Category Archives: Religion

The End and the Beginning (Christianity)

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

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

The resurrection reversed the cosmic position in which the cross had placed Jesus’ goodness. Instead of being fragile, the compassion the disciples had encountered in him was victorious over even death itself.

The way that Jesus’ earthly ministry ended is known to everyone. After mingling with his people and teaching them for a number of months, he was crucified. 

Jesus was crucified very soon after mingling with his people and teaching them.

That might well have been the end of the story. History abounds with visionaries who proposed schemes, died, and that is the last that is heard of them. In this case, however, it was just the beginning. Within a short time his followers were preaching the gospel of their Risen Lord. 

But Jesus was resurrected. Within a short time his followers were preaching the gospel of their Risen Lord. 

We are given too few details to know exactly what happened after the crucifixion; virtually all that is certain is that his followers were convinced that death had not held him. They reported that beginning on Easter Sunday he “appeared to them” as the same person they had known during his ministry but in a new way. It is not possible to determine exactly what that new way was; certain accounts suggest corporeality—eating, and Thomas’s touching the wound in his side—while others are more visionary, reporting him as passing through closed doors. Fidelity to the reports, all of which were entered by disciples who were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, make clear that he did not simply resume his former physical body; resurrection was not resuscitation. Instead, it was entry into another mode of being, a mode that was sometimes visible but usually was not. What is clear is that Jesus’ followers began to experience him in a new way, namely as having the qualities of God. He could now be known anywhere, not just in physical proximity.

The disciples were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection. For them, it was entry into another mode of being, a mode that was sometimes visible but usually was not. Jesus’ followers began to experience him as having the qualities of God.

Faith in Jesus’ resurrection produced the Church and its Christology. To grasp the power of the belief, we must see that it did not merely concern the fate of a worthy man. Its claim extended ultimately to the status of goodness in the universe, contending that it was all-powerful. If Golgotha’s cross had been the end, the goodness Jesus embodied would have been beautiful, but how significant? A fragile blossom afloat on a torrential stream, soon to be dashed—how relevant is goodness if it has no purchase on reality, no power at its disposal? The resurrection reversed the cosmic position in which the cross had placed Jesus’ goodness. Instead of being fragile, the compassion the disciples had encountered in him was powerful; victorious over everything, even the seeming end of everything, death itself. “Grave, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” 

The resurrection reversed the cosmic position in which the cross had placed Jesus’ goodness. Instead of being fragile, the compassion the disciples had encountered in him was victorious over even death itself.

The way this message moved into, and eventually took over, the Mediterranean world is our next concern.

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The Christ of Faith (Christianity)

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

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

In the end it seemed to those who knew him best that here was a man in whom the human ego had disappeared, leaving his life so completely under the will of God that it was transparent to that will. 

How does one move from the Jesus of history, whose life and work have thus far occupied us, to the Christ whom his followers came to believe had been God in human form? His disciples did not reach that conclusion before Jesus’ death, but even in his lifetime we can witness momentum building in its direction. Having tried in the preceding section to describe the facts of Jesus’ life, we turn now to the way he appeared to his disciples. Here we are on firmer ground, for if the Gospels disclose little in the way of historical facts, they are transparent as to his impact on his associates. Our presentation will fall into three parts: what they saw Jesus do, what they heard him say, and what they sensed him to be. 

How did the followers of Jesus came to believe that he had been God in human form? What was the impact of Jesus on his associates?

“He Went About Doing Good.” We begin with what Jesus did. The Gospel accounts, written by members of the early Church, vibrate with wonder at his performances. Their pages, especially those of Mark, teem with miracles. We have seen that these impressed multitudes, but it would be a mistake to place our emphasis there. For one thing, Jesus did not emphasize his miracles. He never used them as devices to strong-arm people into believing in him. He was tempted to do so, but in the wilderness soul-searchings that prefaced his ministry he rejected this temptation. Almost all of his extraordinary deeds were performed quietly, apart from the crowds, and as a demonstration of the power of faith. Moreover, other writings of the times abound in miracles, but this didn’t lead witnesses to deify their agents. They merely credited the miracle-workers with unusual powers. 

Jesus was a miracle worker but there were others too. But Jesus was different in that he did not emphasize his miracles. Almost all of his extraordinary deeds were performed quietly, apart from the crowds, and as a demonstration of the power of faith. 

We get a better perspective on Jesus’ actions if we place the emphasis where one of his disciples did. Once, in addressing a group, Peter found it necessary to compress into short compass what Jesus did during his lifetime. His summary? “He went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). A simple epitaph, but a moving one. Circulating easily and without affectation among ordinary people and social misfits, healing them, counseling them, helping them out of chasms of despair, Jesus went about doing good. He did so with such single-mindedness and effectiveness that those who were with him constantly found their estimate of him modulating to a new key. They found themselves thinking that if divine goodness were to manifest itself in human form, this is how it would behave. 

Jesus went about doing good, circulating easily and without affectation among ordinary people and social misfits, healing them, counseling them, helping them out of chasms of despair. He did so with such single-mindedness and effectiveness.

