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The Life of Buddha and Its Lessons


The thoughtful student, in scanning the religious history of the race,
has one fact continually forced upon his notice, _viz_., that there is
an invariable tendency to deify whomsoever shows himself superior to
the weakness of our common humanity. Look where we will, we find the
saint-like man exalted into a divine personage and worshipped for a
god. Though perhaps misunderstood, reviled and even persecuted while
living, the apotheosis is almost sure to come after death: and the
victim of yesterday's mob, raised to the state of an Intercessor in
Heaven, is besought with prayer and tears, and placatory penances, to
mediate with God for the pardon of human sin. This is a mean and vile
trait of human nature, the proof of ignorance, selfishness, brutal
cowardice, and a superstitious materialism. It shows the base instinct
to put down and destroy whatever or whoever makes men feel their own
imperfections; with the alternative of ignoring and denying these very
imperfections by turning into gods men who have merely spiritualised
their natures, so that it may be supposed that they were heavenly
incarnations and not mortal like other men.

This process of euhemerisation, as it is called, or the making of men
into gods and gods into men, sometimes, though more rarely, begins
during the life of the hero, but usually after death. The true history
of his life is gradually amplified and decorated with fanciful
incidents, to fit it to the new character which has been posthumously
given him. Omens and portents are now made to attend his earthly
avatara: his precocity is described as superhuman: as a babe or
lisping child he silences the wisest logicians by his divine
knowledge: miracles he produces as other boys do soap-bubbles: the
terrible energies of nature are his playthings: the gods, angels, and
demons are his habitual attendants: the sun, moon, and all the starry
host wheel around his cradle in joyful measures, and the earth thrills
with joy at having borne such a prodigy: and at his last hour of
mortal life the whole universe shakes with conflicting emotions.

Why need I use the few moments at my disposal to marshal before you
the various personages of whom these fables have been written? Let it
suffice to recall the interesting fact to your notice, and invite you
to compare the respective biographies of the Brahmanical
Krshna, the Persian Zoroaster, the Egyptian Hermes, the
Indian Gautama, and the canonical, especially the apocryphal,
Jesus. Taking Krshna or Zoroaster, as you please, as the most
ancient, and coming down the chronological line of descent, you will
find them all made after the same pattern. The real personage is all
covered up and concealed under the embroidered veils of the romancer
and the enthusiastic historiographer. What is surprising to me is that
this tendency to exaggeration and hyperbole is not more commonly
allowed for by those who in our days attempt to discuss and compare
religions. We are constantly and painfully reminded that the prejudice
of inimical critics, on the one hand, and the furious bigotry of
devotees, on the other, blind men to fact and probability, and lead to
gross injustice. Let me take as an example the mythical biographies of
Jesus. At the time when the Council of Nicea was convened for settling
the quarrels of certain bishops, and for the purpose of examining into
the canonicity of the three hundred more or less apocryphal gospels
that were being read in the Christian churches as inspired writings,
the history of the life of Christ had reached the height of absurd
myth. We may see some specimens in the extant books of the apocryphal
New Testament, but most of them are now lost. What have been retained
in the present Canon may doubtless be regarded as the least
objectionable. And yet we must not hastily adopt even this conclusion,
for you know that Sabina, Bishop of Heracha, himself speaking of the
Council of Nicea, affirms that "except Constantine and Sabinus, Bishop
of Pamphilus, these bishops were a set of illiterate, simple creatures
that understood nothing"; which is as though he had said they were a
pack of fools. And Pappus, in his _Synodicon_ to that Council of
Nicea, lets us into the secret that the Canon was not decided by a
careful comparison of several gospels before them, but by a _lottery_.
Having, he tells us, "promiscuously put all the books that were
referred to the Council for determination under a Communion table in a
church, they (the bishops) besought the Lord that the inspired
writings might get up on the table, while the spurious writings
remained underneath, and _it happened accordingly_".

