For this is the message we have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; but how shall we love our brothers if we are content to hold them as heathen and strange, without trying to understand them?
The literatures, sacred and profane, of all countries are illuminated in many places by pictures of noble and lofty characters, of which contemplation alone must elevate and purify the human mind. Carlyle has declared that “we cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain which it is good and pleasant to be near, he is the light which enlightens, and has enlightened, the darkness of the world. And this, not as a kindled lamp only, but as a natural luminary, shining by the gift of Heaven — a flowing light-fountain in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.” Among the loftiest of such characters, it seems to me that of Gautama Buddha stands forth as being the perfect, the ideal impersonation or manifestation of Divine Compassion. “Scrupulously to avoid all evil actions, reverently to perform all virtuous ones, to purify intentions from all selfish ends — such is the doctrine of all Buddhas.” says one of the sacred books. But of this Buddha it has been said: “Who that has heard of him but yearns with love?”
As nearly as we can determine from varying statements, Buddha was born near the border of Nepaul in Northern India about the sixth century before our era. The history of his birth and early life is wrapped in myth and legend, told with all the rich symbolic imagery natural to Oriental peoples, but so difficult for us to understand or interpret. His mother Alaya, so the story runs, was a Virgin, most beautiful and perfect among women. “When the time came for his birth all Nature lent itself to fitting preparation. The palace where his mother lived swept itself sweet and clean; beautiful birds flocked from all quarters with joyous song’s; gardens burst into sudden bloom and fragrance; flowers of the sacred Lotus floated above the waters of lake and river; magical food, store of which no eating could diminish, appeared upon the tables; fairy music breathed from untouched strings; fountains played with perfumed waters, and an unearthly radiance wrapped the whole palace, while Gods and Goddesses came to adore the new-born child.
The child grew, and grew so beautiful and wise that, when he was presented at the temples, the Images prostrated themselves before him and sang hymns of praise.
Does this all seem but an extravagance of fervid imagination? Many of the same and kindred things are retold in the New Testament, and the books rejected from it, about Jesus, another Avatar. This seems strange! Is there not an inner meaning to all this seeming hyperbole — a meaning which will yield itself only to the unbiased, untiring seeker after Truth and Unity? This Child-Prince grew toward manhood excelling in all manly accomplishments; excelling, in still greater degree, in mental power. Later he was married to a woman, wise, tender-hearted, beautiful, — a very pearl of pearls — in whom he found loving companion, comforter and friend. The king, his father, cherished him as his one great treasure, marking each changing light upon his face, and sought, with all his love and power, to make life pass to Buddha like a blissful dream. But as the years rolled on that great Heart felt too much his unity with all to rest in selfish ease while any suffered, and his consciousness embraced the misery of the world. He saw the poor, the sick, the old, the dead, and found that such was the common lot and end of all. He saw the instability of things, the ceaseless change, the seeming nothingness of life. He saw that all the joyousness and strength of youth, and happy love, earth’s beauty and its brightness, were but like flitting shadows which the sunbeams cast before life’s sun has set.
He saw that none knew anything of Life, none had an answer to his ceaseless “whither,” “whence”‘ and “why.” He saw the very Gods they worshipped were unpitying and dumb. Morning and noon and night he sought. Was there no answer? Was there no light, no rest, no peace, no reality beyond?
The sorrows of the whole world beat upon him: not the mighty woes of humanity alone, but of the lower kingdoms, too, where beast and bird and tiny insect preyed upon its weaker fellow. He must find answer for himself and them. At length he determined to leave his kingdom and his people, leave wife and father, and bodily ease and luxury and in far solitudes and silent meditation, where were no things of sense to lead his mind astray, seek for some light, some method of deliverance for the world. He said: —
“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 the world;
Which I will heal, if healing may be found
By uttermost renouncing and strong strife.”
So he left off his princely robes and jewels and journeyed in his beggar garb away into the forests, where during long years he suffered his temptation and hunger in the wilderness, fought his great battle and won the victory! The books tell how from all quarters of the world, during these years, demons conspired against him, putting on every form and aspect that might allure him or dismay. Finally all joined together in one terrible assault upon this serenely steadfast soul. All was in vain. Buddha had conquered. Enlightenment had come. Then all the dread weapons the opposing hosts had hurled against him turned into wreaths of flowers that hung about his head.
“Then he arose, radiant, rejoicing, strong, beneath the tree, and lifting high his voice spake this in hearing of all times and worlds: —
” ‘Many a house of Life
Hath held me — seeking ever him who wrought
These prisons of the senses, sorrow-fraught.
Sore was my ceaseless strife.
But now, thou builder of this Tabernacle — Thou!
I know thee! Never shalt thou build again these walls of Pain,
Nor raise the rooftree of deceits, nor lay fresh rafters on the clay;
Broken thy house is, and the ridge-pole split — Delusion fashioned it!