“Never Spoke Man Thus.” It was not only what Jesus did, however, that made his contemporaries think of him in new dimensions. It was also what he said. There has been a great deal of controversy over the originality of Jesus’ teachings. Possibly the most balanced view is that of the great Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner. If you take the teachings of Jesus separately, he wrote, you can find every one of them paralleled in either the Old Testament or its commentary, the Talmud. But if you take them as a whole, they have an urgency, an ardent, vivid quality, an abandon, and above all a complete absence of second-rate material that makes them refreshingly new. 

What Jesus said can be found in earlier writings in form or other. But if you take them as a whole, they have an urgency, an ardent, vivid quality, an abandon, and above all a complete absence of second-rate material that makes them refreshingly new. 

The language of Jesus has proved to be a fascinating study in itself, quite apart from its content. If simplicity, concentration, and the sense of what is vital are marks of great religious literature, these qualities alone would make Jesus’ words immortal. But this is just the beginning. They carry an extravagance of which wise men, tuned to the importance of balanced judgment, are incapable. Their passionate quality has led one poet to coin a special word for Jesus’ language, calling it “gigantesque.” If your hand offends you, cut if off. If your eye stands between you and the best, gouge it out. Jesus talks of camels that hump through needles’ eyes, of people who fastidiously strain gnats from their drinks while oblivious of the camels that caravan down their gullets. His characters go around with timbers protruding from their eyes, looking for tiny specks in the eyes of others. He talks of people whose outer lives are stately mausoleums while their inner lives stink of decaying corpses. This is not language tooled for rhetorical effect. The language is part of the message itself, prompted by its driving urgency. 

The language of Jesus has a passionate quality which is extraordinary in its driving urgency.

A second arresting feature of Jesus’ language was its invitational style. Instead of telling people what to do or what to believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so their behavior would change accordingly. This called for working with peoples’ imaginations more than with their reason or their will. If listeners were to accept his invitation, the place to which they were being invited would have to seem real to them. So, because the reality his hearers were most familiar with consisted of concrete particulars, Jesus began with those particulars. He spoke of mustard seeds and rocky soil, of servants and masters, of weddings and of wine. These specifics gave his teachings an opening ring of reality; he was speaking of things that were very much a part of his hearers’ worlds. But having gotten them that far, having roused in them a momentum of assent, Jesus would then ride that momentum while giving its trajectory a startling, subversive twist. That phrase, “momentum of assent,” is important, for its deepest meaning is that Jesus located the authority for his teachings not in himself or in God-as-removed but in his hearers’ hearts. My teachings are true, he said in effect, not because they come from me, or even from God through me, but because (against all conventionality) your own hearts attest to their truth. 

Instead of telling people what to do or what to believe, Jesus invited them to see things differently. He worked with peoples’ imaginations more than with their reason or their will. He spoke of things that were very much a part of his hearers’ worlds and their own truth.

So what did Jesus use his invitational, gigantesque language to say? Quantitatively, not a great deal, as far as the records report; everything that the New Testament records can be spoken in two hours. Yet his teachings may be the most repeated in history. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do you also unto them.” “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Most of the time, however, he told stories that we call parables: of buried treasure, of sowers who went out to sow, of pearl merchants, of a good Samaritan, of a young man who blew his inheritance on a binge and found himself cadging scraps from the pigs, of a man who had two sons. The world knows them well. People who heard these stories were moved to exclaim, “This man speaks with authority…. Never spoke man thus!” 

Jesus didn’t say much, yet his teachings may be the most repeated in history. Most of the time he told stories that we call parables. People who heard these stories were moved at their authenticity.

They were astonished, and with reason. If we are not it is because we have heard Jesus’ teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their subversiveness. If we could recover their original impact, we too would be startled. Their beauty would not cover the fact that they are “hard sayings” for presenting a scheme of values so counter to the usual as to rock us like an earthquake. 

His sayings had an edge of subversiveness. They presented a scheme of values so counter to the usual as to rock the hearers like an earthquake. 

We are told that we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek. The world assumes that evil must be resisted by every means available. We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. The world assumes that friends are to be loved and enemies hated. We are told that the sun rises on the just and the unjust alike. The world considers this undiscriminating; it would like to see clouds over evil people and is offended when they go unpunished. We are told that outcasts and harlots enter the kingdom of God before many who are perfunctorily righteous. Again unfair, the world thinks; respectable people should head the procession. We are told that the gate to salvation is narrow. The world would prefer it to be broad. We are told to be as carefree as birds and flowers. The world counsels prudence. We are told that it is more difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye. The world admires wealth. We are told that the happy people are those who are meek, who weep, who are merciful and pure in heart. The world assumes that it is the rich, the powerful, and the wellborn who are happy. The great Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev said that a wind of freedom blows through these teachings that frightens the world and makes us want to deflect them by postponement—not yet, not yet! H. G. Wells was evidently right: Either there was something mad about this man, or our hearts are still too small for his message. 