But letting all this pass and looking only to what is contained in the
present Canon, we see the same tendency to compel all nature to attest
the divinity of the writer's hero. At the nativity a star leaves its
orbit and leads the Persian astrologers to the divine child, and angels
come and converse with shepherds, and a whole train of like celestial
phenomena occurs at various stages of his earthly career, which closes
amid earthquakes, a pall of darkness over the whole scene, a
supernatural war of the elements, the opening of graves and the walking
about of their tenants, and other appalling wonders. Now, if the candid
Buddhist concedes that the real history of Gautama is embellished by
like absurd exaggerations, and if we can find their duplicates in the
biographies of Zoroaster, Shankaracharya and other real personages of
antiquity, have we not the right to conclude that the true history of
the Founder of Christianity, if at this late date it were possible to
write it, would be very different from the narratives that pass current?
We must not forget that Jerusalem was at that time a Roman dependency,
just as Ceylon is now a British, and that the silence of contemporary
Roman historians about any such violent disturbances of the equilibrium
of nature is deeply significant.

I have cited this example for the sole and simple purpose of bringing
home to the non-Buddhistic portion of my present audience the
conviction that, in considering the life of Sakya Muni and the
lessons it teaches, they must not make his followers of to-day
responsible for any extravagant exuberances of past biographers. The
doctrine of Buddha and its effects are to be judged quite apart
from the man, just as the doctrine ascribed to Jesus and its effects
are to be considered quite irrespectively of his personal history.
And--as I hope I have shown--the actual doings and sayings of every
founder of a Faith or a school of philosophy must be sought for under
a heap of tinsel and rubbish contributed by successive generations of

Approaching the question of the hour in this spirit of precaution,
what do we find are the probabilities respecting the life of Sakya
Muni? Who was he? When did he live? How did he live? What did he
teach? A most careful comparison of authorities and analysis of
evidence establishes, I think, the following data:

1. He was the son of a king.

2. He lived between six and seven centuries before Christ.

3. He resigned his royal state and went to live in the jungle, and
among the lowest and most unhappy classes, so as to learn the secret
of human pain and misery by personal experience: tested every known
austerity of the Hindu ascetics and excelled them all in his power
of endurance: sounded every depth of woe in search of the means to
alleviate it: and at last came out victorious, and showed the world
the way to salvation.

4. What he taught may be summed up in a few words, as the perfume of
many roses may be distilled into a few drops of _attar_: Everything in
the world of Matter is unreal; the only reality is in the world of
Spirit. Emancipate yourselves from the tyranny of the former; strive
to attain the latter. The Rev. Samuel Beal, in his _Catena of
Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese_ puts it differently. "The
idea underlying the Buddhist religious system is," he says, "simply
this: 'all is vanity'. Earth is a show, and Heaven is a vain reward."
Primitive Buddhism was engrossed, absorbed, by one thought--the
vanity of finite existence, the priceless value of the one condition
of Eternal Rest.

If I have the temerity to prefer my own definition of the spirit of
Buddha's doctrine, it is because I think that all the misconceptions of
it have arisen from a failure to understand his idea of what is real and
what is unreal, what worth longing and striving for and what not. From
this misconception have come all the unfounded charges that Buddhism is
an "atheistical," that is to say, a grossly materialistic, a nihilistic,
a negative, a vice-breeding religion. Buddhism denies the existence of a
personal God--true: therefore--well, therefore, and notwithstanding all
this, its teaching is neither what may be called properly atheistical,
nihilistic, negative, nor provocative of vice. I will try to make my
meaning clear, and the advancement of modern scientific research helps
in this direction. Science divides the universe for us into two
elements--matter and force; accounting for their phenomena by their
combinations, and making both eternal and obedient to eternal and
immutable law. The speculations of men of science have carried them to
the outermost verge of the physical universe. Behind them lie not only a
thousand brilliant triumphs by which a part of Nature's secrets have
been wrung from her, but also more thousands of failures to fathom her
deep mysteries. They have proved thought material, since it is the
evolution of the gray tissue of the brain, and a recent German
experimentalist, Professor Dr. Jaeger, claims to have proved that man's
soul is "a volatile odoriferous principle, capable of solution in
glycerine". Psychogen is the name he gives to it, and his experiments
show that it is present not merely in the body as a whole, but in every
individual cell, in the ovum, and even in the ultimate elements of
protoplasm. I need hardly say to so intelligent an audience as this,
that these highly interesting experiments of Dr. Jaeger are corroborated
by many facts, both physiological and psychological, that have been
always noticed among all nations; facts which are woven into popular
proverbs, legends, folk-lore fables, mythologies and theologies, the
world over. Now, if thought is matter and soul is matter, then Buddha,
in recognising the impermanence of sensual enjoyment or experience of
any kind, and the instability of every material form, the human soul
included, uttered a profound and scientific truth, And since the very
idea of gratification or suffering is inseparable from that of material
being--absolute SPIRIT alone being regarded by common consent as
perfect, changeless and Eternal--therefore, in teaching the doctrine
that conquest of the material self, with all its lusts, desires, loves,
hopes, ambitions and hates, frees one from pain, and leads to Nirvana,
the state of Perfect Rest, he preached the rest of an untinged,
untainted existence in the Spirit. Though the soul be composed of the
finest conceivable substance, yet if substance at all--as Dr. Jaeger
seems able to prove, and ages of human intercourse with the weird
phantoms of the shadow world imply--it must in time perish. What remains
is that changeless part of man, which most philosophers call Spirit, and
Nirvana is its necessary condition of existence. The only dispute
between Buddhist authorities is whether this Nirvanic existence is
attended with individual consciousness, or whether the individual is
merged in the whole, as the extinguished flame is lost in the air. But
there are those who say that the flame has not been annihilated by the
blowing out. It has only passed out of the visible world of matter into
the invisible world of Spirit, where it still exists and will ever
exist, as a bright reality. Such thinkers can understand Buddha's
doctrine and, while agreeing with him that soul is not immortal, would
spurn the charge of materialistic nihilism, if brought against either
that sublime teacher or themselves.

