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
“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
Though the king extended his guard, on a second ride Siddhartha
encountered a body racked with
lying by the roadside; and on a third journey,
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
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
between the extremes of asceticism, on the one hand, and indulgence on the
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
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
(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 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.”
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
A second normal feature of religion is
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
enters as a third religious feature.
A fourth constant in religion is
A fifth typical feature of religion is
the belief— often difficult to sustain in the face of facts— that Reality
is ultimately on our side.
Finally, religion traffics in
|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
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
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
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
The First Noble Truth is that life is
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 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
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
The Eightfold Path
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
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
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
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.
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
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
(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
Big Raft and Little
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
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
or the Little Raft. Not exactly pleased with this invidious designation,
the Hinayanists have preferred to call their Buddhism
the Way of the Elders. In doing so they regained the initiative by
claiming to represent original Buddhism, the Buddhism taught by Gautama
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.