Buddhism with a Small "b"

By Sulak Sivaraksa


The founder of Buddhism was an ordinary person. He lived in the sixth century BCE, as the prince of a small state in what is now Nepal. Deeply concerned about life, death, and suffering, he discovered a solution to these deepest of human problems. His insight was universal and radical. It addressed suffering as such, not just this or that sort of suffering. Neither the cause nor the cure of suffering was revealed to him. The Buddha simply discovered them, as others could have before or since. He was a doctor for the ills of humankind.

Buddhist liberation, nirvana, requires neither the mastery of an arcane doctrine nor an elaborate regimen of asceticism. In fact, the Buddha condemned extreme austerity, as well as intellectual learning that does not directly address the urgent questions of life and death.

The Buddha advocated the middle path between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism. He promised immediate release, saying that there is no need to work one's way through a sequence of karmic stages to some remote level where release is feasible.

The Buddha's original teaching remains a common fund for all branches of Buddhism, and it is expressed in the Four Noble Truths: Suffering; the Cause of Suffering, namely desire or craving; the Cessation of Suffering; and the Way to the Cessation of Suffering, namely the Eightfold Path - Right Understanding, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Attention, and Right Concentration. It is not enough merely to attain an intellectual understanding of these propositions. One has to practice them to make them part of life. Having medicine in a bottle does no good: medicine must be swallowed in order to enter the bloodstream.

If we do not regard suffering as real and threatening, we are not taking the message of the Buddha seriously. According to the Buddha, even ordinary existence is filled with pain.

The early Buddhists enumerated many kinds of suffering. We moderns try to ignore the sad, dark aspects of our lives by using external distractions like television, music, and our own busy-ness. We are busy all the time, always thinking or doing things, incessantly fleeing this basic experience of angst. When we look deeply at our inner lives, we cannot deny that there are many things that cause us to suffer. The Buddha said that we will never be at ease until we overcome this fundamental anxiety, and he offered us a way to do it.

We cannot avoid contact with suffering. To be a Buddhist, we must be willing to share the suffering of others. The Buddha taught that gain and loss, dignity and obscurity, praise and blame, happiness and pain are all worldly conditions. Most people seek positive experiences and try to avoid the negative at all costs, but those who practice the Buddha's teaching take both positive and negative as they come. They do not grasp after one or the other, and in this way they continuously test their inner spiritual strength in the midst of the world.

The first step in the teaching of the Buddha is awareness. Recognition of what is going on is enlightenment. Recognition of the fact of suffering is the first step towards its mitigation. The most difficult thing for someone who is sick or addicted is to acknowledge his or her illness. Only when this occurs can there be progress.

The Buddha also pointed out that when we realize suffering is universal, we can relieve a certain amount of anxiety already. When an adolescent realizes that his sufferings are the sufferings of all young people, he is taking a significant step towards their mitigation. It is a question of perspective.

To practice the teachings of the Buddha, one must practice mindfulness. One must look deeply into one's own body, feelings, mind, and the objects of mind. It may sound simple, but to sustain oneself in the practice, one generally needs a teacher and a community of fellow practitioners to remind and encourage one. "Good friend" (kalyana mitta) is the technical term to describe such a person. Of course, one's "good friends" need not call themselves Buddhists. Living masters of any faith who are selfless and compassionate can be "good friends." People of any faith or any age can help each other. Members of the sangha - the community of monks and nuns in Buddhist countries - must join us in our efforts, so that the sangha can become relevant again. The sangha can be a great resource for bringing openness, love, and selflessness to many people.

Many people in the West think that Buddhism is only a vehicle for deep meditation and personal transformation, not for social involvement. To speak of Buddhism in this way is to ignore the Buddha's doctrine of no-self, or interdependence. Buddhism is primarily a method of overcoming the limits or restrictions of the individual self. Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings. This inevitably entails a concern with social and political matters, and these receive a large share of attention in the teachings of the Buddha as they are recorded in the Pali Canon.

Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the efforts to bring about meaningful and positive social change, or even in their struggle to transform their ego. I agree with Trevor Ling when he says that Buddhism can be regarded as a prescription for both restructuring human consciousness and restructuring society.

In South and Southeast Asia, Buddhists have long been concerned with both the attainment of personal liberation and the maintenance of proper social order. To suggest that Buddhism has been unconcerned with the organization of society is to ignore history. Traditionally Buddhism has seen personal salvation and social justice as interlocking components. The Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka is an effort to reconstruct society in a Buddhist manner. In Vietnam, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh founded Van Hanh University and the School of Youth for Social Service. During the war in his country, members of both institutions showed great courage and compassion. Despite this - or because of it - the founder is still not allowed to return home. Many years ago he proposed that modern Buddhists need retreat monasteries and spiritual centers that would be places of serenity and repose. For those of us who work constantly in the city, daily mindfulness practice alone may not build enough strength, so Thich Nhat Hanh proposed that clergy and laypeople who care for the social welfare of others retreat regularly to such centers. Without renewing their inner strength, social workers will find it difficult to endure the tumultuous world outside.

