A Young Muslim’s Guide to Religions in the World

Chapter Five

Of the religions which have originated on Indian soil, the most important next to Hinduism, is Buddhism, but unlike the latter it is a proselytizing faith and has adherents in every part of the world. India ceased centuries ago to be the chief sanctuary of Buddhism on account of persecution by the Hindus, and it is in Tibet, Japan, China, Thailand, Burma,and Sri Lanka that Buddhism has its principal bases.
Buddhism also differs from Hinduism in having a definite historical source and a founder as in Islam and Christianity, a historically identifiable person, Gautama Buddha referred to by his followers as the Tathagata or even Bhagwan or Lord. The exact details of his ministry are no longer distintuishable from legend, but his historicity cannot be questioned.
Gautama was the son of a king who ruled over a small kingdom called Kapilavastu in the foothills of the Himalayas in the sixth century B. C. The family were not any different in their beliefs and practices trom the rest of the population in the surrounding areas, which means that there were Hindus in the sense in which the term came ta be known later. They believed in rebirth and the caste system. But Gautama the prince is reported to have been of a meditative disposition, given to contemplation andreflection. The father sought to cure the other-wordly tendencies discernible in the youth by getting him
married early to an attractive girl. A son was born to him, but this did nothing to change his nature. He continued to be distressed by human suffering and the meaninglessness of the rules which governed society. What finally decided him to renounce the world altogether was his encounter on one of his journeys through the countryside with an old man, a sick man, a dead body and an ascetic. He hesitated no longer, and slipped away commanding his charioteer to return to the palace alone.
For the next six years Gautama wandered about, joined a band of Brahmins, practised austerities such that he was reduced to skin and bone, and sounght ail the time an answer to the questions which worried him. Realising at last that mortification of the flesh was not the right way of attaining the knowledge he wanted, he returned to the normal life of a religious mendicant. The five disciples who used to accompany him now deserted him in the belief that he had deviated from the path of rectitude which alone could lead to salvation. Seated under a pipai tree he meditated on the mystery of existence until enlightenment came to him one evening, and he became Buddha or the Enlightened one.
The core of the Buddha’s teaching was the search for a way out of suffering. The four signs he had seen, a decrepit old man, a sick man, an ascetic, and a dead body, symbolised for him the four different forms of suffering incident to human life; the sufferings of old age, the sufferings of sickness, the sl.Jfferings of death, and the sufferings that man imposes on himself by extreme austerities. The root of ail sorrow, the Buddha said, was desire, and it is by emancipating oneself from desire in ail its diverse forms that one can achieve true bliss-that is, rel ease from the round of births and rebirths. This final release is termed Nirvana, or extinction or annihilation. What ended is the curse of Karma, the law which requires each individual to be barn again and again ta expiate sins and thus ta be subjected repeatedly ta suffering.
It will be clear even from this brief description that the doctrine the Buddha preached had its foundation in Hinduism, and accepts its basic theory or the twin principles of Karma and rebirth. Nor were his first disciples conscious of any fundamental departure fram the old Dharma. The Master was giving only a fresh interpretation of the existing beliefs, trying ta reform them be ridding them of unacceptable incrustations.
Legend has it that the Buddha went after his enlightenment tirst ta the Deer Park near Benares ta announce his new ideas. There he met once again his original disciples who had deserted him and explained ta them how man could escape from the misery of living. He set in motion what the Buddhists cali the Wheel of the Doctrine, and the five monks who accepted the new doctrine became the first members of the Buddhist monastic arder called the Sangha. They fanned out ta spread the good news.
The enlightenment is said ta have taken place about 528 BC, and during the next 45 years until his death at the age of 80 the Buddha led the life of a wandering monk preaching his doctrine fram place ta place, never staying in any one place for any length of time. He visited his father’s palace once and Yosodhara, his wife, became a nun under his influence. It goes without saying that he did not resume his conjugal life. When over 80 he realised that the hour of his death was approaching. A couch was prepared for him under two Sai trees in Kusinara, and there he lay surraunded by sorrowing disciples. His last words consisted of an admonition ta them ta strive to be true ta his teaching. He then fell into trance after trance, and out of the fourth trance attained Nirvana. A great earthquake and appalling thunder marked his passing. His mortal remains were cremated in the traditional Hindu manner, and the ashes and relics were buried in ten places under the directrion of Ananda, his cousin and chief disciple. The place of the Buddha’s birth has been identified, as Lumbini which was the capital of his father’s kingdom, Kapilavastu. Kapilavastu was situated in what is now modern Nepal.
