India's Brahmin priests extended Hinduism following behind conquering warriors. Conquered intellectuals resented Brahmin arrogance, and a variety of men worked at creating alternatives. They wandered across the northeast of India and entered communities to engage in public debates with rivals, including Brahmins, and the debates were welcomed entertainment for local people. A rebel who did well in these disputations and acquired a sizeable following was Siddartha Gautama (563-483), according to legend a prince from what today is southern Nepal.
Siddartha rejected the claims of Brahmins that they were superior. He rejected their books, the Vedas. He rejected Hinduism's animal sacrifices. Legend has it that he was critical of Hinduism for not having saved humanity from grief and misery. He agreed with the view that had made it into India's Upanishads that the cause of human misery was humanity itself. And he was determined not to fall into the error of those who sought salvation in philosophical speculations: he refused to question or discuss whether the cosmos is finite or infinite, whether there is life after death or other metaphysical questions. He believed that these sidetracked people from doing something practical about the misery of their existence.
Siddartha preached no warnings of torments for evil deeds. Instead he preached self-discipline. He outlined numerous rules for maintaining this discipline. He saw human misery coming from people looking for permanence where there was no permanence – people clinging to objects of desire that were transitory. And his first rule was proper understanding, by which he meant realizing that there is nothing essentially permanent, that there is only change (a radical departure from orthodox Hinduism). Associated with this first rule was his next rule: proper attitude. By proper attitude he meant not wanting the impossible and accepting the inevitable. Proper attitude included control over one's own appetites and ambitions. As a part of this second rule he didn't see a desire for good food and drink wrong, nor did he see it wrong to desire fine clothes or to seek sexual satisfaction, but he held that it was eventually destructive psychologically to lack self-governance regarding these appetites. In other words he was for having the discipline of moderation. And he saw as proper attitude giving up hope for that which was impossible to have. This he saw as a means toward peace of mind.
All this is legend. And according to legend, Siddartha's third rule was proper speech, which he believed was important because he believed that words preceded actions. His fourth rule was proper action, Siddartha seeing this rule as important in creating a righteousness about oneself that engendered serenity. His fifth rule was to do no injury to other living things. This included refraining from theft, lying, sexual immorality, and drinking liquor, which engendered slothfulness. Siddartha's additional rules reinforced his first five rules and included having a proper vocation, making proper efforts, exercising proper reflection and partaking in proper meditation. How could one guide oneself without questioning, and how could one discipline oneself without reflection?
Siddartha claimed that people should not expect assistance from any source other than themselves, that one could not lean on gods or other spiritual agents, that each person must work out his own salvation, that there was no escape from choice or refuge outside themselves. This is what guiding oneself was about. People, he said, should be their own lamps and their own salvation.
But this was an age of devotion to gods. Siddartha was a rebel but he is said to have not asked his followers to give up their Hindu gods – as contradictory as that may seem. His followers, at least some of them, would worship the gods Indra, Brahma, Shiva or Vishnu for centuries to come.
Siddartha created an order of monks. He opened his movement to all classes and eventually to females, and within his movement everyone was released from Hinduism's caste restrictions. The monks and nuns did not regard themselves as apart from lay followers or from the world. They saw themselves as promoters of the welfare and happiness not just of themselves but of the many.
Siddartha is said to have died in 483 at the age of eighty. And according to legend, a council of five hundred of his monks met at the city of Rajagriha, concerned about preserving Siddartha's teachings, including Siddhartha's major tenet of being one's own light. They had reason for worry. There was often an element of chaos or conflict in the thinking of individuals, and conflict in thought was magnified within large populations. Diversity in belief would soon appear among Buddhists as it had among other groups. Soon splits among the Buddhists occurred over a variety of issues, some as small as whether one should drink buttermilk after dinner. A split arose as some older members wanted the Buddhist movement limited to ascetic monks and nuns. Others wanted a broader movement, one that included those not ready to discipline themselves to the degree that the monks and nuns did or who didn't want to withdraw from the normal routines of life. It was a split between purists and inclusionists that would appear among other religious movements.
Like Taoism and other movements, Buddhism changed. In the 200s BCE a powerful king, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism, connecting Buddhism to state power. Ashoka issued edicts that described Siddartha Gautama not merely as the teacher he had thought of himself to be. Ashoka described him as "the Lord Buddha." Buddhism was carried to China by merchants, perhaps in the first century of the Common Era (otherwise known as AD). Buddhism altered China and China altered Buddhism. A Chinese Buddhist named Hui-yuan (334-416) focused on the spirit called Amitabha, a celestial Buddha of Infinite Light described in the scriptures of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Hui-yuan founded what came to be known as "Pure Land Buddhism." He held that to escape the torments of life one didn't need bookish learning or the grasp of obtuse doctrine or knowledge, one only had to avoid bad deeds and prove one's devotion by chanting Amitabha's name sincerely – the more often the better the chance of achieving nirvana. Pure Land Buddhism held that at death one could be reborn into paradise. It described the "Pure Land" as where Amitabha dwelled and where immortals lived in an atmosphere of eternal bliss.
Another branch of Mahayana Buddhism developed in China called Chán. It was to migrate to Japan, where it would be called Zen – the subject of another article.
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.