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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 4

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Apologists of Buddhism describe it as the richest, broadest and most lasting of Aryan religions. Yet the name itself is of recent origin and refers to the vast system of teachings that trace their ancestry to the Indian sage, Gautama or the Buddha, who lived and died about the fifth century before the Christian era. There is even question of whether Buddhism should be called a religion and not rather a religious culture, which has permeated Asia to the point where it is impossible correctly to estimate the number of professed Buddhists in the world. Figures range from less than two hundred million, to more than five hundred million, with the lower number closer to reality.

But numerical strength is no index of the vitality of Buddhism, and still less of its impact on Oriental thought. Beginning as a heresy from Hinduism and practically exiled from the land of its birth, it has shown surprising adaptability to new situations and a remarkable power of assimilation. Though sometimes mistakenly called a world religion, it is nevertheless Asiatic in the full geographic and historic sense of the term. Every country in the Orient is deeply saturated with Buddha’s philosophy. For two thousand years he has been the dominant personality in the Far East.

Sacred Writings

The amorphous and often contradictory nature of modern Buddhism suggests the need for clarifying its sources and distinguishing the classic religion from its numerous, bewildering variations. Early Buddhism is in many ways part of the complex of Hinduism and received from it much of its doctrine and most of its mythology. Unlike the parent, however, it has the rare advantage of possessing a historic founder around whom later developments clustered and with whom the religion has since become identified.

Like Hinduism it has a body of sacred writings, but centered around the teachings of one man, comparable to the place of Mohammed or Confucius in their respective religions.
The Buddhist scriptures, therefore, are historically associated with Buddha and have more or less authenticity according to their fidelity to his teaching.

Buddha himself left nothing in writing, but traditions about him have come down to us in two versions, Pali and Sanskrit. Pali is a literary language very similar to the vernacular spoken by Gautama. Although abandoned in India it remained the basis for the original Buddhist literature still extant in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Later writings were in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindus, and in the native tongues of other nations which adopted the new religion, notably Tibetan and Chinese.

Since the Pali texts represent the earlier and more accurate tradition, scholars commonly turn to them for an understanding of primitive Buddhism. The sacred writings are extant in the form of palm-leaf books, all since the coming of Christ but reportedly based on books written in the first century of the Christian era by Buddhist monks in Ceylon who feared lest the rigors of war might destroy the oral traditions of their faith.

The Pali Canon is said to have been determined by three special councils, which met before the third century B.C. to codify and interpret the Buddhist scriptures. However the whole history of this period is shrouded in obscurity, and European scholars believe that only some fragments are thus ancient and authoritative. In its present form, the canon consists of three collections known as Tipitaka or the “Three Baskets.” An equivalent term would be “Three Traditions,” since the world “basket” means “something handed on.” Their contents are Vinaya (Disciple), Sutta (Discourses), and Abhidhamma (Doctrinal Elaboration). Students of Buddhism are often confused by the apparent inconsistency of names. This is partly explained by the interchange of Pali and Sanskrit terms, which are quite different, yet sufficiently alike to mislead. Custom dictates that the Pali form should be used except where the Sanskrit is more familiar.

True to its monastic outlook, the Vinaya deals at length with regulations for the conduct and community life of Buddhism monks and nuns. In the first part are two hundred and twenty-seven rules which make up the Patimokkha or means of self-examination used by the monks on the fast days held twice a month. The second part gives elaborate prescriptions on personal behavior. Running as a theme is the corporate ideal of monasticism, which does not ignore the laity but assumes a paternalistic attitude towards them and stresses the fact that Buddhism is essentially a movement of monastic asceticism.

The Sutta is our main authority for the teaching of Buddha, and deals mainly with the Dhamma, a fluid concept that means rule of deity or of social obligation (Hinduism); the truth, saving doctrine or simply “the way,” as in early Buddhism; or, in later Buddhist thought, any reality or essential quality which deserves to be understood. Five divisions in the Sutta correspond to different types of discourses arbitrarily put together to facilitate memorization.

Since the Abhidhamma collection was compiled after a major schism had occurred, two competitive forms exist. The word itself means “further” or “special” dhamma, so that the third Basket deals with metaphysical analysis and elucidation of the truth, way of life or reality.

Outside the Pali canon is a massive quantity of literature, often mistakenly called scripture, which defies classification and yet merits attention because it is the ordinary source of popular knowledge about Buddhism. A collection of smaller works, the Khuddaka Nikaja is sometimes put as an appendix to the Exposition treatise. It includes the most familiar of Buddhist writings, the “Path of Virtue” or Dhamma pada, an anthology of doctrine in poetic form. Also famous are the Birth Tales (Jataka), a gathering of stories that narrate the five hundred and fifty previous births of the Buddha. They are particularly valuable for preserving a great deal of Indian folklore, and showing the early synthesis of Buddhist speculation with primitive beliefs.

One more book, the Questions of King Milinda, though not technically scripture, is indispensable for a correct understanding of authentic Buddhism. A series of dialogues between a Greek King of Bactria (Milinda) in Southeast Asia and a Buddhist philosopher (Nagasena) illustrates the deep Hellenist penetration following the eastern conquest of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) and helps to explain the mutual influence of Buddhist and Western ideas.

Life of Buddha

The environment in which Buddhism came into being was a period of intense religious fervor and conflict. Dominant Hinduism had encouraged the formation of schools of thought, in which questions of man’s existence were debated, along with the practice of specialized forms of worship or asceticism in keeping with the Hindu belief in transmigration of souls. To avoid the awful prospect of an eternity of such transmigrations, different theories were proposed: good moral deeds, ritual, and self-discipline. Depending on the emphasis, new sects arose, each with its own leader and established customs within the ample folds of the Hindu way of life.

Buddhism was originally one of these sects. Its originator had the personal name of Siddhartha, and the surname Gautama (both in Sanskrit rather than Pali). He belonged to the Sakya clan of the Kshatriya or warrior caste, who were aristocrats one rung below the Brahmins in the social scale of India. Another name by which he is known is Sakya-Muni (from his clan) or Bhagavat (the blessed one). He called himself Tathagata (the one who has arrived). Married to a woman variously named Bimba or Gopa, he had one son, Rahula.

After some years of apparently happy married life, Gautama renounced the world, and left his parents, wife and child. Legendary stories expatiate for chapters on the stoic heroism of a royal prince whom the father dramatically tries to dissuade from leaving home and the future throne. What seems probable is that he was reared apart from the harsher aspects of life and then was shocked by some unexpected contact with sickness, old age and death.

In the Jataka tales, the introduction (from the fifth century A.D.) anticipates the whole span of Gautama’s life, going back to his previous existences, which to believers in transmigration were naturally of great interest. It is related how the gods saw the world in such commotion they begged the future Buddha to come into the world and be born in central India. Strange marvels are told of his conception, and the day of his birth great things occur: his future wife, closest friends, the great Bo-tree where he will be enlightened, and four huge urns filled with treasure suddenly come into existence. When five days old, eight Brahmins foretell his destiny as the Buddha, on condition that he retire from the world. To prevent this, the king his father had three palaces built for him and (at the age of sixteen) gave him forty thousand dancing girls. Yet thirteen years later, in spite of all the father’s efforts, Gautama left everything to find, in his own words, “the incomparable security of a Nirvana free from birth” and endless reincarnation.

The same parallel versions, a barely traceable outline of a few scattered facts and volumes of embellishment by commentators centuries later, follow the rest of Gautama’s life until his death around the age of eighty. It is uncertain how long he led a wandering career, perhaps for six years, in search of an answer to the mystery of human existence. At first he studied under two Hindu masters of Yoga, who taught him all they knew about philosophy but did not satisfy his needs. Then he tried further ascetical practices and meditation on his own, going to extremes like rigorous fasting almost without food, eating repulsive herbs, and repressing his natural emotions. Five ascetics watched his mortification in the hope this would give him the wisdom he sought. But when Gautama gave up the self-discipline they left him, on the grounds that by returning to the “abundant life” he would never obtain “power surpassing other men, nor the superiority of full and holy knowledge.”

Finally Gautama found what he was looking for. One day, as he sat in meditation under a wide-spreading bodhi tree, the light suddenly dawned. Not everything came at once, and several weeks were required to complete the illumination. From that time on he was the Buddha, the “enlightened one.” He felt himself liberated from the eternal succession of deaths and rebirths, and delivered from sensual passion and all desire. “In my emancipated self arose the knowledge of my deliverance.” He realized that “there is nothing for me beyond this world. Ignorance was dispelled, knowledge welled up. Darkness disappeared, light had risen.” Buddhists believe the enlightenment took place in Gautama’s thirty-sixth year. They point to the exact spot where he sat under the bodhi tree, and resolved to “turn the wheel of law” by teaching others the way that he had found. Preaching this message became the guiding purpose of his life, and was carried on in systematic fashion. Most of the year he traveled from place to place, talking to all who would listen. In the company of his followers he would beg food, and depend on the generosity of those who heard him. During the rainy season he retired for about three months of quiet rest. Otherwise his day was divided between itinerant preaching in the morning and receiving visitors for discussion at night, with the afternoons reserved for private meditation.

At first the communities he founded were only for men, but later his aunt prevailed on him to allow women “to go forth from the household of life and enter the homeless state under his supervision.” Gautama yielded, but laid down severe rules for the women disciples. He sadly foretold that if women had not received permission to enter, the religion he taught, “would have stood fast for a thousand years,” instead of five hundred years because of this concession.

Conflicting reports obscure the number of converts the Buddha made or the extent of his influence on contemporaries. He was strongly opposed by the Brahmins for teaching that gifts to the Buddhist order were of more merit than the sacrifices which Hindus practiced. Yet many high caste Indians joined the new sect in an age of rampant sectarianism. More serious were dissensions within the ranks. Devadatta, a cousin of Gautama, persecuted him through life and exploited the opposition aroused by the Buddha’s refusing to practice austerities according to the ascetical customs of the day. The master triumphed over his rival by gentleness and the use of magic charms.

Shortly before death, Gautama assembled the members of his order and gave them final instruction. “Be lamps to yourselves,” he bade them. “Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Hold fast as a refuge to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.” [1] Then he partook of a meal of boar’s flesh, served by one Chunda, which produced dysentery and hastened the hour of death. A moment before he died, the “blessed one,” as the narrator called him, spoke once more to his disciples. “Behold now, brethren, I exhort you, saying, ‘Decay is inherent in all component things!’ Work out your salvation with diligence.” To which the scribe added the comment, “This was the last word of Tathagata.” [2]

In this oldest account of Buddha’s demise, the writer describes in monotonous detail how “the blessed one” entered into the first stage of deep meditation. And rising out of the first stage, he passed into the second. And rising out of the second, he entered the third, and the fourth. Then five more stages, traced and retraced---until “passing out of the state between consciousness and unconsciousness, he fell into a state in which the consciousness both of sensations and of ideas has passed away.” [3]

Seven days after his death the body was cremated with all the honors due to a king. The ashes were carried in procession and deposited in a shrine, from which grains of the burnt remains were distributed to ‘eighty thousand’ places where stupas and dagobas (shrines) were built for their preservation.

