Principles of an Agnostic


Synthesizing Christianity and Buddhism

When I was young, for nine years I attended a school founded by Catholic missionaries, and later taught there for over four years. So I became acquainted with Christianity from my childhood and have read a little of the Bible. Later on, I went to Europe to further my studies and came across other sects of Christianity. Therefore I have no excuse to say that I know nothing of Christianity. As for Buddhism, naturally I was brought up in a Buddhist family since the day I was born. This is, I guess, the reason why I am invited here, even without any pretension to religious expertise.

The results of any religious and ethical teaching may be direct and indirect. The direct result is obtained when the students have acquired faith in the ultimate goal of the religion. This, for Christianity, is the belief in God, in the new life in communion with God, the embodiment of the Supreme Good, the Ultimate Truth and Perfect Beauty. In Buddhism (I leave out all the sects which worship the Buddha as a mythological god) the final aim is to achieve Nirvana, whereby one can break away from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth which is first and foremost the cause of all suffering. Religious teachers aim at inculcating faith; and this is what is meant by the direct result of religious teaching.

The indirect result is not less important; the end is to teach people to do good, to preserve moral codes, not to commit sinful acts, and so on. This is the ethical part of religious education, aiming at the preservation of righteousness, beauty, and truth within the human community. Its acceptance would lead the person to inner happiness and enable him to live in peace and happiness with family, friends, colleagues, and other members of society.

What I have just said is my personal view, looking back at my own religious and ethical education at home and at school. In assessing its result, I find that I have acquired very little faith and much more of the ethical principle from my earliest education. I shall attempt to clarify this statement.


The Necessity of Faith

I cannot claim that I have faith in God or Nirvana, because I cannot honestly affirm the existence of God or that Nirvana is the ultimate aim. To be sure, I am not denying the existence of God or Nirvana either. Metaphysics is not my concern, because it is beyond the realm of human reasoning. Perhaps this bias might be compared with colour blindness. I fail to see why it should be a bad thing not to believe in God or Nirvana. If the lack is a mistake, then it is only an individual’s mistake, harmless to other people as long as one holds on to moral principles. If God really exists, it is unlikely that he who is infinitely kind would inflict punishment upon a nonbeliever who is a moral person. If there is Nirvana, it is impossible not to eventually attain it simply by doing good. Therefore I conclude that faith can be left alone. Moreover, the preference to rationalism is supported by the Buddha’s saying in The Kālāma Sutta:


“Brethren, do not believe things simply because they have passed from mouth to mouth, nor because they come from tradition, nor because they have been rumoured, nor because they are in the textbooks, nor because you have guessed them, nor because you have expected them, nor because you feel that they are so, nor because they agree with your inclination, nor because they have been said by a reliable person or by a teacher or even by myself. Do not believe anything until you have reasoned it out within yourself and reached clear conclusions.”


In fact, I believe that superficial faith, without support of moral principles, can do more harm than good. Some people who call themselves Buddhists may go to monasteries to hear sermons and may offer food to monks every morning. But if they tell lies, cheat, and break other religious rules (Śīla), they must be considered bad by any standard. Similarly, some Christians would not hesitate to commit sins because they believe those sins will be forgiven by confession. They are no better than schoolchildren who start practising bribery - that is, promising to give offerings and sacrifices to the gods if the gods will help them pass examinations. I do not believe that this way of treating a religion is right or proper.

The question I would like to discuss in connection with the lecture’s topic is whether the lack of faith is an obstacle to a country’s development. Briefly, my answer is as follows:

(a) If anyone has no faith but does not break accepted codes of morality, he can still fully contribute to development.

(b) The possession of faith as well as a high standard of morality is, of course, all the better; perhaps, faith might help the man in every respect.

(c) Anyone who holds faith without morality constitutes a definite obstacle to development.

