Behind these political and economic revolutions that were changing the face of India, there was the ferment of Buddhism and its impact on old-established faiths and its quarrels with vested interests in religion. Far more than the debates and arguments, of which India has always been so enamoured, the personality of a tremendous and radiant being had impressed the people and his memory was fresh in their minds. His message, old and yet very new and original for those immersed in metaphysical subtleties, captured the imagination of the intellectuals; it went deep down into the hearts of the people. ‘Go unto all lands,’ had said the Buddha to his disciples, ‘and preach this gospel. Tell them that the poor and the lowly, the rich and the high, are all one, and that all castes unite in this religion as do the rivers in the sea.’ His message was one of universal benevolence, of love for all. For ‘Never in this world does hatred cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love.’ And ‘Let a man overcome anger by kindness, evil by good.’
It was an ideal of righteousness and self-discipline. ‘One may overcome a thousand men in battle, but he who conquers himself is the greatest victor.’ ‘Not by birth, but by his conduct alone, does a man become a low-caste or a Brahmin.’ Even a sinner is not to be condemned, for ‘who would willingly use hard speech to those who have done a sinful deed, strewing salt, as it were, upon the wound of their fault?’ Victory itself over another leads to unhappy consequences—’Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy.’
All this he preached without any religious sanction or any reference to God or another world. He relies on reason and logic and experience and asks people to seek the truth in their own minds. He is reported to have said: ‘One must not accept my law from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.’ Ignorance of truth was the cause of all misery. Whether there is a God or an Absolute or not, he does not say. He neither affirms nor denies. Where knowledge is not possible we must suspend judgment. In answer to a question, Buddha is reported to have said: ‘If by the absolute is meant something out of relation to all known things, its existence cannot be established by any known reasoning. How can we know that anything unrelated to other things exists at all ? The whole universe, as we know it, is a system of relations: we know nothing that is, or can be, unrelated.’ So we must limit ourselves to what we can perceive and about which we can have definite knowledge.
So also Buddha gives no clear answer about the existence of the soul. He does not deny it and he does not affirm it. He refuses to discuss this question, which is very remarkable, for the Indian mind of his day was full of the individual soul and the absolute soul, of monism and monotheism and other metaphysical hypotheses. But Buddha set his mind against all forms of metaphysics. He does, however, believe in the permanence of a natural law, of universal causation, of each successive state being determined by pre-existing conditions, of virtue and happiness and vice and suffering being organically related.
We use terms and descriptions in this world of experience and say ‘it is’ or ‘it is not.’ Yet neither may be correct when we go behind the superficial aspect of things, and our language may be inadequate to describe what is actually happening. Truth may lie somewhere in the middle of ‘is’ and ‘is not’ or beyond them. The river flows continuously and appears to be the same from moment to moment, yet the waters are ever changing. So also fire. The flame keeps glowing and even maintains its shape and form, yet it is never the same flame and it changes every instant. So everything continually changes and life in all its forms is a stream of becoming. Reality is not something that is permanent and unchanging, but rather a kind of radiant energy, a thing of forces and movements, a succession of sequences. The idea of time is just ‘a notion abstracted by mere usage, from this or that event.’ We cannot say that one thing is the cause of something else for there is no core of permanent being which changes. The essence of a thing is its immanent law of relation to other so-called things. Our bodies and our souls change from moment to moment; they cease to be, and something else, like them and yet different, appears and then passes off. In a sense we are dying all the time and being reborn and this succession gives the appearance of an unbroken identity. It is ‘the continuity of an ever-changing identity.’ Everything is flux, movement, change.
All this is difficult for our minds to grasp, used as we are to set methods of thinking and of interpreting physical phenomena. Yet it is remarkable how near this philosophy of the Buddha brings us to some of the concepts of modern physics and modern philosophic thought.
Buddha’s method was one of psychological analysis and, again, it is surprising to find how deep was his insight into this latest of modern sciences. Man’s life was considered and examined without any reference to a permanent self, for even if such a self exists, it is beyond our comprehension. The mind was looked upon as part of the body, a composite of mental forces. The individual thus becomes a bundle of mental states, the self is just a stream of ideas. ‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought.’
There is an emphasis on the pain and suffering of life, and the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which Buddha enunciated deal with this suffering, its cause, the possibility of ending it, and the way to do it. Speaking to his disciples, he is reported to have said: ‘and while ye experienced this (sorrow) through long ages, more tears have flowed from you and have been shed by you, while ye strayed and wandered on this pilgrimage (of life), and sorrowed and wept, because that was your portion which ye abhorred, and that which ye loved was not your portion, than all the water which is in the four great oceans.’
Through an ending of this state of suffering is reached ‘Nirvana.’ As to what Nirvana is, people differ, for it is impossible to describe a transcendental state in our inadequate language and in terms of the concepts of our limited minds. Some say it is just extinction, a blowing out. And yet Buddha is reported to have denied this and to have indicated that it was an intense kind of activity. It was the extinction of false desire, and not just annihilation, but it cannot be described by us except in negative terms.
Buddha’s way was the middle path, between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. From his own experience of mortification of the body, he said that a person who has lost his strength cannot progress along the right path. This middle path was the Aryan eightfold path: right beliefs, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right rapture. It is all a question of self-development, not grace. And if a person succeeds in developing along these lines and conquers himself, there can be no defeat for him: ‘Not even a god can change into defeat the victory of a man who has vanquished himself.’
Buddha told his disciples what he thought they could understand and live up to. His teaching was not meant to be a full explanation of everything, a complete revelation of all that is. Once, it is said, he took some dry leaves in his hand and asked his favourite disciple, Ananda, to tell him whether there were any other leaves besides those in his hand. Ananda replied: ‘The leaves of autumn are falling on all sides, and there are more of them than can be numbered.’ Then said the Buddha: ‘In like manner I have given you a handful of truths, but besides these there are many thousands of other truths, more than can be numbered.’
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