The Silent Sage (Buddhism)

Reference: Buddhism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Buddha insisted that he was human in every respect. He made no attempt to conceal his temptations and weaknesses. He admitted that the months when he was first alone in the forest had brought him to the brink of mortal terror.

To understand Buddhism it is of utmost importance to gain some sense of the impact of Buddha’s life on those who came within its orbit. 

It is impossible to read the accounts of that life without emerging with the impression that one has been in touch with one of the greatest personalities of all time. The obvious veneration felt by almost all who knew him is contagious, and the reader is soon caught up with his disciples in the sense of being in the presence of something close to wisdom incarnate. 

Buddha is akin to wisdom incarnate.

Perhaps the most striking thing about him was his combination of a cool head and a warm heart, a blend that shielded him from sentimentality on the one hand and indifference on the other. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest rationalists of all times, resembling in this respect no one as much as Socrates. Every problem that came his way was automatically subjected to cool, dispassionate analysis. First, it would be dissected into its component parts, after which these would be reassembled in logical, architectonic order with their meaning and import laid bare. He was a master of dialogue and dialectic, and calmly confident. “That in disputation with anyone whomsoever I could be thrown into confusion or embarrassment—there is no possibility of such a thing.” 

Buddha had a cool head but a warm heart. He was a master of dialogue and dialectic, and calmly confident.

The remarkable fact, however, was the way this objective, critical component of his character was balanced by a Franciscan tenderness so strong as to have caused his message to be subtitled “a religion of infinite compassion.” Whether he actually risked his life to free a goat that was snagged on a precipitous mountainside may be historically uncertain, but the act would certainly have been in character, for his life was one continuous gift to the famished crowds. Indeed, his self-giving so impressed his biographers that they could explain it only in terms of a momentum that had acquired its trajectory in the animal stages of his incarnations. The Jataka Tales have him sacrificing himself for his herd when he was a stag, and hurling himself as a hare into a fire to feed a starving brahmin. Dismiss these post facto accounts as legends if we must; there is no question but that in his life as the Buddha the springs of tenderness gushed abundant. Wanting to draw the arrows of sorrow from everyone he met, he gave to each his sympathy, his enlightenment, and the strange power of soul, which, even when he did not speak a word, gripped the hearts of his visitors and left them transformed.

The objective, critical component of Buddha’s character was balanced by a strong Franciscan tenderness. He gave his sympathy, his enlightenment, and the strange power of soul to everyone he met.

Socially, the Buddha’s royal lineage and upbringing were of great advantage. “Fine in presence,” he moved among kings and potentates with ease, for he had been one of them. Yet his poise and sophistication seem not to have distanced him from simple villagers. Surface distinctions of class and caste meant so little to him that he often appears not even to have noticed them. Regardless of how far individuals had fallen or been rejected by society, they received from the Buddha a respect that stemmed from the simple fact that they were fellow human beings. Thus many an outcaste and derelict, encountering for the first time the experience of being understood and accepted, found self-respect emerging and gained status in the community. “The venerable Gautama bids everyone welcome, is congenial, conciliatory, not supercilious, accessible to all.”

Buddha moved among kings and potentates with ease, for he had been one of them. Yet his poise and sophistication seem not to have distanced him from simple villagers.

There was indeed an amazing simplicity about this man before whom kings bowed. Even when his reputation was at its highest he would be seen, begging-bowl in hand, walking through streets and alleys with the patience of one who knows the illusion of time. Like vine and olive, two of the most symbolic plants that grow from the meagerest of soils, his physical needs were minimal. Once at Alavi during the frosts of winter he was found resting in meditation on a few leaves gathered on a cattle path. “Rough is the ground trodden by the hoofs of cattle; thin is the couch; light the monk’s yellow robe; sharp the cutting wind of winter,” he admitted. “Yet I live happily with sublime uniformity.” 

There was indeed an amazing simplicity about this man before whom kings bowed. His physical needs were minimal.

It is perhaps inaccurate to speak of Buddha as a modest man. John Hay, who was President Lincoln’s secretary, said it was absurd to call Lincoln modest, adding that “no great human being is modest.” Certainly, the Buddha felt that he had risen to a plane of understanding that was far above that of anyone else in his time. In this respect he simply accepted his superiority and lived in the self-confidence this acceptance bequeathed. But this is different from vanity or humorless conceit. At the final assembly of one of his sangha’s (order’s) annual retreats, the Exalted One looked round over the silent company and said, “Well, ye disciples, I summon you to say whether you have any fault to find with me, whether in word or in deed.” And when a favorite pupil exclaimed, “Such faith have I, Lord, that methinks there never was nor will be nor is now any other greater or wiser than the Blessed One,” the Buddha admonished:

“Of course, Sariputta, you have known all the Buddhas of the past.”
“No, Lord.”
“Well then, you know those of the future?”
“No, Lord.”
“Then at least you know me and have penetrated my mind thoroughly?”
“Not even that, Lord.”
“Then why, Sariputta, are your words so grand and bold?”