Another place associated with the Buddha is Bodh-Gaya in India where he first made the acquaintance of the five monks who first deserted him and later after his enlightenment became his first disciples, the founding members of the Sangha. His father’s name was Suddhodhana, and the charioteer whom he dismissed when he set off from home was Chan na. The devil who tried to mislead him during the final hours before he achieved enlightenment was called Mara. This episode in the traditional accounts of the Buddha’s life bears a strong resemblance to the attempts made by Satan to tempt Christ before his crucifixion.
While Gautama Buddha was beyond question a historical person, it is difficult to say how much of the legend surrounding his life is based on fact. The miracles associated with his youth and the manner in which he escaped the notice of the guards when he made his decision to run away trom home appear to outsiders to be attempts to reconstruct events which no one could have thought worth recording wh en they actually occurred. They bear a family likeness to similar miracles in the lives of preachers elsewhere. There is however no doubt that the Buddha was able to make a profound impact on his contemporaries by his personality and the quality of his life. He seems to have been viewed not as the founder of a new faith, but as a reformer who aimed at ridding the prevalent religion of unwholesome elements; at the most he was considered a rebel who rejected distinction of cast and repudiated the supremacy of the Brahmins. Gautama, it should be remembered, was as a prince a member of the Kshatriya caste, the warrior class privileged to rule.
The relation between Hinduism and Buddhism has for a Muslim the tantalising aspect of the historical nexus between Christianity and Islam. They are from one point of view close to each other and yet so different. Muslims accept Jesus as one of the true prophets and claim that the religion he preached was essentially the same monotheism that Islam emphasises; yet it would be an obvious error to overlook the differences between the two faiths. Likewise, Buddhism, starting as a reform. movement within Hinduism and on the basis of the twin doctrines of rebirth and Karma created a church which has grown independently of it and established its claim to be regarded as a separate religion. In the course of time it came on Indian soil to be seen as a threat to the stability of time it came on Indian soil to be seen as a threat to the stability of Hindu society, and to be persecuted and driven off from its home base.
Although Buddhism has no revealed book of the kind that the Ouran is to Muslims, its doctrines are easier to identify than those of Hinduism. They are found embedded in the collections of the Buddha’s discourses compiled by his followers, which have a sacred character in Buddhist eyes. They cannot claim to be the actual words the Buddha spoke, having been codified centuries after the Master’s death, but they are the nearest we have to anything analogous to the six authentic collections of Hadith or the sayings of the Prophet (Allah bless and exalt him). The discourses were given in Pali, the vernacular of the Buddha’s day in northern India, a language very different from Sanskrit but with a vocabulary derived largely from the latter.
The Pali canon is twice the ~iZê of the English Bible and consists of three Pitakas or baskets. Collectively known as the Tripitaka, they are the Vinaya, the Dhamma or Sutta, and the Abhidhamma.
Buddhism is to the best of our knowledge the only religion which does not postulate a God in any form. We cannot cali it theistic; on the other hand, it is not atheism in the accepted sense. Its doctrines of Karma and Nirvana appear to suggest the existence of a cosmic law to which no personality can be attributed. It concerns itself with how man can free himself from the curse of existence and sorrow and suffering rather than with prayer and worship as they are conventionally understood. This fact has sometimes led people to question whether the term religion is applicable to it at ail or whether it would be more appropriate to cali it a philosophy. But unlike a mere system of thought such as the term philosophy implies, Buddhism has from the beginning concerned itself with how men should conduct themselves in real life, and it has also to be remembered that within decades of the Buddha’s death the way of life he preached assumed ail the paraphernalia of regular religion; the Buddha himself began to be worshipped in the same way as God in other religions is worshipped. While no branch of Buddhism wou Id go the length of identifying the Buddha with God and usually resort to ambiguity or ambivalence on the subject, the Buddha has in the eyes of ordinary Buddhists of ail classes and schools not only the semblance but the prestige of a deity to whom prayers can be addressed. This tendency is more pronounced in the branch of Buddhism called Mahayana or the Greater Vehicle which is the dominant form in Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. The other branch called Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicle has its adherents in Ceylon or Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and the Indian subcontinent.
