The Challenges for Buddhism in the Twenty-first Century
Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)
Moscow, Russia, October 29, 2012
Thank you very much for your kind introduction. I am really very pleased, and very honored to be here with you today at this very famous university. I have been asked to speak about Buddhism in the twenty-first century, which is of course is an enormous topic. So, I asked for a little bit of guidance as to what I should direct my comments to within this area, and it was suggested that I speak about the global aspects of Buddhism and the prospects of Buddhism.
As you know, Buddhism is not a unified type of system, or even religion. One could even debate whether or not it actually is a religion. But it spread from India to many, many countries throughout Asia; and in each country, each civilization that it encountered, it was understood and adopted to that culture. And so, we find very different brands of Buddhism around Asia.
There are three general waves of Buddhism. One went to Southeast Asia, the so called Theravada Buddhism. We find that in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a little bit in Vietnam (not that much). And then we find one wave went through Central Asia to China, and from China to Japan and Korea, and down to Vietnam. And then another wave that went later from India to Tibet, and from Tibet to Mongolia, and throughout Central Asia and to the various Mongol groups who came to Russia, so the Buryats, the Kalmyks and also a Turkic group – the Tuvinians. So we have a wide diversity, and that is a bit simplifying, because within that there were various waves.
And in more recent times, although one could trace it back several centuries ago, there has been an interest and a movement of Buddhism in Western countries, let us say, non-traditionally Buddhist countries.
So, in each of these different areas, of course, we have a different history, we have a different interaction with the culture. So, it is very difficult to generalize about all of this. There is also the situation of what is going on now and then the prospects for the rest of this twenty-first century and beyond. I think one way of approaching this is in terms of the way in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama often talks about Buddhism, which is that there are three different areas: one can speak about Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist religion. And these have various, different appeals and benefits, things that it can offer to the world.
If we speak in terms of the traditional religion of Buddhism, then I (Buddhism, as you know is not a missionary type of religion, it is not intended to go out to the world and save everybody, because it is the one truth!) I think that you need to be aware that there is quite a difference between what is known as Abrahamic religions and so called Dharmic religions. This is the classification that sometimes is used. Abrahamic are the Biblically-based religions, so Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And in these religions we have a big emphasis on history, that there is a creation, so the beginning of time, and there is a creator and there is a revelation of the truth to maybe a line of prophets, but eventually to a final prophet, whether it is Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed and this is it. And there will be no further prophets. This is the final truth, and it is up to followers to accept that truth and follow it and, through following that truth, achieve salvation in whatever formats are described in various branches of these religions. So, obedience is a very large factor in these religions.
On the other hand, there are the Dharmic religions, dealing with Dharma, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “that which will prevent you from suffering.” So it is something like a preventive measure. And these Dharmac religions would be Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In these religions you do not have this emphasis on history, although in later Hinduism you have certain aspects of creation and so on. But in Buddhism and Jainism there is no acceptance of a beginning of time, or a creation. There is no creator and everything is a little bit like it is described in science, of conservation of matter and energy, neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. Buddhism can accept the Big Bang as the start of this particular cycle and this particular cycle of a Universe will end in some way at some time in the distant future. But then there were further cycles before, and further cycles will follow afterwards. Modern science is starting to come to that conclusion as well. But within this view of religion, then, history is not so important, and the whole view of history is mixed with what in the West would be called "myth." For example, Krishna is taken to be as important an historical figure as King Ashoka, somebody like that. So, in this same way in which myth is on the same level as fact, various people, such as Shakyamuni Buddha, is regarded as somebody who was a great teacher, certainly not a god or a creator, or anything like that.
And everybody can discover the truth within themselves. It is not that you have to accept the authority of somebody else and just believe in that. But within oneself one can discover the truth and reality, and based on that individuality, people will discover it and learn it in different ways. And because of that, there is a great diversity in Buddhist methods and Buddhist teachings and it can fit very well with different societies and different cultures.
So, if we look in that way, what is the role of the Buddhist religion as such? And one of the things that I have found in my travels (I traveled quite extensively around the world, lecturing at various universities and various Buddhist groups), that in some of the traditionally Buddhist countries (I am thinking particularly of Korea, to a certain extent South Korea, to a certain extent Japan, and to a greater extent Mongolia, that there has been a large influence from Christian missionaries. And these missionaries spread the word that if you want to become modern, then you need to adopt Christianity and the reason that you are backward (and this has been particularly emphasized in Mongolia) is because of Buddhism. So, they do not point out communism as a problem in the history of Mongolia, but Buddhism, that got you backward. And if you want to modernize, if you want to become a wealthy country and catch up, you need to adopt Christianity! So, and then they bring in a tremendous amount of money and in that way influence the education system, get into the media, into the school system with Christian-oriented textbooks for learning English. So, subtly they infiltrate the society and if we look at Korea, we see the great success of Christianity there and the relative decline of Buddhism.
