Within specific communities, there exists a committed cohort of individuals who tirelessly endeavor to protect and preserve the essence of Buddhism. Employing a diverse array of strategies, they work diligently to safeguard the teachings of this ancient philosophy.
Some individuals strive to accumulate significant material resources as a means of showcasing their political connections and prestige. Others claim to be committed to upholding the Buddha Dharma, employing various media tools to disseminate its teachings, albeit in a manner that may come across as uninspiring to some. In contrast, there is also a group that attempts to convey their level of understanding by satirizing events rooted in Buddhism. Unfortunately, it has not been uncommon for religious facts to be trivialized and transformed into comedy, not only in Sri Lanka but in numerous other countries. This trend extends beyond Buddhism, affecting multiple religions worldwide.
Embracing a profound philosophy like Buddhism requires significant dedication and effort from the individual practitioner. However, it is comparatively easier to gain social attention by proclaiming a dedication to protecting Buddhism from both visible and invisible threats or by criticizing and ridiculing aspects associated with a particular religion. Furthermore, such actions can be directly or indirectly employed to enhance one’s economic standing within a short period, essentially becoming a way of life. These are tactical maneuvers that have been utilized by various groups over time.
The crucial aspect to consider here is how individuals ought to conduct themselves in accordance with the principles of Dharma. It is imperative to apply the tenets of Dharma in one’s life and to genuinely comprehend its underlying truths. The preservation of Dharma lies in its adherence. A true follower of Dharma naturally imparts its principles to others within society. This was also the final request of Gautama Buddha when he introduced the Buddha Dharma to the world. Dharma holds significance in its practical application and not in distorting its principles to fulfill personal desires. This, in essence, is the fundamental truth.
In this article, the primary focus will be on the revolutionary impact Buddhism had on Western science at a time when many Eastern countries were misinterpreting the Dharma. Through the study of Buddhism, Western intellectuals gained insights into the profound transformation of human perception. While certain fundamental aspects of Buddhism as an art form were transmitted to the West, its deeper truths were subsequently subjected to the scrutiny of Western science.
Even before Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia, Greek artists and sculptors were depicting the human form in stone and metal, incorporating them into their beliefs. However, until approximately four hundred years after Gautama Buddha’s Great Parinirvana (nirvana-after-death), only symbols such as footprints, empty thrones, lotus flowers, and the Dharma Chakra were utilized to represent the Buddha. Buddhist communities were cautious not to create any images that were intended to resemble him, prioritizing the teachings of the dharma instead. These symbols reflected the Buddha’s teachings of emptiness and liberation from attachments.
However, when Alexander the Great invaded northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan (known as Gandhara at the time) in 327 BC and reached the northwestern borders of India, significant changes took place. It was during this period that the Indo-Greek descendants of Alexander’s army, who had settled in Gandhara and formed families with local women after the war, introduced an image believed to depict the face of Gautama Buddha into their artistic designs. It is said that the Greeks, who had a tradition of creating godlike images resembling humans, initially fashioned the image of the Buddha based on the depictions of Apollo, a god in Greek mythology. Apollo, the son of Zeus and Leto, was the twin brother of Artemis, and he was revered as the god of healing, medicine, archery, music, poetry, and the sun. Once the image, believed to represent the Buddha, was created, it quickly gained popularity, and other communities gradually incorporated it into their artwork.
According to historical evidence, areas such as Mathura, located approximately 180 km away from Delhi, and Sarnath, around 860 km away, saw the emergence of artworks depicting the image of the Buddha. Over time, these depictions gradually departed from Greek characteristics and assumed a local form to resonate with the respective communities. This progression laid the foundation for the creation of the colossal 71-meter-high Leshan Buddha statue in China. A significant revival of this artistic tradition occurred during the reign of King Ashoka, who strategically utilized these depictions to expand his influence across the region, attracting followers from various faiths. Additionally, with the gradual development of written language, not only did texts about the Buddha Dharma emerge, but documentation of other religions also became prevalent.
Unfortunately, numerous invasions that followed resulted in the destruction of countless invaluable Buddhist scriptures and compositions. For instance, Nalanda University in Bihar, known as one of the greatest centers of knowledge, housed nearly 9 million handwritten books and manuscripts. Tragically, the library was set ablaze and burned for three months during these invasions. Consequently, numerous crucial aspects of the Dharma were lost, creating an environment conducive to the proliferation of fraudulent individuals who spread hatred under the guise of protecting the Dharma, as well as empty opportunists who mocked the principles of the Dharma and associated events. Both these groups have become symbols of the profit-driven market of multifaceted heroism.
In contrast, Western science adopted a different approach when engaging with this knowledge. Despite committing massive genocides and plundering in their quest to propagate their own beliefs, certain segments in Western societies realized the importance of investing in the acquisition of knowledge from other civilizations at a state level. This led to the implementation of robust state policies in pursuit of such knowledge, including a focus on the Buddha’s Dharma. They recognized the tremendous potential for achieving remarkable results by combining Eastern wisdom with Western technology, and indeed, the outcomes were remarkable.
Prominent figures in the field of neuroscience and psychology have acknowledged the value of incorporating Buddhist practices into their research. For instance, Robert D. Truog, from Harvard Medical School, reviews the work of neuropsychologist Rick Hansen, “Buddha’s Brain” and states that recent advancements in psychology and neuroscience provide a clear understanding of how our brains function and how neural activity shapes our perception of the world. He highlights that these insights have been refined over thousands of years within the contemplative tradition of meditation. Similarly, Professor Jerome Engel from the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that neuroscientists increasingly incorporate personal reflection and introspection into their research, and Buddhist practices of deep contemplation align well with this approach, providing an opportunity to explore the workings of the brain.
Marvin Lee Minsky, a renowned cognitive and computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasizes that the primary function of the brain is to bring about changes within itself, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. The brain, weighing approximately three pounds, is the most complex object known to us, consisting of around 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion neurons. Each neuron typically receives around five thousand connections, known as synapses, from other neurons. Every nerve signal represents information, and the nervous system functions to transmit this information, much like how the circulatory system transports blood. Millions of years of brain evolution have resulted in new abilities and adaptations that enable us to thrive in various environments.
As Rick Hansen emphasizes, the thoughts that pass through our minds are embodied by our brains. This understanding allows us to utilize our minds to bring about positive changes in our brains, benefiting not only ourselves but also everyone we interact with. This realization aligns with the teachings of the Buddha, who comprehended the intricate connection between the mind and the brain.
It is not knowledge bestowed upon us by an unknown power or deity but a profound understanding attained by the Buddha through directing his own mind with noble dedication. Therefore, to seek the Buddha is to seek his Dharma, and the initial step involves comprehending the inseparable link between the mind and the brain.
Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan journalist and author.