The differences between the two schools far exceed the diffences between Sunni and Shia Islam and in some respects can be said to approximate the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. In Hinayana the emphasis is less on the adoration of the Buddha as a deity than on those aspects of Buddhahood in which the Master is seen as a guide and preceptor. Mahayana Buddhism, like Hinduism, has developed an elaborate pantheon of gods and goddesses variously described with various powers ascribed to them. Both schools refer to the Buddha as Bhagwan Buddha which means God Buddha, though the Hinayanis would excuse the use of the term which means God on the ground that it can also be applicable to holy men. The bifurcation which was responsible for the growth of the two schools arose nearly six hundred years after the religion’s birth in the opening century of the Christian era. To understand how and in what circusmtances the division occured it is better to go back to Buddhism’s early history.
Soon after his enlightenment the Buddha is believed to have sent his emissaries to various parts of India and also to Sri Lanka to preach the new doctrines. By the third century BC it appears to have established itself widely. The conversion of Emperor Asoka (264-223 BC) to Buddhism marks the climax in its growth, for now it became the state church and replaced Hinduism in the matter of its prestige. It was Asoka who sent his son Mahindra to Ceylon or Sri Lanka to propagate the new faith. He caused inscriptions of the Buddhist creed to be carved on sorne pillars and rocks throughout his empire and became ultimately a full member of the Buddhist order. 35 of the pillars or rock carvings still survive to testify to the hold which Buddhism had gained not only on the emperor but on his subjects. But it is difficult to say what proportion of the population embraced Buddhism by following Asoka’s example. That the Brahmins did not favour the new faith and were waiting for an opportunity to reassert themselves is clear from the fa ct that in spite of Asoka’s efforts they succeeded in regaining their supremacy on Indian soil within the next few centuries. The persecution of Buddhists in northern and south eastern India led to its virtual banishment from the subcntinent and was one of the reasons why Muslim conquerors received a warm welcome in Bengal where the Senas had carried this persecution to great lenghts. ln contemporary Bengali literature the Muslims are referred to as saviours. It is significant that the Buddhist population in Bangladesh is concentrated in the south-east in the hilly region of Chittagong away from the centres of Brahminical Hinduism.
The Pali canon or Tripitaka deals each with a different aspect of the duties of Buddhists. The Vinaya Pitaka is concerned with the Sangha or the monastic order which one may enter only after a rigorous novitiate. A youth who announces his intention of joining the Sangha is regquired to repeat the formula Dhammam Sharanam Gacchami or 1 take refuge in the Buddha and shave off his hair and beard and don the yellow robe which consists of two pieces of cloth wound round the body. A candidate has to pass an examination before the full assembly of monks who test his assimilation of the sacred doctrines. One of the oldest sections of the Vinaya is the Patimokkkha, the Words of Disbursement, which are recited by a senior monk to his brethren at full and new moon. The Patimokkha lists 72 offences which a good Buddhist must avoid. The four cardinal sins are taking life—that is, destroying any sentient being, human or animal, sex, stealing and vaunting of supernatural powers. The prohibitions include liquor, eating at forbidden times, dancing, singing, adorning the body and receiving money. The penalty for serious offences is expulsion from the Sangha; for minor sins, different kinds of penance are prescribed.
The Dhamma or Sutta Pitaka is the chief authority for the Budhist doctrine. This doctrine is predicated upon the acceptance of the Four Noble Truths which were discovered by the Buddha ur)der the Bodhi tree, the Truth of suffering meaning that pain or suffering is a fact; the Truth that suffering has a cause, which is desire which leads to rebirth; the Truth that suffering can be ended by human effort; and finally, the Truth that the way out of suffering lies in the Noble Eightfold Way, a set of rules which those who accept the Buddha’s teaching must try to practise. The rules are right thought, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The Buddhist must know and practise these eight truths, but it may take him several rebirth to attain to arhathood, which is a stage when he qualifies for entry into Nirvana.
