The Great Religions By Which Men Live
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
6. THE BUDDHA ASKS AND ANSWERS
In the middle of the sixth century B.C., many people in India had begun to use some of the religious short cuts described in the preceding chapter about Hindu worship. In general, this was a period of disillusionment. Probably because the people had become thoroughly disillusioned about life, they looked upon reincarnation with increasing dread. Some of them even forgot what their most serious questions were, in their frantic effort to save themselves from the 100,000 lives, which they felt they were doomed to live. The art of that time shows people adoring cows, deer, horses, hogs, monkeys, and elephants. Others inflicted tortures on themselves -- maintaining one position for a long time, gazing at the brilliant Indian sun, or in. haling smoke and fire.
Many of the priests were not particularly helpful. They, too, had become preoccupied with short cuts in religious living. They were not taking their priestly vocations seriously enough. In one picture from this period, some dogs, intended to symbolize priests, are shown in a grand procession. They are reciting the prayer: "Om, let us eat! Om, bring us food! Lord of food, bring hither food, bring it!" (Om is their shortest word by which God might be addressed.) The people further expressed their low opinion of the priests in this Indian proverb: "Vishnu gets the barren prayers, while the priest devours the offering."
Hinduism was later to regain a place of respected leadership in India; but, during the period described, many people were not able to find in it satisfying answers to life’s disturbing problems. Because of this dissatisfaction, some religious reforms shortly arose in an attempt to rid Hinduism of its superficiality. One of these reforms was to be the beginning of Buddhism.
At this time when thoughtful men were questioning the value of their native religion, there was born a prince named Gautama. He was the only son of a rich Hindu raja of the warrior caste, and his parents expected him to be-conic a ruler. His father was afraid that Gautama might do what many members of the upper castes did -- become a religious seeker or a pilgrim renouncing life. So in his great ambition that his son might follow his own footsteps, the father did everything possible to protect Gautama from influences that would lead him away from this royal life.
Because of the many legends about his early life, it is difficult to know the truth about Gautama. But it seems fairly clear that he was an intelligent and sincere young man, sensitive to all that went on around him. Possibly because of that sensitivity, his father tried to protect him from knowing about the evil and unhappiness that existed outside the palace walls. The stories tell us that Gautama’s parents surrounded him with luxuries and all material delights. They attempted to make him feel that all life was happiness and pleasure -- that there was no reason to be sad or even very serious. They hoped that Gautama would simply accept the royal life and never question its differences from the lives of other people.
Like all young people, however, Gautama had to live his life in his own way, in spite of his parents’ planning. While out driving through a park -- so the story goes -- he saw four things that made a lasting impression on him. They were more startling than any previous experiences he had had.
First, he noticed a trembling old man, broken-toothed, grey-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff. For the first time, he realized that old age must come to everyone. Later, Gautama saw a diseased man, quite loathsome to look upon. Gautama became further dismayed, wondering whether everyone has to suffer, sooner or later. The third disturbing sight was a corpse lying by the side of the road. Apparently for the first time, death became real to the young prince. After these sights had caused him to reflect sadly on the impermanence of life and beauty, he chanced to see a monk, decently clad and of serene countenance. It was then that the thought of retiring from the palace life became very real to Gautama.
The legends tell how his father tried to divert the prince from such serious reflection. Lovely dancing maidens were sent into his palace to entertain him with dance and song. In trying to drive away his sober thoughts, they danced until they collapsed in exhaustion. When Gautama noticed the great alterations in their appearance as they lay in the awkward positions in which they had fallen, he was once more struck with the sadness and ugliness of life. He resolved to leave his comfortable palace immediately. In spite of his baby son and his loyal wife, and in spite of the close watch of his father’s palace guards, Gautama took his leave and sought out the solitude of the forest. He was not to return until many years had passed and until many changes had come in his life.
Gautama had left the palace with his mind filled with questions: What is life? Why is there unhappiness? In the quiet and timeless Indian forests, he looked for the wise men that could help him find the answers. He hoped to find the contentment he had seen on the face of the monk that day in the park. Since the monk had seemingly found it in the religious life, Gautama determined to look to religion also.
For several years he studied with the best teachers he could find. A very apt pupil, he soon had learned as much as his teachers knew. One of the teachers, impressed with Gautama’s learning, invited him to stay and become a partner with him in teaching others. But Gautama felt he could not teach others when he had not yet found the answers he himself was seeking. He knew the scriptures well, but he had not found contentment there. He knew the Yoga exercises, but he had not found full contentment there.
Still the burning questions lingered with him: Why was there unhappiness? How could a man be happy?
He turned more diligently to ascetic practices. He had already left all material pleasure behind. He forced himself to eat less and less, and to meditate more and more. Finally, the legends say, he was living on one grain of rice a day, and he was spending all his time in meditation and study. After six years of persevering search and strenuous self-denial, he was at the point of death. And still he had not found the answers lie sought. One day he collapsed from near-starvation.
This proved to be a climax of Gautama’s life, for he saw once and for all the futility of what he had been doing. If he continued in his asceticism, he would simply die without finding the answers. What he had been doing, he decided, was as foolish as trying to tie the air into knots. He must go directly to the problem.
Several friends had followed Gautama admiringly because of his religious zeal, but when he resolved to eat again they left him. He was now alone with his thoughts. He sat down under a tree and began to ponder the problem of unhappiness and suffering. So agitated was he, after spending six years in seeking a solution that he determined to find the answer in thought and meditation before getting up again.
