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Do We Need National Buddhist Traditions in the 21st Century?

2009年03月29日 15:16:00 佛教在线 点击:0


Ven. Vajramàlà 

President of the German Buddhist Union

Abstract:If we define the word “nation” we discover that there exist many concepts about it. But all these concepts about a group of people called “nation” are based on the limited experience and view of a certain place and time. In the same way as an individual identifies with a “self”, a nation identifies with its characteristics and typical features it proclaims. In the same way many Buddhists identify themselves with a certain national Buddhist tradition. But the Buddha didn’t give his teachings to a certain nation, but to everybody who asked for advice or a teaching.

Key words:Nation  concept  identification  universal approach

If we want to define what the word “nation” means we will discover that there exist many concepts. But all these concepts about a group of people called “nation” are based on the limited experience and view of a certain place and time and are far from reality. Many people identify themselves with the characteristics and typical features of the nation they belong to, and in the same way many Buddhists identify themselves with a certain national Buddhist tradition. But the Buddha didn’t give his teachings to a certain nation, but to everybody who asked for advice or a teaching. He didn’t make any difference between disciples, whether they came from the kingdom of Magadha or Koshala, Vacca or Avanti, from the aristocratic republics of Sakya or Malla, Licchavi or Videha, or belonged to tribes as the Kalama or Koliya. The individual needs of every man or woman asking for instructions always were in the focus of his teaching. But although the Buddha taught in a very personal way according to the needs of every single person he denied the existence of a person as an independently existing being. Again and again he pointed out that individuals that identify with the concept of a self or with a certain self-image will experience suffering. Even many experiences in our own lives show that the result of actions done in the attitude of differentiating our wishes and needs from those of other sentient beings, or even neglecting or fighting against them, has always been suffering: we have caused suffering for ourselves, suffering for others, suffering for the environment, suffering for nature.

I want to show that the concept of a nation is very similar to the concept of an individual self. But exactly these concepts limit every possible development, which will come to an end at the limitations we ourselves have erected by defining certain fixed and fixating characteristics either of a self or of a nation. At the very moment when we make up our minds that a person or a nation is like this or that there isn’t any possibility to transcend these limitations.

The Buddha taught that all these concepts are created due to certain views, but these views don’t see the whole. They are dependent on time and knowledge, on our senses, emotions, social background and education. They are impermanent and therefore a cause of suffering. A nation is - as all phenomena or “samskara - connected with suffering. The Buddha taught that the clinging to our self-defined ego-concept is the cause for suffering. In the same way the clinging to a national identity and the aversion against other nations cause suffering, too.

My experiences and my personal situation have influenced the following thoughts and ideas, therefore I ask for your kind patience to listen to these examples. I was born in Silesia, now part of Poland. I live in Germany, but I can see the Swiss Alps from my office window and many of my disciples are Swiss. As the spiritual head of the Buddhist Mission Hungary, a Buddhist Church of the Arya Maitreya Mandala, I frequently travel to Hungary to teach Buddhism there. I meet good Dharma friends in Europe and worldwide, and we exchange our experiences and try to give the Buddha-Dharma a home in Europe. I can see that in all these various countries there are some differences in clothing, eating and drinking, speaking and joking. But I can’t see any difference in the important features: in the nature of people’s hopes and fears, wishes, emotions, in the way how they assess or judge. According to all the great masters of the past, there isn’t any difference in the primordial nature of every being. Independent of his or her origin, place of birth, race, gender, nationality, age etc., the essential nature of pure awareness, clarity and insight, the innate gem of the awakened mind is the same. In the very moment when we identify with any nation, race, gender, status etc. we are not aware of the fact that all these identities are transitory, impermanent, caused by karma and therefore interdependent or empty. Precisely these limitations cause the bondages and hindrances for the realization of freedom and awakening.

What is the definition of a nation? The word “nation” is derived from the Latin term “natio” meaning “birth, breed, stock, kind, species, race, tribe, origin, a people”. A nation is a collection of people sharing the same national identity, based on ethnic and cultural ties. The members of a nation define themselves as the descendants of the past inhabitants of a national homeland or as the descendants of past speakers of the national language, or past groups which shared the same culture. A nation is a form of self-defined cultural and social community. We often forget that the idea of being a nation only developed during the 18th and 19th century in Europe, when the power of the ruling class of aristocracy was put into question and later was taken over by the French people during the French Revolution in 1789.