A wind of freedom blows through these teachings that frightens the world and makes us want to deflect them by postponement. Either there was something mad about this man, or our hearts are still too small for his message. 

Again we must come back to what those teachings were about. Everything that came from his lips formed the surface of a burning glass to focus human awareness on the two most important facts about life: God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them to others. In experiencing God as infinite love bent on peoples’ salvation, Jesus was an authentic child of Judaism; he differed, we have seen, only in not allowing the post-Exilic holiness code to impede God’s compassion. Time after time, as in his story of the shepherd who risked ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that had strayed, Jesus tried to convey God’s absolute love for every single human being. To perceive this love and to let it penetrate one’s very marrow was to respond in the only way that was possible—in profound and total gratitude for the wonders of God’s grace. 

Jesus emphasized God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them to others. He did not allow the post-Exilic holiness code to impede God’s compassion. 

The only way to make sense of Jesus’ extraordinary admonitions as to how people should live is to see them as cut from this understanding of the God who loves human beings absolutely, without pausing to calculate their worth or due. We are to give others our cloak as well as our coat if they need it. Why? Because God has given us what we need. We are to go with others the second mile. Why again? Because we know, deeply, overwhelmingly, that God has borne with us for far longer stretches. Why should we love not only our friends but our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us? “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45, 48). We say his ethic is perfectionistic—a polite word for unrealistic—because it asks that we love unreservedly. But the reason we consider that unrealistic, Jesus would have answered, is because we do not experience the constant, unstinted love that flows from God to us. If we did experience it, problems would still arise. To which of the innumerable needy should limited supplies of coats and cloaks be given? If the target of evil is someone other than myself, should I still not resist it? Jesus offered no rule book to obviate hard choices. What he argued was the stance from which they should be approached. All we can say in advance, as we face the demands of a tangled world, is that we should respond to our neighbors—all of them insofar as we can foresee the consequences of our acts—not in proportion to what we judge to be their due, but in proportion to their need. The cost to us personally should count for nothing. 

We are to give others our cloak as well as our coat if they need it. Why? Because God has given us what we need. Jesus offered no rule book to obviate hard choices. What he argued was the stance from which they should be approached. The cost to us personally should count for nothing. 

We have spoken of what Jesus did and what he said. But these alone would not have been enough to edge his disciples toward the conclusion that he was divine had it not been for a third factor: what he was. 

“We Have Seen His Glory.” “There is in the world,” writes Dostoevsky, “only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ. That infinitely lovely figure is…an infinite marvel.” 

Certainly, the most impressive thing about the teachings of Jesus is not that he taught them but that he appears to have lived them. From the accounts that we have, his entire life was one of humility, self-giving, and love that sought not its own. The supreme evidence of his humility is that it is impossible to discover precisely what Jesus thought of himself. His concern was what people thought of God—God’s nature and God’s will for their lives. True, by indirection this tells us something about Jesus’ own self-image, but it is the obvious, that he esteemed himself to be less than God. “Why do you call me good? Don’t you know that only God is good?” It is impossible to read what Jesus said about selflessness without sensing how free of pride he was himself. Similarly with sincerity. What he said on the subject could only have been said by someone whose life was uncluttered by deceit. Truth was like the air to him. 

Jesus appears to have lived what he taught. His entire life was one of humility, self-giving, and love that sought not its own. His life was uncluttered by deceit. Truth was like the air to him.

Through the pages of the Gospels Jesus emerges as a man of strength and integrity who bore about him, as someone has said, no strangeness at all save the strangeness of perfection. He liked people and they liked him in turn. They loved him; they loved him intensely and they loved him in numbers. Drawn to him not only for his charismatic powers but for the compassion they sensed in him as well, they surrounded him, flocked about him, followed him. He stands by the Sea of Galilee and they press so hard that he has to speak to them from a boat. He sets out for the day and a crowd of several thousand accumulates, missing their lunch, staying on until suddenly they discover that they are famished. People responded to Jesus, but equally he responded to them. He felt their appeal, whether they were rich or poor, young or old, saints or sinners. We have seen that he ignored the barriers that mores erected between people. He loved children. He hated injustice because of what it did to those he called, tenderly, “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Above all he hated hypocrisy, because it hid people from themselves and precluded the authenticity he sought to build into relationships. In the end it seemed to those who knew him best that here was a man in whom the human ego had disappeared, leaving his life so completely under the will of God that it was transparent to that will. It came to the point where they felt that as they looked at Jesus they were looking at something resembling God in human form. 

In the end it seemed to those who knew him best that here was a man in whom the human ego had disappeared, leaving his life so completely under the will of God that it was transparent to that will.

This is what lies behind the lyric cry of the early Church: “We have seen his glory,…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Centuries later, Shakespeare put it this way:

Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy tales, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

It came to the point where people felt that as they looked at Jesus they were looking at something resembling God in human form. 

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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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The Historical Jesus (Christianity)

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

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

Jesus’ mission had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which revelation was encased and release that revelation to a ready and waiting world.

