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III. Buddhism
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 

The Man Who Woke Up

Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was.  How many people have provoked this question— not “Who are you?” with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but “What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?” Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two: Jesus and Buddha. When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided an identity for his entire message. “Are you a god?” they asked. “No.”“An angel?” “No.”“A saint?” “No.”“Then what are you?” Buddha answered,

“I am awake.”

The historical facts of his life are roughly these: He was born around 563 B.C. in what is now Nepal, near the Indian border . His full name was Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas. Siddhartha was his given name, Gautama his surname, and Sakya the name of the clan to which his family belonged.

By the standards of the day his upbringing was luxurious. “I wore garments of silk and my attendants held a white umbrella over me. My unguents were always from Banaras.” He appears to have been exceptionally handsome , for there are numerous references to “the perfection of his visible body.” At sixteen he married a neighboring princess, Yasodhara, who bore a son whom they called Rahula.

Despite all this there settled over him in his twenties a discontent, which was to lead to a complete break with his worldly estate. The source of his discontent is impounded in the legend of
The Four Passing Sights, one of the most celebrated calls to adventure in all world literature.

That day Siddhartha learned the fact of
old age. Though the king extended his guard, on a second ride Siddhartha encountered a body racked with disease, lying by the roadside; and on a third journey, a corpse. Finally, on a fourth occasion he saw a monk with shaven head, ochre robe, and bowl , and on that day he learned of the life of withdrawal from the world.

He determined to quit the snare of distractions his palace had become and follow the call of a truth-seeker. One night in his twenty-ninth year he made the break, his
Great Going Forth.

Six years followed, during which his full energies were concentrated toward this end. “How hard to live the life of the lonely forest-dweller…to rejoice in solitude. Verily, the silent groves bear heavily upon the monk who has not yet won to fixity of mind!”

He learned a great deal— about raja yoga especially, but about Hindu philosophy as well; so much in fact that Hindus came to claim him as their own, holding that his criticisms of the religion of his day were in the order of reforms and were less important than his agreements. In time, however, he concluded that he had learned all that these yogis could teach him.

His next step was to join a band of ascetics and give their way an honest try. Was it his body that was holding him back? He would break its power and crush its interference.  In the end he grew so weak that he fell into a faint; and if the maiden Sujata had not been around to feed him some warm rice gruel, he could easily have died.

But negative experiments carry their own lessons, and in this case asceticism’s failure provided Gautama with the first constructive plank for his program: the principle of the
Middle Way between the extremes of asceticism, on the one hand, and indulgence on the other.

Having turned his back on mortification, Gautama devoted the final phase of his quest to a combination of rigorous thought and mystic concentration along the lines of
raja yoga.

One evening near Gaya in northeast India, south of the present city of Patna, he sat down under a peepul tree that has come to be known as the
Bo Tree  (short for bodhi or enlightenment). The place was later named the Immovable Spot, for tradition reports that the Buddha , sensing that a breakthrough was near, seated himself that epoch-making evening vowing not to arise until enlightenment was his.

Thereafter, while the Bo Tree rained red blossoms that full-mooned May night, Gautama’s meditation deepened through watch after watch until, as the morning star glittered in the transparent sky of the east, his mind pierced at last the bubble of the universe and shattered it to naught, only, wonder of wonders, to find it miraculously restored with the effulgence of true being.
The Great Awakening  had arrived. Gautama’s being was transformed, and he emerged the Buddha.

The Buddha withdrew for six years, then returned for forty-five. But each year was likewise divided: nine months in the world, followed by a three-month retreat with his monks during the rainy season. His daily cycle, too, was patterned to this mold. His public hours were long, but three times a day he withdrew, to return his attention (through meditation) to its sacred source.

After an arduous ministry of forty-five years, at the age of eighty and around the year 483 B.C., the Buddha died from dysentery after eating a meal of dried boar’s flesh in the home of Cunda the smith. Two sentences from his valedictory have echoed through the ages. “All compounded things decay. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

The Silent Sage

The remarkable fact, however, was the way this objective, critical component of his character was balanced by a Franciscan tenderness so strong as to have caused his message to be subtitled “a religion of infinite compassion.”

Notwithstanding his own objectivity toward himself, there was constant pressure during his lifetime to turn him into a god. He rebuffed all these categorically, insisting that he was human in every respect. He confessed that if there had been another drive as powerful as sex he would never have made the grade.

The Rebel Saint

In moving from Buddha the man to Buddhism the religion, it is imperative that the latter be seen against the background of the Hinduism out of which it grew.

