Definition of Buddhism
religious, monastic system, founded c. 500 B.C. on the basis of pantheistic Brahminism.
The speculations of the Vedanta school of religious thought, in the eighth and
following centuries, B.C., gave rise to several rival schemes of salvation. These
movements started with the same morbid view that conscious life is a burden and
not worth the living, and that true happiness is to be had only in a state like
dreamless sleep free from all desires, free from conscious action. They took for
granted the Upanishad doctrine of the endless chain of births, but they differed
from pantheistic Brahminism both in their attitude towards the Vedas and in their
plan for securing freedom from rebirth and from conscious existence. In their
absolute rejection of Vedic rites, they stamped themselves as heresies. Of these
the one destined to win greatest renown was Buddhism.
I. THE FOUNDER
Buddha, the founder of this great movement, legendary tradition has much to say,
but very little of historical worth is known. His father seems to have been a
petty raja, ruling over a small community on the southern border of the district
now known as Nepal. Buddha's family name was Gotama (Sanskrit Gautama), and it
was probably by this name that he was known in life. In all likelihood it was
after his death that his disciples bestowed on him a number of laudatory names,
the most common being Buddha, i.e. "the enlightened". Like the newborn
youths of his day, he must have spent some time in the study of the sacred Vedas.
After the immemorial custom of the East, he married at an early age, and, if tradition
may be trusted, exercised a prince's privilege of maintaining a harem. His principal
wife bore him a son. His heart was not at rest. The pleasures of the world soon
palled upon him, and abandoning his home he retired to the forest, where as a
hermit he spent several years in austere self-discipline, studying doubtless,
the way of salvation as taught in the Upanishads. Even this did not bring peace
to his mind. He gave up the rigorous fasts and mortifications, which nearly cost
him his life, and devoted himself in his own way to long and earnest meditation,
the fruit of which was his firm belief that he had discovered the only true method
of escaping from the misery of rebirth and of attaining to Nirvana. He then set
out to preach his gospel of deliverance, beginning at Benares. His magnetic personality
and his earnest, impressive eloquence soon won over to his cause a number of the
warrior caste. Brahmins, too, felt the persuasiveness of his words, and it was
not long before he was surrounded by a band of enthusiastic disciples, in whose
company he went from place to place, by making converts by his preaching. These
soon became very numerous and were formed into a great brotherhood of monks. Such
was the work to which Buddha gave himself with unsparing zeal for over forty years.
At length, worn out by his long life of activity, he fell sick after a meal of
dried boar's flesh, and died in the eightieth year of his age. The approximate
date of his death is 480 B.C. It is noteworthy that Buddha was a contemporary
of two other famous religious philosophers, Pythagoras and Confucius.
sacred books of later times Buddha is depicted as a character without flaw, adorned
with every grace of mind and heart. There may be some hesitation in taking the
highly colored portrait of Buddhist tradition as the exact representation of the
original, but Buddha may be credited with the qualities of a great and good man.
The records depict him moving about from place to place, regardless of personal
comfort, calm and fearless, mild and compassionate, considerate towards poor and
rich alike, absorbed with the one idea of freeing all men from the bonds of misery,
and irresistible in his manner of setting forth the way of deliverance. In his
mildness, his readiness to overlook insults, his zeal, chastity, and simplicity
of life, he reminds one not a little of St. Francis of Assisi. In all pagan antiquity
no character has been depicted as so noble and attractive.
The chief sources for early Buddhism are the sacred books comprised in
the first two divisions of the Ti-pitaka (triple-basket), the threefold Bible
of the Southern School of Buddhists. In India, today, the Buddhists are found
only in the North, in Nepal, and in the extreme South, in the island of Ceylon.
They represent two different schools of thought, the Northern worshipping Buddha
as supreme personal deity though at the same time adopting most of the degrading
superstitions of Hinduism, the Southern adhering in great measure to the original
teachings of Buddha. Each school has a canon of sacred books. The Northern canon
is in Sanskrit, the Southern in Pali, a softer tongue, into which Sanskrit was
transformed by the people of the South. The Southern canon, Ti-pitaka, which reflects
more faithfully the teachings of Buddha and his early disciples, embraces
the Vinaya-pitaka, a collection of books on the disciplinary rules of the order,
" the Sutta-pitaka, didactic tracts consisting in part of alleged discourses
of Buddha; and
" the Abhidhamma-pitaka, comprising more detailed treatises
on doctrinal subjects.