And one of the things that I emphasized a great deal in Mongolia is the devastating psychological effect that this has on the people, because if you feel that everything in our history has been worthless, so not only the communist period kept us behind, but even before that everything kept us behind, then you have no sense of national pride, of self-pride. And lacking that sense of self-pride, you lack self-confidence, and without self-confidence and a positive image of oneself and the capabilities of one’s country, this has a very, very negative effect on the emotional well-being, the psychological well-being of the people. And so it is very important in such traditionally Buddhist countries, I feel, for the people to have a realistic evaluation of their past and to see what were the positive aspects that they are the inheritors of from their culture, and to emphasize that.
You can say that the ritual aspects and these sort of things, well, we do not really need that. So, fine! As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, what needs to characterize twenty-first century Buddhism is study, intelligence, not the ritual! He says that things are not going to change in the world just on the basis of prayer. Prayer may fulfill one’s own spiritual needs, perhaps, but it does not really affect what is going to happen within your society and within the world. What you need is to use is what he calls “the marvelous human intelligence” to try to understand reality and on the basis of reality, (about which we are informed from both science and from many of the Buddhist teachings, particularly about how the mind works and how the emotions work), then we can find realistic solutions to the various problems that we face.
So, from the side of the Buddhist religion, the contribution that it can make in these traditional Asian countries, such as Korea, or Japan or Mongolia is to help people to develop a more positive view of themselves in terms of their history and the heritage that they have from their culture.
Now, that gets into the very interesting question about China. China, as you know, has a history that, for many, many centuries was very much influenced by Buddhism, and the thriving of Buddhism in China. And the way that it developed in China was that first of all it was understood and interpreted in terms of the philosophies that were going on in China at the time when Buddhism came in, so, a certain influence from Confucianism, but more strongly from Daoism. But then, after the heyday of Buddhism in China, it merged very much with aspects of Confucianism, so you have ancestor worship, and you also have many Daoist aspects which come in as well. So, you get a mixture of these three. In any case, there is a Buddhist tradition and heritage within China. And if you look from the points of view of the leaders of China, from their point of view, what is the most difficult and frightening prospect of ruling China is if China were to break apart. Aside from historical aspects of that, just from a very practical point of view, you have this enormous, enormous population, which is very difficult for those who do not live in such a large population area to even conceive of, and you need to have stability. You need to be able to feed all those people. You need to be able to somehow employ all these people. And every year the working force is increasing more and more and more. And with the one-child policy the pressure is even higher in terms of the young people getting employments so that they can support the parents and the grandparents and so on. So, stability is the main factor. Maintaining that stability is the main factor in terms of the situation within China from the political point of view. And if they were to give autonomy, which would be certainly very, very beneficial for various areas, they are afraid that if they give it to one, they will have to give it to many, many others and the system would fall apart and you would never be able to feed all these people. And then there would be chaos, which is the most frightening thing from the Chinese point of view, thinking back in terms of their history at various times when there was a break-up of the empire and there was chaos.
So, now you look and you say, “Well, of course, difficulty in Tibet and suppression of the use of the culture and the language and religion and things like that, this is absolutely horrible!” Agreed! But what can Buddhism contribute to China? And this I have suggested a number of times, but often people laugh at it. But I must say that I think that it actually is a relevant point of view. I think that, first of all, what is most lacking in China, and becoming more and more evident, is the sense of ethics. There is a tremendous amount of corruption; there is a tremendous amount of disregard for the environmental consequences of the rapid development and so on. Of course, it is causing a great deal of unrest among the local population that is affected by that. And so you need a sense of ethics. So, where are you going to get these ethics from? Well, there is a certain revival, or an effort to revive Confucianism. So you have all these Confucius institutes around the world. Very good! What is the main emphasis in Confucianism is an orderly society, in which everybody plays their place and if the minister acts as a proper minister, and the emperor is a proper emperor and the father is a proper father and the son is a proper son, and husband and wife, and so on, these positions... If everybody plays their role properly within the context of the state, then everything will flow harmoniously. So, this is a very appropriate choice for the current government.
