddhist Teachings in daily life situations that will bring about this transformation. Behaviour does not come forth so much out of ideals and ideas, as from our hearts, our inner feelings.

The question is: do we know our own heart? Do we have a feeling of responsibility for our own feelings, our own life? Buddhism requires that we become awake.

When we wake up we begin to have a deep feeling of our human circumstances, of the reality that all beings are essentially the same. Then the barriers between self and another become less important. Then people wake up to their own responsibility.

What does that mean?

Responsibility means to live fully with the movement within ourselves and the ability to recognise those animal tendencies which arise from time to time, and to ensure that they do not live their own life. A Buddhist does not have to be responsible to others, not even to the Buddha. If he only has an example to become awake to live an alert life, be mindful and aware of his own tendencies, then a feeling of natural responsibility will develop for himself and for all the beings with which he comes into contact.

That is the sort of attitude which leads to Buddhism being a living religion.