Most of the Vinavas and some of the Suttas have been
made accessible to English readers in the "Sacred Books of the East".
The Ti-pitaka seems to date back to the second and third centuries B.C., but a
few additions were made even after it was committed to writing in the early part
of the first century of the Christian Era. While there may be doctrinal and disciplinary
parts from the time of Buddha none of the twenty-nine books comprised in the Ti-pitaka
can be proved to be older than 300 B.C. These books stripped of their tiresome
repetitions, would be about equal in size to the Bible, though on the whole they
are vastly inferior to the Sacred Scripture in spirituality, depth of thought,
variety of subject, and richness of expression.
There are also a few extra-canonical
books, likewise in Pali on which the Southern Buddhists set great value, the Dipavansa
and Mahavansa, which give an uncritical history of Buddhism down to about A.D.
300, the "Commentaries of Buddhagosa", and the Milinda Panha, ably translated
by Rhys Davids under the title "The Questions of King Milinda". These
works belong to the fourth and following centuries of our era. In the Tri-pitaka
of the Northern School are included the well-known Saddharma-pundarika (Lotus
of the True Law), and the legendary biographies of Buddha, the Buddha Charita,
and the Lalita Vistara (Book of Exploits), which are generally assigned to the
last quarter of the first century A.D. Besides the Tri-pitaka, the Northern Buddhists
reckon as canonical several writings of more recent times adapted from the abominable
III. PRIMITIVE BUDDHISM
Buddhism was by no means entirely
original. It had much in common with the pantheistic Vedanta teaching, from which
it sprang belief in karma, whereby the character of the present life is the net
product of the good and evil acts of a previous existence; belief in a constant
series of rebirths for all who set their heart on preserving their individual
existence; the pessimistic view that life at its best is misery and not worth
living. And so the great end for which Buddha toiled was the very one which gave
colour to the pantheistic scheme of salvation propounded by the Brahmin ascetics,
namely, the liberation of men from misery by setting them free from attachment
to conscious existence. It was in their conception of the final state of the saved,
and of the method by which it was to be attained that they differed. The pantheistic
Recognize your identity with the great impersonal god, Brahma,
you thereby cease to be a creature of desires; you are no longer held fast in
the chain of rebirths; at death you lose your individuality, your conscious existence,
to become absorbed in the all-god Brahma.
In Buddha's system, the all-god Brahma
was entirely ignored. Buddha put abstruse speculation in the background, and,
while not ignoring the value of right knowledge, insisted on the saving part of
the will as the one thing needful. To obtain deliverance from birth, all forms
of desire must be absolutely quenched, not only very wicked craving, but also
the desire of such pleasures and comforts as are deemed innocent and lawful, the
desire even to preserve one's conscious existence. It was through this extinction
of every desire that cessation of misery was to be obtained. This state of absence
of desire and pain was known as Nirvana (Nibbana). This word was not coined by
Buddha, but in his teaching, it assumed a new shade of meaning. Nirvana means
primarily a "blowing out", and hence the extinction of the fire of desire,
ill-will, delusion, of all, in short, that binds the individual to rebirth and
misery. It was in the living Buddhist saint a state of calm repose, of indifference
to life and death, to pleasure and pain, a state of imperturbable tranquility,
where the sense of freedom from the bonds of rebirth caused the discomforts as
well as the joys of life to sink into insignance. But it was not till after death
that Nirvana was realized in its completeness. Some scholars have so thought.
And, indeed, if the psychological speculations found in the sacred books are part
of Buddha's personal teaching, it is hard to see how he could have held anything
else as the final end of man. But logical consistency is not to be looked for
in an Indian mystic. If we may trust the sacred books, he expressly refused on
several occasions to pronounce either on the existence or the non-existence of
those who had entered into Nirvana, on the ground that it was irrelevant, not
conducive to peace and enlightenment. His intimate disciples held the same view.
A monk who interpreted Nirvana to mean annihilation was taken to task by an older
monk, and convinced that he had no right to hold such an opinion, since the subject
was wrapped in impenetrable mystery. The learned nun Khema gave a similar answer
to the King of Kosala, who asked if the deceased Buddha was still in existence.
Whether the Perfect One exists after death, whether he does not exist after death,
whether he exists and at the same time does not exist after death, whether he
neither exists nor does not exist after death, has not been revealed by Buddha.