Basic Principles

It is not difficult to isolate the main features of Gautama’s doctrine while admitting that what now is attributed to him personally was centuries in the making and consequently represents also the mind of his interpreters. In the Dharma or teaching, the master did not discard the substructure of primitive Hinduism, but rather built upon it. He seems not to have doubted the existence of gods and of evil spirits. His concern was uniquely with deliverance, as found in an ancient text assigned to him, “Just as the ocean has only one taste, the taste of salt, so has this doctrine and discipline only one flavor of emancipation” [4] And emancipation meant breaking through the chain of repeated birth and rebirth.

To obtain this liberation, the disciple must discover and put into practice what the Buddha considered the four basic truths. His work, he insisted, is not speculative but therapeutic. The truths he offered were intended as a revelation of the symptoms of a man’s disease, its causes, healing, and the manner of obtaining the cure. Historians see in Gautama’s tetralogy an application of the medical categories of his time, which he adapted to his own purposes.

According to tradition, Buddha first preached these “Four Noble Truths” in his inaugural sermon at Benares, the holy city of the Hindus, in the Ganges valley of northern India. They are, in sequence, that existence involves suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire and the clinging to existence, that the way to escape from suffering and existence is to be rid of these desires, and to be delivered one must follow the eightfold path mapped out by “the enlightened one.” Gautama further insisted that throughout the process each one must do the work by himself. Other human beings may help, and therefore community life is useful, but in the last analysis everyone saves himself.

First Noble Truty—Suffering

The Buddha was eloquent in describing the various kinds of human misery. In general, “birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful, sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful; not getting what one wishes is painful. In short, the five-fold clinging to existence is painful,” [5] which means the grasping for bodily form or shape, pleasant feeling or sensation, attractions of the will, internal fancies and mental consciousness.

Gautama was not satisfied that his followers know these sources of suffering academically, and much less have misery ignored. He bade the monks contemplate the sordidness of their life. Let them reflect on their bodies, from sole of the feet to the crown of their head, and remember all the uncleanness contained in the skin. Nor should the reflection stop there, but knowledge of pain learnt from others--the old, the sick and the dead.

Did you ever see in the world a man or a woman, eighty, ninety, or a hundred years old, frail, crooked as a gable roof, bent down, supported on a staff, with tottering steps, infirm, youth long since fled, with broken teeth, grey and scanty hair, or baldheaded, wrinkled, with blotched limbs? Has the thought never come to you that you are also subject to decay and cannot escape it?
Did you ever see in the world a man or a woman, who being sick, afflicted and grievously ill, was lifted up by some people and put to bed by others? Have you ever thought that you also are subject to disease and cannot escape it?
Did you ever see in the world the corpse of a man or a woman, one, two or three days after death, swollen up, blue-black in color, and full of corruption? Have you never thought that you also are subject to death and cannot escape it? [6]

Western commentators who read these and like passages in Buddha’s teaching often call it pessimism. Although graphic with Oriental realism, he was not really preoccupied with the morbid side of life. He felt the first truth of suffering (dukkha) needed no demonstration, but only periodic advertence to be seen. Even the more subtle kind of pain, arising from unsatisfied delight in bodily form or feeling, volitional craving or pleasures of the imagination, and the joys of the human mind are found from experience to beget paint. He added, “whoever delights in suffering,” that is, indulgence in such delight, “will not be freed from suffering. This I say,” and thus he had the foundation of his system. [7]

Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation, and it is only on this premise that his accent on suffering can be understood. More than once he was reported flatly to refuse to discuss metaphysics. His silence on the subject was criticized by many. Yet in spite of frequent urgings, he continued his “noble silence.” The reason he gave was simple: greed for views on questions of this kind “tends not to edification.” If his practical program was demanding, he would not allow himself to be diverted from the task by indulging in needless theorizing.

A famous parable, told in his own person, perfectly illustrates the Buddha’s point of view.

It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a Brahmin, or of the agricultural, or the lowest caste. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name of family the man is; or whether he is tall or short, or of middle height; or whether he is black or dark or yellowish; or whether he comes from such and such a village or town or city; or until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a chapa or a kondanda, or until I know whether the bow string was of swallow-wort, or bamboo, fibre, or sinew, or hemp, or of milk-sap tree, or until I know whether the shaft was from a wild or cultivated plant….Before all this, that man would die.

Similarly, it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that the body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death that a religious life depends. Whether these views or opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair….I have not spoken of these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, that is, to tranquility and Nirvana. [8]

The value of seeing the Buddha’s extreme practicality is that it forestalls many preconceptions about the true nature of Buddhism, at lease in its primitive stages. Present day Buddhism can be highly speculative, but this philosophical structure is mainly accretion built upon the Gautama’s unique concern: how to free man, from the inside, from the dreadful sufferings to which human nature is universally heir. Historic Buddhism was a religion of intense self-effort to overcome suffering.

Second Noble Truth—Cause of Suffering

Proceeding a step further, Gautama taught that the cause of suffering was thirst or desire, which leads to rebirth, accompanied by pleasure and lust, and finding its satisfaction here and there. Three kinds of thirst are fountainhead of all pain: thirst for please, for prosperity, and for continued existence.

Approaching this crucial area of Buddha’s doctrine, we must distinguish between his own comparatively simple statement of the case and its philosophical development (and complication) by speculative interpreters. He had already said that the mere fact of being born under the conditions of human existence makes all of us subject to the evils of sickness, old age and death, and to the sorrow that comes, when the things which we like are taken away from us. These constitute the inevitable cycle of life and state, in a word, the problem of evil.

However, these things would not make us unhappy except for the blind thirst (tanha) in nature which drives us to demand for ourselves and the persons we love more than the universe is ready to give. We crave bodily pleasure and either do not get it, or find that it does not satisfy, or face the prospect of losing what we enjoy. The same with prosperity, and the desire for continued living is frustrated by the certainty of death.

As with the first truth on suffering so too here the Buddha vigorously exposed the causal nexus between desire and pain, and viewed the connection from every possible angle. He stressed the social evils resulting from desire, reflected in the whole ambit of human relationships. “Due to sensuous cravings, kings fight with kings, princes with princes, priests with priests, citizens with citizens; the mother quarrels with the son, the son with the father; brother quarrels with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friends.” [9]

Similar and worse hostilities are provoked among persons in society and within the heart of every man by the craving for prosperity and the desire for eternal life.

However, this is not the whole picture. Gautama was more than repeating a proverb, that all pain is frustrated desire. He was setting up a religious system, built out of the pieces of Hinduism which he selected to suit his plans.

The Hindu Upanishads recognized in man a permanent soul which their philosophers said passed on from one bodily home to another in a cycle of rebirth, and could only come to rest through realizing its oneness with Brahman. Buddha denied there was such a soul. What the Hindus called a soul, he considered an ever-changing appearance due to the temporary concurrence of bodily and mental elements. If there is to be deliverance from cyclic transmigration, it must be through eradicating human desires far beyond the ethical abnegation familiar in Christianity. The self-denial he advocated was literal, a denial of self-hood with its mirage of an individual and personal soul.

Third Noble Truth—Extinction of Suffering

From the outset of his preaching ministry, Buddha denied the existence of the self as a distinct reality. In the conclusion of his sermon at Benares all signs of a self are missing. Form, sensation, consciousness---none of these things are self, and it is by reflecting on this and finally realizing that a “learned, noble hearer becomes weary” of all the causes of suffering, and by his weariness “divests himself of desire” until “there is for him no further return to this world.” [10]

The founder of Buddhism postulated that life is a stream of becoming. There is nothing permanent in the empirical self. One thing is merely dependent on the other, which is called the “law of origination.” Even the self is a mental construct, with no distinctive reality, which the mind mistakenly identifies with the composite of form, feeling and the rest. In a classic passage of the Questions of King Milinda, the antiquity of this doctrine of selflessness (Nairatmya) is traced to Gautama. The Buddhist sage Nagasena has come to visit the King, and introduces himself by saying, “Your majesty, I am called Nagasena. However, that is just by way of counting, a term, an appellation, a convenient designation, a mere name, this Nagasena. For there is no ego here to be found.” On hearing this the king objects.

Nagasena, if there is no ego to be found, who is it, then, furnished you priests with the priestly requisites--robes, food, bedding and medicine, the reliance of the sick? Who is it makes use of the same? Who is it keeps the precepts? Who is it applies himself to meditation? Who is it destroys life? Who is it takes what is not given him? Who is it commits immorality? Who is it tells lies? In that case there is no merit; there is no demerit; there is no one who does or causes to be done meritorious or demeritorious deeds; neither good nor evil deeds can have any fruit or result. [11]

To press his point the king asks a series of questions (forty-five by actual count), in which the subject is some part or faculty of a person and the predicate is Nagasena. “Are nails, teeth, skin, flesh, lungs, brain, sensation, perception, consciousness Nagasena?” Each time the sage’s answer is, “Nay, verily, your majesty.” Still not convinced, but evidently confused, the king tells him, “Nagasena is an empty sound. What Nagasena is there here? You speak a falsehood, a lie. There is no Nagasena.”

Then the sage takes over. He goes through the same set of questions the king had asked him, only this time about a chariot, on which his majesty had come to the palace. “Is the axle the chariot? Are the wheels the chariot?” ---on through all the physical parts of the vehicle. Finally the conclusion.

Your majesty, although I question you very closely, I fail to discover any chariot. Consequently the word chariot is a mere empty sound. What chariot is there here? Your majesty, you speak a falsehood, a lie. There is no chariot. You are the chief king in all the continent of India; of whom are you afraid that you speak a lie? Listen to me, my lords. Milinda the king here says thus, “I came in a chariot,” and being requested, he fails to produce a chariot. Is it possible for me to assent to what he says?

To which the king replies that he speaks no lie. “The word ‘chariot’ is but a way of counting, term, appellation, convenient designation, and name for pole, axle, wheels, chariot-body, and banner-staff.” Nagasena praises the royal intelligence and applies the principle first to himself and then to all human beings.

