"They do not get carried away by superstition; they believe in deeds, aspiring to results from their own deeds through their own effort in a rational way; they are not excited by wildly rumored superstition, talismans or lucky charms; they do not aspire to results from praying for miracles."
(From Anguttara Nikaya III 206, Pali Tipitaka)
The above quotation, attributed to the Buddha, is the description of the third of five qualities to be developed by dedicated lay Buddhists, which are collectively known as the upasakadhamma in Pali. (The other four qualities are: 1) conviction in the efficacy of the Buddhist way of life to transcend suffering, 2) basic morality, 4) commitment to the Buddhist Path & its teachers, and 5) supporting Buddhism & other charitable causes.) In this brief article, the focus is on the third quality which is described above in bold type.
In response to my last post, entitled The Noble Eightfold Path, Leander, a regular reader of this blog, made intelligent objections to my treatment of the superstitious and supernatural elements in many people's lives. (Please look at Leander's eloquent words in the 'comments' section of the previous post to see exactly what he wrote.) In my response, I focused on modern, scientific reasons for not indulging in the belief of supernatural entities and places, as well describing the Eightfold Path in rational terms.
In the words quoted above, it can be seen that such an attitude to superstition, particularly towards the petitionary and protective varieties often seen here in Thailand, is grounded in traditional teachings attributed to the Buddha. Praying to gods, angels, and nature spirits to help one out of difficulties or to gain some advantage over others is simply not in the down-to-earth spirit of the Buddha's teachings; something that most meditating Buddhists would probably agree with. Few people in this beautiful country actually practice meditation or mindfulness, however, preferring to concentrate on 'making merit' to gain some advantage for their future lives, or procuring 'magic' talismans or potions to protect them from harm. Monks are often asked to supply lottery numbers in the belief that they have some sort of predictive powers to enrich their followers - something the late, great Ajahn Chah, amongst other forest monks, refused to do.
Of course, in the Buddhist scriptures there can be found ample descriptions of supernatural beings, places, and phenomena, apparently inherited from the Hindu culture in which Buddhism originally developed. And, again, here in Thailand the existence of gods, spirits, demons, ghosts, and a host of other irrational beliefs are taken for granted by the majority of the populace. And, yet, those that seem most dedicated to walking the Eightfold Path also seem to be the least superstitious. Is it that investigating experience with mindfulness reveals reality, and that that reality lacks such unscientific entities as angels, demons, and dragons?
An important point here is not to go overboard in criticizing Asian countries in particular for their more superstitious beliefs, for if they had not kept alive the Buddha's teachings for the last two-and-a-half millennia, there'd be no living Buddhism to learn from. For this alone, we Western Buddhists should be deeply grateful. However, it is not only occidental Buddhists that can be detached from superstition - many, many orientals do the same. Think of the many wonderful Buddhist teachers to spread the teachings to the West - how many of them presented it in a rational manner, with little or no mention of fantastic beings or places?
Perhaps it's time to fuse the heart of Buddhism - the Noble Eightfold Path - with modern scientific discoveries, which are based on facts rather than opinion or tradition. The interconnectedness of all life that Buddhists have taught about for so long is now being independently confirmed by modern science, as is the efficacy of mindfulness & meditation to develop peaceful, happier people. What do you think, reader - is it time to ditch the supernatural in favor of the natural? Or is belief in the supernatural an integral part of the Path? Please leave a comment and share your perspectives on this important debate. (Once again, a big thank you to Leander for his much-appreciated comments last time. Hope you don't mind being credited here!)
The quotation above is taken from 'The Buddhist's Discipline', a booklet written by the Venerable P.A. Payutto and available in PDF format from the following link (please click on '11.pdf' in the small blue box when you go there to view or download the booklet):
The Buddhist's Discipline