Back to Psychology of Religion Home Page

This paper appears with permission of its author, Thich Tam Thien. © 1996 Thich Tam Thien



        This is the discussion paper delivered at the conference on "Religion and The Modern Way of Life", organized by the Catholic Solidarity Committee at Hochiminh City in December 1996.

        First of all, we would like to thank the Catholic Solidarity Committee of Hochiminh City for inviting us to participate in the seminar on "The Religions Way of Life in Modern Times". Today, as a Buddhist participant in this non Buddhist conference, I would like to focus my discussion on one of the most important, unique but also the most complex concepts in Buddhism. That is the true value of living reality.


        A- Man's search for the meaning of Religion :

        In following and practicing any religion, first of all, one has to know what that religion is all about and how it would guide him to his ultimate liberation. Otherwise, the religious experience that he tries to realize will be a sheer illusion and of course, there will be no real spiritual growth whatsoever.

        In the noble but arduous attempt to understand what religion is all about, many philosophers of religions, both ancient and modern, have tried very hard to define religions, including Buddhism. But so far, their efforts have not been very productive, especially in the case of Buddhism. Most of the definitions of religion which have been often built on conceptual reasonings have been unable to grasp the vastness, depth, and vitality of Buddhism. Before we come to a tentative definition of Buddhism, I would like to reexamine some definitions of religions by some of the most respected thinkers and / or from some of the most reliable sources of knowledge in recent history.

        + Oxford Dictionary : "Religion - belief in the existence of god or gods who has / have created the universe and given man a spiritual nature which continues to exist after the death of the body... particular, system of faith and worship based on such a belief..., controlling influence on one life ; something one is devoted or committed to". (1)

        + Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist and historian (1795 - 1881) : "Religion is the thing a man does practically to heart and knows for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious universe and his duty and destiny therein" (2)

        + J. S. Mill, the English philosopher and economist (1806 - 1873) : "The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the conditions and desires towards an ideal object recognized as of the highest excellence, and as rightly paramount over all selfish objects of desire". (3)

        + Aldous Huxley, the English novelist (1894 - 1963) : "Religion is, among many other things, a system of education, by means of which human beings may train themselves, first to make desirable changes in their own personalities and, at one remove, in society, and, in the second place, to heighten consciousness and so establish more adequate relations between themselves". (4)

        + Fiedrich Engels, the German socialist (1820 - 1895) : "Religion is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's minds of those external forces which control their early life". (5)

        + Sir. Edwin Ray Lankester (1847 - 1929) : "Religion means the knowledge of our destiny and of the means of fulfilling it. We can say no more and no less of science". (6)

        + Alfred North whitehead, the English mathematician and philosopher (1861-1947) : "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitude. If you are never solitary, you are never religious" (7)

        There are two trends of thoughts in the above statements. First is the trend in which religion is defined as the moral and ethical system that man can recognize and understand with his reasoning mind. Second is the trend in which religion is presented as a miraculous mode of existence which requires man's direct perceptions and reflections. Besides these two trends of thoughts, there is the third one which is based purely on reason. American political philosopher Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809) represented this school with his saying at the last moment of his life : "The world is my country, mankind are my brotherhood and to do good is my religion". (8) Last is the case of modern Indian philosophy. Many Indian philosophers proclaimed that religion is not a series of profound theological doctrines but an inner experience derived from man's direct recognition of the divine existing in him.

        Regardless of that these definitions of religions are different and contradictory, they share one common ground. That is the emphasis and embrace of loving-kindness as the highest religious value as Thomas Paine eloquently and succinctly declared : "To do good is my religion". (9)

        B. The Buddhist definition of Religion.

        D.T. Suzuki, the well known Japanese Zen master and Buddhist scholar once said : "Buddhism is a religion that refuses to be objectively defined, for this will be setting a limit to the growth of its spirit". (10a) However, if Buddhism has to be defined, in any case, we should then first examine what Buddhism has to say about man and his world, both at the conceptual level and the deep psychological one. At the conceptual level according to Buddhism, language and logical thinking can only be used to observe and analyse the surface of the human world and the universe. They can deal only with the manifestation of the physiognomy. On the contrary, at the deep psychological level ; the spiritual experience is an implicit hermeneutical struture. It transcends the monistic, dualistic and pluralistic world. It goes beyond all linguistic formations because it is invisible and formless. It belongs to the realm of metaphysics. This does not suggest that Buddhism tries to lead man into the world of fantasies filled with "incense mist". Buddhism only aims to cut through the logical thingking of man's ego and shows him a way to get in touch with the divine nature or the Buddha nature in himself.

