Published by Buddhist Missionary Society, 1996
Buddhist Maha Vihara
123, Jalan Berhala
50470 Kuala Lumpur

Dr. K Sri Dhammananda Nayake Maha Thera


Superiority of Human Life

The duty of a religion is to guide humanity to uphold certain noble principles in order to lead a peaceful life and to maintain human dignity. Otherwise it would be impossible for us to claim superiority as humans, for we would be relegated to the level of other living beings whose only purpose is to obtain food, shelter and sex. If human beings too spend their lives only to satisfy these basic primal needs, then there would be nothing much to show for ourselves as humans.

Humans have transcended mere survival and are capable of seeking self-actualisation. In Buddhism we call this Dharma. Other living beings cannot realise this Dharma because human intelligence is superior to that of all the other living beings in the universe. Only the human mind can appreciate the Dharma. lt is significant to note that humans are the only living beings in this universe who can conceive a system as complex  as  religion.  Even devas and brahmas have no particular religion.

Although we worship devas or brahmas and do some offerings in their name, we must realise that our human intelligence is superior to theirs.  That is why a deva or a brahma cannot become a Buddha. Only a human being can attain supreme enlightenment because only he has the capability to develop his intelligence to the highest level. Given this intelligence man tries to understand the nature of his existence and to formulate an orderly code of conduct which will make him noble and worthy of respect.

Thinkers among men past and present have pondered deeply on three existential questions: “Who am I “ “What am I doing here?” “Am I needed?”. The answers to these questions provide the basis for him to lead a meaningful existence.  We call these the principles of life.

What are the basic human principles? To answer this question, we must first ask ourselves what is the meaning of the term ‘human’. The Pali and Sanskrit languages use the word “manussa” or “manusya” when referring to humans. It is a very meaningful word. Incidentally, the English word “Man” is derived from the Sanskrit word “manu” meaning “to think”.

Humans are the only living beings who can cultivate and develop the mind to its maximum level. Such a living being is called manussa (human). The word “man” is also derived from the word mana meaning mind. Thus one who has a mind to think is called man. With his superior intelligence, man has only to direct and channel his desires and he can make his life to be what he chooses. (Of course when we refer to “man”, here we are thinking of all humans, men and women. There is no need to think that women are in any way inferior to men either intellectually or spiritually or morally).

The Chinese definition of human is “one with a heart disposed to kindness”. In the human heart, there must be sympathy and honesty. If these two qualities are absent, then one is not regarded as a real human being. Western philosophers define “humans” as those who can use their sense of reasoning. Humans are the only beings who are rational in their behaviour. Other living beings use only their instinct to ensure their survival, pleasure and protection. When the mind is cultivated by abstaining from evil thoughts and developing the great virtues, one can gain this tranquillity which leads to the purity of the mind.

The Nature of The Human Mind

The human mind can penetrate and analyse elements or world systems in the entire universe. Mind consists of fleeting mental states which constantly arise and subside with lightning rapidity. It is a powerful form of energy. There is in fact no energy that we can compare with the human mind. The mind is the forerunner of all things; mind is supreme and all things have their origin in the mind. The Buddha has said, “I know of no dynamic energy, other than the human mind, which can run so rapidly”. For instance, those who have studied science will readily understand the nature of the atom. An atom changes a few million times within a single second.

In Buddhist psychology, we are told that when the human mind changes 17 times, the physical body changes but once. Atoms and the elements also operate on the same principle. Those who studied biology can understand that the cells and everything in our body undergoes change over time. Our mental energy appears and disappears a thousand times faster than lightning. Such is the nature of the mind. Besides this, the mind is responsible for everything that happens in the world. The Buddha says,  “Mind is responsible for everything, good or bad, that exists in this whole universe”. There is a saying “As you think, so you become. All that we are is the result of what we have thought”.

It is due to our deluded imagination, that we blame God, ghosts and devils for our problems.  Some people even believe that our suffering today is the result of some 'original’ sin which was committed by an archetypal ancestor. Then, what about animals? They too suffer from sickness, grow old and die. Do they also suffer as a result of their original sin?  Plants also suffer from sickness, ageing and death. Are they also faced with these problems due to their
original sin?

No one can control the mind of another but if one develops one’s own mind, then one can wield enormous influence over others, for good as well as evil purposes. The development of scientific knowledge could be misused or abused by certain people for selfish purposes. On the other hand, the mind can be controlled and used to appreciate and understand the Dharma or the workings of the Cosmos.