Buddha simply accepted his superiority and lived in the self-confidence this acceptance bequeathed. But this is different from vanity or humorless conceit.

Notwithstanding his own objectivity toward himself, there was constant pressure during his lifetime to turn him into a god. He rebuffed all these categorically, insisting that he was human in every respect. He made no attempt to conceal his temptations and weaknesses—how difficult it had been to attain enlightenment, how narrow the margin by which he had won through, how fallible he still remained. He confessed that if there had been another drive as powerful as sex he would never have made the grade. He admitted that the months when he was first alone in the forest had brought him to the brink of mortal terror. “As I tarried there, a deer came by, a bird caused a twig to fall, and the wind set all the leaves whispering; and I thought: ‘Now it is coming—that fear and terror.’” As Paul Dahlke remarks in his Buddhist Essays, “One who thus speaks need not allure with hopes of heavenly joy. One who speaks like this of himself attracts by that power with which the Truth attracts all who enter her domain.” 

Buddha insisted that he was human in every respect. He made no attempt to conceal his temptations and weaknesses. He admitted that the months when he was first alone in the forest had brought him to the brink of mortal terror.

Buddha’s leadership was evidenced not only by the size to which his order grew, but equally by the perfection of its discipline. A king visiting one of their assemblies, which was prolonged into a full-moon night, burst out at last, “You are playing me no tricks? How can it be that there should be no sound at all, not a sneeze, nor a cough, in so large an Assembly, among 1,250 of the Brethren?” Watching the Assembly, seated as silent as a clear lake, he added, “Would that my son might have such calm.”

Buddha’s leadership was evidenced not only by the size to which his order grew, but equally by the perfection of its discipline. 

Like other spiritual geniuses—one thinks of Jesus spotting Zacchaeus in a tree—the Buddha was gifted with preternatural insight into character. Able to size up, almost at sight, the people who approached him, he seemed never to be taken in by fraud and front but would move at once to what was authentic and genuine. One of the most beautiful instances of this was his encounter with Sunita the flower-scavenger, a man so low in the social scale that the only employment he could find was picking over discarded bouquets to find an occasional blossom that might be bartered to still his hunger. When the Buddha arrived one day at the place where he was sorting through refuse, Sunita’s heart was filled with awe and joy. Finding no place to hide—for he was an outcaste—he stood as if stuck to the wall, saluting with clasped hands. The Buddha “marked the conditions of Arahatship [sainthood] in the heart of Sunita, shining like a lamp within a jar,” and drew near, saying, “Sunita, what to you is this wretched mode of living? Can you endure to leave the world?” Sunita, “experiencing the rapture of one who has been sprinkled with ambrosia, said, ‘If such as I may become a monk of yours, may the Exalted One suffer me to come forth!’” He became a renowned member of the order.

The Buddha was able to size up, almost at sight, the people who approached him. He seemed never to be taken in by fraud and front but would move at once to what was authentic and genuine. 

The Buddha’s entire life was saturated with the conviction that he had a cosmic mission to perform. Immediately after his enlightenment he saw in his mind’s eye “souls whose eyes were scarcely dimmed by dust and souls whose eyes were sorely dimmed by dust”—the whole world of humanity, milling, lost, desperately in need of help and guidance. He had no alternative but to agree with his followers that he had been “born into the world for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, for the advantage, the good, the happiness of gods and men, out of compassion for the world.” His acceptance of this mission without regard for personal cost won India’s heart as well as her mind. “The monk Gautama has gone forth into the religious life, giving up the great clan of his relatives, giving up much money and gold, treasure both buried and above ground. Truly while he was still a young man without gray hair on his head, in the beauty of his early manhood he went forth from the household life into the homeless state.”

The Buddha’s entire life was saturated with the conviction that he had a cosmic mission to perform. Immediately after his enlightenment he saw in his mind’s eye the whole world of humanity, milling, lost, desperately in need of help and guidance. 

Encomiums to the Buddha crowd the texts, one reason undoubtedly being that no description ever satisfied his disciples completely. After words had done their best, there remained in their master the essence of mystery—unplumbed depths their language could not express because thought could not fathom them. What they could understand they revered and loved, but there was more than they could hope to exhaust. To the end he remained half light, half shadow, defying complete intelligibility. So they called him Sakyamuni, “silent sage (muni) of the Sakya clan,” symbol of something beyond what could be said and thought. And they called him Tathagata, the “Thus-come,” the “Truth-winner,” the “Perfectly Enlightened One,” for “he alone thoroughly knows and sees, face to face, this universe.” “Deep is the Tathagata, unmeasurable, difficult to understand, even like the ocean.”

No description of Buddha ever satisfied his disciples completely. What they could understand they revered and loved, but there was more than they could hope to exhaust. To the end he remained half light, half shadow, defying complete intelligibility.

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