The Buddha described his code as the Middle Way between extremes. He deprecated extreme ascerticism and indulgence and taught that neither the one nor the other could lead to salvation. The definition of the Buddhist goal, Nirvana, is rather difficult to understand. For Nirvana is said to be unlike both existence and non-existence, though outsiders often cali it annihilation of the self. The self is described as something which is constantly changing, though it is not dissolved until Nirvana is attained.
The Abhidamma, the last of the Pitakas consists of commentaries on Buddhist Suttas and are the work of Buddhist scholars in the great monasteries.
The form that Buddhism has taken in the course of centuries is the result of decisions and formulations arrived at by a succession of Buddhist Councils which after the death of the Master took upon themselves the task of interpreting his teachings correctly. The first such Council was held in 483 BC or soon thereafter at Rajagaha under the presidency of Kassapa. A second Council was held a century later in 383 BC at Vesali, and a third at Pataliputra (Patna) about 247 BC in the reign of Asoka. This third Council decided to expel from the Sangha ail those who were thought guilty of corrupting the Buddhist religion and its decisions constitute the foundation of what is called the Theravada school which is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and south-east Asia. The Theravada school is also known as Hinayana.
While Mahayana rites and practices have tended to approximate those of Hinduism with its pantheon of gods and Aspara or nymphs, and in Tibet is hardly distinguishable from Hindu Tantrism, Theravada claims to be apurer form of the creed preached by the Buddha, a claim which quite understandably is not conceded by their rivais. On the other hand, Mahayana at its profoundest offers a philosophy or metaphysic so subtle as to boggie the mind. It abolishes ail distinction between being and non-being and insists that things are at the same time real and unreal, and that Buddhahood is a state in which ail that creates the illusion or solidity or appearance vanishes. Theravada believes that Nirvana means the extinction of the three fires of Greed, Anger and Illusion, but Mahayana would assert that what manifests itself as fire is also an illusion.
To a Muslim the main puzzle in Buddhism seems to be the fact that while claiming to offer man a higher code by which to live it starts from the premise that existence itself is a curse. That being 50, civilisation as men in different ages have understood the term is reduced to meaninglessness. Vet on the other hand some of the finest art, not to mention other things, has come from Buddhist societies.
The other aspect of Buddhist doctrine which poses a riddle to Muslims is the absence of any code, definitely attributable to the Buddha, which can be followed in life. Buddhist societies are thus free to organise their lives in different ways according to their own understanding of the Master’s teaching. The result has been in the case of Mahayana especially the acceptance by Buddhists of practies and beliefs which outsiders find it difficult to regard with sympathy. In the foothills of the Himalayas a form of incest is prevalent; polygamy and polyandry are both widely practised in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. Not only can a person marry a number of consanguinary sisters simultaneously; a wite can have any number of husbands. These practices are by no means limited to the lower social orders. The aristocracy accept them as norms. The dead in Tibet are offered as food to birds, vultures and crows and in order that no part of the body such as the bones may be wasted corpses are tirst crushed and pulverised to facilitate consumption by birds. The customs may be a legacy from local traditions, but they have never been declared inconsistent with Buddhism.
Even among Hinayana Buddhists relic worship is universal. Buddhist icons are an inseparable feature of pa godas in Burma, Thailand, China and Japan as in India and Sri Lanka. The paradox which strikes the outsider is that a religion which set out to be a pure metaphysic without any ritualistic encumbrances is today scarcely capable of being differentiated trom other forms of paganism.
Unlike the Muslims and Jews, Buddhists have no dietary laws. Ali forms of food are acceptable provided this does not involve killing. In practice few Buddhists are vegetarians. They would not themselves participate in the slaughter of animais, but sorne exceptions apart they do not insist on abstention from any kind of animal food, fish or meal or poultry. Such animais as dogs, cats and monkeys are widely eaten in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam; snakes are considered a delicacy among the Chinese. Buddhist comunities thus go farthest in thier lack of dietary inhibitions. Muslims with their clearly defined categories of Halai and Haram find the freedom both interesting and fascinating. In this regard Buddhists bear a resemblance to modem European and American Christians who raise crocodiles on farms for food.
