The Religion of Gotama Buddha

IT is not the purpose of this article to give a detailed or formal account of the doctrines and observances of the Buddhistic faith, but rather to illustrate its point of view, and to interpret the spirit of its teaching as set forth by its founder according to the most authoritative records which have been transmitted to us.1

It is supposed that Gotama, the Buddha, flourished four or five centuries before the Christian era. He was of princely origin. In the twenty-ninth year of his age he abandoned his wife and child for the seclusions of a religious life ; he subsequently assumed the character of religious teacher, and soon found a large following. His leading doctrines are well known, — those of Karma and of Nirvâna: the former of which is the result of life’s action, good or bad, which must be expiated or rewarded in a subsequent existence, those who are tied by desire to the earthly existence having to pass from one form of life to another, until all mortal ties are dissolved and every form of attachment is destroyed, and the state of Nirvâna is entered upon. This state is purely negative, and one of which Buddhism does not attempt to give any account or description. It is simply the destruction of all we know of mundane life when its consequences as fruits or results have been neutralized, and the effects of all action exhausted.

Of the religions of the East, Buddhism is the best known and the most popularly appreciated amongst Western races. This may be accounted for in a measure by the circumstance of its being less transcendental than that of the Vedânta, of which it is the lineal descendant. It asks no distinct departure from received modes, no formal renunciations. It is not exacting in creed, is easily comprehensible ; and being thus within the ordinary mental grasp, it makes fewer demands on the philosophical faculty, which is the gift of the few rather than the dower of the many. In this respect it must be considered a decadence from the sublime teaching of the Vedânta, as not expounding those lofty views which raise and stimulate the mind to the expansive survey of an infinite universe instinct with a divine vitality of which the human soul is a part equal in importance to every other part, emerging from order to order in progressive evolution by the gradual apperception of its exalted original and its conscious absorption therein.

One of the special characteristics of Buddhism in its primitive form is that it makes no distinctive recognition of Essential Being, or of any power, deity, or divinity outside of the individual mind. The soul has no outlook, but lives in and for itself. It does not discern any connection with the universe, nor is it a part of anything external to itself. The religion is a purely agnostic one; and perhaps that is the reason why its negative tenets have a special attraction for those to whom the higher vision of the soul’s essential unity with Infinite Being is wanting or does not commend itself. It asks no questions, it looks nowhither out of itself, but seeks to sit, with closed eyes, controlled thinking, and crushed imagination, in utter inactivity and impassivity, striving to reach a condition in which all active or energizing faculties are suppressed to annihilation, and even moving or conscious thought itself is lulled to sleep in the unbroken peace of a dumb and motionless eternity.

But whilst the attainment of this end is its final aim and object, it must not be understood to offer inducements to the idle and vicious to resign themselves to a life of indifference and self-indulgence ; on the contrary, it enforces the most strenuous efforts on the part of its votaries to free themselves from the ease and blandishments of the lower or earthly life, in order to raise themselves, by the destruction of all wants and desires, into the higher realms of spiritual freedom and moral purity. Indeed, one cannot but be impressed with the robust energy of mind and the vigorous activity it inculcates for the attainment of its object in crushing out all forms of want or desire, spiritual or material, so that there may remain no least tie to existence.

The following sentences, said to be from the mouth of the great teacher himself, may be considered a comprehensive embodiment of the Buddhistic practical doctrine : —

Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the truth. Look not for refuge to any one besides yourselves. And how is a brother to be a lamp unto himself, betaking himself to no external refuge, holding fast to the truth as a lamp, holding fast as a refuge to the truth, looking not for refuge to any one besides himself ?

“ Herein let a brother, as he dwells in the body, so regard the body that he, being strenuous, thoughtful, and mindful, may, whilst in the world, overcome the grief which arises from bodily craving; while subject to sensations, let him continue so to regard the sensations that he, being strenuous, thoughtful, and mindful, may, whilst in the world, overcome the grief which arises from the sensations ; and so, also, as he thinks, or reasons, or feels, let him overcome the grief which arises from the craving due to ideas, or to reasoning, or to feeling.

