HUMANISM: BUDDHISM: THEISM
Certain Views Clarified.
U Hla Maung, B.A.
Vol. III, No. 3, 1956
Here we give the views of a rather broad-minded theist, who has made strong strictures on "The Good Life without belief in God" theory of the modern humanist. We have been asked to state the Buddhist position vis-a-vis the position of the humanist. Our task is made fairly easy, as the enquirer has very considerately defined the attitude and the prevailing views of those liberal-minded Christians who hold 'renovated' or 'watered-down' ideas of God and Church.
Our theist begins with the humanist's Moratorium on God'. He answers the humanist's explicit question 'What if modern humanity were to declare a moratorium on God for fifty years, and see if, without theology, man might not be morally improved ?' The theist is not shocked by the clear distrust shown in regard to theism's ethical consequence. The influence of much of the popular belief in God, he admits, is not moral but immoral ; and the reason is that not a few God-believers are very lazily inclined and put too much on the shoulders of a kindly deity and shirk moral observances and duties. To him the old type of theism means concepts of right and wrong rigidly defined by Infallible Revelation. There was too much of obeying the letter and not the spirit so that the humanists are not unreasonable in much of their attack on current theism. Our enquirer, however, contends that the matter is not so simple that it can be disposed of effectively by the humanist's moratorium on God'.
While yielding to the view that ultimately an ethic of high ideals, if supported with enthusiasm and unflagging devotion, does not depend on the supernatural direction of a code or on a system of divine rewards and punishments or on a picture of God as king, law-giver and judge, he yet claims that this ethic of high ideals must and does depend on reverence for personality, which after all forms the crux of the whole matter.
The theist goes on to add that right and wrong are basically a scale of values ; and ideas concerning them depend on what the individual and the society he lives in regard as valuable so that ultimately morals, both in the individual and social aspects, depend on the worth of Personality. He warns the humanist that the worth of Personality cannot be dictated by the whims and fancies or ideologies of a school of thought or by the fiat of any state. It must be a value - accompanying his 'Cosmic Creed'.
Having enunciated his own position, he stigmatises the humanist's ethic of high ideals as mere wishful thinking rendered ridiculous by its own factors. For what is personality '' to a humanist ? Does not his scientific materialism say that it is a fortuitous by-product of a purposeless universe ? Does not the mental or spiritual life begin and end suddenly in a meaningless way and is not this short earthly course only an unexplained interlude between two annihilations ? What meaning or essence has his life, whether lived heroically or basely ? Are not the chaotic conditions now prevailing in the world, repercussions of such a material philosophy ? Is then human life a lost cause in the natural universe ? Is man suffering and struggling against a vast indifference ?
Finally, the theist sums up his position for us. For him the two decisive questions are whether Personality is not the great central fact of the universe and whether this Personality should not be coupled with 'the Eternal Spirit' or whether it is only a 'chance spark ' struck off from the activities and collisions of the merely physical. He is convinced that atheism is no solution of the problem and that behind a partial and inadequate idea of God, is God. Yet again, there is, he feels, the need for a positive presentation of a creditable idea of God. He himself frankly despairs of being able to toss off on demand a statement of theism philosophically adequate to the NEW AMAZING UNIVERSE. He thinks the solution of the problem will require the work of the best minds of the age.
The question put to us was 'What has Buddhism, or, rather, what have I as a Buddhist to say on the points raised in the foregoing ? 'The Buddha's discovery of Truth 2,500 years ago provides an over-all answer to the main points involved. This restatement marked the culminating point between the conflicting views of pure materialism on the one side and of the various forms and vogues of theism on the other. Theism with its 'First Cause' had gradually developed out of Animism, rising into Polytheism and then into what may be classed as Pantheism. But the First Cause itself was a serious ground for controversy. One of the schools rejected the First Cause but ardently retained the soul-theory, side by side with the tenet of the eternity of Prakrit or Matter. Another school maintained that only God was everlasting; the world itself was a phantom, as it were, a dream and a delusion, having its real existence only in God while the souls themselves had no independent existence. They were God itself. So the claim, on one side, was for the Primordial Prakrit with independent and separately existing souls, and on the other side was only for God in a world of delusion.
These differences are made clear by Dr. Rhys Davids in his exposition of "Religious Theories in India ", a chapter well-worth reading in his "Buddhism". This cautious scholar emphasised the view that Buddhism represented a logical clearness and a moral fearlessness in that it took a deliberate and exclusive stand against the contending theories of soul and God. He further points out that one of the most important Dialogues given by the Buddha to his disciples is known as the Brahma Jala— meaning 'The Perfect Net' with meshes which are so fine that no folly of superstition, however subtle, can slip through. In it, are set out sixty-two variations of existing hypotheses, and, after each of them has been rejected by the Buddha, the doctrine of Arahatship is put forward as the right solution.
From this we see that Buddhism put a moratorium on theism 2,500 years ago. It refuted, be it noted, a highly developed theory of theistic monism, more highly developed, in Dr. Rhys Davids' opinion, than the Hebrew theory.