GAUTAMA BECOMES THE BUDDHA
After a day and part of a night, lie had found his answer. He had become enlightened with the new knowledge. He had become the Buddha, the "awakened one." In the joy of his new understanding, he spoke aloud, though there was no one to hear. No longer, he said, was he going to be subject to the unhappiness of the present life or of repeated births in the round of existence; for he had won insight into man’s suffering -- its nature, its cause, and its cessation. He was free from the endless round of anxiety and suffering, free from the sense of sorrow and alienation -- free to live.
Gautama the Buddha then wondered what he should do next. Should he try to teach others what he had found out for himself after years of seeking? Would anyone else understand him? He soon decided that the good news, which was now his, could be shared with equally earnest seekers. So he set off for Benares, where lie knew he would find five of his former associates who had left him when he decided to take food.
They were the first to hear what he had discovered. His talk to them is usually known as the Sermon on the Turning of the Wheel of the Law. It dealt with the problem of suffering and how to overcome suffering. The points the Buddha emphasized in this first sermon, in the excited joy of his awakening, have formed the basic ideas of Buddhism. Buddhism means the religion of those seeking to be awakened.
THE MIDDLE PATH
The path that Gautama had found was one he was to describe as the "Middle Path" between extremes. The extremes to be avoided were the life of sensual indulgence on the one hand and the life of drastic asceticism on the other. Both led to out-of-balance living. Neither led to the true goal of release from suffering. Many people never realize what over-indulgence in comfort and in sensual pleasures have done to their real questions and their real aims. Some who have discovered the evils of over-indulgence come to regard as wicked anything that gives a sense of pleasure. Both groups are reacting too strongly to the human appetites.
Gautama discovered that neither extreme was wise, for neither brings happiness. Over-indulgence has the same final effect on a person as has the release of all tension on the strings of a violin. Extreme self-denial, on the other hand, has the same general effect as tightening the strings on a violin until they are at the breaking point. In neither case is there the right attunement. Harmony is lacking because there is either too little tension or too much. It was this lack of attunement or harmony that Gautama considered to be man’s suffering. It was to help men find harmony within themselves and with the universe that he began to teach.
Before the time of Gautama, the Hindu philosophers had taught that the way to self-knowledge was as narrow as the edge of a razor. Gautama discovered the meaning of this for himself and then thought of a more specific way to teach it to others. In all his teachings, however, he never left his Hindu tradition very far behind. Some people and some books give the impression that Gautama tried to start a new religion, or that he disagreed entirely with the other religious teachers of his day. This is not the case.
Gautama simply entered the religious search with a different question: What causes so many people to be unhappy? He took the question to the best teachers he could find, and he could not solve the problem with what they taught him. So he lost respect for the philosophers who wanted only to talk about release from suffering. Gautama liked to remind them that they were playing around with words. He warned his friends against the many schools of philosophy, because the teachers tended to take their own words too seriously.
To find the Middle Way to harmonious living, the Buddha declared, each person must search thoughtfully -- not spend his time in wordy arguments. Each person must explore and experiment. "Happiness he who seeks may win, if he practice the seeking," said the Buddha.
7. WHY AM I UNHAPPY?
Even infants suffer. When they are uncomfortable, they cry. As they grow older, they find other ways of expressing their discomfort. But there is no problem of suffering for an infant, since the infant does not really think about it. He simply reacts. Suffering becomes a problem only when people find themselves asking, "Why do I suffer?" Or, as we most often state it, "Why am I unhappy?"
Usually by the time we are ten years of age or a little older, there have been at least a few occasions when we have suffered and have also wondered, "Why this suffering?" Apparently, this question did not occur seriously to Gautama until he was about thirty years of age. This was probably because his parents tried to prevent his experiencing any unpleasantness.
Young people who have grown up in an environment of such over-protection often do not know what it is to face real unhappiness. Personalities of people are different, and the particular rate at which we move from childhood into adolescence varies from one person to another. But, sooner or later, each person has to face the question of the reason for suffering -- his own and that of others.
Gautama’s whole contribution to the knowledge of mankind centers around the problem of pain or unhappiness. The new knowledge to which he became awakened that night under the tree was about the reason for suffering and how it could be overcome. He first spoke of that knowledge in his sermon to his former colleagues who had left him to go to Benares. The things lie mentioned then have become the cardinal principles of Buddhism, even in this day, and they are called the Four Noble Truths. The first truth, which he tried to state to his friends, was the fact of suffering.
THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH
Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death, ... presence of objects we hate, ... separation from objects we love, ... not to obtain what we desire is suffering... Clinging to existence is suffering.
When this list is studied, it becomes clear that Gautama was talking about everybody’s experience, not just his own. Birth is uncomfortable, both to the mother and to the child, although the child does not consciously remember it. The birth of a new idea, of a new "self" or personality, can also be quite painful; for old habits and old ideas are difficult to discard. Decay also is painful, whether it is decay of a tooth or decay of one’s morale and confidence. Illness is uncomfortable, both mentally and physically. Both death and the fear of death, for ourselves and for others, constitute suffering. Either the presence of objects we hate or the absence of objects we love is a painful experience. Not obtaining what we have set our hearts on can make us very miserable. And, as we grow keener in our understanding of life, we become aware that clinging to anything can cause us to suffer.
