Establishment of the triple gem in European culture
A Theravadin view-point.
At the depth, the Theravada Buddhist tradition, even though it doesn’t promote the social divisions of Asian societies through casteism, is a rather self-contained tradition that doesn’t proselytize. Obviously, if some Westerners wish to take refuge into the triple gem of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha and follow the teachings of early Buddhism, they are welcome!!! But, the fact to take refuge into the triple gem doesn’t equate with a conversion and even if after having accepted the refuge a Bhikkhu may give a Pali name to the new votary, this practice doesn’t equate with a baptism.
Also, what is meant by conversion??? It’s a rather Judeo-christian or islamic word. I will give you a simile. Abrahamic religions do revolve around the profession of faith in revealed dogmas. If, for instance, a Jew starts to think that Israel has missed something crucial by refusing to recognize Lord Jesus Christ as the messiah, he may reject the dogma of the Unique God of Israel that cannot be two or three but only one and which cannot incarnate in bones and flesh. Therefore he will adhere to the revealed dogma of the Holy trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and become a Christian, thinking that Israel has been disgraced and condemned by refusing to recognize Lord Jesus Christ as the saviour of the whole mankind. Therefore, to this new convert, the concept of divine uniqueness as found in Judaism is imperfect as compared with the one of the Christian Holy Trinity. If a Moslem rejects the Shahada of Islam that says that “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his Prophet” and starts to claim that the ultimate revelation of God is completed only by the death of Lord Jesus on the cross, he may commit apostasy from the religion of Islam and become a Christian but it is a dangerous thing to do in most of Moslem countries. Also, if a Christian does no longer believe in the Holy Trinity and thinks that the Messiah hasn’t taken birth in this world yet and that the concept of divine uniqueness as advocated for in Judaism, is more correct than the dogma of the Holy Trinity, he may after a couple of years and many challenges, testing and studies, become a member of the community of Israel. He will certainly believe that Israel is still God’s chosen people.
Therefore, and this is the main point I want to emphasize on, every time the new faithfuls of such religions reject a previous revealed dogma, they adopt a new one. This is what we could call a conversion process among the three Abrahamic religions.
In Theravada Buddhism, there is no creative personal God and there is no revealed dogma too. Buddha simply invited the listeners of his Dhamma, teaching on reality, to see by themselves, verify experimentally and test the validity of his teachings and it was never a question of mere believing. Theravada Buddhism is a positive soteriology aimed at the eradication of all mental defilements (kilesa) and sufferings. It is not a theistic religion and it doesn’t even posit the theory of a primeval and eternal Buddha nature veiled by illusion (moha) and karma or the theory of existence of a celestial Buddha. In the Mahâparinibbâna Sutta, Bantei Ânanda had asked to the Buddha who would be the master of the Buddhist community of monks, nuns and lay listeners (Sangha of Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, Sâmaneras and Sâmanerîs and Cavakkas) after he may pass away in Mahâparinibbâna. The Buddha replied that it was his Dhamma, teaching on reality.
According to Theravada Buddhism, the best way to honore the Buddha lies in practising his teaching. There is certainly a great confidence in the Theravada Buddhist world into the fact that Buddha is the one who became Sammasambuddha (fully awakened) by discovering the Catur Ariyâ Saccam (the Four Noble Truths) and the Noble Eightfold Path (Ariyâ Atthangika Magga) and that this is termed ekayâna, the unique path to enlightenment.
Thus, the teachings of Theravada Buddhism are of universal appeal. Indeed, everywhere on earth humans could practise vipassanâ meditation and contemplate the tilakkhana (three characteristics) of anicca (impermanence), anatta (non-self) and dukkha (sorrow) pertaining to all mental and material phenomena. And there are no barriers of cast, creed, culture or race for that.
However, as saying that one has converted to Theravada, for reasons mentioned above, doesn’t make a sense, there are also main reasons why, in European societies, this school of early Buddhism doesn’t proselytize. In the first place, it has indeed retained somehow its original Asian and Indian character by not modifying the primeval Patimokkha (Code of monastic discipline) prevailing at the time of the Buddha, and by not much compromizing with the transformations of mentalities, societies and human history. Some Mahâyâna Buddhists, being right on this point to a certain extent, do claim that the Theravadin are very conservative and stick to a kind of ancestral rigidity.