The Buddha did not prescribe any form of worship either. The main reason for this was the theory that worship presupposes homage to one or more supernatural beings capable of granting prayers, and the Buddha did not postulate any. The Buddhist has to achieve self-purification by adhering to the Four Nolle Truthy and modelling his lite on the pattern laid down in the Eightfold Way in the light of his own reason. A Buddha on earth is an absurdity; for once Buddhahood is attained the round of births and rebirths is broken and there is no return to earthly existence. But a person who has arrive at the stage where he is certain of Buddhahood may voluntarily choose to be reborn in order to guide other errant brethren.
ln Theravada Buddhism two stages are envisaged in the attainment of Buddhahood. The disciple aims at becoming an arhat or Pratyekabuddha in the first instance and do es not preach. In Mahayana, on the other hand, no one is expected to aim at Nirvana only for himself; the disciple should train himself to be a Buddha and aim at saving fellow sufferers. Such persons are designated as Bodhisattvas which means beings destined for enlightenment. Mahayana sriptures are full of accounts of such beings; they as weil as those who have taken the final step into Buddhahood are prayed to exactly in the same manner as are gods in Hinduism and saints in Catholic Christianity. Mahayana Buddhism is indisputably polytheistic.
The most widely honoured Budhisattva in Mahayana is Avalikoteswara or Avalikota, the embodiment of mercy and compassion. His task is to save errant souls and lead them to the Happy Land of Amitabha, the equivalent of heaven or Swarga in Hinduism. He voluntarily postpones his Buddhahood for the sake of humanity at large; those who pray to him and put their trust in him can be assured of salvtion. Avalikoteswara in many Buddhist countries has assumed the features of Hindu Iswara; it is difficult for outsiders to say how in this respect Buddhism differs from one of other form of Hinduism. The tact that in the legendary stories about the Buddha Hindu gods and sages are ofter invoked and that the Buddha is sometimes spoken of as an avatar of one of the many deities in the Hindu pantheon creates additional problems. But it has to be recognised that it is its rejection of the Brahminical caste system and its insistence on Dukkha or suffering being the final truth about existence which down the centuries has widened the clevage between the two religions. The Buddha’s refusai to define the nature of Ultimate Reality-a subject on which he is believed to have remained silent when questioned-is by many considered to amount to an advocacy of atheism and is also the basis for parallels drawn between some aspects of the Hindu philosophical system known as Sankhya and the Buddha’s teachings. But one must also remember that the Buddhists do not accept any of the Hindu scriptures. The Pali canon for Theravada and the numerous tomes produced by Mahayana scholars are the Buddhist equivalent to Hindu scripture.
No matter what sect or scool a Buddhist belongs to, the common affirmation of faith heard on Buddhist lips everywhere is : Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dhammam Saranam Gacchami, Sangham Saranam Gacchami, which means: 1 take refuge in the Buddha, 1 take refuge in the Cult, 1 take refuge in the Order. Cult is perhaps not an exact translatiOn of Dhamma, which really stands for the entire ethical and religious system propounded by the Buddha.
Buddhist scriptures must be grouped into two categories: the Pali Canon of the Hinayany school and the Mahayana writings. Among the latter the most important are Mahavatsu, Sukhavati-Vyuha, Saddharma-Pundarika and Avatamasaka. While Mahavastu denies the reality of phenomena, and consequently refrains from offering the disciple any satisfaction of the universal human longing for a Personal Deity, the cult of Amida and Buddhisattva is developed in the others, especially in Saddharma-Pundarika. The transcendental philosophy of Avatamaska is said to have influenced Nagarjuna in the second century AD who along with Asvaghosa are the two most eminent interpreters of Mahayana doctrine. Legend attributes to Nagarjuna a feat which was miraculous. He is said to have descended into the depths of the sea and obtained sacred books from the Nagas, the mythical serpents who inhabit the underworld, a legend in which Hindu and Buddhist beliefs at the level of the masses coalesce. Asvaghosa was· Nagarjuna’s predecessor, a great poet in Sanskrit, author of SutralamKara.
His influence upon the development of Mahayana Buddhism has been so great that he is called by some scholars the father of Mahayana. Asvaghosa is also the author of a Life of the Buddha written, like the other work, in sanskrit not in PaiL Nagarjuna’s writings have influenced the growth of Buddhism in China; he is regarded as the founder or one of the principal founders of the Middle Doctrine or Madhyamaka school of Far Eastern Buddhism.