I am speaking as the representative of Buddhists in Germany. But a German nation didn’t exist before 1870. A region in Middle Europe was named Germania by the Romans before 100 AD, but this region was inhabited by several peoples: Saxons, Bavarians, Prussians, Swabs, Alemans and others. Beginning in the 10th century, these territories formed a central part of the Holy Roman Empire that lasted until 1806. The state known as “Germany” was unified as a modern nation-state only in 1871, when the German Empire was forged, with the Kingdom of Prussia as its largest constituent. This empire was a unification of all the scattered parts of Germany. In Germany only in 1848 the concept of a German nation arose and has been discussed, although up to the present day people in Germany identify themselves more with their tribal dialects and customs than with a common German identity. Their dialects differ from north to south considerably, so that Bavarian can’t be understood at the North Sea coast and vice versa. A German standard language developed because of Martin Luther’s translation of the Holy Bible from Latin into the middle German dialect of Thuringia.

Sometimes members of a "nation" share a common identity, language and culture although there doesn’t exist a common origin. This is the case with the Hungarian people who moved west from the Altai region in Central Asia, but today only a minority of 10% of the population is ethnic Hungarian. The majority descends from ancestors who have come from different countries all over Europe since the 12th century. So the Hungarians aren’t an ethnic group any more, but only share the same language, culture, and homeland. This example shows that a nation is defined by those who belong to it, and any definition can be given as the following example may show.

We always think that a common language and culture keeps a nation together, but the example of Switzerland shows that this isn’t necessarily the case. The Swiss have integrated four ethnic groups and four official languages with their respective cultures within their state: German Swiss in the northeast, Romands in the west who speak French, Italians in the south and Romansh in Grischun in the southeast. Many Swiss are fluent in two or three of these languages. Equal political rights are granted to the minorities in this small mountain state. Political decisions in Switzerland are a constant challenge and always require a process of mutual consensus. But everybody is very proud that these decisions are made by themselves in a very basic democratic way.

All these examples show that the phenomenon “nation“ has been constructed by a multitude of changing attributes which people have put onto this concept. “Nation” is a similar concept as the concept of an “I”. It is a sort of collective “I”, by which a group of people define certain common characteristics like a common language or dialect, a certain outlook or way of thinking, common habits, feasts, food, drinks etc. And as all phenomena and even more all concepts have arisen in interdependency from immeasurable quantities of conditions they are void of inherent existence.

If a “nation” is not more than a man-made definition, which often has been dependent upon the purpose behind, we should be very cautious if we create a dependency upon it. When the Aryan invaders entered the Indian continent they defined who was an Aryan: namely the victorious tribes. And centuries later when their number wasn’t enough to rule this country they invented a ritual that made somebody an Aryan who had been non-Aryan before. The unforgettable Jingis Khan united the Central Asian tribes and made everybody a Mongol who shared his vision of a Mongol empire and who supported him. Several times in the history of Buddhism the religion became a state forming power and was used to be an identification model which kept people together.

The 20th century was a time of severe national conflicts. During World War I and II millions of people have experienced extreme suffering caused by the inhuman ideology of superiority of certain races and nations. Our situation in the 21st century is a challenge for a global change: We are going to discover the rich heritage of different cultures on all the five continents, and especially we Westerners give up the idea to dominate other cultures, as we unfortunately did in the past, but begin to learn from them on different fields like medicine, arts, philosophy and religions.

These many models show that every definition is dependant from the intentions of those who define it. But all these definitions and characteristics can change in the course of time, because they are only valid on the relative level of reality. We are more and more aware of the global interconnectedness and responsibility. The younger generation is open for many different lifestyles and is not any more fixated to a single one. This is a chance and a danger at the same time.

Let us look at the dangers first. Buddhist traditions in Asia have integrated many customs, fine arts, colourful rituals and their cultural heritage into the Dharma practice. If the Dharma and the different Buddhist traditions are fixated too much to national customs and role models that had been developed during a time when the Dharma had to be integrated into the culture of a certain nation, often many centuries ago, many people will feel that it doesn’t fit into modern times and modern society, and that it doesn’t match their real needs as modern people who want to survive in the 21st century. As long as this heritage can be understood by the next generation and is still meaningful for them, it can be a wonderful means or upaya to bring the Dharma to the hearts of the people. But if the cultural influence is regarded to be essential for the Dharma then many young people will search for religious models that are free from this antiquity and show new paths and possibilities to master their difficult lives in a difficult time.

Every year the German Buddhist Union organizes a Buddhist congress and we invite the general public. If we look at the number of visitors, it is most evident that those topics are the most attractive which offer answers to the everyday problems of men and women: How can I overcome my anxieties with regard to illness, old age and death? How can I become less aggressive and more patient and compassionate? How can we create a peaceful future for the next generations? How can I master my distractedness? How can I live a life without stress at work and in the family? They never ask: How can I be a good German! Seemingly the questions of mankind are the same as at the time of the Buddha.