However, as I said, you have Buddhism in there as well. Now, there has always been a dynamic throughout Chinese history of “Who is going to be in control: the Buddhist institutions or the state?” And if you look at the waves within Chinese history, there have been certain times when there have been repressions and so on of Buddhism because it was becoming too powerful. And there is always a need for some sort of compromise of the Buddhists with the state. So, this is nothing new that is happening in China from the point of view of Chinese history.
I feel very strongly that to understand China, it is very necessary to see it within the whole context of its history! Because the Chinese people, they are very, very much aware of a sense of history and a sense of continuity, despite the communist revolution and so on. So, there is a continuity, which is there. So, somehow Buddhism and the state will need to come together. So, what can Buddhism add in terms of ethics? And this, I think is very important: you have on the one hand, the sense of consideration of equality of everybody: everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. That fits in very nicely with the socialist type of framework, but the other thing (this is the thing that often people laugh at) is that the Chinese brand of Buddhism is vegetarian! Unlike other forms of Buddhism, this is the tradition in China.
So, if you look from the economical point of view, what is the first sign of affluence in China? First sign is to be able to eat pork, to eat meat. That is the first thing! Computer and the television and Internet and all of that comes second. So, if you think of the amount of grain it takes and the amount of water it takes to feed the number of pigs that it would take to feed pork to every Chinese person – this world is incapable of supporting that! And it would be an enormous disaster to the rest of the world, that China will have to import a tremendous amount of grain; the price of grain and feed would go way, way up around the world; and you have a terrible consequence of that on the poor regions of this globe. So, if you want to save China from an economic point of view, I think it is very much to their benefit to reinstate Buddhism in that sense, and then encourage vegetarianism! This would have tremendous economic benefits. As I say, people laugh at that, but the more that you think about it, actually it does make a great deal of sense. It would be a very good selling point for convincing them to allow Buddhism.
So, the situation of Buddhism and Islam in China is quite different, at least from the little research that I have done. If, given the chance to follow a religion, then the Chinese would choose Buddhism. This is what they would traditionally identify with. You see this in China in terms of people going to the temples and they want to go, but they have no idea what to do there. And so, they light some incense, and like that, and then they go. Or, if there are Tibetans or Mongolians that are allowed to do some chanting, they sit there and they listen to the chanting. They like that. Or sometimes you will find some Chinese chanting, so they like that. They have no idea really what to do.
But, the fear from the government side is that if Buddhism is allowed in a more open way, not just the lip-service, showcase of Buddhist temples as museums, as money-making places, but if it were allowed, people’s allegiance would go to Buddhism, away from communism. So, this is the big threat. Whereas with Islam, if you look at Islam in China, then we have Islam among the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the province way over in the northwest. They are not really concerned at all with spreading Islam; they just want to be left alone, to themselves, a very distinct group from the Han Chinese. And the Hui, they are a group of Muslims that originally were brought in at the time of Kublai Khan, a little bit before as well, but primarily at the time of Kublai Khan they were brought in from the area which is presently Uzbekistan. And it was very clever of the Mongols to bring them in, because the Mongols had no idea really how to rule an area, particularly how to collect tax! And so, this was very clever, you have these Muslims come in from Uzbekistan and have them be the tax collectors, so everybody will hate them rather than hate “us Mongols,” who are the ones who are keeping all the booty from the tax. Very clever! And these people stayed in China and developed within Chinese culture. So, they do not have their own language, they speak Chinese, and the only thing that really distinguishes them – if you speak with them, they do not really know very much about Islam, but that varies in terms of the eastern or the western Hui within China, they are spread very much around China and so on – the only thing that distinguished them from Han Chinese is that they wear a little white cap, and they do not eat pork. And that to them is Islam. So, they are not interested in spreading Islam in China to the Han Chinese, and so Islam does not pose a threat to China in terms of the allegiance of people, whereas Buddhism does. And therefore their restrictions on Islam are far less than the restrictions have been on Buddhism. So, this is the situation in China.
And what is most lacking in the various monasteries, both Chinese monasteries and Tibetan monasteries, are teachers. It is more lacking within the Chinese monasteries themselves. So without teachers, then what is left? And what is left is just doing the ritual, not really knowing what you are doing and this then is not very satisfying from a spiritual point of view, or a developmental point of view. Restrictions within Tibet are vast within the monasteries and this is perhaps not necessary to go into a tremendous amount of detail about that, but this is a very sad situation.