Since, then, the nature of Nirvana was too mysterious to be grasped by the Hindu
mind, too subtle to be expressed in terms either of existence or of non-existence,
it would be idle to attempt a positive solution of the question. It suffices to
know that it meant a state of unconscious repose, an eternal sleep which knew
no awakening. In this respect it was practically one with the ideal of the pantheistic
In the Buddhist conception of Nirvana no account was taken of the
all-god Brahma. And as prayers and offerings to the traditional gods were held
to be of no avail for the attainment of this negative state of bliss, Buddha,
with greater consistency than was shown in pantheistic Brahminism, rejected both
the Vedas and the Vedic rites. It was this attitude which stamped Buddhism as
a heresy. For this reason, too, Buddha has been set down by some as an atheist.
Buddha, however, was not an atheist in the sense that he denied the existence
of the gods. To him the gods were living realities. In his alleged sayings, as
in the Buddhist scriptures generally, the gods are often mentioned, and always
with respect. But like the pantheistic Brahmin, Buddha did not acknowledge his
dependence on them. They were like men, subject to decay and rebirth. The god
of today might be reborn in the future in some inferior condition, while a man
of great virtue might succeed in raising himself in his next birth to the rank
of a god in heaven. The very gods, then, no less than men, had need of that perfect
wisdom that leads to Nirvana, and hence it was idle to pray or sacrifice to them
in the hope of obtaining the boon which they themselves did not possess. They
were inferior to Buddha, since he had already attained to Nirvana. In like manner,
they who followed Buddha's footsteps had no need of worshipping the gods by prayers
and offerings. Worship of the gods was tolerated, however, in the Buddhist layman
who still clung to the delusion of individual existence, and preferred the household
to the homeless state. Moreover, Buddha's system conveniently provided for those
who accepted in theory the teaching that Nirvana alone was the true end of man
but who still lacked the courage to quench all desires. The various heavens of
Brahminic theology, with their positive, even sensual, delights were retained
as the reward of virtuous souls not yet ripe for Nirvana. To aspire after such
rewards was permitted to the lukewarm monk; it was commended to the layman. Hence
the frequent reference, even in the earliest Buddhist writings to heaven and its
positive delights as an encouragement to right conduct. Sufficient prominence
is not generally given to this more popular side of Buddha's teaching, without
which his followers would have been limited to an insignificant and short-lived
band of heroic souls. It was this element, so prominent in the inscriptions of
Asoka, that tempered the severity of Buddha's doctrine of Nirvana and made his
system acceptable to the masses.
In order to secure that extinction of desire
which alone could lead to Nirvana, Buddha prescribed for his followers a life
of detachment from the comforts, pleasures, and occupations of the common run
of men. To secure this end, he adopted for himself and his disciples the quiet,
secluded, contemplative life of the Brahmin ascetics. It was foreign to his plan
that his followers should engage in any form of industrial pursuits, lest they
might thereby be entangled in worldly cares and desires. Their means of subsistence
was alms; hence the name commonly applied to Buddhist monks was bhikkus, beggars.
Detachment from family life was absolutely necessary. Married life was to be avoided
as a pit of hot coals, for it was incompatible with the quenching of desire and
the extinction of individual existence. In like manner, worldly possessions and
worldly power had to be renounced-everything that might minister to pride, greed,
or self-indulgence. Yet in exacting of his followers a life of severe simplicity,
Buddha did not go to the extremes of fanaticism that characterized so many of
the Brahmin ascetics. He chose the middle path of moderate asceticism which he
compared to a lute, which gives forth the proper tones only when the strings are
neither too tight nor too slack. Each member was allowed but one set of garments,
of yellowish colour and of cheap quality. These, together with his sleeping mat,
razor, needle, water-strainer, and alms bowl, constituted the sum of his earthly
possessions. His single meal, which had to be taken before noon, consisted chiefly
of bread, rice, and curry, which he gathered daily in his alms-bowl by begging.
Water or rice-milk was his customary drink, wine and other intoxicants being rigorously
forbidden, even as medicine. Meat, fish, and delicacies were rarely eaten except
in sickness or when the monk dined by invitation with some patron. The use of
perfumes, flowers, ointments, and participation in worldly amusements fell also
into the class of things prohibited. In theory, the moral code of Buddhism was
little more than a copy of that of Brahminism. Like the latter, it extended to
thoughts and desires, no less than to words and deeds. Unchastity in all its forms,
drunkenness, lying, stealing, envy, pride, harshness are fittingly condemned.