Perhaps it should be emphasized that what has been said so far in this institution of religious learning is in no way to be construed as derogatory to the seminary and its faculty. My actual objective is to correct misunderstandings in some educational circles in Thailand which put too much emphasis on faith, that is, superficial or hypocritical faith, and which give too little importance to morality. According to a government slogan broadcast on the radio, a person without religion must be a Communist or terrorist. Some schoolteachers also repeat this theory to their pupils. To me, a moral, though irreligious, person ought to be respected as a good person. I would also like to submit that Buddhist and Christian religious teachers alike are contributing greatly toward national development by educating people to have faith and moral principles. If teaching results in student acceptance of faith and moral precepts, all the better. But even if faith is lacking, good moral practice among people and leaders would still be perfectly satisfactory.

This suggestion will be elaborated upon later. But first, I would like to say something about ethical benefits which we derive from Biblical teaching and Buddhist teaching. In so doing, it is necessary for me to rely heavily upon my own experiences and opinions resulting from an inseparable mixture of Christian and Buddhist education. Please forgive me for having to talk too much about myself.


Personal Ideals

The ideals or objectives in life are truth, beauty, and goodness. I believe that this formula comes from Christian teachings. I like it because it is meaningful and easy to remember. Similar ideals can, of course, be found in Buddhist teachings, but they may be scattered in different places. The merit of a simple formula is that you can refer to it again and again. The Buddhist reference to the Triple Gem - Buddha, Dharma, Sangha - has similar advantages, although it refers to different matters.

Truth, beauty, and goodness together are important factors in developing any individual, as well as community, to achieve progressive prosperity.

Truth, Sacca in Buddhism, is the principle which everyone ought to seek in the context of everyday life during the quest for spiritual enlightenment, through natural and social sciences. Obviously, material progress and better welfare are largely results of scientific progress. Science advances when man discovers truth in nature and applies it for the benefit of mankind. Progress in natural science by itself is not enough. It must be supplemented by truth in social science. Together, they help to maximize material benefits needed for people living in communities. Truth is thus an important factor in development.

Beauty is the food of the mind. Since we differ from animals for the very reason that we do not strive for merely material progress, we must have satisfactions of the mind as well. Beautiful paintings, pretty persons, attractive landscapes, colourful flowers with nice smells, good speeches, good music, poetry, heroism, and human sacrifice are all beauty, just like delicious food, things with appeal to the touch, or extraordinary athletic feats. All these contribute toward the development of the mind and hence the advancement of mankind. Therefore they are indispensable for national development.

Goodness preserves and regulates the world. In a world of evil, men will exploit and harm one another instead of helping to improve the community. Buddhism and Christianity extensively emphasize this point: first, one must distinguish between right and wrong. The Buddhist calls it hiri - ottappa (shame and fear of sin); the Christian refers to it as conscience. Secondly, there are positive rules of ethics urging people to behave well and fulfill their duties towards themselves, their community, society as a whole, and the nation. Goodness is thus an important factor in the development of people and nation.

Truth, beauty and goodness are three ideals of Christianity and Buddhism, forming a basic foundation for national development.


The Means to Ideals

After we have established truth, beauty, and goodness as guiding principles, the next question is to find means to attain these ideals.

To answer this question, I find it difficult to satisfy myself with a simple formula from Christianity. This may be due to my own ignorance. I am also not fully satisfied with the Buddhist eightfold path - that is, right views, right conduct, and right livelihood, because it does not explicitly explain the meaning of right in this context. Another formula from Buddha’s teachings concerning the four kinds of strength appeals to me more as containing guiding principles for national self-development. They are as follows:

  1. Paññā bala - wisdom
  2. Viriya bala - diligence
  3. Anavajja bala - harmlessness
  4. Sanghaha bala - solidarity

This formula appeals to me for its completeness. Wisdom helps to decide right, wrong, and what is beautiful. It also points the way to the ultimate truth. Yet wisdom is not enough, if unaccompanied by diligence. Knowledge is rendered useless by neglect and inertia. Again, having wisdom and diligence is like having a vehicle with a good engine and an excellent driver. We still need good brakes and good steering, in other words prudence and avoidance of harmful actions. We also need altruism, kindness, and generosity towards others to lead us to beauty and goodness.

