Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ism, Materialism, materialistic Buddhism, Buddhism

Ism, materialism, materialistic Buddhism, Buddhism

By- Praggananda Sraman

To see the article with pictures -please click here


An ism is considered a doctrine, which is a belief or system of beliefs accepted as authoritative by an individual or a group of individuals. It is a very amorphous suffix and could be defined in many ways; in this sense you could call it a purely psychological phenomenon, something that is completely abstract in nature.

It seems that there are numerous isms that exist or are practised in this human society, e.g., Spiritualism, Materialism, Christian-ism, Catholicism, Baptism, Anglicanism, Hinduism, Islamicism, Buddhism(!), Ancestor-ism, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Junta-ism, Dictator-ism, Humanism, Globalism, Imperialism, Colonialism, Briticism, Criticism, Americanism, Weapon-ism, Terrorism, Journalism, Media-ism, Love-ism, Hate-ism, Sexism, Physical-ism, God-ism, No-god-ism, Dualism, Pluralism, Realism, Idealism, Vitalism, Egoism, Personal-ism, Behaviourism, Perfectionism, and there are so many more isms we could name that perhaps we should call this practice Name-ism. We could explain what we say or name it; that could be called Explain-ism. Those words might not be found in the dictionary, but now we can add them.

So, how do we humans function in this process!? If your answer is that the human mind works with the brains by bioelectric energies, then I would say sorry, this article is not for you!

The Enlightened being Buddha says that there are 62 kinds of isms (views) that can be found as beliefs among humans. In an ultimate sense, He sees them as Wrong Views (Ditthi). The 62 isms are taken from the analysis of human belief systems as following-

Ism or belief concerning the past, present and future life of a man, such as an eternalistic belief; a semi-eternalistic belief; or a belief or idea of the universe; Ambiguous Evasion; Non-Causality beliefs; perception’s existence after death ( or not); Annihilation and Nihilism. The Buddha’s search is Nibbana; we can call it Nibban-ism, or everlasting-happiness-ism, or conclusion-ism.

According to Him, if these beliefs or isms are believed, they will certainly cause us agitation and craving. It implies that isms only seem to offer a firm conclusion because of our inability to see the truth , as they are seized by craving, clinging, and agitated by longing (feeling). He further explains that the beliefs are originated from contact (as the cause). Contact occurs when an object is perceived and recognised as being beyond ourself. Then, from this event arises feeling, like light entering the dark sky.


I went through every possible definition of materialism but could not figure out what exactly they wanted to say. The way they are confused also made me confused. One straight definition that got my attention was: “Materialism is a kind of desire for wealth and material possessions with little interest in ethical or spiritual matters.” Obviously, one who desires wealth and material possessions, with little interest in moral, ethical or spiritual matters, is a materialist. Simply put, for them, time, skill, profession, appointments, money, security, health, credit cards, insurance, and the internet are more important than anything. They also say that matter is the only the reality, not the mind. Some materialistic practitioners are even taking a more extreme position by saying that mental phenomena simply do not exist at all, that talk of the mental reflects a totally spurious “folk psychology” that simply has no basis in fact, something similar to he way that folk science speaks of demon-caused illness. What do you think? Don’t you think for those people who say thus, for them love is fake, their emotions are fake, their beauty and passions are fake, their care and compassion are fake, their personalities and themselves are fake, not real!

Another thing about materialism that really really interested me was that materialism is the oldest tradition of western societies! Now I’m trying to figure it out, hmmmm, so, present day materialist society is extended or moderated from the oldest one, or is it the brand new one? This is possible because they called themselves the first world, and the poorest countries they have called third world.

Well, there is lot of confusion and significant changes among materialistic societies, and it is creating chaos within the human brain and mind. I would love to mention that the professor of philosophy at the Notre Dame, Alvin Plantinga, criticises materialism, and the Emiritus Regius Professor of the Divinity, Keith Ward, suggests that materialism is rare amongst contemporary UK philosophers: “Looking around at my philosopher colleagues in Britain, virtually all of whom I know at least from their published work, I would say that very few of them are materialists.” Now I just wonder who would be able to convince the White House in the US.

Let us see what others say about materialism. Hinduism says that all matter is believed to be an illusion called Maya, blinding humans from knowing the truth. Maya is the limited, purely physical and mental reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Maya gets destroyed for a person when they perceive the Brahma with transcendental knowledge.

In Buddhism materialistic beliefs are considered wrong views (as I mentioned earlier), and does hold that all-out pursuit of wealth and other external commodities encouraged by materialism is dangerous and self-destructive since such a system encourages attachment to the material realm which is ultimately transitory in nature and thus increases the amount of pain and suffering in the world.

