Gandhi & Buddhist Reformation

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It is important to have a basic understanding of what The Buddhist Reformation in India refers to. Some might think it is in reference to a contemporary reemergence of Buddhism in modern India, but it does not. The reformation actually refers to the creative re-description of certain aspects of the Santana Dharma (Hindu faiths) that Siddhartha Guatama taught alongside the paradigm shift in emphasis as related by Gandhi in the writing below.

This is not the time to get into an involved history of Indian religions (though that may come in later posts) but the reader should know that never did Buddhism supplant the beliefs of Theistic Hinduism though it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t have a profound effect on it.

In this speech given by Mahatma Gandhi, and found in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume One, he offers lessons on pluralism, tolerance and the Three Buddhist Characteristics of Existence (impermanence, suffering and not-self). I considered commenting on them in this initial posting but recognizing them ourselves is a step on the path toward realization. Your comments and questions will be responded to should you choose to make them.

I bow with respect,

Ven. Wayne (Ren Cheng)

The Buddhist Reformation

The only reason for inviting me to preside at this meeting, I presume, that I am more than most people endeavoring to popularize the truth for which Gautama Buddha lived and died. For, my book-knowledge of Buddhism, I am sorry to have to confess, is of the poorest type. It is confined to the fascinating book of Sir Edwin Arnold, which I read for the first time now nearly thirty-five years ago, and one or two books during my brief incarceration in the Yeravda Jail. But that great Buddhist scholar, professor Kausambi, tells me that The Light of Asia gives but a faint idea of Buddha’s life, and that at least one incident in the beautiful poem is not to be found in any authoritative original Buddhist work. Perhaps some day the learned Professor will give us the results of his ripe scholarship in the shape of a reliable story of Buddha’s life for the ordinary Indian reader.

For the moment, however, I would like to tell the meeting what I believe about Buddhism. To me it is a part of Hinduism. Buddha did not give the world a new religion; he gave it a new interpretation. He taught Hinduism not to take but to give life. True sacrifice was not of others but of self. Hinduism resents any attack upon the Vedas. It regarded the new interpretation as such attack. Whilst, therefore, it accepted the central truth of Buddha’s teachings, it fought against Buddhism regarded as a new and anti-Vedic cult.

It has become the fashion nowadays in some quarters to say that India’s downfall dates from her acceptance of Buddha’s teachings. It is tantamount to saying that love and piety, if sufficiently practiced, will degrade the world. In other words, according to the critics, evil should triumph in the end. It is my unalterable belief that India has fallen not because it accepted Gautama’s teaching, but because it failed to live up to it. The priest has ever sacrificed the prophet. Vedas to be divine must be living word, ever growing, ever expanding and ever responding to new forces. The priest clung to the letter and missed the spirit.

But we need not despair. The reformation that Buddha attempted has not yet had a fair trial. Twenty-five hundred years are nothing in the life of the world. If the evolution of form takes aeons, why should we expect wonders in the evolution of thought and conduct? And yet the age of miracles is not gone. As with individuals, so with nations. I hold it to be perfectly possible for masses to be suddenly converted and uplifted. Suddenness is only seeming. No one can say how far the leaven has been working. The most potent forces are unseen, even unfelt, for long. But they are working none the less surely. Religion to me is a living faith in the Supreme Unseen Force. That Force has confounded mankind before, and it is bound to confound us again. Buddha taught us to defy appearances and trust in the final triumph of Truth and Love. This was his matchless gift to Hinduism and to the world.

He taught us also how to do it, because he lived what he taught. The best propaganda is not pamphleteering, but for each one of us to try to live the life we would have the world to live.

Mahatma Gandhi, Speech at Buddha Jayanti, Bombay, India, May 18, 1924

In 1924 Mahatma Gandhi was writing for that moment in history but his words speak just as clearly to this moment in history.  Then the Buddhist Reformation in India was ancient history and was still having its karmic effect in that present.  Today there is a much broader experience of the Buddhist Reformation as the teachings of Siddhartha are acting on a global scale.  Gandhi recognized the positive and affirming effects Buddhist philosophy had on Hinduism without Gandhi needing to soften his own Hindi beliefs.  In that he exhibited pluralism and tolerance by showing a firm commitment to his belief while accepting the value of a commitment to the teachings of the Awakened One.

Gandhi was not relying on an intellectual understanding of Buddhist philosophy and made it clear that his knowledge in that was limited.  Instead he relied on his own experience with Buddhist philosophy as it related to the Sanatana Dharma (Hindi faiths).  He offered  that Siddhartha’s creative re-description combined with his realization of the real state of human existence and what it would take to improve it had a profound positive effect on all Hindi faiths.  It can be said that in this historical moment that Buddhism may be having a similar effect on other world faiths.

He stated, “It is my unalterable belief that India has fallen not because it accepted Guatama’s teaching, but because it failed to live up to it.  The priest has ever sacrificed the prophet.”  This sentiment is true not only in the realms of religion but in many of life’s pursuits.  We can clearly see the benefits possible with a new paradigm but allow the dogma of permanence to prevail.

Gandhi viewed Hinduism and Buddhism through a holistic lens.  Each was unique and each supported the other through the actions of their followers.  The “matchless gift” given to Hinduism didn’t stop there but through interconnection and the causal process it permeated the world.

In the final paragraph Gandhi offered what to me is a crucial point I make to students.  The Buddha taught us HOW we need to be in order to achieve the end of suffering and it is HOW we live our lives that has the best change to engender lasting encompassing and corrective change.

Gandhi has his place as a Bodhisattva.

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