The Relevance of Religion
in Modern Times
Milan, Italy, 7 December 2007
transcribed and lightly edited by Alexander Berzin
I would like to speak about the relevance of religion in modern times. Everyone, by nature, has a feeling of self and, with that, experiences knowable phenomena with a painful, joyful, or neutral feeling. These are facts, without any need to investigate why. Animals have this too. By nature, we all like happiness and dislike unhappiness and pain. There is no need to prove this either. On this basis, we can speak of everyone’s right to have a happy life and to overcome suffering.
Now, there are two categories of pain and pleasure. One is linked with physical sensory experience and one with the mental level. The sensorial level is common to all species of mammals having five senses. As for the mental level, some animals have that. But, because humans have sophisticated intelligence, they have longer term memory as well as thoughts of the future. This is more than animals have. Therefore, humans have mental pleasure and satisfaction or pain – hope, expectations, fear. So physical happiness and unhappiness and mental happiness and unhappiness are separate things. We can experience physical pain, but with mental happiness, and at other times, our physical level is OK, but our mental level is filled with worry and dissatisfaction.
The physical level is related to physical facilities – food, clothing, shelter, nice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, material facilities. Some people are very wealthy. They have fame, education, respect, many friends. But still, as persons, they are very unhappy persons. This is because material facilities fail to bring mental satisfaction or comfort. Someone with lots of stress, worry, competitiveness, jealousy, hate, attachment – these bring mental unhappiness. Therefore, there are limitations to physical and material welfare. If we ignore the inner level, life may not be happy. Affluent societies have material comfort, but they can’t guarantee that people there have happy, peaceful, comfortable minds. Therefore, we need a mechanism to bring peace of mind.
Generally, religion is an instrument to bring mental peace and satisfaction, mental comfort with certain faith. Many agree that there needs to be a secular way to bring peace of mind, but that I’l l discuss in my public talk. But if we speak about a way to bring peace of mind based on faith, then there are two categories of religion – faith without philosophy and faith with philosophy.
In ancient times, people used faith to bring hope and comfort when they faced desperate situations – problems beyond our control, hopelessness. In such situations, faith provides some hope. For example, there is the threat of animals at night, so more fear in the dark. With light, we feel more secure. The source of light is the sun, therefore the sun is something holy and so some people worshiped the sun. Fire provides comfort when we are cold and so some considered fire as something good. Fire sometimes comes from lightning, which is mysterious, and therefore both fire and lightning are holy. These are primitive faiths, with no philosophy.
Another category maybe includes ancient Egyptian society. I don’t know about that. Egyptian civilization goes back six or seven thousand years and had faith. When I was at one of the universities in Cairo, I expressed interest that if I had more time, I would like to study there and learn more about this ancient Egyptian civilization, but unfortunately I don’t have time. But, in any case, another category of religion includes the Indus Valley civilizations in India and Chinese civilization. They had more sophisticated religions with an ideology. Maybe there was more in the Indus Valley civilizations than in others. In India, three or four thousand years ago there was already faith with a certain philosophy. Thus, another category of religion is faith with certain philosophical concepts.
In this second category, there are common questions. One Jewish friend put them nicely: What is “ I”? Where do I come from? Where will I go? What is the purpose of life? These are the main questions. The answers to these are in two categories: theistic and non-theistic.
In India, three thousand years ago people tried to find an answer to what is “I,” what is the self? According to common experience, the body when young has a different appearance and shape than when old. The mind also, within minutes is different. But we have a natural feeling of “I” – when “ I” was young, when “I” was old. Therefore, there must be an owner of the body and the mind. The owner must be something independent and permanent, unchanging, while the body and the mind changes. So, in India, a self, a soul, an “ atman” – that idea comes. When the body is no longer usable, a soul remains there. That is the answer of what is “I.”
Then, where does the soul come from? Does it have a beginning or not? No beginning is difficult to accept, and so there must be a beginning, like there is a beginning to this body. And so God creates the soul. And as for the end, we come into God’s presence or eventually we absorb into God. Middle Eastern religions – early Jewish, Christian, and maybe Egyptian – believe in an afterlife. But, for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, ultimate truth is God, the Creator. That is the source of everything. That God must have limitless power and limitless compassion and wisdom. Every religion asserts infinite compassion, like Allah. And God is beyond our experience, ultimate truth. That is theistic religion.
Then, about three thousand years ago, we get Samkhya philosophy in India. And within this, there came two divisions: one believes in God and one says no God. Instead, the latter division speaks of primal matter, prakrti and twenty-five classes of knowable phenomena. So, for them, primal matter is permanent and the creator. So, before Buddha, there were already non-theistic views.