Of all the great religions Christianity is the most widespread and has the largest number of adherents. The figure is probably inflated, but registries list almost one out of every three persons today as Christian, bringing the number into the neighborhood of one and one-half billion.

Christianity is the most widespread religion and has the largest number of adherents.

Nearly two thousand years of history have brought an astonishing diversity to this religion. From the majestic pontifical High Mass in St. Peter’s to the quiet simplicity of a Quaker meeting; from the intellectual sophistication of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the moving simplicity of spirituals such as “Lord, I want to be a Christian”; from St. Paul’s in London, the parish Church of Great Britain, to Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta—all this is Christianity. From this dazzling and often bewildering complex, it will be our task to indicate first the central strands that unite this religion, and then its three major divisions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.

Christianity is also the most diverse religion.

Christianity is basically a historical religion. That is to say, it is founded not on abstract principles but in concrete events, actual historical happenings. The most important of these is the life of a Jewish carpenter who, as has often been pointed out, was born in a stable, was executed as a criminal at age thirty-three, never traveled more than ninety miles from his birthplace, owned nothing, attended no college, marshaled no army, and instead of producing books did his only writing in the sand. Nevertheless, his birthday is kept across the world and his death day sets a gallows against almost every skyline. Who was he? 

Christianity is founded not on abstract principles but in concrete events, actual historical happenings. 

The biographical details of Jesus’ life are so meager that early in this century some investigators went so far as to suggest that he may never have lived. That possibility was soon rejected, but the impact of Albert Schweitzer’s century-dominating Quest for Historical Jesus reduced what the world was hearing about Jesus from biblical scholars to two points: We know almost nothing about him; and of the little we know, what is most certain is that he was wrong—this last referred to his putative belief that the world would quickly come to an end. As this is not much to build a Church on, it is fortunate that “the extreme historical skepticism that has marked most Jesus study in this century is abating.” Classicists have remarked that if the canons for historical reliability that have been erected for the Bible had been required in their studies, our view of the Greco-Roman world (which seems to be reasonably in place) would be in shambles.

Historically, we know almost nothing about Jesus Christ.

Who, then, was this Jesus whom New Testament scholars are beginning to return to view? He was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great, probably around 4 B.C.—our reckoning of the centuries that purports to date from his birth is almost certainly off by several years. He grew up in or near Nazareth, presumably after the fashion of other normal Jews of the time. He was baptized by John, a dedicated prophet who was electrifying the region with his proclamation of God’s coming judgment. In his early thirties he had a teaching-healing career, which lasted between one and three years and was focused largely in Galilee. In time he incurred the hostility of some of his own compatriots and the suspicion of Rome, which led to his crucifixion on the outskirts of Jerusalem. From these facts that fix the framework of Jesus’ life, we turn to the life that was lived within that framework.

We only have a framework of Jesus’ brief 33 years long life.

Minimally stated, Jesus was a charismatic wonder-worker who stood in a tradition that stretched back to the beginnings of Hebrew history. The prophets and seers who comprised that tradition mediated between the everyday world, on the one hand, and a Spirit world that enveloped it. From the latter they drew power, which they used both to help people and to challenge their ways. We shall expand this capsule characterization by considering successively (a) the Spirit world, to which Jesus was exceptionally oriented and which powered his ministry; (b) his deployment of his Spirit-derived powers in the alleviation of human suffering; and (c) the new social order he sought to effect.

Jesus drew power from the spirit world, which he deployed to alleviate human suffering and affect a new social order.

“The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Me.” According to Luke Jesus opened his ministry by quoting this statement from Isaiah and adding, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” We must attend to this Spirit that Jesus experienced as empowering him, for there can be no understanding of his life and work if it is omitted.

In what has proved to be one of our century’s most durable books about religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James tells us that “in its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.” Until recently, modern science seemed to question the reality of unseen entities; but with Eddington’s observation that the world is more like a mind than a machine, and astrophysicists’ reports that 90 percent of the “matter” in the universe is invisible in the sense that it impacts none of their instruments, scientific skepticism has begun to subside. The point here, however, is that the biblical tradition in which Jesus stood can only be read as a continuous, sustained-and-demanding dialogue of the Hebrew people with the unseen order that William James emphasizes. They called that order Spirit (as in the opening verses of the Bible, where Spirit plays over primordial waters to create the world) and, sensing it as intensely alive, they populated it with beings such as angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim. Its center, however, was Yahweh, whom they viewed personally: as shepherd, king, lord, father (and less commonly, mother), and lover. Though Spirit was typically pictured as being above the earth—images of ladders to Heaven are routine—that was only to stress its distinctness from, and superiority over, the mundane world. The two were not spatially separated, and were in continuous interaction. God walked in the garden of Eden, and “the whole earth is full of God’s glory,” his radiant presence.

“In its broadest terms, religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it.” 

