The ‘true’ religion
By Prof. K.N. Jayatilleke
Elsewhere, in the Sankada Sutta there is a clear-cut answer• to this question. There, Ananda says that in the opinion of the Buddha there are four false religions in the world; and four religions which are unsatisfactory, though not necessarily totally false, while Buddhism is distinguished from all of them.
The word for religion here is used in a wide sense as in modern usage, to denote theistic and non-theistic religions, as well as pseudo-religions or religions-surrogate, i.e. substitutes for religion such as, say, Marxism, Existentialism, Humanism, etc. The four false religions or philosophies inculcating a way of life are first, Materialism which denies survival, secondly, Amoralism which denies good and evil, thirdly any religion which asserts that man is miraculously saved or doomed, and lastly theistic evolutionism which holds that everything is preordained and everyone is destined to attain eventual salvation.
The four unsatisfactory religions in some sense uphold survival, moral values, moral recompense as well as a relative freedom of the will. They are, first any religion that claims that its teacher was omniscient all the time and knows the entirety of the future as well. Secondly, any religion based on revelation, since revelations contradicted each other and were unreliable. Thirdly, any religion based on mere reasoning and speculation, since the reasoning may be unsound and the conclusions false. Fourthly, a pragmatic religion based on purely sceptical foundations and is, therefore, uncertain. Buddhism is to be distinguished from all of them by virtue of the fact that it was realistic and vertifiable. Its truths have been verified by the Buddha, verified by his disciples and open to verification (ehipassiko) by anyone who wishes to do so.
The answer to Subhadda’s question, however, is different. There is no examination of the relative claims of Materialism, Theism, Scepticism, etc. Instead the Buddha says, leave aside the question as to whether these several religions and philosophies are all true, all false or that some are true. In whatever religion the noble eightfold path is not found, in that religion one would not get the first, second, third or fourth saints, and in whatever religion the noble eightfold path is found, in that religion one would get the first, second, third and fourth saints. Finally, there is a very significant remark: ‘If these monks lead the right kind of life, the world would never be devoid of Arahants’ (ime ca bhikkhu samma vihareyyum assunno loko arahantehi assa).
The Buddhist view is that any religion is true only to the extent to which it contains aspects of the noble eightfold path. Let us take one of the factors of the path - the necessity for cultivating right aspirations instead of wrong aspirations. Right aspirations consist in the cultivation of thoughts free from just and sensuous craving, and the cultivation of creative and compassionate thoughts. Wrong aspirations consist of the cultivation of lustful thoughts and sensuous craving, as well as the cultivation of destructive and malevolent thoughts. Now if any religion asserts that one may indulge in lustful, destructive and malevolent thoughts and yet be saved if one professes faith in the creed, then such a religion, according to the Buddha, is not to be trusted. It is the same with each of the other factors of the path. The net result is that there is no salvation outside the noble eightfold path. It is the one and only way for the salvation of beings and the overcoming of suffering.
(Late Prof. Jayatilleke PhD (Lond) M.A. (Cantab) is a scholar in Pali, Sanskrit, Indian and Western Philosophy. He served as Prof. of Philosophy, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and has read academic papers at Oxford, Harvard University and at Princeton.)