It was this universal approach towards the basic human problems - which are the same all over the world – which made the Buddha’s teachings blossom in every country, nation and society. The Dharma could develop strong roots everywhere because those who propagated it were able to understand that these very simple truths the Buddha taught are the essence. Not everybody immediately understood the depth of these teachings, because they are easily acceptable but hard to put into practice. When the Buddha was asked to speak about the essence of his dharma he said: “Doing the good, avoiding the bad, taming the mind.” Everybody was surprised because they all thought that it wasn’t a very special teaching and every child knows this truth. So the Buddha agreed and answered: “Yes, every child knows it, but I have seen few old aged people who act according to it.” This story teaches a very deep truth: We know a lot about the Dharma, but we don’t act according to our knowledge. At the time of the Buddha many disciples immediately acted according to their teacher’s advice and realized the state of arhat.

When he started to teach the Dharma he didn’t teach it to his own clan, but to those who asked him for advice, independent from their ethnic background, profession, caste or gender. He spoke to everybody who was in need of spiritual guidance. His message was a message for kings and beggars, Brahmins and untouchables, monks and householders, and it said that our human determination is to realize indestructible happiness. “Every being wants happiness, every being is afraid of suffering. Seeing the similarity to oneself, one should not use violence or have it used.“ (Dhammapada 10, 129)

At the time of the Buddha there were no nations, but kingdoms which were ruled by rajas and maharajas. The ideal of those times was the cakravartin or world ruler whose task was to bring peace and wealth to everybody in his empire as King Ashoka did a few centuries after the Buddha’s parinirvana. When Prince Siddhartha was born, a seer made the prediction that this child could make a career either as a cakravartin or as a fully enlightened Buddha. But the prince chose to leave his palace and his homeland. He gave up every relationship to his family, to his clan, and didn’t identify with his role as a Shakya prince or a member of the aristocratic kshatriya caste or varna.

The imprints of early education in childhood create the habits of individuals in a certain country or nation or social class and often are causes for strong dependencies. We get used to a special food, the way of living, dressing, and later we cling to these habits and don’t want to change them anymore. Therefore the Buddha and Buddhist masters of all times recommended that a practitioner should leave his family and his homeland, otherwise the customs and habits as well as the obligations towards the family and the clan will disable him from finding true freedom. Many masters of the past acted according to this advice, they left India and went to Sri Lanka, Central Asia, China, Indonesia, Tibet, Japan and even to Western countries and dedicated their lives to the wide spread of the Dharma.

In every country they encountered a cultural heritage which they neither blamed, attacked nor destroyed, as Christian missionaries sometimes did, but they integrated the Buddha-Dharma into the vast stream of already existing spiritual traditions. A friend of mine used to say: The Dharma is like the Amazon River with its main stream and thousands of feeder rivers, they flow in all directions. Some seem to flow even back or disappear, but the whole system is interrelated and one day all the waters flow into the sea. In the same way only the whole stream of the Dharma shows the wealth and power of this eternal law of reality.

When a baby is born we can’t see its nationality, but only the human being with the need to be loved and to be cared for, to eat and drink, to sleep and cry. If I am asked for my nationality I prefer to answer: “I have a German passport.” I feel hungry or thirsty, happy or sad, healthy or ill, tired or awake, but I don’t feel “German”. And all these basic feelings are the same whether I am German or Chinese, Swiss or Japanese, Hungarian or Mongol. I can say that I love the German language, but why? Because it is my mother tongue and is so familiar to me that I can express everything very precisely: thoughts, emotions, arguments. I feel secure and it is this familiarity and security which I love. If we become familiar with other languages we discover their beauty and their special style of describing reality and expressing emotions.

As a Buddhist from my early childhood I always was very aware of the possibility of past lives in far away countries which I have never seen before in this lifetime. So I never came to the idea to identify myself with the country where I am living now. I think that the connections with any country or nation are transitory and just lasting for a few lifetimes.

Shakyamuni Buddha has had the vision of the universal law, but he only taught what was essential for his time and the people who listened to his teachings. In the same way all the enlightened masters taught according to the mental capacity of their disciples in accordance with their cultural background, so that they were able to understand the eternal questions of mankind like birth and death, gain and loss, suffering and happiness. These basic problems and questions are independent of any nationality, and are the same for all children, men and women worldwide. The three roots of evil: greed, hatred and ignorance are not limited to any continent, race, country or nation. As Buddhists, we know that not only every human, but even every sentient being is endowed with what we call the seed of Buddhahood within or tathagatagarbha.

If we are clinging to national Buddhist traditions and forget the essence of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha can’t spread worldwide and reach, in the East and in the West, the younger generation - a generation that is growing up in a multicultural society, but has the same vision of happiness as all the other generations before. The Buddha’s message opens the gate to the path towards universal peace and harmony between people and between nations.



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