Thoroughly well do you understand a chariot. In exactly the same way, in respect of me, Nagasena is but a way of counting, term, appellation, convenient designation, mere name for the hair of my head, hair of my body….brain of head, form, sensation, perception, the predispositions, and consciousness. But in the absolute sense there is no ego here to be found. And the priestess Vajira, your majesty, said as follows in the presence of the Blessed One (Buddha): “Even as the word of ‘chariot’ means that members join to frame a whole; so when the groups appear to view, we use the phrase, ‘a living being.’” [12]

This central teaching of the Buddha has never been minimized by his followers. The great work that he urged to be done was “self-naughting,” as one commentator expresses it: the eradication, root and branch, of the notion “I and mine.” All suffering, according to the master, is bound up with this concept, “I am this or that,” and to lay aside this burden is a beatitude than which there can be none greater. Of all the delusions that men are attached to, and the worst is their belief in the constancy and reality of their “name and shape,” of the Ego or Self. And the most dangerous aspect of this belief, on Buddha’s principles, is that the identification of Self is not with the visible body (evidently inconstant) but with the invisible “soul” whose perdurance throughout mortal life and after death is blithely assumed.

Very near the core of Gautama’s philosophy, therefore, is a destructive analysis of the postulated (sammuta) “self” or “soul” or “being,” which he did not understand in the prosaic sense of “unselfishness,” but in the full objective meaning of the term “unselfness,” of which the ethical idea is (or may be) only an external symbol.

But this was not all. The goal that Buddha set before his disciples was cessation of suffering or Nirvana (Sanskrit for the Pali Nibbana), which is the state achieved by the removal of ignorance about the unreality of the Ego, and the conquest of cravings which arise from such ignorance. It is the spiritual destiny of Buddhism.

The ambiguity of what the Buddha meant by Nirvana has given rise to endless conflicts and sectarian divisions, some of which will be examined in context. One difficulty is that we have no direct access to the master’s own ideas, but only as filtered through conflicting interpreters centuries after his death. It seems, however, that he was consistent, and that just as he did not affirm a positive reality underlying the world of change, and denied a substantial self underlying the empirical series of sensible and mental happenings, so he at least did not assert the positive and objective character of Nirvana.

Throughout life, all his sermons, exhortations and counseling had only one theme, Nirvana. Yet the important question for him was not, “What is Nirvana” but “How is Nirvana attained?” His mission was not to explain theoretically what Nirvana means, but to witness for the Nirvana which he personally experienced under the bodhi tree and conceived a towering urge to communicate. One who has achieved Nirvana, he said, “is like a deer living in a forest, who might lie down on a heap of snares, but is not caught by them.”

From this point of view, theories were unimportant. Gautama was mainly interested in the ethical remaking of man, and, so his disciples explain, because he felt that metaphysical disputations would take people away from the task of individual change, he kept silence on the nature of the absolute reality and Nirvana. What mattered was the attainment of this goal, the elimination of ignorance and selfishness by the famous eightfold path of morality.

Fourth Noble Truth—The Path

In common with moralists of every age, Gautama advocated a middle way between extremes, and the term “right” in his vocabulary first meant the avoidance of excess and defect. “These two extremes, O monks, are not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the world. What are the two? That conjoined with the passions, low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless, and that conjoined with self-torture, painful, ignoble, and useless. Avoiding these two extremes the Tathagata (himself) has gained the knowledge of the Middle Way, which gives sight and knowledge, and tends to calm, to insight, enlightenment, Nirvana.” [13]

But more specifically, the way that leads to the extinction of suffering is the holy eightfold path, namely, right understanding, right mindedness, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right attentiveness, and right concentration. Each phase of this path has a variety of subdivisions.

Right understanding means first the acceptance of Buddha’s tetralogy: the existence of suffering, its origin in desire, the extinction of desire in Nirvana, and the right method of reaching this haven of rest. It also means that a disciple believes in demerit which, in Gautama’s terms, is destruction of any living being, stealing, unlawful sexual intercourse, lying, tale bearing, harsh language, frivolous talk, covetousness, ill-will and wrong views. The opposite to this Decalogue are meritorious actions, or, in general, the root of merit is “absence of anger, and absence of delusion.” [14]

Right Mindedness is to preserve one’s thoughts “free from lust, from ill will, and from cruelty. This is called the earthly Right Mindedness, which yields worldly fruits and brings good results.” But beyond this is an “Ultramundane Right Mindedness,” out of which the former arises, namely whatever thinking or reasoning the mind does by “being turned away from the world and converted to the path” leading to Nirvana. [15] In other words, the mind must not only believe in Buddha’s teaching, but also reflect upon it to attain the nirvanic goal.

Right Speech avoids lying, tale bearing and the other demeritorious actions, in so far as they pertain to communication of thought. But the person who practices it also avoids harsh language. “He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, going to the heart, courteous and pleasing, and agreeable to many.” [16]

Right Action abstains from the same demeritorious conduct as Right Speech, with emphasis on avoidance of unlawful sexual relations “with such persons as are still under protection of father, mother, brother, sister or relatives; with married women, female convicts and persons engaged to be married.” [17] So too, Right Living means that a person “gets his livelihood by a right way of living,” which may be earthly or Ultramundane Right Living, as in the case of Right Mindedness.

Right Effort included four types of exertion: the effort to avoid, to overcome, to develop, and to maintain. In the effort to avoid, “the disciple incites his mind to avoid the rising of evil, demeritorious things, that have not yet arisen; and he strives, puts forth his energy, strains his mind and struggles.”

Thus when he perceives a form with the eye, a sound with the ear, an odor with the nose, a taste with the tongue, a contact with the body, or an object with the mind, he neither adheres to the whole, nor to its parts. And he strives to ward off that, through which evil and demeritorious things, greed and sorrow, would arise, if he remained with unguarded senses, and he watches over his senses, restrains his senses. Possessed of this noble control over the senses, he experiences inwardly a feeling of joy, into which no evil thing can enter. [18]

In the effort to overcome, a man does not retain any sensual or other evil thoughts that may have arisen, but “he abandons them, dispels them, destroys them, causes them to disappear.” If while regarding a certain object, there arise demeritorious ideas, the disciple should “gain another and wholesome object,” or “reflect on the misery of these thoughts” and on the “painful results” these produce, or “pay no attention to these thoughts,” or “with teeth clenched, tongue pressed against the gums, he should with his mind restrain, suppress, and root out these thoughts,” and in doing so the mind will be “inwardly settled” and composed. [19]

The effort to develop means the striving to cultivate one’s enlightenment, primarily through inciting the will “to arouse meritorious conditions that have not yet arisen.” [20] Whereas, the effort to maintain seeks to preserve what has been thus incited, namely to bring such ideas to maturity. For example, the disciple may keep in mind a favorable object of concentration, “as the mental image of a skeleton, of a corpse infested by worms, of a corpse riddled with holes, of a corpse swollen up.” [21]

Right Attentiveness is directed to further self-mastery through the contemplation of four kinds of objects: the body, feelings, the mind and phenomena in general, each with detailed prescriptions that are found especially in the Digha-Nikaya, the treatise in the “Sermon Basket” of the Buddhist scriptures.

Contemplation of the Body is an elaborate process, which consists mainly in a studious attention to every part of one’s own anatomy and to every bodily action a man performs.

The disciple is clearly conscious in his going and coming; clearly conscious in looking forward and backward; clearly conscious in bending and stretching any part of the body; clearing conscious in walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep and awaking; clearly conscious in speaking and keeping silent.
And further, the disciple contemplates this body from the sole of the foot upward, and from the top of the hair downward, with a skin stretched over it…. Thus he dwells in contemplation of the body either with regard to his own person, or to other persons, or to both. [22]

The benefit of such attention is to give mastery over delight and discontent, conquest of fear and anxiety, and endurance of “cold and heat, hunger and thirst, wind and sun, attacks by gadflies, mosquitoes and reptiles.” In fact a man will be able patiently to endure “wicked and malicious speech, as well as bodily pains, though they be piercing, sharp, bitter,” and even dangerous to life. [23]

Moreover certain preternatural gifts are acquired, like the magical powers, the “heavenly ear” for hearing sounds at a distance, insight into “the hearts of other beings,” the remembrance of previous births, and a “heavenly eye” for beholding things appear and vanish and seeing “how things are reborn” according to their deeds in a previous life. [24]

Contemplation of the Feelings and the Mind follows the same pattern as for the body, with fixed attention on each emotion and mental state as it occurs. Here, too, the purpose is not only to be conscious of these vital functions but to grow in the realization that they are present in him, and yet that “he lives independent, unattached to anything in the world.”

In the Contemplation of Phenomena, the entire foregoing process, from the first to the fourth noble truths, and from the first to the present (seventh) method of the path to Nirvana, itself becomes the object of scrutinizing attention. But now the method is more reflective, and bids the disciple “dwell with attentive mind, wisely investigating, examining and thinking over the law,” so as to reach fullest perfection.

Finally in Right Concentration, after complete detachment from sensual and demeritorious things, the Buddhist adept reaches “fixation of the mind to a single object,” literally, one-pointedness of mind, which results in a series of four trances, beginning with “rapture and happiness” and ending with the “state beyond pleasure and pain” which is Nirvana.

Historical Development

All the evidence indicates that Buddhism was firmly established in the eastern Ganges basin by the time of Gautama’s death (probably 483 B.C.). There is also a tradition, though questioned by many scholars, that in the very year the master died his disciples held a council at Rajagaha to determine the contents of the Buddhist scriptures. A hundred years later another council was reportedly held at Vesali, to condemn those who were trying to mitigate the Buddha’s teaching. As first organized, Buddhism was essentially a system of moral discipline which catered not to the masses but to a small group of ascetics who belonged to the Order. The novitiate training could be made under any monk, during which time the candidate had his hair and beard shaved, clad himself in the yellow robe and declared that he took refuge in the Buddha, in the Teaching, and in the Order. In the second stage, the assembly determined whether the candidate should be admitted. Conditions for admission included freedom from certain diseases, and a resolution to keep ten precepts, namely, abstain from destroying life, stealing, unchastity, lying, intoxicants, eating at forbidden times, dancing-music-theaters, garlands, high or large beds, and gold or silver.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, monasteries were not permanent residences but places to rest for the three months’ rainy season. Also in the early period, there was no corporate worship since there were no prayers or sacrifices to offer. In this sense, original or “authentic” Buddhism is accurately called atheistic, not as though the gods of Hinduism or Brahman were explicitly denied, but because nowhere in his “religion” did Gautama provide that a transcendent deity should be invoked or even that his existence should be formally acknowledged.

The high point in early Buddhist history was the reign of King Asoka (274-232 B.C.), whose empire extended from Afghanistan on the west, the Ganges on the east, China on the north, and the Madras region in the south. Converted to Buddhism at seeing the horrors of a bloody war, he spend the rest of his life consolidating the new-found religion throughout India and sending missionaries to propagate the same in Hellenistic Asia, northern Africa, Nepal, Ceylon and, so the Buddhist chroniclers say, distant parts of Europe. Historians describe him as “not so much a pious emperor as an archbishop possessed of exceptional temporal power.” He tolerated and protected Hinduism and Jainism, but favored his own interpretation of Buddhism.

