Buddha and Early Buddhism

WITHIN two years, or since the appearance of Mr. Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, the world of London was amused to learn that an eminent native Hindu Buddhist had come among them to examine the field with a view to making English converts. Had he encountered Mr. Arthur Lillie he might have found a convert ready made, and been encouraged by learning that among the pessimists and Schopenhauerites there are many who say that they approve of Buddhism, or admit, as the cautious gentleman did of Niagara, that they have heard it very highly spoken of.

Buddha and Early Buddhism is not a mere exposition and recapitulation of the doctrines of Buddha. Its object, the author tells us in his preface, is to prove that gnostic Buddhism preceded agnostic or atheistic Buddhism. This may be the nominal name of the book, but the reader, before he has finished it, discovers that the real end of Mr. Lillie’s studies is to establish as indisputable the fact that Buddha is the only true reformer who has ever existed, aud that the influence of his teachings was the inspiration of Confucius, Zoroaster, Christ, and all the prophets and sages who have lived in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America since the time of the Hindu saint. This is a subject upon which it is comparatively easy for the advocate of Buddhistic perfection to argue. We may not be willing to accept his arguments, but at the same time, as Pantagruel said about the suggestion that the Swiss were formerly chitterlings, we would not take our oath to the contrary. Mr. Lillie says his conclusions are the result of nine years’ study, and that his labors were begun with an unbiased mind. They may have been so begun, but they were not long continued with the same impartiality. Mr. Lillie is unmistakably a partisan. Many Europeans who approach the study of Buddhism look upon it as a Haupterscheinung, or chief primal development ; forgetting that it is really only a reformation of Brahmanism, and in point of importance holds the same relations to it as the Protestant Reformation does to Roman Catholicism. We do not of course speak here to those who regard the church simply as a penny pot in which the splendid flower of the Reformation grew. This is the mistake the author of Buddha and Early Buddhism has made. It is true he declares that the contest between Brahmanism and Buddhism was one between the Rishis, or prophets, and the priests. But once he has said this he quickly loses himself in mystical speculations, astronomical myths, and Indian symbolism. In analyzing the triune of Brahmans and Buddhists, and the connection of the legendary Buddha as the solar hero with the zodiacal signs, he has neglected the question at issue, and has failed to consider it by the only method which could throw light upon the disputed point. To understand the principles of Buddhism in its beginning, and the belief of its founder as to God and a future life, we must first comprehend the nature of the religion from which it sprang, and the reasons which made a reformation possible. If there is one fact in regard to Brahmanism more clearly certain than any other, it is its easy adaptability in point of worship and doctrine. The ease with which the Hindu of to-day makes for himself new demons is only equaled by the readiness with which his early ancestors created new gods. In the sacred books of India we can follow each step in the growth of religion. We see the first crude efforts to explain the Unknown by giving to each element a god to rule it, gradually developing into metaphysical subtleties. No sooner had philosophers assigned a supreme cause to life and nature than they were driven to seek for a cause of this cause. In trying to grasp the Infinite they arrived at many conclusions, and before the time of Buddha there were numerous schools of philosophy, both gnostic and agnostic, but all were considered equally orthodox. The one dogma upon which orthodoxy depended was that which recognized the Brahmans, or priests, as sole possessors of religious truth and undivided masters of the spiritual welfare of the people. It was no matter what a man believed awaited him in the next world so long as he held that his eternal salvation—whatever it might be — could be obtained only through the power of the Brahman. This was the doctrine which it was heresy to question. The object of Buddhism was to destroy the priesthood. According to its teachings, man, without the aid of priest or ritual, could effect his own salvation by following the path of righteousness, and this at once separated irrevocably the reformer from the orthodox. Other speculations would have been passed over in silence. The tendency of Hindu metaphysics was to pronounce activity and existence the highest evils. Non-existence was the goal all longed to reach. Buddhism, pursuing the same train of thought, with only this difference, that man was supposed to attain his end unaided, evolved the idea of Nirvâna. It was the logical sequence of Brahmanism. The mission which Buddha undertook was to save man from sorrow and trouble by teaching him to rise superior to the delusion of existence by quenching all desires. A man, to be perfect, must reach a stage of indifference where lie can forego every speculation as to the Unseen. He must be an Agnostic in the purest sense of the word, for he must neither deny, nor yet believe in, the existence of God, a future, or a soul. If he ask himself, What was I in the past, what am I now, what will I be in the future ? if he declare that he has a self, or that lie is conscious of the non-self, or that he has a soul which will live forever, he is still walking in delusion, — “the jungle of delusion, the wilderness of delusion, the puppet-show of delusion, the writhing of delusion, the fetter of delusion.”1 Until he has thrown off every earthly fetter, and until sensations and ideas in him have ceased to be, he is unworthy of Nirvâna. This condition, in which he neither knows, thinks, nor feels, is indeed Nirvâna itself. It is clear that in such a conception there is no place for affirmation or denial, for it is only their absence which constitutes supreme knowledge and insures man’s eternal salvation.

Mr. Lillie appears to have profited by the essay on Buddhism recently published in a work on Nepâl by Mr. Oldfield. There is this difference, however, that the schools which Mr. Oldfield classes as materialistic, Mr. Lillie loosely describes as “agnostic.” He in fact throws together under this term all schools which are not strictly theistic, or, as he calls them, “gnostic.” Mr. Lillie, in studying the Gnosticism and Agnosticism of Buddha, is like the sky in the nursery problem, which goes around the house and around the house, but can never get in it. He considers symbols, modern ritual, and superstitions, and accepts the separate statements of individuals, but never seriously studies the stupendous philosophy which underlies the whole system, and which is the very ne plus ultra of the logic which grapples with the Nichtsein. He is not fortunate in the facts he has selected as proofs of his theory. The prayers and credos which he quotes can be as readily explained as homage rendered to the teacher of divine and saving knowledge as to a God in our sense of the word. The priests of Ceylon may have told a Dutch governor they believed in a Supreme Being,but this by no means proves that such a belief is a doctrine of Buddhism. Nor do the facts which he has collected as to the belief in spirits and demons affect the argument. One might as well study the teachings of Christ by examining mediæval witchcraft and diabolism. Buddha’s Parable of an Atheist, which he quotes, instead of proving his point shows very effectually how entirely he has misunderstood Buddhistic philosophy. Mr. Lillie touches upon many interesting topics in the history of the influence of Buddhism upon the Eastern and Western world. There is certainly a strange similarity between the symbolism and rites of Buddhism and those of Gnostics, Therapeutes, and Western mystics. There is yet a wonderful mystery as to the connection between Buddhism and Christian church forms, pace Cardinal Newman, whose work has by no means settled the question. The discovery of America by Buddhist missionaries in the fifth century has already been accepted by many scholars as an established fact. In all this Mr. Lillie repeats the arguments of others, and leaves his subjects very much as he found them. Altogether we would say that his book, though interesting, fails to accomplish its main object. The author has read Buddhistic literature very thoroughly, and has brought together a number of peculiarly important facts ; but he has not known how to make use of them, and has distended many in order to adapt them to his purpose. Buddha and Early Buddhism, while it has attractions for the general reader, offers little that is original or of value to the student of Eastern religions and philosophy.

  1. Buddha and Early Buddhism. By ARTHUR LILLIE (late Regiment of Lucknow). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  2. See Rhys Davids’ Translation of the Sabbâsava Lutta.