If we look at the traditional role of religion in other Asian countries, the situation is not so easy. You have various conflicts that have been occurring between the Buddhist and the Hindu population in Sri Lanka, now between the Buddhist Burmese and the Rakhinis, who are basically Muslims coming in from Bangladesh within Burma. There have been conflicts between the Buddhist Thais and the people in the very south of Thailand who basically, because the line was drawn arbitrarily, really are Malay Muslims, were then included into very southern part of Thailand and so you have these conflicts which have been going on. And I think it is very important to not identify these conflicts as religious conflicts! They are economic and political conflicts, conflicts between two people in each case who are culturally and in some cases racially very, very different. And the issues there are primarily not on the basis of the actual doctrines of the belief in their religion. To ascribe religious motives behind regional conflicts, I think is very misleading and perhaps it is because of the template of the Crusades, which were motivated by religious zealism. “We are going to ‘save’ Jerusalem from the heathens!” – this type of thing – that this template has been overlaid on a great deal of Asian history.
I wrote an e-book, a book which I published on my website, “The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Muslim Cultures before the Mongol Invasion.” And what I wanted to try to investigate and demonstrate was that this whole presentation of the history of the interaction of the Muslims and the Buddhists in Central Asia, and India, and so on is really colored by the agendas that the writers of history have made. I forget who said it, but there is a very famous saying that “History is written by the victors,” by the ones who win the wars and who conquer areas. So, histories are not usually objective. There is a hidden agenda behind the histories: so the Chinese histories, each dynasty, it is to say how wonderful they are and how horrible the one before was. The Muslim histories generally want to give the flavor of the glory of Islam. And the British histories of India, this is very, very interesting, if you look at them, what was their hidden agenda? And their agenda was to show how horrible and exploitative the Muslim Mughal rulers were before, and how wonderful we British are to now come and save you from the oppression of the Muslims! So, with that hidden agenda you have a whole overlay of that historical period colored by this thing, that Muslims came in and they destroyed everything and they killed everybody and so on. Which, although, sure, there was some destruction, which was there, but what was their motive?
If you look at history in a more sort of.... put together the histories which were written by the different civilizations, that participated, and try to figure out what really was going on, I think that one would have to say that the motives for wars and invasions have remained the same throughout history. You want to gain political control, power, you want to gain economic benefit, great economic benefit, in terms of who would control the Silk Route. Who would get the tax from this fantastic trade, which was going through the Silk Route? So that is clearly their motive for invading and trying to take over these areas. And you could encourage your troops by saying, “Well, you are going to go to heaven, the glory of Islam,” and stuff like that. But surely that is not the motive of the people who start the wars and who send these people in: they want the money, they want the power, they want the control.
And if you look at the monasteries that were destroyed, these were the ones where there was resistance, where there was a lot of wealth. They left the poor ones alone. There was a famine that went on and an earthquake in Kashmir. There are a lot of Buddhist monasteries there. They left them alone in the beginning because there was nothing to gain from going there. So, like that, I have tried to give a more objective view of that history. And I think that this is relevant in terms of the present situation as well in these conflicts that we have seen in Sri Lanka and currently in Burma and what has been going on in Thailand as well. I think it is very unfair to look at them in terms of religious conflicts. There! Enough about traditional religion. Our time is limited.
In terms of science: Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy. In this area Buddhism has a great deal to offer without necessarily bringing in the religious aspect. The religious aspect would deal with rebirth, past and future lives, rituals, karma, all this sort of thing. But in terms of Buddhist science, this is something which is of great interest in terms of these meetings that the Dalai Lama has with scientists and so on. There is a growing recognition that mind, and by mind we are not necessarily talking about the brain, but subjective experiencing of things, that this is actually something. We cannot reduce it to the electric impulses and chemical workings of the brain. That is there and that underlies it, but nevertheless through subjective experience one can influence, obviously, one's experience in the world, in terms of levels of stress affecting the health, levels of concern for others, concern for society as opposed to loneliness and so on and these very much influence the physical body, influence certainly the welfare of people. So, there is a great deal of interaction there and investigation; that is going on. So, to see how does the mind affect, how does the mental state of people affect their health and how does it affect society. So, Buddhism has a lot to offer on that level.
In terms of ethics, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always emphasizing secular ethics. Secular ethics is, as he says, not a disrespect or disregard of religion, but we are talking about a basis of ethics that is universal and based on biology. And the biological factor here is the natural affection and instinct to care. Preservation of the species! So, taking care of the baby, and the bond between the baby and the mother and the important role that affection plays on the development of the brain, the development of the feeling of connection and empathy. And on that basis then, if one thinks in terms of interactions with others, then kindness, concern for others, and so on is something that everybody can develop, because everybody had someone who took care of them as a baby, even if your parents were abusive, somebody took care of you, because otherwise you would not be here today. So, we have that basis and there is no need to base kindness and concern for others [on a religious belief] and the fact that we are all living together on this planet and need to get along with each other, that can be based on purely scientific grounds of survival instinct, preservation of the species, biology, etc. So, this is coming from the point of view of a rational view of not only Buddhist ethics, but all ethics.