Not only was Spirit not spatially removed; though invisible, it could be known. Often it would take the initiative and announce itself. It did this supremely to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it also spoke in a still small voice to Elijah, in lions’ roars to other prophets, and in dramatic events like the Exodus. Concurrently, human beings could take the initiative in contacting it. Fasting and solitude were means for doing so, and Jews who felt the call would periodically remove themselves from the world’s distractions to commune with the divine through these aids. It will not be amiss to think of them as soaking themselves in Spirit during these vigils, for when they return to the world they often give evidence of having almost palpably absorbed something: Spirit and its attendant power.

Spirit is invisible but not spatially removed; and often it takes the initiative and announces itself. 

That Jesus stood in the Jewish tradition of Spirit-filled mediators is the most important fact for understanding his historical career. His immediate predecessor in this tradition was John the Baptist; and it is a testament to his spiritual power that it was his initiation (baptism) of Jesus that opened his third or spiritual eye, as Asians would say, causing him to see “the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove.” Having descended, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness where, during forty days of prayer and fasting, he consolidated the Spirit that had entered him. Having done so he reentered the world, empowered.

Jesus stood in the Jewish tradition of Spirit-filled mediators.

“By the Spirit of God I Cast Out Demons.” If science no longer discounts invisible realities, it has also grown open to the prospect that they may be powerful, for experiments now suggest that “the energy inherent in one cubic centimeter of empty space is greater than the energy of all the matter in the known universe.” Whatever the fate of that particular hypothesis, the Jews accepted the supremacy of Spirit over nature without question. The Spirit-filled personages of the Bible have power. To say that they were charismatic is to say they had power to attract people’s attention, but that is only the beginning of the matter. The reason they attracted notice was the exceptional power they possessed. They “had something,” as we say—something ordinary mortals lack. That something was Spirit. The Bible frequently depicts them as “filled with the power of the Spirit,” a power that enabled them at times to influence the natural course of events. They healed diseases, cast out demons, and occasionally quelled storms, parted waters, and caused the dead to return to life. The Gospels attribute these powers to Jesus copiously. Again and again they report people flocking to him, drawn by his wonder-working reputation. “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons,” we read, “and the whole city was gathered together about the door.” A New Testament scholar comments that “despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”

“Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”

He could have been that—indeed, he could have been “the most extraordinary figure in…the stream of Jewish charismatic healers,” as the same New Testament scholar goes on to say—without attracting more than local attention. What made him outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him not just to heal individuals but—this was his aspiration—to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.

What made Jesus outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him not just to heal individuals but to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.

“Thy Kingdom Come, on Earth.” Politically, the position of the Jews in Jesus’ time was desperate. They had been in servitude to Rome for the better part of a century and, along with their loss of freedom, were being taxed almost beyond endurance. Existing responses to their predicament were four. The Sadducees, who were relatively well off, favored making the best of a bad situation and accommodated themselves to Hellenistic culture and Roman rule. The other positions hoped for change. All three recognized that the change would have to be effected by Yahweh, and all assumed that the Jews needed to do something that would prompt his intervention. Two of the three were renewal movements. The Essenes considered the world as too corrupt to allow for Judaism to renew itself within it, so they dropped out. Withdrawing into property-sharing communes, they devoted themselves to lives of disciplined piety. The Pharisees, on the other hand, remained within society and sought to revitalize Judaism through adhering strictly to the Mosaic law, especially its holiness code. Representatives of the fourth position have been referred to as Zealots, but it is doubtful that they were sufficiently organized to deserve a name. Despairing that any change could occur without brute force, they launched sporadic acts of resistance that culminated in the catastrophic revolt of 66–70 A.D., which led to the second destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The position of the Jews in Jesus’ time under Roman rule was desperate. Existing responses to their predicament were in terms of the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Zealots.

Into this political cauldron Jesus introduced a fifth option. Unlike the Sadducees, he wanted change. Unlike the Essenes, he stayed in the world. Unlike the advocates of the military option, he extolled peacemakers and urged that even enemies be loved. It was the Pharisees that Jesus stood closest to, for the difference between them was one of emphasis only. The Pharisees stressed Yahweh’s holiness, while Jesus stressed Yahweh’s compassion; but the Pharisees would have been the first to insist that Yahweh was also compassionate, and Jesus that Yahweh was holy. The difference appears at first to be small, but in actuality it proved to be too large for a single religion to accommodate. We must understand why this was the case. 

Jesus stood closest to the Pharisees but the difference proved to be too large for a single religion to accommodate.

Grounding themselves in the understanding of Yahweh as majestic holiness, the Pharisees went on to affirm the accepted version of Jewish self-understanding. Being holy himself, Yahweh wanted to hallow the world as well, and to accomplish this aim he selected the Jews to plant for him, as it were, a beachhead of holiness in human history. On Mount Sinai he had prescribed a holiness code, faithful observance of which would make of the Hebrews “a nation of priests.” Yahweh’s dictum to them, “You shall be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy,” became the Pharisees’ watchword. It was laxity in the observance of the holiness code that had reduced the Jews to their degraded state, and only the wholehearted return to it would reverse that state. 

The Pharisees were devoted to the holiness code prescribed on Mount Sinai by Yahweh.