Asoka’s influence was crucial. He extended his adopted faith into the far reaches of Asia, gave it honor along with Brahmanism as a religion of the state and left to posterity the oldest recorded inscriptions of Buddhist history. Carved on rocks and pillars of stone in various parts of India, the inscriptions are conspicuously silent about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and even about Nirvana. What they describe was a kind of applied Buddhist ethics, applicable to all men and not only to a handful of professional ascetics. In one inscription, carved in a small granite stone at Calcutta, he commends to his people the meditation on seven works “by blessed Buddha,” no longer extant; and urges that “the devout laity of both sexes” profit from this reflection, and not only “communities of monks and nuns.”

According to the Pali canon, the third Buddhist council was held at Pataliputra (Patna), in northeastern India, during the reign of Asoka. It seems the king was disturbed by the division and corruption within the monastic orders, and ordered the meeting to promote discipline and internal unity.

In spite of the political upheavals that followed Asoka’s death, Buddhism continued to flourish and received a new impetus from King Kanishka in the second century before Christ. Kanishka introduced Greek and Persian elements into Buddhist literature and art, and sponsored a fourth religious council at Kashmir, at which the Sanskrit canon of the scriptures is said to have been fixed. This fixation was demanded by the new schism that broke between two radically different concepts of Buddhism, to become known as Mahayana and Hinayana.

Kanishka promoted other changes. The relics of Buddhist saints came to be worshiped, images of Buddha were made objects of popular veneration, monasteries were opened to temporary residents and students who were taught secular subjects, and, in general, Buddhism was further transformed from an exotic cult to a religion of the many.

Until the rise of the Gupta dynasty around 320 A.D., Buddhism fairly held its own in India. But under the Guptas, Hinduism became dominant. In spite of several brilliant representatives, the Buddhist religion declined on Indian soil---partly by absorption in the Hindu tradition which made Buddha an incarnation of its god Vishnu, partly by the Moslem invasion which was intolerant of Buddhist anthropocentrism, and partly by the exportation of the valid Buddhist spirit into Tibet, Mongolia, China, Java, and Japan.

The growth and character of Buddhism outside of India are among the most intriguing phenomena in the history of religion. Their ramifications are only now becoming better known to Western scholars, but substantially two types are easily recognized: the Mahayana in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tiber and Nepal; the Hinayana in Thailand, Burma, Ceylon, Cambodia, India, and Indonesia.

An ancient metaphor used to speak of the Buddha’s teaching as a ship in which a man could cross the ocean of birth and death and safely reaches the shore in Nirvana. The two main forms of Buddhism, therefore, took the names of the “Great Vehicle” or Mahayana, and the “Small Vehicle” or Hinayana, to symbolize their relative ability to carry many or few passengers across the waters of cyclic reincarnations to perfect deliverance. A sub-type, Mantrayana, permeates the main species, especially the “Great Vehicle,” and is so named from the sacred text or spell, Mantra, which consecrates the Buddhist initiates and gives them access to the Tantras or magical formulas (hence Tantric Buddhism) that are unknown to the common people.

Doctrine of the Mahayana

The historical origins of Mahayana are shrouded in obscurity. Its own apologists claim it was started by Kanishka, in the second century, B.C., when he sanctioned the addition to the canon of Sanskrit commentaries which embodied, in some systematic form, the views of a modified Buddhism that was open to all the people. Certainly Mahayana was a strong reaction against primitive positions and introduced revolutionary changes that were completely foreign to Gautama and his followers in the first two centuries of the Buddhist era.

Theistic Groundwork

Original Buddhism had no room for a deity, and therefore no theology as a doctrine of God. While it respected the ‘gods’ of the Indian pantheon and the “heavens” in which they dwelt, they were considered the only different, happier kinds of existence and the rewards for good Karma. In the teaching of Buddha there is no concept of a deity in the full sense of the word, as the principle and ruler of the world. Mahayana introduced the idea of a deity into the religion, both on a speculative level which belongs more to philosophy, and in a popular way that was more like the polytheism of the masses.

On its speculative side, Mahayana began with the postulate that the emergence of an earthly Buddha had a hidden background in eternity. Out of this Buddha came as a kind of emanation. In the Lotus of the Good Law, the great textbook of orthodox Mahayana, the Buddha is simply regarded as the Krishna of the later Hindu religion, that is, the embodiment of the divine. Addressing a host of lesser deities, he declares that he reached enlightenment an infinite number of ages ago, has preached the law to people in an infinite number of ages ago, has preached the law to people in an infinite number of worlds, and, although he announces final extinction, he will himself not become extinct. The Nirvana he experienced under the bodhi tree was only a pedagogical device and not real. His conclusion is self-explanatory.

I am the Father of the world, the self-born, the healer, the protector of all being. Knowing them to be perverted, infatuated, and ignorant, I teach final rest; myself not being at rest. What reason should I have continually to manifest myself? When men become unbelieving, unwise, ignorant, careless, fond of sensual pleasures, and from thoughtlessness, run into misfortune, then I, who know the course of the world, declare: I am so and so, and ponder: How can I incline them to enlightenment? How can they become partakers of the Buddha-laws? [25]

Ostensibly, therefore, Buddha in this classic work was the greatest of the gods and lord of the world. However, since the dominant philosophy (Madhyamika) in Mahayana Buddhism maintained that no positive statement can be made about the Absolute, that the ultimate reality was an “emptiness,” even these passages about Buddha’s divinity are subject to an orthodox, i.e., atheist, interpretation. Yet for the purposes of popular religion, he became the supreme deity, much as Krishna was for the average Hindu, although identified with the attributeless absolute of a more philosophic form of Hinduism.

Compassionate Higher Beings

Equally significant was the popular phase of Mahayana which superimposed on the primitive teaching the doctrine of the bodhisattvas. The name means “a bodhi being,” or “one whose whole nature is permeated bodhi (enlightenment) and, as such, appears in the ancient writings. It meant anyone who is on the point of entering on the supreme incarnation as a Buddha. That was the only meaning of the concept, until Mahayana constructed a whole religious system around it.

There are many bodhisattvas or noble persons in past ages who trod the path of the Buddha, and became eligible to attain to Buddhahood. But they stopped at the bodhisattva stage and did not take the final step out of compassion for a suffering humanity. In their love and pity they preferred to remain in a position where they could help others, and therefore postponed their elevation to the full rank of Buddha. At the end of the Buddha path lay Nirvana, where existence ceases and consequently all possibility of assistance to others. So the bodhisattvas chose to wait and continue their ministry of mercy from the heavens where they dwell in angelic glory. Periodically they came down to earth in one of a myriad of incarnations, often in answer to prayer or in fulfillment of a promise made during their mortal sojourn among men.

If bodhisattvas are a particular creation of Mahayana Buddhism, they are also its most distinctive feature. As a consequence, the whole center of gravity of Buddhist doctrine was shifted from preoccupation with self to the opposite extreme. Mahayanist writings, all dating from the Christian era, are filled with legends of bodhisattva generosity.

An author from the seventh century speaks of “an insatiable tendency, an enormous tendency, an uninhibited tendency, a tendency towards the good. The bodhisattva would like at every moment to create world levels as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, all filled with jewels, so as to be able to give them away.” [26]

Not only are the bodhisattvas generous to an extreme, but their assistance through prayer is indispensable. They are never invoked in vain. No executioner can slay, no chains hold, no demon or monster will hurt any one who calls on their names.

Ideals of Charity

Correlative with the belief in compassionate celestial beings, remarkable changes took place in Mahayana ethics. Though Buddha had spoken of kindness, it was cold, introspective and self-centered. Now charity was commended towards man and beast, to a degree that shocks the Western mind, which may yet be edified as the spirit behind this “fantasy of Buddhist altruism.” There is the story of a monk who had accumulated merit by being faithful to a vow of chastity for forty thousand years, and yet, out of charity, yielded to seduction to please a licentious woman, although by so doing he lost the merit and earned only hell. Or again, the case of a prince who met a tigress that was dying of hunger with its little ones. Immediately he wished to be devoured by it, but the tigress lacked the strength to eat him. So he gashed himself, the blood flowed, and by licking the blood the tigress recovered enough strength to consume him.

Simple folk were instructed by such parables, but the altruism was intended for even the most cultured. Mahayana writers, especially in the early (Christian) Middle Ages, make charity the principal theme of their discourses, addressed to the earthly bodhisattvas who are to imitate their heavenly patrons. There is no need to teach the bodhisattva a great number of rules, they say. There is one which includes them all. When a bodhisattva is full of compassion, he fulfils all the conditions required for Buddhahood---just as all the senses function in the person in whom life is active.

The praise of charity sometimes reaches lyrical heights, as in the Buddhist Santideva. “If the suffering of many is brought to an end by the suffering of one, the one should foster this suffering in himself by means of compassion. Have one passion only: the good of others. All who are unhappy are unhappy from having sought their own happiness. All who are happy, are happy from having sought the happiness of others. You must exchange your well-being for the miseries of others.” [27]

To be genuine, the altruism must prove itself in deeds. “It is through actions that I shall proclaim the law. What is the use of simply repeating the words? What good would an invalid get merely from reading a book on medicine?” [28] Among the most fundamental needs is to subjugate one’s pride. “There is someone doing a humiliating task; why should he, when I am there? If it is pride which prevents me from taking his place, let my pride be destroyed.” [29] There is also a definition of disinterestedness that leaves no room for self. “It is a desire, a need, a hunger for the happiness of others, a love which remains untainted by either personal pleasure or the hope of reward.” [30]

On further analysis, the practice of kindness depends on cultivating two mental attitudes: the identification of oneself with others, and the substitution of one’s own ego for that of others.

First reflect deeply on the likeness which exists between yourself and others. “Since all have the same pains and the same joys as I have, I should care for them as I care for myself.” The body, despite the differences between its various members, is looked at after a single thing: it should be the same with the world in which different beings have their joys and sorrows in common.
Reflecting on the fact that you are yourself full of faults and that others are brimming with good qualities, you will endeavor to throw off your own personality and adopt that of others.
You are interested in your various members as parts of your body: why not in men as parts of humanity? The person who wants to save himself must practice the great secret: put himself in the place of others. [31]

As commonly interpreted, there are four stages to Buddhist charity. It begins with ahimsa (not harming), grows into amitri (loving-kindness), finds expression in dana (giving), and reaches perfection in karuna (compassion). Each stage has abundant literature to illustrate its presence and qualities, and especially to exhort the monks and laity to put it into practice.