The most interesting developments in Buddhist doctrine have since the decay of Buddhism in India taken place either in China or Japan.
ln each of the countries which have a predominant Buddhist population, the religion has taken a distinct local colouring and evolved methods of worship peculiar to it.
Ceylon or Sri Lanka, which used to be considered once the fountain-head or Theravada doctrines, is famous for two Buddhist temples or shrines, one at Anuradhapura, the old capital, which is the repository of a collar bone of the Buddha brought to the country by Sanghamitra, Emperor Asoka’s daughter who followed her brother Mahindra as one of the first missionaries to arrive in Ceylon. She was also responsible for a cutting of the sacred Bo tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment. There is no reason to doubt, according to one authority, that this venerated growth is the oldest historical tree in existence. In the third century Ceylon recieved yet another relie, a tooth of the Buddha, housed in a temple at Kandy which is the most important religious shrine in Ceylon. Immense respect is pa id to this relie, regarded as a national treasure. It was in Ceylon that in the first century BC the Pali Canon was written down. The first century saw the emergence of the first commentator on Buddhist doctrine in Buddhaghosa.
His Visudha-magga in Pali is the most authoritative exposition of the arhat ideal to which the Sinhalese subscribe.
Burma was converted to Buddhism by one of Asoka’s missionaries. The form Buddhism took on Burmese soil is characterised by a mixture of Hinayana and Mahayana with spirit worship. These spirits are known as Nats. They are akin to the Devatas venerated in Ceylon and are feared as sources of evil who need to be propitiated. The greatest figure in Burmese Buddhism is King Anuwrabta (1044-1077 A.D) who embraced Theravada Buddhism and made it the official religion of Burma. The pagodas in Burma are famous, the greatest among them being the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon with a towering gold plated pinnacle. It houses numerous sacred relies and attracts both worshippers and tourists.
The history of Buddhism in Thailand or Siam is rather obscure. Its conversion is usually dated from the 14th century AD and is attributed to the work of a Tehravadin Bhikku or monk from Ceylon who was so successful in his mission as to be created Sangharaja of Supreme Head of the Order. Pagodas in Thailand are more orna mental than those in Burma and betray Chinese architectural influence.
Cambodia and Laos are also Buddhist countries as is Vietnam and they are claimed by the Theravada school. But in this area there has occurred a mixture of Hindu, Mahayana and Theravada influences. Theravada is paramount in present day Cambodia, but a full understanding oi religious practices in Cambodian society demands a knowledge of its past religious history as a Hindu Kingdom and its connection with Mahayana. Until the 14th century Cambodia was dominated by a blend of Hinduism and Mahayana, a fact unmistakably clear from the architecture of its most famous religious monument, the temple complex at Angkor which is one of the most splendid religious buildings anywhere.
China’s entry into the Buddhist world presents greater puzzles in the sense that China was already in possession of a high civilization based on the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tse when its tirst contacts with Buddhism took place, early in the Han dynasty (first century BC). Legend has it that the Emperor Ming-ti sent messengers to India tor Buddhist books in A 0 61. One of the Indian monks who arrived in response to the Chinese invitation translated some Buddhist scriptures of the Mahayana school into Chinese. The principal work was the Sutra of 42 Sections which was an anthology of precepts. This was followed by other translations. Among these the most influential proved to be the translations by Kumarajiva whose output was enormous and created a wave of interest in the new creed in Contucian and Taoist circles. A Chinese branch of the Sangha was soon founded with the permission ot the government, but the torm that Buddhism assumed gradually was profoundly modified by indigenous ethical and religious traditions, so that Chinese Buddhism has a distinct character different trom the varieties seen elsewhere.
The work initiated by Kumarajiva was carried a stage further by another Indian monk from Conjeeveram near Madras named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma departed trom the emphasis laid in Mahayana on salvation by faith and concentrated on Dhyana or meditation as the central principle whereby a person might achieve enlightenment. The term Dhyana underwent a corruption on Chinese tongues into Ch’an which in its turn was changed to Zen in Japan. Ch’an Buddhism is characteristically Chinese in the amalgam it offers of the Buddhist legacy and China’s own inheritance in religion and ethics from Confucian and Taoist sources.
