Westernisation is not modernity: A Buddhist perspective
by Janaka Goonetilleke on 13 Dec 2011 4 Comments

‘Abandoning the lessons of a 5000 year old Asian Civilization and accepting a 500 year old Western Civilization is illogical’

In the wake of the disastrous impact that westernization is having on humanity in terms of the environment, social instability, and human suffering, it is time to reflect. Asian civilizations have been built on a value system - be it Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism, etc., which emphasize Harmony, as against Western civilization which emphasizes Might as Right, geared to the transfer of resources in the proxy of money. In a world where wealth is a constant, creation of wealth is an illusion. It is a mechanism of redistribution of wealth from one environment to another creating disharmony that would account for the present state of social unrest and environmental catastrophe. Nial Ferguson in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, attributes the dominance of western civilization in the last 500 years to 1) competition, 2) work ethic, 3) scientific advances, 4) Rule of Law, 5) Medical advances, and 6) consumption economics.

Buddhism believes life is suffering and the prevention of suffering is by the practice of the Eight Precepts condensed into three: Wisdom, Morality and Mental Discipline. Recent neurological advancements have given us the opportunity to analyze these precepts. The brain is divided into a Primitive Brain and Larger Brain or Neo Cerebrum. The Primitive Brain is the site of Fear and Flight; the Larger Brain has developed over millions of years because of social interaction.

Picture of the brain that emerges can be 3 themes

The main function of the Brain is automatic. This is true of most bodily functions but also of conscious thought, decision making, forming altitudes, opinions and even making moral judgments. Reality takes a back seat.

Neural plasticity use hypertrophy and disuse atrophy. Meaning practice can make you perfect or vice versa.

Social Brain: It is suggested that the neo cerebrum or the large brain has been developed by long years of living together.

Morality and Social Brain

Although there is moral diversity, all human beings are born with an innate moral code. It is this moral code and compassion “Non Self” that liberates the human mind from conflict. In other words, it is social justice that Buddhism advocates. King Asoka the Great found salvation in it after his great military victories. Moral diversity is best expressed in Buddhism in the Kalama Sutra or The Sermon of Free Thought. When Buddha was asked as to the truth about sermons preached by many ascetics and priests that passed through the village, Buddha said that when you yourself know that the preaching is skillful, blameless, praiseworthy, conducive to happiness, and is praised by the wise, you should accept it as true and practice it. Even though human diversity was accepted, the emphasis on morality was prime. Okakura, the Japanese intellectual, expressed it best by saying that compassion and morality was god, and harmony that it achieves was the ultimate.

From a neurological point of view, compassion, morality and the service of others, “Non Self,” stimulates the inferior frontal lobe part of the brain just behind your forehead that suppresses the primitive brain, the site of fright and flight, the site of conflict. This is the way to freedom or No Fear. This is exemplified by many a ritual like bathing the Buddha etc. On the other hand, it is the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ and craving and attachment that creates conflict. These bursts of emotional upheaval stimulate the primitive brain, the site of fright and flight. Self interest that is the driving force of westernization is hence stressful.

Maximum creativity is when the stimulus is maximum, as it will help to develop the coordinating centers in the brain that is plastic or amenable to develop. Where there is conflict, the stimulus is reduced and creativity is minimized.

This only confirms that morality and compassion and service for others are the natural driving forces of human society that we have learned over millions of years.

“Buddha’s teachings of the truth of compassion and of freedom awaken your heart to the freedom and compassion that is your own Buddha nature”

Buddhist Concept of Non Self Vs Competition and Work Ethic

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold service was joy” - Rabindranath Tagore

Competition and self interest are the driving forces of present western civilization; that unfortunately, encourages immorality. Without morals, no society can develop the trust that is necessary for integration. It has been found to be lacking in the present world civilization which has caused such mayhem in the world economy. It is also true that western civilization that has been built on colonialism, lacked morality from the very beginning. Competition and self interest are the driving forces of conflict and stress, as explained earlier. Buddhism advocates an ethos of Non-Self, the exact opposite of the western philosophy of self advancement. When the owner of the fastest growing internet site, Ali Baba.com, was interviewed, he said when he started the company money was never the objective, but money was the result confirming creativity and success revolves around the higher objective of service.

Christian work ethic, which is a combination of hard work, higher savings and sustained capital accumulation built on objectivism, was a sustained attempt by capitalists to exploit the vulnerable. Objectivism or planning is a very western concept, where the period involved allows manipulation of the system, best exemplified by the present world economic system run on the proxy of monopoly money. Morality and Trust is always compromised in the desire to earn money. Right effort is the Buddhist work ethic. This is best exemplified by the Dalai Lama.

