We have received the following letter from the Buddha Study Association : —
I hope that you will in fairness, publish this letter of protest against the article “Buddha Puts the Clock Back,” by Mr. Offord, and published in your September, 1955, issue, in which the writer attempts to show that Buddhists are little more than social parasites.
Mr. Offord commences by offering some “facts” regarding the Buddha and Buddhism, many of which are erroneous; he then picks on the most theoretical aspect of the principle of rebirth, which he confuses with reincarnation—namely, from the human state to that of an animal or insect. From this he goes on to convince himself that Buddhists are so obsessed with the notion of being “reincarnated in another creature” that they lack all social ambition or initiative during their present lifetime in this world as normal human beings.
One has only to visit Buddhist countries to discover that this state of affairs simply does not exist among practising Buddhists.
Mr. Offord strikes a false note in his opening paragraph, when he describes the little statue that “sits cross-legged displaying a broad belly with a prominent navel” being the “statue of Buddha.” These so-called “Smiling Buddhas” do not represent the historical Buddha Gotama, from whose austere philosophy was evolved the popular religion Buddhism. It is obvious that Mr. Offord is ignorant of the finer aspects of both the original philosophy and of the religion for him to refer to the personage “Buddha” without the definite article; a few examples of this ignorance are his references to “an idol of worship” (the Buddha is not worshipped!); the Buddha “was so surfeited with the idle luxury of palace life that at the age of 30 he set forth alone . . .” (even this story which is only a legend, is misquoted: the Buddha-to-be, or bodhisattva, left at 29); that “all men are part of the universe” (a Hinduistic conception introduced long after the Buddha, into Mahayana Buddhism of the Northern School); “in some countries, such as Thailand, it is customary for all men to become Buddhist monks at some time in their lives, though with an eye to realism this is confined to three months” (why omit Burma, Laos, Cambodia?; this period is not confined to three months; it may be anything from two or three days to two or three years, depending upon the individual’s inclinations; neither does this time period hinge upon the question of “abstinence from sex,” as Mr. Offord states).
We then come to the question of Rebirth upon which Mr. Offord builds a chain of argument which becomes fantastic. In Buddhist philosophy, rebirth means the continuity of a process of impersonal evolvement in terms of simple cause and effect divorced from permanent elements of time and space. This is to say that this process persists irrespective of death. Mr. Offord would like us to think that a man or woman who is reborn in Britain, because he or she believes in this principle of rebirth, cannot fulfill the social obligations of a British citizen. I leave it to the reader to make up his or her own mind on this question!
What has made Mr. Offord biased against Buddhism? and against rebirth in particular? Let me quote the Buddha Himself (Parmatthaka Sutta,.5n iv., 5- verse 3): “Experts are agreed that that man who labels things ‘bad’ is thereby making it impossible for himself to see them as they really are.”
G. F. Allen,
Answer to Letter Received.
There are two main sects of the Buddhist faith. The first is Hinayama (Little Vehicle) whose adherents consider Buddha to be not a deity, but as a most eminent man who merely points the way to Nirvana, and incidentally consider him as the only Buddha. Westerners who become Buddhists usually belong to this group. The Mahayana, or majority, deify Buddha and the various Buddhisatvas (Buddhist Saints). In China, page 280, Fitzgerald states that the Chinese Buddhists worship Buddha. In Buddhism—”Studies in Comparative Religion” Poussin also states (page 26) that Buddha is worshipped. In actual practice many Buddhists of the Hinayana sect also worship Buddha. A. H. Brodrick, an experienced traveller in S.E. Asia, in “Little Vehicle” (page 257) says “The Little Vehicle, as it exists today in Cambodia, Siam, Burma and Ceylon, is, for the people a worship of the Buddha, and for the more educated monks, a theology with a fragile philosophic basis.” Of course the development of Capitalism and the extension of modern education in these countries is steadily making inroads into the belief there in the supernatural in the West.
As to whether Buddha was 29 or 30 when he set forth… we regard this as a quibble.
Why were Burma, Laos and Cambodia omitted? We presumed that the phrase “some countries such as Thailand” could cover the neighbouring Buddhist countries which our Correspondent seems so anxious to list separately.
The period of three months was mentioned but it was considered unnecessary in that short article to add that of course the exact period varied with different individuals. The article did not say that this period hinged upon the question of abstinence from sex. the actual words used were “to abstain from sex and the other pleasures of life.”
We have experienced a little difficulty in understanding our Correspondent’s explanation of “Rebirth,” but we certainly do not wish anyone to infer that we consider that a Buddhist cannot fulfil the social obligations expected of them by the ruling class. In fact the article says the contrary. “Even the pacific side of Buddhism, which one might think could be a drawback in an acquisitive society where wealth, markets and trade routes have to be defended by the workers for their masters with force of arms can be overcome. Japanese Capitalism has obviously found the answer to this.” Our Correspondent indignantly leaves it to the reader to believe that a British Buddhist “will fulfil the social obligations of a British citizen.” We have no doubts about it.
The letter quotes from Buddha himself implying that our article labelled Buddhism as “bad.” We deny this for the reason that the article did not just label Buddhism as”bad” but tried to explain its effect on the mind and thus on men’s actions including its beneficial effect on art. Our case was that Buddhism, like other religions, is an opiate for the workers and it is because of this that we appear to Mr. Allen to be biased.