Much of this Jesus subscribed to, but there was an important feature of the holiness program he found unacceptable: the lines that it drew between people. Beginning by categorizing acts and things as clean or unclean (foods and their preparation, for example), the holiness code went on to categorize people according to whether they respected those distinctions. The result was a social structure that was riven with barriers: between people who were clean and unclean, pure and defiled, sacred and profane, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner. Having concluded that Yahweh’s central attribute was compassion, Jesus saw social barriers as an affront to that compassion. So he parleyed with tax collectors, dined with outcasts and sinners, socialized with prostitutes, and healed on the sabbath when compassion prompted doing so. This made him a social prophet, challenging the boundaries of the existing order and advocating an alternative vision of the human community. 

Jesus subscribed to the holiness code except for the lines it drew between the Jew and Gentile. 

Jesus was deeply Jewish; at the same time he stood in sharp tension with Judaism. (One is tempted to claim this as an important aspect of his Jewishness, for no religion has manifest, and on the whole encouraged, internal criticism to the extent that this one has.) Jesus saw the holiness code and the distinctions that followed from it as having been needed to lift the Jews to a purity that surpassed their neighbors. His own encounter with God, however, led him to the conviction that, as practiced in his time, the purity system had created social divisions that compromised God’s compassion, which compassion the Pharisees equally subscribed to in principle. 

Jesus objected to the fact that the compassion of Jews did not extend to the Gentile.

It is important to emphasize that the issue was not God’s compassion; it was whether the social system that the holiness code in its outworkings had structured was compassionate. Jesus’ conviction that it was not put him at odds with the Pharisees, but his protest did not prevail. It did, however, attract enough attention to alarm the Roman authorities, which led to Jesus’ arrest and execution on charges of treason. 

This put Jesus at odds with the Pharisees, and it attracted enough attention to alarm the Roman authorities.

Thereafter the future of the “Jesus people” lay with the wider world. In time Christians came to read this development positively. To their eyes God’s revelation to the Jews was too important to be confined to a single ethnic group. Jesus’ mission had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which revelation was encased and release that revelation to a ready and waiting world. Putting it this way does not cancel the need for a continuing Jewish presence. Until the world is regenerated, the witness of a nation of priests remains relevant.

Jesus’ mission had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which revelation was encased and release that revelation to a ready and waiting world.

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The Man Who Woke Up (Buddhism)

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

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

Two sentences from his valedictory have echoed through the ages. “All compounded things decay. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

Buddhism begins with a man. In his later years, when India was afire with his message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was. How many people have provoked this question—not “Who are you?” with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but “What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?” Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two: Jesus and Buddha. When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided an identity for his entire message.

“Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “An angel?” “No.” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?” 

Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

His answer became his title, for this is what Buddha means. The Sanskrit root budh denotes both to wake up and to know. Buddha, then, means the “Enlightened One,” or the “Awakened One.” While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking state of human life, one of their number roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like vagaries of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up. 

Buddha means the “Enlightened One,” or the “Awakened One.” Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like vagaries of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up. 

His life has become encased in loving legend. We are told that the worlds were flooded with light at his birth. The blind so longed to see his glory that they received their sight; the deaf and mute conversed in ecstasy of the things that were to come. Crooked became straight; the lame walked. Prisoners were freed from their chains and the fires of hell were quenched. Even the cries of the beasts were hushed as peace encircled the earth. Only Mara, the Evil One, did not rejoice.

The birth of Buddha was accompanied with an age of great hope.

The historical facts of his life are roughly these: He was born around 563 B.C. in what is now Nepal, near the Indian border. His full name was Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas. Siddhartha was his given name, Gautama his surname, and Sakya the name of the clan to which his family belonged. His father was a king, but as there were then many kingdoms in the subcontinent of India, it would be more accurate to think of him as a feudal lord. By the standards of the day his upbringing was luxurious. “I wore garments of silk and my attendants held a white umbrella over me. My unguents were always from Banaras.” He appears to have been exceptionally handsome, for there are numerous references to “the perfection of his visible body.” At sixteen he married a neighboring princess, Yasodhara, who bore a son whom they called Rahula.

Buddha was born in a prosperous family with a luxurious life.

He was, in short, a man who seemed to have everything: family, “the venerable Gautama is well born on both sides, of pure descent”; appearance, “handsome, inspiring trust, gifted with great beauty of complexion, fair in color, fine in presence, stately to behold”; wealth, “he had elephants and silver ornaments for his elephants.” He had a model wife, “majestic as a queen of heaven, constant ever, cheerful night and day, full of dignity and exceeding grace,” who bore him a beautiful son. In addition, as heir to his father’s throne, he was destined for fame and power.

He had a well-balanced personality, a great family and a bright future.

Despite all this there settled over him in his twenties a discontent, which was to lead to a complete break with his worldly estate. 

Yet, he was not contented with his life.