Dalai Lama when asked what surprised him most about humanity answered, “Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money, then he spends money to recuperate his health, he is anxious about his future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being he does not live in the present or future; he lives as if he is never going to die and then he dies having never really lived.”

Buddhist doctrine of dependent co origination – consumption economics and scientific advancement

Buddhist believes humanity and nature are interdependent and that for a viable eco system there should be a harmonious existence. The West believes humanity reigns supreme and it is within the power of humanity to destroy nature for its material needs without a price to pay. The poverty of that philosophy is now dawning on humanity. The Buddhist ecological perspective is expressed in the noble eightfold path which is the right view. This view is contained in the doctrine  Patticcasamupada or dependent co-origination, where things exist interdependently, not in their own right.

The greatest effect of consumption economics and so-called scientific advancement is the change in bio-diversity, the harmony that exists between fauna and flora. The changes in bio-diversity are mainly due to the essential elements of city-centric development and mass migration to the city, destruction of rural areas for mass industrialized agriculture, and corporate mining, etc. The effects of these changes are ignored. The assimilation of resources from harmonious environments and spread right through the world can only lead to disharmony all over the world. The effect of these are many and not within the purview of this article. A brief attempt to explain its impact on humanity follows.

Health: Changes in bio-diversity changes the vector populations that carry diseases to man. For example, the mosquito that carries Dengue fever has increased, causing epidemics. These are new diseases. Of course new treatments are an added burden on economies and humanity. Stress and mental disease is part and parcel of this way of life. So are the increased incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes, etc., due to the unhealthy environment and pollution. Concern should revolve around the impact of the environment on the genetic makeup of humanity by a process called epigenetics that could increase the risk of certain diseases in future generations.

The human body and constitution is geared to the environment we live in. The environment determines our food habits. Globalised food habits can only lead to health risks. For example, in the UK there is a higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes amongst Asians. In Sri Lanka, there has been a higher incidence of the above after they started the open economic policy.

Deforestation: causes reduction in ground water, purification of water, flooding and global warming, in addition to the new diseases. A global reduction in water resources is envisaged in the future.

Food: Environmental changes have increased the failure of crops leading to higher food prices and
starvation of the marginalized. The monoculture agriculture, genetically modified crops with a need for pesticides and insecticides, have created a syndrome called collapsing colonies of bees. The bees are responsible for 30% of the food that humans eat, which has led to failure of crops. This simply is the effect of destroying one species. Thousands of species are been destroyed daily. 

Wisdom and mental discipline – instant gratification, rule of law and democracy

Consumer society and monopoly money have created an addiction to instant gratification, which now a recognized mental derangement. This is not led by need, but by greed. It is also recognized that such people lack short term memory and have no idea of long term impact. A good example is Western commercialism in the form of Nike, Sony, Google, etc., sold to an unsuspecting world driven by the myth that westernization is modernity. The other is Black Friday, America’s day of shopping. This is a mental state encouraged and developed by western media: a state of illusion which only can be addressed by mental discipline and concentration.

Might is Right is the other western phenomena. Asia has been affected by this phenomenon since Vasco the Gama invaded the peaceful spice market in Calicut and chased away the Arab merchants. The inhumanity that this policy has perpetrated on the world is immense. Slavery and its modern forms are self evident. The rule of law and the democracy for a few have been at the expense of the many that suffered and died. A value system, be it the rule of law or democracy, cannot be imposed by violence. The hypocrisy is best exemplified by the fact that America spends 25% of her income on the military, when 15% of her citizens are living in poverty. Western dominance has been mainly militarily; it never had any moral authority.

Lack of wisdom: slavery of the mind
How did the myth that Westernization is Modernity survive this long despite its disastrous impact on humanity? It was not challenged because the West successfully cut Asians away from Asia’s own 5000 year old history and influenced Asians to accept their myth that Western civilization is superior to Asian civilization. The West has successfully enslaved the Asian mind. Westernization has brought so much suffering, be it in Africa or amongst the poor, wrought such great environmental catastrophe: 40 years ago, a 16 year old had a better chance of having his mother at home than a 6 month old in 2005; such is the social mayhem. Where a mere 20% own 85% of the wealth of the world cannot be modernity. It cannot be assessed in terms of GDP. It can only be assessed in terms of the dictum, “Welfare of the Many”. It is time for a serious rethink.

Modernity: a Buddhist view point

Advancements in neurology have given us the opportunity to look at Humanity. Buddhists believe
that social justice, freedom from want, security, and more importantly, freedom of the mind, should be the objective of mankind - this is true modernity. The way to modernity is compassion, morality and the welfare of the many. This is in our Buddha Nature.


 The author is a Sri Lankan national

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