Humanistic Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha, was born into this world. He cultivated himself in this world, attained awakening in this world, and shared with others the deep truths he realized in this world. The human world was emphasized in everything he did.

Why did the Buddha attain awakening as a human being, and not as a heavenly being, an asura, an animal, a ghost, or in hell? Taking this question one step further, why did the Buddha not attain awakening in the distant future or the forgotten past? Why did he choose our world and our time? There can only be one reason: the Buddha wanted the teachings of Buddhism to be relevant to the human world.

The Buddha’s life as a human being can serve as inspiration and as a model for spiritual practice in our own lives. We call the teachings of the Buddha “Humanistic Buddhism” to emphasize that they can be integrated into all aspects of our daily lives.  Humanistic Buddhism has six characteristics:

  1. Humanity. The Buddha did not come or go without leaving a trace, nor was he some sort of illusion. The Buddha was a living human being. Just like the rest of us, he had parents, a family, and he lived a life. It was through this human life that he showed his great loving-kindness and compassion, his moral character, and his wisdom.

  2. Emphasis on daily life. The Buddha taught that we must practice his teachings in our daily lives. He provided guidance on everything, from how to eat, dress, work, and live, to how to walk, stand, sit, and sleep. He gave clear directions on every aspect of life, from how to maintain our relationships with family and friends to how we should conduct ourselves in the social and political arenas.

  3. Altruism. The Buddha was born into this world to teach, to provide an example, and to bring joy to all beings. He nurtured all beings, for he always had the best interests of others in his mind. In short, his every thought, word, and action arose from a deep care and concern for others.

  4. Joyfulness. The Buddhist teachings give people joy. Through the limitless compassion of his heart, the Buddha aimed to relieve the suffering of all beings so that they could be happy.

  5. Timeliness. The Buddha arose in this world for one great matter: to build a special relationship with all of us who live in this world. Although the Buddha lived some 2,500 years ago and has already entered nirvana, he left the seed of liberation for all subsequent generations. Even today, the Buddha’s ideals and teachings serve as timely, relevant guides for us all.

  6. Universality. The entire life of the Buddha can be characterized by the Buddha’s spirit of wanting to liberate all beings, without exclusion. The Buddha loved beings of all forms, whether they were animals or humans, male or female, young or old, Buddhist or not Buddhist, he cared for all without distinction.

For some, it is difficult to see how Buddhism is relevant to our modern lives. I can still recall a debate I once heard between the Confucian philosopher Liang Shuming, and the great Buddhist reformer Master Taixu. Master Taixu had invited Liang Shuming to lecture at Hanzang Buddhist Seminary, and he began his lecture writing three words on the blackboard: “now,” “here,” and “us.” Mr. Liang explained, “It is because of these three words that I gave up Buddhism and decided to study Confucianism.”

After the lecture, Master Taixu offered his insight. Though Buddhism talks about the ancient past and distant future, it particularly emphasizes the universal welfare of beings in the present moment. And while Buddhist cosmology discusses countless other worlds, it is this world which is most important. Buddhism acknowledges many kinds of beings within the ten dharma realms, it reserves the most attention for the human condition.

Buddhism is a religion for people, and human concerns are at its root. Throughout the Buddhist sutras the Buddha emphasized that he too was part of the sangha to emphasize that he was not a god. The Vimalakirti Sutra states: “The Buddha realm is found among sentient beings. Apart from sentient beings, there is no Buddha. Apart from the assembly, one cannot find the Way.” Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School, said, “The Dharma is within the world, apart from this world there is no awakening. Seeking awakening apart from the world is like looking for a rabbit’s horn.” To become Buddhas, we must train and cultivate ourselves in the world. There is simply no other way. Now that we have been fortunate enough to be reborn as human beings, we should integrate our practice of Buddhism into our daily lives.

In Buddhism, this human birth is seen as a precious thing that we should not take for granted. In fact, the Samyukta Agama draws the following analogy: Imagine there is a blind sea turtle in a vast ocean. Floating on top of the vast ocean is a wooden ring, just big enough for the tortoise to fit his head. If the turtle only comes up for air once every one hundred years, the likelihood that he will poke his head through the hole is greater than the chance of being reborn as a human being. The Agamas also say, “The number of beings who lose their human birth are as numerous as the particles of dust on the earth. The comparative number of those who are able to gain a human birth are as scarce as the dirt under a fingernail.” This shows how rare and precious human life is.

