Buddhism's Appeal in the western world
by: Ven. Ñānadassana Thera
Dear Friends in the Dhamma.
I must firstly thank the "German Dharmaduta Society" for inviting me to give this talk. It was several years ago that the Ambassador for Sri Lanka in Italy came once to Mîtirigala Forest Hermitage, where I am staying and had a conversation with me. He used to travel in Europe and gave me a bit of information about Buddhism in those countries and the reasons why Europeans are turning to find solace in Buddhism. Once he spoke particularly about Germany, which lies in the heart of Europe. He told me something, which can be, I think, a brief and comprehensive reply to what people in Europe actually want and need from Buddhism. The German Buddhists have a motto, he said, which is their guiding principle. The motto is: "We don't want religion. We want peace and this is what Buddhism gives us".
What is meant here is mental or spiritual peace. A peace, which springs from a deep knowledge. A knowledge that comes from seeing directly the real nature of the inner and outer world. A knowledge that pacifies mental defilements and frees the mind from mental vexation. Thus what is required in Europe is a spiritual peace which gives a real knowledge of the world which Christianity cannot provide to it's followers for it is unable to give them the guidance, advice, precepts, hints, answers and techniques which fulfill the deep demand of the human spirit and the spiritual dimension of man.
The first contact of any significance between Buddhists and Europe came about as a result of European colonialism. Although the Indian Emperor Asoka is known to have sent envoys to Greece in the third century BC, Buddhism could not take root there due to the prevailing unfavourable conditions. Later on Islamic expansion throughout the near East erected a formidable barrier between Europe and India. By the beginning of the 19th Century, however, interest in Buddhist ideas was clearly beginning to emerge in Europe. Of course a few independent thinkers had earlier recognised the rationality of Buddhist thought. The German philosopher Artur Schopenhauer who lived in the 19th Century must be given pride of place. To Schopenhauer, Buddhism was the best of all religions because it was preferable to the Brahmin Caste system and even more preferable to Christianity, with its fallacious ideas about God and it's defective code of ethics, which has no moral consideration for animals, and sometimes even for human beings. Schopenhauer's knowledge of Buddhism was based on the rather incomplete and inaccurate source materials then available. Nevertheless, the affinity between his philosophy and Buddhism is in many ways striking and a close look at Schopenhauer 's teachings reveal it as a kind of incomplete Buddhism. Schopenhauer's philosophy became popular during the later part of the 19th Century and his high regard for Buddhism has definitely contributed towards the interest in it not only as a subject of study but also as a way of thought and life with which I can identify. It was only during the later years of his life that systematic attempts were first made to arrange and translate the huge volume of Buddhist scriptures.
Hermann Hesse, a Noble Prize winner, a German author and essayist once wrote about the pacifying essence of the Buddha's discourses. He wrote "Whoever attentively reads a small number of the countless sermons of the Buddha would soon become aware of an harmony in them, a quietude of mind, a smiling transcendence, a totally unshakable firmness: and also invariable kindness and endless patience. As ways and means to the attainment of this holy quietude and peace of mind, the Buddha's sermons are full of advice, precepts, hints." Thus, however dimly most people in Buddhist countries may apprehend the doctrinal content of Buddhism, their conviction of it's depth and wisdom is shared almost instinctively by intelligent men and women everywhere. No religion, other than Buddhism, has set a higher value on the states of spiritual insight and liberation, and none has set so methodically and with such a wealth of critical reflection the various paths and disciplines by which such wholesome states are reached as well as their ontological and psychological underpinnings that make those wholesome states so valuable and those paths so effective.
Strictly speaking, Buddhism aims at cleansing the mind of impurities, agitation and disturbances, such as lustful desires, hatred, hate, anger, ill-will, indolence, worries, restlessness and sceptical doubts, and at cultivating good qualities such as concentration, awareness, intelligence, will, energy, the analytical faculty, confidence, joy, friendliness, compassion, tranquility and so forth, leading finally to the attainment of the highest wisdom that sees the nature of "mind and matter" as they really came to be and realising the ultimate truth, peace, Nibbāna. Thus peace can be found in one's own purified mind.
