Airbrushing the Dhamma: “Brand New ‘Ancient’ Buddhist Philosophy”

Airbrushing the supernatural from Dhamma to make it fit modern day understandings may be justifiable. Passing off modern day “scientific” revisions as “ancient Buddhist philosophy” is not.






Airbrushing the supernatural from Dhamma to make it fit modern day understandings may be justifiable. Passing off modern day “scientific” revisions as “ancient Buddhist philosophy” is not.

Thanks to the kindness of scholars and translators we can read for ourselves how ancient Buddhists and the Buddha himself acknowledged the existence of karma and gods and heavens and hells from the earliest of times.

The Buddha was quite fond of adopting the prevailing ideas of his time and redefining them. Take karma, for example. The Buddha redefined karma as “intention”; this was a clear break with Vedic or Jain understandings of karma as mere action, and it gave hope to his followers that there was a point in doing good actions and avoiding bad actions.

The enlightened Buddha was remarkably tolerant of rituals he himself saw as ultimately meaningless but having great significance nonetheless for others seeking to replicate his supreme attainment. He taught that the “greatest blessing” comes from honouring the “Triple Gem” of Buddha (the teacher), Dhamma (the truth made known) and Sangha (the monastic community) and he did not object when disciples bowed to him and circled him, keeping him to their right, for example. He also spoke approvingly of people who venerated their shrines and made offerings to them.

The Buddha taught three criteria for evaluating intentional actions as either “wholesome” (kusala ) or “unwholesome” (akusala ). The first of these is the motivation of the action, in terms of greed/non-greed, hatred/non-hatred, delusion/non-delusion. The second criterion is the direct effects of the action, in terms of happiness/suffering. The third criterion is the contribution of the action to spiritual progress, culminating in enlightenment.

Understanding just this much, we can be sure that ritual acts of prostration, chanting, and offerings made at the feet of a Buddha statue can be done in accordance with dhamma. Rituals aimed at honouring the memory of one’s ancestors, or pacifying hungry ghosts even, can also be done in line with dhamma. Any ritual act motivated by respect, generosity, and gratitude, and performed correctly with mindfulness, can become a cause for future contentment and happiness (i.e. a fortunate rebirth) and carry the doer a step nearer to the Buddha’s supreme goal of freedom from samsara.

Buddhists who insist on airbrushing ancient Buddhist cosmology and soteriology from Dhamma and reducing one of the world’s great religions to meditation only are imposing their modern atheistic world view on the ancient Buddhists and changing the rationale of their belief system. This “brand new ‘ancient’ Buddhist philosophy” of 19th century “protestant” reformists and modern day atheists is no longer about escaping samsara or ensuring a fortunate rebirth in the next life, but is instead about stress-reduction in the present life. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, although I wonder if anyone so averse to traditional religiosity can ever find relief from mental suffering. However, “scientific” Buddhism devoid of the supernatural or transcendental is a modern invention and not what the ancient Buddhists or the Buddha himself appear to have taught.


Originally posted 18 August 2017 in the Buddhism & Meditation community on Google Plus.