It is unfortunate that so many people have said that the Buddha was pessimistic about life, or that he said that all of life was suffering. If we interpret accurately his words as reported in the records, that is not what he said. He did teach that everything holds the possibility of suffering; every phase of life can result in disharmony for a person. The Buddha did not say that all of life is suffering.
It is clear that Gautama’s interpretation of suffering goes beyond mere physical pain. His strongest emphasis was on suffering of the mind and the emotions. This was the deepest unhappiness. Gautama believed that this suffering was felt by a man who was out of harmony with life. "If I am unhappy, it is because I am not living harmoniously. If I am not living harmoniously, it is because I have not learned to accept the world as it is. Perhaps I am expecting from the world things that I have no right to expect. Perhaps I am clinging too strongly to one part of my world, thus losing touch with the total picture."
Gautama tried to take as his starting point an actual fact of experience, which no one could question and which each one could see for him. In all human experience, he said, unless there is real understanding, there is an element of pain. He issued the invitation: ‘Look and see for yourself if this is not true of your life." He asked each person to see that he was not alone in his predicament. All people, sometime in their lives, must face this universal fact -- their disharmony. It is not just "my unhappiness"; it is a problem that all men have. Gautama was reminding his friends that "my sorrow" is "world sorrow" -- and that the sorrow of the world is "mine."
THE SECOND NOBLE TRUTH
Gautama said to his disciples, "I teach only two things, suffering and release from suffering." He was like the doctor who comes to see the sick person. First he learns how the patient is feeling. Then he tries to diagnose the cause of the illness. Gautama, like a good physician, proceeded to the Second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering.
Now this is the Noble Truth as to origin of suffering. It is the craving thirst that causes the renewal of be-comings. This craving thirst is accompanied by sensual delights and seeks satisfaction, now here, now there. It takes the form of craving for the gratification of the senses, or the craving for prosperity.
Suffering is the result of a wrong attitude toward the world and our experiences in it. The world is not bad, but our attitude of craving is what makes it seem bad. This craving, or excessive desire, makes us slaves of whatever we crave. Everyone has seen this principle in operation -- a craving for food, a craving for popularity, a craving for success. All make us lose our freedom to choose wisely. What Gautama the Buddha wanted people to see is that he who craves cannot be free and thus cannot be really happy.
You may say that there is a kind of happiness to be found in fulfilling all desires. "If I could just have everything I want and do everything I want to do, I would be so happy." But that kind of happiness boomerangs quickly, for it does not give the deeper contentment that is man’s real goal. Often we find people depending more and more on such artificial joys because they are actually afraid to face the deep unhappiness and unrest within themselves.
Gautama advised each person to find for himself the difference between the two kinds of happiness. And he told of his own observations.
When in following after happiness I have perceived that bad qualities developed and good qualities were diminished, then that kind of happiness is to be avoided. And when following after happiness I have perceived that bad qualities were diminished and good qualities developed, then such happiness is to be followed.
He gave some further advice to people who were searching for happiness. The craving, which leads to unhappiness, he said, is caused by our ignoring our real needs. If we did not so ignore them, we would not make ourselves unhappy by pursuing things that will never bring satisfaction. This brings us back to the same question that had been raised centuries before by the Hindu wise men: "Who am I really?" Gautama agreed with them that a person is more than the sum of his feelings and thoughts. A person who is wise will always say of any feeling, ‘this is not the real me." The Buddha taught that worthwhile activity in life should lead to more knowledge of what is the real self, for this brings happiness.
The things people desire frequently do not satisfy their real needs. One Buddhist story tells how Gautama, on one of his journeys, chanced to meet thirty running men. He stopped to ask what the trouble was, and they told their story. While they had been picnicking, one of their woman companions had sneaked away with the belongings of the others, and the men were in hot pursuit of the thief.
The Buddha asked one question: "which do you think is better -- to go on chasing this woman or to go tracking the self?" The men decided that searching for the real self was more important than running after belongings. So, the story says, they became followers of Gautama.
Like the thirty young men, we may be wasting our energies in a fruitless search. If we are wise, we stop to ask ourselves, "What is really worth looking for?" Gautama’s answer is quite direct: We should look for the cause of our cravings, and then we should seek to remove the cause.
THE THIRD NOBLE TRUTH
Suffering ceases with the complete cessation of craving. A person does not have to remain a slave to his cravings, said Gautama. He can do something about his unhappiness. Each person has a choice about the way he lives. He can fill his life with simple, unquestioned, habitual activities, which have arisen because of cravings. Or he can choose his reactions on the basis of each situation he meets. In the first case, the person is acting out of superficial "needs," in ignorance of his own real needs. In the second case, the person is making possible the realization of his true potentialities. The choice is up to the individual, and it is he who will reap the results.
For example, a person may once find that by eating something he likes he can take his mind off his troubles. Later on, he may choose to eat something good every time he feels unhappy. But this kind of behavior can hardly solve the problem. Actually, he will be simply adding to his troubles while he ignores them, because he may develop indigestion and excess weight and be filled to the brim with problems that are never solved. This is the kind of situation that Gautama had in mind when he spoke of "the craving thirst that causes the renewal of becoming," in his Second Noble Truth. By avoiding an actual grappling with the heart of every difficulty, a person causes himself to have one new problem after another. He builds the new problem on the foundation of all his unsolved problems. By doing so, he continually renews his unhappiness.
When the person meets a new difficulty in the same ineffective way he met old difficulties, he creates new ineffective actions and unwholesome habits. Can this possibly lead to lasting happiness? No, answered the Buddha. Such actions and habits, he further said, come from unexamined and uncontrolled desires. They lead to increasing unhappiness. They keep appearing in a person’s life over and over again, in new ways, and even in new lives, according to Buddhist teaching.
Buddhists, like Hindus, believe in transmigration. The ineffective actions and unwholesome habits must be lived out or overcome before one is freed from the endless round of lives that constitute a major part of man’s suffering. This is partly what Gautama meant by "clinging to existence" in his First Noble Truth. The whole scheme of transmigration and all unhappiness can be made to cease for a person if he ceases his uncontrolled craving.
Covetousness, resentment, infatuation -- these are earmarks of craving. Actions arising from them lead to unhappiness. Happiness is gained by ceasing to crave. The kind of character a person builds today determines the happiness he will have tomorrow. The Buddhist would add that the kind of life one lives today determines in part his chances for happiness in his next reincarnation. Buddhists do not speak of a "person" or "soul" -- not even the Hindu Atman -- as passing over to another life. It is the influence of past lives that transmigrates to the next life.
When a child grows to adulthood, we know that influences from his childhood determine in large measure the kind of adult he will be. And the Buddhists would add that what holds true of one life is true of all conceivable lives, since this earthly life is but one episode among many others.
One may find it difficult to understand the Buddhist theory of past influences and transmigration when extended to many lives. Yet it is easy to see that such a theory contributes to our understanding of our own lives now. What we are today is determined by everything that has entered into our past, including the history of the human race. What we shall be tomorrow is being determined today by the choices we make. We make the best choice, says the Buddhist, when we choose thoughtfully, overcoming selfish and over-strong desires.
8.HOW I CAN FIND HAPPINESS?
If Gautama had said only, "Cease the desires that lead to unhappiness," he would have left his followers without any real help. Fortunately, he did not stop his teaching with just advice. He realized that most people needed help in learning how to stop craving. His first sermon concluded with an important Fourth Noble Truth. In giving this last statement of the truths he had discovered, Gautama described the way a person might stop craving. Since Gautama’s time, this way has been called the "Holy Eightfold Path." The eight steps are specific ways Gautama suggested for people to release themselves from the clutches of their own desires.
(1) Right Viewpoint
The first step toward happiness, Gautama said, is the right viewpoint on unhappiness. Before a person can make any progress, he must look at his problem for what it is. When he sees that it is his ignoring of the true facts of his life that causes his trouble, and when he has accepted his responsibility for that trouble, then he has entered upon the Path. Gautama did not claim to have found an original way to happiness. He described it as being very ancient. But he felt that most people were not aware of it.
Gautama said that so long as we see life from the wrong viewpoint we would go on craving things as though the things would make us happy. This is a way of deceiving ourselves. We must learn to see for ourselves why it is a delusion. Then we are ready to take the second step, which Gautama called right aspiration.
(2) Right Aspiration
Everyone aspires after something. The trouble is that most of us, in our confused mental and emotional condition, have aspired after the wrong things. We have not focused our desires and efforts on worthwhile objectives. But when we renounce false values that lead us into unhappiness, we are in a position to choose the true values. The Buddha pointed to kindness and love as being true values. Such values can be attained only when a person has gone beyond the point where his primary concern is "I," "me," and "mine.’ It is after self-centeredness ceases that true kindness and love are shown in a free and spontaneous way.
The Buddha’s first two steps in the Path deal with the importance of getting attitudes changed for the better. The next three steps deal with the kind of conduct that ought to flow from right attitudes.
(3) Right Speech
The third step is right speech. A person following the Buddha’s Path can no longer take delight in gossip, slander, and abusive or idle talk. His speech will be controlled, considerate, and thoughtful, because it sterns from kind attitudes toward others. Some people commit worse crimes through what they say than hardened criminals do. Gautama recognized, just as modern psychologists do, that this is a stumbling block to real maturity.
(4) Right Behavior
The next step in the Buddha’s Path is the important step of right behavior. Gautama did not describe fully the scope of this step. But his followers gradually drew up lists of the things one was not supposed to do. One typical list says that a person must not kill, steal, he impure, lie, or drink intoxicants. However, such negative commandments are incidental to the importance of what Gautama said about behavior. He knew that it was much more important to encourage people to do certain things than to order them not to do others.
To Gautama, right behavior meant love. Gautama taught that "all that we are is the result of what we have thought." Therefore, we should not harbor feelings of resentment or hatred. Feelings and thoughts wreck chances for happiness, as truly as do actions. "He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ -- in those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease," warned Gautama. For he had discovered that "hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love." And he said at another time, "Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good."
Gautama frequently told his friends that even if they were attacked violently, either with abusive language or with sticks and stones, they were not to fight back or to dwell on resentful thoughts. "If someone curses you, you must suppress all resentment and make the firm determination, ‘my mind shall not he disturbed, and no angry word shall escape my lips. I will remain kind and friendly, and with loving thoughts and no secret spite.’ If then you are attacked with fists, with stones, with sticks, with swords, you must suppress all resentment and preserve a loving mind with no secret spite."
(5) Right Livelihood
To a man who was really earnest about finding the true happiness, the fifth step was the next logical one. It is right livelihood. There were certain occupations a man could not engage in without damaging himself and others seriously, Gautama felt. Any business that involved injuring life in any form was not to be followed. This included, for Buddhists, the trade of the butcher, of the vendor of poisons (dopes, drugs, and the like), of the slave trader or the slave owner. One must not engage in making or distributing liquors. Neither must one be a soldier.
This was in sharp contrast to one teaching of the Hindu religion, with which Gautama was so familiar. Hindus felt that a man was born into his rightful occupation. But the Buddha was convinced that one must not hinder others in his own search for the happiest adjustment to life. Hence a person might have to change his occupation. Gautama himself was surrounded by people who had renounced the normal family life and usual occupations to enter the monastic way of life. Ideally, he thought, all sincere religious seekers would do this. In this way, they would most surely find lasting contentment. Yet later an order of Buddhist laymen was established. And more and more Buddhists through the years have continued to live with their families, finding suitable occupations, rather than leaving such things behind for the monastery.
(6) Right Effort
The sixth step is a move beyond the level of conduct. It is right effort, and to the Buddha those words had a special meaning. Right effort means that one must find for himself his own proper rate of speed on the Holy Eight-Fold Path to true happiness. A religious seeker must not move too slowly or too quickly. And there is no happiness to be gained in trying to keep pace with someone else. You arc yourself, with your own needs and your own tempo. One task in learning to know our true selves is to learn to travel at our own best pace.
(7) Right Mindfulness
Gautama’s seventh emphasis was right mindfulness. He declared that it is the mind that leads man into most of his disharmonious living. Physical desires might be distracting, the Buddha admitted, but usually that is because the vivid imagination creates too many desires. The desire to eat in itself does not make one unhappy. Unhappiness develops from excessive eating or excessive desire to eat. Part of right mindfulness meant learning to see physical desires and everything else for what they actually were, not as the imagination had made them appear.
The Buddha s aim was to teach people that objects that appeal to the senses have power to make us unhappy because they may lead to excessive desires. He was aware that the average man had a habit of "idealizing" women. He urged his followers to overcome this habit of enslavement to a pretty face. The story is told of a traveler who once asked a Buddhist monk, "Tell me, have you seen a woman walking along this was’?" The monk replied, "I cannot say whether it is a woman or a man that passed this way. This I know, that a set of bones is traveling this road." This is Buddhist right mindfulness carried to the extreme.
Gautama hoped that his fellow travelers on the Path would develop calmness in their search for happiness. In that way, each would learn to stand off from himself and observe his own passions as unexcitedly as he might look at the stars in the heavens. Each was to practice considering his emotions for what they were, both externally and internally. This was suggested for both painful and pleasant feelings. The Buddhist monk tries to remember constantly that his feelings are short-lived, coming and going. In this way he is able to hold himself undisturbed by his emotions, not craving anything or clinging to anything. A person who can accept his feelings in this objective way will be less inclined to be swept off his feet by them.
(8) Right Contemplation
The final step in the Path is called right contemplation. Gautama had a great appreciation for some of the prevailing Yoga practices of his day. Although he had not found in Yoga the full answers to his questions about unhappiness, he had been helped by such practices to "silence" his mind. Therefore, he told his followers of its values.
The Yoga discipline was taught individually. It involved learning how to quiet the irrelevant thoughts of the mind, until the person could come directly to knowledge of his own true needs. This contemplation that Gautama recommended was not a process of reasoning or logic. It was a different way of knowing -- by insight or intuition. Because Gautama recognized that people vary greatly in temperament, he suggested several dozen modes of training the mind for right contemplation. His followers into the Yoga practices that are still important to many zealous Buddhists developed these ways.
Gautama emphasized that a serious follower of the Eight-Fold Path would achieve Nirvana. The minimum meaning of Nirvana is the extinction of all craving, resentment, and covetousness. As we have seen, to the Buddha such extinction of craving and other improper attitudes was true happiness. Nirvana has another meaning, which is just as important to most Buddhists. That is the release from all future reincarnations, escape from the "Round of Becoming."
Just as Buddhists do not speak of a soul or the Atman, so they hesitate to talk about a Supreme Spirit such as Brahman. They feel that such matters cannot be surely determined. Talk, they say, is unimportant. Knowing and searching are important. But whether or not there is a soul or a Supreme Spirit, Buddhists believe there is transmigration. For the influences and habit-tendencies of one life will go on reproducing themselves in one form or another for an indefinite time in the future.
Nirvana is not a place. It is a condition of the mind. Nirvana is reached after earnest thoughtfulness and vigorous effort. Thoughtfulness is one of the chief virtues of Buddhists. Thoughtlessness is deplored. Buddhists have compared a thoughtless man to a monkey feverishly searching for food in a forest.
Nirvana does not mean the loss of personal consciousness that comes with death, for Gautama achieved it and then spent many years trying to help others realize it. However, Buddhists soon found it necessary to talk about ultimate Nirvana. This could be achieved after one had died. They called it Parinirvana.
A truly happy person is the one who has given the thought and effort necessary to realize Nirvana. The Buddha did not respect titles or castes -- even the highest castes in India. He said that a man did not reach happiness by the status of the family into which he was born. Had not he himself been born a prince and yet been for a time among the unhappiest of the unhappy? Not by birth, not by wealth, does one discover how to overcome suffering. By seeking to overcome unwholesome desires, by keeping to the practical Eight-Fold Path, by self-knowledge -- by these one attains lasting happiness.
9. WHICH PATH SHALL I TAKE?
Today about one-fifth of the world’s people are Buddhists. The story of their religion goes back to the day Gautama sat under the Bo-tree and arose with a new understanding of life. Buddhism began when Gautama’s five disciples heard him tell about his experiences. They became his followers again, this time with real conviction. If they had kept the good news to themselves, Buddhism would never have begun. As it was, they gladly told all who would hear. The number of followers of the "Enlightened One" slowly grew.
Gautama spent the rest of his long life teaching and loosely organizing groups of followers. Finally, when he was more than eighty, he died. His saddened followers continued to meet and study and meditate together, held by the memory of his talking and meeting with them. At first they kept very closely to his teachings. They showed the power of his influence by their insistence on doing just what they would have done had he been still with them.
Gradually some of them began to see and show things that reminded them of their master. These things became symbols of Buddhism. The Bo-tree, the "Tree of Wisdom," reminds Buddhists of his enlightenment. The lotus blossom is a reminder that any person can rise up, just as pure, from whatever surroundings. The Buddhist wheel is a reminder of the Buddha’s first sermon on eternal truth and the endless Round of Becoming. The monks would turn the wheel as a symbol of putting the law of eternal truth into motion.
Sometime during the early years after his death, Gautama’s followers wrote down his sayings and teachings, dividing them into three sections. This scriptural work is known as the Tripitaka, which means "Three Baskets." Other important Buddhist teachers interpreted some of these scriptures. They, too, said things that Buddhists wished to remember. Additions were made to the scriptures.
Gradually, followers of Gautama began to differ in their opinions on what was most important in the search for understanding of life. The early disagreements grew and developed into two great branches. The branch of Buddhism that claims to have changed least from the form of the Buddha’s teaching is Hinayana or Southern Buddhism. Hinayana Buddhists dwell, for the most part, in Thailand, Ceylon, and Burma. The larger branch is Mahayana or Northern Buddhism, which is a dominant religion of China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet.
The two terms have an interesting meaning. Hinayana means "small vehicle" and indicates that a small number of people are able to achieve release from life’s sorrow by its rigorous discipline. Mahayana means "great vehicle’ and means that a large number of people are able to fulfill its requirements along the path to salvation.
Neither of these branches is a real force in the religious life of India, the mother country of Buddhism. It was a long time after Gautama’s life before people came to look upon Buddhism as a religion apart from Hinduism. After missionary monks had begun to carry Buddhist ideas to other lands, the Indian people slowly began to reject it as a separate religion, mostly because its teachings did not include some ideas and practices that had been a part of their traditions and their society for centuries. Since some Hindus, the influence of the gentle, adopted a few of the Buddha’s ideas thoughtful prince survives in modern India. However, the Buddha’s contributions to religious truth live on largely in other lands. And in these other lands of the Far East, much of the full glory of Buddhism has been achieved.
HINAYANA BUDDHISM: THE PATH OF SELF-RELIANCE
In Thailand, Ceylon, and Burma, there are many devoted Buddhists, who believe themselves to be following the way of life taught by the master teacher, Gautama. The underlying basis of their faith is that one is responsible for his own salvation. A person’s past, present, and future -- all are up to him. As the Buddha taught, so they believe. There is no god who can arrange that salvation. No one can do it for you.
The truly devout Hinayana Buddhist is the arhat, whose first duty is his own salvation. He works diligently to achieve release from the sorrow of many lives. He loses himself in the search for release by concentrating on the teaching and philosophy that come from the teachings of Gautama. His material needs for food, shelter, and clothing are limited to the very minimum. Even these are usually supplied by other believers, who cannot break all ties in the way the arhat has done. They hope to gain merit through helping him.
As in all other religions, there are few people who can and do put everything else second to the religious search. Recognizing this fact, the monks teach the people who have no other way of learning the truths as the Buddha taught them. There are no priests in Hinayana Buddhist communities, but there is an active order of monks. They teach the people what they consider to be essential: to grow spiritually every day and to show kindness to all things. Present-day Buddhists learn what Gautama taught the lay people who flocked to learn from him. They are expected to observe the first five rules of the ancient order of monks. They are also taught to recite the universal Buddhist statement of the "refuges":
The teachings of the monks spread throughout the Hinayana Buddhist lands because almost all the young boys spend time in monasteries as a part of their education. There they take part in study, in religious ceremonies, in meditation, and in all other activities of the monastery. The monks who teach them emphasize the most important idea in Hinayana Buddhism -- which they must learn to be responsible for their own religious development. They are encouraged to examine and question religious traditions. They are not to accept a doctrine or a practice that is not helpful in their search for Nirvana. They learn the values of self-control and moderation in all things.
After such an education, some of the boys decide to become ordained and live as monks the rest of their lives. Everyone is pleased at this turn of events, since all believers feel that this is the only way to assure release from the endless and sorrowful cycle of lives. The family, however saddened they may be at what amounts to a loss of their son, comfort themselves with the remembrance that they must not cling overmuch to anything. They know that he is working to attain Nirvana. There are solemn ceremonies to mark monastic vows. The boy dramatizes the Great Renunciation that Gautama made, when he left his family and his kingdom, took up his monk’s robe and begging bowl, and set out in search of salvation.
Buddhists believe that the teachings of Gautama still apply to life in the twentieth century, because they came straight from Gautama’s grappling with life. Since his wisdom came directly, out of what happened to him and not out of books, present-day Hinayana Buddhists are encouraged to go through the same kind of learning process he did. Most of them decided that their Master was right in his understanding of the nature of sorrow and how to overcome it. Therefore, generation after generation of Buddhists find the age-old teachings valuable. This is the reason that the Hinayana Buddhists of today are still very close to the spirit of the earliest Buddhists in ancient India.
Like most religions, Hinayana Buddhism has been with its people so long that some social customs now seem to be a part of the religion. Even very young children are taught the need of self-control, of the Oriental respect and reverence for parents, neatness of person and home, serenity of emotions and bearing. In some homes and in temples there are idols or statues of the Buddha, beside which the people lay white flowers as a sign of their reverence.
Shot through all the colorful but serene fabric of Hinayana Buddhism are the essential ideas. Man must make himself wise for his own salvation, starting now. He must show sympathy and peace in his dealings with all living beings. He must learn to control all his thoughts and his actions, because these are what make up himself in this life, and these are what influence all succeeding lives.
No act or thought stops upon your completion of it. It continues in what it causes to happen. If you become angry and give a tongue-lashing to a friend, that is not the end of the act and the words. The friend, hurt by your anger, may react in anger at you or even at another. In that way the act continues and lives on in other acts. The same cycle is the way of the kind act also. Your show of kindness toward a person or even an animal causes the receiver of the kindness to act in the same way to a third party.
A man reaps what he sows. Buddhists believe that character is made up of the thoughts and actions that a person has sown: The effects of the thoughts and actions are what is reborn -- not the "inner self" or the soul. A person has only to think of the life lived by Gautama, who taught more by example than by words. He has shown men that all can educate themselves to enlightenment and Nirvana, even if it takes more than one lifetime. The effects of Gautama’s good and kind thoughts and actions have continued until today and will for all time, even though Gautama released himself from the wheel of rebirth. Everyone is able to do what Gautama did.
MAHAYANA BUDDHISM: THE PATH OF MUTUAL AID
In its own way, Mahayana Buddhism is very different from Hinayana Buddhism. This Northern Buddhism dates from the years immediately following the death of Gautama, when his followers were yearning for the old days when he was with them. Always they treated his memory with reverence. Some of them soon came to attach special importance to anything that reminded them of his life. The meeting places of some disciples gradually began to look like temples. Profound changes took place in the interpretations of the scriptures. These newer forms of Buddhism took the name Mahayana. Mahayana arose to meet the spiritual needs of the simple, hard-working, common people.
Mahayana Buddhists believe that they are right in their efforts to get help with their religious growth. They point to the Buddha’s own example of unselfish service in teaching others how to find the path to Nirvana, even when he himself had reached the goal. Love such as he had thus shown became the supreme teaching of the different schools and sects of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists do not idealize the arhat, who "wandered lone as a rhinoceros," looking for Nirvana. Instead, they have a loving respect for a compassionate saint, a Bodhisattva. This is a person who is so attuned to the sufferings and hopes of all human beings that he refuses to enter into Nirvana himself until all others can enter with him. This is the dominant ideal in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.
The story of Amitabha (or Amida, as he is called in Japan) illustrates the Bodhisattva’s place in Mahayana Buddhism. Although Amitabha was originally a Bodhisattva, be is now referred to as a Buddha, since in Mahayana Buddhism there are many Buddha’s. Amitabha Buddha is next to Gautama in the hearts of Northern Buddhists. (In northern lands, Gautama is called Sakyamuni Buddha, meaning "the sage of the Sakya clan," to whom his family belonged.) According to legends, Amitabha was a man who lived infinite ages ago. He made a vow that he would devote all of his wisdom and merits to the saving of others. Through the years, he built up what might be called a "Treasury of Merit," a tremendous checking account of goodness. Mahayana Buddhists believe that anyone in need of merit can draw upon this account by meditating upon the compassion of Amitabha and calling upon his name.
In Buddhist writings, the checking account is often referred to as the "Ship of Amitabha’s Vow." The "Ship of the Vow" is designed to carry individuals across the floods of life to a "Pure Land" or Western Paradise, which Amitabha established for all those who would have faith in him. Amitabha is the central figure of some schools and sects in Mahayana Buddhism. These groups comprise what is called "Pure Land" Buddhism, because they believe that anyone who has faith in Amitabha will enter into the Western Paradise upon death, and thus escape indefinitely the sorrow of rebirth:
The best-known Bodhisattva is Kwan-Yin (Kwannon in Japan), who is a goddess of mercy. Ancient stories tell Mahayana Buddhists that she lived long ago. She was so filled with love and kindness for all mankind that she took a vow to help any persons anywhere who needed her. She would not even enter Paradise upon her death. Instead, she went to live on an island, where there is now a temple to symbolize her presence. Buddhists may pray to her for aid in the task of collecting enough merit to escape transmigration. Some make pilgrimages to the temple on her island in the Eastern Sea of China.
