Religion, Philosophy and Culture
U Hpe Aung, M.A., M.S.
(Rendered into English by U Han Htay)
(First Published in 'The Light of Dhamma', Vol.III, No.1, Department of Religious Affairs, Rangoon, 1983)
By the term "Religion" one can take the meaning of "faith and worship" in a general sense. Most definitions emphasize the belief in gods or God or unseen powers. There are of course many, other diverse definitions of religion.
Religion in early times means man's reliance on some supernatural or divine powers to drive out fear, to attain peace and happiness, to have wishes fulfilled. Thus, religion, as understood by most persons, consists of (i) reliance on higher power or powers (ii) the individual who is seeking such kinds of reliance and (iii) the fact of relationship between the individual and the supernatural power or powers. In short, man, out of fear or wish, wants to believe in supernatural beings. Compared with the size of the vast universe in which he lives, man is seen as a helpless creature. Thus a religious instinct was born at the early period of man's history. Man was not only weak but also very ignorant. He became a great believer in gods, spirits, devils, demons, etc. Man therefore sought salvation out of fear and awe. Thus, from the very beginning, the phenomena of religion and awe were closely associated. It is therefore true to say that every race or nation has a religion of one type or the other. In early times man had to face great dangers in everyday life. Being ignorant of the facts of the universe he was unable to solve his problems by himself alone.
Hence in the history of religions we find that man wanted to seek reliance on the unknown and the unseen. In due course, he came to believe in eternal heaven and eternal hell. But some religions taught many planes of existence for the destiny of man. It is no wonder that at first religion naturally embraces all spheres of life: it seeks to give all kinds of answers and explanations regarding universe and man. No systematic knowledge-disciples challenge it as yet. Then for the early primitives their super natural all-embracing religions may be both meaningful and useful. The explanations of religion are quite sufficient for these early primitives. Now, today, "religion" alone cannot give all-sufficient explanations or answers of existence. Scholars point out that "religion" alone can not solve man's political, social, economic, psychological and moral problems. Thus a new discipline known as "philosophy" arose even in ancient times. For besides religious rites and rituals, there must be explanations of life and universe which must be in agreement With reason and experience. Now religion must be aided by philosophy to attain meaningfulness and utility.
The term "Philosophy" generally means love of wisdom. It can also convey the meaning of "Search after Truth". Philosophy employs reason and logic to view all things in a comprehensive manner. If man lives by instincts and emotions alone he cannot rise himself above the ordinary intelligence of the lower animals. But man possesses rational faculties to think, to criticize, to evaluate things which are important for him. The chief difference between man and animal is the existence of philosophy or the use of reason. Man has a sense of rationality to make developments or progress in beliefs, understanding and thought. He can refine crude, primitive beliefs by means of his critical reasoning powers. Thus the speculative and critical function of the mind, generates philosophy, logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, politics, etc. So old supernatural problems now become philosophical problems which are to be solved rationally through reason, experience and insight. It is true that philosophical problems differ from age to age. Man's reasoning power can give all sorts of speculative metaphysics. Thus there are diverse philosophical views according to the various types of philosophical systems. Now philosophy embraces all subjects because whenever deeper systematic studies are made, they have to be based oil philosophical principles and findings in a rational way.
Thus while philosophy can mean speculation of life or speculation about reality, we must not take a narrow definition. These features must be joined with the important function called search after truth. And, as philosophy improves, it reaches a stage called the way of life. Due to philosophical examinations and debates old, untenable dogmas lest their value and importance. Due to the advance of culture, idealogy, science and technology , man is now critically examining his old beliefs. There are some beliefs which promote right conduct social harmony and political peace. Ideology and culture should be mutually beneficial. Today, instead of religious domination we find ideological conflicts which seek political supremacy in the world. Therefore a national philosophy, based in accordance with true national culture, should be guideline in the affairs of man. Domination, whether cultural or political, should be checked with the use of reason. All nations need to combat fanaticism everywhere. A philosophy which is both practical and universal, will help mankind by its critical outlook and comprehensive insight. Thus meaningless dogmas and preconceived notions will give way to moderation in thought and action. Man will then become more rational through learning and practice.
Today cultural forces are spreading everywhere due to the rapid advances in travel and communication. Culture preserves a way of beliefs and a pattern of behaviour. In this area political dogmas are spread by propagandists and they infiltrate in the cultural patterns of a people. A national culture should therefore be preserved and adapted with care. One's own mode of living and thinking, if promotes peace and happiness, can sustain a nation in time of difficulty. Thus foreign ideologies must be adapted within one's own system of culture so there will be no tensions and imbalances. Most nations of the world today try to seek ideological and cultural dominance in place of old methods of conversions. In order to achieve balance and progress one needs to uphold a scientific philosophy along with the deeper insight into the realities we all seek for enlightenment.
