(Note: The text below is an abridged English translation of an earlier post titled “西方學者談佛教“, which gives a brief account of comments on Buddhism made by a few prominent Western scholars such as Thomas Huxley, Thomas William Rhys Davids, H.G. Wells, Bertrand A.W. Russell, Albert Einstein, and J. Robert Oppenheimer.)
Buddism originated in the northeastern part of India. It later spread southwards to Sri Lanka and Indochina, northwards to China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, and westwards to Persia, the Middle East, and the West. Yet among the places where Buddhism spread to, it was mainly in parts of the East Asian region that Buddhism was accepted by the local people and managed to become the mainstream religion of the community. Intellectuals in the West did not encounter Buddhism until the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time some European countires, with Christianity being their mainstream religion, tried to establish colonies in Africa and Asia. It was a time when ideas of humanity and science were becoming prevalent. Even Christianity found itself in the difficult situation of gradually losing its believers. It would be much harder to imagine that Buddhism, a religion that the Western world had just begun to know about, would become the mainstream religion as it had in East Asia.
Nevertheless, there indeed have been a number of intellectuals in the West whose views on Buddhism are quite positive. This post aims at introducing to its readers a few Western scholars’ views on this centuries-old religion: Buddhism.
Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895), a 19th-century biologist, wrote in his work Evolution and Ethics, “[Buddhism is] a system which knows no God in the Western sense; which denies a soul to man; which counts the belief in immortality a blunder and hope of it a sin; which refuses any efficacy to prayer and sacrifice; which bids men look to nothing but their own effortsfor salvation.” He also said, “Alone of all the great world religions Buddhism made its way without persecution censorship or inquisition.”
In other words, Huxley was aware that Buddhism refutes, on the basis of the doctrine of Dependent Origination (i.e. “When this exists, that exists; when this arises, that arises; when this is not, that is not; when this ceases, that ceases”), and the notion of the existence of an omnipotent Creator God, which is upheld by Christianity, the mainstream religion in the West. Furthermore, he also understood the idea of “impermanence”: immortality is impossible since “all phenomena are impermanent”. Also, liberation from the suffering of samsara is entirely dependent upon one’s own practicing efforts since an omnipotent God is non-existent. It is therefore obvious that Huxley understood the basic spirit of Buddhism.
Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843-1922), the English scholar who founded the Pali Text Society in the 19th century, said, “Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world, and in none of them have I found anything to surpass, in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that path.”
Rhys Davids was an expert in the Pali language. He taught Pali for more than two decades at the London University, and was highly proficient in religious texts of ancient India, especailly scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. His highly positive appraisal of Buddhism reflects how positive those Western scholars who had an understanding of ancient Oriental culture and religions were about the superiority of Buddhism as a thought system.
In his book The Three Greatest Men in History, renowned British novelist, news reporter, politician, sociologist and historian H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote, “In the Buddha you see clearly a man, simple, devout, lonely, battling for light — a vivid human personality, not a myth. He too gave a message to mankind universal in character. Many of our best modern ideas are in closest harmony with it. All the miseries and discontents are due, he taught, to selfishness. Before a man can become serene he must cease to live for his senses or himself. Then he merges into a great being. Buddha in different language called men to self-forgetfulness 500 years before Christ. In some ways he is nearer to us and our needs. He was more lucid upon our individual importance and service than Christ and less ambiguous upon the question of personal immortality.” He further remarked, “It is possible that in contact with Western science, and inspired by the spirit of history, the original teaching of Gotama, revived and purified, may yet play a large part in the direction of human destiny.”
Wells’ positive recognition of the Buddha is also positive recognition of Buddhism. He grasped the Buddhist concepts such as “no-self”, “life is suffering” and the root of “suffering” and the means to eliminate it, and he emphasized that while Buddhism has a history longer than Christianity, it has high relevance to the current time, and that it plays the role of giving modern man a guidance in establishing the direction of development of human beings. This is indeed a highly positive appraisal of Buddhism.
Bertrand A.W. Russell (1872-1970) was a very influential philosopher, mathematician, logician, and political activist of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. He once said, “Of the great religions of history, I prefer Buddhism, especially in its earliest forms; because it has had the smallest element of persecution.” He also said, “What is mind and matter? Of them, which is of greater importance? Is the universe moving towards a goal? What is man’s position? Is there living that is noble?” “It takes up where science cannot lead because of the limitations of the latter’s instruments. Its conquests are those of the mind.”
People who know Russell’s religious outlook know that he was an atheist who did not like religions in general. Therefore, his remarks about Buddhism above reflects that he looked at Buddhism in a different light. This may be due to the fact that he is at the same time a philosopher, while Buddhist thoughts are rich in philosophical flavor.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, was selected by America’s Times Magazine as “Person of the Millennium”. He was ranked the first among the twenty greatest scientists and thinkers in the past millennium. The Theoretical Physicist who put forward the Theory of Relativity admired Buddhism very much. He once said, “If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” He also said, “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the 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.”
One would have thought that such remarks on Buddhism were made by a Buddhist if one did not know who Einstein was. Einstein was a pantheist, who does not accept the existence of a personified God who dominates the universe. In 1954, in a letter written in English, he wrote, “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.” Russell was mainly a philosopher, while Einstein was a physicist, but they both rejected the existence of an omnipotent God and both made such favorable comments on Buddhism. This fully reflects that the Buddhist doctrine is very convincing.
Another prominent physicist of last century was J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), who was the person-in-charge of America’s ‘”Manhattan Project” and was called “The Father of the Atomic Bomb”. He once said, “If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron’s position changes with time, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say ‘no;’ if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say ‘no.’ The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of man’s self after his death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century science.”
Conceptually speaking, the statement made by Oppenheimer above in answering the question of whether the electron is at rest or is in motion matches closely with the notion of “Eightfold Negation Middle Way” put forward by Nagarjuna, an important Buddhist master of the second century CE. The meaning in Nagarjuna’s four concise gathas stating this “Eightfold Negation Middle Way” were a lot more complex and profound than Oppenheimer’s statement here. The gathas are: “Not arising and not ceasing; Not everlasting and not severed; Not identical and not different; Not approaching and not departing”. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer’s words indicate that he had an understanding of and respect for the dialectical elements in Buddhism and how such elements match with the understanding of contemporary physics with regard to the ultimate condition of substances.
This post briefly introduces to its readers the views of a few prominent Western scholars on Buddhism, in the hope that they get an idea of the position of Buddhism in the eyes of these intellectuals.
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