Types of Problems that People Suffer from Today
Why are more people turning to Buddhism in our modern times? Of course there’s a great variety of reasons, because there’s a great variety of people and everybody’s an individual, but I think that most people nowadays are turning to Buddhism because they recognize that their lives have more and more problems. There are some problems that have been going on for as long as there have been people on this planet, and probably even before that, with animals before there were humans: the problems of relating to each other, problems that come up from anger, from fights, from disputes. These are problems that everybody has been facing almost forever, so nothing special about what you or I experience now. And then of course there are more recent problems that just make things even more difficult, like economic problems and problems of wars and so on. So people are feeling these problems more and more. And they are not finding solutions for them, how to deal with them on a personal level, particularly in terms of their emotions, their minds. They’re not finding solutions for these in what is available to them already.
But one of the wonderful developments of the modern time is communication, particularly in what we now call the Information Age, and even more with the Age of Social Media. So that means that more and more information is available to us about many alternative systems. And many great Buddhist leaders, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have been travelling around the world. And many people have witnessed, seen for themselves with their own eyes, those who have managed to develop themselves to an extraordinary level so that they are able to have a peaceful, calm, loving mind in the face of some of the most difficult situations, like losing your country. So this has added the quality of inspiration from a living person, which is very important in addition to just information that we can get on the internet or in books.
So people turn to Buddhism primarily because they are looking for some solution to problems that they face and they are hopeful that Buddhism will be able to offer some way to deal with life. This is the case whether Buddhism is something quite foreign to their society or it might be a traditional system of your people.
The Rational Side of Buddhism
Now, within this framework of looking to Buddhism to offer solutions, different aspects of Buddhism will appeal to different people. If we look at what His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes, what he emphasizes, and many people find this very appealing, is the rational, analytical, and practical sides of Buddhism. He points out that the approach in Buddhism is very much like the approach in science, which means that we don’t just accept various principles simply on the basis of blind belief and devotion, but rather we follow the scientific method of using logic and reason, deep analysis, and a pragmatic approach of trying it ourselves – experimenting and seeing if the methods taught in Buddhism actually produce the results that they say they will produce, in terms of peace of mind, being able to deal with problems in a better way. And being very practical in our approach, not idealistic, but practical in terms of what is realistic, what will actually help us in our daily lives.
And in addition to this, if there are aspects in the traditional Buddhist teachings which are proven to be incorrect or inconsistent with the findings of science – for instance, about the structure of the universe – then His Holiness is quite happy to drop all of that from the Buddhist teachings and substitute instead the view from science, because there’s nothing contradictory. Because Buddhism emphasizes reality not fantasy, and Buddha came not to teach us geography, but to teach us a way to deal with our problems in life. And the traditional teachings about the size of this planet, the distance from our Earth to the Sun and the Moon – these sort of things were just explained in the traditional ways in which people understood this two and a half thousand years ago. So the traditional teachings about those things are not really important; that’s not the main substance of the Buddha’s teachings. And His Holiness challenges the scientists to disprove, for example, rebirth, and not just dismiss it from consideration simply on the basis of saying, “I don’t think so.” “I don’t think so” is not a valid reason for saying that something doesn’t exist.
So this is something that certainly appeals to people with a more rational mind. And there has been a great deal of what we could call cross-fertilization between the Buddhist side, led by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the side of the scientists. Particularly in the field of medicine, because one of the main points that is made by the Buddhist teachings in this regard is that our health is very much affected by our state of mind. If we are very pessimistic – very negative, and always worrying about me, me, me, and so on – this weakens the immune system and our sicknesses get worse and we don’t recover so quickly. Whereas if we are optimistic, if we are thinking of everybody else who also has this type of sickness and our family and so on, then we are not complaining all the time. Our minds and hearts are much more at peace, and this strengthens the immune system. The scientists have carried out various investigations about these points and they have been shown to be true, so these methods are encouraged in many hospitals now.
Also there are many methods from Buddhism that help very much with pain control. Pain is bad enough just by itself, but if you add to that fear and being very, very tight inside emotionally about it, it just makes it worse. There are various methods that Buddhism teaches with breathing meditation that help us to deal in a much better way with pain, and these have also been tested and then promoted in various hospitals. These methods do not require a whole Buddhist envelope within which to carry it. You don’t need the Buddhist teachings to be explained in any sort of detail to people in order for them to follow these methods. These are universally available methods that anybody can adopt within any belief system. But because they derive from the Buddhist teachings, then people become a little bit interested in, well, what are these Buddhist teachings about in more detail. We saw the same type of phenomenon with people who practice martial arts. The martial arts developed in Buddhist societies, and so many people who have practiced them have taken interest in what were the Buddhist backgrounds of these teachings.
Inspiration from Spiritual Teachers
But of course there are many people who are not terribly rationally oriented, who are not very scientifically oriented in their approach to life, so different aspects of Buddhism have appealed to them. One aspect I’ve already hinted at when I referred to inspiration from great spiritual masters: With more and more great spiritual masters travelling around the world, and their teachings being available in books and audio and video recordings on the internet, people who are more devotionally oriented have been greatly inspired. When many people have been disappointed in the various leaders that they have heard about or encountered, whether in the economic sphere, political sphere, or whatever – and so they’re a bit disappointed – they look to these Buddhist masters with great hope, that here they will find somebody that is more pure.
