The relevance of religion in modern times

The relevance of religion in modern times: Individuals are different

“Buddha respected that individuals are different and he taught all these to help them. He saw that all these were necessary.” – The 14th Dalai Lama

In ancient times, people used faith to bring hope and comfort when they faced desperate situations—problems beyond our control, hopelessness. In such situations, faith provides some hope. For example, there is the threat of animals at night, so more fear in the dark. With light, we feel more secure. The source of light is the sun, therefore the sun is something holy and so some people worshiped the sun. Fire provides comfort when we are cold and so some considered fire as something good. Fire sometimes comes from lightning, which is mysterious, and therefore both fire and lightning are holy. These are primitive faiths, with no philosophy.

Another category maybe includes ancient Egyptian society. I don’t know about that. Egyptian civilisation goes back six or seven thousand years and had faith. When I was at one of the universities in Cairo, I expressed interest that if I had more time, I would like to study there and learn more about this ancient Egyptian civilisation, but unfortunately I don’t have time. But, in any case, another category of religion includes the Indus Valley civilisations in India and Chinese civilisation. They had more sophisticated religions with an ideology. Maybe there was more in the Indus Valley civilisations than in others. In India, three or four thousand years ago there was already faith with a certain philosophy. Thus, another category of religion is faith with certain philosophical concepts.

In this second category, there are common questions. One Jewish friend put them nicely: What is “I”? Where do I come from? Where will I go? What is the purpose of life? These are the main questions. The answers to these are in two categories: theistic and non-theistic.

In India, three thousand years ago people tried to find an answer to what is “I,” what is the self? According to common experience, the body when young has a different appearance and shape than when old. The mind also, within minutes is different. But we have a natural feeling of “I”—when “I” was young, when “I” was old. Therefore, there must be an owner of the body and the mind. The owner must be something independent and permanent, unchanging, while the body and the mind changes. So, in India, a self, a soul, an “atman” – that idea comes. When the body is no longer usable, a soul remains there. That is the answer of what is “I.”

Then, where does the soul come from? Does it have a beginning or not? No beginning is difficult to accept, and so there must be a beginning, like there is a beginning to this body. And so God creates the soul. And as for the end, we come into God’s presence or eventually we absorb into God. Middle Eastern religions—early Jewish, Christian, and maybe Egyptian—believe in an afterlife. But, for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, ultimate truth is God, the Creator. That is the source of everything. That God must have limitless power and limitless compassion and wisdom. Every religion asserts infinite compassion, like Allah. And God is beyond our experience, ultimate truth. That is theistic religion.

Then, about three thousand years ago, we get Samkhya philosophy in India. And within this, there came two divisions: one believes in God and one says no God. Instead, the latter division speaks of primal matter, prakrti and 25 classes of knowable phenomena. So, for them, primal matter is permanent and the creator. So, before Buddha, there were already non-theistic views.

Then, around 2,600 years ago, Buddha and the Jain founder, Mahavira, came. Neither of them mentions God, but emphasised instead simply cause and effect. Thus, one category of Samkhya, and both Jainism and Buddhism are non-theistic religions.


This is clear in Buddhism. Buddha taught different concepts, often contradictory ones. Some sutras say that the aggregates—the body and mind—are like a load and the self is what carries it.

Within non-theistic religions, Buddhism says that everything comes from its own causes and conditions, and because of that, one of the very natures of cause and effect is change. Things are never standing still. Therefore, since the basis for the self or “I” is the body and mind, which obviously are changing all the time, and since the “I” relies on them, the “I” must be of the same nature. It can’t be unchanging and permanent. If the basis changes, what is designated on it must also be changing. Therefore, there is no permanent, unchanging soul— “anatman,” selfless. This is the unique Buddhist concept—everything is interdependent and related. So, within the three non-theistic religions, although the other two accept causality, nevertheless they assert a permanent, unchanging self.

So, among religions having faith with philosophy, there are many different traditions. All of them have two aspects—philosophy and concepts, and also practice. There is a big difference in terms of philosophy and concepts, but the practice is the same—love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, self-discipline. Different philosophies and concepts are simply methods to bring people the wish and conviction to practice love, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. Therefore, all these philosophies have the same goal and purpose—to bring love, compassion, and so forth.

This is clear in Buddhism. Buddha taught different concepts, often contradictory ones. Some sutras say that the aggregates—the body and mind—are like a load and the self is what carries it. A load and what carries it cannot be the same, and so the self must be separate and must substantially exist. Another sutra says that karma or actions exist, but there is no person who acts, no substantial self. Other sutras say there are no external phenomena. There is just mind and other phenomena are merely the contents of the mind. And mind exists; it truly exists. Yet other sutras say that neither the mind nor its contents truly exist—nothing has true existence, like in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, the Heart Sutra, for instance: “No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.” These are all contradictory, but all of them come from the same source, Shakyamuni Buddha.

Buddha didn’t teach all of these out of his own confusion. Nor did he teach them deliberately to cause more confusion in disciples. Why did he teach like this? Buddha respected that individuals are different and he taught all these to help them. He saw that all these were necessary.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso is the spiritual leader of Tibet. Since taking asylum in India in 1959, His Holiness has become a global advocator of peace, compassion and happiness. He is the first Nobel Laureate to be recognised for his concern for global environmental problems.




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