But what, perhaps, brings Buddhism most strikingly in contact with Christianity
is its spirit of gentleness and forgiveness of injuries. To cultivate benevolence
towards men of all classes, to avoid anger and physical violence, to be patient
under insult, to return good for evil-all this was inculcated in Buddhism and
helped to make it one of the gentlest of religions. To such an extent was this
carried that the Buddhist monk, like the Brahmin ascetic, had to avoid with the
greatest care the destruction of any form of animal life.
In course of time,
Buddha extended his monastic system to include women. Communities of nuns while
living near the monks, were entirely secluded from them. They had to conform to
the same rule of life, to subsist on alms, and spend their days in retirement
and contemplation. They were never as numerous as the monks, and later became
a very insignificant factor in Buddhism. In thus opening up to his fellow men
and women what he felt to be the true path of salvation, Buddha made no discrimination
in social condition. Herein lay one of the most striking contrasts between the
old religion and the new. Brahminism was inextricably intertwined with caste-distinctions.
It was a privilege of birth, from which the Sudras and members of still lower
classes were absolutely excluded. Buddha, on the contrary, welcomed men of low
as well as high birth and station. Virtue, not blood, was declared to be the test
of superiority. In the brotherhood which he built around him, all caste-distinctions
were put aside. The despised Sudra stood on a footing of equality with the high-born
Brahmin. In this religious democracy of Buddhism lay, doubtless, one of its strongest
influences for conversion among the masses. But in thus putting his followers
on a plane of equal consideration, Buddha had no intention of acting the part
of a social reformer. Not a few scholars have attributed to him the purpose of
breaking down caste-distinctions in society and of introducing more democratic
conditions. Buddha had no more intention of abolishing caste than he had of abolishing
marriage. It was only within the limits of his own order that he insisted on social
equality just as he did on celibacy. Wherever Buddhism has prevailed, the caste-system
has remained untouched.
Strictly speaking, Buddha's order was composed only
of those who renounced the world to live a life of contemplation as monks and
nuns. The very character of their life, however, made them dependent on the charity
of men and women who preferred to live in the world and to enjoy the comforts
of the household state. Those who thus sympathized with the order and contributed
to its support, formed the lay element in Buddhism. Through this friendly association
with the order, they could look to a happy reward after death, not Nirvana but
the temporary delights of heaven, with the additional prospect of being able at
some future birth to attain to Nirvana, if they so desired. The majority, however,
did not share the enthusiasm of the Buddhist Arhat or saint for Nirvana, being
quite content to hope for a life of positive, though impermanent, bliss in heaven.
IV. LATER DEVELOPMENTS AND SPREAD OF BUDDHISM
The lack of all religious
rites in Buddhism was not keenly felt during the lifetime of its founder. Personal
devotion to him took the place of religious fervor. But he was not long dead when
this very devotion to him began to assume the form of religious worship. His reputed
relics, consisting of his bones, teeth, alms-bowl, cremation-vessel, and ashes
from his funeral pyre, were enclosed in dome-shaped mounds called Dagobas, or
Topes, or Stupas, and were honored with offerings of lights, flowers, and incense.
Pictures and statues of Buddha were multiplied on every side, and similarly honored,
being carried about on festal days in solemn procession. The places, too, associated
with his birth, enlightenment, first preaching, and death were accounted especially
sacred, and became the objects of pilgrimage and the occasion of recurring festivals.
But as Buddha had entered into Nirvana and could not be sensible of these religious
honors, the need was felt of a living personality to whom the people could pray.
The later speculations of Buddhist monks brought such a personality to light in
Metteyya (Maitreya), the loving one, now happily reigning in heaven as a bodhisattva,
a divine being destined in the remote future to become a Buddha, again to set
in motion the wheel of the law. To this Metteyya (Maitreya), the Buddhists turned
as the living object of worship of which they had so long felt the need, and they
paid him religious homage as the future savior of the world.
of the Northern School
Such was the character of the religious worship observed
by those who departed the least from Buddha's teachings. It is what is found today
in the so-called Southern Buddhism, held by the inhabitants of Ceylon, Burma,
and Siam. Towards the end of first century A.D., however, a far more radical change
took place in the religious views of the great mass of Buddhists in Northern India.