Interestingly, in this western materialistic society, some believe in God. Even though they believe in God in different ways. The biologist would say that God lives somewhere in the brain, that most people believe in God, but he is history now. Everyday, whenever something happens to them, they say, “Oh,
God,” or “Oh Jesus.” For some people, God comes only on Sunday in churches, or for weddings or funerals. For others, God doesn't exist, but they may believe in Santa Claus who only comes at Christmas.

Well, it’s all up to you and me and how we see the thing. I would say this is a challenge for us in this present Machine Age.

Materialistic Buddhism

Even though this sounds like new words, it really does exist. As a religion, Buddhism is about 2600 years old. From that time until now Buddhism has been divided into many different schools such as Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Tantrayana, Mantrayana, and so on. In the 21st century we hear of some new groups of Buddhism like Lay Buddhism, Engaged Buddhism, Green Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Soto, or Zen Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Thai forest Buddhism, Thai not-forest Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Asian Buddhism, Western Buddhism, and so on.

In most of the central Asian countries, practising Buddhism is quite the same but the approaches are difference. From that different-ism point of view we see the existence of materialistic Buddhism. Let us have a look at some definitions and examples.

Materialistic Buddhism could be defined as the belief that Nibbana can be attained through practising materialism. A materialistic Buddhist may believe that material possession and their advantages are helpful and essential and act accordingly. This is called materialistic Buddhism. I’m pretty sure there will be a more comprehensive definition in the future for materialistic Buddhism.

Let us make it clearer. According to the Buddha, the purpose of Buddhist life is to attain Nibbana. In order to attain Nibbana, material possessions are more destructive than productive. Material possessions are not necessary, and Nibbana can be attained only by observing our in-breathes and out-breathes in meditation (anapanassati).

Because of the predomination of machines and materialistic worlds, true understanding of Buddhism is in real trouble. Because of running and rushing around, living a competitive lifestyle in the material world, Buddhists are not having enough time for observation of the in- breath and out-breath. To become a good Buddhist, and to secure their attainment of Nibbana, after some lifetimes in the future, they do everything possible such as charity, generosity, helping the monks’ communities, building temples, building meditation centres, and every possible good thing. In a sense, the practice of creating merit merely for a better rebirth could be called materialistic Buddhism, and it somehow misses the heart of the teachings altogether.

The negative and positive impacts of materialistic Buddhism are significant. Let us see the negative impact, first, that comes as a consequence of practising materialistic Buddhism. Firstly, the true essence or true teaching of the Buddha is either changed or missing in some fundamental aspects. I think this is enough to make sweet milk sour. Another significant effect I should mention here is that we see many ornate and wonderful gold painted temples, pagodas, and Buddha images in Buddhist countries, with quite a large amount of money expended for painting and building. But the vast sums of money necessary for these frivolities are often donated without a thought given to the number of Buddhist families who go hungry and are homeless around the world.

However, there are a number of good impacts also. As Buddhists, they are generous, moral and humble, with great human qualities. Their contribution to society is significant. Through their work and actions, they push for social change to balance the class system, seeing the harm caused by extreme wealth on the one hand and extreme poverty on the other. As good citizens of their countries, they make charitable contributions not for tax rebates or deductions, but for the sake of giving. With fewer possessions, they could enjoy the maximum amount of happiness, maybe not physically, but at least mentally.

Once the Buddha foretold this by saying, “O monks, I’m telling you, because of unbound and uncontrolled desires of humans, materialism will increase, when materialism is increased, the Dhamma will decrease.” He further said the when the Dhamma is decreased, our humanity will decrease with it.

There is a saying that something is better than nothing. Karl Marx once said, “If the purpose of religion is to benefit mankind then Buddhism is the best.” So we can keep it up.

Buddhism (!)

I’m sorry that I also have to call it Buddhism because, technically, this is not the correct translation of Dhamma (or Dharma). Calling the Dhamma as Buddhism has become second nature, and once something becomes second nature it's hard to put it in right way. This also what is happening with me, as well. What the Buddha taught is Dhamma, not an ism. So, Buddha + ism= Buddhism is not the right translation. So just what is Dhamma?

Dhamma is a Pali term, and Dharma is the Sanskrit version, but the meaning is the same in both instances. Sanskrit uses the term dharma in a variety of contexts requiring a variety of translations. Dharma derives from the root √dhr_˚ (to hold, to maintain) and is related to the Latin forma. From its root meaning as “that which is established,” comes such translations as law, duty, justice, nature, and essential quality. It is sometimes even translated as Religion or even ism. Its oldest form, dharman, is found in the pre-Buddhist Rgveda.