This process of mixing Buddhist and Christian teachings is all for my own convenience. By no means do I try to urge anyone to follow me. My submission is simply that the two moral codes do not conflict. On the contrary, they fit each other well. Those fortunate enough to have access to both are all the richer; they have a wider choice. They can pick and choose what appeals to them to formulate their own code, easy to remember and apply.


The Bases of a Good Society

Although each of us here might have already established some sort of principles of life with the help of Buddhism or Christianity or both and although precepts of these religions are immortal and applicable to all eventualities, I feel that modern society has its own peculiarities and characteristics. General principles, however applicable to society, may become vague, misunderstood, or irrelevant to modern problems. Once we have laid a solid foundation for life from the synthesis of both religions, I think we ought to build the superstructure ourselves. For this reason, I have attempted to reconstruct some basic social principles along these lines for my own use and presentation to today’s students. This method has the advantage over traditional teaching methods of simplicity and direct relevance. At least we can speak the language that present day listeners can readily understand.

Thus, when we ask ourselves what are the bases of a good modern society, my answer would be:

  1. Efficiency
  2. Freedom
  3. Justice
  4. Kindness

These four qualities will be discussed in the next lecture. For the moment, it suffices to say that efficiency is related to truth, attainable through intelligence or wisdom and diligence. Freedom and justice, like beauty, are necessary to satisfy the mind of man and to support human dignity: these ideals are reached by avoiding harmful actions and mutual respect. Kindness is the ingredient of goodness, fostered by the strength of Sanghaha or solidarity.

Ladies and gentlemen, you may justly accuse me of confusion and putting together bits of everything. But I am sure that at least this is an easily understood way which each of us could formulate the necessary guiding principles of life for our own use.




Characteristics of a Good Society

and Principles of Development


A Good Society

A good and prosperous society is one which is efficient, in which freedom is upheld, justice prevails, and kindness reigns among its members.

By efficiency is meant the ability of individuals in society to do things useful for themselves and others. Useful in a material sense means tending toward a good standard of living; intellectual usefulness consists in creating different kinds of beauty to enrich the mind; moral utility results in profound satisfaction caused by knowledge that a good deed is being performed. The ability may be innate, or created by education and training. With some measure of original ability, people in society are in a position to accumulate further skill in the form of tools, machines, and know-how, all of which add up to the capital of society. Science and technology progress further and further and knowledge and experience are passed on from generation to generation. The efficiency of a society can thus be divided into present efficiency and future capacity. Accumulating knowledge depends upon research. A nation is indeed incapable of furthering its knowledge if there is no research, particularly in its universities; or if research activities are conducted in committee meetings where words, rather than thoughts, prevail. Individual know-how, if well coordinated by good administration, adds up to a total ability of society greater than the sum of all without such coordination. In short, efficiency of society is the factor that makes society and the individual grow further and further. This is what we call development.

Freedom distinguishes people from non-living objects, machinery, and beasts. Efficiency without freedom would result in a society of puppets. Its capacity to grow would be handicapped. It would lack life and variety. Freedom enables people to choose their own objectives and the paths toward achieving those objectives in life. Variety in tastes and inclinations makes society more interesting and complete. Furthermore, when people moved to do something of their own choice, they will likely do it with enthusiasm; and enthusiasm, according to Buddhist teaching, is the heart of achievement. In the Christian way of thinking, each human being has a personal innate dignity endowed by god; and this individual dignity is sacred. Freedom is thus an essential factor in national development in the Buddhist and Christian senses. Therefore democratic principles must be earnestly upheld, not only through lip service. Democracy is often obstructed by greed and self-importance, leading to the neglect, and sometimes the destruction, of others’ personal dignity. These obstacles to freedom and democracy are also obstacles to complete national development.

