Monday, May 7th 2001
Life section

Eastern wisdom, Western Front

Buddhism may be all but dead in India, but it is certainly very much embraced in the West, with hundreds of centres, monasteries and retreats all over.

""The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should... avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things as a meaningful unity... If there is any religion that could
cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.''
- Einstein

IT IS ironic that Buddhism has been all but dead for the last 1,000 years in India, the country of its origin.

The irony didn't escape me when I visited Bodhgaya in Bihar last month on an assignment, and found that my host was a Dutch Tibetan Buddhist monk, Venerable Marcel Bertels.

Here, in the most sacred of Buddhist spots, I was being shown around by Marcel, and not an Indian monk. It was under a pipal tree near where the present Mahabodhi Temple is, more than 2,500 years ago, that Siddhartha Gautama meditated and achieved enlightenment.

Marcel has been a Tibetan Buddhist monk since 1972, a disciple of Lama Zopa Rinpoche of the Gelug sect in Kopan Monastery, outside of Kathmandu in Nepal.

A big man and a calming presence in his saffron robes, Marcel professes to speak no Tibetan. He has spoken English for so long that recently, when he was interviewed by a Dutch TV station, he found he had to look for the appropriate Dutch words to use in his replies.

We spent several days together, and I especially cherish the memory of the two evenings when, under a full moon, we lit candles at the Mahabodhi temple and circumbulated the stupa.

One afternoon over a spare lunch of dal, mashed spinach, yogurt and rice, he volunteered that he didn't initially take the robes for ""elevated reasons''.

""My girlfriend had gone to Kopan, and I followed her,'' he said. ""She became a nun, and I became a monk.''

The twist to his story is that his girlfriend in the end married his best friend, also a monk in the monastery, after both of them had given up the order.

Marcel has, over the years, put his training in economics to good use as well - he has a degree in the subject from the Free University in Amsterdam - by overseeing many Buddhist projects for the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a worldwide body founded by his teacher and another Tibetan lama, Thubten Yeshe, who died in 1984.

There are hundreds of westerners like Marcel, who have chosen to be Buddhist monks and nuns.

If Buddhism is dead in India, it is certainly very much alive in the West, with hundreds of centres, monasteries and retreats all over America, Europe and Australia.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet-in-exile, has come to embody the religion, and he fills stadiums the way only rock stars can.

When I spoke on the phone on Thursday to Ven Shi Ming Yi, the Secretary-General of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, he told me that even a staunchly Catholic country such as Italy has recognised Buddhism.

Donations to Buddhist bodies can enjoy an 8-per cent tax exemption, and Buddhists can visit intensive care units in hospitals and prisons. Buddhism has also been introduced to public schools.

In France, Buddhism has become the third most popular religion, after Christianity and Islam.

Here in Singapore, the last decade saw a jump in the ethnic Chinese Buddhist population, from 40 per cent to 54 per cent, according to figures released by the Department of Statistics in November last year.

Christianity, however, has overtaken Taoism as the second most popular religion after Buddhism.

WHY has this ancient Eastern way of life seized the imagination of westerners and those who grew up with a western education in places like Singapore?

Ven Shi said that the answer thrown up at a Melbourne conference which he had just returned from was that today's people are asking the whys - Why is there so much change around me? Why is my life going this way? - and many find in Buddhism the answers they need.

The Buddha had taught that change was a constant, that nothing was permanent, and to cling to anything. Even the idea of the self as though it were something permanent, was to suffer endlessly.

The way to a human being's peace, fulfilment and release lay in the calm control of his own mind and senses. He would then know how to live and how to die.

Siddhartha Gautama arrived at the Truth not through divine intervention, but through his own unflagging efforts as a human being.

He did not discover a new Truth, he taught. He had merely recovered the wisdom that others before him had found, but which had been lost over time.

What he had attained, others could too, with no help from some supernatural being.

But do not take my words for it, he said. Find out for yourself if my teachings work for your day-to-day life.

If they do, apply them. Yet, do not carry them on your back, just as you do not carry the boat with you on land after you have used it to cross a river.

The Buddha found enlightenment when he was 30, and he spent the next 50 years wandering through India, teaching ceaselessly. His dying words were that there should be no fixed adherence to any rules except the simple basic premises.

The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, has described the Buddha's decision to go into the world with his teachings, although he had found his own release, as a high point in human development. It contradicted not only the Buddha's personal inclination, but also his basic doctrines, the goal of which was to find personal release.

To turn back from the ""open door'' after finding his own release, in order to help others find theirs, became the guiding principle for the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. The other older tradition, Theraveda, seeks the liberation of the individual and puts a greater emphasis on monastic life.

Toynbee also says that for historians of the future, one of the most significant events of the 20th century might turn out to be the encounter of Buddhism with the Christian West.

IT IS interesting to note that the Buddha taught in a time very much like ours, of transition and change and political violence.

As they moved into urban centres from the rural settlements, the people in North India during the sixth and fifth centuries BC were finding the traditional ways of experiencing the sacred and looking for an ultimate meaning in their lives difficult or impossible.

There was much confusion and dislocation, just as it is for many people today as the twin forces of globalisation and technology bring about rapid changes in their lives.

But is Buddhism compatible with a western, rational mindset?

In A Journey In Ladakh (1983), one of the best books on religious ecstasy, author Andrew Harvey asks a Tibetan lama who also has the benefit of a western education that question.

The Rinpoche laughs and replies: ""Some of the best Buddhists I know are westerners.''

He adds: ""The West is at the end of its belief in its own values. The West is ready for a philosophy that is radical, and in some senses nihilistic - but that also has, at its heart, a vision of compassion...

""It may be a philosophy that the West will turn to in its despair precisely because Buddhism has always recognised that despair, even celebrated it as the beginning of wisdom...''

A good example of a scientifically-trained westerner steeped in Buddhism must be Matthieu Ricard.

The French molecular biologist had worked with two Nobel prize laureates at the renowned Institut Pasteur in Paris, but went to the Himalayas in 1972 and became a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

These days, he often serves as the Dalai Lama's French interpreter.

In the book, The Monk and the Philosopher (1998), in which he discusses the meaning of life with his father, Jean-Francois Revel, a philosopher and political commentator influential on both sides of the Atlantic, Ricard is asked if there isn't any fundamental incompatibility between science and the spiritual life.

His answer: ""I became aware that my scientific training, especially its emphasis on rigour, was perfectly compatible with Buddhist practice and the Buddhist approach to metaphysics.

""What's more, the contemplative life, for me, is truly a science of the mind, with its methods and its results.''


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