George Walford: Buddhism

We recently attended a meeting of a Buddhist sect whose practice is to chant NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO repeatedly, morning and evening; if this is done, the disposition will improve and the level of daily happiness be raised.

This was presented as a practical suggestion which each member of the audience could readily test for themselves, and this seems perfectly sensible. If chanting a few words makes you feel good then it is well worth doing and there can be no argument about the results; only you know what you feel like. But there was also a suggestion – not put very explicitly – that this procedure offered what our friends of the (A-)SPGB like to call “a solution for social problems” and about that there can be, there has to be, a lot of argument.

The members of the sect we spoke to maintained happiness to be the end of life. For each individual person this may well be so, but they agreed that if responsible people are to feel happy themselves they need to know that those around them are also happy; starvation in Africa spoils happiness even in NW3. And here the difficulties begin, because if you are to prevent famine it is not enough to be feeling good yourself. You have to devise means, methods and technologies, you have to think, and once you begin to do that ideology rears its pretty little head. If you think, you think in one or another mode, you start from one or another set of assumptions, you identify with one or another major ideology.

It is evident enough that if people generally were to adopt the non-violent tenets of this sect the amount of violence in the world would be reduced, but over three thousand years people generally have not accepted the tenets of Buddhism (our sect held that each age has been offered the Buddhism suitable for it) and the speaker offered no grounds for believing they would behave differently in future.

It would be rash to speak dismissively after attending only one meeting, and this,or another version of Buddhism may well offer personal satisfaction. So, according to the mystics, does Christianity, so does Hinduism (at least to masochists – those lovely beds of nails) and so did Nazism. JBS Haldane used to claim that when he joined the Communist Party his ulcers cleared up (he left after Hungary; we never did find out how his ulcers responded to that). Personal satisfactions are one thing. Operating a society is something else, and there seems to be no reason for thinking that chanting will help in that task.

from Ideological Commentary 23, July 1986.