The basic moral duty laid upon every Buddhist is that of ahimsa, to do no injury to anyone. Familiar to Hinduism and the Jains before the time of Buddha, ahimsa implies the prohibition of committing any kind of wrong, whether physical or moral, to any living being. “Any act which is harmful to others,” taught Sakyamuni, “is a sin.” Accordingly before a man performs an action, he should ask himself whether it is harmful to others or to himself. If it is, he must not do it, “for it is an evil action whose fruit will be suffering.”

Next is the hierarchy is loving-kindness, which presumes the foregoing but adds to it a certain feeling or state of mind, at once unassuming and gentle, that becomes the habitual source of practical charity. The sacred writings are filled with panegyrics of maitri, whose worth in things of the spirit is greater than that of all other virtues.

None of the means employed to acquire religious merit has a sixteenth part of the value of loving-kindness. Loving-kindness, which is freedom of heart, absorbs them all; it glows, it shines, it blazes forth.
In the same way, as the light of all the stars has not a sixteenth part of the value of the moonlight, but the moonlight absorbs it and glows and shines and blazes forth; in the same way none of the means employed to acquire religious merit has a sixteenth part of the value of loving-kindness.
In the same way, as at the end of the rainy season, the sun, rising into the clear and cloudless sky, banishes all the dark spaces and glows and shines and blazes forth; in the same way again, as at night’s end the morning star glows and shines and blazes forth, so none of the means employed to acquire religious merit has a sixteenth part of the value of loving kindness. [32]

However, maitri is not genuine unless it leads to dana, according to the definition that “the good man seeks his own good and that of others.” All the acts of charity which history and legend attribute to Buddha have become part of the idealization of the practice of outgoing goodness. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the radical difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism more evident than in their respective attitudes towards dana. Among the former, for example, the practice of medicine was forbidden, whereas among the latter it is not only permitted but encouraged as a means of serving the neighbor.

The height of generosity (dana-paramita) is defined in terms that leave nothing to selfishness and extend equally to all animate things with no thought of profitable return.

It means helping men and animals with acts of loving-kindness; having concern for the multitude who are in error; rejoicing that the wise have achieved liberation; protecting and helping all living beings; transcending the boundaries of heaven and earth with charity as wide as a river and as large as the sea; performing acts of generosity to all living beings; feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing those who are cold, refreshing those overcome by the heat, being ready to help the sick; whether it be carriages, horses, boats, equipment, or any kind of precious material or famous jewel, or loved one or son or kingdom---whatever it may be that you are asked to give, it means giving it at once. [33]

Nor is this the end. At the outer limits of charity is compassion (karuna), which is regarded so precious a virtue that Buddha is often simply called “The Compassionate One,” and anyone who desires to attain the Nirvana he reached must follow him in the practice of pity. While both the main development its theory with great precision, Milarepa, the Tibetan poet and ascetical writer, made this perfectly plain. “The person who only thinks of his own salvation,” he wrote in his Spiritual Testament, “harvests samsara,” that is, the ocean of birth and death or successive individual existence in transmigration. “And the one who does not distribute what he has gathered meditates in vain. He will remain without virtue.” [34] Milarepa wished to show that charitable compassion includes, with emphasis, pity for the spiritual lot of others, and not only for their material needs, at the risk of not gaining the very salvation a man desires for himself. “Living beings,” Buddhist sources say, “are unhappy because of their acts, because of their nature. It is impossible to make them happy by supplying them with merely material aids. The best way of helping them is to establish them in goodness.” [35]

By the ordinary law, a bodhisattva must not eat without giving part of his good to the needy. But this rule is too lenient for the author of Ratnarasi, who tells the bodhisattva to think of the bacteria in his body and say to himself, “Inside me there are eighty thousand legions of microbes. May they comfort themselves with this food! At the moment I am providing for their wants with meat; when I have attained to illumination, I shall provide them with dharma (something more substantial).” [36]

Should a real bodhisattva happen to be involved, he can fulfill the most fantastic vows because miraculous achievements are at his ready disposal.

The bodhisattva of the body of the law can transform himself in a twinkling into innumerable bodies and so render homage to the Buddhas of ten provinces at once. In a twinkling he can create immense riches and give them to other beings. It is by this kind of exercise the bodhisattva of the body of the law practices the perfection of the virtue of giving. [37]

Accustomed to this kind of extravaganza, the Buddhist believer can take refuge in symbolism. He correctly assumes that only a vague sort of fellowship is signified by all the imagery. And the very exponents of superhuman generosity confirmed the assumption. Not charity itself but “the thought of sacrificing all one possesses---and even the fruit of one’s sacrifice---to all things, is the perfection of charity. Charity is therefore entirely of the mind.” [38] So that every human action, even the most pleasant and insignificant--like eating or going to bed, washing one’s hands or sitting down---gathers immense value provided the motive is to benefit “all things.” Not the actions themselves, but the desire to put them into effect constitutes virtue.

Polytheism and Mythology

Belief in the celestial bodhisattvas opened the door to an array of superhuman beings that appealed to popular piety. They were often given names with both visible and spiritual properties. Avalokitesvara, who is ruled by compassion, holds a lotus, and in his mercy helps everyone in distress; his capacity for transforming himself into any shape is inexhaustible. Manjusri excels in wisdom, holds a sword in his hand, and specializes in giving knowledge. Maitreya is a coming Buddha who represents friendliness and holds a flask with the elixir of immortality. Samantabhadra rides a white elephant and distributes magical formulas that avert all danger.

Bodhisattvas are as deserving of worship as the Buddhas, and according to some Mahayanists, more so. “From the Buddha,” says one authority “arise only the disciples, but from a Bodhisattva the perfect Buddha himself is born.”

With the development of celestial beings came the multiplication of mythical Buddhas. This was due mainly to the familiar Buddhist tendency to stress the spiritual and symbolic side of their founder while belittling the importance of his actual physical existence. Gradually the historical Buddha faded away, leaving the Buddha as an expression of Dharma (the ultimate void) as the only reality. In the Diamond Sutra occurs the famous statement in which the Buddha warns against confusing him with the man who lived on earth. “Those who saw me in physical form and followed the voice they heard, were misguided in their efforts and will never see me.” [39]

It is almost impossible to classify the variety of items that Buddhism places under the single term “Dharma,” not excluding the concept of Buddha as an expression of the ultimate void. Dharmas may be the sense faculties or sensations, vital power, process of being born, death, hatred, greed, blindness, or delusion, perception or realization, and spiritual concentration. Dharmas are also qualities without specific properties, substances without a subject, and occurrences without a common substratum to which they can be referred. The reason why so many different, and contradictory, notions are associated with the single word “Dharma” is that Buddhism itself contains such varied (and by Western standards mutually exclusive) concepts on the meaning of life and death, the finite and infinite, the human and divine.

Without denying the historical Buddha, not only Mahayana but all forms of Buddhism see in him only the manifestation of a type, and one of a series of Buddhas who appear on earth throughout the ages. Their number grew with the passing of time---from seven, to twenty-four, to a myriad who fill the heavens. It also enabled Buddhist missionaries to prepare the way for acceptance by other religions. With the help of numerous bodhisattvas and Buddhas, polytheism, belief in demons, and other alien ideas could be readily assimilated to Buddhism. The gods and demons of other peoples were declared to be incarnations or duplicates of the Buddhist pantheon.

Hinayana—The Lesser Vehicle

The expression Hinayana, or lesser way, was coined by the opponents of the primitive Buddhist religion which they accused of reactionary selfishness and unrealistic conservatism. It was a “lesser way” because only a small number, mainly monks and nuns, originally belonged to it and were therefore given the chance of attaining Nirvana. Since the implication chafes, the Hinayanists prefer to call themselves members of the Theravada or “school of the elders.” Geographically they represent that form of Buddhism which prevails in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Laos and in general in South and Southeastern Asia. “Southern Buddhism” is a common synonym for Hinayana, and “Northern Buddhism” for Mahayana, but only broadly because of their constant mutual influence.

Hinayana professes to follow the basic principles of the Pali canon and, by this standard, may be identified with primitive Buddhism. Certainly its emphasis on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path places it nearer to the original teachings of Gautama than Mahayana whose express purpose was to reinterpret the Buddha’s esoteric doctrine in order to make it universally acceptable.

Present-day Mahayanists distinguish themselves from Hinayana in five ways, which may be taken as valid description of the latter, less popular but seemingly more authentic form of Buddhism. The Hinayanists are said to be too literal-minded, adhering to the letter rather than to the spirit of the ancient writings, and on the whole averse to change; they are scholastic, over-occupied with the analysis and classification of mental states; they are one-sidedly negative in their conception on Nirvana and the Path; they are over-attached to the merely formal aspects of monasticism; and most gravely, they are spiritually individualistic.

The literal-mindedness appears in their habit of regarding intellectual formulations of doctrine as valid in the ultimate sense, as being not merely conceptual symbols of reality but constituting its fully adequate description. Buddha had spoken of the essential unreality of the so-called individual being by analyzing it into its most prominent phenomena-bodily form, perception and the rest. Hinayanists proceeded to treat each of these phenomena as ultimately real, thus actually deviating from Gautama’s uncompromising nihilism. Then they equated their theory with its verbal expression and, after the oral tradition was committed to writing, refused to depart a hair’s breadth from the precise wording of the “canonical” scriptures.

Ultra-conservatism, so their critics say, has kept them from understanding that, as the Buddha says in their own texts, the Dharma (or law) is simply a raft. Had the Buddhists of Burma, for instance, been able to grasp this vitally important teaching, they would never have spent ten million rupees (two million dollars) on the so-called Sixth Buddhist Council (Rangoon, 1954-1956) in order to determine whether a certain letter of the texts was a “t” or a “d.” [40]

Scholastic preoccupation with mental states were based on what the Mahayana claim is an unfounded theory, that the Pali texts to which they appeal contain the direct utterance of the Buddha himself. External historical evidence shows there were centuries of speculative interpretation built into the Pali canon, and internal evidence confirms the fact. Furthermore, instead of putting these texts into practice, the Hinayana have reportedly been satisfied to study, analyze and classify. The result of this intellectualizing has been “the almost total neglect of the practice of mediation, which is so striking a feature of modern Theravada Buddhism.” [41] Philosophical analysis has replaced the ancient practice of inward concentration.

