Travel: Buddhism

Here we are to obtain our best view of Buddhism, for though this religion had its birth in India, it has been very nearly expelled from the land of its nativity, the vestiges of a few relics only remaining. But here in Ceylon it has obtained a firm footing. Of the population of the island more than one half are followers of Buddha. Half a million are Hindus, two hundred thousand are Mohammedans, and one hundred and fifty thousand profess to be Christians. The latter are mostly the result of the labors of the Roman Catholic missionaries, and it is perfectly safe to say that this class do nothing more than profess Christianity, and in many cases do even that very faintly. In making the transfer from Buddhism to the Catholic Church, the individual need not revolutionize his sentiments or practice to any perceptible extent. As the church gains influence, she is able to hold out inducements of a temporal nature, and this, to the poor wretches who struggle with hunger and destitution for the merest livelihood, is no small temptation. The scruples which they may have upon the point of abandoning the religion of their fathers are overcome by the thought that there is no practical difference between this and that required in their relations to Buddha. As this is our first, and will be our last, look at Buddhism, a brief sketch of the system may be in place here.

“Buddha” is an ascriptive title rather than a proper name. Its meaning is “the enlightened.” The religion known as Buddhism has existed for nearly twenty-five hundred years. Its founder was Gautama, a royal prince, whose home was in northern central India. After marrying happily, a son was born to him, and his home and prospects for the future contained everything which from a natural standpoint could make life desirable. But in the midst of these scenes upon which the heart naturally dwells with delight, even in contemplation, and which but few can ever realize, Gautama’s heart conceived an abhorrence for the vanities of life. He brooded over its uncertainties and the unavoidable dissolution which awaits all earthly things. His father sought to divert his mind from these melancholy reflections by surrounding him with all that wealth and honor could bestow, but it was to no purpose. He chose to leave all that heart could hold dear, to cut in sunder every tie that bound him to earth, and by a life of rigid asceticism and contemplation to discover, if possible, the secret of true happiness and peace.

Upon the night in which his first-born came into the world, he turned from his home, without a farewell word to his beautiful and affectionate wife, or one look at his newborn babe. Accompanied by his servant, he passed hastily into the wilderness, at the border of which he dismissed his servant and sent him back with the horse. Exchanging his robes for the rags of a mendicant, cutting off his long hair, the sign of his high rank and caste, he devoted himself for six years to rigorous meditation in which posture his images represent him, as seen in the illustration. At this time he was tempted to give up the struggle and return to a more congenial life, but his few followers deserting him, he once more resolved to continue his meditations. So he seated himself under a tree, where he remained for weary months, until, of a sudden, light broke in upon his soul, and he went forth to preach his new-found doctrine to others. The tree under which he had sat became to him and his followers the most sacred spot on earth, and was called Bohidruma (the tree of intelligence), whence we have the bo-tree, which is held in sacred veneration throughout India, the title being applied to the pippul-tree.

The principle of Gautama’s philosophy, briefly stated, seems to be that existence is an unmitigated evil, that the only way to escape its evils is to ignore its fact, and to live as nearly as possible as if there were no life. It is therefore necessary to labor to quench, snuff out, beat down, and exterminate every natural emotion, and become absorbed in the contemplation of the abstract. To him there was no God such as the heart naturally venerates, much less such a one as the Bible reveals. Gautama, being a Hindu, retained his idea of the transmigration of souls and the final extinction of individual existence by absorption into an indefinite “original” called “the Nirvana.” With the private life of Buddha no fault is found. His teachings embrace lofty sentiments of self-abnegation and moral ethics.

The following concise statement of Buddhism is from a good authority:

“The key of the whole scheme of Buddhist salvation lies in what Gautama called his Four Sublime Verities. The first asserts that pain exists, the second, that the cause of pain is desire or attachment — the meaning of which will appear farther on, and the fourth shows the way that leads to Nirvana. This way to Nirvana consists in eight things : right faith, right judgment, right language, right purpose, right practice, right obedience, right memory, and right meditation. In delivering his precepts, the Buddha considers men as divided into two classes,- those who have embraced the religions life (Sramanas), and those who continue in the world, or are laymen. These last are considered as too much attached to existence to feel any desire or have any hope of emancipation, at least at this stage. But there are certain precepts which it is necessary for all to obey, that they may not bring greater misery upon themselves in their next birth, and rivet the bonds of existence more indissolubly. There are ten moral precepts or `precepts of aversion. Five of these are of universal application, namely, not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, not to be drunken. Other five for those entering on the direct pursuit of Nirvana by embracing the religious life are : to abstain from food out of season – that is, after mid-day, to abstain from (lances, theatrical representations, songs and music, to abstain from personal ornaments and perfumes, to abstain from a lofty and luxurious couch, to abstain from taking gold and silver. For the regular ascetics or monks, there are a number of special observances of a very severe kind. They are to dress only in rags sewed together with their own hands, and to have a yellow cloak thrown over the rags. They are to eat only the simplest food, and to possess nothing except what they get by collecting alms from door to door in a wooden bowl. Only one meal is allowed them, and that must be eaten before midday. For a part of the year, they are to live in forests, with no other shelter except the shadow of a tree, and there they must sit on their carpet even during sleep, to lie down being forbidden. They are allowed to enter the nearest village to beg food, but they must return to their forests before night.