The above-mentioned man's intellectual and spiritual pursuits show that all the disciplines must be on the right lines. Not all great philosophers can show the supreme, fundamental truths of life. Sometimes their explanations of the universe are highly speculative. Some Greek philosophers, lacking scientific knowledge, think that the origin of the universe is water while some speculate that it is fire. In Ancient India too some philosophers postulate a Creator to explain all things in the universe, in due course the idea of three gods, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, Siva the Destroyer came into vogue. Monism and polytheism try to synthesize themselves in India. And other dassana (views) based on metaphysics and religion such as Samkhya and Yoga, appeal the religious-minded persons in India. It appears that the greatest need of mankind is a scientific synthesis of religion, culture and philosophy.
Theravada Buddhism is unique among World's religions in that it is the only religion without the belief in God and Soul. By following the path of rationality and experience it becomes the religion of supreme wisdom. All scholars admit that Theravada Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional sense of the term. It is indeed a practical way of psycho-ethical-insight system without rites and rituals. Again, although many today regard the oldest type of Buddhism to be a philosophical-ethical system only, it is not in the same group of philosophy commonly understood. For it has rejected useless metaphysical speculations which are out of line with the practical life. Buddhism however refines and develops to the highest degree the wisdom philosophy of life. Thus Buddhism avoids extremes of blind faith and metaphysical theories.
There are three main divisions in the study of philosophy: (1) most western philosophies are the products of man's thinking and speculative activities. So unscientific theories are generally classified as speculative philosophy (2) In most eastern philosophies we find a discipline of sustained inquiries on the deeper meaning of life and its ultimate goal. Thus many views and ways of life are offered to win salvation (3) According to Buddhist philosophy both uncontrolled or unprofitable speculation and thinking without adequate insight are rejected. As a matter of fact Buddhism, as a philosophy, guides man to practise what he should practise. Without experiential insight-knowledge all philosophical discussions are futile . Based on a systematic disciplinary practice the ultimate knowledge appears to all followers of the path. Thus it is totally unlike the type of speculative philosophy or the way of propounding metaphysical views for discussion only.
The Background of Buddhism
It is significant that Buddhism arose in Ancient India where various sacred Vedic religious rites and upanishadic philosophies were contending for supremacy. At that particular age the recluses (rishis), philosophers (takkis)and wanderers (paribajikas) took great interest in the matter of liberation or salvation. Altogether they propounded, and spread sixty-two kinds of metaphysical and religions views together with different mystical rites and rituals. In brief they either belonged to the systems of eternalism or of annihilationism (nihilism). The Buddha had seen the nature of Vedic hymns and sacrifices as well as the abstruse philosophies of the Upanishads. In Indian religious history we find the six developmental stages: (1) the coming of Aryans (2) the age of Hyms and prayers, (3) the age of Brahmanas with the emphasis on rituals and ritualistic philosophy, (4) the age of Aranyakas with speculations on the highest truth and the way of liberation (moksa), (5) the age of Upanishads with the emphasis on monistic philosophy and (6) the age of revelations when different religions arose.
The Buddha knew these views and practices so that he had to teach a new Dhamma (Knowledge-Conduct) called the Eightfold Noble Path, avoiding futile metaphysical speculations and meaningless ritualistic practices. He had to reject the authority of the Veda. He had to proclaim the unique teaching of Anatta which is the greatest contribution of Buddhism to Indian philosophy. The Anatta Dhamma cannot be found in orthodox Indian systems. Moreover the Buddha taught the doctrine of Paticca samuppada which is unique and it is a great new teaching in the world of religion and philosophy. Thus the Buddha founded a new wisdom teaching which, as Buddha himself says, no one can teach. The Middle Way of Buddhism shows the correct path to achieve peace and happiness because it avoids self-mortification and self-indulgence. From this noble, effective and necessary practice all can see the deepest and highest truth of life called the Four Noble Truths by which one becomes an Ariya (a noble person).
The Three Modes of Practice
Because many scholars often fail to distinguish the meanings of "contemplation",' 'concentration" and "meditation" it is important here to make distinctions in sense and practice. On superficial view they look similar but they are quite different. In the discipline of the Buddha the term "contemplation" means thinking round and round on an object of contemplation. It may be either systematic or unsystematic. Generally unchecked imagination or wild speculation may be the result from this type of practice while, at times, some useful, mundane truths can also arise. This does not mean that the contemplative life is useless or unnecessary. It just means that it cannot reach the ultimate truth. Yet it is a basic need for a philosopher. Most western philosophers use contemplation to obtain logical truths and high thoughts. If used correctly contemplation brings poise and serenity and some flashes of insights although they all are lokiya dhamma (mundane dhamma).
