By Jhampa Shaneman
Even though Buddhism disappeared from India several centuries ago, this land is still revered as its birthplace, where the Buddha achieved nirvana and imparted his insights
I believe India to be truly the mother of modern culture and religion. Buddhism, which has become so popular today, in all its various manifestations around the world, has its roots in India. As centuries passed, from 500 BC onward, it slowly spread throughout Asia. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest religion in the world. This declined with the advent of communism and the destruction of monasteries and temples, but it still has a strong hold on the people of even those oppressed countries.
Currently, there is a renewal of interest in Buddhism all around the world, especially in traditionally non-Buddhist countries. Two countries have primarily stimulated this: Japan and Tibet. Japanese Buddhism became popular in the 1960s with the popularity of Zen in the US. In recent times, Tibetan Buddhism has far outstripped the impact of Zen with the arrival of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This simple “Buddhist monk”, as he calls himself, has brought world attention to Buddhism and its ideals of peace and compassion.
What is unique about Tibetan Buddhism is its preservation of the Indian Buddhism of the 10th and 11th centuries. At that time, Buddhism was being destroyed in India by invading armies. Monasteries were ravaged and the Buddhist knowledge lost in India. It was luckily preserved by the Tibetan monarchy, which at that time started to invite famous Indian teachers to Tibet to transmit Buddhist philosophy and practice. Although one can surmise that the message was adapted to some extent to suit the Tibetan audience, there were enough traditional Indian texts translated to ensure that the basic message remained intact. Buddhism in Tibet seemingly went into a deep freeze and remained that way until the 20th century. The invasion of Chinese communists unlocked the freezer and sent Tibetan monks and nuns all over the world.
Nowadays almost all countries know of Buddhism, or at least of the Dalai Lama, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Buddhist centres have been established in Africa, Europe, South America, North America and Australia. Even modern science is benefiting from Buddhist investigations into the nature of the brain and mind. For example, there is now scientific proof that altruistic or compassionate meditations have a physical effect upon the actual structure of the brain, let alone a positive mental and emotional impact. Most modern schools of psychology also subscribe to the beneficial effects of basic mindfulness meditation when dealing with mental imbalance or addictive behavior. All of these wonderful results can trace their roots back to the Indian subcontinent and to some extent, Buddhist thought.
Recently, there has been a rekindling of interest in their Buddhist roots among many in India. Some people from the lower castes of Indian society are converting to the Buddhist faith to get out of the old role of caste and into the modern world. The equality of all living beings was the message of the Buddha, and its ring can still be heard. This profound thought is awakening a new generation of Indians to equality and human rights today.
Jhampa Shaneman, a teacher of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, studied as a monk for 13 years with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan masters. He has translated Tibetan texts to English for the last 25 years.
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