The Buddha was well-qualified to be authoritative on this subject. The story of his life, his great renunciation and his painstaking search for a workable truth in regard to the problem of life and Personality ending with his Enlightenment are entitled to our greatest respect and undoubting trust. In making Arahatship the crowning phase of his doctrine, the Buddha gave a very clear and precise view of Personality devoid of an identity known as soul in its unqualified sense. In fact, the Buddha held all discussions on this subject to be not only vain and useless but also 'actually inimical to the only ideal worth striving after— the ideal of a perfect life, here and now, in the present world, in Arahatship'.
"Of all the things that proceed from a Cause,
The Buddha that Cause hath told;
And he tells too, each shall come to its end.
Such alone is the word of the sage."Mahavagga, Vinaya Pitaka.
The theist's question is " How far or near is the Buddhist position to that of the humanist's 'High Ethical Life' ? "It must be noted in the first place that Buddhism with its ideal of Arahatship instead of sapping morality and ethic to an almost vanishing point (as is nearly the case of the modern moratorium on God in the West) has been the citadel of spirituality over large areas of the world. It has not in any way contributed to the moral and political chaos now prevailing in the world. The striving after Arahatship among Buddhists has been continuous. One may say that the ideal seems to be growing in predominantly Buddhist countries, and is a very promising factor in bringing the Buddhist principles of life and conduct more and more into the forefront. It may not be an idle hope that this will help to bring about a significant change in the so-called 'world Views'.
The 'High Ethic of Humanism' artificed for a materialistic-scientific view of life has no affinity whatever with the Arahat type of Ethic. Arahatship represents a mental evolution set in a cosmos which knows no beginning and no ending. There is a chain of causation at work, and man with his Personality (his character) is the invariable accompanier of this chain of causation.
Humanism is wedged between the void of "No Before" and the void of "No After". It is as our friend, the theist puts it, 'an interlude between two annihilations'. Its finest faiths are comforting fantasies by which it tries to escape from the world of fact to the world of 'Desire' ; for is it not founded on matter as the prime substance of the universe?
In Arahatship of sustained mental evolution, spanning vast stretches of time, there is only the ideal and belief in the annihilation of craving and attachment, the nexus of sorrow.
What difference is there between the Personality which the theist says is 'the crux of the whole problem' and Personality known and accepted in the Buddhist sense ? There is a world of difference between the two. Personality for the theist is the functioning of his soul. His soul, dependent on a Creator, functions during a short earth-life and faces an unending eternity within the favour of its Creator or away from that favour. It seems an arbitrary proceeding, and much also depends upon Faith and God's grace. It carries with it the vainglorious idea of 'immortality' of the soul. Why should we hanker after immortality? Immortality can only be a concept very strange and out of place to the human mind which understands only temporal sequences. To work for non-mortality is the Buddhist ideal. The pressing business for humanity was, is and always has been the challenging assertion of life— life ever and again renewing itself in a chain or round of 'birth and death', which constitutes the sorrow of Samsara. To break this chain of attachment to ever- asserting—really an attachment to egoism and its claims propped up against the seen and known world—one must transcend Loka (the world) by Lokuttara. That is to say, we are required to negate not life as such for life in itself is a mere process. What we have to negate is the deluding element in this process — the belief in an ego which sets up a world of delusions for itself. Anyone who speaks in terms of immortality is flagrantly pleading for the cause of "self" as an everlasting soul.
In the Buddhist sense, Personality does not mean what I would like to term "Personity" —an unchanging identity. We may think of Personality in terms of 'character' or that which makes for and accompanies the process of "Becoming ". Since there are no souls there are really no "Beings" but only "Becomings". So the most that we can ascribe in the way of an essence to 'character' is not anything of a permanent substance but only as a Principle expressing itself as a momentum or propulsion or a cause for continuity of life. Dr. Grimm tries to give Personality a more real and tangible basis than to the fluxing and changing elements of Body and Mind, but in the final analysis it is quite clear that it is nothing at all of a soul or an unchanging identity.
The world is now grappling with a mass of theories covering every phase of life and nature. There is a confusion of paradoxes and anomalies which do not at all help in arriving at Truth.
We cannot hope to eradicate greed, anger and delusion in ourselves or in the world by logical reasoning or by scientific investigation. Our only hope lies in going along the road of purity and wisdom in the eightfold development of Sila, Samadhi and Panna clearly defined by the Buddha. The followers of the Eightfold Path will at their respective paces advance towards Arahatship The state of an Arahat is described thus
"And for a disciple thus freed, in whose heart dwells peace, there is nothing to be added to what has been done, and naught more remains for him to do. Just as a rock of solid mass remains unshaken by the wind, even so neither forms, nor sounds, nor odours, nor tastes, nor contacts of any kind, neither the desired nor the undesired can cause an One to waver. Steadfast is his mind, gained is deliverance.
And he who has considered all the contrasts on this earth, and is no more disturbed by anything whatever in the world, the peaceful One, freed from rage, from sorrow, and from longing, he has passed beyond birth and decay."