Individuals live together in a society bound by justice. Good results in good, and evil brings about punishment, according to Buddhist and Christian teachings. Men live together in unity only when they are sure of the prevalence of justice. Envy, jealousy, and rivalry are caused by the suspicion that one is unjustly treated; when that happens, unhappiness emerges and peace disappears. This is true within society; it is also true of a society of nations. Without justice, there will be chaos, anarchy, and war. Thus justice leads to peace, which is the basis of development.

People are born unequal physically and intellectually; some are intelligent, others not. Some are strong and healthy, others crippled. Some of us are adversely affected in one way or another during our lifetimes. Some live in a place with abundant educational facilities, others in the countryside, far from enlightenment. When unequal conditions are recognized, it is the duty of society to minimize discrepancies. President Ramon Magsaysay said, “To those who have less from birth, the law must give more.” This is nothing but kindness. In my opinion, certain doctrines wrongly interpreted are harmful, such as the so-called law of Karma, which is often used as an excuse for not helping, say, a blind child, under the pretext that the latter must have committed a sin in a past life and thus deserves punishment. This is obnoxious to genuine Buddhist teachings. Again, those who enrich themselves by immoral means and pretend to redeem sin through charity should be condemned by Buddhists and Christians alike. There is no kindness in such charity. The principle of kindness is related to the principle of freedom inasmuch as each human being has individual rights and dignity. The weak have a perfect right to consideration from the strong, and not in the name of charity. Kindness ennobles society. A nation cannot grow through efficiency alone; there must be justice and kindness.


Planning for Development

Planning for development must be done within the framework of the four principles mentioned above: efficiency, freedom, justice, and kindness.

Contrary to prevalent belief, development planning is not the exclusive concern of economists and social scientists. All disciplines of learning, including moral learning, are involved. When we want to build a house, the ground must be prepared and the foundation firmly constructed. For farming, the soil must be enriched and water provided, while manpower, storage, and transport must also be readily available.

Similarly, national development can only succeed when every necessary related factor is prepared. Of course, one can always start development anyhow, but the results will be chancy, like sowing seeds on infertile land.

Circumstances favourable to national development may be listed: (a) there must be peace and good administration; (b) objectives must be developed correctly; (c) technique for development must be sound; and (d) there should be sufficient power allowed by the law with proper safeguards against its abuse.

What follows will amplify these four prerequisites.


(a) PEACE, ORDER, AND GOOD ADMINISTRATION: Planning for development means to plan national investments to produce short- and long-term future results. Such investments cannot be productive if a nation lacks peace. Farmers can do nothing in a battlefield. Vietnam, Laos, Nigeria, and other countries where there is war have no means of planning even for a few months ahead, for the simple reason of uncertainty. Obviously, wars between nations and world wars are inimical to development planning. Even confrontation and threats to peace, as in the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, can affect economic and social well-being of nations concerned.

The absence of order need not always be caused by armed conflicts. Whenever administrations become seriously defective, even though there is no Communist subversion, national advancement will be considerably affected. Such a situation has been well described in one of our reading texts for children, Mulbot Banpakich. It refers to the city of Savatti, where


“Courtiers found young girls with pretty faces to perform music at their homes and always indulged their sexual passions. They earned money greedily and gave it to their wives. They neglected the moral code and turned to superstition. They abused their power, cheated servants, and chained them. Litigation was determined by bribes of chicken, pork, rice, and fish, irrespective of the rule of law. The crooks were rewarded and given power to inflict pain on others. The just, devout, old, and learned were considered idiots and fools. The priests neglected books and indulged in dancing and singing. The people ignored wise men’s words and became hooligans. There were, of course, a number of good respectable people. But in the city of Savatti nobody was kind to anybody; they were all selfish and opportunist. The strong had no need to buy or beg; they took what they wanted. Officials swore loyalty and honesty, but their hearts were otherwise. They took what they found, leaving the people full of sorrow. The mighty exploited without mercy.”


The evils enumerated are (1) sexual excess (2) greed (3) superstition (4) corruption (5) injustice in law courts (6) contempt of wisdom and moral principles (7) cruelty and abuse of power and (8) officials neglecting duties.