        D. T. Suzuki then put forward his definition of Buddhism which, he argued, must be that of the life-force which carries forward a spiritual movement called Buddhism.(10b) Suzuki 's definition of Buddhism means that from the Buddhist point of view religion can never be discussed without any refenence to the spiritual realm and / or the inner experience of the individual involved. It should be made clear that here, according to Buddhism, returning to the primordial essence of man or the true nature does not mean an advocacy of egocentrism. On the contrary, it means, in order to take the first step to return to the primordial essence of man, first and foremost, man must completely cast off all the attributes of his ego, namely his infatuated feelings, solid attachment, sensuous desire, mental formations such as "I", "mine" and "myself". Neither does the return to the inner spiritual experience means non-egocentrism. According to Buddhism, precisely at the moment that one get in touch with his devine nature, he establishes in himself an ultimate reality which by nature is essential, original, and eternal - This is called Tathata (Suchness) or Buddha nature which is an everlasting, living stream of present consciousness.

        As a consequence, Buddhism is not the faith that one has to accept blindly. Neither is it a series of sacred principles that are created, transmitted to man's soul and guided by some mysterious power from outside. It is the teachings that show us the path to reach enlightenment through our inner individual experience. In Dhammapada, Lord Buddha said : "Like earth, a balanced and well disciplined person results not. He is comparable to an Indakhila. Like a pool unsullied by mud, is he, to such a balanced one life's wandering do not arise". (11)


        Albert Einstein, the famous German physicist, in his Testament wrote that : "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a person God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense, arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description". (12) How will Buddhism be understood through this inclusive and thoughtful statement of one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century ?

        A. Buddhism - The Religion Which Transcends A Person God, Dogmas, and Theology and The Doctrine of Dependent Origination and The Doctrine of Cause and Effects.

        In essence, Buddhism is a system of teachings which shows us the way to return to our primordial nature or our true nature. Once standing on the ground of our true nature, we will recognize the true nature of other human existences as well as other existing beings around us like bird, stone, branch of tamarind tree. This is the interdependent relations or the Dependent Origination of the reality. Simultaneously, with the realization of his true nature and those of other existing beings, man also realizes that, it is his volitional actions that create and shape his own destiny-as Lord Buddha said : "Owner of their karma are the beings, heirs of their karma, the karma is their womb from which they are born, their karma is their friend, their refuge". (13) In Dhammapada, Lord Buddha also taught us : "By oneself alone is evil done, by oneself alone is evil avoided, by oneself alone is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one can purity another". (Attana° 'va katam pa°pam, attana° sankilissati, attana° akatam pa°pam, attana° 'va visujjhati ; suddhi asuddhi asuddhi paccattam na°nno annam visodhage) (14) This sugests that The Buddha did not recognize any super natural power which exerted over control human life. In Buddhism, man is the only sentient being who has volitional actions. He has to harvest and accept the consequences of these actions and, doing so, he lives his own fate...

        The doctrine of causes and effects in Buddhism asserts that both good karma and bad karma are the end results of man 's psychological and physical actions ; and that through the relation of cause and effect, man establishes his own karma with his good and evil actions. It also affirms that man has the potential capacities to liberate himself from the life which he has created and lived with his own psychological attitude and actions accumulated in successive previous lives ; that is the orientated biological causation.

        As a consequence, the doctrine of causes and effects awakens in man the inner power which makes him to be himself and transforms him into his own creator with responsibilities and obligations. In other words, the doctrine of causes and effects liberates man from the ruling power of person God, dogmas and theology. Once liberated, man would understand that he has to be responsible for all the consequences of his own psychological states and volitional actions and should not look for any salvation outside himself. St. Paul 's famous statement that : If Christ be not raised in you, your faith is vain, ye are yet in your sins" (15) - seems to acknowledge man 's self liberating power (once he is aware of the causes and effects of his own actions).

        B. Buddhism - The Religion Which Comprises Both The Natural and Spiritual ; and The Doctrine of Sunya°ta.

        If Buddhism cuts through the natural world with prism of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppa° - anatta), it illuminates the metaphysical world by spot lighting at the latter 's emptiness (Sunya°ta). The metaphysical world is empty because it does not reside in forms and sounds and goes beyond all appearances (Buddhist terms called Na§ma - Ru§pa : mentality and corporeality). It is in the realm of non-dualism (Asunyata°-Abha°va°).

        As discussed above, in Buddhism, the process of becoming (Bhava) and existence of human beings and nature is viewed as the operation of a myriad interconnecting causations and conditions (yakti). In this intricate operation, there is no single object that can live independently, without being interconnected with its surrounding, and / or in disharmony with its constituents.

        On this irrefutable interconnecting conditions of the human and natural world, Buddha said :

        "No God, no Brahma can be found
        No matter of this wheel of life
        Just bare phenomena roll
        Dependent on Conditions all" (16)

        In other words, there is no prime force which sets in motion the operation of the human and natural world. This is the foundation of doctrine of Paticcasamuppa° - anatta, which consists of the teachings of non-ego (pudgalanaira§tmya) and non-substantiality of things (dharmanairatmya). It is also called the doctrine of Sunyata or Emptiness.

