“Buddhist Studies in the Contemporary World” Keynote speech by Prof. Willemen

(Bangkok, Dec. 14, 2013) -- Prof. Willemen delivered a Keynote speech at WBU International Conference on “Buddhist Studies in Contemporary World.” The conference was to Commemorate the Centenary of the Thai Supreme Patriarch Somdej Phra Ñañasangvara held at Viangtai Hotel, Bangkok, 14 December 2013. 

See, the photo gallery of the events.

See also papers contributed to the conference by IBC.

Buddhist studies is an occupation of scholars,both monastics and lay people.One should not confuse a monk's activities, perfecting his mind on the way to perfect rest,with scientific activities,objectively investigating Buddhism,its history and its developments.But I personaly believe that both aspects will lead to a more correct and efficient way of understanding.Buddha himself has said in the Aguttara Nikāya that one should not believe without first having understood,that one should make the right analysis.That is what all Vibhajyavādins are supposed to do.And Theravādins are one prominent group of such Vibhajyavādins.

Buddhism is studied widely all over the world,even in places with hardly any sagha.Quite many non-Buddhists,both Christians and atheists,have studied Buddhism.Its appeal reaches far beyond the community of believers.It is a true world religion,together with those two other religions which both originated in the Middle East,namely Christianity and Islam.Buddhism is not limited to one culture,like e.g.Hinduism,or to one social group.I myself can reach enlightenment in Antwerp.

What makes Buddhism so acceptable in so many different places today?As a so-called westerner Buddhism to me is quite acceptable.A westerner,by the way,can be defined as someone who belongs to the European cultural area.

I will mention some of the reasons why Buddhism is so popular today.

-Buddhism is “democratic”,egalitarian.This is quite important in a time when everyone feels famous,can have an opinion on the internet,can judge anything.In the time of the Buddha Upāli,who was skilled at cutting hair,was the Vinaya specialist.He surpassed brahmins in importance.Buddha accepted the invitation of Āmrapālī,a lady of loose morals in Vaiśālī,to have breakfast.He did not accept the invitation of the Licchavi elders.The Buddha preferred her invitation because she had become a true believer.The Chinese Buddhacarita XXII 37 says:”When Lady Āmrapālī heard the law,she rejoiced in her heart”.Buddhism is socially quite egalitarian,even though many brahmins were converted,already during Buddha's own time.I just mention Śāriputra,and also the final conversion before he passed away,namely Subhadra.It seems even likely to me that the large number of brahmin converts may explain the coming into existence of Pudgalavādins(Vātsīputrīya-Sāṃmitīyas).Aristocracy of mind and mores is far more important than social or racial differences.

-Buddhism is global,not limited to Indians.If a foreigner cannot enter the most sacred area of a temple,how can such a religion be global?In our time of the global village,Buddhism perfectly fits the environment.It serves the whole world.Enlightenment,perfect rest,is for all to attain.

-Psychology is very important in Buddhism.Buddha is a doctor for the mind.He sees we are suffering and he knows there is a cause for that.This cause can be extinguished by following the right remedy,by taking the Buddhist medecine.Buddhism's goal is perfect rest,peace of mind.Meditation manuals in Abhidharma will bring us there.Abhidhartma is a branch of psychology.

-Buddhism and science go together.Blind faith is not recommended.One should understand before one believes.No one can object to that.Scientific investigation never conflicts with Buddhism.

-Buddhism offers an ethical path.Many even say that Buddhism is ethics,not a religion.This opinion is widely heard in the so-called western world.Atheists support Buddhism for this reason.Every Buddhist at least agrees that ethics is at least the basis for mental progress.

-Buddhism protects the environment.Buddhists even think it strange that a “green movement”has appeared only recently.Buddhism always was “green”.One should not kill any animal and eat it.I am sure that the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra is quite popular among vegetarians.A holy war or destruction of the environment is not Buddhist at all.

-When we look at the history of Buddhism,we see that it has many followers among the merchant class.Our world is a world of trade and capitalism.Historically Buddhism has prospered in such environment.Buddhism was spread along the Silk Road.It set sail from the southeastern Indian cultural area to southern China,following trade routes.I have always thought that-to express it in Chinese terms-the activities of merchants are “yang”and that Buddhism is “yin”.They both are complementary.Any Chinese would agree.

-One reason among many reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India is its assimilation with the main Sanskrit Hindu tradition,a fate not experienced in other cultural areas.When Buddhism adopted Sanskrit as its main language,this fact facilitated the assimilation with Hinduism.By the way,Sanskrit,Greek,and Latin are languages of the same kind of people,a fact known for more than a hundred years.On the other hand,the apparent weakness in India partially explains success elsewhere.Buddhism adapts to local situations,anywhere in the world.

-Finally,Buddhism is homeopathic,a field many are interested in today.There are many different Buddhist paths to perfect rest.If you are intellectual,thinking about Zen riddles will cure you.If you are thoroughly imbued with Chinese culture,try Tiantai Buddhism.If you like rituals,esoteric rituals may cure you.While sūtras offer the spiritual guidelines, tantras offer the ritual practice.

I sometimes wonder what Buddha would say when he would be here among us today,seeing what the four noble truths and the chain of dependent origination, pratītyasamutpāda, have developed into.But I am sure that ,if a non-Buddhist path would bring you perfect rest,Buddha would not try to dissuade you.He just offers what works,what he has found.And the world is paying attention.

Prof.Dr.Charles Willemen
Rector International Buddhist College, Korat.