Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhism and the Issue of Religious Fundamentalism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

The term ‘religious fundamentalism’ embraces all religious phenomena and movements which emerge as a reaction against some kind of perceived danger, as for instance, the marginalization of religion, due to the onset of science and technology. According to Fundamentalisms Comprehended: An Anthology of Articles, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 2004), some of the basic ingredients that go to make religious fundamentalism are as follows:
* Ultra-orthodoxy: The recognition of the absolute inerrancy of the religious scriptures.
* Ultra-orthopraxis: The attempt to practise religious life, based almost on a literal, rather than on a hermeneutical, interpretation of the rules and regulations laid down in the religious scriptures.
* Exclusivism.
* Militant Piety.
* Fanaticism.

Exclusivism the Root Cause of Fundamentalism

There can be many reasons for the emergence and prevalence of religious fundamentalism. Nevertheless, we can identify exclusivism as its root cause. Other kinds of fundamentalism, as for instance, those arising in relation to one’s own race, nationality, ethnicity, or political ideology also have exclusivism as their root cause.

How the Buddha defines Exclusivism

As a matter of fact, the most precise, and therefore, the most acceptable, definition of exclusivism can be found in the teachings of the Buddha. Exclusivism, as defined by the Buddha, is the attitude of mind that manifests in relation to one’s own view, as “This alone is true, all else is false” (idam eva saccam; mogham aññam). This kind of dogmatic and exclusivist assertion is due to what is called “sanditthi-raga“, i.e. “infatuation with the rightness of one’s own view/dogma/ideology”. Another Pali expression with a similar connotation is “idam-saccabhinivesa“. It means “adherence to one’s view, while asserting that this [alone] is the truth”. All such categorical assertions in respect of one’s religion or ideology lead to what Buddhism calls “ditthi-paramasa“, “tenaciously grasping views”.

The Danger of Attachment to Views whether they are Right or Wrong

An attitude of mind, driven by exclusivism, can easily provide fertile ground for bigotry and intolerance, indoctrination and unethical conversion, militant piety and persecution, interpersonal conflicts and acts of terrorism. From the Buddhist perspective dogmatic attachment to views and ideologies, whether they are true or false, is very much more detrimental and fraught with more danger than our inordinate attachment to material things. A good example for this is today’s fast-growing ‘industry’ of suicide-bombing. A person committing the act of suicide-bombing is prepared to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the ideological agenda he is pursuing. Inter-religious and intra-religious wars, often referred to by the misnomer ‘holy wars’, are another case in point.

Buddhist Social Pluralism (Y. Karunadasa)

Buddhist Social Pluralism, from Early Buddhist Teachings, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013.

Another area where we find many instances of pluralism is in the Buddhist attitude to society. As a religion Buddhism does not interfere with people’s ways of living by imposing on them unnecessary restrictions. We never hear of a Buddhist Dress, Buddhist Food, or Buddhist Medicine, laid down as valid for all times and climes. For, these are things that change from place to place and from time to time, depending on the progress of our knowledge.

This situation is true when it comes to marriage, too. There are many forms of marriage, monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, and so on. Today in the modern world the legally recognized practice is mostly monogamy. Nevertheless, nowhere does Buddhism say that other forms of marriage are immoral. The form of marriage, too, could change from time to time, from place to place. If it changes, then there is no problem for Buddhism. For Buddhism marriage is only a social institution. It is something entirely mundane, not a religious “sacrament”. Nor does Buddhism say that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Therefore if two married partners are incompatible, they can certainly divorce, provided, of course, they follow the laws of the country as enacted for such situations.

Buddhism has no prohibitions against birth control. If a married couple decides to practise contraception to prevent children being born, that is entirely their private business. They are not committing anything that is morally evil. Nor will the Buddhist Sangha, whether Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana ever promulgate an edict condemning and prohibiting such acts.

Abortion is of course a different matter. Since abortion involves taking a life, it goes against the First Precept. However, in our opinion abortion can be condoned in cases of serious [biopsychosocial] health hazards, if abortion is the lesser evil. In this connection it is instructive for us to remember two things: One is that according to Buddhism what really matters is the intention/volition (cetana). It is, in fact, intention/volition that the Buddha has identified as kamma. The other thing is that in following morality, Buddhists are not expected to do so by absolutely grasping moral precepts (aparamattham).

Why are the Five Aggregates of Grasping Dukkha? (Y. Karunadasa)

Why are the Five Aggregates of Grasping Dukkha? (from Early Buddhist Teachings, The Middle Position in Theory and Practice, by Y. Karunadasa, Hong Kong 2013)

Why are the five aggregates of grasping suffering? What we need to remember here is that it is not the five aggregates (pañca-khanda), but the five aggregates of grasping (pañca-upadanakkhandha) that are described as suffering. This distinction should show that although the five aggregates in themselves are not a source of suffering, they constitute suffering when they become objects of grasping (upadana). Strictly speaking, therefore, what Buddhism calls the individual in its samsaric dimension is not the five aggregates, but the five aggregates when they are grasped, appropriated, and clung to. That which is called individual existence can thus be reduced to a causally conditioned process of grasping. It is this process of grasping that Buddhism describes as suffering.

A yet another question that arises here is by whom are the five aggregates grasped? The answer to this question is that besides the process of grasping, there is no agent who performs the act of grasping. This answer may appear rather enigmatic; nevertheless it is understandable in the context of the Buddhist doctrine of not self and the Buddhist doctrine of dependent arising. What both doctrines seek to show is that the individual is a conditioning and conditioned process, without an agent either inside or outside of the process. The grasping-process manifests in three ways. This is mine (etam mama), this I am (eso’ham asmi), and this is my self (eso me atta). The first is due to craving (tanha), the second to conceit (mana), and the third is due to the mistaken belief in a self-entity (ditthi). It is through this process of the three-fold self-appropriation that the idea of “mine”, “I am” and “my self” arises. If there is a phenomenon called individuality in its samsaric dimension, it is entirely due to the superimposition of these three ideas on the five aggregates.

A this juncture, another question arises: why and how does the process of grasping lead to suffering? In answering this question, it is important to note here that the five aggregates that become the object of self-appropriation and grasping are in a state of constant change, in a state of continuous flux with no persisting substance. Their nature is such that they do not remain in the way we want them to remain. As such, the aggregates are not under our full control. Thus by identifying ourselves with what is impermanent (anicca), with what does not come under our full control (anatta), we come to suffering [dukkha]. This should explain why Buddhism traces the fact of suffering to the fact of impermanence (yad aniccam tam dukkham). When the process of self-appropriation and self-identification is terminated [by following the Noble Eightfold Path], suffering too comes to an end. As long as this process persists, there is suffering. The moment it stops, the samsaric process also ceases to be, and together with it all suffering comes to an end.