The Life of Buddha and Its Lessons
The Life of Buddha and Its
H. S. OLCOTT
THEOSOPHICAL PUBLISHING HOUSE
Adyar, Madras, India
First Edition: May 1912
Second Edition: Sept. 1919
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 isan invariable tendency to deify whomsoever shows himself superior tothe weakness of our common humanity. Look where we will, we find thesaint-like man exalted into a divine personage and worshipped for agod. Though perhaps misunderstood, reviled and even persecuted whileliving, the apotheosis is almost sure to come after death: and thevictim of yesterday's mob, raised to the state of an Intercessor inHeaven, is besought with prayer and tears, and placatory penances, tomediate with God for the pardon of human sin. This is a mean and viletrait of human nature, the proof of ignorance, selfishness, brutalcowardice, and a superstitious materialism. It shows the base instinctto put down and destroy whatever or whoever makes men feel their ownimperfections; with the alternative of ignoring and denying these veryimperfections by turning into gods men who have merely spiritualisedtheir natures, so that it may be supposed that they were heavenlyincarnations and not mortal like other men.
This process of euhemerisation, as it is called, or the making of meninto gods and gods into men, sometimes, though more rarely, beginsduring the life of the hero, but usually after death. The true historyof his life is gradually amplified and decorated with fancifulincidents, to fit it to the new character which has been posthumouslygiven him. Omens and portents are now made to attend his earthlyavaṭāra: his precocity is described as superhuman: as a babe orlisping child he silences the wisest logicians by his divineknowledge: miracles he produces as other boys do soap-bubbles: theterrible energies of nature are his playthings: the gods, angels, anddemons are his habitual attendants: the sun, moon, and all the starryhost wheel around his cradle in joyful measures, and the earth thrillswith joy at having borne such a prodigy: and at his last hour ofmortal life the whole universe shakes with conflicting emotions.
Why need I use the few moments at my disposal to marshal before youthe various personages of whom these fables have been written? Let itsuffice to recall the interesting fact to your notice, and invite youto compare the respective biographies of the BrāhmaṇicalKṛṣhṇa, the Persian Zoroaster, the Egyptian Hermes, theIndian Gauṭama, and the canonical, especially the apocryphal,Jesus. Taking Kṛṣhṇa or Zoroaster, as you please, as the mostancient, and coming down the chronological line of descent, you willfind them all made after the same pattern. The real personage is allcovered up and concealed under the embroidered veils of the romancerand the enthusiastic historiographer. What is surprising to me is thatthis tendency to exaggeration and hyperbole is not more commonlyallowed for by those who in our days attempt to discuss and comparereligions. We are constantly and painfully reminded that the prejudiceof inimical critics, on the one hand, and the furious bigotry ofdevotees, on the other, blind men to fact and probability, and lead togross injustice. Let me take as an example the mythical biographies ofJesus. At the time when the Council of Nicea was convened for settlingthe quarrels of certain bishops, and for the purpose of examining intothe canonicity of the three hundred more or less apocryphal gospelsthat were being read in the Christian churches as inspired writings,the history of the life of Christ had reached the height of absurdmyth. We may see some specimens in the extant books of the apocryphalNew Testament, but most of them are now lost. What have been retainedin the present Canon may doubtless be regarded as the leastobjectionable. And yet we must not hastily adopt even this conclusion,for you know that Sabina, Bishop of Heracha, himself speaking of theCouncil of Nicea, affirms that "except Constantine and Sabinus, Bishopof Pamphilus, these bishops were a set of illiterate, simple creaturesthat understood nothing"; which is as though he had said they were apack of fools. And Pappus, in his Synodicon to that Council ofNicea, lets us into the secret that the Canon was not decided by acareful comparison of several gospels before them, but by a lottery.Having, he tells us, "promiscuously put all the books that werereferred to the Council for determination under a Communion table in achurch, they (the bishops) besought the Lord that the inspiredwritings might get up on the table, while the spurious writingsremained underneath, and it happened accordingly".
But letting all this pass and looking only to what is contained in thepresent Canon, we see the same tendency to compel all nature to attestthe divinity of the writer's hero. At the nativity a star leaves itsorbit and leads the Persian astrologers to the divine child, andangels come and converse with shepherds, and a whole train of likecelestial phenomena occurs at various stages of his earthly career,which closes amid earthquakes, a pall of darkness over the wholescene, a supernatural war of the elements, the opening of graves andthe walking about of their tenants, and other appalling wonders. Now,if the candid Buḍḍhist concedes that the real history ofGauṭama is embellished by like absurd exaggerations, and if we canfind their duplicates in the biographies of Zoroaster,Shaṅkarāchārya and other real personages of antiquity, havewe not the right to conclude that the true history of the Founder ofChristianity, if at this late date it were possible to write it, wouldbe very different from the narratives that pass current? We must notforget that Jerusalem was at that time a Roman dependency, just asCeylon is now a British, and that the silence of contemporary Romanhistorians about any such violent disturbances of the equilibrium ofnature is deeply significant.