The source of his discontent is impounded in the legend of The Four Passing Sights, one of the most celebrated calls to adventure in all world literature. When Siddhartha was born, so this story runs, his father summoned fortunetellers to find out what the future held for his heir. All agreed that this was no usual child. His career, however, was crossed with one basic ambiguity. If he remained with the world, he would unify India and become her greatest conqueror, a Chakravartin or Universal King. If, on the other hand, he forsook the world, he would become not a world conqueror but a world redeemer. Faced with this option, his father determined to steer his son toward the former destiny. No effort was spared to keep the prince attached to the world. Three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls were placed at his disposal; strict orders were given that no ugliness intrude upon the courtly pleasures. Specifically, the prince was to be shielded from contact with sickness, decrepitude, and death; even when he went riding, runners were to clear the roads of these sights. One day, however, an old man was overlooked, or (as some versions have it) miraculously incarnated by the gods to effect the needed lesson: a man decrepit, broken-toothed, gray-haired, crooked and bent of body, leaning on a staff, and trembling. That day Siddhartha learned the fact of old age. Though the king extended his guard, on a second ride Siddhartha encountered a body racked with disease, lying by the roadside; and on a third journey, a corpse. Finally, on a fourth occasion he saw a monk with shaven head, ochre robe, and bowl, and on that day he learned of the life of withdrawal from the world. It is a legend, this story, but like all legends it embodies an important truth. For the teachings of the Buddha show unmistakably that it was the body’s inescapable involvement with disease, decrepitude, and death that made him despair of finding fulfillment on the physical plane. “Life is subject to age and death. Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?”

From childhood his life was shielded from contact with sickness, decrepitude, and death. So, his first encounters with old age, disease and death were quite shocking, and so was his encounter with a monk and with the idea of life of withdrawal from the world.

Once he had perceived the inevitability of bodily pain and passage, fleshly pleasures lost their charm. The singsong of the dancing girls, the lilt of lutes and cymbals, the sumptuous feasts and processions, the elaborate celebration of festivals only mocked his brooding mind. Flowers nodding in the sunshine and snows melting on the Himalayas cried louder of the evanescence of worldly things. He determined to quit the snare of distractions his palace had become and follow the call of a truth-seeker. One night in his twentyninth year he made the break, his Great Going Forth. Making his way in the post-midnight hours to where his wife and son were locked in sleep, he bade them both a silent goodbye, and then ordered the gatekeeper to bridle his great white horse. The two mounted and rode off toward the forest. Reaching its edge by daybreak, Gautama changed clothes with the attendant who returned with the horse to break the news, while Gautama shaved his head and, “clothed in ragged raiment,” plunged into the forest in search of enlightenment. 

The young Siddhartha became acutely aware of the meaninglessness of his opulent life. He determined to follow the call of a truth-seeker, and escaped to a life in the forest. 

Six years followed, during which his full energies were concentrated toward this end. “How hard to live the life of the lonely forest dweller…to rejoice in solitude. Verily, the silent groves bear heavily upon the monk who has not yet won to fixity of mind!” The words bear poignant witness that his search was not easy. It appears to have moved through three phases, without record as to how long each lasted or how sharply the three were divided. His first act was to seek out two of the foremost Hindu masters of the day and pick their minds for the wisdom in their vast tradition. He learned a great deal—about raja yoga especially, but about Hindu philosophy as well; so much in fact that Hindus came to claim him as their own, holding that his criticisms of the religion of his day were in the order of reforms and were less important than his agreements. In time, however, he concluded that he had learned all that these yogis could teach him.

His search was not easy. He sought out the foremost Hindu masters of the day and pick their minds for the wisdom in their vast tradition. He learned all that these yogis could teach him and still found answers to be missing.

His next step was to join a band of ascetics and give their way an honest try. Was it his body that was holding him back? He would break its power and crush its interference. A man of enormous will power, the Buddha-to-be outdid his associates in every austerity they proposed. He ate so little—six grains of rice a day during one of his fasts—that “when I thought I would touch the skin of my stomach I actually took hold of my spine.” He would clench his teeth and press his tongue to his palate until “sweat flowed from my armpits.” He would hold his breath until it felt “as if a strap were being twisted around my head.” In the end he grew so weak that he fell into a faint; and if the maiden Sujata had not been around to feed him some warm rice gruel, he could easily have died.

He then joined a band of ascetics and practiced asceticism to such a degree that he could easily have died.

This experience taught him the futility of asceticism. He had given this experiment all anyone could, and it had not succeeded—it had not brought enlightenment. But negative experiments carry their own lessons, and in this case asceticism’s failure provided Gautama with the first constructive plank for his program: the principle of the Middle Way between the extremes of asceticism, on the one hand, and indulgence on the other. It is the concept of the rationed life, in which the body is given what it needs to function optimally, but no more.

Neither the indulgence to the whims of the body nor the practice of asceticism was the answer. The solution lay in the principle of the Middle way. The body is to be given what it needs to function optimally, but no more.

Having turned his back on mortification, Gautama devoted the final phase of his quest to a combination of rigorous thought and mystic concentration along the lines of raja yoga. One evening near Gaya in northeast India, south of the present city of Patna, he sat down under a peepul tree that has come to be known as the Bo Tree (short for bodhi or enlightenment). The place was later named the Immovable Spot, for tradition reports that the Buddha, sensing that a breakthrough was near, seated himself that epoch-making evening vowing not to arise until enlightenment was his.