Buddhism reached its greatest strength in China, according to scholars, in the Tang Dynasty (620-907). The fusion of Buddhism and China’s native traditions gave rise to a remarkable artistic flowering. Tang art, paintings, ceramics and sculpture are highly valued in the West and fetch enormous priees. While China assimieated Buddhism to its own roots, a reaction against foreign ideas set in under the Manchus. Confucianism triumphed eventually, though Buddhism continued and still remains, in spite of the suppression of religion after the Communist revolution, to be a perceptible strand in Chinese thought.
Mahayana, which is polytheistic, led even in China to the growth of a new pantheon of gods and goddesses. This is particularly evident in Tibet where the goddess Tara of Mahayana and Kali of Hinduism are the two principal deities worshipped in the Tibetan form of Tantrism. Even those who claim to adhere to apurer form of Mahayana have turned the cult of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, into a religion difficult to identify with Buddhism elewhere. The Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation of Chenrezi or Avalokatesvara. When he dies he is thought to be irmmediately reincarnated and a search is instituted for a child born at the exact hour of his death who will display sings proving that he is the same personality. The search party subjects the child to various tests and it he appears to remember his past life he is taken into their custody for training.
During the Dalain Lama’s minority it is the head priests or lamas who discharge his functions. The education given him is rigorous. He may not have contact with a woman, not even his mother after the first three or four years of his life. He learns ail the sacred texts and ail the rituals and the belief that he is a living god is instilled into him. Until the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama used to be an example of the ancient institution of the priest-king, combining in himself religious and’ secular functions. Tibet was a true theocracy. The 13th DalaiLama died in 1933 and the 14th was discovered and installed in 1939. He has since 1959 been living in exile in India after flecing his homeland in consequence of an abortive uprising against the Chinese communist rulers. With him the centre of Tibetan Buddhism shifted to a place near the Himalayan foothills.
Korea too is a Buddhist country but its Buddhism is in the main an offshoot of the Chinese branch of the Mahayana school. The most interesting developments in the religion outside of China have taken place in Japan. The Zen school of Japan is famous and thanks to the interpretations it has received from Western shcolars has influenced many in the West. The other schools among many are Nichiren and Shin. They ail reflect in varying degrees the fusion of Mahayana with the ancient Japanese cult of Shinto which is principally concerned with ancerstor whorship. Japan, like China, has produced great Buddhist art, especially in sculpture. The ancient city of Nara has one of the most impressive Buddhist temples, enshrining a stupendous stone Buddha.
Zen, Nichiren, Shin are ail mystical cuits. They emphasise the value of meditation and rigorouse discipline; Nichiren has for its ideal not Amida, the Buddhisattva but Buddha himself. But again it is not the historie Gautama who is adored but an eternal Buddha sitting in majestic passivity in heaven.
The mingling of Buddhist and various local cuits in every country whose population underwent a conversion to Buddhism makes it difficult to say whether the religion can be said to flourish in its pristine form anywhere. Originally intended perhaps for an exclusive few who would constitute the Sangha, a celibate order who would take upon themselves the task of acting as guides to errant humanity, never take part in mundane affairs, earn their livelihood by begging rather than engage in any occupation which might distract their minds from their religious duties, Buddhism as practised by ordinary Buddhists-that is, those who do not join the Sangha appears to be a compromise between whatever was the indigenous creed before the advent of the new religion and the teachings of the Buddha as the local population could interpret them for themselves. Outside of the Sangha no two Buddhist societies seem to follow the same pattern in the organisation of their life. It is the yellow robed monks of the Sangha, comparable in certain respects to mediaeval Christian orders, who silently roam the streets with bowls when they need food, who present a spectacle which brings home to non-Buddhists the reality of the Buddhist fraternity as a phenomenon which must be reckoned with.