And of course we need to be realistic: Not every spiritual teacher that comes around from a Buddhist background is completely pure. After all they’re humans, like we are too. So they have their strong points, their weak points. But quite a large number of them are really quite extraordinary. And so people have been greatly inspired – some people, I should say – have been greatly inspired by these masters, the foremost one, as I said, being His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So what arises in their minds and in their hearts is: “I wish I could become like that.” They serve as a model for what is actually possible for us to achieve, each of us, individually. Because somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, “There’s nothing special about me.” In fact, Buddha as well said, “Nothing special about me. I started out the same as you. I had and have the same working materials as you do – mind, heart, basic human values of taking care of others, and so on. And I worked very hard to develop them, and if you work hard as well you will be able to develop them as well.” So people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama try not to encourage people putting him way, way up as something super-holy and impossible for us to relate to or become like him. And so this is very appealing to those who are more devotionally oriented, not so scientific in their approach to life.
Reviving a Tradition of Buddhist Practice
Then in places that have traditionally been Buddhist, in which, because of various circumstances, the availability of the Buddhist practice has declined, then another appeal of Buddhism in the modern day is to try to revive tradition. This is a very important and valid approach because, as we face the challenges of modernization, it’s very important to have a sense of self-confidence and self-worth. If we are told that everything that our ancestors believed in was total nonsense and if we want to truly enter the modern world we have to forget about all of that, then we have a very low opinion of ourselves and our ancestors. It makes us feel that somehow we are no good, we are stupid. And with that as a belief, emotional belief, we lack any feeling of self-worth or self-confidence; we don’t have a basis to feel proud about upon which we can grow. And so turning to our traditional customs and beliefs and reviving them is a very important part, I believe, in giving us the emotional basis for further growth and modernization.
Now of course, within any tradition there will be strong points and there will be weaknesses that perhaps have been abused, and it’s important to emphasize those strong points. In one school of modern psychology, there’s a great emphasis on the principle of loyalty. Everybody has a drive to be loyal to their family, their clan, their religion, whatever it might be. And loyalty can go in two directions, either being loyal to positive qualities or loyal to negative qualities. For example, if a tradition had a negative quality of intolerance toward other traditions, and if this is what has been emphasized about that tradition, then people who reject that tradition still stay loyal to that attitude of intolerance. And so they reject it and then they’re very intolerant of anybody who could possibly have believed that way. This is negative loyalty, or misplaced loyalty. On the other hand, if one doesn’t deny the weaknesses, the weak points of a tradition, but emphasizes, again, instead the positive aspects, then people can be loyal to those positive aspects without having a blind eye toward the weak points which might cause them to repeat them. So this is another appeal of Buddhism, particularly in areas where it has been the traditional system. It has become an area in which to help to revive and develop a sense of self-worth and so on about our culture, about our ancestors, about ourselves.
The Exotic Side of Buddhism
There’s another group of people who find Buddhism appealing based on their own fantasies. They have problems in life and they’re looking for some magical, exotic solution to them, and Buddhism – particularly in the Tibetan/Mongolian/Kalmyk version of it – is filled with all sorts of exotic things: all these various deities with all their faces and arms and legs, all these mantras, and so on. They seem a little bit like magic words – that all we have to do is recite them a million times and all our problems will be gone. And there must be something magical about all these figures with all the arms and legs. And so they look to Buddhism as a method for gaining happiness and so on through these, as I said, magical type of methods.
Although they may gain some benefit from practicing these methods (there’s no denying that there is some benefit, even if we approach Buddhism in this rather idealistic, unrealistic manner), His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that this is not really realistic. It might have some benefit, but in the long term you’ll get disappointed because, unfortunately, there are no magic solutions. If we really want to gain peace of mind and be able to overcome our problems in life, we have to face those aspects of ourselves which are not too nice or comfortable to face. We have to face and deal with our anger, our selfishness, our greed, our attachments, and so on. And just looking for some magic solution and ignoring these personal issues is really not going to help very much. But of course there are many people who still find the appeal of Buddhism in these more exotic features.
So in short, we see that there are many different aspects of Buddhism that people find attractive and appealing, but all of them derive from the basic wish to find in Buddhism methods that will help us to overcome problems in life and suffering. And regardless of what draws us to find some way of dealing with life through Buddhism, what is so wonderful about the Buddha’s teachings that everybody likes is that it actually offers us methods to follow that are intended to help us to overcome problems. It’s a living tradition with two and a half thousand years of experience, and there are still people who practice it and gain results. And so it’s just a matter of actually following these methods; it’s all laid out. And not just one method, but many, many different types of methods that Buddha taught upon the realization that everybody’s an individual and different people find different methods more useful. This is something that people find very wonderful, because within the whole variety of Buddhist methods, like having a very large menu at a restaurant, we can usually find something that suits us; and if we try one thing and it doesn’t suit us, there are many other things that are available. And the fact that we live in the Information Age means that a larger and larger number of these methods are available to us, no matter where we live.