In terms of Buddhist philosophy, this is very much concerned with reality and this is emphasized very, very strongly (especially by the Dalai Lama, who is perhaps the most influential of the Buddhist leaders today, and certainly the most highly realized one) that we need to have a realistic view of the world, of ourselves and of everyone, and everything! Everything is interrelated. Everything is interdependent. We see this on this growing global scale. And that is a fact. And it is necessary to take a holistic view of economics, of politics, of everything! This is something which is emphasized very much in the Buddhist approach and not something that is restricted just to the followers of Buddhism as a religion. So, this is emphasized very much within that area.
One thing that I would like to touch upon very much is that there are growing trends within society that are going to present tremendous challenges in the future, and I think that the areas from Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy can be of great benefit on a larger, global scale. There is a great deal of interest in Buddhism, and there are Buddhist groups growing all over the world. That is fine, whether they are interested in it as a religion, whether they are interested in just what I call "Buddhism-lite" – the relaxation techniques, and so on. That is another topic. But here, what I am talking about is this trend of social networking and text messaging and being totally tied in to your phone, to your cell phone. Now, if you look at what is going on with this trend, you find that, of course, you can talk about the benefits of it, and I do not deny the benefits, but let us look at the problems that are coming up from that. There are several problems.
One is the problem of concentration! People's level of concentration is going way, way, way down, because they are multitasking all the time and although people might claim that, "Oh, I can multitask!" and so on, it is very clear that if you have a hundred percent of attention, and you divide it, you cannot give a hundred percent to each portion of things that you are focusing on. And so, the attention span, because you have many things going on on our screen at the same time (you are checking your email, your Facebook, your SMS and you are answering all the time, plus – you are listening to a lecture, plus you have the earphones in, so you are listening to music at the same time!) and the mind is not really focused well on any of them. And so this is going to become an increasingly greater problem as this trend just develops more and more and more. Because, just from an economic point of view, how is anybody going to be able to really work efficiently at their job, if they are constantly checking their SMS’s and their Facebook messages and so on, and eventually we will become cyborgs, because they will be built into your glasses and into your brain eventually! So, that is going to have a terrible effect, actually, on the efficiency of business if you just look on that level. This is a dangerous trend that needs discipline: use it at a certain time!
It is very funny! I have just had a visit from a friend who is a professor at Hunter University, in New York. And she teachers a seminar, which is three hours long, and she makes her students put their cell phones at the door. (You know, it is like "check your gun at the door".) So, they check their cell phones at the door; otherwise they are sitting in class and texting all the time and not paying attention. But she says that the tension is so strong in the students, that every hour she has to give them a five minute break to text! So, we are not talking about a break for smoking, or going to the toilet, we are talking about a break to text message to their friends! This is unbelievable, actually! That this is what is happening. And if this is what is happening in New York, then clearly, this is what is going to be happening in the rest of the world very soon.
So, Buddhism has a tremendous amount that it can offer just in a purely scientific sense of how to concentrate and how to control obsessions. Because it becomes an obsession to have to text message and look at all your messages all the time because there is the feeling that "I am going to miss something." As if it really is going to make a difference that you miss what your friend had for breakfast today, or what television show they are watching. I always find it quite amazing to imagine what in the world they would be texting all the time. What are they saying? Not that much is happening!
Another thing that I noticed from a lecture that somebody at MIT gave that I heard on Youtube, actually. (I look at that stuff too, you know!) And what she was saying was that because of this addiction to text messaging, that people are starting to feel that they cannot really feel or experience something unless they are texting it. So, in order to feel an emotion, they have to text it and write it down. That is very dangerous! It is bad enough, the alienation that people already feel, but it is an even greater alienation from their emotions, from their feelings. "I am not real, and what I experience is not real, unless I am texting it." So, what is behind that? And that is certainly a tremendous feeling of insecurity, lack of self-confidence, and so on.