Six aspects of religion surface so regularly as to suggest that their seeds are in the human makeup.
One of these is
authority.
A second normal feature of religion is
ritual, which was actually religion’s cradle, for anthropologists tell us that people danced out their religion before they thought it out.
Religion may begin in ritual, but explanations are soon called for, so
speculation enters as a third religious feature.
A fourth constant in religion is
tradition.
A fifth typical feature of religion is
grace, the belief— often difficult to sustain in the face of facts— that Reality is ultimately on our side.
Finally, religion traffics in
mystery.

Onto this religious scene— corrupt, degenerate, and irrelevant, matted with superstition and burdened with worn-out rituals— came the Buddha, determined to clear the ground that truth might find new life.
1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.
2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual.
3. Buddha preached a religion that skirted speculation.
4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.
5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.
6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural. “By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple— that he tries to work a miracle.”
After his death all the accoutrements that the Buddha labored to protect his religion from came tumbling into it, but as long as he lived he kept them at bay.
Original Buddhism can be characterized in the following terms:
1. It was empirical.
2. It was scientific.
3. It was pragmatic— a transcendental pragmatism if one wishes, to distinguish it from the kind that focuses on practical problems in everyday life, but pragmatic all the same in being concerned with problem solving.
4. It was therapeutic. “One thing I teach,” said the Buddha: “suffering and the end of suffering.
5. It was psychological. The word is used here in contrast to metaphysical. Instead of beginning with the universe and moving to the place of human beings within it, the Buddha invariably began with the human lot, its problems, and the dynamics of coping with them.
6. It was egalitarian. With a breadth of view unparalleled in his age and infrequent in any, he insisted that women were as capable of enlightenment as men. And he rejected the caste system’s assumption that aptitudes were hereditary. Born a kshatriya (warrior, ruler) yet finding himself temperamentally a brahmin, he broke caste, opening his order to all regardless of social status.
7. It was directed to individuals.

The Four Noble Truths

His subject was the Four Noble Truths. His first formal discourse after his awakening, it was a declaration of the key discoveries that had come to him as the climax of his six-year quest.

The First Noble Truth is that life is
dukkha, usually translated “suffering.” Dukkha, then, names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence. The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth is this: Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint.

For the rift to be healed we need to know its cause, and the Second Noble Truth identifies it. The cause of life’s dislocation is
tanha. Tanha is usually translated as “desire.” But beyond being unhelpful, the claim of equivalence would be flatly wrong, for there are some desires the Buddha explicitly advocated— the desire for liberation, for example, or for the happiness of others. Tanha is a specific kind of desire, the desire for private fulfillment. Can we not see that “tis the self by which we suffer”? Far from being the door to abundant life, the ego is a strangulated hernia.

The Third Noble Truth follows logically from the Second. If the cause of life’s dislocation is selfish craving, its cure lies in the overcoming of such craving. If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life, we would be relieved of our torment.

The Fourth Noble Truth prescribes how the cure can be accomplished. The overcoming of tanha, the way out of our captivity, is through the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path

He breaks it down into eight steps. They are preceded, however, by a preliminary he does not include in his list, but refers to so often elsewhere that we may assume that he was presupposing it here. This preliminary step is right association.

1. Right Views. A way of life always involves more than beliefs, but it can never bypass them completely, for in addition to being social animals, as was just noted, human beings are also rational animals. Until reason is satisfied, an individual cannot proceed in any direction wholeheartedly. Some intellectual orientation, therefore, is needed if one is to set out other than haphazardly. The Four Noble Truths provide this orientation.
2. Right Intent. Whereas the first step summoned us to make up our minds as to what life’s problem basically is, the second advises us to make up our hearts as to what we really want.
3. Right Speech. In the next three steps we take hold of the switches that control our lives, beginning with attention to language. Our first task is to become aware of our speech and what it reveals about our character. Instead of starting with a resolve to speak nothing but the truth— one that is likely to prove ineffective at the outset because it is too advanced— we will do well to start further back, with a resolve to notice how many times during the day we deviate from the truth, and to follow this up by asking why we did so.
4. Right Conduct. Here, too, the admonition (as the Buddha detailed it in his later discourses) involves a call to understand one’s behavior more objectively before trying to improve it. The trainee is to reflect on actions with an eye to the motives that prompted them.
5. Right Livelihood. The word “occupation” is well devised, for our work does indeed occupy most of our waking attention. Buddha considered spiritual progress to be impossible if the bulk of one’s doings pull against it: “The hand of the dyer is subdued by the dye in which it works.”
6. Right Effort. The Buddha laid tremendous stress on the will. Reaching the goal requires immense exertion; there are virtues to be developed, passions to be curbed, and destructive mind states to be expunged so compassion and detachment can have a chance.
7. Right Mindfulness. No teacher has credited the mind with more influence over life than did the Buddha. The best loved of all Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada, opens with the words, “All we are is the result of what we have thought.” And respecting the future, it assures us that “all things can be mastered by mindfulness.”
8. Right Concentration. This involves substantially the techniques we have already encountered in Hinduism’s raja yoga and leads to substantially the same goal.