Gautama then devoted himself to a combination of rigorous thought and mystic concentration along the lines of raja yoga. 

The records offer as the first event of the night a temptation scene reminiscent of Jesus’ on the eve of his ministry. The Evil One, realizing that his antagonist’s success was imminent, rushed to the spot to disrupt his concentrations. He attacked first in the form of Kama, the God of Desire, parading three voluptuous women with their tempting retinues. When the Buddha-to-be remained unmoved, the Tempter switched his guise to that of Mara, the Lord of Death. His powerful hosts assailed the aspirant with hurricanes, torrential rains, and showers of flaming rocks, but Gautama had so emptied himself of his finite self that the weapons found no target to strike and turned into flower petals as they entered his field of concentration. When, in final desperation, Mara challenged his right to do what he was doing, Gautama touched the earth with his right fingertip, whereupon the earth responded, thundering, “I bear you witness” with a hundred, a thousand, and a hundred thousand roars. Mara’s army fled in rout, and the gods of heaven descended in rapture to tend the victor with garlands and perfumes.

Finally Gautama understood what lay beyond all those desires for the indulgence and survival of the body.

Thereafter, while the Bo Tree rained red blossoms that full-mooned May night, Gautama’s meditation deepened through watch after watch until, as the morning star glittered in the transparent sky of the east, his mind pierced at last the bubble of the universe and shattered it to naught, only, wonder of wonders, to find it miraculously restored with the effulgence of true being. The Great Awakening had arrived. Gautama’s being was transformed, and he emerged the Buddha. The event was of cosmic import. All created things filled the morning air with their rejoicings and the earth quaked six ways with wonder. Ten thousand galaxies shuddered in awe as lotuses bloomed on every tree, turning the entire universe into “a bouquet of flowers set whirling through the air.” The bliss of this vast experience kept the Buddha rooted to the spot for seven entire days. On the eighth he tried to rise, but another wave of bliss broke over him. For a total of forty-nine days he was lost in rapture, after which his “glorious glance” opened onto the world. 

The Great Awakening was momentous.

Mara was waiting for him with one last temptation. He appealed this time to what had always been Gautama’s strong point, his reason. Mara did not argue the burden of reentering the world with its banalities and obsessions. He posed a deeper challenge. Who could be expected to understand truth as profound as that which the Buddha had laid hold of? How could speech-defying revelation be translated into words, or visions that shatter definitions be caged in language? In short, how show what can only be found, teach what can only be learned? Why bother to play the idiot before an uncomprehending audience? Why not wash one’s hands of the whole hot world—be done with the body and slip at once into nirvana? The argument was so persuasive that it almost carried the day. At length, however, the Buddha answered, “There will be some who will understand,” and Mara was banished from his life forever.

The last doubt was about the near impossibility of bringing this awakened state to others. Should one be satisfied with attaining enlightenment oneself.

Nearly half a century followed, during which the Buddha trudged the dusty paths of India until his hair was white, step infirm, and body nothing but a burst drum, preaching his ego-shattering, life-redeeming message. He founded an order of monks and nuns, challenged the deadness of brahmin society, and accepted in return the resentment, queries, and bewilderment his stance provoked. His daily routine was staggering. In addition to training monks and overseeing the affairs of his order, he maintained an interminable schedule of public preaching and private counseling, advising the perplexed, encouraging the faithful, and comforting the distressed. “To him people come right across the country from distant lands to ask questions, and he bids all welcome.” Underlying his response to these pressures and enabling him to stand up under them was the pattern of withdrawal and return that is basic to all creativity. The Buddha withdrew for six years, then returned for forty-five. But each year was likewise divided: nine months in the world, followed by a three-month retreat with his monks during the rainy season. His daily cycle, too, was patterned to this mold. His public hours were long, but three times a day he withdrew, to return his attention (through meditation) to its sacred source.

Buddha devoted his life to bringing enlightenment broadly in the society, while withdrawing regularly to return his attention to its sacred source.

After an arduous ministry of forty-five years, at the age of eighty and around the year 483 B.C., the Buddha died from dysentery after eating a meal of dried boar’s flesh in the home of Cunda the smith. Even on his deathbed his mind moved toward others. In the midst of his pain, it occurred to him that Cunda might feel responsible for his death. His last request, therefore, was that Cunda be informed that of all the meals he had eaten during his long life, only two stood out as having blessed him exceptionally. One was the meal whose strength had enabled him to reach enlightenment under the Bo Tree, and the other the one that was opening to him the final gates to nirvana. This is but one of the deathbed scenes that The Book of the Great Decease has preserved. Together they present a picture of a man who passed into the state in which “ideas and consciousness cease to be” without the slightest resistance. Two sentences from his valedictory have echoed through the ages. “All compounded things decay. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

Two sentences from his valedictory have echoed through the ages. “All compounded things decay. Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

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