There are some Buddhists who hear about awakening and attaining Buddhahood and think that Buddhism is not for them. People who think this see Buddhism as a religion that is removed from humanity. They see an isolated Buddhism, a Buddhism removed to the mountains and forests, a self-centered Buddhism, and an individual Buddhism. For them it has lost its human quality. It has reached the point where many who are interested in learning more about Buddhism dare not do so; they hesitate as they peer in and wander about outside. We must redouble our effort and affirm that Buddhism is invested in the liberation of all sentient beings.

In the history of Buddhism, the first 100 to 300 years following the Buddha’s final nirvana was dominated by “Hinayana Buddhism.” The following 600 years saw the rise of “Mahayana Buddhism,” while Hinayana Buddhism receded from view. The next 1000 years saw the development of esoteric practice, or “Tantric Buddhism.” Humanistic Buddhism is an integration of all Buddhist teachings from the time of the Buddha until the present day—whether they are derived from the Early Buddhism, Mahayana, or Tantric traditions.

In China there are four sacred mountains that have become pilgrimage sites due to their association with the four great bodhisattvas: Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Samantabhadra, and Ksitigarbha. Of these four bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra manifest themselves as laypersons. Only Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva manifests himself as a monastic. Why? The life of a monastic emphasizes detachment from and transcendence of the mundane world, while the life of a layperson allows for the optimism and engagement that can realize the goals of Mahayana Buddhism.

Bodhisattvas are not only clay statues to be worshipped in temples. A bodhisattva is an energetic and endearing person who strives to guide all sentient beings to liberation. We can all be bodhisattvas. To fully realize the bodhisattva way of life is the goal of Humanistic Buddhism.

In Buddhism there is the concept of the “Pure Land.” The Pure Land is a realm created through the power of a Buddha’s vows to ease the suffering of living beings. All people would like to live in a place such as this. Buddhists frequently mention Amitabha Buddha’s Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss in the West, or the Medicine Buddha’s Pure Land of Azure Radiance in the East. But there are more Pure Lands than just those in the east or west. Maitreya Bodhisattva, who will become this world’s next Buddha, resides in the Tusita Pure Land, and the Vimalakirti Sutra mentions the Pure Land of the mind. Pure lands are everywhere.

Humanistic Buddhism seeks to create a Pure Land on earth. Instead of resting our hopes on being reborn in a Pure Land in the future, why don’t we work on transforming our world into a Pure Land of peace and bliss? Instead of committing all our energies to some later time, why don’t we direct our efforts toward purifying our minds and bodies right here and now in the present moment? Humanistic Buddhism focuses on the world right now, rather than on leaving the world behind, on caring for the living rather than caring for the dead, on benefitting others rather than benefitting oneself, and on liberating all beings rather than self-cultivation.

Whether one practices Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism, Esoteric or Exoteric Buddhism, Buddhism should maintain its emphasis on humanity so that it can remain relevant as times change. Because Humanistic Buddhism attends to the trends of the current age rather than merely following traditions blindly, it is a beacon for the future.

Humanistic Buddhism recognizes that the material and spiritual are equally important in life and therefore calls for a life that provides for both. There is the external world of action, and there is also the internal world of the mind. There is the world ahead of us and the world behind us. If we always insist on charging blindly into what is ahead, we will get hurt. It is important to look back, and look within. Humanistic Buddhism allows for both existence and emptiness, for having many possessions and no possessions, and for community and solitude. By finding the Middle Way in all things, Humanistic Buddhism allows people to achieve a beautiful and wonderful life.

I believe that being willing to serve others, giving others a helping hand, establishing friendly ties with others, and giving others joy are the teachings of the Buddha. Simply put, the goal of Humanistic Buddhism is to make Buddhism relevant in our world, in our lives, and in each of our hearts. Simply close your eyes, and the entire universe is there, within. Even if all people in the world abandon you, your Buddha nature will never leave you.

In today’s world, we are all burdened with responsibilities. We all feel stressed from our obligations in our homes, businesses, and families. So how can we live a happy and contented life? If we apply the Buddha’s teachings to our everyday lives then the whole universe can be ours, and we can be happy and at peace in all we do. This is the spirit of Humanistic Buddhism.