Published by Buddhist Missionary Society, 1997
Buddhist Maha Vihara
123, Jalan Berhala, 50470 Kuala Lumpur
Printed by Laser Press Sdn Bhd
Author Dr. K Sri Dhammananda Nayake Maha Thera

Foundation of Religions

Before we discuss the subject “Why Buddhism”, we must find out how man’s idea of religion got started in the first place.

Thousands of years ago when primitive man’s mind started thinking about various kinds of natural phenomena in this world, he found many wonderful experiences. When certain natural forces or phenomena were not in his favour he had to suffer.  He witnessed disasters and terrible incidents which created fear, suspicion, insecurity, tension and suffering.  Then he started thinking how to find a solution and rid his life of these unfavourable conditions.

But he knew that these things were beyond his comprehension. He therefore imagined there must be some sort of invisible powers, supernatural forces or persons behind all these things. He started to pray and worship these imagined powers. He began to make animal sacrifices in order to appease the wrathful forces. He gave thanks when certain phenomena appeared in his favour, assuming they were acts of gods.

The aim, then, of these practices was to gain protection and be blessed with a life of prosperity and little difficulty. This is how religious belief and practice got started and why primitive man started to pray.  As this early concept of religion began to develop, other certain important practices were also incorporated, such as religious rites and rituals, ceremonies and festivals. These evolved naturally according to the particular customs, traditions and ways of life prevalent in the respective regions and countries.

The foundation of religion was thus laid down by man as a means to assure his self-preservation in response to his fundamental fear, insecurity and misunderstanding of the natural phenomena of life. It is human fear then which served as the building blocks of religion. These served not only as the foundation of all religions, but as the basic materials like bricks, stone, sand and cement
needed for erecting the building.

It was with the introduction of faith, however, which allowed for the building called religion to be completed. Faith together with the introduction of offerings, prayers, vows, penalties, morals and ethics - all in the name of god. There was also the promise of a place of eternal peace called paradise in order to control mankind.

The Foundation of Buddhism

Later, when we study how another religion called Buddhism came into existence, we find that the Buddha did not adopt any of those age-old beliefs. He did not introduce the concept of god, soul theory, eternal hell or eternal heaven to build up Buddhism. He made no use of fear or distorted views regarding natural phenomena to support his religion. Neither did he ask for blind faith or demand unnecessary rites and rituals. He did not believe in self-torture, or the imposition of penalties or commandments in the building up of Buddhism.

What is more, He sought no sort of divine revelation. He used new materials such as Right Understanding of life, the world, the occurrence of natural phenomena or cosmic order, the real characteristics of mind and matter, elements and energies, the acquisition of moral and spiritual development, discipline, mental training and purification, knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment, as ingredients to erect this religious building. It is true that He borrowed certain religious materials used by other religionists of that time such as Dharma - righteous way of life, Karma - action and reaction, Punabbawa - rebirth, and certain moral principles, but not in the same manner or in the same sense. He in fact refined them and introduced them in a more rational, scientific and psychological way.

An Independent Religion

Buddhism is not an ecclectic concoction of various religions. It has its own unique
characteristics and identity. Realising that no other religious teacher had found the absolute truth and final salvation of man, The Buddha pointed out that others had only developed certain worldly powers and could only attain certain limited stages of spiritual development and not the complete purification of the mind, or enlightenment. These teachers were thus  not free  from  superstitious belief, impurity, illusion, imagination, hallucination and ignorance. But what does religion really mean?

The real meaning of religion can only be grasped when we study the way which
the Buddha introduced his “religious way of noble life.” If we use the word “religion” to describe the Buddha’s teachings, then we must understand the different definitions given to this word by other religionists. Then we can understand why Buddhism is needed.

No Dogmas

The Buddha managed to remove certain misconceptions that were held by people for thousands of years. For example, in those early days everyone believed that the sun rotated daily round the earth. People held this belief because they lacked proper knowledge of our solar system. But when Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer discovered and proved that the sun was in fact located at the centre of our solar system, only then did people grasp the truth of his theory and slowly give up their former belief.

