The essence of the human being is that it is a form of life that has the opportunity to evolve to a new state of being — a non-egotistical, enlightened state of being.
This is why Buddhism invented the institution of monasticism : the monastic lifestyle is the least cumbersome for an individual. You have one pair of clothes; you don’t have to have possessions; you don’t have children. So it draws the least amount of support from the collective and it gives the person who adopts it the maximal amount of time to devote to their own evolution. When you establish monasticism within a collective society, it creates the institutional permission for those individuals to be excused from normal productive duties, which is revolutionary in those societies.
If you look at the history of Buddhism and Christianity, which is the other major monastic religion in world history, you’ll see that the big competitor for education in this personal transformative sense that I’m talking about is always militarism.
The human individual is a precious asset, and the major function of a society should be to cultivate that asset. But militarism is the antithesis of that worldview, so you have armies, prisons, and minimal schools for such a society, and a lot of indoctrination.
I think the Western concept of liberal education itself originates in monastic institutions. Oxford University, the University of Paris, the University of Bologna — all these places were originally monasteries. The idea of liberal education was that the leadership elite has to have the ability to think clearly to make good judgments, and so they should be allowed a period in their lives where they seek to understand the nature of life, or engage in a quest.
When I finally got my Ph.D. in 1972, my teacher, a Mongolian gentleman, gave me my walking papers and said that my job was to translate into English the entire Tanjur, which is the collection in Tibetan of Shastras, or treatises and commentaries written by Indian masters during the golden age of the monastic universities in India. There are five thousand eight hundred and something independent works in that collection. So I said to him, “Give me a break.” He said, “Well, maybe not all alone.” So we created the Institute of Buddhist Studies which would try to carry that out. I have translated half a dozen of these things and a couple have been published, but I’ve hardly got started in these last twenty-two years.
But that’s what I consider my mission, seeing Buddhism as I do as primarily an educational movement. It has of course its spiritual side, but I always say that Buddhism is not primarily a religious missionary movement. It’s rather an educational movement, with a religious dimension. The way religion is defined in the Western academy, where it involves primarily adopting a belief system, and conversion means changing from one belief system to another, doesn’t really fit Buddhism’s definition. By itself belief cannot lead to liberation. That only orients one to where one can begin to get into the educational process with which, by developing understanding and wisdom, one could become liberated, which is the real goal of Buddhism.
This article originally appeared on the Ikeda Center for Peace website, Used with permission, All rights reserved.
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