Then, around 2600 years ago, Buddha and the Jain founder, Mahavira, came. Neither of them mentions God, but emphasized instead simply cause and effect. Thus, one category of Samkhya, and both Jainism and Buddhism are non-theistic religions.
Within non-theistic religions, Buddhism says that everything comes from its own causes and conditions, and because of that, one of the very natures of cause and effect is change. Things are never standing still. Therefore, since the basis for the self or “I” is the body and mind, which obviously are changing all the time, and since the “I” relies on them, the “I” must be of the same nature. It can’t be unchanging and permanent. If the basis changes, what is designated on it must also be changing. Therefore, there is no permanent, unchanging soul – “ anatman,” selfless. This is the unique Buddhist concept – everything is interdependent and related. So, within the three non-theistic religions, although the other two accept causality, nevertheless they assert a permanent, unchanging self.
So, among religions having faith with philosophy, there are many different traditions. All of them have two aspects – philosophy and concepts, and also practice. There is a big difference in terms of philosophy and concepts, but the practice is the same – love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, self-discipline. Different philosophies and concepts are simply methods to bring people the wish and conviction to practice love, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. Therefore, all these philosophies have the same goal and purpose – to bring love, compassion, and so forth.
This is clear in Buddhism. Buddha taught different concepts, often contradictory ones. Some sutras say that the aggregates – the body and mind – are like a load and the self is what carries it. A load and what carries it cannot be the same, and so the self must be separate and must substantially exist. Another sutra says that karma or actions exist, but there is no person who acts, no substantial self. Other sutras say there are no external phenomena. There is just mind and other phenomena are merely the contents of the mind. And mind exists; it truly exists. Yet other sutras say that neither the mind nor its contents truly exist – nothing has true existence, like in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Heart Sutra, for instance: “No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.” These are all contradictory, but all of them come from the same source, Shakyamuni Buddha.
Buddha didn’t teach all of these out of his own confusion. Nor did he teach them deliberately to cause more confusion in disciples. Why did he teach like this? Buddha respected that individuals are different and he taught all these to help them. He saw that all these were necessary.
Three thousand years ago there were maybe ten or a hundred million people. Now there are over six billion. So, among all these people, there are certainly different dispositions. We can see this even among children of the same parents. Even twins, their minds and emotions are different. Therefore, among humanity, there are different dispositions, different ways of life, different ways of thinking. These differences are also conditioned by the environment, geography, and climate. For example, Arabia is hot and dry. India has the monsoon rains and so it is different and people there have a different life style. Maybe in primitive times, people were more similar everywhere. But now, because of these differences, it is important to have different approaches. But these different philosophies and concepts don’t really matter. The most important is the aim and goal of all of them, and this is the same: to be a kind and compassionate person in our approach to others.
For some people, then, the concept of a creator, God, is very helpful. I once asked an old Christian monk why Christianity does not believe in previous lives. He said, “Because this very life is created by God.” Thinking like that gives a feeling of intimacy with God. This body comes from our mother’s womb and so we have a feeling of closeness and comfort with our mother. So, the same is the case with God. We come from God and this gives us a sense of closeness with God. The closer one feels, the stronger the intention to follow God’s advice, which is love, compassion. Therefore, the theistic approach is very powerful and much more helpful for many people than a non-theistic approach.
It is better to keep one’s own religious tradition. In Mongolia, missionaries pay people $15 to convert to Christianity. So some people go to them and convert each year, over and again, just to collect $15 each time! I advise these missionaries not to interfere and to let people there stay traditional Buddhists. This is the same as when I tell Western people to keep their own religions.
The best is to have more information. This helps to develop respect. Therefore, keep your Christian tradition, if you are Christian, but gain understanding and knowledge of other traditions. As for methods, all teach the same practice – love, compassion, tolerance. Since the practice is shared in common, it is all right to adopt some methods from Buddhism. But as for the Buddhist concept of no absolute – this is strictly Buddhist business. It is not helpful for others to learn. One Christian father asked me about emptiness, voidness, and I told him this is not good for him. If I teach complete interdependence, this might harm his strong faith in God. So it is better for such people not to listen to talk about voidness.
In short, since all major traditions have the same practice, just different methods and different philosophies, but with the same purpose, that is the ground for mutual respect. So, keep your own tradition. But, if some Buddhist methods come from my lecture which you find useful, then use them. If they are not useful, then leave them.
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