Owing, doubtless, to the ever growing popularity of the cults of Vishnu and Siva,
Buddhism was so modified as to allow the worship of an eternal, supreme deity,
Adi-Buddha, of whom the historic Buddha was declared to have been an incarnation,
an avatar. Around this supreme Buddha dwelling in highest heaven, were grouped
a countless number of bodhisattvas, destined in future ages to become human Buddhas
for the sake of erring man. To raise oneself to the rank of bodhisattva by meritorious
works was the ideal now held out to pious souls. In place of Nirvana, Sukhavati
became the object of pious longing, the heaven of sensuous pleasures, where Amitabha,
an emanation of the eternal Buddha, reigned. For the attainment of Sukhavati,
the necessity of virtuous conduct was not altogether forgotten, but an extravagant
importance was attached to the worship of relics and statues, pilgrimages, and,
above all, to the reciting of sacred names and magic formulas. Many other gross
forms of Hindu superstition were also adopted. This innovation, completely subversive
of the teaching of Buddha, supplanted the older system in the North. It was known
as the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, in distinction to the other and earlier form
of Buddhism contemptuously styled the Hinayana or Little Vehicle, which held its
own in the South. It is only by the few millions of Southern Buddhists that the
teachings of Buddha have been substantially preserved.
Buddha's order seems
to have grown rapidly, and through the good will of rulers, whose inferior origin
debarred them from Brahmin privileges, to have become in the next two centuries
a formidable rival of the older religion. The interesting rock-edicts of Asoka-a
royal convert to Buddhism who in the second quarter of the third century B.C.
held dominion over the greater part of India-give evidence that Buddhism was in
a most flourishing condition, while a tolerant and kindly spirit was displayed
towards other forms of religion. Under his auspices missionaries were sent to
evangelize Ceylon in the South, and in the North, Kashmer, Kandahar, and the so-called
Yavana country, identified by most scholars with the Greek settlements in the
Kabul valley and vicinity, and later known as Bactria. In all these places Buddhism
quickly took root and flourished, though in the Northern countries the religion
became later on corrupted and transformed into the Mahayana form of worship.
In the first century of the Christian Era, the knowledge of Buddha
made its way to China. At the invitation of the Emperor Ming-ti, Buddhist monks
came in A.D. 67 with sacred books, pictures, and relics. Conversions multiplied,
and during the next few centuries the religious communications between the two
countries were very close. Not only did Buddhist missionaries from India labor
in China, but many Chinese monks showed their zeal for the newly adopted religion
by making pilgrimages to the holy places in India. A few of them wrote interesting
accounts, still extant, of what they saw and heard in their travels. Of these
pilgrims the most noted are Fahien, who traveled in India and Ceylon in the years
A.D. 399-414, and Hiouen-Tsang who made extensive travels in India two centuries
later (A.D. 629-645). The supplanting of the earlier form of Buddhism in the northern
countries of India in the second century led to a corresponding change in the
Buddhism of China. The later missionaries, being mostly from the North of India,
brought with them the new doctrine, and in a short time the Mahayana or Northern
Buddhism prevailed. Two of the bodhisattvas of Mahayana theology became the favorite
objects of worship with the Chinese-Amitabha, lord of the Sukhavati paradise,
and Avalokitesvara, extravagantly praised in the "Lotus of the True Law"
as ready to extricate from every sort of danger those who think of him or cherish
his name. The latter, known as Fousa Kwanyin, is worshipped, now as a male deity,
again as the goddess of mercy, who comes to the relief of the faithful. Amitabha
goes by the Chinese name Amita, or Mito. Offerings of flowers and incense made
before his statues and the frequent repetition, of his name are believed to ensure
a future life of bliss in his distant Western paradise. An excessive devotion
to statues and relics, the employment of magic arts to keep off evil spirits,
and the observance of many of the gross superstitions of Taoism, complete the
picture of Buddhism in China, a sorry representation of what Buddha made known
to men. Chinese Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the fourth century, and
from there taken to Japan two centuries later. The Buddhism of these countries
is in the main like that of China, with the addition of a number of local superstitions.
Annam was also evangelized by Chinese Buddhists at an early period.
Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet in the latter
part of the seventh century, but it did not begin to thrive till the ninth century.
In 1260, the Buddhist conqueror of Tibet, Kublai Khan, raised the head lama, a
monk of the great Sakja monastery, to the position of spiritual and temporal ruler.
His modern successors have the title of Dalai Lama. Lamaism is based on the Northern
Buddhism of India, after it had become saturated with the disgusting elements
of Siva worship. Its deities are innumerable, its idolatry unlimited. It is also
much given to the use of magic formulas and to the endless repetition of sacred
names. Its favorite formula is, Om mani padme hum (O jewel in the lotus, Amen),
which, written on streamers exposed to the wind, and multiplied on paper slips
turned by hand or wind or water, in the so-called prayer-wheels, is thought to
secure for the agent unspeakable merit. The Dalai Lama, residing in the great
monastery at Lhasa, passes for the incarnation of Amitabha, the Buddha of the
Sukhavati paradise. Nine months after his death, a newly born babe is selected
by divination as the reincarnate Buddha.