“Besides the absolutely necessary aversions and observances above mentioned, the transgression of which must lead to misery in the next existence, there are certain virtues or `perfections of a supererogatory story or transcendent kind, that tend directly to ` conduct to the other shore (Nirvana). The most essential of these are almsgiving or charity, purity, patience, courage, contemplation, and knowledge. Charity or benevolence may be said to be the characteristic virtue of Buddhism,- a charity boundless in its self-abnegation, and extending to every sentient being. The benevolent actions done by the Buddha himself, in the course of his many millions of migrations, were favorite themes with his followers. On one occasion, seeing a tigress starved, and unable to feed her cubs, he hesitated not to make his body an oblation to charity, and allowed them to devour him. Benevolence to animals, with that tendency to exaggerate a right principle so characteristic of the East, is carried among the Buddhist monks to the length of avoiding the destruction of fleas and the most noxious vermin, which they remove from their persons with all tenderness.”

Buddhism in its best phases, as taught by the philosopher himself, presents the spectacle of a soul struggling with the ills of sinful, mortal life, as they appear to the human under standing, without the help of divine grace or the enlightenment of the wisdom that comes from above. It is humanity profoundly impressed with an indistinct sense of its own needs, coping single-handed with the problem of its own salvation. The picture is dark both in foreground and in background. Its perspective is unrelieved by one single ray of hope beaming from the spiritual world. It comes to those who are sick with sin, and depicts their dreadful condition, prescribes ashes and gall for their sorrow, with the hope (?) of final extinction at last. Analogy and nature taught Gautama, to some extent, the character of sin, and observation showed him some of its common forms. But it was only a human conception of sin, and the remedy was but human. How has the grand scheme worked out in practical life?-Just as every earth-born scheme of human redemption from sin has terminated and ever will terminate – in utter failure. Gautama had not the remotest thought of posing as an object of worship, he endeavored to teach the contrary of earthly ambition. But his followers soon lost sight of even the main elements of the virtue which his system embraced. Buddha became a god to them, and his philosophy degenerated into the most senseless idolatry. There was in it no divine element. Separated from Jesus Christ, the world has not the slightest power to save itself nor even to check its downward career to everlasting ruin.

The visit to one of the temples was one of interest, and confirmed the conclusion reached in reference to the practical workings of the system. In front of the inclosure stand two or three towers of light frame-work, which were hung full of rags. These flapping in the wind repeat prayers in behalf of the individuals who have hung them there, so that a man may hang his bit of cloth upon the prayer-tower, and go about his business with the happy assurance that his prayers are going on continually. The same superstition is seen in Thibet in the mammoth prayer-wheels, in which are placed images of Buddha and prayers innumerable, the wheels being turned by horse-power, wind, or water-power. Each revolution is supposed to develop, in behalf of the one for whom it is turned, all the virtue there is in the entire outfit. This it probably does. Smaller wheels are very common. Some are carried in the hand or set up by the wayside, as I have often seen in the Himalaya Mountains. They turn nimbly on a spindle, and those simple souls suppose that in turning them they receive great merit. These foolish ideas have their counterpart too in Christian countries. They forcibly remind us of the very familiar story of the man who, to save time, had his evening prayer printed and pasted to his bedpost, and would point to that as his sentiments before jumping into bed. Although this is an exaggeration of the facts, it doubtless represents quite correctly what, in the minds of many worldly-minded professors, passes for devotion.

Buddhism has extended over a great portion of Southern Asia, and holds under its shadow five hundred million people, or one third of the inhabitants of the earth. But its popu larity is no criterion of its success. The question by which it should be tried is, Does it save men and women from sin and its consequences ? Does it elevate its devotees in intelligence and morality, and bring to them knowledge and happiness ? It is of the earth, earthy. Beneath the weight of human degradation and its own inherent weakness, it quickly sunk to its own level of heathen superstition, and became entirely impotent for any good in the dire necessities of the race.