Why Practice Buddhism in the Human Realm?

Hun Tong (果奘)  

Why practice Buddhism in the human realm? When asked this question,many people will be surprised by this question. Non-Buddhists may be surprised they are even asked this question as they may have their own spiritual beliefs. Similarly, Buddhists, when asked, likely express surprise, perhaps at the simplicity of the question. They would probably think: that’s obvious – it is because we are humans now.

But that probably answers half the question. Buddhism in the human realm or Humanistic Buddhism as it is sometimes called, encompasses a few key features. It is a spiritual approach to practicing Buddhism that is advocated by Venerable Taixu (太虚) and Venerable Yinshun (印顺). The key idea is to integrate the core teachings of the Buddha in our daily lives and within society, develop our wisdom and compassion in our practice, and in the process, benefit others so that they can be free from suffering. Our practice is not solely for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others.

With this background in mind, let us return to the question: why practice Buddhism in the human realm? Practising as a human is clearly important because the simple answer is … we are humans now. This answer, at a superficial level, may actually miss the point about the uniqueness and preciousness of being a human. For those who have little belief about the suffering of beings in the hell or hungry ghost realms (because they can’t see them), it is probably not difficult to appreciate the hardships of being an animal.

Have you been to seafood restaurants and seen the crabs with their claws bound by string?

Or the fishes fighting for their lives when they are lifted out of water to be cooked?

Closer to home, do you not see that the pets we keep – the cats and dogs – are so dependent on humans for their well-being?

These animals/sea creatures have little volition, little ability to cognize, to determine right from wrong, and because of the inability to
cognize, they do not have the ability to create merits or develop in their wisdom?

So, now that we are humans, why not practice and make the best use of the gifts we have been endowed as humans? Why lose this rare opportunity?

Have you looked at the obituary pages recently? Notice that there are people who passed away in their forties and fifties, and even younger. There is no guarantee we will live to a statistical ripe old age. Life is fleeting, and more so when we realize that it can end anytime. Which gets to my point again – why lose this rare and potentially fleeting opportunity to make good use of this human existence when we still can? I mention good use of our human existence – one can certainly make good use of our life as a human, let it go to waste, or even abuse it. But if we believe in the law of karma, then we know that whatever acts, speech or thoughts we have will have its causal effects this life or in future lives. Over the years, I have grown convinced that we are all given different gifts as humans, and that if we don’t make use of them, we will lose them, if not this life then the next life. There is an analogy in the medical sciences. Muscles that are not used through a lack of physical activity will experience atrophy or wasting of the muscles. Humans have hearts that are capable of compassion and knowing. If we don’t open our hearts to others, we lose the ability to develop compassion for others.

In fact, if we don’t open our hearts, we lose our ability to know ourselves. Humans have minds that are capable of seeing the truth of all phenomena. If we don’t develop and quieten our minds to tap the innate wisdom within us, we lose this opportunity to develop ourselves in this life.

Why is there the need to open our hearts to others when practising Buddhism in the human realm? Because we are all interdependent. We do not exist alone and independently. In science, chaos theory refers to the butterfly effect; where a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can cause a hurricane in a distant place weeks later. It is fundamentally about interdependencies in our lives and the world, where a small change can lead to big changes elsewhere. So, it is not possible to have a life or a practice for oneself that does not influence others. These changes can be a good effect that benefits others, and it can be a bad effect that harms others.

We all have a choice. Do we want our existence as humans to one that is self-centred? Or one that is directed towards the non-virtuous, and one centred on ourselves? Or one that is directed towards the virtuous; one that is centred on compassion and wisdom; one that has, as its core, the motivation to benefit others? The choice is ours. And the effect is inevitable, given the butterfly effect – whatever we do is bound to affect others.

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