A negative concept of Nirvana leads the Hinayanists to describe the goal of Buddhist ethics in terms of non-existence, and so to stress the present that the future life is implicitly denied. The same negativism affects the deity. Where Mahayana has developed a medley of gods and added the divinities of other religions to its own, Hinayana is manly responsible for the common notion that Buddhism is a religion without God. In Zen terminology, “Buddhists understand the universe and God as one. There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity. All life is one, therefore there cannot be God and man nor a universe and God.” [42]

As a result, Hinayana does not believe in prayer, and submits to no ultimate heavenly authority. Taking Buddha literally, to “work out your own salvation,” it interprets this dictum so rigidly that the negative consequence is removal of all dependence on superhuman powers. Any concession to theism is a compromise of Hinayana principles.

Overattachment to the merely formal aspects of monasticism is a common charge raised by the Mahayanists against those who claim to be treading the ancient path. No alien critic of Oriental customs is so merciless as Buddhist commentators on their own rival tradition.

Scholasticism, by exalting rational understanding above realization, inhibits both the practice of meditation and the attainment of wisdom, thereby not only depriving morality of its transcendental sanction but dispensing with the need for any ethical training other than a merely external conformity with the disciplinary precepts. Exclusively negative conceptions of Nirvana and the Way lead to a misinterpretation of the ideal of renunciation, “giving up the world” being regarded as synonymous with a life of idleness and inactivity. Rigid observance of the strict letter of the Vinaya (disciple), at least while under public surveillance, is all that is expected of the monk in most parts of the so-called Theravada world today. [43]

Spiritual individualism is the final distinguishing mark of the “lesser vehicle” type of Buddhism. Both types describe themselves by a comparison drawn from one of the ancient writings. A glow-worm, goes the simile, does not think its light would illumine the whole of Asia. Just so the disciples of Hinayana do not think they should, after winning full enlightenment, lead all beings to Nirvana. But the sun, when it has risen, radiates its light over the whole continent. Just so a Bodhisattva (in the Mahayana tradition), after he has done the practices of charity which lead to the full enlightenment of Buddhahood, leads countless persons to Nirvana.

The issue between the two systems runs deeper than the familiar difference between the active and contemplative life in Western thought. It implies a radical dichotomy between two contradictory moral philosophies: Mahayana admits a personal deity (or deities) and therefore allows for the concept of social justice and charity under obedience to a higher power. Hinayana denies or prescinds from any god outside and above man and so logically concerns itself only with self, which it seeks to spare the trial of continuous rebirth by Nirvana annihilation.


Buddha made monasticism an inseparable part of his creed, and the Triratna, or Three Jewels, which Gautama prescribed on his followers were, “I believe in the Buddha, in Dharma (law) and the Sangha (monastic order).” As originally conceived, the function of Buddhist monasticism is twofold: to provide suitable conditions for one’s personal development, and to teach the law to other people.

During Gautama’s lifetime, he was the head of the Order, and after his death no one has replaced him as universal superior of the brotherhood, not even a body of men or council with juridical authority to govern. However there may be, as in Burma, national heads of the Order elected by the monks. At first each school of Buddhist thought had a superior and now each monastery (Vihara) within the sect, but his position is only one of honor, a primus inter pares, and not of real jurisdiction over the monk or Bhikshu. The latter is to obey the rules of the order and follow the common life through voluntary self-asceticism, although he may be dismissed for grave violations.

Men are normally admitted to the Order after the age of twenty, provided they are healthy and otherwise suitable. After a novitiate during which he shaves his head (which also applies to women), he receives the monastic robes, a new name, and agrees to keep the Rules of the Order--two hundred twenty as they stand today--known as the Patimokkha, and accepted with slight modifications by all forms of Buddhism. However no vows are taken, and the monk may leave the Order upon notice when he wants to, either for a while or permanently.

Many men join the Order late in life, when their family duties are satisfied, or in middle-age, when they want to spend all or some of their remaining years in seeking the Buddhist release from suffering. In Burma, Thailand and Cambodia many boys spend part of their early years in a monastery, from several weeks to a decade or more. The purpose is to have them learn the sacred writings, and habits of discipline and morality not easily taught at home. One result of the practice is to instill a deep respect from childhood for the monastic way of life.

A certain hierarchy of advancement is provided for those who make the Sangha their career. Beginning as novice (Samarena), the monk dedicates himself as Bhikshu. After a time he becomes an ancient (Thera), and if he perseveres for twenty years, a great elder or Mahathera. In practice the distinctions are quite nominal except for an increased reverence from the people, and within the monastery from the monks.

Begging is a common custom, following the example of Gautama who went around with a bowl in his hand asking for donation of rice. Depending on the locality, individual poverty is often strictly interpreted, allowing for three robes, a waistcloth, begging bowl, razor, water strainer and needle. However, this depends on the relative wealth of the people in the district, and even the strictest monks often have other belongings. But the monasteries, by contrast, are wealthy landowners, in some areas owning upwards of a third of the arable land.

Begging has not only economic value, according to some of the best commentators. It also has a deep moral significance, which ascetical writers are at pains to explain. One benefit is to teach the beggar humility, and another is to make the donor accumulate the merit of self-denial.

Both have a great social value when they are understood in their proper bearings, and what is most strongly emphasized in the monk’s life is this social meaning, and not necessarily its economic importance. For if it were necessary to support themselves by some other means, the monastery authorities would soon have found a way for it. But on account of its educative value begging has been selected for the monks to be the chief method of maintaining themselves physically. [44]

On certain days the monks may go out in large groups, forming a long line and walking slowly in the streets, crying “Ho.” Each monk carries a bowl, in which people are to place money or rice. More often the monks go out in small companies of four or five. They wear broad-brimmed hats that permit the monk to see only a few feet ahead, and not even recognize who gives them a donation. This is done on purpose.

The donor is not to know who the beggar is, nor does the beggar observe who the donor is. The deed of charity is to be practiced altogether free from personal relationships. When the latter are present, the deed is apt to lose its spiritual sense. It is just an act of favoritism, that is, it harbors in it on one side the feeling of personal superiority and on the other the degrading consciousness of subserviency. [45]

Corresponding to their second purpose, the monasteries are to communicate their possessions. As expressed by the Buddha, “There are two kinds of gifts, the gift of material things and the gift of the law. Of these two, the gift of the law (Dharma) is pre-eminent.” For centuries the monks have followed this counsel, yet without striving to make converts; rather their intention is to share with others the method and practices they have found useful in the attainment of spiritual enlightenment.

Until modern times, the Bhikshus were the ordinary schoolmasters for the children, and thus inculcated principles of morality and Buddhist ethics in their young charges. Since the secularization of the schools in many countries and, in China and North Vietnam since their appropriation by the Communists, this essential function of the monasteries is gradually removed, with comparable changes effected in the monastic life itself.

As previously seen Gautama himself admitted women to the Buddhist Order, who are called Bhikkunis or nuns. In the early centuries, in India, they had their own monasteries, completely subject to the men; but as their status declined they practically ceased to exist in community life and became instead laywomen disciples (Sila-Upasika) in countries of Hinayana Buddhism. They often lead austere lives and particularly in Burma and Ceylon have been pioneers in social services field.

It should be noted that the Bhikshu may be considered a monk, friar or religious---although strictly speaking none of these---but he is not a priest except in the broad sense of leading prayers and assisting with such ritual as the offering of incense or the burning of candles.

Circumstances differ, and Buddhist monasticism varies considerably in different countries. The most notable difference is found between Hinayana monasticism, mainly as just described; and the Mahayana Order in China, Japan, and Korea, along with extreme adaptations in Tibet and Outer Mongolia.

When Buddhism was first introduced into China, the Chinese were long unfavorable to the implications of monastic life and after they admitted the Sangha it was basically changed in the process. Japan followed the lead of China, and in both countries the monastic concept was tailored to fit the national pattern. The basic difference was the creation of the bonzes in Japan and the incorporation of ancestor worship into Chinese monasticism.

A Japanese bonze may marry, and he is often responsible for a certain quota of families (like a parish) who support a particular temple. Instead of the uniform yellow or orange robe of monks elsewhere, he wears a dark Kimono, covered by a short silk robe to denote his peculiar sect. On feast days the silk robes are of gorgeous color and the altar equipment of the lowliest temple is luxurious in comparison with the simple flowers and bowl of incense of the Hinayana Buddhists.

Moreover there are thousands of female bonzes in Japan. They sometimes live in separate convent temples or they share the same monastery with the men, although living in quarters of their own. With head shaved and dressed like monks, they perform their own religious services, engage in meditation, and do some outside activity---although less than the men. Until recently the monastic vocation was regarded as an honorable career for the daughters of the aristocracy. Their typical routine within the convent is much like that of the monk. At some convents the first chanting service begins at four-thirty, followed by breakfast, and various duties about the temple. After a second service at eleven, there is a midday meal, and a third service in the evening after supper. In China, Japan and Korea, the bonzes may be equally considered monks or priests, and nuns or priestesses, although the respective duties of different bonzes will vary, according to age, rank, sect and sex.

In a class by itself is the monasticism of Tibet, where religion in the eighth century became an amalgam of Buddhist magic and Tibetan demon worship. The mixture is called Lamaism from the name, Lama (the superior one), given to the higher Tibetan monks. Tibet was invaded by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, which marked the beginning of Lamaistic influence in Mongolia. Kiglai Khan himself was converted in 1261, and centralized the monastic system which later controlled the country. Reformed by Tsong-ka-pa (1358-1419), the monks became “the virtuous order” or Geluppa. Tsong’s nephew was the first grand Lama and propounded the theory that all grand Lamas are divine incarnations. His fourth successor developed the idea into the present theory by specifying the god who becomes incarnate, namely, Avalokita, and in 1650 obtained from the Chinese emperor the title Dalai Lama (the Great Lama), by which Europeans commonly know him.

At the death of Dalai Lama, a successor would be chosen from a child born near the time of death, in whom the god is supposed to have become reincarnate. The infant chosen was taken to the monastery, garbed as a monk at the age of four and enthroned, four years later to become a full monk and assume full authority at eighteen.

Since the communist invasions in China, Vietnam and Tibet, Buddhist monasticism has been drastically changed. Some Buddhist institutions have been allowed to function provided they cooperate. According to the “Land Reform Laws” the monks may keep as much land as they can cultivate to meet a predetermined quota of crops. Failure to meet the quota means forfeiture of land. City monasteries are required to undertake certain manufacturing industries. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was driven into exile, and the quasi-religious administration of the country by the Lamas was abolished.

The Laity

In view of its heavy stress on the monastic life, Buddhism has been almost equated in the popular mind with cloistered asceticism and segregation from the world, whereas from its earliest history it has shown an awareness of the laity that compares favorably with the most laic religions of the East.

Buddha himself taught the laity as well as monks, and was mindful of the average person’s mode of life in society. Furthermore, by his own wishes, the Sangha developed as a monastic institution within society, supported by it and intended as source and focus of its religious energy. Consequently the Buddhist literature often presents guidance and examples for the laity, and not only for monks, even when the latter are primarily concerned. To a great extend the Dharma (teachings of the Buddha, doctrine, law, norm) can be interpreted as well singularly as plurally, socially as well as metaphysically, to serve the needs of people in the world no less than of monks and nuns in the monasteries.

