Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 8—c. 563 B.C.E. onward—An Enlightenment That Promised Liberation
“The test of a religion or philosophy is the number of things it can explain.”—American 19th-century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson
LITTLE, if anything, is known about him for sure. Tradition says that he was named Siddhārtha Gautama, that he was a prince, and that he was born about 600 years before the birth of Christ in the northern Indian kingdom of the Sakya. He was called Sakyamuni (sage of the Sakya tribe) and Tathagata, a title of uncertain meaning. Most likely you will recognize him only by his better-known title, the Buddha.
Gautama was raised in palatial surroundings, but at 29 he suddenly became aware of the misery around him. He wanted an explanation, not unlike people today who sincerely wonder why wickedness and suffering exist. Leaving his wife and infant son, he fled to the desert, where for six years he lived the life of an ascetic. He lay on thorns and for a time existed on a single grain of rice a day. But this brought no enlightenment.
Now about 35, Gautama decided upon a more moderate course, one he called the Middle Way, or Path. He vowed to remain seated under a fig tree until enlightenment was attained. Finally, after a night of visions, he felt his search had been rewarded. Thenceforth he was known as the Buddha, meaning “enlightened one.” But Gautama did not claim a monopoly on the title. It must therefore always be used with an article, a buddha or, in Gautama’s case, the Buddha.
The Way to Liberation
The Hindu gods Indra and Brahma are said to have begged the Buddha to tell his newly found truths to others. He set out to do so. Although retaining Hinduism’s tolerant attitude that all religions have merit, the Buddha disagreed with its caste system and its emphasis on animal sacrifices. He rejected its claim that the Hindu Vedas were scriptures of divine origin. And while not denying that God might possibly exist, he did rule out God as being a Creator. The law of causation, he argued, had no beginning. And he went further than Hinduism, allegedly promising in his first sermon: “This, monks, is the middle path the knowledge of which . . . leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to perfect enlightenment, to Nirvana.”
‘What is Nirvana?’ you ask. “It is difficult to find an erroneous answer to this question,” says historian Will Durant, “for the Master left the point obscure, and his followers have given the word every meaning under the sun.” “There is no single Buddhist view,” agrees The Encyclopedia of Religion, for it “varies with the culture, the historical period, the language, the school, and even the individual.” One writer calls it “the pure absence of desire, the timeless infinity of the void . . . , the everlasting tranquillity of death without rebirth.” Others, in reference to its Sanskrit root meaning of “to blow out,” say that it is like a flame that goes out when its fuel is exhausted. At any rate, Nirvana promises liberation.
The need for achieving liberation the Buddha summed up in the Four Noble Truths: Life is pain and suffering; both are caused by craving for existence and for the indulgence of desires; the course of wisdom is to suppress this craving; this is achieved by following the Eightfold Path. This Path entails right belief, right intention, right speech, right action, right living, right endeavor, right thought, and right meditation.
Victories Abroad, Defeat at Home
From its beginning, Buddhism found ready response. A group of materialists of the time, called the Charvakas, had already prepared the way. They rejected Hindu sacred writings, scoffed at the idea of belief in God, and renounced religion in general. Their influence was substantial and helped create what Durant calls “a vacuum which almost compelled the growth of a new religion.” This vacuum, together with “the intellectual decay of the old religion,” contributed to the rise of the two major reform movements of the day, Buddhism and Jainism.
In the middle of the third century B.C.E., King Aśoka, whose empire embraced most of the Indian subcontinent, did much to popularize Buddhism. He strengthened its missionary aspects by sending missionaries to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and possibly to other countries also. During the first centuries of the Common Era, Buddhism spread throughout China. From there it spread to Japan by way of Korea. By the sixth and seventh centuries C.E., it could be found in all parts of east and southeast Asia. Today, there are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide.
Even prior to King Aśoka’s day, Buddhism had been on the move. “By the end of the fourth century B.C., Buddhist missionaries were found in Athens,” writes E. M. Layman. And he adds that after Christianity was founded, its early missionaries were confronted with Buddhist doctrine everywhere they went. In fact, when Catholic missionaries first went to Japan, they were mistaken for a new Buddhist sect. How could this be?
Apparently the two religions had much in common. According to historian Durant, things like “the veneration of relics, the use of holy water, candles, incense, the rosary, clerical vestments, a liturgical dead language, monks and nuns, monastic tonsure and celibacy, confession, fast days, the canonization of saints, purgatory and masses for the dead.” He adds that these things “seem to have appeared in Buddhism first.” In fact, Buddhism was said to be “five centuries in advance of the Roman Church in the invention and use of all the ceremonies and forms common to both religions.”
Explaining how these similarities developed, author Layman hints at a common origin. He writes: “By the time of the Christian era . . . pagan influences had become apparent in Buddhist forms of worship. . . . Pagan influences probably were [also] responsible for some of the worship practices which developed in the Christian church.”
Despite its worldwide impact, Buddhism suffered a serious defeat at home. Today, less than 1 percent of India’s population is Buddhist; 83 percent is Hindu. The reason is unclear. Perhaps Buddhism was so tolerant that it was simply reabsorbed by more traditional Hinduism. Or perhaps the Buddhist monks slacked off in shepherding the laity. A major factor, at any rate, was the penetration of Islam into India. This led to Muslim rulership under which many people, particularly in northern India, converted to Islam. In fact, by the end of the 13th century, about a quarter of the population was Muslim. Meanwhile, many Buddhists were reverting to Hinduism, apparently finding it better equipped to cope with the Muslim onslaught. Living up to its name of tolerance, Hinduism welcomed them back with a fond embrace, easing their return by proclaiming the Buddha a god, an incarnation of Vishnu!