In the second place, most of the born Theravadin in European societies, who are of Cambodian, Thaï; Laotian, Burmese, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi descent, simply wish to reunite their bonds with their ancestral tradition while residing in Western countries. They won’t easily go to Europeans by preaching the Dhamma to them. Certainly, some Theravada monks who are good instructors in Samatha (mental calm) or Vipassanâ (insight) meditation will be pleased to teach Europeans who come to their pagoda but they will usually teach them bhâvanâ (mental culture or meditation) without even proposing them to go for triple refuge into the triple gem (Tisarana Tiratana Vandanam).
An illustrious example of that is the remarkable guidance bestowed by the Venerable Henepola Gunaratana not only in US, but also during meditation courses given in Europe.
However, usually, Theravada Buddhism has a considerably larger number of followers of European descent into the Germanic and Anglosaxon worlds than in countries of latino cultural heritage. It is owing to the fact that Theravada is not enclined to a kind of colourful mysticism as it is a rather dry, terse and practical teaching. Germans or British, for instance, go after that obviously.
The Thai forest tradition is mainly prevailing in UK, for example, within the famous Amaravati monastery found in London suburb.
Still, owing to the decaying Christian faith in many european countries, the decay of faith into the dogmatic and theistic approach of Christianity and the Roman Catholic church, for instance, regarding the spiritual world, Theravada and Mahâyâna Buddhism alike could flourish in Western European countries during the forthcoming generations. Mahâyâna Buddhism, however, appears to be more adaptable to the evolution of western mentalities than Theravada Buddhism.
The most essential point of compatibility between Buddhism and contemporary western culture, in general, lies in that the theories of anatta (non-self) or Shûnyatâ (universal emptiness) or even interdependent origination (paticca samuppada) do not contradict at all the latest discoveries of the scientists in the field of relativistic and quantic physical science.
As it is not really rooted in Faith too, but rather in experience and pure observation of mental and material phenomena as they really are, it is in perfect in-balance and harmony with the approach of objective observation of the universe adopted by the scientists.
Theravâda Buddhism arrived first in France mainly along with new immigrants of former South-East Asian French colonies of Cambodia, Laos and some Vietnamese too.
Now-a-days, there are approximately 60 Theravada Buddhist temples in France and about 386372 followers of that school of Sri Lankan, Laotian, Cambodian, Thaï, Burmese or Vietnamese origins do reside in this country. A few French only are followers of that doctrinal school.
Whereas the vipassanâ meditation method of the late burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw is mainly taught in France by a nun of Cambodian origin named Sayalay Daw Sobhana and has got more success in some Burmese pagodas found in UK, there is a Goenka Vipassana meditation centre built in France and called Dhammamahi.
However, the Goenka approach is strongly laity oriented and devoid of the usual devotional approach of Theravada, as many Theravada Buddhists usually recite twice a day in Pali language some parittas (formulas of protection), possibly some Suttas (Karaniya Metta Sutta, Maha Mangala Sutta or the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta) and also the prayers of triple refuge into the triple gem (Tisarana Tiratana Vandana).
To conclude this lecture that, I hope, will please you all, I like to remind you what told the most honorable late Thaï Bhikkhu Buddhadâsa: “When Farangs (westerners) come to Wat Swan Mokh, they want to study and practise the Dhamma, when Thaïs come here, they want to accumulate some merits.”
Ultimately, the Farangs (europeans) were the ones who decided to go to Wat Swan Mokh and Theravada Buddhism does stick to no ideal to propagate itself among all civilizations of the world.
Dear friends in Dharma, we are advocating for mutual respect among all of us, whether we are Theravâdins, Mahayanists or Vajrayanists, and to extend this respect to the rest of humanity. I just wanted today to remind you of the common attitude among Theravadins.
Thanks for having taken the troubles to listen to this lecture.
Venerable Chandaratana and Mr. Lambrou Thierry.