Safe pass I thence — deliverance to obtain.’ “
And now this soul so pitiful, turned from the forests when his quest was ended, and hastened to bring his tidings to the world. He saw that man’s deliverance from the miseries of rebirth, old age, disease and death lay in enlightenment as to its cause, and that through man’s advance the lower kingdoms might be raised. Nor was he satisfied to let such knowledge rest with the intellectual, priestly class alone, while the masses of the people in their ignorance and weakness continued to be broken on the cruel wheel of Life. He wished all men to share his wisdom, so he began to teach them “The Four Noble Truths”: — That sorrow exists; that it grows from and feeds upon desire for things of sense; that sorrow may be destroyed by entering upon the Four Paths, which are Right Faith, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Act (and this is the doctrine of man’s perfectibility). The reaching of freedom and perfection, he taught, were not dependent upon set forms or ceremonies or observances, but upon purification of the mind from all unholy passions and desires; that advance toward perfection was based upon self-conquest, self-devotion, self-renunciation. He showed that it was ignorance which led men to take the empty shows of life for real things; to thirst for them, and cling, and clinging suffer when they passed.
Buddha taught these lessons with such power and sweetness it was little wonder that all who heard of him were drawn toward this radiant center of Love and Light, that they sat at his feet and wept with joy, listened and embraced his doctrines as far as they could understand. For it is said Buddha saw men like flowers in a Lotus tank, some just keeping above the mud, some in the midst of the water and some above the water reaching up toward the sunshine ready to burst into bloom, and knew they were not all alike ready for the highest teachings.
Through its code of ethics Buddhism suffers in comparison with none. And for each of the commandments it lays down it gives its reason and philosophy. ”Thou shalt not kill,” enjoins Christianity; and Buddhism says, “Thou shalt not kill even the smallest creeping thing,” because All Life is One and sacred, and any tiny form in which the One Life manifests is part of a stupendous whole, which rises along its cycles to its destiny after a perfect plan under the perfect Law. In this plan the tiniest, as the greatest, has its place and purpose, hence “do not kill” means do not disturb the relations of the parts, since in their perfect harmony alone can you Know true life. Thus it is with the whole Decalogue, and if it be complained that the Buddhist Church to-day has fallen below such teaching, we may ask, What church to-day does follow in the path the Master showed? No one can rightly claim the Christian Church obeys the precepts of the gentle Nazarene whom it calls “Master.” Creed and dogma have come between the Master and the man, veiling in part, and part distorting, the truths He brought again.
Therefore it is that sickness again has fallen upon the world. Men in this sickness seek they know not what. They neither know their ailment nor where the healing lies. They think they cannot stand upon the wind-swept heights nor breathe in the celestial air where Christ and Buddha stood and breathed. They wander in the caves below waiting for one to lead and help and prop them where they stand, curing their aches and pains, making them pure and beautiful and strong in some mysterious way by supernatural power. This is delusion, too. There is no power can save them from themselves but that which lies in their own unselfish endeavor, but there is healing in their native air upon the mountain top which they must climb.
The central core of Buddhism is Nirvana and the Law — “all that total of a soul which is the things it did, the thoughts it had, the self it wove.”
This is the Law whose mysterious workings in our daily life we find ourselves so often trying to trace. It is Karma, the Law which leads a man to the reaping of what he himself has sown, as Jesus and Paul taught. A law that no man can hope to understand apart from Reincarnation, which doctrine Jesus also taught.
But Nirvana — who of us can grasp the real meaning of Nirvana? The Encyclopedias, the Missionaries, the Orientalists, with a few happy exceptions, declare it means annihilation, nihilism, entire negation. They use many learned arguments to support this view, but to me it seems opposed to common sense, to all influences drawn from Buddha’s life and actions and to all his teachings. The goal of all high endeavor and attainment to be oblivion! A very little insight would, I think, show that with the Buddhist Nirvana stands for a state of consciousness beyond anything we are yet able to conceive. There are no words to express it or describe it, and if such words were, to us they would mean nothing. The idea is too high, too far beyond. The Buddhist only tries to tell what it is not. In Nirvana.” says one, “there is no longer either birth or death, only the essence of Life remains.”
The Books tell that Buddha entered Nirvana before he came back from the forests to teach the world. They also speak of Para-Nirvana — a state beyond Nirvana — still more unspeakable, more inconceivable. Even this is not the end, for in Buddhistic philosophy there is no finality. In Edwin Arnold’s words, Buddha says:
“If ye lay bound upon the wheel of change,
And no way were of breaking from the chain
The heart of Boundless Being is a curse,
The soul of things fell Pain.
Ye are not bound: the Soul of things is sweet.
The Heart of Being is Celestial Rest.
. . . That which was Good
Doth pass to better — best.”
Nirvana is surely this inconceivable Celestial Rest, the Heart of Being from which we pass on to that still more inconceivable better. Buddha continues:
“Ye suffer from yourselves, none else compels.
None other holds you, that ye live and die
And whirl upon the wheel, and hug and kiss its spokes of Agony,
Its tire of tears, its nave of nothingness.
Behold, I show you Truth.”
If we believe that this is truth, it seems to me there is but one question in the world worth asking and studying over, that is: — How can we break away from this whirling wheel toward that center of Celestial Rest! General directions have been given again and again to different peoples at different times in sacred books, by Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and by our Teachers in these last years, but each man must find his own way himself by realizing his unity with all. Krishna has said: “Some time all men shall come into my path,” and this is the only plan of Salvation which seems broad enough to content the heart of man. This appears to mean by natural process of evolution, but Buddha and other great compassionate Souls on reaching Enlightenment have sought to aid man and to save him from long ages of self-inflicted torture. They have returned from Bliss to be the Helpers of the Race. They have sought in every possible way to show him that the only true path to happiness is the service of humanity, love to all creatures, purity of life, right thought, right speech, right action — and this was the teaching of Buddha.