Something happened to the Buddha under that Bo Tree, and something has happened to every Buddhist since who has persevered to the final step of the Eightfold Path.

Basic Buddhist Concepts

Undoubtedly, the most serious obstacle to the recovery of the Buddha’s rounded philosophy, however, is his own silence at crucial points. We have seen that his burning concerns were practical and therapeutic, not speculative and theoretical. Instead of debating cosmologies, he wanted to introduce people to a different kind of life.

We may begin with nirvana, the word the Buddha used to name life’s goal as he saw it. Etymologically it means “to blow out,” or “to extinguish,” not transitively, but as a fire ceases to draw. Deprived of fuel, the fire goes out, and this is nirvana. Nirvana is the highest destiny of the human spirit and its literal meaning is extinction, but we must be precise as to what is to be extinguished. It is the boundaries of the finite self. It does not follow that what is left will be nothing. Buddha parried every request for a positive description of the unconditioned, insisting that it was “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable”; for after we eliminate every aspect of the only consciousness we have known, how can we speak of what is left? Our final ignorance is to imagine that our final destiny is conceivable. All we can know is that it is a condition that is beyond— beyond the limitations of mind, thoughts, feelings, and will, all these (not to mention bodily things) being confinements. The Buddha would venture only one affirmative characterization. “Bliss, yes bliss, my friends, is nirvana.”
The most startling thing the Buddha said about the human self is that it has no soul. This
anatta (no soul) doctrine has again caused Buddhism to seem religiously peculiar. But again the word must be examined.
It is impossible to read much Buddhist literature without catching its sense of the transitoriness (
anicca) of everything finite, its recognition of the perpetual perishing of every natural object.

Big Raft and Little

Thus far we have been looking at Buddhism as it appears from its earliest records. We turn now to Buddhist history and the record it provides of the variations that can enter a tradition as it seeks to minister to the needs of masses of people and multiple personality types.

Accordingly it preempted the name
Mahayana, the Big Raft, maha meaning “great,” as in Mahatma (the Great Souled) Gandhi. As this name caught on, the other group came to be known, by default, as Hinayana, or the Little Raft. Not exactly pleased with this invidious designation, the Hinayanists have preferred to call their Buddhism Theravada, the Way of the Elders. In doing so they regained the initiative by claiming to represent original Buddhism, the Buddhism taught by Gautama himself.

1. For Theravada Buddhism progress is up to the individual; it depends on his or her understanding and resolute application of the will. For Mahayanists the fate of the individual is linked to that of all life, and they are ultimately undivided.

2. Theravada holds that humanity is on its own in the universe. No gods exist to help us over the humps, so self-reliance is our only recourse. For Mahayana, in contrast, grace is a fact.

3. In Theravada Buddhism the prime attribute of enlightenment is wisdom (bodhi), meaning profound insight into the nature of reality, the causes of anxiety and suffering, and the absence of a separate core of selfhood. From the Mahayana perspective karuna (compassion) cannot be counted on to be an automatic fruit. From the beginning compassion must be given priority over wisdom.

4. The sangha (Buddhist monastic order) is at the heart of Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism, on the contrary, is primarily a religion for laypeople. Even its priests usually marry, and they are expected to make service to the laity their primary concern.

5. It follows from these differences that the ideal type as projected by the two schools will differ appreciably. For the Theravadins the ideal was the Arhat, the perfected disciple who, wandering like the lone rhinoceros, strikes out alone for nirvana and, with prodigious concentration, proceeds unswervingly toward that goal. The Mahayana ideal, on the contrary, was the boddhisattva, “one whose essence (sattva) is perfected wisdom (bodhi)”— a being who, having reached the brink of nirvana, voluntarily renounces that prize and returns to the world to make nirvana available to others.

6. This difference in ideal naturally floods back to color the two schools’ estimates of the Buddha himself. For one he was essentially a saint, for the other a savior.

These differences are the central ones, but several others may be mentioned to piece out the picture. Whereas the Theravadins followed their founder in considering speculation a useless diversion, Mahayana spawned elaborate cosmologies replete with many-leveled heavens and hells. The only kind of prayer the Theravadins countenanced was meditation and invocations to deepen faith and loving-kindness, whereas the Mahayanists added supplication, petition, and calling on the name of the Buddha for spiritual strength. Finally, whereas Theravada remained conservative to the point of an almost fundamentalistic adherence to the early Pali texts, Mahayana was liberal in almost every respect.

