Protestant Vs. Socially Engaged Buddhism Essay

This essay has a total of 1982 words and 8 pages.

Protestant Vs. Socially Engaged Buddhism

Ben Ramsey
Buddhist Thought
Professor Kerin
February 27, 2001

Protestant vs. Socially Engaged Buddhism

Somewhere in the sixth century BCE Buddhism was born, born from a single man Siddhartha
Guatama, the Buddha. After gaining his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha
didn't think that the rest of the world could handle all that he had learned. He did not
want to teach others, nor did he want to spread his wisdom. Until at last his great
compassion came over him and he started to gain the respect of few by going to his old
peers first. By starting with other intellectuals he secured that they at least had the
capacity to learn what he had to teach. From this point on he spread his philosophy on the
middle path with everyone who would listen.

He preached pacifism and that it was wrong to take any life be it a man's or any lesser
being's. He taught that the noble eightfold path was the route to end all suffering, and
that the individual was the most important factor in achieving enlightenment. The Buddha
taught about the five aggregates, the notion that the human being is made up of matter,
sensation, consciousness, perception, and mental formations. In all of his teachings
however the Buddha did not do so much as a lay a groundwork for which his followers could
build a society on.

The Buddha was acting out of compassion in that he had found the way to end his suffering
and wanted to help others do the same. He was not however trying to build himself up as a
God, and create a religion under which he was the focal point. Since this was not his
goal, he did not get into politics, social formations, or anything else of the like.
However, sooner or later, with the rapid growth of Buddhism in India, and the whole of
Southeast Asia, these were the things that would determine the survival of its followers.
That is, an entire society of Buddhists had emerged, far greater numbers and organization
than even the Buddha had imagined. With this emergence of community came more and more
problems with which the leaders had no frame of reference to combat. For instance, what to
do when pacifism doesn't work in protecting your community. How to maintain peacefulness
when outside forces are conquering violently.

In many areas, where this sense of a Buddhist community had been created, the members had
a great deal of pride in what they had created and were a part of, but their pride was
kept in check by their inability to justify the right course of action. For example the
Buddhists of Sri Lanka believed that they were the custodians of the teachings of the
Buddha. It was there, on their Island, where the Theravadan tradition, the only sect of
the Hinayana still around, had been born. Buddhism had prospered in Sri Lanka for over
sixteen hundred years, until the first colonizers came from Portugal in the 1550's CE. Sri
Lanka was then ruled, by one or another European colonizers, until the year of 1948. The
reason for their inability to rule themselves was not because of lack of numbers, for 75%
of all people in Sri Lanka ascribe to Buddhism, but because of the non-violent nature of
their resistance. In the contradiction between pride and pacifism they had simply seen
pride as a vice and continued to try and live their lives in accordance to non-violent
virtues. For nearly four hundred years the Buddhist of Sri Lanka had tolerated the
overbearing nature of their western habitants, that is until Anagarika Dharmapala began
his career as a Buddhist revivalist.

It was Dharmapala who was able to justify a more active resistance; he started by
tailoring the innate Sinhala nationalism to correspond to his goals. He cultivated the
natives of Sri Lanka to believe in the "good old days", the days when Buddhism had
prospered under King Aschoke and others. When there was a great link between the rulers of
their nation and them, the people, a time when temples, stupa, and great pillars were
being erected in the name of the Buddha. And once he had the ear of the people, he used
every ounce of knowledge within his plethora of teachings to stimulate change. He
integrated the beliefs of Buddhism, with the active nature of Christianity. This
"Protestant Buddhism" was at the heart of the resistance, without the reforms it allowed
for, the Buddhists of Sri Lanka might still be struggling under British rule to this day.

The original goal of Protestant Buddhism was for the independence of the Sinhala, and for
the building of a stronger Buddhism worldwide. By adapting Christian sensibility the
revivalists were able to confidently combat the other main religions. No longer where they
at a disadvantage in the educational system, because they created Buddhist "Sunday
school". No longer were they disadvantaged by lack of uniformity drawn out of oral
tradition, for they emphasized scripture much like the Christians put their faith in the
Bible. The Protestant Buddhists also took responsibility for "this worldly" things, such
as politics, economics, and other social factors. Therefor, the beliefs of Buddhism were
not changed, just adapted to fit the times. Each individual's personal journey was still
at the heart of the Theravadan tradition, only the application of its teachings had

Another example of the modernization of Buddhism, is the idea of "Socially Engaged
Buddhism". This seemingly new aged phenomenon has been born out of the ignorance of many
to the potential extending effects of Buddhism. From the start, meditation, and
self-knowledge has been at the heart of Buddhism. However, this does not mean that
Buddhism, as it has evolved today is simply an individual thing. Just as lay people,
monks, and nuns make up the sangha, or Buddhist community, creating a give and take
relationship among themselves. So should the Buddhist people interact with the outside
world in much the same way. Their community fits into a worldly community just as they
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