There was another misconception people held about the earth. For thousands of years people believed that the earth was flat. Then came Galileo the celebrated Italian astronomer and physicist who discovered and proved that the earth was not flat at all, but round. But there was also great objection to his theory from the Church. Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition and forced to recant under threat of torture and sentenced to prison. Only later did people come to accept this truth.

Even up to the l9th Century, philosophers generally believed that the atom was the essential entity of matter which was impossible to split. But their theory was abandoned when nuclear scientists finally managed to split the atom. Similarly, in ancient India, the belief held by philosophers for thousands of years that the soul was a permanently enduring entity created by God, also had to be given up when the Buddha proved this to be an imaginary concept. This belief, however, still persists in human minds like the apparently visual reality of a rainbow which in fact has no substantiality.

The Buddha explained that the notion of soul is only a misconception in man’s consciousness. If indeed there is a soul, would there be any reason for the Buddha to withhold such knowledge from His followers? Certainly not.

Particularly because this concept of soul holds great importance to every other religionists. The theory of evolution as put forth by Charles Darwin disproved the then popular creation theory that life was created by God. Geology, biology and physiology also explained very clearly that it had taken millions of years for the appearance of the first form of life on this earth. There is no contradiction between these modern findings and a careful study of Buddhism. The discoveries  of  a  gradual  development  of mineral deposits, plant life and other living beings are fully consistent with the ancient teaching of the Buddha.

To the question of how life came into existence, the Buddha gave a simple and reasonable answer. He said, life is only a combination of mind and matter. He defined the mind as being composed of feeling, perception, mental formations,  and consciousness. He analysed matter into four elements; solidity, fluidity, heat and motion. When we study the logical explanation of the Buddha as concerns the question of the Cosmos, we find that He mentions the existence of certain living beings, both fortunate and unfortunate, not only in this world but on certain other planets as well.

Modern scientists and astronomers have been open minded and concede the possibility of living beings existing on other planets. Many ancient and traditional religious beliefs are exactly like the old pre-scientific beliefs about the world system and the origin of life. Yet the Buddha’s teachings though belonging to the ancient period - are akin  to the  modern  discoveries.  The Buddha’s chief aim was to liberate humanity from the bonds of religious slavery. His social impact was also great. He sought to upgrade the status of women by giving them freedom to enter the holy order. ln another sweeping change the Buddha abolished the existing bars  on  so-called  low caste people  by ordaining them as full-fledged monks.

The prevalent belief that the performance of religious rites and rituals was a mandatory practices for man to achieve salvation was dispelled by the Buddha. According to Him, the development of morality and the purification of the mind are the most important points in gaining one’s final salvation. He pointed out that for a man to be religious he must lead a harmless, blameless, respectable, noble and pure life. The mere act of praying or making offerings does not by itself make a man religious nor gain him perfection and salvation.

He also advised people to keep away from evil practices. Evil is to be avoided for the welfare of all living beings, not for fear of god or his punishment. Further, He advised us to cultivate good humane qualities, to practise good deeds and help others without any selfish motive.

The Buddha was apparently the only religious teacher who gave highest credit to human intelligence. He advised us not to become slaves to external agencies but to develop our hidden mental power with self-confidence. He also pointed out that man is responsible for everything in this world. Pain and pleasure are both created by man himself, and man has the ability to get rid of his sufferings.

Man can learn to maintain peace and happiness by applying wisdom diligently without depending on external powers. It is man’s untrained mind that is responsible for all the troubles, calamities, disturbances, unfavourable circumstances and frictions. At the same time, man’s mind can transform the unfortunate situation of the world and render it a peaceful, prosperous and happy place for all to live - if only he  uses  his  mind  properly. Man-made problems must be solved by man himself. This can only be done by purifying his mental energy.