Buddhism, as practiced in most Asian countries today, serves mainly to legitimize dictatorial regimes and multinational corporations. If we Buddhists want to redirect our energies towards enlightenment and universal love, we should begin by spelling Buddhism with a small "b." Buddhism with a small "b" means concentrating on the message of the Buddha and paying less attention to myth, culture, and ceremony. We must refrain from focusing on the limiting, egocentric elements of our tradition. Instead, we should follow the original teachings of the Buddha in ways that promote tolerance and real wisdom. It is not a Buddhist approach to say that if everyone practiced Buddhism, the world would be a better place. Wars and oppression begin from this kind of thinking.

Buddhism enters the life of society through the presence of men and women who practice and demonstrate the Way (magga) toward the ultimate goal of nirvana through their thought, speech, and actions. The leaders of most societies are themselves confused and engrossed in greed, hatred, and delusion. They are like the blind leading the blind. If they do not have peace of mind, how can they lead others?

In Buddhism, we say that the presence of one mindful person can have great influence on society and is thus very important. We use the term "emptiness of action" or "non-action" to mean to act in a way that influences all situations nonviolently. The most valued contribution of masters of the Way is their presence, not their actions. When they act, however, their actions are filled with love, wisdom, and peace. Their actions are their very presence, their mindfulness, their own personalities. This non-action, this awakened presence, is a most fundamental contribution.

The presence of virtuous people is the foundation for world peace. This belief is found not only in the Buddhist tradition but in almost all of Asian civilization. A Chinese sage said, "Whenever an enlightened person appears, the water in the rivers turns clearer and the plants grow greener." Cultivators of Zen would say that we need "a person of no rank."

The presence of individuals who have attained "awakening" is not passive or lacking in zeal. Those who have attained the Way are living individuals who speak a living language. Their thoughts, speech, and actions express their views towards contemporary life and its problems. If spiritual leaders speak only in clich├ęs and words that have no meaning for the modern world, their religions will die. There may be many churches, temples, pagodas, and rituals, but these are only outward forms of religious practice without spiritual depth or content. For masters who live their religion, awareness is born from their own experience, not just from books or tradition.

True masters may be theologians, philosophers, scientists, artists, or writers. Their awareness is not of the intellect nor is it based on the views of partisan groups or ideologies. They live according to their own true self and not according to public opinion or the pronouncements of authorities. Their thoughts, science, and art are permeated with the characteristics of love, wisdom, and humanism and they reject the path of war and ideological conflict. They envision and work for a society that unites humanity.

Buddhism is simply a way of mindfulness and peace. The presence of Buddhism does not mean having a lot of schools, hospitals, cultural institutions, and political parties run by Buddhists. Rather, the presence of Buddhism means that all these things are permeated and administered with humanism, love, tolerance, and enlightenment. These are characteristics that Buddhism attributes to opening up and developing the best aspects of human nature. This is the true spirit of Buddhism.

All our efforts to preserve Buddhism or Buddhist society may fail, or they may succeed. The outcome is irrelevant. Our goal is to develop human beings with enough inner strength and moral courage to begin restructuring the collective consciousness of society.

Since the time of the Buddha, there have been many Buddhists who were very involved with society. But there have also been meditation masters who, although they seem not to be involved with society, have also made great contributions to the community of men and women. Their very lives are proof that saints are still possible in this world. Without persons like these, our world would be poorer, more shallow.

These meditation masters - monks and nuns who spend their lives in the forests - are important for all of us. We who live in society can benefit greatly from them. From time to time we can study and meditate with masters like these, so they can guide us to look within.

In the crises of the present day, those of us who work in society, who confront power and injustice on a regular basis, get beaten down and exhausted. At least once a year, we need to visit a retreat center to regain our spiritual strength so that we can continue to confront society. Spiritual masters are like springs of fresh water. We who work in society need to carry that pure water to flood the banks and fertilize the land and the trees, in order to be of use to the plants and animals, so that they can taste something fresh and be revitalized. If we do not go back to the spring, our minds will get polluted, just as water becomes polluted, and we will not be of much use to the plants, the trees, or the earth. At home, we must practice our meditation or prayer at least every morning or evening.

We who work in society must be careful. We become polluted so easily, particularly when we are confronted by so many problems. Sometimes we feel hatred or greed, sometimes we wish for more power or wealth. We must be clear with ourselves that we do not need much wealth or power. It is easy, particularly as we get older, to want softer lives and more recognition, and to be on equal terms with those in power. But this is dangerous. Religion means a deep commitment to personal transformation.

To be of help we must become more and more selfless. To do this, we have to take moral responsibility for our own being and our own society. This has been the essence of religion from ancient times right to the present.

The Buddhist tradition focuses on looking within as the means to achieve this. Meditation is the most important and distinctive element of Buddhism. Through deepening awareness comes acceptance, and through acceptance comes a seemingly miraculous generosity of spirit and empowerment for the work that compassion requires of us. With this self-awareness, we can genuinely join those of other faiths to work for our mutual betterment.

The world today has become a very small place. In order to build mutual understanding and respect among people of diverse religions and beliefs, we need an alternative to living by ideology. We must see things as they are and then act from that awareness.

Ken Jones, of the Network of Engaged Buddhists in the United Kingdom, put it succinctly: "The greatest religious problem today is... how to combine the search for an expansion of inner awareness with effective social action, and how to find one's true identity in both." For me, this means practicing buddhism with a small "b."


Source: Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1999
Reprinted from Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (1992) by Sulak Sivaraksa, with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California. Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand, founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, is an IFOR member, author, and lecturer.