Campus — The National University of Singapore Buddhist Society, or NUSBS, has offered to correct the misconceptions of Buddhism held by Pastor Rony in his recent video interviews.
The group holds several regular weekly meetings. Among those of interesting note are the classes on Buddhist psychology helmed by Brother Piya every Thursday tailored for the beginners in Buddhism, and a Dharma circle every Friday evening where members enjoy fellowship and discuss on issues concerning Buddhism.
Coincidentally, this week is also Buddhism Awareness Week in the National University of Singapore and if you haven’t already noticed the society’s colorful booth right outside the Central Library (fill up a simple quiz and win a prize!), find out more about them through their website.
Two very popular camps are conducted by the society every year.
The first is known as the Camp Ehi Passiko – a Pali phrase which means ‘Come and See’ – that allows participant not only to understand Buddhism better, but also to take a peek into what NUSBS is all about. This camp is packed with fun outdoor activities and is held at the East Coast Park over a period of 2 days from 1-2 August. The second camp centers its theme on ‘Happiness’, which is conducted in December over a period of a five-day-four-night stay. There are panel discussions on happiness and a debate on euthanasia.
Following the series of video interviews, NUSBS has identified the following common misconceptions about Buddhism.
Misconception 1: Pastor Rony commented about Buddhist chanting: “One could chant ee-ee-oo-ah-ah, ting-tang-wala-wala-bing-bang, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Answer: Buddhist chanting is not meaningless babble. In Buddhism, chants have definite meanings, contrary to what Pastor Rony’s interviewee claimed. For instance, the chants may refer to the practitioner’s wish to radiate loving-kindness to other beings. Chanting is also an aid to meditation. By focusing on the act of recitation, chanting helps to stop the mind from wandering and instead cultivate inner happiness.
Misconception 2: Pastor Rony said, “The teaching is this, everybody is potentially a god … and you can be above God and be even more powerful than God.”
Answer: Buddhism does not subscribe to the theistic concept of God that is common to the Abrahamic faiths. We believe that everyone has the potential to develop into a Buddha – a perfected being free from hatred, anger, and ignorance.
Misconception 3: Pastor Rony’s interviewee (a former monk) didn’t know what Nirvana was, and said that his fellow monks didn’t know either, implying that Buddhists don’t know what they’re talking about when they refer to Nirvana.
Answer: Nirvana is not a meaningless entity. In conventional language, the best approximate we can say is this: Nirvana is the freedom from the underlying cause of all suffering – the illusion of being a separate self. The word ‘Nirvana’ literally means ‘blowing out’, like the extinguishing of a flame. It’s the extinguishing of all delusions, leading to extraordinary clarity and peace. It is a state that defies conventional language, and belongs to the realm of spiritual attainment, not logical understanding. So we may know what Nirvana is logically, but not know what it is on the experiential level. It is like knowing the possibility of zero-gravity but without the actual experience of weightlessness in space.
Misconception 4: Pastor Rony said, “If something bad [happens], they say it’s because of your karma … If somebody falls sick, oh it’s because of your karma. It’s so easy to explain… It seems that you cannot do anything about the bad things that are happening.”
Answer: The doctrine of karma does not entail fatalism. The word ‘karma’ literally means ‘action’, and refers to our intentional mental actions. What we are now is determined by our thoughts and actions in the past, and similarly, what we will experience in the future is influenced by our thoughts and actions in the present. Karma doesn’t mean that we’re dealt a fixed destiny that we have to passively accept. Our karma continuously changes depending on how we think and act now. By changing our thoughts and behaviour, we can definitely transform the quality of our lives for the better.
Misconception 5: Pastor Rony claimed that Buddhism had simply ‘repackaged’ the doctrine of reincarnation as ‘rebirth’.
Answer: Reincarnation and rebirth are philosophically distinct concepts. Reincarnation is the belief, common to Hinduism and Jainism, that each individual has a soul, and that this soul will travel to another body after death. Rebirth, however, is the theory that there is no such thing as a soul (because each individual is a flowing, continuous process) and it is the mind which establishes itself as a personality, much like how a flame is passed from one candle to another.
Misconception 6: Pastor Rony said, “How could you ever learn from your past life when you do not know what you were or who you were; whether you were a prince or a cockroach, you also don’t know… Surely there isn’t any past life because when you were born as a baby, you started with a new slate with no recollection whatsoever… There is no such thing as a previous life, or to be reborn into the next life.”
Answer: This understanding of the mind stems from John Locke’s epistemological theory of ‘tabula rasa’, which claims that individuals are born as a blank slate, and all their knowledge comes from experience and perception. This theory is still subject to ongoing philosophical debate. In any case, according to the doctrine of rebirth, our thoughts and actions leave imprints on our consciousness which we may not be fully aware of. These imprints result in consequences which come to fruition when causes and conditions allow them to.
Misconception 7: Pastor Rony said, “Ladies should be very offended [by the doctrine of rebirth]… One of the Buddhist persons who argued with me many years ago, he said, ‘…You are such an unbeliever, he said, next life ah, … you’ll be born as a woman!’ So you ladies, don’t believe in reincarnation.”
Answer: Buddhism does not regard women as inferior to men. In fact, the Buddha himself was explicit about treating men and women equally; he initiated women into the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) despite fierce controversy. Any sexist sentiments of individuals derive from the attitudes of their cultures, not from Buddhism.
The Kent Ridge Common sincerely thanks the NUSBS for helping to clear the misconceptions of Buddhism shown in Pastor Rony’s video interviews. Visit the NUSBS website today — and maybe you could join in their activities, soon!
*Update 12.30pm 12th Feb: NUSBS has the theme of ‘Clearing Misconceptions’ for both their Buddhism Awareness Week and weekly Dharma Circle sessions, as many common misconceptions were noticed about Buddhism in Singapore today. Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists are invited to join and share their viewpoint on Buddhism in these sessions. Also, the theme and activities for their camp will change from year to year.