By Bhiksu Thich Huyen-Vi, Ph.D. of Vietnam

Venerable friends!

What is Religion? Religion is an experience. Buddhist Scriptures place on record the experiences of the Buddha who grappled with the fundamental reality. It is not doctrinal conformity or ceremonial piety, but it is participation in the mystery of being. It is wisdom or insight into reality.  Religion is the element in human nature, which considers no price too great to find full expression. The essence of all religious practice involves changing man's nature.

Although there is no denying the fact that religion has its roots in aloneness, it has not remained isolated, in solitary confinement, but has manifested itself in society, associated itself with social conditions, and gone beyond its initial privacy. Religion as an institution may easily lose contact with its source, and can again become a living reality only when its members renew their rapport with that original source.

In so many ways the religious thinkers of the world have laid emphasis on the transcendent unity of religions along with their empirical diversity.   The end of religion is one, but the means leading to it are numerous. There may be cows, of different colors but the milk we get from them is of one color, white. There may be a variety of lamps, but the illumination they produce is one and the same. We all know the well-known story of the elephant and the six blind men. The different parts each of them stressed, though true, were parts of one whole, different sides of one truth. Mahatma Gandhi wanted to find out the basic truth in all religions. In his opinion, true religion teaches love of all religions, and condemnation of none. We have the famous Rock Edict of Asoka, which tells us to offer respect to other religions. By condemning other religions, we are told, we hurt our own. An injustice done to others is an injustice done to oneself.

Buddhism is a religion of humanity, kindness, and equality. It strives to promote peace and harmony among men. The Buddha appeared with this unique religion when the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic religion had reached their apex, and the peace of mind of Indian people was much disturbed. Buddhism set its face against such sacrifices, and declared the futility of animal sacrifices.

Though the Buddha was born in India, grew up in its traditions, and left an indelible impression on Indian culture, his message is replete with universal significance. The more we think of him the more we feel that he is the contemporary of every generation. In his Funeral Oration Pericles says:   "The whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on, far away without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men's lives." The great makers of history are universal men, living witnesses to the spirit of profound kinship among men in a world sundered by strife and hatred.

The Buddha expressed the idea of fellowship of faiths; he never spoke disparagingly of others' beliefs, and always exhorted his followers to avoid doctrinal controversies with others. "If anyone were to find fault or abuse me or the Doctrine or the Noble Order, do not, monks, for that matter, be offended, displeased, or ruffled. If by any means you become offended or perturbed, it will be to your own harm. On the other hand, whenever people hurl abuse and criticize, you should pause and think whether what they say contains some truth or whether what they say is just slander and falsity.  Likewise, monks, if some one were to praise and glorify me, the Doctrine, or the Noble Order, you should not for that matter, feel particularly elated or pleased. If you do so, it will be to your own harm. On the contrary, in such an event you should pause and examine the truth of the matter. You should find out whether what they say is actually to be found in us and whether they are correct."1 He did no wish his followers to accept statements on authority, to be satisfied with second-hand evidence, to believe in miracles and marvels, which cannot be empirically repeated. Religion cannot afford to claim exemption from inquiry. The Buddha did not want his followers to adopt theories, which could not be verified by empirical observation. He said:  "You must accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regard for me."2 He was never ready to accept views on the authority of others."3

The Buddha taught us to follow the course of prajna or wisdom, and practice karuna or compassion. According to his teachings, a man is judged not by creeds he professes, the insignia he puts on, or the slogan he shouts, but by his sacrificial work and brotherly outlook. Man is a weak creature.  He is subject to old age, sickness and death. Out of ignorance and pride he disparages the sick, the aged and the dead. If anyone looks with disgust upon any fellow being who is sick or old or dead, he would be doing injustice to himself. We must not look down upon or find fault with the man who is found limping or stumbling along the road, for we are quite ignorant of the shoes he wears or burdens he bears. If we have the real understanding of what pain is, we become the brothers of all who suffer.