        As a philosophical concept, Sunyata (Emptiness or E'tat de vacuite¨) is the nature of the original reality, or the absolute reality. Man recognizes and is conscious of Sunyata when he becomes one with the absolute reality. However, it is important to note that Sunyata is not the opposite of substantiality like the Have not versus the Have or the Negative (asat) versus the Affirmative (sat). Neither does it mean a complete absence of content. In trying to understand the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, many people tend to turn to logical reasoning and different sets of opposite categories and subcategorizes such as "to be" or "not to be" to define it with the irsecular philosophical mind - set. However, in doing so, they are entangled in an endless web of dualistic concepts such as to be (bhava) not to be (abhava), birth or death, permanence or impermanence, coming or going without directly experiencing or living with the original and ultimate Reality which exists right in this very life. Lord Buddha taught us that, all phenomenon (dharma) do not have a true self (svabhava) ; neither birth or death that is pure and Tathata by nature or it is Sarvadharma°su°nyata° (all is Emptiness). Consequently, Sunyata and Tathata are the same. They are omnipresent and everlasting.

        Following is the examination of the concept of Sunyata according to the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of knowledge-only (Prajna°timatra).

        First, Sunyata is the true nature of dharma or the existing substantiality. When man recognizes the entirely of Sunyata, he becomes enlightened. Saying that does not mean to negate the existing substantiality or the world of phenomena, but to affirm that man or the subject which recognizes and the world or the object which is recognized are created, and exist in a great number of causes and effects systems. They are not independent and self contained entities. They are non-entities. According to The Buddhist philosophy of Knowledge-Only, in Buddhism all existing beings has three natures :

        - Temporary nature (Parikalpita - svabhava)

        - Dependent nature (Paratantra - svabhava)

        - Absolute nature (Parinispanna - svabhava)

        1. Temporary Nature :

        Ordinarily, man has a habitual tendency to control and to posses the objective world. This is resulted in the idea that the world are made up of living independent objects. But in reality, these object do not have any intrinsic attribute. Their nature is emptiness and no-self. So the so called independent nature that men imposed on the world is called the temporary nature. The temporary nature is formed in the process of interaction between man 's senses which are determined by his physical and psychological make up and the objective world. In Buddhist terms man 's physical and psychological make up is called Skandhas (five aggregates of body), Aěyatana (six spheres of sense organs), and Dhatus (body remains).

        2. The Dependent Nature :

        Although the temporary nature is unreal, it does not suggest that thing are not actually existing. The key issure here is to explain and illustrate the process of becoming of things.

        And yet this process of becoming is made up of the consequences of paticcasamuppa°da or interconnecting causations. Therefore the nature of the process of becoming of things is impermanent, ever changing, and self annihilating (anitya - uccheda). This view of the objective world refuses all man 's attempts to reduce the world into an individual, unique and self contained entity. It also rejects the theories of "Chances" and "Coincidences" which advocates the simplistic and mechanical operation of the material world. As a result, if one rejects the dependent nature of the world, he will automatically and inevitably become the victim of nihilism. And he also rejects the reality which is actually becoming through the operation of the myriad of interconnecting condition.

        3. The Absolute Nature :

        Existing beings are Tathata (Suchness) because by nature, they do not have temporary natures in themselves. Neither do they have the dependent nature in themselves because the dependent nature consists of series of causes and effects and by nature is non substantiality. That is to say they are empty. As a result, at the level of language and logical thinking what we call the inherent nature of things never really exist. It is non-self or Anatta.

        In summation, of the three natures of things. The temporary nature to shows that by nature the world is empty, the dependent nature illustrates that man and his world are dependently originated and the absolute nature asserts that the Tathata essence or Nirvana exists right in physical and psychological world, not in any other worlds regardless of how fantastically this other world is imagined. As a result to experience the Emptiness of the world one has no other way except to live or to merge with the three natures of the existing world. This is the actual process of living with reality and attaining the Enlightenment in the Buddhist prajna§ptima°tra philosophy


        To practice Buddhism is to lead a way of life with the motto : "Not to do evil, to do good, to purity one's mind". The Buddha's enlightenment is the end of the spiritual journey, full of hardships and deprivations. It was the supreme will power and the extraordinary energy which has transformed Prince Siddhartha from a man with a deep religious consciousness and a wholesome life into a Buddha. Buddha is the sentient being who had reached enlightenment and obtained great wisdom.

        Therefore, it is necessary to affirm that it is the inner experience of each individual that would lead him to the supreme enlightenment and that enlightenment is the moment that the supreme wisdom or The Boddhicitta in one individual blossoms and radiates to all sentient and natural beings. Lord Buddha said that : All sentient beings can become Buddha. On the path to enlightenment, one has to light the torch and hold it to show the way for himself ; in the ocean of samsara (Cycles of life), each individual has to be an isolated island ; I, Tathagata is merely a teacher in principle. (17).

