Revised April 29, 2017; January 27, 2020
Critical Role of the British Civil Servants
1. Ironically, the current revival of Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma) is also due to the same reason that led to the decline in Buddha Dhamma in most Buddhist countries for hundreds of years. That decline was in the latter part of the second Millenium, i.e., the colonization of Asia by the Western powers starting with the Portuguese and ending with the British.
- The civil servants of the British East India Company came across ancient Buddhist literature in various Asian countries in the 1800s. Some of them realized the importance of these documents and started deciphering the documents themselves (e.g., Thomas W. Rhys Davids, 1843-1922.) They became motivated and learned Pāli and Sanskrit languages.
- Others sent documents to universities in Europe. There, mostly French and English philosophers (e.g., Eugene Burnouf, 1801-1852) studied them and translated them to French and English.
- A thorough account of the efforts by the British civil servants in India, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries in uncovering the “lost knowledge” has been given by Charles Allen in his excellent book, “The Search for the Buddha” (2003). It also covers restoration of historical Buddhist sites in India.
Early European Scholars
2. These Westerners realized that there was something profound in this ancient doctrine that exposed them for the first time to a religion that was not based on a Creator.
- Thomas Huxley captured the essence this new religion brilliantly as follows (Thomas H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, 1894, pp. 68-69): “A system which knows of no God in the Western sense; which denies a soul to man; which counts the belief in immortality a blunder and the hope of it a sin; which refuses any efficacy to prayer and sacrifice; which bids men look to nothing but their own efforts for salvation; which, in its original purity, knew nothing of vows and obedience, abhorred intolerance, and never sought the aid of the secular arm; yet spread over a considerable moiety of the Old World with marvelous rapidity, and is still, with whatever base admixture of foreign superstitions, the dominant creed of a large fraction of mankind”.
- It is amazing that even at that early stage, when there must have been some confusion about the mythical aspects of especially the Tibetan and Zen Buddhist practices, Huxley was able to express the essence of Buddha Dhamma.
3. Based on their interest in the documents from Asia on Buddhism and Hinduism, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875. They subsequently traveled to India and Sri Lanka and became Buddhists.
- Olcott published “A Buddhist Catechism” in 1881. This book together with the “Light of Asia” by Edwin Arnold in 1871 (which went through 100 printings), led to much interest in Europe and America about Buddhism. Colonel Olcott opened several Buddhism-oriented schools in Sri Lanka in order to revive the religion. I was fortunate to be able to attend one of those schools.
- These efforts were subsequently augmented by a number of Sri Lankan intellectuals such as Anagarika Dharmapala, G. P. Malasekara, K. N. Jayatilleke, Narada Thera, Walpola Rahula Thera, David Kalupahana, and also by several more Westerners who were impressed by the Buddhist teachings to a point that they came to Sri Lanka, became monks, and wrote many excellent treatises on Theravada Buddhism; these include Nyanatiloka Thera, Nyanyaponika Thera, and Bhikkhu Bodhi.
A surge of Zen Buddhism
4. Even though those early publications by Rhys Davids, Arnold, and Olcott in the late 1800s were mainly on the Theravada Buddhism, beginning in the early part of the 1900s, Zen Buddhism became an object of fascination in the West and continues to be a significant presence in the West.
- In contrast to the earlier introduction of (Theravada) Buddhism to the West by Westerners, Zen made its way into the Western consciousness via the efforts of an elite group of Japanese intellectuals – most notably D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki, who came to America in 1897, wrote several books including “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism”; this book emphasized the transcendent and mystical nature of Zen.
5. Here is an excerpt from the above book by Suzuki, which clearly states the belief of the Mahāyāna thinkers that the original teachings of the Buddha are “primitive” and Mahāyāna provided the needed improvements (p. 1, footnote 1):
- “..to be accurate, the fundamental ideas of the Mahāyāna expounded in the Prajnapāramitā group of Buddhist literature, the earliest of which must have it appeared at the latest within 300 years off the Buddha’s death. The germs are no doubt in the writings belonging to the so-called primitive Buddhism. Only their development, that is, a conscious grasp of them as most essential in the teachings of the founder, could not be effected without his followers’ actually living the teachings for some time through the variously changing conditions of life. Thus enriched in experience and matured in reflection, the Indian Buddhists came to have the Mahāyāna form of Buddhism as distinguished from its primitive or original form. In India, two Mahāyāna schools are known as the Madhyamika, of Nagarjuna and the Vijnaptimatra or Yogacara of Asanga and Vasubandhu. More schools developed in China: the Tendai, the Kegon, the Jodo, the Zen, etc. In Japan, we have besides these the Hokke, the Shingon, the Shin, the Ji, etc. All of these schools or sects belong to the Mahāyāna wing of Buddhism”. (Highlighting is mine).
Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings
6. This is in sharp contrast with the basic presumption in Buddha Dhamma that only a Buddha can discover the laws of nature and those teachings CANNOT be improved upon:
I have discussed key problems with Mahāyāna teachings in “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis” and “What is Suñyāta or Suññāta (Emptiness)?.”
- There is only ONE set of natural laws and those were discovered by the Buddha. As one goes through the content in this website, I hope one would be able to see that statement is justified. Also see, “Dhamma and Science – Introduction“
Role of Dalai Lāma
7. More recently, Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayāna) has gained prominence in the West. This is no doubt the result of the publicity of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1953 and the incredible personal charisma of the Dalai Lāma.
- It is unfortunate that the Dalai Lāma has to state that, “My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”(highlighting mine) – cited from “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality” (2005).
8. Both the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna sects are now realizing that some concepts in those forms of “Buddhism” have to change with the new findings of science. The fundamental teachings of the Buddha as stated in the Theravada Dhamma, in contrast, remain unchallenged because no such “improvements” were incorporated to “keep up with the times and cultures”.
- The Pāli Tipitaka has remained the same since it was written down 2000 years ago. The reality is that science is only now beginning to confirm many things that the Buddha stated 2500 years ago; see, “Dhamma and Science – Introduction” and the subsequent links.
- Regrettably, the translated and edited versions of the Tipitaka, have many misinterpretations, as discussed briefly below and in detail in posts later in this section.
Scientists’ Role in Recent Years
9. Beginning at the end of the twentieth century, there is a renewed interest in “Buddhism” in the West, based on several books by Western scientists.
- It seems to have started with the publication of “The Tao of Physics” by physicist Fritjof Capra (1975). In the book, he describes how, one day quietly sitting by the ocean, he realized that there may be a connection between the subtleties of quantum mechanics and Eastern “mysticism”, in which he included “Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese Thought, Taoism, and Zen”. It appears that he was trying to make a connection between the world of matter described by quantum mechanics and the “mind” that is predominant in “Eastern mysticism”. Even by the time of the 5th edition (2010), he had not realized that Zen was a branch of Buddhism, and had not been exposed to any Theravada literature. However, the connection he was trying to establish apparently made an impact on the Western audience and this trend will hopefully continue and be directed in the right direction.
- There are others who have contributed to the recent interest in “Buddhism” in the West: The Art of Happiness” and other books by Dalai Lāma, “The Embodied Mind” by Francisco Varela et al., “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist” and other books by Stephen Batchelor, are some examples.
- However, most of these books have incorrect interpretations of Buddha Dhamma because they are heavily influenced by Mahāyāna Buddhism, which has totally veered away from the original teachings of the Buddha, as I have discussed in this section, “Historical Background.”
Sorting Out the True Teachings of the Buddha
10. The books that I mentioned at the beginning of the essay and several other books by Ven. Ledi Sayadaw, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ven. Walpola Rahula, and others (see the References below), are providing the much-needed material on Theravada Buddhism to the Western audience, even though they themselves use some incorrect interpretations due to two main “contamination problems”.
- One happened 1500 years ago when Buddhaghosa distorted Ānapāna Bhavana as “breath meditation” and also introduced Hindu kasina mediation to Buddha Dhamma in his commentary, Visuddhimagga.
- The other problem of misinterpreting anicca and anatta as impermanence and “no-self” was done by those early European scholars who translated Tipitaka to English; see, “Why Correct Interpretation of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta so Important?“. These incorrect interpretations were adopted by the whole world since the late 1800s.
- Therefore, all Buddhist literature published in all languages since the late 1800s has both these problems. This is a critical point, see, “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars“.
- We need to resort to the Pāli Tipitaka that still contains the original teachings of the Buddha, and it is the goal of this website to systematically present those original teachings of the Buddha.
1. “Light of Asia” by Edwin Arnold (1871),
2. “A Buddhist Catechism”, by H. S. Olcott (1881).
3. “Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays”, by T. H. Huxley(1894).
4. “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism” by D. T. Suzuki (1964).
5. “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula (1974),
6. “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra (1975).
7. “A Short History of Buddhism” by Edward Conze (1980).
8. “A History of Buddhist Philosophy” by David J. Kalupahana (1992).
9. “The Manuals of Dhamma”, by Ledi Sayadaw (1999).
10. “The Search for the Buddha”, by C. Allen (2003).
11. “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality” by Dalai Lāma (2005).
12. “In the Buddha’s Words” by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2005).