Buddhism is a great peace-establishing force in the world. The Five Precepts teach us to change our nature. They prohibit killing under any circumstances. Since it is beyond our power to give life, we have no right to take life. They lay emphasis on respecting another person's property. They denounce the life of unchastity and of falsehood. They prohibit the use of intoxicants. As soon as the principle of the Five Precepts is adopted, a marked change will take place in man's outlook. Today, when the whole world is in the grip of great trouble, the teachings of the Buddha give us a voice of hope. He says that it is difficult to establish peace by methods of war.  "Victory breeds hatred; the conquered live in sorrow."4 War results in a vicious circle of hatred, oppression, subversive movements, false propaganda. "Never in this world can hatred be conquered by hatred. It can be conquered by non-hatred.5 Men must give up the idea of being warlike, and become non-violent. We must develop in our hearts the spirit of love, fraternity and fellow-feeling in order to break through the encircling gloom, and bring about a new alignment of man's relation to man, of race to race, of nation to nation. The Buddha's policy of peace, kindness, charity, and sacrifice finds expression in the following lines from the Mahabharata: "One should conquer anger by cool-headedness, evil by good, miserliness by charity, and falsehood by truth."6

The spirit of peace, kindness, charity, and sacrifice worked wonders in bringing about tremendous changes in the lives of many saints in mediaeval India. The great minds of modern India too have been guided by the teachings of the Buddha. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian Nation, turned into action the principle of Satyagraha (non-violence) in his private and public life. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, repeatedly declared his firm belief in peacefully settling disputes at home and abroad.  The foreign policy of the Indian Government is based on five principles underlying the Five Precepts. We have already seen that the Five Precepts are a Buddhist concept, which permits the peaceful co-existence between peoples holding different ideologies. When the principle of Buddhism's Five Precepts is applied to the international plane, it takes the form of a code of international morality requiring us to practice non-aggression; non-interference; peaceful, co-operative, educative co-existence.

The two world wars have produced great social upheavals. The result is that the insecurity of the human predicament is seriously and widely felt.  We live in such an age in which we suffer from loneliness anxiety, and a loss of certainties. How can we feel secure in- a world where very little seems to be secure? How can we gain awareness, which may bring freedom and peace? How can we find out a new center of strength and courage within ourselves, which will get us out of the grip of insecurity? It is the Buddha who points to the best way for our rising from darkness, ignorance, and death into light, wisdom, and morality. This world of samsara is not all. We can have the perfect knowledge of truth by experience.

Buddhism does not put hindrances in the way of human progress and development by rigidity of thought and legalistic morality. It encourages the development of human thought, human virtue, and human beauty. It teaches us to be ready to oppose injustice with courage. It teaches us to go beyond the boundaries of caste and race, which tarnish the whole human community. It teaches us to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, lift the downtrodden, and love even our enemies. It tells use to strive for binding the wounds of the suffering world. It tells us to build peace rooted in justice. It enjoins us to avoid the two extremes, the pursuit of worldly desires, and the severe ascetic practice, which culminates in the annihilation of the body. It helps us to adopt a middle course between extremes. According to Buddhism, desire is the root of all evil. Therefore it must be transformed. In order to live an ideal life and ultimately attain Nirvana, the summum bonum, it is essential to tread the eight-fold Noble Path and practice morality, concentration, and wisdom.

In the words of Dr. Radhakrishnan: "Now that the nations have come to each other's door-steps, we have to develop new methods of human relationships. If civilization is to endure, understanding among people is essential. The world has got together as a body; it is groping for its soul. We need psychological unity, spiritual coherence. We are eager to promote peace and concord among men through several international agencies. The U.N.O., I.L.O., UNESCO, WHO are some of them. If we can have a United Nations Organization, cannot we have a United Religions Organization? Unfortunately, while all religions proclaim faith in righteous living, international peace and the brotherhood of men, they are unwilling to co-operate with one another. They compete with one another and keep their followers apart. The world has shrunk and different religions are facing one another. To get them into a fellowship is an imperative necessity. Though we may have our special loyalties, we may appreciate whatever is true, noble, lovely, and of good report. We do not propose an eclectic religion. We do not encourage the merging together of different faiths into a vauge synthetic creed. We wish to bring the followers of different faiths together, promote goodwill and understanding among them, help them to see that each faith in its own way is attempting to transform the animal man into Godman. The ascent of man from the animal to the human, from the human to the spiritual, from unrest to serenity, from darkness into radiance, is the aim of religion." Furthermore, "At a time like this when we live in fear of the future on account of the great advances of science and technology, it is essential for all those who have faith in wisdom and love of God, whatever may be their religious denominations, to get together, form a sacramental brotherhood and work for fellowship in which alone lies the redemption of man." And again, "The best memorials to the Buddha are the lives well lived in the Dharma. If it is taken seriously, the Buddha's teaching requires a new alignment of man's relation to man, of nation to nation, of race to race. If we do not change our ways, the night of spiritual blindness will descend upon us, the gains of science and the glories of culture will be lost, and man will revert to barbarism. The Buddha gives us hope of transforming the present world into a gentler, kinder, and juster place.  What we are lacking in is faith, faith in the spirit of man, in the invincibility of righteousness."