…I consider [the Buddha] to be one of the greatest thinkers — and greatest personalities — of whom we have record in human history. Ranking people in order of merit is a pursuit fit only for parlor games, but I maintain that the Buddha belongs in the same class as Plato and Aristotle, the giants who created the tradition of Western philosophy. I think that his ideas should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilized place, both gentler and more intelligent.
Those words are from the book What the Buddha Thought, by Richard Gombrich, founder-president of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies and an expert in the Pali and Sanskrit languages. A professor at Oxford for 28 years, Gombrich goes on to describe himself as an admirer of the Buddha but not a Buddhist. “I disagree with some of his theories and do not subscribe to all of his values,” he says.
Interesting. I had not before seen the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, described as one of the world’s great thinkers, but of course he was. He used meditation, self-examination and his compassionate eyes and ears to craft a word view that has arguably held up better to modern scientific understandings than the teachings of the great Western philosophers.
Maybe Western ethnocentrism prevents us from seeing the Buddha alongside Plato and Aristotle, or maybe we put Siddhartha in a different category because he also founded a religion. Or did he? His disciples founded a religion, just as Jesus’s disciples founded a religion. I don’t think either knew that what they taught would eventually be so differentiated from the religions of their time that it would get a new name and organization.
Unlike Christianity, though, Buddhism is often described as either a religion or a philosophy. You can find Catholics, Jews, even Baptists who consider themselves Buddhist practitioners. And my blogging and dharma friend Peace Paul tells me that Secular Buddhism is growing rapidly in the western states of the U.S.
I think Siddhartha would be glad to know that his words are helping people reduce the angst in their lives 2,500 years after he said them. But maybe those people who see the Buddhist canon as another self-help shelf in their library should follow Richard Gombrich’s model and refrain from calling themselves Buddhists. The are followers of Siddhartha’s philosophy, and that’s fine.
The Buddha taught in a religious context in a religious era, just as Jesus did. He used some Vedic imagery that I don’t fully accept, but I do want a religion and not just a philosophy in my life. I believe in the scientific method, but there are some sacred mysteries way beyond what today’s science can help us with. That may or may not be true forever, but for the foreseeable future empirical research can’t help with the big questions about the intangibles in life: Why am I here? What’s my purpose? How can I lead a fulfilling life and suffer less? How can I grow my soul? What can I do for others? What becomes of me when I die?
Those questions are why I, and many others, need a religion. We may not find concrete answers, but we find comfort there. To quote my teacher, Lama Surya Das: “Thank God for Buddhism.”
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine