Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Beginnings of Buddhism

The founder's family name was Gautama, and by that name he was commonly known during his lifetime. The personal name given him as a child was Siddartha. Those who wished after his death to speak of him with reverence called him Sakya-Muni, the Sage of the Sakyas. These were a tribe who dwelt, at the period of the story, i.e. half a millennium before Christ, in the country to the north of the sacred Ganges, a few days' journey from the city of Benares. Gautama's father, Suddhodana, was rajah (chief) of the Sakyas; his residence was Kapilavastu, near Oude. The future sage thus belonged to the Kshatriya class, and was accustomed to a position of rank and ease.

We hear little of his youth; he had been married ten years, and his wife, whom he loved, had just brought him a son, when, at the age of twenty-nine, he suddenly and secretly left his home to devote himself to the religious life. He was led to this step by witnessing various painful sights which caused him vividly to realise the suffering which accompanies all existence, and made him scorn a life of luxury. It was a time when many were seeking a better way, and when a superior mind naturally turned to that retirement and absorption in which it was believed that the key to life's pains and mysteries was to be found. In the "Great Renunciation," as this act is called, there is nothing we cannot understand. This lofty act, however, was followed by a temptation; Mara, the spirit of evil, urged him, but urged him in vain, to give up the purpose he had formed.

He then attached himself to Brahmanic ascetics, from whom he learned their philosophy; and after this he devoted himself for six years to a life of fasting and penance, the Brahmanic method for drawing nearer the goal of the religious life. After this period he gave up his fasting, not having profited by it as he had expected, and returned to an ordinary diet. This change cost him the adhesion of five disciples who had become attached to him, and had been filled with wonder at his mortifications. But the loss was a small one compared with the gain which was at hand. After a second great spiritual struggle and a renewal of the temptation, he at last reached that which he had long been seeking. Seated under a ficus religiosa, the tree afterwards called the tree of knowledge, or the Bo-tree, he rose in contemplation above all his temptations and doubts till he beheld at length the true nature of things.

From this moment he was Buddha, Enlightened; he had the key of truth, and for himself he was assured that sorrow and evil had lost all hold on him. His doctrine had dawned in his mind. He had discovered the cause of the sorrow which is so closely intertwined in man's life, and had divined the way in which sorrow might be overcome. The method had been found by which one could escape from the unending succession of new lives, all painful, to which, according to the general belief of the time, men were condemned. The words placed in the mouth of the founder when he attained to Buddhahood tell their own tale. "Looking for the Maker of this tabernacle, I have to run through a course of many births so long as I do not find him; and painful is birth again and again. But now, Maker of the tabernacle, thou hast been seen; thou shalt not make up this tabernacle again. All thy rafters are broken; thy ridge-pole is sundered; the mind, approaching the eternal, has attained to the extinction of all desires."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Was There a Personal Founder?

Senart in his Essai sur la légende du Buddha, and Kern in his Het Buddhisme in Indie, both hold that we have here to do with a sun-myth, and interpret the various features of the legend in a very ingenious way in accordance with that theory. This view has made few converts. Many incidents in the story are natural, and appear to be due to a real tradition; there is literary evidence of the early existence of the books, and the religion can be best understood if regarded as the work of a real personality of commanding greatness.[1]


[1]Recent archæological discoveries, of which an account is given by Mr. Rhys Davids in the Century Magazine, April 1902, place it beyond doubt that the Buddha really existed, and that pious offices were paid to his ashes after his cremation by the members of his own clan as well as by others. Inscriptions brought to light in 1898 show that the Sakhya clan, of which he was a member, dwelt at the time of his death in what is now a frontier district of Nepal. Three years before that event they were driven from their old capital Kapilavastu; but they formed a new one fifteen miles further south, just beyond the present frontier of Nepal, and there they erected a stupa or massive stone cairn, to guard the portion of the ashes of the Buddha which was committed to their keeping.


Scholars, however, are agreed as to the difficulty of drawing the line between what is history and what is legend. Even in the early Pali accounts the hero has become a religious figure, he wears titles which lift him above mankind, and he has supernatural powers at his command. A laborious critical process must be undertaken, comparing the various narratives with each other and testing them in other ways, before the real history can be regarded as made out beyond question.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Basic Literature of Buddhism

These two branches of Buddhism have different literary traditions, though some works are common to both; and these literatures, differing from each other in language, also differ widely in contents and in spirit. The southern tradition, composed in Pali, the literary language of Ceylon, has recently been opened up to scholars, and has greatly changed their views of the origin and the true nature of this religion. The Canon of Southern Buddhism, which we might call the Pali Bible, is a literature about twice as large as the Bible of Europe, although if the repetitions in it were removed, it would be somewhat smaller than the Bible. It consists of three Pitakas, baskets or collections. The first is the Vinaya Pitaka, dealing with discipline, but including the Mahavagga, a history of the first beginnings of the order as the founder gathered it around him. The second is the Sutta Pitaka or collection of teachings. It contains the earliest account of the later life of the founder, books of meditation and devotion, collections of sayings by the Master, poems, fairy tales, and fables, stories about Buddhist saints, and so on. The third collection, the Abidhamma, contains speculations and discussions on various subjects. Much of these materials is not peculiar to Buddhism, there is much pre-Buddhistic speculation, and there are many stories which are not peculiar even to India. Along with all this, however, the books give us the earliest accounts of the life and of the death of the founder, and contain a representation written a century after his death, of what he was considered to have taught. The founder himself wrote nothing; but the work of composing books about him and his doctrine began early, and much of the canon is considered, especially by English scholars, to have been in existence during the first Buddhist century.1 For many centuries they were preserved by memory alone.

1 The Buddhist literature given in the Sacred Books of the East is as follows:

Vol. x. The Dhammapada, containing the quintessence of Buddhist morality, and the Sutta-nipata, giving teachings of Buddha on religion.

Vol. xi. Buddhist Suttas. Religious, moral, and philosophical discourses. Vol. xlix. Buddhist Mahayana Sutras.

Vol. xiii. Vinaya Texts. The Patimokha or order of discipline, and the beginning of the Mahavagga, containing an account of the opening of the ministry of the founder.

Vol. xvii. Vinaya Texts ii. Mahavagga continued. Kullavagga or discipline as established by the Master.

Vol. xx. Kullavagga continued.

Vols. xxii., xlv. contain Suttas of the religion of the Jainas.

Vols. xxxv., xxxvi. Questions of King Milinda.