The Secret of the Flower

After Buddhism split into Theravada and Mahayana, Theravada continued as a fairly unified tradition, whereas Mahayana divided into a number of denominations or schools. We shall not go into these and smaller sects of Mahayana Buddhism; we shall reserve our space for, first, the Buddhism that Taoism profoundly influenced, namely Ch’an (Zen in Japanese), and second, the Buddhism that evolved in Tibet.

Entering Zen is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonderland where everything seems quite mad— charmingly mad for the most part, but mad all the same. A master, Gutei, whenever he was asked the meaning of Zen, lifted his index finger. That was all. Zen is not interested in theories about enlightenment; it wants the real thing.

The point regarding Zen’s relation to reason is simply a double one. First, Zen logic and description make sense only from an experiential perspective radically different from the ordinary. Second, Zen masters are determined that their students attain the experience itself, not allow talk to take its place. It is this “transmission of Buddha-mind to Buddha-mind” that constitutes the “special transmission” Bodhidharma cited as Zen’s essence.

And what is the training by which aspirants are brought toward the Buddha-mind that has been thus preserved? We can approach it by way of three key terms:
zazen, koan, and sanzen. Zazen literally means “seated meditation.” In a general way koan means problem, but the problems Zen devises are fantastic. At first glance they look like nothing so much as a cross between a riddle and a shaggy dog story. Twice a day, though, on average, the monk confronts the master in private “consultation concerning meditation”— sanzen in Rinzai and dokusan in the Soto sect. These meetings are invariably brief. The trainee states the koan in question and follows it with his or her answer to date.

From this and similar descriptions we can infer that
satori is Zen’s version of the mystical experience, which, wherever it appears, brings joy, at-one-ment, and a sense of reality that defies ordinary language.

The Diamond Thunderbolt

We have spoken of two yanas or paths in Buddhism, but we must now add a third. If Hinayana literally means the Little Way and Mahayana the Great Way, Vajrayana is the Diamond Way.

We just noted that the roots of the Vajrayana can be traced back to India, and it continues to survive in Japan as Shingon Buddhism; but it was the Tibetans who perfected this third Buddhist path.

To catch its distinctiveness we must see it as the third major Buddhist yana, while adding immediately that the essence of the Vajrayana is Tantra. Tibetan Buddhism, the Buddhism here under review, is at heart Tantric Buddhism.

The Tantras are texts that focus on the interrelatedness of things. Hinduism pioneered such texts, but it was Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, that gave them pride of place.

The Tibetans say that their religion is nowise distinctive in its goal. What distinguishes their practice is that it enables one to reach nirvana in a single lifetime.

They say that the speed-up is effected by utilizing all of the energies latent in the human make-up, those of the body emphatically included, and impressing them all into the service of the spiritual quest. The energy that interests the West most is sex, so it is not surprising that Tantra’s reputation abroad has been built on its sacramental use of this drive.

What distinguishes Tantra is the way it wholeheartedly espouses sex as a spiritual ally, working with it explicitly and intentionally.

Tantric sexual practice is pursued, not as a law-breaking revel, but under the cautious supervision of a guru, in the controlled context of a non-dualist outlook, and as the culminating festival of a long sequence of spiritual disciplines practiced through many lives.

Mantras convert noise into sound and distracting chatter into holy formulas. Mudras choreograph hand gestures, turning them into pantomime and sacred dance. Mandalas treat the eyes to icons whose holy beauty draws the beholder in their direction.

To complete this profile of Tibetan Buddhism’s distinctiveness, we must add to this summary of its Tantric practice a unique institution. When in 1989 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, that institution jumped to worldwide attention.

The Image of the Crossing

Buddhism is a voyage across life’s river, a transport from the common-sense shore of ignorance, grasping, and death, to the further bank of wisdom and enlightenment.

Buddhism’s Three Vows: I take refuge in the Buddha, the fact that there was an explorer who made this trip and proved to us that it can succeed. I take refuge in the dharma, the vehicle of transport, this boat to which we have committed our lives in the conviction that it is seaworthy. I take refuge in the sangha, the order, the crew that is navigating this ship, in whom we have confidence.

The Confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism in India

Today Buddhists abound in every Asian land except India; only recently, after a thousand-year absence, are they beginning in small numbers to reappear. Buddhism triumphs in the world at large, only (it would seem) to forfeit the land of its birth.

This surface appearance is deceptive. The deeper fact is that in India Buddhism was not so much defeated by Hinduism as accommodated within it. Up to around the year 1000, Buddhism persisted in India as a distinct religion. To say that the Muslim invaders then wiped it out will not do, for Hinduism survived. The fact is that in the course of its 1,500 years in India, Buddhism’s differences with Hinduism softened.