Catholic missionaries to Tibet in
the early part of the last century were struck by the outward resemblances to
Catholic liturgy and discipline that were presented by Lamaism-its infallible
head, grades of clergy corresponding to bishop and priest, the cross, mitre, dalmatic,
cope, censer, holy water, etc. At once voices were raised proclaiming the Lamaistic
origin of Catholic rites and practices. Unfortunately for this shallow theory,
the Catholic Church was shown to have possessed these features in common with
the Christian Oriental churches long before Lamaism was in existence. The wide
propagation of Nestorianism over Central and Eastern Asia as early as A.D. 635
offers a natural explanation for such resemblances as are accretions on Indian
Buddhism. The missionary zeal of Tibetan lamas led to the extension of their religion
to Tatary in the twelfth and following centuries. While Northern Buddhism was
thus exerting a widespread influence over Central and Eastern Asia, the earlier
form of Buddhism was making peaceful conquests of the countries and islands in
the South. In the fifth century missionaries from Ceylon evangelized Burma. Within
the next two centuries, it spread to Siam, Cambodia, Java, and adjacent islands.
The number of Buddhists throughout the world is commonly estimated
at about four hundred and fifty millions, that is, about one-third of the human
race. But on this estimate the error is made of classing an the Chinese and Japanese
as Buddhists. Professor Legge, whose years of experience in China give special
weight to his judgment, declares that the Buddhists in the whole world are not
more than, one hundred millions, being far outnumbered not only by Christians,
but also by the adherents of Confucianism and Hinduism. Professor Monier Williams
holds the same views. Even if Buddhism, however, outranked Christianity in the
number of adherents, it would be a mistake to attribute to the religion of Buddha,
as some do, a more successful propagandism than to the religion of Christ. The
latter has made its immense conquests, not by compromising with error and superstition,
but by winning souls to the exclusive acceptance of its saving truths. Wherever
it has spread, it has maintained its individuality. On the other hand, the vast
majority of the adherents of Buddhism cling to forms of creed and worship that
Buddha, if alive, would reprobate. Northern Buddhism became the very opposite
of what Buddha taught to men, and in spreading to foreign lands accommodated itself
to the degrading superstitions of the peoples it sought to win. It is only the
Southern Buddhists of Ceylon, Burma, and Siam who deserve to be identified with
the order founded by Buddha. They number at most but thirty millions of souls.
V. BUDDHISM AND CHRISTIANITY
Between Buddhism and Christianity there
are a number of resemblances, at first sight striking.
" The Buddhist
order of monks and nuns offers points of similarity with Christian monastic systems,
particularly the mendicant orders.
" There are moral aphorisms ascribed
to Buddha that are not unlike some of the sayings of Christ.
" Most of
all, in the legendary life of Buddha, which in its complete form is the outcome
of many centuries of accretion, there are many parallelisms, some more, some less
striking, to the Gospel stories of Christ.
A few third-rate scholars taking
for granted that all these resemblances are pre-Christian, and led by the fallacious
principle that resemblance always implies dependence, have vainly tried to show
that Christian monasticism is of Buddhist origin, and that Buddhist thought and
legend have been freely incorporated into the Gospels. To give greater speciousness
to their theory, they have not scrupled to press into service, besides the few
bona fide resemblances many others that were either grossly exaggerated, or fictitious,
or drawn from Buddhist sources less ancient than the Gospels. If, from this vast
array of alleged Buddhist infiltrations, all these exaggerations, fictions, and
anachronisms are eliminated, the points of resemblance that remain are, with perhaps
one exception, such as may be explained on the ground of independent origin.
exception is the story of Buddha's conversion from the worldly life of a prince
to the life of an ascetic, which was transformed by some Oriental Christian of
the seventh century into the popular medieval tale of "Barlaam and Josaphat".
Here is historic evidence of the turning of a Buddhist into a Christian legend
just as, on the other hand, the fifth-century sculptures of Gospel scenes on the
ruined Buddhist monasteries of Jamalgiri, in Northern Panjab, described in the
scholarly work of Fergusson and Burgess, "The Cave Temples of India",
offer reliable evidence that the Buddhists of that time did not scruple to embellish
the Buddha legend with adaptations from Christian sources.