I have cited this example for the sole and simple purpose of bringinghome to the non-Buḍḍhistic portion of my present audience theconviction that, in considering the life of Sākya Muni and thelessons it teaches, they must not make his followers of to-dayresponsible for any extravagant exuberances of past biographers. Thedoctrine of Buḍḍha and its effects are to be judged quite apartfrom the man, just as the doctrine ascribed to Jesus and its effectsare to be considered quite irrespectively of his personal history.And—as I hope I have shown—the actual doings and sayings of everyfounder of a Faith or a school of philosophy must be sought for undera heap of tinsel and rubbish contributed by successive generations offollowers.
Approaching the question of the hour in this spirit of precaution,what do we find are the probabilities respecting the life of SākyaMuni? Who was he? When did he live? How did he live? What did heteach? A most careful comparison of authorities and analysis ofevidence 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, andamong the lowest and most unhappy classes, so as to learn the secretof human pain and misery by personal experience: tested every knownausterity of the Hinḍū ascetics and excelled them all in his powerof endurance: sounded every depth of woe in search of the means toalleviate it: and at last came out victorious, and showed the worldthe way to salvation.
4. What he taught may be summed up in a few words, as the perfume ofmany roses may be distilled into a few drops of attar: Everything inthe world of Matter is unreal; the only reality is in the world ofSpirit. Emancipate yourselves from the tyranny of the former; striveto attain the latter. The Rev. Samuel Beal, in his Catena ofBuḍḍhist Scriptures from the Chinese puts it differently. "Theidea underlying the Buddhist religious system is," he says, "simplythis: 'all is vanity'. Earth is a show, and Heaven is a vain reward."Primitive Buḍḍhism was engrossed, absorbed, by one thought—thevanity of finite existence, the priceless value of the one conditionof Eternal Rest.
If I have the temerity to prefer my own definition of the spirit ofBuḍḍha's doctrine, it is because I think that all themisconceptions of it have arisen from a failure to understand his ideaof what is real and what is unreal, what worth longing and strivingfor and what not. From this misconception have come all the unfoundedcharges that Buḍḍhism is an "atheistical," that is to say, agrossly materialistic, a nihilistic, a negative, a vice-breedingreligion. Buḍḍhism denies the existence of a personalGod—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 mymeaning clear, and the advancement of modern scientific research helpsin this direction. Science divides the universe for us into twoelements—matter and force; accounting for their phenomena by theircombinations, and making both eternal and obedient to eternal andimmutable law. The speculations of men of science have carried them tothe outermost verge of the physical universe. Behind them lie not onlya thousand brilliant triumphs by which a part of Nature's secrets havebeen wrung from her, but also more thousands of failures to fathom herdeep mysteries. They have proved thought material, since it is theevolution of the gray tissue of the brain, and a recent Germanexperimentalist, Professor Dr. Jäger, claims to have proved thatman's soul is "a volatile odoriferous principle, capable of solutionin glycerine". Psychogen is the name he gives to it, and hisexperiments 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 ultimateelements of protoplasm. I need hardly say to so intelligent anaudience as this, that these highly interesting experiments of Dr.Jäger are corroborated by many facts, both physiological andpsychological, that have been always noticed among all nations; factswhich are woven into popular proverbs, legends, folk-lore fables,mythologies and theologies, the world over. Now, if thought is matterand soul is matter, then Buḍḍha, in recognising the impermanenceof sensual enjoyment or experience of any kind, and the instability ofevery material form, the human soul included, uttered a profound andscientific truth, And since the very idea of gratification orsuffering is inseparable from that of material being—absolute Spiritalone being regarded by common consent as perfect, changeless andEternal—therefore, in teaching the doctrine that conquest of thematerial self, with all its lusts, desires, loves, hopes, ambitionsand hates, frees one from pain, and leads to Nirvāṇa, the stateof Perfect Rest, he preached the rest of an untinged, untaintedexistence in the Spirit. Though the soul be composed of the finestconceivable substance, yet if substance at all—as Dr. Jäger seemsable to prove, and ages of human intercourse with the weird phantomsof the shadow world imply—it must in time perish. What remains isthat changeless part of man, which most philosophers call Spirit, andNirvāṇa is its necessary condition of existence. The onlydispute between Buḍḍhist authorities is whether thisNirvāṇic existence is attended with individual consciousness, orwhether the individual is merged in the whole, as the extinguishedflame is lost in the air. But there are those who say that the flamehas not been annihilated by the blowing out. It has only passed out ofthe visible world of matter into the invisible world of Spirit, whereit still exists and will ever exist, as a bright reality. Suchthinkers can understand Buḍḍha's doctrine and, while agreeingwith him that soul is not immortal, would spurn the charge ofmaterialistic nihilism, if brought against either that sublime teacheror themselves.
The history of Sākya Muni's life is the strongest bulwark of hisreligion. As long as the human heart is capable of being touched bytales of heroic self-sacrifice, accompanied by purity and celestialbenevolence of motive, it will cherish his memory. Why should I gointo the particulars of that noble life? You will remember that he wasthe son of the king of Kapilavasṭu—a mighty sovereign whoseopulence enabled him to give the heir of his house every luxury that avoluptuous imagination could desire: and that the future Buḍḍhawas not allowed