Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott's reforms of the 19th Century
and their Cultural Significance

Part IV

postage stamp issued
in 1967 to commemorate Olcott
Ceylonese postage stamp issued in 1967 to commemorate Olcott's contributions to the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival

In the monotheisms God is the father and he is a living god affecting the world we live in. The lesson we learn from psychoanalytic theory is that in childhood it is easy for the child to identify with his or her own father and in a further symbolic move identify with God the father. No such situation obtains in Buddhism because the Buddha is no longer alive and no longer affects the world we live in.

How then is the internalization of the non-living Buddha effected? And how is he made to live in the conscience of individuals? This must be through exactly the sources I have referred to earlier—to stories that deal with the Buddha when he was alive, not only in his last birth as Buddha, but in his previous existences. It is these stories, and the devotional practices associated with the Buddha worship, that render the Buddha psychologically alive in the conscience of Buddhists and in turn affect their ethical practices in everyday living as well as in situations of crisis.

Through these sets of devotional practices and beliefs the Buddha is made to live in the conscience of Buddhists. What kind of figure is he though? In the Buddhist imagination he is totally idealized, a fully benevolent being. If the Christian god is isomorphic, on one level with the father, the Buddha is different. To use a Freudian term he represents in a psychological sense the good parental imago, a composite of both the idealized father and mother. This isomorphism appears in Buddhist language use where one wishes a loving parent, irrespective of gender, to achieve future Buddhahood. However, language cannot always express the emotional attitude to the Buddha since he is a male and is so perceived. Yet an another level, below consciousness, the Buddha has strong maternal characteristics. He is as the texts say the embodiment of karuna (kindness-empathy) and compassion (maitri). This attitude to the Buddha was noted very early by Bishop Gogerly:

In morals the Buddhists look on their own religion and that of the Christian as identical, so that without formal hypocrisy they fancy they can find themselves justified in making profession of both. The doctrine of Christ shedding his blood for the redemption of men is not in opposition to their previous habits of thought, for they are taught by their own books that if all the blood lost by Buddha himself in his different transmigrations for the benefit of sentient beings were collected, it would be more than the waters of the ocean.

The Buddhist conscience, in-so-far as it contains a set of internalized norms, is not a punishing one, so that there is little in the literature that deals with a tormented religious conscience. It is impossible to have a Buddhist writer turn out anything like Hopkins's terrible sonnets; there is no Saint Thomas of the Cross; no Saint Theresa with her "wild laments". I am not suggesting that people in Buddhist societies do not suffer the torment of the conscience, but it is rarely expressed in a Buddhist idiom.

Admittedly I have sketched an idealized rather than an empirical picture of the formation and contents of the Buddhist conscience. This idealized picture was implemented in different degrees of efficacy or completeness among different individuals in the multiplicity of villages that constitute Buddhist nations. It is this Buddhist conscience, wherever it existed, that mitigated the dark underside of the political religion as exemplified in such historical texts like the Mahavamsa. I am suggesting that this Conscience formation depended heavily on popular religion, especially the stories I have discussed. But this tradition of stories have virtually become defunct today, since they have little place in the new philosophical Buddhism advanced by Olcott and taken over by many educated Buddhists. However Olcott cannot be fully blamed for this situation. The popular religion that I spoke of was also rooted in institutional forms and devotional practices that operated on the village level. With the development of a large middle class, these practices could not replicated on the urban level. Most of the devotional practices are also viewed by middle class people as those of uneducated peasants.

Moreover, in the last several decades, Buddhism has been subject to an extraordinary level of politicization that has consumed the energies of Buddhists. Yet whatever the reasons, the tradition of stories and the institutional practices associated with it have virtually disappeared from the lives of middle class and urban Buddhists. It is rarely that parents tell Buddhist stories to their children; they are much more comfortable with Western fairy tales. The large repertoire of stories that existed in the Buddhist imagination has shrunk to the few that are found in Buddhist texts for school children. And school texts, which many children hate because they have to study them to pass exams, is simply no way of socializing the conscience.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V