But is there any
historical basis for the assertion that Buddhist influence was a factor in the
formation of Christianity and of the Christian Gospels? The advocates of this
theory pretend that the rock-inscriptions of Asoka bear witness to the spread
of Buddhism over the Greek-speaking world as early as the third century B.C.,
since they mention the flourishing existence of Buddhism among the Yavanas, i.e.
Greeks within the dominion of Antiochus. But in the unanimous judgment of first-rate
scholars, the Yavanas here mentioned mean simply and solely the Greek-speaking
peoples on the extreme frontier next to India, namely, Bactria and the Kabul valley.
Again the statement in the late Buddhist chronicle, Mahavansa, that among the
Buddhists who came to the dedication of a great Stupa in Ceylon in the second
century B.C., "were over thirty thousand monks from the vicinity of Alassada,
the capital of the Yona country" is taken to prove that long before the time
of Christ, Alexandria in Egypt was the center of flourishing Buddhist communities.
It is true that Alassada is the Pali for Alexandria; but the best scholars are
agreed that the city here meant is not the ancient capital of Egypt, but as the
text indicates, the chief city of the Yona country, the Yavana country of the
rock-inscriptions, namely, Bactria and vicinity. And so, the city referred to
is most likely Alexandria ad Caucasum.
In short, there is nothing in Buddhist
records that may be taken as reliable evidence for the spread of Buddhism westward
to the Greek world as early as the foundation of the Christian religion. That
Buddhist institutions were at that time unknown in the West may be safely inferred
from the fact that Buddhism is absolutely ignored in the literary and archaeological
remains of Palestine, Egypt, and Greece. There is not a single remains of Buddhist
monastery or stupa in any of these countries; not a single Greek translation of
a Buddhist book; not a single reference in all Greek literature to the existence
of a Buddhist community in the Greek world. The very name of Buddha is mentioned
for the first time only in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (second century).
To explain the resemblances in Christianity to a number of pre-Christian features
of Buddhism, there is no need of resorting to the hypothesis that they were borrowed.
Nothing is more common in the study of comparative ethnology and religion than
to find similar social and religious customs practiced by peoples too remote to
have had any communication with one another. How easily the principle of ascetic
detachment from the world may lead to a community life in which celibacy as observed,
may be seen in the monastic systems that have prevailed not only among Buddhists,
Essenes, and Christians, but also among the early Aztecs and Incas in the New
World. Nor is this so strange when it is recalled that men everywhere have, to
a large extent, the same daily experiences, the same feelings, the desires. As
the laws of human thought are every here the same, it lies in the very nature
of things that men, in so far as they have the same experiences, or face the same
religious needs, will think the same thoughts, and give expression to them in
sayings and customs that strike the unreflecting old server by their similarity.
It is only by losing sight of this fundamental truth that one can unwittingly
fall into the error of assuming that resemblance always implies dependence.
is chiefly the legendary features of Buddha's life, many of which are found for
the first time only in works of later date than the Gospels, that furnish the
most striking resemblances to certain incidents related of Christ in the Gospels,
resemblances which might with greater show of reason be traced to a common historic
origin. If there has been any borrowing here, it is plainly on the side of Buddhism.
That Christianity made its way to Northern India in the first two centuries is
not only a matter of respectable tradition, but is supported by weighty archaeological
evidence. Scholars of recognized ability beyond the suspicion of undue bias in
flavor of Christianity-Weber, Goblet d'Alviella, and others-think it very likely
that the Gospel stories of Christ circulated by these early Christian communities
in India were used by the Buddhists to enrich the Buddha legend, just as the Vishnuites
built up the legend of Krishna on many striking incidents in the life of Christ.
The fundamental tenets of Buddhism are marked by grave defects that not only
betray its inadequacy to become a religion of enlightened humanity, but also bring
into bold relief its inferiority to the religion of Jesus Christ. In the first
place, the very foundation on which Buddhism rests-the doctrine of karma with
its implied transmigrations-is gratuitous and false. This pretended law of nature,
by which the myriads of gods, demons, men, and animals are but the transient forms
of rational beings essentially the same, but forced to this diversity in consequence
of varying degrees of merit and demerit in former lives, is a huge superstition
in flat contradiction to the recognized laws of nature, and hence ignored by men
of science. Another basic defect in primitive Buddhism is its failure to recognize
man's dependence on a supreme God. By ignoring God and by making salvation rest
solely on personal effort, Buddha substituted for the Brahmin religion a cold
and colorless system of philosophy. It is entirely lacking in those powerful motives
to right conduct, particularly the motive of love, that spring from the consecration
of religious men and women to the dependence on a personal all-loving God. Hence
it is that Buddhist morality is in the last analysis a selfish utilitarianism.