        According to Buddhism, the religious consciousness and the inner individual experience are the two extremely important factors in man 's path to his enlightenment. They are the keys which control man's thinking and action in his relations with the outside world. As a result, consciousness or mind is always the bases of Buddhist training. Buddha said : "Mind is the forerunner of all (evil condition) - Mind is chief ; and they are mind - made. If, with an impure mind, one speaks or acts, then pain follows one even as the wheel, the hoof of the Ox". "... If, with a pure mind, one speaks or acts, then happiness follows one even as the shadow that never leaves" (Manopubhanga ; manasa° le padutthena, bha°sati va° karoti va°, tato nam dukkhamanveti, cakkam 'va vahato padam... mana°sa le pasannena, bha°sati va° karoti va°, tato nam sukhamanveti, cha°ya° 'va anapa°yiný". (18)


        To lead a Buddhist way of life, whether it is to cultivate faith in Buddha or to take refuge the three jewels, man has to have the correct consciousness or the pure mind. The Buddhist term for this is Ehipasiko, which means "Come and recognize". Buddhism does not teach man to believe in, obey and worship anything that he does not know or cannot recognize ; the term Ehipasiko also implies the inner experience of enlightenment that is only known by the individual himself. In a Buddhist life, not the idol of worship but man is the most important matter. As a result, a real Buddhist has to develop for himself a life of religious sense and an inner spiritual experience. The combination of these two elements will ultimately give rise to the absolute truth or the spiritual value. With them, one will develop the omniscient mind which rises above all delusions and defilements. Only then, a life - force will surge from within and brilliantly radiate into the world. This inner life-force will fearlessly and gladly receive any infringements and not be hindered by any obstacles. On the path to reach the highest perfection in the spiritual life, each step forward is a belittlement of the ego. Only when one reaches a totally egoless state, Nirvana will rise in his life and right in this world.

        To conclude this paper I would like to read Venerable Thich Thien Sieu 's statement about Nirvana : "Nirvana is something which outrightly rejects the ego. Nirvana is indefinite and spaceless. It is very difficult to enter Nirvana because it is formless (Aristaka). To enter Nirvana, we must also be as formless as Nirvana. The entrance to Nirvana is very narrow. It is as thin as hair feather, so thin that we cannot go through it, if we still carry our possessions with us, be it our body, our concept of the "I" and the "ego". The bigger our ego becomes, the further we will be away from Nirvana. So it is ruled that ego will lead to Samsara ; non-ego to Nirvana" (19)

        Thank you.

        Notes :

        (1) OXFORD Advanced Learner's Dictionary, Jonathan Crowther, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, p. 762.

        (2) Why Religion ?, K. Sri. Dhammananda, The Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, 1966, p. 06.

        (3) Ibid, p. 06.

        (4) Ibid, p. 06.

        (5) Ibid, p. 07.

        (6) Ibid, p. 07.

        (7) Ibid, p. 07.

        (8) Ibid, p. 08.

        (9) One should be cautions about the do-goodlism that Thomas paine advocated here. Not all the people who do good are religious. Further more, doing good does not mean the same thing to different nations, peoples and races. Taking the issue of family planing by modern medical devices for instance. It may mean loving kindness to some but unkindness to others.

        (10a and b) Essay in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, Vol I, p. 53.

        (11) reference omitted

        (12) Extracted from, Đa´i C÷˘ng Trießt Ho´c Ph÷˘ng ĐoÔng, Ha° Thu¨c Minh - Minh Chi, Tr÷˘°ng Đa´i Ho´c Toňng H˘´p, TP. HoÓ ChÝ Minh, HCMC, 1994, p. 10.

        (13) Majjhima Nikaya. 135, from Buddhist Dictionary Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Nyanatikola, Frewin & Co. Ltd. Colombo, Ceylon, 1972, p. 77.

        (14) Dhammapada, ThÝch Minh Chau, Buddhist Institute of Hochiminh City, 1990, p. 97.

        (15) Essay in Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, Vol I, p. 57.

        (16) The Path of Purification, Bhadantacariya Buddha-Gkosa, translated from the Pali, Comlombo, Ceylon, 1956.

        (17) In Nikaya and Mahayana Sutras.

        (18) Dhammapada, Na°rada, Vajira°ra°ma, Colombo, 1962.

        (19) Nirvana is Non-self, Thich Thien Sieu, Buddhist Institute of Vietnam, Hochiminh City, 1990, Statement quoted on the back cover. (Ven, Thich Thien Sieu is the Head of the Buddhist Central Educational Committee in Vietnam).

Back to Psychology of Religion Home Page ...or.... Top of this file