What ’should’ a Buddhist believe in ?
If you associate ‘Buddhism’ as something good, then it often follows that other causes you think to be ‘good’ should be associated with Buddhism. This grouping is something that the fabulous psychologist George Kelly called a ‘constellation construct’. It can be misleading.
For instance. Einstein had some positive things to say about Buddhism, and yet, why should we take the word of a mathematician seriously when it comes to religion? Because we associate Einstein with being clever, with being brainy, it is assumed that his views on topics other than cosmological mathematics are worthy. Rather like the old joke:
I found an old painting and an old violin in my attic and it turned out they are a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately Stradivarius was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made lousy violins.
What good causes should a Buddhist be supporting ? Vegetarianism? Environmental causes? Saving trees, whales, or rare Colombian toads? Left wing politics – should a Buddhist be an Obama voter ? Women’s rights, yoga, dietary awareness in schools, cancer research? Support for old people, young people, homeless people, sick people, Pans People?. Or how about resolving the energy crisis by installing solar panels, water collection/filtration, or a vertical axis wind turbine ? Arts, sports or national heritage?
In fact all the above really are good causes. But they are not the realm of Buddhism. It may well be that a particular Buddhist engages in a good cause – such as Thailand’s Phra Payom engaging in a large number of well run and beneficial social welfare causes. Or other temples engaging in helping AIDS patients or drug addicts. While these are good causes, they are not the aim of Buddhism.
The aim of Buddhism is ultimate enlightenment. Attaining the Summon bonum of existence, which we are assured is real, present, and attainable. Mother Teresa ran an awesome and inspiring Missionaries of Charity foundation that did great work – but it had its eyes set on the relief of illness rather than the Ultimate Good.
It does not have to be all or nothing – Westerners tend to take things to unreal extremes. There is no reason why you cannot incorporate volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity and still practise meditation and Buddhism. You can pursue an interest in wind turbines and compressed-air driven cars. You can engage in social welfare, or save trees etc… But these ‘good causes’ are not Buddhism, and we should not expect Buddhists to undertake or support them necessarily. The real and crucial role of the Sangha is to safeguard and maintain the teaching of Enlightenment, so that people of all following generations know that it is there. Even the Buddha had heard of enlightenment – it was called the Amata or Deathless. On the day of his Enlightenment he declared
I have discovered the Deathless
Had that teaching not been around, he would never have embarked on the Path.
So do not confuse the myriad of good causes with the teachings of Buddhism. These are a good cause, and a worthy cause in and of themselves for those who wish to follow. This is why Thais like to build big stupas or fancy dhamma halls. Why shouldn’t the religion of the society be celebrated? Some people complain the money should have been given to a ‘good cause’, and yet we see buildings all over Bangkok dedicated to perfume manufacturers or pastry schools (Ekamai), banks, cars, video games, cinemas and bars … and any number of other ultimately unenlightening organisations.