The basic idea in both these stories is mutual helpfulness. Buddhists tell us that these arc legends written in picture-language. They are designed to show us that we are not independent. We are part of the interdependence of all of life. The influence of my thoughts and deeds is intertwined with the influence of yours. No one is an island, all by himself in the sea of life. Each person is a part of the mainland. An artist drawing a picture to symbolize our lives would not draw vertical threads stretching up from each of us to some heaven above. He would instead draw a complex net of threads, because each individual contributes to all others. Therefore, Buddhists believe that Amitabha and Kwan-Yin give of their merits to all.
A Buddhist poet has beautifully expressed the idea of what the Bodhisattva is and what he does:
I would be a protector of the unprotected, a guide to wayfarers, a ship, a dyke, and a bridge for them who seek the further shore; a lamp for them who need a lamp, a bed for them who need a bed, a slave for all beings who need a slave.
If I fulfill not my vow by deeds, I shall be false to all beings, and what a fate will be mine... If I labor not this very day, down, down I fall.
Wherever Mahayana Buddhism has attracted large numbers of believers, there are monks, philosophers, and students. There is also an organized religion with many gods, and with temples, priests, and ceremonies. It is still desirable to become a monk if it is possible, but there are many ways for a layperson to take part in his religion. There are rituals of individual worship and chanting services led by the monks. Some sects have sermons and hymn singing in their services. Some have "Sunday schools.’ In some places, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association is a well-known feature. Some large cities in the United States have Buddhist churches where you may see some of these new forms of worship.
Most Mahayana Buddhists stress that Sakyamuni Buddha was not just a man who lived in a certain time and in a certain place. He was much more than that. He was a disclosure of eternal truth. Whenever a person worships the Buddha, he is actually worshiping the eternal Buddha-nature, which Gautama revealed. The world is not so made that this revelation could come only in our age. Mahayana Buddhists believe that there have been other Buddha’s in other ages. They look for the coming of Maitreya, the future Buddha in the next age. In all, they speak of untold numbers of Buddha’s, who have revealed Truth to men of every age. Present in them was the same Buddha-nature, which can be discovered in everyone. All can achieve enlightenment or Buddha hood. Many say that Bodhisattvas are the Buddha’s of some future age.
There is another side of Mahayana Buddhism, which is quite different from the ideas we have been examining. It is called Ch’an in China and Zen in Japan. In Japan there is an active church based on its philosophy, but it is primarily a school of thought to which many monks belong. Zen does not stress any of the ideas about saviors, a Western Paradise, faith, or god. Its philosophers say that all ideas and religious practices are like shells which must be broken if the egg is to be eaten. People cling to ideas and practices, forgetting what it is they attempt to explain or show. To cling to ideas is like trying to cling to the wind or capture it in a box. The wind eludes you. So does Truth, if you limit yourself to one thought or one act.
To the Zen Buddhist, teachers, books, or scriptures can be only pointers -- like a finger pointing at the moon. Small children always look at the finger, which points, rather than at the thing to which it points. Most adults also become much more preoccupied by the pointer than by that to which it points. The mind, the mouth, the eye, the ear, and the hand provide us with opinions, impressions, and actions. But these are only ways of describing or showing what has happened to us. The danger is that we become wrapped up in our opinions and impressions and actions and forget the experience that caused them. It is like putting too much value on a frame, rather than on the picture it was designed to enhance. Or it is like treasuring the cover of a book and forgetting the story in it.
Zen Buddhists say that you find truth only in your experience, not in thinking about it or listening to someone talk about his experience. To understand the meaning of life, one must live, not make up theories about it. One day a famous Zen teacher who liked to shock his pupils threw all of the statues of the Buddha into the fire to provide more warmth in the room. This is what Zen says everyone must do with all of his ideas -- burn them up so that they will not clutter tip one’s mind unduly. All theories must be broken like so many clay idols. Zen Buddhists even teach that if a person says the word ‘Buddha" he should wash out his mouth.
Zen teachers know that by word of mouth they cannot teach the truth that comes only from experience. When young men come asking about Nirvana or the Buddha, Zen teachers often answer with anything that comes into their minds, however absurd. Or they may resort to a sort of "shock therapy" in which they strike the pupils. They hope that such a surprising answer will startle the pupils into understanding. They repeatedly tell their disciples that concentration upon a problem will not bring an answer, because you merely become tangled in your own thinking. You must live a life of moderation and kindness and go about your daily activities, learning to question your impressions and thoughts. Suddenly some day you will understand.
THE OUTREACH OF BUDDHISM
No section of the world is changing more rapidly than the Far East. Conditions in Buddhist lands have changed many times since Gautama first developed his answers to the riddle of why men suffer. Both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism have proved adaptable to changing conditions and to different peoples.
The world of tomorrow will grow out of the world of today. So Buddhism will probably continue to be a real influence in the lives of our Far Eastern neighbors. Mahayana Buddhism is widening its influence by sending missionaries to new sections, in the belief that what the Buddha discovered can help almost everyone.
"Why am I unhappy?" The Buddha suggests: Because you fill yourself with wanting, until the wanting is a thirst that cannot be satisfied even by the things you want.
"How can I be happy?" By ceasing to want. Just as a fire dies down when no fuel is added, so your unhappiness will end when the fuel of excessive desire is taken away. When you conquer selfish, unwise habits and hopes, your real happiness will emerge.
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004