“ And whosoever, either now or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but, holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and holding fast as their refuge to the truth, shall look not for refuge to any one besides themselves, — it is they among my Bhikkhus who shall reach the very topmost Height. But they must be anxious to learn.” 2

The spirit of Buddhism in its efficient determination is well illustrated in one of the Suttas, in which it is stated that the way to be traversed is not found, but must be made by the earnest devotee :

“He who, by the path he has himself made, has attained to perfect happiness, who has conquered doubt, who lives after having left behind both gain and goods, who has destroyed re-birth, he is a Bhikkhu.”

His strength, also, must be born of exertion and victorious strife : —

“ He who is disgusted in this world with all sins, is strong after conquering the pain of hell, is strong and powerful, such a one is called firm by being so.”

The Buddhist must be above all forms of Sectarianism, all prejudice of every sort. In fact, he must live in a state of perfect freedom, emancipated from the shackles of convention, the slavery of custom, and (interpreting his religion in its highest form) beyond all ritualism and sacerdotal restrictions. But his freedom must be a trained and educated one. He can be made free only by having conquered every obstacle to freedom. It is only “ he who, after examining all treasures, the divine and the human, and Brahman’s treasure, is delivered from the radical bond of all treasures.” In this teaching we have an indication of the great object and purpose of life, to grow through strife and suffering into the higher life, by self-denial and subjugation to rise into those higher regions where strife and suffering are no more: not definitely stated in Buddhism to the consciousness of fuller life, but at least to the destruction of all sorrow and evil in the annihilation of this.

One of the Buddhistic canonical books is the Dhammapada. It was written probably early in the Christian era. It consists of short sentences of the proverbial order, some of them of a very happy and striking character. A sample of these may be given as illustrative of the Buddhist moral standpoint. The book begins analytically by establishing the kingdom of thought. It lays down the following : —

“ All that we are is the result of what we have thought : it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“ ‘ He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

“ ‘ He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease. For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time ; hatred ceases by love : this is an old rule.”

The first of these sentences bears a remarkable similarity to one of the recorded reflections of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who says : “ Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind ; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts. Dye it, then, with a continuous series of such thoughts as these, for instance: that where a man can live, there also he can live well.”

One of the noblest traits of primitive Buddhism is the inculcation of a spirit of gentleness and tenderness towards every creature. Gentleness of manner and speech is continually insisted upon, whilst cruelty, unkindness, and injury to anything which lives are strictly forbidden. Great stress is laid upon this in the canonical writings ; indeed, it is stated that the qualifications of universal tenderness, forbearance, and compassion are in themselves sufficient for the attainment of the highest advantages of religion.

“ He who, seeking his own happiness, punishes or kills beings who also long for happiness will not find happiness after death.

“ He who, seeking his own happiness, does not punish or kill beings who also long for happiness will find happiness after death.

“ Do not speak harshly to anybody; those who are spoken to will answer thee in the same way. Angry speech is painful ; blows for blows will touch thee.

“As the bee collects nectar, and departs without injuring the flower, or its color, or its scent, so let a sage dwell in his village.”

Of the last of these aphorisms the English priest-poet, George Herbert, in one of his poems gives so close a parallel that one might almost think he had borrowed the figure, if it were not impossible that he could have done so. He says:—

Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their master’s flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use ;
So both the flower doth stay and honey run.”

The discipline of life must begin personally, and the teacher must first learn in the school of experience.

“ Let each man direct himself first to what is proper, then let him teach others : thus a wise man will not suffer.

“ Self is the lord of self ; who else could be the lord ? With self well subdued, a man finds a lord such as few can find.”

We have a notable compendium of the religious life in the following : —

“ Not to commit any sin, to do good, and to purify one’s mind, — this is the teaching of all the Awakened.

“ Not to blame, not to strike, to live restrained under the law, to be moderate in eating, to sleep and sit alone, and to dwell on the highest thoughts, — this is the teaching of the Awakened.

“ He who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.

“ Let a man overcome anger by love ; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth.

“Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who is tolerant with the intolerant, mild with fault - finders, and free from passion amongst the passionate.”

A dispntative or polemical spirit is to be avoided.

“ Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who has no interests, and when he has understood the truth does not say, How, how? and who has reached the depth of the Immortal.”

The telepathic sympathy of accordant natures is thus illustrated : —

“ If a fool be associated with a wise man even all his life, he will perceive the truth as little as a spoon perceives the taste of the soup.