There is also a tremendous increase in loneliness, which is coming from this. You know, there is all his social networking that is going on. You have to be connected to everybody, but there is less and less personal interaction. So, people are losing the ability to have conversations, and this seems to have reached an extreme already in South Korea. And again, Buddhism has a great deal to offer in terms of that, which is just the basic insight that we are all human beings! You are social networking. OK, you are social networking. But the people on the other end that you are networking with are human beings, and they have feelings just as you do. And they want to be liked, they do not want to be disliked. They do not just want people pressing a button, saying "I like it", "I like you" and then the whole sense of self-worth is based on the numbers that are there! But they want human interaction! Just as you want human interaction. And this feeling, that I have to be in control – and so I can control through the media, through my cell phone, what I say and not have the danger of the spontaneity of the face-to-face conversation – that also underlies a tremendous insecurity. That insecurity is of course reinforced by economic insecurity, what is going on in the world today.
So, with the Buddhist teachings, you do not have to be a Buddhist for this! But as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, compassion, which is voluntarily thinking of the problems of others and showing as much concern for others' problems as you would for yourself, gives you a tremendous sense of self-confidence. Instead of being afraid of problems and difficulties, you take them seriously, realistically and show concern for them. You may not have the solution, but just the fact that you show concern to others is a very important step of self-confidence. And without that self-confidence, there is no way to overcome the economic difficulties that are there as well. Just, without that self-confidence it leads to further and further and further depression.
So, I think that in the twenty-first century, Buddhism has a great deal to offer on a global level, which is not restricted to one culture or another, because Buddhism was never restricted to one culture or another. But in these areas of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy that it can offer, as I said, methods for developing concentration, methods for developing more discipline. How do you develop discipline? You develop discipline by seeing that there are many disadvantages not to have discipline, and seeing how actually it hinders you not to have discipline. And you deal with motivation and so on. Why would you want to set limits on how often you look at your text messages – this sort of things? Certain limits have to be placed there, that type of discipline and the ethical discipline to take others seriously, not just as people that you can turn on and off with your machine. If you do not feel like interacting with them, you just press the button and turn it off, and the only way you show any real concern for them is by pressing a button that says "I like you" and another number goes up, their tally of how many "likes" they get on their Facebook page. So, this is a very important factor.
Another thing before I end and open up for questions concerns the interaction between Buddhism and other religions, other cultures. I started a number of years ago for His Holiness the Dalai Lama this Buddhist Muslim dialogue, and one of my main concerns in opening up that area derived from the understanding that the world seems to be somehow divided into various regions. So, one geographic region is Central Asia, and you have Central Asian cultures that span the former Islamic republics of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, all the "-stans", and Mongolia and Xinjiang in China presently, and Tibet. And they have a certain common type of economy, a certain common type of traditionally agrarian and herding type of society. Well, this group needs to somehow come together in one way or another. And so if you look traditionally at what the cultures, the religions were of these areas, you have Islam, you have the Tibetan form of Buddhism, and you have Russian Orthodox church. And so the one that I became involved with was to open up a dialogue between the Buddhists and the Muslims, to try to understand each other. And one of the steps in that was to get a more objective view of the history, so this is why I undertook that research and writing that e-book about getting a more objective view of what went on and the interaction there. And since then I have tried with my website, www.berzinarchives.com, to preserve "the real thing" Buddhism.
You have these aspects of Buddhist science and philosophy and so on and they can be applied in many, many different ways, although I touch on that, there is very deep philosophical teaching within the Tibetan Buddhism sphere and I had the privilege of living in India for twenty-nine years, and to study with the greatest of the greats, the Dalai Lama and his teachers. And so, to preserve all the material that I had studied and translated and wrote, etc. So, that was one aspect. And also to present the fact that most people are not aware of, that the Tibetan civilization was and is a world civilization. We are not talking about saving the culture of one particular country. This is a whole civilization, whose language, literature, form of medicine, art, music etc. spread throughout Central Asia, and not just one particular small country. So, in any case, I wanted to make this material, which is very vast, available in many, many different languages, because not everybody in this universe speaks English, as we know here. Although, you speak English, which is wonderful! At least, I hope you speak English, since I am speaking in English and there is no Russian translation!
Anyway, I wanted to have this material translated into the major Islamic languages in the world, and so I have been doing that and organizing that, so that we have a section in Arabic, one in Urdu, Turkish and Indonesian. Originally, Arabic was the most popular, but now what is fast overtaking Arabic is Indonesian! This is very interesting, because in Indonesia, being a multi-religious society, the interest in getting information about Buddhism is quite high. And they are much more open. In Malaysia, which has pretty much the same language, the native Malays are (by law they need to be Muslim) and so, they do not have access to the Buddhist material, which is limited and restricted to the Chinese community in Malaysia, so they are becoming a little bit interested. And now they have some information, which is available. And we will do Farsi, as well. I am committed to do that language section also.