There is no sense of duty, as in the religion of Christ, prompted by reverence
for a supreme Lawgiver, by love for a merciful Father, by personal allegiance
to a Redeemer. Karma, the basis of Buddhist morality, is like any other law of
nature, the observance of which is prompted by prudential considerations. Not
infrequently one meets the assertion that Buddha surpassed Jesus in holding out
to struggling humanity an end utterly unselfish. This is a mistake. Not to speak
of the popular Swarga, or heaven, with its positive, even sensual delights the
fact that Nirvana is a negative ideal of bliss does not make it the less an object
of interested desire. Far from being an unselfish end, Nirvana is based wholly
on the motive of self-love. It thus stands on a much lower level than the Christian
ideal, which, being primarily and essentially a union of friendship with God in
heaven, appeals to motives of disinterested as well as interested love.
fatal defect of Buddhism is its false pessimism. A strong and healthy mind revolts
against the morbid view that life is not worth living, that every form of conscious
existence is an evil. Buddhism stands condemned by the voice of nature the dominant
tone of which is hope and joy. It is a protest against nature for possessing the
perfection of rational life. The highest ambition of Buddhism is to destroy that
perfection by bringing all living beings to the unconscious repose of Nirvana.
Buddhism is thus guilty of a capital crime against nature, and in consequence
does injustice to the individual. All legitimate desires must be repressed. Innocent
recreations are condemned. The cultivation of music is forbidden. Researches in
natural science are discountenanced. The development of the mind is limited to
the memorizing of Buddhist texts and the study of Buddhist metaphysics, only a
minimum of which is of any value. The Buddhist ideal on earth is a state of passive
indifference to everything. How different is the teaching of Him who came that
men might have life and have it more abundantly. Again Buddhist pessimism is unjust
to the family. Marriage is held in contempt and even abhorrence as leading to
the procreation of life. In thus branding marriage as a state unworthy of man,
Buddhism betrays its inferiority to Christianity, which recommends virginity but
at the same time teaches that marriage is a sacred union and a source of sanctification.
Buddhist pessimism likewise does injustice to society. It has set the seal of
approval on the Brahmin prejudice against manual labor. Since life is not worth
living, to labor for the comforts and refinements of civilized life is a delusion.
The perfect man is to subsist not by the labor of his hands but on the alms of
inferior men. In the religion of Christ, "the carpenter's son", a healthier
view prevails. The dignity of labor is upheld, and every form of industry is encouraged
that tends to promote man's welfare.
Buddhism has accomplished but little
for the uplifting of humanity in comparison with Christianity. One of its most
attractive features, which, unfortunately, has become well-nigh obsolete, was
its practice of benevolence towards the sick and needy. Between Buddhists and
Brahmins there was a commendable rivalry in maintaining dispensaries of food and
medicine. But this charity did not, like the Christian form, extend to the prolonged
nursing of unfortunates stricken with contagious and incurable diseases, to the
protection of foundlings, to the bringing up of orphans, to the rescue of fallen
women, to the care of the aged and insane. Asylums and hospitals in this sense
are unknown to Buddhism. The consecration of religious men and women to the lifelong
service of afflicted humanity is foreign to dreamy Buddhist monasticism. Again,
the wonderful efficacy displayed by the religion of Christ in purifying the morals
of pagan Europe has no parallel in Buddhist annals. Wherever the religion of Buddha
has prevailed, it has proved singularly inefficient to lift society to a high
standard of morality. It has not weaned the people of Tibet and Mongolia from
the custom of abandoning the aged, nor the Chinese from the practice of infanticide.
Outside the establishment of the order of nuns, it has done next to nothing to
raise woman from her state of degradation in Oriental lands. It has shown itself
utterly helpless to cope with the moral plagues of humanity. The consentient testimony
of witnesses above the suspicion of prejudice establishes the fact that at the
present day Buddhist monks are everywhere strikingly deficient in that moral earnestness
and exemplary conduct which distinguished the early followers of Buddha. In short,
Buddhism is all but dead. In its huge organism the faint pulsations of life are
still discernible, but its power of activity is gone. The spread of European civilization
over the East will inevitably bring about its extinction.
CHARLES F. AIKEN