Buddhist monks who are called lamas in Tibet and Bhikkus elsewhere have to be celibate like Catholic priests. They live in monasteries apart from society at large and are expected to be models of non-violence. But though as monks they are not allowed to participate in politics, they can as an organised force have great leverage in ail aspects of social life. In Sri Lanka, in Vietnam, in Cambodia and in Laos Buddhist influence in politics, even where indirect, is unmistakable. It was the Buddhist revoit against the non-communist regime in Vietnam, demonstrated not only by processions but also by acts of selfimmolation by individual priests, which facilitated its overthrow. Buddhism in its heyday spread as far afield in the west as Afghanistan and central Asia. One of the greatest centres of Buddhist culture, ancient Taxila, is situated in Pakistan. Swat in northern Pakistan was another centre and to this day carvings on mountain walls testify to the hold it once exercised on what is now a totally Muslim area.
Young men and women in Buddhist societies du ring the period they spend in school and college, enter a novitate and become Shramanas. The men are required to shave their head like the Bhikkus, and both sexes don yellow robes which they discard when the settle down in life as ordinary citizens; sorne may choose to join the Sangha permanently.
Buddhism in the West is largely a movement confined to a small intellectual class attracted by Zen and Buddhist art and literature. The English translations of Buddhist works by Arthur Waley have gone a long way to popularise Buddhism among general readers who eschew more scholarly interpretations. One of the effects flowing from the works of Buddhist societies in Europe and America is a growing tendency among some to take the doctrines of Karma and rebirth seriously. How far this would modify Christian beliefs or the general intellectual inheritance of the West in which Karma and the theory of rebirth do not play a part cannot be foreseen. That Buddhism can be, in spite of its quietistic appearance, an extremely active force is seen in the struggle between Buddhist Shinhalese and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka which surfaced in the eighties of the present century.
Like popular Hinduism, popular Buddhism has features which have a tenuous connection with Buddhist doctrine. This can best be surmised from the fables known as Jatakas or birth stories in which the successive appearances of the Boddhisattva who ultimatley attained Nurvana as the Buddha are recorded. He is said to have come again and again, lived and died and returned to earth to guide errant humanity for millions of years. In one such story Gautama is reported to have been so anguished by. the sight of a famished tiger that he lay down before the animal in order that it might devour him, convinced that he would return without fall. These fables have been given a philosophical interpretation as a history of the evolution of consciousness upon this earth. But ordinary Buddhists take them literally to signify Gautama’s repeated triumphs over death in the cause of suffering humanity. But no matter what their esoteric meaning, they provide an important clue to the understanding of the Buddhist approach to the doctrines of Karma and rebirth and Nirvana which are fundamental to it.
Of religions with a definite historical source Buddhism is the oldest. But one of the interesting aspects of its history is that, unlike Christanity, Hinduism and Judaism, it has never had occasion to face any confrontation on the political plane with Islam. The main reason for this is of course the fact that it has flourished mainly in countries like Thailand, Ceylon, Burma, Japan and China where Islam has never been the religion of the ruling power. As regards Western Asia and Bengal which today have predominantly Muslim populations and were once Buddhist, Islam arrive either after Buddhsim had begun to recede or as in the case of Bengalthe Muslims were welcomed as saviours of a Buddhlst society from the tyranny of Brahmins. Burma, the most aggressive Buddhist country among those where Buddhism is practised today, had the unfortunate distinction of being hostile to the local Muslims concentrated in Arakan and also being ambivalent in its attitude towards neighbouring Bangladesh. The intolerance shown to Arakanese Muslims who oftern complain of not being allowed to live peacefùUy in accordance with their own religious traditions is a phenomenon more reminiscent of Hindu-Muslim relations in India than of Buddhist history elsewhere in the past. But it points to the fact that even an apparently tolerant faith like Buddhism can in certain situations assume an agreessive pose.
Like Islam, Buddhism has no single organised church corresponding to the Catholic church; nor has it any head comparable to the Pope in Rome or the head of the Eastern Orothodox Church or the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of England. The Sangha in each Buddhist country if independent. The emphasis in Buddhism is and continues to be on individual effort towards salvation through an understanding of the Noble Truths and the pursuit of the Eight-fold Way as each man or woman comprehends them. The nearest to an organised body Buddhists have is the Mahabodhi Society founded in India in 1891 by a Sinhalese Buddhist, Anagarika Dharmapala. It has published Buddihist texts and acts as a caretaker of Buddhist shrines and holy places in the subcontinent. But the Mahabodhi Society is not a church. Similar functions are discharged by the Buddhist Soceity of England established in 1906.

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