There are twofold remedies to such disorders. One is to endeavor to propagate moral principles effectively among the people and officials. The other is to concentrate upon government leaders. Good leaders will be able to lead subordinates along the right path. Buddha stated this point with the following words: “Leaders must behave morally before society becomes prosperous.” He compared human society to a herd of cattle; if the leader goes astray, the whole herd will follow. A nation can only attain happiness if leaders adhere to moral principles; then the people will practise morality.


(b) DEVELOPMENT OBJECTIVES: In common understanding, national development means increasing people’s incomes, welfare, health, and education. How to do this will be discussed in the next paragraph. Here I would like to enlarge upon meanings and objectives of development, for it is most important to be clear about objectives. The objectives of national development are threefold:

  1. The growth of present and future income and welfare. If we invest more, present consumption will be less, and vice versa. Hence, proper balance must be struck between present and future welfare and justice must be obtained for present and future generations.
  2. Growth must be accompanied by stability. Stability here is the opposite of fluctuation, in which all kinds of economic, monetary, and social problems occur that are harmful to development. A government which prefers to print paper money in excessive quantities instead of taxing people will soon encounter inflation, with all prices rising fast as the result of too much money chasing too few goods. Then there will be uncertainty in all transactions and development is retarded. This situation prevailed in Indonesia a few years ago. Preserving stability is the concern of those responsible for public finance and banking.
  3. Growth must be equitably spread out. For instance, it does not make sense to look at the national average income in Thailand; the average income in the central plain is three times that in the northeast. The result of development may be that the rich get richer and the poor poorer. This is contrary to principles of justice and kindness. We must therefore aim at investing more for the benefit of country people and slow down investment for the rich. This is nothing more than applying moral principles to economic planning.


(c) THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS: The development process has more to do with economic technique than other parts of this lecture. However, it can be said that the development process consists in comparing estimated results of alternative investments and choosing the ones with highest benefit; it means studying cost ratios. Although economic theory is applied here, it is by no means extraordinary and administration called for follows normal patterns, producing maximum benefit with minimum investment and applying wisdom to prevent waste, even in urgent cases. Normalcy in applying theory is underlined here. There are no shortcuts or special theories for the development process. People may force the minds and behaviour of their fellow human beings, but they cannot force natural law or economic theory without disastrous effects.

There are two problems to be considered in this context: what is to be done first and what can wait; and how to divide development work between government and individuals.

With limited resources and manpower, one cannot do everything at once. Priorities must be set among projects. High priority projects are those that would be catalytic for others, like manpower and education development. Infrastructure development projects should also enjoy priority, for example fiscal and monetary reform as well as road, transport, and port development.

Concentrating on economic development, economists tend to neglect other important fields for development, such as education, health, and welfare. Beauty ought to be considered an important criterion of development and money must be made available for the arts, literature, and music. Research in universities leading to truth and knowledge should be one of the foremost projects for development.

The issue of government versus private enterprise is a political issue as well as a question of respecting individual rights. Communism and extreme socialism would advocate overall government control, with individuals as factors of production, whereas capitalism and liberalism emphasize private initiative with minimum government interference. Both factions, in my opinion, are wrong and unjust. Communism ignores individual freedom and capitalism causes exploitation and widens the social gap. I would prefer a middle way, with government encouraging private initiative while using fiscal and monetary measures to control them. Government activities must also be extended to basic public utilities for the common benefit.

Similarly, powerful people in government should respect rights and initiatives of lesser members of society. They should not extend their empire to the detriment of others. Common farmers, traders, and industrialists must also have their place in the sun. Moral principles are called for.


(d) POWER IN DEVELOPMENT: In the process of development, unusual powers are necessary. In government circles, with more construction work and employees, there must be more public expenditure than in normal cases. The more extensive the development, the more money is involved and opportunities for abuses. Rules and regulations are necessary and special attention must be paid to prevent corrupt practices.