What I found, I have traveled a bit in the Muslim countries and lectured there, and I lectured once in Cairo University to a group of undergraduate students and about three hundred students came, from their own free will, to listen to a lecture about Buddhism! And what they said was that, "It is so restricted to us to have information about the outside world, and people in the outside world have such a false view of Muslims, that we are all terrorists, and this is terrible.” So, they were interested to know about other cultures and other ideas. And this you find certainly among a proportion of the societies in these countries, maybe not everybody, but certainly they are a growing proportion.
And one of the things that I think it is very important in terms of the Islamic world, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very much stressing this as well, is to include them. If you exclude them and label them as "terrorists," then pretty soon they become the enemy. And the more that you label somebody an enemy, the more they will become that enemy. There is a very strong influence of that. So, if they are included and shown respect, then this is something which is very, very important. And I think this is one of the main factors that influences the thinking in the Islamic world: they want to be respected for what they are, and accepted for what they are, and included as a major civilization of the world and a major religious group of the world, which they are. And so with presenting my website in the Islamic languages there is no intention to try to convert others and certainly the more religious aspects of this I am not translating. But the basic material, the basic idea of what is Buddhism is about. You have these historical, more objective historical accounts translated into their languages and so on. My thinking is that even if not so many people read it in these languages, although there is a growing number of people who are reading it, nevertheless it shows respect to them. Because you have put it into their languages, and their languages are included among the other world languages, and this makes an impression on not just the people from these Islamic cultures, but makes a positive impression on people outside of them, who might have very, what should we say, not very positive views toward the Muslim world. But if they see in a venue like my website, which is getting a larger and larger reading public (so far this year we have had already 1.1 million visits to the website, so it really is getting a large exposure!), then people say, (because I can see) "Oh, it is really cool! It has Arabic and Urdu and all these languages!" That respect is shown to these cultures. They are included. And I think this is very, very important in terms of globalization.
When we have this growing interdependence and interrelation of all our cultures and all our religions, it is important, I think, not to homogenize it all and make it all into one undifferentiated soup, so that you find the same stories, the same everything everywhere: a "McDonald's" world type of vision. But rather that within the globalized world, that there is a sense of self-respect and self-dignity of one's own culture and one's own religion and each of them are respected. And within that type of framework, then everybody can cooperate. But if people are made to think that their culture, their religion has kept them backward, then that has a very negative effect psychologically, emotionally, and ultimately that will affect economic and political factors as well.
So, perhaps that is enough of my lecture, and maybe you have some questions? Anybody?
Question: Thank you very much for your lecture. That was wonderful. Sorry, but could you just tell us about this type of Buddhism in Russia. Is it possible that in the future in Russia Buddhism will become as popular as Christianity?
Berzin: The question is: could I speak a little bit about the spread of Buddhism in Russia and is it possible that it will become as widespread as Christianity (that is, assuming that Christianity is getting more and more widespread), but we will leave that aside.
As you know, there are three traditional Buddhist areas within Russia, we have the Buryat Mongols, we have the Kalmyk Mongols, and we have the Tuvinians. And there is a strong effort to revive Buddhism in these areas. People are interested in their culture, and a great deal of effort is being done. Some areas, they are cooperating with each other. On other aspects each area is working by itself and certainly His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans are helping whenever they are asked to help with the teachers and training and so on. As for Buddhist groups within non-traditional Buddhists in Russia and in all former Soviet republics, we find that there is certainly a growing interest, but what type of interest is really the question. I have been coming to this part of the world – I think I first came here in 1988 and I have seen, certainly, a great deal of change over the last (what is it? twenty-four years?) or something like that. And I find still that there are different groups within Russia, within the non-traditional Buddhists, that have an interest in Buddhism.
One group is the very serious, intellectual group that wants to study the texts and approaches that in a very scientific and thorough type of way. And you have fantastic scholarship that has been done in the past here in Russia, and there are certainly a group of people who bring that seriousness and scientific approach to their Buddhist studies. That is one group.
Another group is interested in miracles. They want a miracle cure and so they put together the sort of inheritance from Madam Blavatskaya and this type of approach, and maybe flying saucers and so on, and they are just looking for a miracle magic pill that will save them from economic problems or other problems and so on. And that certainly appeals to a certain proportion of these people who turn to Buddhism.