By developing the mind, men and women for example have discovered the force within an atom and they have used this knowledge to do a lot of constructive work for the benefit of mankind. But conversely, in the process they also invented nuclear weapons which could destroy the entire world! If mind is not controlled or trained properly, the dangers that may follow will indeed be unimaginable. One example that springs to mind is Hitler who used his great intelligence for evil purposes.

Almost all other living beings are slowly becoming extinct because of the selfish desire of human beings arising from minds which are not trained properly. They pollute water and air and destroy the environment saying that they are developing it, while in fact they are bent on destruction.  We must admit that other living beings do not destroy anything to the extent that human beings do.

Three Natures in Human Life

As human beings, we have three characteristics or natures, namely animal nature, human nature and divine nature. We do not have to wait for rebirth in a heaven or hell to experience this. Animals have limited power of reasoning but by using our intelligence, we humans can subdue or control our animal nature and by doing so, we cultivate our human nature and even discover the divine nature in us.

Animals have no means to control their animalistic nature because they are motivated almost solely by instinct. But as human beings, using our minds to analyse and reason, we have realised that certain things are moral or immoral, that certain things are wicked and dangerous, and that certain things are good and useful not only for ourselves but also for others as well. That is why humans are placed on a higher level than other creatures. By subduing our animal nature, and by developing love and compassion, we develop patience, tolerance, understanding, unity, harmony and goodwill.

These are humane qualities. The primary purpose of religion is to foster and nurture these qualities.  However, we must realise that some of these qualities are inherent in us. We had in fact developed some of these sterling qualities even before religions came into existence.  The human mind is so advanced that it could very easily be developed to experience heavenly bliss. Other living beings cannot do this. The human mind is a very complex mechanism.

It can create the worst kinds of hell.  Unlike other creatures which kill for defence or food, the mind can make humans kill for greed, jealousy and even for “fun”. And yet he can never be satisfied. As soon as he has satisfied one lust, he immediately craves for something else. As a result, he is constantly unhappy.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The world has enough for every one’s needs, but never even enough for even one man’s greed”. Human beings are fighting among themselves because of that extraordinary craving for more power, more authority as well as more pleasure.

Four Kinds of Religion

There are four kinds of religion in this world namely, Natural, Organised, Revealed and Institutionalised religions.

(1) Natural religion.

In prehistoric times, primitive man lived in fear because he was surrounded by the mysteries of unexplained natural phenomena. Primitive man naturally feared what he could not understand. Fear comes to those who are not able to comprehend the laws of nature. Fears are nothing more than states of the mind.

When early man could not understand the nature and reality of natural phenomena and other natural occurrences, he developed a belief that there is indeed some sort of divine or supernatural power behind these inexplicable occurrences such as the seasons, eclipses, lightning, thunder, rain, the rainbow, volcanic eruptions, flood, drought and various other mysterious occurrences.

He thought they were the work of powerful supernatural forces which he had to placate so that they would help him to lead a peaceful life. Accordingly he began to worship them and enlist their aid to ensure his survival and his power over others. Over time these practices and beliefs were organised into formal ritual and prayer, giving rise to what we call “natural religion”.

(2) Organised religion.

Before religions came into existence, human beings had humanistic concepts but there was no “religion” as such. Through the development of their inherent humane qualities and virtues, they organised certain practices and according to their way of thinking developed a code of behaviour to govern the society in which they lived. The primal, instinctual forces of shame and fear (hiri and ottappa) were the guiding factors which shaped their conduct regarding themselves and others. The resultant moral codes and beliefs eventually developed into religion.

(3) Revealed Religion.

It originates from a message given by a Supreme Deity through a messenger or prophet in the form of commandments or religious laws. The followers strongly believe that the divine message as revealed to them is the basis of their conduct in spiritual and social matters.

(4) Institutionalised religion.

In other societies, humans introduced a religious way of life by developing psychology, philosophy, morals and ethics in an orderly manner. In order to maintain order and good conduct, they introduced regulations to cultivate humane qualities, to live peacefully and solve the numerous problems, calamities and disturbances that confront them in this world. These were later formalised, given a spiritual basis and became institutionalised.

A well-known Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Buddhadasa classifies religion in the following manner:

Religion of Miraculous Power and Magic based on fear on the part of its followers.

Religion of Faith - merely based on Faith and Prayer.

Religion of Karma - based on the self-help principle.

Religion of Wisdom - based on free thinking (reasoning).

Religion of Peace - based on non-harming oneself as well as others.

Religion of Loving Kindness or ‘Love’ based on giving up all and everything (for others) etc.