When construction work is called for, and if we have money for it, we shall be in a position to get the best quality goods at the most reasonable cost, provided we have good rules and regulations and that officials concerned are honest. These provisos are hard enough by themselves. But in cases where money is unavailable, suppliers will tempt us by offering credit while insisting that we buy goods irrespective of cost. Such deals are inimical to development.

In the process of development, the government must spend more money than without development. This extra expenditure cannot come entirely from increased taxation; the government must resort to borrowing. In domestic borrowing, care must be taken to prevent inflation. This is usually caused by excessive borrowing from the Central Bank, causing the latter to issue more money. Loans of savings by private individuals, corporations, or private funds are good loans. In external borrowing, the consideration is to prevent foreign debts from exceeding annual capacity to pay. This latter consideration is based upon a nation’s annual export earning capacity. On this matter, our government wisely observed the aforementioned rules, and assigned supervisory responsibility to the National Economic Development Board Executive Committee’s subcommittee on government debt.

I have heard a strange doctrine enunciated on this subject that in a developing country like Thailand, it is difficult to prevent corruption; besides, corruption should be allowed because it helps speed development. This is an obnoxious doctrine, advocating a perverse view of development. Even if it were true that corruption speeds development, would it not be better to remain undeveloped? A little less material wealth with more happiness is to be preferred. But in fact this perverse doctrine has no support from any economic, political, or moral theory. The more corruption there is, the less development can be achieved. And once a little corruption is permitted, there will be no end to it. The recent lessons from Indonesia, as well as Ghana and other African states, are clear and very instructive.



The Development of Man

In this last hour, I intend to be brief, to give an opportunity for the audience to discuss my views or ask questions to clarify certain obscure points. I hope the audience will cooperate with me in this.

But I cannot omit some thoughts on the most important subject relating to ethics, religion, and development: the subject of people.

The development of people comprises formal education and educational training after school age. This subject deserves full and lengthy treatment, and perhaps could become the theme for another Thompson Memorial Lecture series. However, I shall only submit a few ideas here.

The government is obliged to provide full and free education for children of primary school age. Today, we are failing in this obligation. This problem is one of the most important items in the national development plan. As long as we fail our children by insufficiently promoting literacy, we should feel ashamed to fail them morally and in terms of overall development as well.

Some say that we lack qualified teachers at schools. I entirely disagree with the emphasis on qualification. Primary school teachers need not be highly qualified. What they need is diligence. Emphasizing higher qualification leads many teachers to study for their own benefit instead of concentrating on teaching children. School supervision is also defective. Negligence in teaching duties is immoral and a drawback to development.

At the moment, secondary education is still not compulsory in Thailand; but the more educated children are, the better it is for development, as exemplified by Japan. Secondary education for some people is the end of their school days; we must endeavour to give them some vocational skill to earn a livelihood. In my view, vocational education development is very important.

Those who leave school after the primary or secondary grades must still be taught more to be useful in the national development process. Out-of-school education and training must be carried out seriously for the sake of literacy and vocational improvement.

University students may be considered an elite. They must learn a wide range of subjects to assume the responsibility of leadership, and must have profound knowledge of subjects.

At whatever level of education, adults are obliged to inculcate in youngsters a knowledge of good and evil and correct moral values. Sometimes youths seem to have been misled into believing that drinking, wenching, and cheating are normal behaviours in life. Adults must set them good examples by our behaviour, showing them the right sense of values. Good examples are called for from parents, teachers, and public figures. Bad behaviour among children and youth is always caused by immorality of adults.

Nowadays, we often complain that schoolchildren and students are unruly, disobedient, quarrelsome, and inclined to violence. We can complain, but what are we doing about it? I cannot help feeling that in the long run, the best means of solving these problems already exist in Buddhist and Christian teachings: love, kindness, and good examples, particularly with love. If love prevails between youth and adults, there will be mutual trust and respect. Love is the sacred food for the human race irrespective of our religions, Buddhism or Christianity.

The Sinclair Thompson Memorial Lectures,

January 1969, Christian Seminary, Chiang Mai.