“ If an intelligent man be associated for one minute only with a wise man, he will soon perceive the truth, as the tongue perceives the taste of the soup.”

The life of the Buddhist must be one of the highest moral purity and frankness of conduct; his course of life and action must be “ like a straight shuttle ; ” his passions must be subdued or extinguished; he must be “always thoughtful, having left selfishness,” happy, “calm like deep water,” “ just with the just, and far from the unjust;” he must be one “ in whom there lives no deceit, no arrogance ; he must be free from cupidity, selfishness, and desire, without anger or the taint of grief; ” he must have overcome all perturbation, standing, as it were, in the immovable region of unimpassioned serenity, undisturbed with all things and attached to nothing.

The benevolent spirit of Buddhism is well illustrated in the following aphorisms : —

“ Whatever living beings there are, either feeble or strong, all either long or great, middle sized, short, small, or large, either seen or which are not seen, and which live far or near, either born or seeking birth, — may all creatures be happy minded.

“ Let no one deceive another; let him not despise another in any place ; let him not, out of anger or resentment, wish harm to another.

“ As a mother, at the risk of her life, watches over her own child, her only child, so also let every one cultivate a boundless friendly mind towards all beings.

“ And let him cultivate good will towards all the world, a boundless friendly mind, above and below and across, unobstructed, without hatred, without enmity.”

A dry spirit of drollery would sometimes appear to be introduced in the teaching of Gotama, which is amusing, as, for instance, in the following, in answer to questions asked by his principal disciple, Ananda : —

“ How are we to conduct ourselves, lord, with regard to womankind ? ”

“ Don’t see them, Ananda.”

“ But if we should see them, what are we to do ? ”

“ Abstain from speech, Ananda.”

“ But if they should speak to us, lord, what are we to do ? ”

“ Keep wide awake, Ananda.”

In the following, also, a householder, having served the devotee Sudhamma with food, meets his dissatisfaction therewith in a very humorous manner: —

“ Kitta the householder went up to the (dace where the venerable Sudhamma was; and after he had come there he saluted the venerable Sudhamma, and took his seat on one side. And when he was so seated, the venerable Sudhamma addressed Kitta the householder, and said : ‘ Though this great store of sweet food, both hard and soft, has been made ready by you, O householder, there is one thing yet wanting; that is to say, tila seed cake.’ ‘ Though then, sir, there is so much treasure in the ward of the Buddhas, yet there is but one thing of which the venerable Sudhamma makes mention, and that is tila seed cake. Long ago, sir, certain merchants of Dakkhinâpatha went, for the sake of their traffic, to the country of the East, and thence they brought back a hen. Now, sir, that hen made acquaintance with a crow, and gave birth to a chicken. And, sir, whenever that chicken tried to utter the cry of a cock, it gave vent to a caw ; and whenever it tried to utter the cry of a crow, it gave vent to a cock-a-doodle-do. Just even so, sir, though there is much treasure in the ward of the Buddhas, whenever the venerable Sudhamma speaks, the sound is—tila seed cake.’ ”

Claims have been made for an underlying esoteric sentiment in Buddhism, a sort of mystic element at the core of its teaching. There is certainly no such element traceable in its recorded canonical writings. Moreover, the clearly discernible spirit of the religion of Gotama Buddha is quite opposed to mysticism. He himself disclaims it. In The Book of the Great Decease he is reported to have said to his most confidential disciple, Ananda, “ I have preached the truth without making any distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrine ; for in respect of the truths, the Tathâgata has no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.” Surely these words ought to be sufficient to show that all claims for occult meanings and practices must have been subsequent and spurious additions, and have no place in the religious teaching of Gotama. Indeed, one may understand that the Buddha was too serious and too much in earnest to encourage thaumaturgical aims and claims which tend to develop personality instead of suppressing it. Neither can one see what advantage can accrue from the acquisition of such powers. They cannot contribute to the soul’s advancement in any respect, but must rather prove an obstacle to spiritual development. The truly wise will not desire such abnormal powers, but only wish to walk in the way of solid progress, by disentanglement from all lower attachments, to the high goal of Spiritual freedom and elevation. The true Buddhistic teaching undoubtedly enforces the principle that all progress towards the object it has in view must be gained by rigid steps of continuous procedure on the long since laid down lines of probity, unselfishness, and that interior sentiment of the soul which sees its own welfare in the well-being of all; which does not seek the development of abnormal powers, but to use well and faithfully those already in possession by the gift of a natural distribution. Surely this is reasonable,—do grow from one stage of spiritual elevation to another by the exercise of stern self-command, great watchfulness over the growth of character, and that temper of mind which is rooted and fixed in the permanent and undecaying; for nothing can be really our own or actually a part of ourselves which is not chosen and fostered by force of will. Powers conferred on us by abnormal means, and not of our own attainment by the use of our natural faculties, must always remain a non-essential and accidental tenure, and can never grow into the proper nature of the soul’s life.

