A Bible of Buddhism, Science of the Soul

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 4, 2002 | Destinations: China / India

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Review of The Teachings of Buddha, compiled by Paul Carus [Rider, London, 1998]

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Buddhism is peculiar among world religions: it is not really a religion, and it has no holy book per se. Nevertheless, in the latter part of the 19th century, Dr. Paul Carus tried to create a compilation of selections from the Buddhist canon in order to provide the Western world with a kind of Buddhist New Testament. The result was The Gospel of Buddha, later published under the title The Teachings of Buddha. Like the New Testament, the work is a combination of the prophet's life story and his teachings. It also contains passages eerily prescient of its Christian counterpart. For example, Paul's famous paean to charity in I Corinthians 13 is an echo of the Buddha's "charity is rich in returns; charity is the greatest wealth." The compilation even features a prophecy of a Second Coming, of a Buddha to be known as Metteya (a.k.a. Maitreya.)

Like most prophets, the Buddha was a revolutionary of sorts, and held what were then unconventional views. He rejected the path of enlightenment through self-mortification, and was therefore accused of permissiveness. He was also accused of fomenting social discord. "Gotama Sakyamuni," grumbled the rabble, "induces fathers to leave their wives and causes families to become extinct." The rabble was partly right. One of the least admirable things the Buddha ever did was to name his son Rahula: "fetter." He also abandoned his wife and disappointed his father's wish that he become king. But he did not believe that family life was an insurmountable barrier to detachment: it only made detachment more difficult. "It is not life and wealth and power that enslave us, but the clinging to life and wealth and power." But the Buddha's most unpopular belief must surely have been the nonexistence of the self, the ego, the 'I'. Not only are you miserable and ignorant - you don't even exist! Not the best way to make friends, this. But then, telling the truth never is.

It has been argued that the apparent reality of the self is merely an accident of grammar. In Western languages, it is impossible (or at least unsophisticated) to express an action without an actor: every verb requires a subject, every sentence a "complete thought." But in Eastern languages, verbs can be used without subjects, and subjects and objects can be confused. In Thai, for example, you can carry on a conversation without once using a subject pronoun. "I am happy" becomes "Have happiness."

The Buddha explains the nature of the self by means of a paradox. Think of a flame, he says. At any given instant, the flame is different from what it was before. So there is no one immutable, integral flame. Yet at the same time we say that it is the same flame in order to distinguish it from its surroundings. Once again, the problem is linguistic: we simply lack the words to describe the world as it really is, so we partition it into neat little categories at the expense of a bafflingly complicated truth. The same goes for the self. We must admit that it is always changing, but for convenience's sake we speak of it as unchanging. We usually say, "I used to do X" rather than "My former self did X."

In one of the most famous Buddhist stories, the Buddha was asked about the nature of truth. In reply, he either held up a flower or a leaf, or picked up some leaves and let them fall. In either case, the point is clear.

Carus sagely begins his compilation with words at the very root of Buddhist thought and practice: "LOOK ABOUT AND CONTEMPLATE LIFE!" In doing so, you will rid yourself of ignorance, "remove ignorance and you will destroy the wrong desires that rise from ignorance," and so on until "you will escape all suffering." By ignorance, the Buddha of course does not mean ignorance of scripture, for "learning is a good thing; but it has no benefit. True wisdom can be acquired by practice only."

Herein lies another major difference between Buddhism and other faiths. The Buddha asks his disciples to worship neither God, nor Buddha, nor even his teachings. The noblest thing to do upon finishing and understanding The Teachings of the Buddha would be to throw the book away and start "contemplating life." As death draws near, the Buddha tells his disciple Ananda, "Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help."

Curiously, for all that is made of the humanity (not divinity) of the Buddha, and of the rationality of Buddhism, some of the stories in this collection have the Buddha performing miracles. He instantly cleans a river once muddy. Someone tries to kill him by dropping a giant rock on his head, but the rock splits apart before reaching him. A fire-breathing dragon tries to engulf him in flame, but the flames consume the dragon instead. "How wonderful, how marvelous is the great might and power of the Tathagata!" is the general reaction to these supernatural feats.

As the blurb-writers of the present volume rightly point out, Buddhism was the first international religion. It is not, however, the largest: Christianity and Islam each have far more adherents in conventional estimates. This is probably in part because a Buddhist zealot is an oxymoron, as is, in a sense, "Buddhism" itself. There was a doctrine; the Buddha taught it, and lived it; but it is no more his than relativity theory was Einstein's. Buddhism is a kind of empirical science of the soul, and anyone with the discipline can reap its benefits. It all starts with taking a look around.

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