At the same time Buddhism has absorbed numerous social customs and beliefs from other religions and integrated them into the stream of its own tradition, with the result that what theoretically is a monastic religion has become very laicized. Every aspect of Buddhist life and thought is now open in greater or less measure to all segments of the population. Yet there are differences, mainly between the Hinayana and Mahayana forms, where the historical cleavage naturally affects the place which the laity occupy in the respective religious systems.

The classic Pali scripture texts for the guidance of laypersons have deeply influenced Buddhist practices in South Asia. In symbolic language the Buddha’s counsels express what are substantially the same principles which bind the monks. They are generic enough to allow adaptation to particular circumstances and susceptible of infinite interpretations, as appears from the various commentaries. In context, Gautama is talking about a young householder, whom he instructs, “to protect the six quarters,” which he proceeds to identify. Parents are the eastern quarter, teachers the south, wife and children the west, friends and companions are the north, servants and work people represent the nadir, while religious teachers and monks are the zenith.

In five ways a child should minister to his parents as the eastern quarter: Once supported by them I will now be their support. I will perform duties incumbent on them. I will keep up the lineage and tradition of my family. I will make myself worthy of my heritage.
And in five ways parents thus ministered to by their child show their love for him: They restrain him from vice, they exhort him to virtue, they train him to a profession, they contract a suitable marriage for him, and in due time they hand over his inheritance.
In five ways pupils minister to their teachers as the southern quarter: by rising from their seat in salutation, by waiting upon them, by eagerness to learn, by personal service, and by attention when receiving their teachings.
And in five ways do teachers, thus ministered to love their pupil: They train him in that wherein he has been well trained. They make him hold fast that which is well held. They thoroughly instruct him in the lore of every art. They speak well of him among his friends and companions. They provide for his safety in every quarter. [46]

In like manner the wife, as western quarter, should be cared for by the husband, “by respect, by courtesy, by fidelity, by handing over authority to her, by providing her with adornment.” And he in turn ought to be served by the wife “performing her duties well, by hospitality to his parents and hers, by fidelity, by watching over the goods he brings home, and by skill and industry in all that she does.”

A faithful Buddhist will practice virtue towards his friends and familiars as the northern quarter by generosity, courtesy and benevolence, by treating them as he treats himself and by being as good as his word. They reciprocate by protecting him when he is off guard and on such occasions guarding his property; they become a refuge for him in danger, do not forsake him in trouble and show consideration for his family.

With regard to servants and employees, the nadir of virtuous concern, they are to be “assigned work according to their strength, supplied with food and wages, tended in their sickness, receive a share in unusual delicacies, and occasionally given vacation.” The employees for their part are to love their master in five ways. “They rise before him, they lie down to rest after him, they are content with what is given to them, they do their work well, and they carry about his praise and good name.” Thus is the nadir protected and made safe for both sides.

Finally the layman fulfils his duty towards religious teachers and monks by “affection in act and speech and mind, by keeping open house to them, and by supplying their temporal needs.” In like manner the recluses, Brahmins and priests show their love for the layman if they “restrain him from evil, exhort him to good, love him with kindly thoughts, teach him what he has not heard, correct and purify what he has heard, and reveal to him the way to heaven.” [47]

These precepts have been implemented through centuries of private morality and under the impact of two world wars in a variety of social ventures that were formerly quite undeveloped in dominantly Hinayana (Therevada) Buddhist territories. Such welfare activities as education for children, provisions of facilities in temples or other buildings for orphans and the poor, the aged, and sometimes unfortunate animals, medical dispensaries and vocational training centers, supplies for leper and refugee settlements, moral guidance for delinquents and similar projects are now advocated by political authorities and religious leaders through an appeal to the ideals of “the Compassionate One.”

In contrast with the more conservative and exclusively monastic Hinayana, Northern or Mahayana Buddhism has always emphasized the role of the laity and developed a balance between them and the monks that goes back to the earliest period of Buddhist history. Especially among the Japanese, the example of prominent lay Buddhists inspired civil officials and rulers to take an active part in state affairs from religious motives. When this was combined with the strong Confucian emphasis on loyalty to one’s ancestors (whether in the family or society), the result was a powerful means of integrating religion with life in the world.

The name of Vimalakirti, a disciple of Buddha, is a household world in Buddhist circles as the ideal of a layman who achieved greater holiness than most persons attain by following the monastic discipline. A place was reserved on the court calendar in Japan for reading and expounding the text which tells the story of his virtues. “Praised by all the Buddhas, revered by all the disciples and all the gods,” his memory has been kept alive as the paragon of lay sanctity.

Though he is but a simple layman, yet observing the pure monastic discipline; though living at home, yet never desirous of anything; though possessing a wife and children, always exercising pure virtues; though surrounded by his family, holding aloof from worldly pleasures; though using the jeweled ornaments of the world, yet adorned with spiritual splendor; though eating and drinking, yet enjoying the flavor of the rapture of meditation; though frequently at the gambling house, yet leading the gamblers into the right path; though coming in contact with heresy, yet never letting his true faith be impaired; though having a profound knowledge of worldly learning, yet ever finding pleasure in things of the spirit as taught by Buddha. [48]

Mahayana can also be speculative, but its approach to the laity is normally through personalities rather than abstractions, and the fame of Vimalakirti is indicative of a tendency in this type of Buddhism that has the merit of ready appeal to men of the world but the disadvantage of being subject to their shims and secular tastes. It was this easy adaptability that has made Northern Buddhism more sectarian than its Southern counterpart and created divisions and subdivisions within the Buddhist ranks which are present but never so prevalent as in the North.

Japan is a good example of this sectarianism induced by centuries of laicization. Six sects were introduced from China between the years 625 and 754 A.D., and these have now grown into close to a hundred distinct bodies which are further divided into smaller units. The Nara sects arose through their patronage of the wealthy aristocratic classes; Tendai groups were the result of embracing the popular Shinto catered to the mystical and esoteric tastes of the people; Nicherenism offered the prospects of salvation with the minimal effort of reciting certain formulas, while Zen made certain demands in externals but allowed great liberty otherwise.

Nowhere else is the lay character of Buddhism better seen than in the Amida sect, named after Amitabha or Amitayus (Japanese, Amida), one of the transcendent Buddhas. It was founded by the priest Honen (1132-1212), who studied all the sects of his day and became discouraged over the difficulty of attaining true enlightenment. Then he came on a simple and effective way of universal salvation. A single passage in the sacred writings held the secret. “Whether walking or standing, sitting or lying down, only repeat the name of Amida with all your heart. Never cease the practice of it even for a moment. This is the very work which unfailingly issues in salvation, for it is in accordance with the original vow of that Buddha.” Honen started a movement on the basis of Amida’s vow, teaching that the mere recitation of the phrase, “adoration of the Lord of boundless light and infinite life” would give final assurance of rebirth in “the pure land” if it were accompanied by faith.

The rapid spread of Amidaism and its millions of present adherents testify to the genius of Buddhist ideology to reduce religious precepts to a minimum and yet evoke great dedication from the masses. Dubbed the “easy way” by its critics, Amidaism has the largest number of Buddhist followers in Japan and, in fact, is to be found all over the Far East even outside the ranks of Buddhism. Its doctrines could be understood by the common people, and its requirements were ultimately only an expression of confident faith in the Buddha Amida. In contrast to the intricate doctrine and practices of Tendai, Shingon, Zen and Nara, it asked little of its followers. Its teaching on “hell” and “paradise” became deeply rooted in the minds of devout people and favorite themes for children’s stories. For almost a thousand years it has affected the daily life of countless Orientals, and provided them with ideals that are absent or obscured in other Buddhistic forms. Pathos, pessimism, generosity, the suicide of young lovers for the sake of a happy married life in another world, the restraint on vice and motivation to virtue because of eternal rewards and sanctions---all these reflect the power of an ostensibly monastic religion to become laicized and flourish outside the cloister.

Worship and Ritual

Buddhist worship is extremely variegated, with the differences arising from opposing Hinayana and Mahayana traditions, from the incorporation of other religions into Buddhism, from varied national customs, and within a single country or even city, from the multiform sects that may have almost nothing in common except a vague devotion to the Buddha.

Concepts of Prayer and Sacrifice

As might be expected, there is no single, consistent notion of prayer or sacrifice in Buddhism. In strict fidelity to Gautama, the Buddhists should not pray to a deity or invoke the assistance of higher powers in the spiritual world. Many Buddhists, especially the Hinayana and the majority of intellectuals, firmly adhere to this principle in theory. They pray because of the good effects which the act of prayer produces in their own mind and character. A monk in Rangoon was quoted as saying that, “Prayer and offering are not received by the Buddha in the sense that they have any effect upon him, nor in the sense of being means of procuring anything from him. Their value is subjective purely. A prayer for peace or purity is likely to bring about its own fulfillment, especially if accompanied by the thought of the Buddha as our ideal. The Buddha, indeed, is for practical purposes quite dead, but he is the ideal of what humanity might be and of what each of us ought to be. Thus prayer for the enlightened Buddhist is not supplication but mental discipline.”

Parallel with this idea is a basic skepticism about the value of rites and ceremonies. Again from the vantage point of the “enlightened Buddhist,” he is early told in the monastery to free himself, first from the general delusion that correct outward action will ensure a man’s salvation, and then from the particular delusion that religious rites and ceremonies have intrinsic value to the attendant devotee. In a word, nothing will avail as substitute for self-liberation. Gautama was emphatic on this point. Buddhas only point out the way; “work out your salvation with diligence.” For the educated (and orthodox) Buddhist, his religion is above all others a philosophy of individual effort, wherein no one, man or God, should stand for good or evil between a cause and its effect, whether in the practice of virtue or the attainment of Nirvana.

Perhaps as a reaction to this practical atheism, a large segment of the ordinary Buddhist faithful has gone to the opposite extreme. Not only are petitions to the Buddhas and higher beings salutary, but their mechanical repetition or even written inscription carry an efficacy that is simply magical.

A crude practice is the use of the six syllable formula Om manipadme hum, which can be translated, “O Thou in whose lotus the jewel stands.” Popular in Tibet and elsewhere, and addressed to the god Avolakita, its esoteric meaning is obscene but its power almost incalculable. These six syllables can be seen everywhere, written on walls, painted on flags, which, when they flutter in the wind, spread the force of the words about. Noted down on strips of paper, they are placed in greater or smaller cylinders, and put in rotating movement by a turning of the hand or even of a waterfall.