The history of Sakya Muni's life is the strongest bulwark of his
religion. As long as the human heart is capable of being touched by
tales of heroic self-sacrifice, accompanied by purity and celestial
benevolence of motive, it will cherish his memory. Why should I go
into the particulars of that noble life? You will remember that he was
the son of the king of Kapilavastu--a mighty sovereign whose
opulence enabled him to give the heir of his house every luxury that a
voluptuous imagination could desire: and that the future Buddha
was not allowed even to know, much less observe, the miseries of
ordinary existence. How beautifully Edwin Arnold has painted for us in
_The Light of Asia_ the luxury and languor of that Indian Court,
"where love was gaoler and delights its bars". We are told that:

The king commanded that within those walls
No mention should be made of age or death
Sorrow or pain, or sickness ...
And every dawn the dying rose was plucked,
The dead leaves hid, all evil sights removed:
For said the king, "If he shall pass his youth
Far from such things as move to wistfulness
And brooding on the empty eggs of thought,
The shadow of this fate, too vast for man,
May fade, belike, and I shall see him grow
To that great stature of fair sovereignty,
When he shall rule all lands--if he _will rule_--
The king of kings and glory of his time."

You know how vain were all the precautions taken by the father to
prevent the fulfilment of the prophecy that his beloved son would be
the coming Buddha. Though all suggestions of death were banished
from the royal palace, though the city was bedecked with flowers and
gay flags, and every painful object removed from sight when the young
Prince Siddartha visited it, yet the decrees of destiny were
not to be baffled, the "voices of the spirits," the "wandering winds"
and the devas, whispered the truth of human sorrows into his
listening ear, and when the appointed hour arrived, the Suddha
Devas threw the spell of slumber over the household, steeped in
profound lethargy the sentinels (as we are told was done by an angel
to the gaolers of Peter's prison), rolled back the triple gates of
bronze, strewed the sweet moghra-flowers thickly beneath his horse's
feet to muffle every sound, and he was free. Free? Yes--to resign
every earthly comfort, every sensuous enjoyment, the sweets of royal
power, the homage of a Court, the delights of domestic life: gems, the
glitter of gold: rich stuffs, rich food, soft beds: the songs of
trained musicians, and of birds kept prisoners in gay cages, the
murmur of perfumed waters plashing in marble basins, the delicious
shade of trees in gardens where art had contrived to make nature even
lovelier than herself. He leaps from his saddle when at a safe
distance from the palace, flings the jewelled rein to his faithful
groom, Channa, cuts off his flowing locks, gives his rich costume to a
hunter in exchange for his own, plunges into the jungle, and is free:

To tread its paths with patient, stainless feet,
Making its dusty bed, its loneliest wastes
My dwelling, and its meanest things my mates:
Clad in no prouder garb than outcasts wear,
Fed with no meals save what the charitable
Give of their will, sheltered by no more pomp,
Than the dim cave lends or the jungle-bush.
This will I do because the woeful cry
Of life and all flesh living cometh up
Into my ears, and all my soul is full
Of pity for the sickness of this world:
Which I will heal, if healing may be found
By uttermost renouncing and strong strife.

