The Rebel Saint (Buddhism)

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

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

“Therefore, O Ananda, be lamps unto yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Work out your own salvation with diligence.

In moving from Buddha the man to Buddhism the religion, it is imperative that the latter be seen against the background of the Hinduism out of which it grew. Unlike Hinduism, which emerged by slow, largely imperceptible spiritual accretion, the religion of the Buddha appeared overnight, fully formed. In large measure it was a religion of reaction against Hindu perversions—an Indian protestantism not only in the original meaning of that word, which emphasized witnessing for (testis pro) something, but equally in its latter-day connotations, which emphasize protesting against something. Buddhism drew its lifeblood from Hinduism, but against its prevailing corruptions Buddhism recoiled like a whiplash and hit back—hard. 

Buddhism drew its lifeblood from Hinduism, but against Hinduism’s prevailing corruptions Buddhism recoiled like a whiplash and hit back—hard. 

To understand the teachings of the Buddha, then, we shall need a minimal picture of the existing Hinduism that partly provoked it. And to lead into this, several observations about religion are in order. 

Six aspects of religion surface so regularly as to suggest that their seeds are in the human makeup. One of these is authority. Leaving divine authority aside and approaching the matter in human terms only, the point begins with specialization. Religion is not less complicated than government or medicine. It stands to reason, therefore, that talent and sustained attention will lift some people above the average in matters of spirit; their advice will be sought and their counsels generally followed. In addition, religion’s institutional, organized side calls for administrative bodies and individuals who occupy positions of authority, whose decisions carry weight. 

In religion, talent and sustained attention will lift some people above the average in matters of spirit. There will also be administrative bodies and individuals who occupy positions of authority, whose decisions carry weight. 

A second normal feature of religion is ritual, which was actually religion’s cradle, for anthropologists tell us that people danced out their religion before they thought it out. Religion arose out of celebration and its opposite, bereavement, both of which cry out for collective expression. When we are crushed by loss or when we are exuberant, we want not only to be with people; we want to interact with them in ways that make the interactions more than the sum of their parts—this relieves our isolation. The move is not limited to the human species. In northern Thailand, as the rising sun first touches the treetops, families of gibbons sing half-tone descending scales in unison as, hand over hand, they swoop across the topmost branches. 

Religion arose out of celebration and its opposite, bereavement, both of which cry out for collective expression.

Religion may begin in ritual, but explanations are soon called for, so speculation enters as a third religious feature. Whence do we come, whither do we go, why are we here?—people want answers to these questions. 

Religion may begin in ritual, but explanations are soon called for, so speculation enters as a third religious feature. 

A fourth constant in religion is tradition. In human beings it is tradition rather than instinct that conserves what past generations have learned and bequeath to the present as templates for action. A fifth typical feature of religion is grace, the belief—often difficult to sustain in the face of facts—that Reality is ultimately on our side. In last resort the universe is friendly; we can feel at home in it. “Religion says that the best things are the more eternal things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word.”

A fourth constant in religion is tradition. A fifth typical feature of religion is grace. In last resort the universe is friendly.

Finally, religion traffics in mystery. Being finite, the human mind cannot begin to fathom the Infinite it is drawn to. 

Finally, religion traffics in mystery. 

Each of these six things—authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, grace, and mystery—contributes importantly to religion, but equally each can clog its works. In the Hinduism of the Buddha’s day they had done so, all six of them. Authority, warranted at the start, had become hereditary and exploitative as brahmins took to hoarding their religious secrets and charging exorbitantly for ministrations. Rituals became mechanical means for obtaining miraculous results. Speculation had lost its experiential base and devolved into meaningless hair-splitting. Tradition had turned into a dead weight, in one specific by insisting that Sanskrit—no longer understood by the masses—remain the language of religious discourse. God’s grace was being misread in ways that undercut human responsibility, if indeed responsibility any longer had meaning where karma, likewise misread, was confused with fatalism. Finally, mystery was confused with mystery-mongering and mystification—perverse obsession with miracles, the occult, and the fantastic.

Each of these six things—authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, grace, and mystery—contributes importantly to religion, but equally each can clog its works. In the Hinduism of the Buddha’s day they had done so, all six of them. 

Onto this religious scene—corrupt, degenerate, and irrelevant, matted with superstition and burdened with worn-out rituals—came the Buddha, determined to clear the ground that truth might find new life. The consequence was surprising. For what emerged was (at the start) a religion almost entirely devoid of each of the above-mentioned ingredients without which we would suppose that religion could not take root. This fact is so striking that it warrants being documented. 