In the same spirit on a still broader scale, everywhere at shrines and temples people write their prayers on little pieces of paper and offer them to a god. Men pledge themselves to abstain from wine and women for definite periods of time. Some promise to give up gambling and others who are diseased promise a thank offering if cured. Lovers pray that the object of their love may come to them or that estrangement may be healed. Women pray for many things. Some are asking for a happy delivery, others are sick or troubled and seek relief. Before Yakushi, the Buddha of healing, a woman troubled with warts on her face prays for their removal within two weeks; a weary mother asks that her peevish child may cease crying at night and that her own swollen limbs may recover.

Nature of the Divine

Beneath these contrary attitudes towards prayer lies an ambivalent notion of the divine, which perplexes the Western observer and has led more than one writer to dismiss all Buddhism as atheistic, or see in it an oriental counterpart of ritual (especially of Catholic) Christianity. It may be either, and the complexity of Buddhism lends plausibility to both concepts.

At one extreme is Zen (meditation) Buddhism, which has deeply influenced the religious of China and Japan. Historically Zen Buddhism was partially derived from Taoism as a naturalistic form of Confucianism, and currently is either pure subjectivism or pantheism, depending on the viewpoint. In Zen, there is no dualism of heaven and earth, natural and supernatural, man and God, matter and spirit, mortal and immortal, for ordinary men and Buddhas, present existence (Samsara) and future destiny (Nirvana), are all the same. “Buddhism,” the Zen monks declare, “places the center of the universe in the subjectivity of individual mind, whereas other religions put it in the objectivity outside the individual mind.” In reply to the question: What is the first cause of all things?, they say “Some religions answer God, Allah, Brahma, or something outside the individual. Buddhism sweeps aside your idle speculation and tells you to find the answer in your own realization.” [49]

Yet the same monks who sweep aside the idle fancies about God’s existence specialize in meditation beyond anything comparable in the Western world. A typical Zen monastery has a large meditation hall, whose chief adornment is a shrine or Buddha with perhaps a single spray of flowers before it. The hall itself is long and narrow, parallel on two sides with tinted paper screens, concealing entrances into the surrounding courtyards and cupboards where the monks keep their bedding. Along the walls are low platforms on which the monks sleep at night and practice their Za-zen, “to sit in meditation.”

When the gong sounds for meditation, they enter the hall in procession and take their seats on the platforms facing the center of the room. The superior goes forward and prostrates himself before the shrine, while outside another monk summons any members of the community who may be late. Rising from the floor, the superior then lights a stick of incense to mark time, and as soon as he returns to his seat the meditation begins.

Thereupon two other monks, after due reverences to the Buddha, take up a flat piece of wood and begin to walk up and down in front of two rows of meditating monks. Their duty is to keep a watchful eye on anyone who shows signs of drowsiness. If he starts dozing, one of the guards gives him a few sharp slaps across the shoulder to wake him up. When the incense stick burns out, the superior sounds a bell as a sign for relaxation. The shutters are opened, and the monks march around the hall, until another stick of incense is lighted and the next stage of meditations is made, as before. About three hours of Zen each morning, and a comparable period in the afternoon or evening are not uncommon in strict monasteries.

What is the object of their meditation? ---so to concentrate attention on right posture and breathing as to relax the body, banish wandering thoughts, and thus prepare for solving the problems of human existence, after the meditation is over.

With minor differences in procedure all Buddhist meditation follows the same external pattern. Whenever the person of Buddha is brought into the exercise as something approaching real prayer, the one meditating reflects on the identity of the Buddha, the maker of the prayer, and the object of it. Thus if he would pray for a friend in need, he reflects on their common identity with the Buddha. By destroying the illusion of suffering and pain, based on the false assumption that persons are distinct and their physical experiences real, he destroys the source of unreality and frees the person (or himself) from the unreal needs.

At the other extreme to worship without invoking a personal God, many monks in the Mahayana tradition and numerous Chinese and Japanese Buddhists address themselves to a deity whose compassion is so great that simply faith in Amitabha (Amida) may even dispense with the necessity of good works. So great is the power and mercy of this Buddha that no matter what crimes a man may have committed, if he utters at death the name “Buddha Amitayus,” he expiates at every utterance sins that would otherwise keep him in a cycle of births and rebirths for eighty million Kalpas (a period of cosmic time). While dying he will see a golden lotus flower appear like the sun and find himself born in the world of highest happiness.

Temples and Shrines

Buddhist temples differ greatly in architecture, but the most widely admired are those of Japan. They serve all sorts of functions. Children and sometimes adults find the temple court a kind of playground; monthly or otherwise periodic fairs are held in the temple, when the whole edifice may be luminous with colored lanterns and filled with gay streamers of paper or cloth; funeral and memorial services, feast-days and anniversaries are temple affairs.

In addition to temples, pagodas are a characteristic Buddhist edifice in China, India, Japan, and Vietnam. They are often massive structures rising to more than three hundred feet, built to house relics, sacred images or, frequently, as charms to ward off evil influence of wind and water.

Among the interesting private devotions of the people are strings of beads, distinctive of each sect. In most cases they are used to count the number of formal prayers. A common type has 108 beads because, says this group, there are 108 Buddhas. Another interpretation is that 108 is twice the number of steps the Buddha took in reaching Buddhahood. One mediates on these steps, twice over, and offers the first recitation for himself but the second for the community. The Shingon sect which invests the practice with deep symbolic meaning was founded in the ninth century by the famous Japanese monk Kobo Daishi, disciple of the Chinese Buddhist Hui Kuo who is known to have borrowed from the customs of Nestorian Christian missionaries. Shingon Buddhists also celebrate sacrificial rites for the welfare of the dead.

Towards the Future

In the past generations, Buddhism has been subject to more changes than any other major living faith, and there is evidence that still greater changes are due in the near future. Every aspect of Buddhism is being affected and every country in which the religion of Gautama has been established.

Where the Communists have taken over, as in China, Tibet and North Korea, monastery properties are expropriated and the monks subjected to such conditions that the heart of Buddhism---which is monastic---is being stifled out of existence. Oblivious of the leavening cultural effect of Buddhist religious, the new overlords treat the monks and nuns as social parasites and force them to engage in what is considered productive labor, on the farms and in factories. At the same time, the government is spending money to explore Buddhist sites of historic interest, and has taken steps to preserve buildings, books, and works of art that are national treasures. Its aim is to foster the impression that Communism is well disposed towards the ancient religion.

Japanese Buddhism received a new lease on life with the defeat of Japan in the Second World War and the disestablishment of shrine Shinto as the state religion. Now placed on a par with Shinto as a voluntary denomination, its special appeal is to the plain, simple folk. Centuries of pacifist tradition now make Buddhism particularly attractive to those who fear rearmament and the dangers of another war. Programs of religious education and forms of worship are being stimulated by competition with Christianity, whose missionary efforts in Japan are the most extensive in the nation’s history; and numerous adaptations are modeled on the ritual and customs of Christians, especially of the Protestant churches.

At the same time, grave inroads were made in the monastic solidarity of Nipponese Buddhism through the breaking up of large landed estates, and their redistribution among small peasant proprietors. The main effect was to cut off the main source of financial support, since the endowments of temples and monasteries were mostly lands.

Until recently, Westernization had little effect on the mainstream of Buddhist thought and practice. This is no longer the case. Wider familiarity with European and American literature, contact with Western peoples through the period of the war and its aftermath, and particularly the native tendency to inclusiveness, have brought into learned Buddhist circles a sympathy for Occidental ideas whose effects are bound to be far-reaching.

Two kinds of Western influence are operative: a naturalistic humanism that finds in Buddha a kindred spirit, and a valid Christianity that seeks to build on the disciplinary ideals of Gautama. Humanists in the English-speaking world have been especially partial to the Buddhist idea of religion without creeds and even without a clear notion of a personal God. This attitude has been reciprocated by those in the East who are led to believe that Western progress and civilization are the fruits of an ideology that differs only in accidentals from historic Buddhism. A new impulse is thus created to follow in the old path of the Dharma, and even to project it into the West on a scale previously unknown in countries like America and England. Some are seriously looking forward to a renascence of Buddhist evangelism comparable to the missionary expansion from India to the rest of Asia at the beginning of the Christian era.

On the other hand, Christianity is making a lasting impression quite apart from its own evangelization. The religions of the East, but especially Buddhism, are re-evaluating their position against the background of the Christian faith whose foundations in history and theological structure are a challenge to the inquiring mind.

Chapter 4 - Buddhism


[1] Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (Book of the Great Decease), II, 33.

[2] Ibid., VI, 10.

[3] Ibid., VI, 11.

[4] Chullavagga, IX, 1, 4.

[5] Dhammapada, XXII.

[6] Anguttara-Nikaya, III, 35.

[7] Sutta-Nipata, XXI, 3.

[8] Majjhima-Nikaya, 63.

[9] Mahavagga, I, 6, 38-46.

[10] Milindapanda, II, 1.

[11] Ibid., 13.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Samyutta-Nikaya, LVI.

[14] Majjhima-Nikaya, 9.

[15] Ibid., 117.

[16] Anguttara-Nikaya, X, 176.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., IV, 13-14.

[19] Majjhima-Nikaya, 20.

[20] Anguttara-Nikaya, IV, 13-14.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Digha-Nikaya, XXII.

[23] Majjhima-Nikaya, 119.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Lotus of the Good Law, XV.

[26] Mahayana-Sutra-Lamkara, XVI, 16.

[27] Bodhicaryavatra, VIII.

[28] Ibid., V.

[29] Ibid., VII.

[30] Santideva, Siksasamuccaya (C. Bendall edit.), p. 212.

[31] Bodhicaryavatra, VIII.

[32] Itivuttaka, 27.

[33] Lieou tou tsi King (translated in Cinq cents contes et apologetiques, I, 2-3.

[34] Milarepa, Spiritual Testament (J. Bacot transl.), Paris, p. 285.

[35] Mahayana-Sutra-Lamkara, XVI.

[36] A similar expedient is the practice of offering one’s corpse to be devoured by dogs after death.

[37] Mahaprajnaparamitasatra, I, 20.

[38] Bodhicaryavatra, V.

[39] Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita, XXVI.

[40] Bhikshu Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, Bangalore, 1959, p. 232.

[41] Ibid., p. 235.

[42] Nyogen Senzaki, Buddhism and Zen, New York, 1953, p. 10

[43] Sangharakshita, op. cit., pp. 238-239.

[44] Daisetz T. Suzuki, The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk, p. 17.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Digha-Nikaya, III, 3.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hokei Idumi, “Vimalakirti’s Discourse,” The Eastern Buddhist, III, 2, pp. 138-139.

[49] Senzaki, op. cit., p. 11.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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