A true, wise, and learned Buddhist practitioner or scholar would not call it Buddhism, he would call it the Buddha’s Dhamma, or just as Dhamma, or in English he or she would call it the Buddha’s teaching or simply the Buddhist teaching.

Sometimes, some people call it a philosophy, this is also not correct because philosophies are idealistic, and what the Buddha taught is realistic. Some people call it a psychology, this is also not a correct statement because the contemporary psychologies have no true conclusion in any aspect, but the Buddha had an absolute conclusion of His Dhamma. Every religion has a God, but Buddhism does not, so in this sense Buddhism is not a religion. Some people say it is the art of living; that’s pretty good, but the purpose of a life or being alive is not art. So what is Buddhism then?

According to the Buddha’s statement, the Dhamma is the universal law, the universal characteristic or the universal phenomenon, to hold or to maintain in oneness that which is established which is the truth, e.g. the four noble truths, karma, dependent origination, and so on. That is why He said, “so paticcasamuppada passati, so dhammam passati,” one who sees Dependent Origination sees the Dhamma.

Even though the Buddha was an enlightened being, the knower of everything, and he knew all lives from beginning to end, some matters were unexplained by the Buddha, which were known as Abyakata Dhamma. One of those matters is whether there is a creator of the world or of the universe (or a God).

Once, a close monk disciple of the Buddha, named Mallakaputta, challenged the Buddha, saying, “If the Buddha would not answer whether there is or there is not a creator of the world (A God), he will give up the monk life.” Then the Buddha said to him that, Firstly, the Buddha did not force or ask him to become a monk, leaving or staying was completely up to him. Secondly, the Buddha said to the monk, “This is not what I teach, and it is unnecessary for the teaching.” Thirdly, the Buddha said, “One human life is too short to conclude the task regarding the concept of the creator. Regarding God there is no absolute question and there is no absolute answer.” Then the Buddha said, “Instead of creating this illusion, just practice Dhamma, and use the opportunity for the proper use of the human life.”

Still it is a bit mysterious what the Buddha actually said about a creator or God. At this point the Buddha was an analyser rather than a one-sided commentator. It is mentioned in the Teachings as:

“If God be who for every being can determine
States of happiness or woe, and actions good or ill
Then is the God stained sin; man but works His will.”

“Issaro sabbalokssa sace kappeti jivitam
Iddhivysanabhan ca kammam kalyanapapakam
Nidessakari puriso issaro tena lippati.”

There are endless arguments on this subject. Every religion defines God in their own way, with no religion completely accepting there other's. That’s an illusion of 21st century. One thing I can tell for sure, God cannot be seen through a telescope, and cannot be seen with open eyes. If we really want to see this thing, we should see with closed eyes.

It is pretty interesting to mention that if you ever read the sutta called, Agganna sutta (the discourse of the Beginnings), and knew about the scientific explanation of the creation of the earth, and seen the famous movie, Avatar, where they show the beings that are mind-made, moving in the air, feeding themselves on delight, and self-luminous. There is a wonderful similarity between these.

What about life after death? The Buddha saw there were many rebirths of His life, and finally, when He attained enlightenment, he put it this way:

“So many rebirths I have taken in this world, seeking in vain the builder of this house (body); in my search over and over, took new birth, new suffering.
Oh house builder, now I have seen you, you cannot make a new house for me; all your beams are broken, the ridge pole is shattered; my mind is freed from all the conditionings of the past, and has no more craving for the future.”

What is rebirth? Rebirth is the idea that some essential part of a living being survives death to be reborn in a new body, in a new realm, in a new form. So, what are the essential parts? Simply, it is Kamma, good or bad Kamma consequences, and our forceful desires. That’s why morality and self-discipline are important for the Buddhist practice.

That’s why I said it is very hard to practice Dhamma in true form in this materialistic society of the machine age. There is materialistic Buddhism being practised now, and, although it is lacking in several respects, at least it's helping the Dhamma to survive.

We have something to share with this world and beings. Let us see what Ananda said in Sandaka Sutta:

“Charity nor sacrifice nor prayer, bring any results; neither do actions lead to good or bad results; neither this world nor the world beyond exists…..neither are there teachers in this world who on this basis of personally realized super-knowledge can say that a world and a world beyond exists. Man is made up of the four great matters and on death the earth part relapses into the earth, the fluid part to the water, energy to the fire, the windy part to the air, and the sense organs pass over to space…… such as those who affirm this doctrine of materialism indulge in vain, false and empty talk. At the break-up of the body, fools and the wise alike are annihilated and destroyed, but not are they after death.”

Now this is the time for us to see and say what is really going through ours minds, and to hold or to maintain in that which is established in the oneness.