Thus masterfully does Sir Edwin Arnold depict the sentiment which
provoked this Great Renunciator. The testimony of thousands of
millions who, during the last twenty-five centuries, have professed
the Buddhistic religion, proves that the secret of human misery
was at last solved by this divine self-sacrifice, and the true path to
Nirvana opened.

The joy that he brought to the hearts of others, Buddha first
tasted himself. He found that the pleasures of the eye, the ear, the
taste, touch and smell are fleeting and deceptive: he who gives value
to them brings only disappointment and bitter sorrow upon himself. The
social differences between men he found were equally arbitrary and
illusive; caste bred hatred and selfishness; riches strife, envy and
malice. So in founding his Faith he laid the bottom of its
foundation-stones upon all this worldly dirt, and its dome in the
clear serene of the world of Spirit. He who can mount to a clear
conception of Nirvana will find his thought far away above the
common joys and sorrows of petty men. As to one who ascends to the
top of Chimborazo or the Himalayan crags, and sees men on the
earth's surface crawling to and fro like ants, so equally small do
bigots and sectarians appear to him. The mountain climber has under
his feet the very clouds from whose sun-painted shapes the poet has
figured to himself the golden streets and glittering domes of the
materialistic Heaven of a personal God. Below him are all the various
objects out of which the world's pantheons have been manufactured:
around, above--Immensity. And so also, far down the ascending plane of
thought that leads from the earth towards the Infinite, the
philosophic Buddhist describes, at different plateaux, the
heavens and hells, the gods and demons, of the materialistic

What are the lessons to be derived from the life and teachings of this
heroic prince of Kapilavastu? Lessons of gratitude and benevolence.
Lessons of tolerance for the clashing opinions of men who live, move
and have their being, think and aspire, only in the material world.
The lesson of a common tie of brotherhood among all men. Lessons of
manly self-reliance, of equanimity in breasting whatsoever of good or
ill may happen. Lessons of the meanness of the rewards, the pettiness
of the misfortunes of a shifting world of illusions. Lessons of the
necessity for avoiding every species of evil thought and word, and for
doing, speaking and thinking everything that is good, and for the
bringing of the mind into subjection so that these may be accomplished
without selfish motive or vanity. Lessons of self-purification and
communion, by which the illusiveness of externals and the value of
internals are understood.

Well might St. Hilaire burst into the panegyric that Buddha "is
the perfect model of all the virtues he preaches ... his life has not
a stain upon it". Well might the sober critic Max Mueller pronounce his
moral code "one of the most perfect which the world has ever known".
No wonder that in contemplating that gentle life Edwin Arnold should
have found his personality "the highest, gentlest, holiest and most
beneficent ... in the history of thought," and been moved to write his
splendid verses. It is twenty-five hundred years since humanity put
forth such a flower: who knows when it did before?

Gautama Buddha, Sakya Muni, has ennobled the whole human
race. His fame is our common inheritance. His Law is the law of
Justice, providing for every good thought, word and deed its fair
reward, for every evil one its proper punishment. His law is in
harmony with the voices of Nature, and the evident equilibrium of the
universe. It yields nothing to importunities or threats, can be
neither coaxed nor bribed by offerings to abate or alter one jot or
tittle of its inexorable course. Am I told that Buddhist laymen
display vanity in their worship and ostentation in their almsgiving;
that they are fostering sects as bitterly as Hindus? So much the
worse for the laymen: there is the example of Buddha and his
Law. Am I told that Buddhist priests are ignorant, idle
fosterers of superstitions grafted on their religion by foreign kings?
So much the worse for the priests: the life of their Divine Master
shames them and shows their unworthiness to wear his yellow robe or
carry his beggar's bowl. There is the Law--immutable--menacing; it
will find them out and punish.

And what shall we say to those of another caste of character--the
humble-minded, charitable, tolerant, religiously aspiring hearts among
the laity, and the unselfish, pure and learned of the priests who know
the Precepts and keep them? The Law will find them out also; and when
the book of each life is written up and the balance struck, every good
thought or deed will be found entered in its proper place. Not one
blessing that ever followed them from grateful lips throughout their
earthly pilgrimage will be found to have been lost; but each will help
to ease their way as they move from stage to stage of Being



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