The Many Faces of the Buddha
“The first images of the Buddha were made by the Greeks,” writes E. M. Layman. Buddhists claim that these statues are not worshiped but are only aids to devotion, designed to show respect for the great Teacher. At times the Buddha is shown standing, but most often he sits cross-legged, the soles of his feet facing upward. When his hands are atop one another, he is meditating; when his right hand is lifted to the chin, he is blessing; and when the thumb of the right hand is touching the forefinger or when both hands are joined in front of the breast, he is teaching. The reclining pose depicts him at the moment of passage into Nirvana.
Just as there are differences in his various postures, so there are varieties of his doctrine. It is said that within 200 years after his death, 18 different versions of Buddhism already existed. Today, 25 centuries removed from Gautama’s “enlightenment,” Buddhist interpretations of how to achieve Nirvana are many.
Erik Zürcher of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands explains that there are “three basic orientations within Buddhism, each with its own doctrinal ideas, cultic practices, sacred scriptures, and iconographic traditions.” These movements are called vehicles in Buddhist terminology because, like ferryboats, they carry a person across the river of life until he finally reaches the shore of liberation. Then the vehicle may safely be abandoned. And the Buddhist will tell you that the method of travel—the kind of vehicle—is immaterial. Getting there is all that matters.
These vehicles include Theravada Buddhism, which apparently remains fairly close to what the Buddha preached and is particularly strong in Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, and Kampuchea (formerly, Cambodia). Mahayana Buddhism, particularly strong in China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia, is more liberal, having adapted its teachings to reach more people. For that reason it is called the Greater Vehicle in contrast with Theravada, the Lesser Vehicle. Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, commonly known as Tantrism or Esoteric Buddhism, combines ritual with the practicing of Yoga, and supposedly speeds up one’s progress toward Nirvana.
These three movements are divided into many schools, each differing in the interpretation of certain basic elements, oftentimes because of placing special emphasis on certain sections of Buddhist scriptures. And since, according to Zürcher, wherever it went, “Buddhism was in varying degrees influenced by local beliefs and practices,” these schools soon fathered any number of local sects. Not unlike Christendom with its thousands of confusing sects and subdivisions, the Buddha, figuratively speaking, wears many faces.
Buddhism and Politics
Like Judaism and professed Christianity, Buddhism has not limited itself to religious activities but has helped mold political thought and behavior as well. “The first fusion of Buddhism and political action came during the reign of [King] Asoka,” says author Jerrold Schecter. The political activism of Buddhism continues to our day. In the latter part of 1987, 27 Tibetan Buddhist monks were arrested in Lhasa for taking part in anti-Chinese demonstrations. And the involvement of Buddhism in the Vietnam war of the 1960’s caused Schecter to conclude: “The peaceful path of the Middle Way has been twisted into the new violence of street demonstrations. . . . Buddhism in Asia is a faith in flames.”
Dissatisfied with the deplorable political, economic, social, and moral conditions of the Western world, some people turn to Eastern religions, including Buddhism, for explanations. But can “a faith in flames” provide the answers? If you apply Emerson’s criterion that “the test of a religion . . . is the number of things it can explain,” how do you rate Gautama’s enlightenment? Would some of the other Asiatic religions “In Search of the Right Way” do better? For an answer, read our next installment.
[Box on page 18]
Some of Its People, Places, and Things
Adam’s Peak, a mountain in Sri Lanka viewed as holy; a mark in the stone there is said by Buddhists to be the Buddha’s footprint, by Muslim’s to be Adam’s, and by Hindus to be Siva’s.
Bodhi Tree, the fig tree under which Gautama became the Buddha, “bodhi” meaning “enlightenment”; an offshoot of the parent tree is said to survive and is venerated in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
Buddhist Monks, recognized by their distinctive robes, form a principal element of Buddhism; they promise to be truthful, to be compassionate to man and beast, to beg for their livelihood, to shun amusements, and to live in chastity.
Dalai Lama, Tibetan secular and religious leader, viewed by Buddhists as an incarnation of the Buddha, who in 1959 was driven into exile; “dalai,” from the Mongolian word for “ocean,” signifies broad knowledge; “lama” refers to a spiritual teacher (like the Sanskrit guru). According to news reports, during the 1987 Tibetan demonstrations, the Dalai Lama “gave his blessing to civil disobedience but condemned violence,” thereby causing India, his host country, to remind him that political statements might jeopardize his stay there.
Temple of the Tooth, a Buddhist temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka, reputedly housing one of the Buddha’s teeth as a sacred relic.
[Box on page 19]
Tea and Buddhist “Prayer”
Despite similarities, Buddhist “prayer” is more correctly termed “meditation.” One form that particularly stresses self-discipline and deep meditation is Zen Buddhism. Brought to Japan in the 12th century C.E., it is based on a Chinese form of Buddhism known as Ch’an, which is traced back to an Indian monk named Bodhidharma. He went to China in the sixth century C.E. and borrowed heavily from Chinese Taoism in creating Ch’an. It is said that he once cut off his eyelids in a fit of anger after having fallen asleep while meditating. They fell to the ground, took root, and produced the first tea plant. This legend serves as the traditional basis for Zen monks’ drinking tea to keep awake while in meditation.
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Buddhist temples, such as the Marble Temple in Bangkok, Thailand, are very impressive
[Picture on page 17]
Also seen here is a statue of a Buddhist demon guarding a temple, and below, a statue of a buddha. These are familiar sights in Buddhist countries