The Buddha came determined to clear the ground that truth might find new life. 

1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority. His attack on authority had two prongs. On the one hand he wanted to break the monopolistic grip of the brahmins on religious teachings, and a good part of his reform consisted of no more than making generally accessible what had hitherto been the possession of a few. Contrasting his own openness with the guild secrecy of the brahmins, he pointed out that “there is no such thing as closed-fisted-ness in the Buddha.” So important did he regard this difference that he returned to it on his deathbed to assure those about him: “I have not kept anything back.” But if his first attack on authority was aimed at an institution—the brahmin caste—his second was directed toward individuals. In a time when the multitudes were passively relying on brahmins to tell them what to do, Buddha challenged each individual to do his own religious seeking. “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.”

Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority. There is no closed-fisted-ness in the Buddha. Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who shall rely upon themselves only shall reach the topmost height.

2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual. Repeatedly, he ridiculed the rigmarole of Brahmanic rites as superstitious petitions to ineffectual gods. They were trappings—irrelevant to the hard, demanding job of ego-reduction. Indeed, they were worse than irrelevant; he argued that “belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies” is one of the Ten Fetters that bind the human spirit. Here, as apparently everywhere, the Buddha was consistent. Discounting Hinduism’s forms, he resisted every temptation to institute new ones of his own, a fact that has led some writers to characterize his teachings (unfairly) as a rational moralism rather than a religion. 

Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual. They were trappings—irrelevant to the hard, demanding job of ego-reduction.

3. Buddha preached a religion that skirted speculation. There is ample evidence that he could have been one of the world’s great metaphysicians if he had put his mind to the task. Instead, he skirted “the thicket of theorizing.” His silence on that front did not pass unnoticed. “Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death—these things,” one of his disciples observed, “the Lord does not explain to me. And that he does not explain them to me does not please me, it does not suit me.” There were many it did not suit. Yet despite incessant needling, he maintained his “noble silence.” His reason was simple. On questions of this sort, “greed for views…tends not to edification.” His practical program was exacting, and he was not going to let his disciples be diverted from the hard road of practice into fields of fruitless speculation. 

His famous parable of the arrow smeared thickly with poison puts the point with precision.

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 kodanda, or until I know whether the bow-string was of swallow-wort, or bamboo fiber, or sinew, or hemp, or of milk-sap tree, or until I know whether the shaft was from a wild or cultivated plant; or whether it was feathered from a vulture’s wing or a heron’s or a hawk’s, or a peacock’s; or whether it was wrapped round with the sinew of an ox, or of a buffalo, or of a ruru-deer, or of a monkey; or until I know whether it was an ordinary arrow, or a razor-arrow, or an iron arrow, or of a calf-tooth arrow. Before knowing all this, that man would die.

Similarly, it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their 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 to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, or to tranquillity and Nirvana. 

And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful. 

Buddha preached a religion that skirted speculation. His practical program was exacting, and he was not going to let his disciples be diverted from the hard road of practice into fields of fruitless speculation.  

4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition. He stood on top of the past and its peaks extended his vision enormously, but he saw his contemporaries as largely buried beneath those peaks. He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden. “Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.” His most important personal break with archaism lay in his decision—comparable to Martin Luther’s decision to translate the Bible from Latin into German—to quit Sanskrit and teach in the vernacular of the people. 

Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition. His most important personal break with archaism lay in his decision to quit Sanskrit and teach in the vernacular of the people.

5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort. We have noted the discouragement and defeat that had settled over the India of Buddha’s day. Many had come to accept the round of birth and rebirth as unending, which was like resigning oneself to a nightmarish sentence to hard labor for eternity. Those who still clung to the hope of eventual release had resigned themselves to the brahmin-sponsored notion that the process would take thousands of lifetimes, during which they would gradually work their way into the brahmin caste as the only one from which release was possible.

Nothing struck the Buddha as more pernicious than this prevailing fatalism. He denies only one assertion, that of the “fools” who say there is no action, no deed, no power. “Here is a path to the end of suffering. Tread it!” Moreover, every individual must tread this path himself or herself, through self-arousal and initiative. “Those who, relying upon themselves only, shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves, it is they who, shall reach the topmost height.” No god or gods could be counted on, not even the Buddha himself. When I am gone, he told his followers in effect, do not bother to pray to me; for when I am gone I will be really gone. “Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.” The notion that only brahmins could attain enlightenment the Buddha considered ridiculous. Whatever your caste, he told his followers, you can make it in this very lifetime. “Let persons of intelligence come to me, honest, candid, straightforward; I will instruct them, and if they practice as they are taught, they will come to know for themselves and to realize that supreme religion and goal.”

Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort. The notion that only brahmins could attain enlightenment the Buddha considered ridiculous. Whatever your caste you can make it in this very lifetime. 

6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural. He condemned all forms of divination, soothsaying, and forecasting as low arts, and, though he concluded from his own experience that the human mind was capable of powers now referred to as paranormal, he refused to allow his monks to play around with those powers. “By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple—that he tries to work a miracle.” For all appeal to the supernatural and reliance on it amounted, he felt, to looking for shortcuts, easy answers, and simple solutions that could only divert attention from the hard, practical task of self-advance. “It is because I perceive danger in the practice of mystic wonders that I strongly discourage it.” 

Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural. Looking for shortcuts, easy answers, and simple solutions could only divert attention from the hard, practical task of self-advance.

Whether the Buddha’s religion—without authority, ritual, theology, tradition, grace, and the supernatural—was also a religion without God will be reserved for later consideration. After his death all the accoutrements that the Buddha labored to protect his religion from came tumbling into it, but as long as he lived he kept them at bay. As a consequence original Buddhism presents us with a version of religion that is unique and therefore historically invaluable, for every insight into the forms that religion can take increases our understanding of what in essence religion really is. Original Buddhism can be characterized in the following terms:

1. It was empirical. Never has a religion presented its case with such unequivocal appeal to direct validation. On every question personal experience was the final test of truth. “Do not go by reasoning, nor by inferring, nor by argument.” A true disciple must “know for himself.” 

Original Buddhism was empirical. On every question personal experience was the final test of truth.

2. It was scientific. It made the quality of lived experience its final test, and directed its attention to discovering cause-and-effect relationships that affected that experience. “That being present, this becomes; that not being present, this does not become.” There is no effect without its cause. 

Original Buddhism was scientific. There is no effect without its cause. 

3. It was pragmatic—a transcendental pragmatism if one wishes, to distinguish it from the kind that focuses on practical problems in everyday life, but pragmatic all the same in being concerned with problem solving. Refusing to be sidetracked by speculative questions, Buddha kept his attention riveted on predicaments that demanded solution. Unless his teachings were useful tools, they had no value whatsoever. He likened them to rafts; they help people cross streams, but are of no further value once the further shore is reached. 

Original Buddhism was pragmatic in being concerned with problem solving. . There is no effect without its cause. Unless his teachings were useful tools, they had no value whatsoever. 

4. It was therapeutic. Pasteur’s words, “I do not ask you either your opinions or your religion; but what is your suffering?” could equally have been his. “One thing I teach,” said the Buddha: “suffering and the end of suffering. It is just Ill and the ceasing of Ill that I proclaim.”

Original Buddhism was therapeutic. “One thing I teach,” said the Buddha: “suffering and the end of suffering.”

5. It was psychological. The word is used here in contrast to metaphysical. Instead of beginning with the universe and moving to the place of human beings within it, the Buddha invariably began with the human lot, its problems, and the dynamics of coping with them. 

Original Buddhism was psychological. Buddha invariably began with the human lot, its problems, and the dynamics of coping with them. 

6. It was egalitarian. With a breadth of view unparalleled in his age and infrequent in any, he insisted that women were as capable of enlightenment as men. And he rejected the caste system’s assumption that aptitudes were hereditary. Born a kshatriya (warrior, ruler) yet finding himself temperamentally a brahmin, he broke caste, opening his order to all regardless of social status. 

Original Buddhism was egalitarian. He insisted that women were as capable of enlightenment as men. He opened his order to all regardless of social status. 

7. It was directed to individuals. Buddha was not blind to the social side of human nature; he not only founded a religious order (sangha)—he insisted on its importance in reinforcing individual resolves. Yet in the end his appeal was to the individual, that each should proceed toward enlightenment through confronting his or her individual situation and predicaments.

Original Buddhism was directed to individuals. He taught that each should proceed toward enlightenment through confronting his or her individual situation and predicaments.

Therefore, O Ananda, be lamps unto yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Work out your own salvation with diligence. 

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