So, what is the future of that? Will it become as widespread as Christianity? I do not think so! I think that, first of all, obviously, I am certainly not an expert in the situation of the Orthodox church here in Russia, but from what people tell me, it is struggling in terms of getting the interest of young people. Will young people be more interested in Buddhism? I do not know. I think a lot depends on how it is presented. If it is presented in this magical type of way, I do not see any great benefit from that, because often what happens is that they imagine and hope that they will get a magic cure, and then they do not, because nothing follows from that. And so, this is not so helpful. If the situation becomes more and more desperate, then more and more people may turn for an exotic type of cure, but I do not know how stable that will be.
There is, of course, another aspect of this, as I said, there is a more scientific and rational approach and heritage that you have here in Russia, and this, I think, is a little bit more promising for the future. But you have to understand, if you look at the history of Buddhism, Buddhism has never been a terribly popular system, in a sense. By "popular" I mean that you have a whole society that is supporting Buddhism and supporting the Buddhist institutions. But the actual places where you have meditation, and study and so on, traditionally have been restricted to the monasteries. That was not something which was taught to the general lay public. And teaching meditation to the lay public was only started in the beginning of the twentieth century in Burma. And then it has slowly spread. And it is a Western phenomenon, basically, that has the emphasis in the Buddhist training beyond non-monastics, not the monks and nuns, but on the general public. So, this is something which is very, very new, very new! You know, the role of the general public was to support the monasteries and get basic teachings, but, you know, send your children there, if they want to learn. And the basic values perhaps permeated society. So, how will it develop in Russia? How will it develop in other Western societies? That is very, very difficult to say, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, emphasize for the twenty-first century study. Use your intelligence, not the prayer, devotional, magic line.
So, can I predict what will happen in Russia? I have no idea. But, it is important that it not be seen as a threat to the traditional Orthodox Christian institutions that are here. So, I think more what will be successful and what can be successful are the contributions that Buddhist science and philosophy can make, rather than Buddhist religion. Anyone else?
Question: When Mr. Thurman was here, his colleague, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, said that the purpose of life, of a human's life, is happiness and I wondered if you agree with this idea.
Berzin: So, she says that when Professor Bob Thurman was here, he quoted the Dalai Lama, actually, who said that the purpose of life is happiness and do I agree with that? [laughter]
Participant: She said that it was Telo Tulku Rinpoche who said that during those talks.
Berzin: Oh, Telo Tulku Rinpoche said that! In any case, the quotation comes from the Dalai Lama, so whether it is Telo Tulku Rinpoche quoting His Holiness, or Thurman quoting His Holiness – that is not the point. The point is the statement, and the statement is on the basis of a general axiom that you have in Buddhism, which is that “Everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy.” So, in order to understand that statement you have to know what is the definition of happiness. What is it that everybody wants? And happiness is defined… Buddhism is very wonderful in this sense that it has definitions of everything… so, happiness is that feeling, which when it occurs you want it to continue. You do not want to be parted from that. And unhappiness is that feeling which, when it arises, you want to be parted from it.
So, if we look at this general definition, then, of course, the purpose of life is to continue. The purpose of life is not to die. I mean, that is inevitably what is there, but when we are alive, we want to continue to be alive and we want to continue to have those types of experiences that we would like to go on! We would like to have them continue. So, from that point of view one can demonstrate that this statement: "The purpose of life is happiness" is a valid statement. Purpose, meaning the aim, what you want to achieve. You want to achieve those states which you find pleasant and would like to go on. So, sure!
You see, this is my point that from the Buddhist point of view everything really is quite rational, that it can be understood from the point of view of reason and logic. Now, you can have an emotional component to that and you can have a devotional component, which is one of great respect. But the foundation is not just blind belief and faith. The foundation is respect for the human intelligence and the ability of the human intelligence to discriminate between what is valid and what is invalid, what is helpful and what is harmful. And this is one of the ways to demonstrate that there is such a thing as mind, as I was speaking about before: mental activity, subjective mental experience.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked the brain scientists once, from the point of view of brain science, is there any difference between thinking "one plus one is two" and thinking "one plus one is three?" And they said, there is absolutely no difference. If you put the brain into some sort of machine to measure, there is absolutely no difference between those two thoughts. So, that demonstrates that there is something more than just reducing everything to the firing of neurons in the brain, in terms of discriminating what is correct, what is incorrect. What makes sense, what does not make sense, what fits in with reality, what does not fit in with reality. So, human intelligence – use it! You have it, otherwise you would not be here at this great university, so please use it!
Let us end here. Thank you very much for this opportunity.
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