If we make a comparison of Buddhism with Christianity, however great a similarity may appear in some of the elements of its teaching, its distinct inferiority in scope, purpose, and adaptability will become apparent. The religion of the Buddha could never be brought to combine with the advancement and progressive amelioration of society. It works by abandonment, leaving the world every way as it finds it. It lacks the helpful and actively loving spirit of Christianity ; that noble altruism which gains by bestowing, and counts its wealth from the benefit and welfare of others, and not from an egoistical consideration of its own advantage. It is a high testimony to the superiority of Christianity that even in its lowest and least emphatic form it stimulates noble enterprise, and fosters the forward movements of social amendment and elevation, and even contributes in a subsidiary manner to the development of the arts and sciences. Its spirit is based upon the universal law of evolution, and, rightly understood, never stands still either in its spiritual or natural manifestations. This cannot certainly be said of Buddhism, which does not hold any close spiritual connection with universal religious growth, which is so marked a characteristic of the profounder and larger teaching of the Vedânta. There is a want of that dignity and nobility, also, in the personal traits and actions of Gotama which distinguished the Author of Christianity. The miracles attributed to the Buddha have neither the impressive character nor the touching significance of those narrated by the Evangelists of the New Testament. We may search in vain amongst Buddhistic writings for such instances of moral sublimity as the answer given to the persecutors of the sinning woman, or the fine and silencing retort to the cavilers concerning the tribute money. Then, if we compare the death of Gotama from a surfeit of dried pork, and his lengtlly discourses thereupon, with that of Christ on the cross, and his latest exclamation, “ Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” how striking is the contrast! I am aware that a symbolical meaning has been attached by later followers to the manner of Gotama’s death, but I know of no authority or reason for such an interpretation, excepting it may be the desire to cover an inconsiderable detail with a more impressive significance.

A very strange and notable circumstance, not perhaps generally known, is that Gotama Buddha should have been enrolled as a saint in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. I believe the date and circumstances of his canonization are not historically traceable. The story of his life, together with that of a disciple, is related in a christianized form in the narrative of Barlaam and Joasaph, a book well known in hagiology.3

To those having no knowledge of Oriental tongues, who would study Buddhism, or indeed any other of the representative religions of the East, seriously and profitably, a word of counsel may be directed. They should seek to acquire their knowledge through translations of the most literal and exact interpretation, and not by means of those appareled in the robes of an artificial poetic expression, whose appeal is from the æsthetic investiture rather than from the weight of the matter of utterance. In these dressed-up habiliments the moral force and intrinsic penetrative power of the instruction are sure to be obscured, if not totally lost. “ The more sublime the gospel,” says the German preacher Sehleiermacher, “ the more simple should the sermon be.” The taste is surely more than questionable that would clothe the Sermon on the Mount in modern æsthetic trimming. The system of dealing with the large ideas, splendid outlook, and grand conceptions of these religions of the ancient world, as material to receive the smooth and easy polish which renders them better suited to the drawing-room table than for the study of the sincere and earnest searcher after truth, is every way to be deprecated and discountenanced. It can only tend to draw them down into the domain of the commonplace, to a depreciation of their intrinsic value, and, finally, to the indifference of neglect and apathetic unconcern.

William Davies.

  1. To those who would wish to know more of the formal elements of Buddhism, a little manual entitled Buddhism, by Professor Rhys Davids, may be recommended, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, New York, Young & Co. Many of the canonical books of Buddhism will be found translated in vols. x. and xi. of the Sacred Books of the East, edited by Professor F. Max Müller.
  2. The Book of the Great Decease, ii. 33-35.
  3. See Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain, January, 1890.