The next progress in intellectual and moral development lies in the practice of "concentration". The term "concentration" here means a state of mind in one-pointedness phenomenon. A yogi exerts himself to control, to purity and to liberate his mind by keeping it to a single object. Then a concentrative mind always brings peace and happiness in accordance with the state or the power of concentration. Thus by intensive practice mind's intensity and purity, along with mind-powers, are well developed, for further mental peace ana spiritual progress. In every age many mystics use this type of concentrative method to gain higher powers (abhinna). The method of concentration can be found in both Vedic and non-Vediec systems which exhibits its universality. Without concentration of any kind, insight is impossible. Thus time Buddha teaches the unique types called Jhanic concentrations. They are used in Buddhism to obtain wisdom and enlightenment.
Now the term "meditation" is a much-abused word in religious literature. Many therefore cannot make a distinction between a state of mystic trance and a true meditative insight. In other disciplines, besides Buddhism, the term "meditation" generally conveys a sense of mystic vision or ectasy. The aim of all mystics is to obtain a unitive life with a belief in the Oneness. Therefore we can now see that a certain type of concentration, and not Buddhist meditation, will bring this result. For in Theravada Buddhism, as minutely explained in the Pali Canon, the technical term called bhavana, is used for meditators. It has therefore a special meaning in the Buddha Sasana. When a devotee reaches this type of bhavana meditation he knows fully well that it is quite different from both contemplative and concentrative practices. According to the original teaching of the Buddha, this bhavana meditation is solely based on mindfulness (bare attention) to check and purify kilesas or mental defilements. The meditation method in Buddhism means observation of mental and physical phenomena of life. In other words this is also called vipassana which employs bare awareness in noticing the processes of thoughts, words and deeds. Thus it develops the power of seeing and it also brings liberating insights (nana) step by step leading to the supreme Nibbanic Peace. In the practice of meditation the aim is to cut off all latent tendencies of the mind (Anusaya Kilesa). So it is the supreme insight (Lokuttara Dhamma) which the Buddha teaches in his unique discipline. It will be seen that mind, if well developed, can take Nibbana as its object. And the supreme liberation (vimutti ) supreme purity (visuddhi) are now realised by a disciple of the Buddha by means of satipatthana meditation. In Kammatthana practices the Buddha teaches six types of man's inclination so that a suitable meditation can be followed. There are some persons with lusty temperaments, with devotional mind, with thinking habit, with angry tendencies, and with the mind bent toward analysis. By noticing the bias and inclinations of a disciple, the Buddha teaches a correct type of meditation.
Although there may be meditations in other faith and religious systems, we do not find the teaching of ten vipassana insights and three ways of liberation. This Vipassana meditation refines and upgrades the previous samattha (concentration) beliefs and practices, here we find the highest vimokkhas of animitta, appanihita and sunnata. These technical terms show that one must go through one of these insights. The three liberations mean liberation from permanence-belief, liberation from happiness-belief and liberation from soul-belief.
In conclusion we find only in Buddhism all the right, progressive paths of peace and enlightenment. In Theravada we have a full system of practices known as Savaka bodhi, ,nahasavaka bodhi, aggasavaka bodhi. Paccekabuddha bodhi and sammasambuddha bodhi. So it is a comprehensive system of moral insight and spiritual liberation, in the past philosophers had to use speculations to get partial truths. And many mystics can only reach mundane insights. Now, thanks to the teachings of the Enlightened Buddha, we have a complete, scientific synthesis of religion, culture and philosophy. It is interesting to see that all types of bodhi-goals exist in Burma. And Burmese culture is greatly influenced by this sublime teaching which always promotes high cultures whenever it flourishes. Burma can take pride in the noble efforts oft Tipitakadhara Reciters, the correct teaching of Vipassana masters and the existence of Ariya persons who are radiating thoughts of love and compassion to all beings. So, instead of separating philosophy and religion, we can have a philosophical lokuttara religion based on a truly, scientific culture. Without good, correct culture people will follow the path of lower beings. Now we all have the benefits of hearing this incomparable Buddha Dhamma to lead our lives in peace and harmony. All conflicts are solved by means of this supreme wisdom born out of the practice of concentrative mindfulness. The hope of mankind lies in this Buddha Dhamma. The Eightfold Noble Path, if followed intensively, will solve man's deepest problems. Idle speculations in metaphysical problems must give way to the practice of mindfulness. Thus a right attitude fosters good will and love for all. And the ultimate truth is realised by means of this noble, good conduct.