Editorials by Sangharakshita


Religious Education

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, October 1954

Recent events in Burma, where the Sixth Great Buddhist Council was inaugurated only a few months ago, have once more drawn pointed attention to the vexed question of religious education (or, as we would prefer to put it, instruction in the Dharma) in Government-aided educational institutions.

The problem in fact falls into two distinct parts which, in the interests of perspicuous thinking, it would be well to keep clearly separate. First of all, there is the question of the desirability of such instruction in general. No Buddhist who was not a Buddhist in name only, and had no appreciation of or love for the Dharma of the Lord Buddha, could possibly refuse to admit that regular and systematic instruction in the Doctrine was absolutely necessary to all who claim to be true followers of the Enlightened One. Numerous passages in the Pali scriptures, and other Buddhist texts, emphasize the importance of 'hearing the Dharma', for this is the first step towards understanding, practising, and eventually realizing, the import of the Teaching. The general principle, then, we may assume to stand uncontested: instruction in the Dharma is recognized as desirable by all Buddhists, regardless of sect or nationality.

The second part of the problem of religious education in state or state-aided schools (we are dealing with the problem only as it arises in Buddhist, or predominantly Buddhist, lands,) which is the really controversial part of the problem, resolves into two great questions, about which many doubts, discussions and disputes have gathered of late in some at least of the Buddhist countries of Asia. These two questions relate to the giving of religious (i.e. Dharmic) instruction to children, as distinct from giving it to adults; and to the giving of such instruction in schools which are maintained out of public funds, that is to say, from the taxpayer's pocket.

The objections of those who are opposed to giving pupils in Government educational institutions instruction in the Dharma may be conveniently summarised thus:

(a) The intelligence of the child being undeveloped, and his or her power of judgement and discrimination being insufficiently exercised and therefore incapable of deciding upon the merits of a religious teaching, it is grossly unfair to subject him, when unable to think for himself, to a process of indoctrination with ideas which he might have rejected had he been an adult person. Religion is a personal affair, and everyone should decide for himself what his religion will be when he arrives at the years of discretion, without outside interference. Giving specifically religious instruction to immature minds is a violation of the rights of the individual,and savours of bigotry.

(b) The Government of a country is a purely secular agency, and therefore should not concern itself with religious affairs. It should observe complete neutrality with regard to religious organizations and groups, and should not favour, support or patronize any one of them. If the taxpayer's money is utilized for religious purposes, then certain citizenz may find themselves in the anomolous position of supporting doctrines of which they do not approve, or of which they even disapprove strongly. Moreover, the practical difficulties of imparting religious education in schools are immense. People follow different religions and different sects, and it is impossible to meet the individual needs of all of them. Besides,there are many religious bodies able to arrange for the instruction of the children of their followers outside school hours. Religious education should therefore not be given in public schools.

The following brief replies may be made to these objections:

(a) Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion like Christianity, and objections which may quite reasonably be levelled against the giving of Christian instruction to children have no force against the teaching of the Dharma. An ethical foundation is indispensable to the proper development of character, and ethics (Sila) are the first of the Three Stages of Training in Buddhism, the other two being Samadhi (Concentration) and Panna (Wisdom). Teaching the Dharma to children does not mean indoctrination but development of character, of a sense of moral responsibility both as an individual and as member of society, and of the power of original thought and independent judgement. Far from being a violation of the rights of the individual, the receiving of such instruction and training, which are indispensable to the living of a truly human life, is one of the things which the younger members of the human race have a right to expect from the older.

(b) It is wrong to abstract the Government from the people, and to regard them as two separate entities. In democratic countries, such as Burma and Ceylon now are, the Government represents the people: it is nothing but the people themselves exercising legislative and administrative functions through their chosen representatives. If the people are Buddhist, the Government must be Buddhist, since under Democracy Government and people are two aspects of a single entity. A secular Government is possible only if the people are secular. If the country is predominantly Buddhist, then it is inevitable that the Government should be predominantly Buddhist, and that it should actively encourage, support and propagate the Buddhist religion, not only by means of Dharma instruction in educational institutions, but in all other possible ways. Funds can be allocated for the support of minority religions in proportion to their numbers. Those making an affidavit that they neither believe in nor wish to support any religion at all may be granted a rebate on their taxes. The practical difficulties of giving religious instruction to schoolchildren are not nearly so great as is often supposed. In Theravadin countries at least, only one form of Buddhism prevails, and plenty of qualified voluntary teachers (i.e. members of the Sangha) are easily available. The fact that the followers of other religions are divided into hosts of mutually hostile sects should not be allowed to stand in the way of the Buddhists putting their own house into order. Moreover, those who most bitterly criticize the predominantly Buddhist Governments of Ceylon and Burma for their pro-Buddhist policies are usually people who, whenever they themselves become possessed of political power, do not hesitate to spread their own religion by fire and sword.

One more point and we have done. It is reported that the learned Maha Theras of the Burmese Sangha are not in favour of allowing instruction in Christianity or Islam to be given to Christian or Muslim pupils in Government schools. Before condemning the attitude of the venerable Theras as undemocratic we should recall the following point. The great majority of Burmese Christians and Muslims have been converted to their present religion by unfair means. There are therefore adequate grounds for recognizing them as being in reality Buddhists, and for refusing to instruct them at Government expense in a non-Buddhist religion. We therefore commend the firm and courageous attitude of the Maha Theras.

From the Buddhist point of view instruction in the Dharma should certainly be given to Buddhist children in all Government schools in Buddhist lands. By recognizing and accepting its responsibility in this matter the Government of Burma has given a magnificent lead which we hope will be followed by other Buddhist countries of Asia.