Greed, hate, delusion and vulgar behaviour mainly caused by the mental defilements and passions, have existed in humanity before and during the Buddha's time. All these exist also today in the same and even worse manner. For those who abhor any kind of base bodily, verbal and mental behaviour and wish to attain a state of moral and spiritual purity, the Buddha's Teaching offers an excellent guidance. Moreover, it is a Teaching that is not restricted to any historical times, and the moment one puts it properly into practice one gets immediately good results. Therefore it is called "akālika". Educated Westerners can gradually acknowledge Buddhism to be not only a message of great sophistication but one of exalted ideals. Perhaps the most striking evidence that Buddhism continues to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration is the fascination it now holds for the Western World.
To many in Europe and also America, Buddhism seems to be a spiritual movement well-suited to mankind's future, being grounded in reason and therefore in harmony with the prevailing spirit of scientific empiricism. Offering a path to salvation from all suffering, Buddhism requires no blind faith and no belief in the supra-mundane. Those who encounter its refined morality and profound wisdom can only regard the Buddhist tradition as one of the greatest achievements of Man. It is, therefore a reassuring thought that despite recent reversals of fortune, Buddhism would not merely survive but may possibly be on the brink of a new age of appreciative revaluation.
Many remarkable men have worked to spread Buddhism in the world. Out of those great Buddhist workers who deserve to be honoured today is the late Sinhalese monk, Ven. Mîtirigala Dhammanisanthi Thero, well known also by his lay name as Mr. Asoka Weeraratna. Seeing the necessity to propagate Buddhism, especially in Germany, he succeeded with his heroic efforts, sacrificial labours, devotion and energy in establishing the German Dharmaduta Society and a Centre for Buddhist Missions in Berlin for the benefit of the German people. In his missionary enthusiasm to spread the Buddha's message in the world, he directed his efforts not only to spread Buddhism abroad but also in his own mother country, Sri Lanka. At a time when Buddhism had lost its most supportive and protective structure, namely meditation, he established in 1967, a Forest Hermitage not very far from Colombo to enable Buddhist Yogi Monks to meditate and contemplate in a suitable and peaceful environment. The Forest Hermitage was named Nissarana Vanaya where thirty fully equipped independent dwellings for yogis were constructed for meditation. He brought there the most respectful meditation teacher, the late Venerable Matara Srî Ñānārāma Mahā Thera, widely recognised as one of Sri Lanka's outstanding meditation masters of recent times, to be the guide and instructor. Apart from Sinhala Buddhist monks and laymen, many foreign monks and laymen alike got the opportunity to pursue here the practice of meditation with full dedication, unhindered by other tasks and duties. Some of them came from USA, some from Canada, England, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece, India, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
In August 1972, Mr. Asoka Weeraratna became himself a monk with the monastic name Ven. Dhammanisanthi. As a layman and afterwards as a monk too he served the cause of Buddhism in these and many other ways abroad as well in his mother country, Sri Lanka. His name will be included in a historical book now in preparation by the Sri Kalyani Yogashrama Sanstha, an association of forest monks in Sri Lanka. May he, by the vast accumulation of this merit attain Nibbāna.
May also the noble objective of the "German Dharmaduta Society" to propagate Buddhism in Europe be achieved in increasing measure in the years to come, thus spreading peace and happiness in this life itself among the good people in Germany and also in other countries in Europe and by guiding them ultimately towards the attainment of the supreme bliss of Nibbāna.
Ven. Nyanadassana Thera delivered this talk at a public seminar held at the Mahaweli Centre Auditorium in Colombo on July 2, 2000 to commemorate the first death anniversary of Asoka Weeraratna ( Ven. Mîtirigala Dhammanisanthi Thero ), who passed away on July 2nd, 1999. The theme of the seminar was "Promoting Buddhism in Europe".
Ven. Nyanadassana is a Buddhist monk from Greece who has lived in Sri Lanka for the last 20 years. He resided in the Mîtirigala Forest Hermitage for over 19 years. He has studied and practised meditation under the guidance of the late Most Venerable Matara Sri Ñānārāma Mahāthera, the first Meditation Master at the Mîtirigala Forest Hermitage. Ven. Nyanadassana was well acquainted with Ven. Mîtirigala Dhammanisanthi Thera ( Asoka Weeraratna ), the founder of the Mîtirigala Forest Hermitage. He has studied the Tipitaka under Sinhala Theras and Mahātheras and has thus acquired a theoretical and practical knowledge of Buddhism. He is fluent in several languages (including Sinhala) and is the author of the book "Bhikkhu Pātimokkha" in German (Pātimokkha - Das Hauptgesetz der Bettelmönche).