Sunday, March 20, 2005

An Interesting Person

Siddhartha Gautama was a philosopher and teacher who lived about 500 years before Jesus. Like Jesus, he left no writings of his own, and we know him only through oral tradition transcribed some decades after his death. His ethical beliefs were mostly consistent with those of Jesus, but their beliefs were radically different in many other ways.

Today Gautama is usually called Sakyamuni, or the Buddha. Sakyamuni just means a monk who comes from the Sakya clan. As I understand Mr. Gautama's ideas, however, it seems inappropriate to call him "the Buddha" because he always said he was just an ordinary person and that anybody can be a Buddha. Sakyamuni is regarded as the founder of one of the world's major religions. It's pretty hard to exceed an accomplishment like that. But in his case, it is also quite ironic.

It's not clear that his teachings have very much to do with religion as it has been generally understood in either the European Classical or Judeo-Christian worlds. He did not go out of his way to deny the various gods and mythical beliefs of his culture, but he had no interest in them. He said that first causes are unknowable. His concern was with humans.

According to the tradition, which there is no reason to doubt insofar as its non-fanciful core, he was scion of the ruling family of a region which is now in Nepal. His childhood and early youth were sheltered and luxurious. As an adolescent, as he was travelling with his family from a winter to a summer palace, he noticed along the way poor people, old people, sick people, and a funeral procession. He also saw ascetics -- holy men who had renounced worldly things for religious seeking. He became preoccupied with the problems of suffering and mortality. As what we today would consider a young man, at 29, he is said to have renounced his inheritance and gone to seek answers to these problems from established spiritual teachers.

He came to reject the asceticism they taught him -- long fasting, enduring exposure and other forms of deliberate discomfort. He sought advice from others but was not satisfied. Finally (and this does seem a bit fanciful), he is said to have sat down at the foot of a fig tree and declared that he would not rise from the spot until he had seen the truth of suffering and release from suffering. I don't know what it is about 40 days, but that's how long he was supposedly sitting under that tree. Presumably he had a buddy to empty his chamber pot.

Anyhow, he got it. Upon arising to proclaim his insights, he attracted a community of followers, at first all male. Women eventually asked to join the community, called the sangha. The tradition says he resisted at first, but then agreed. So there have always been Buddhist nuns as well as monks. Historically, men have been far more important than women in the written record of Buddhist thought and deeds, but that is because of the cultures in which Buddhism has been embedded. There is no doctrinal reason why women cannot act equally with men as teachers and writers of Buddhist-inspired thought.

Sakyamuni had learned the techniques of meditation from the Hindu tradition, but he interpreted his experiences in meditation in a radically new way. What is most striking, he said that the Self -- a central concept in Hindu metaphysics, something like the Christian Soul and said to be a manifestation of the ultimate -- is an illusion. A great irony, which I feel certain would have greatly displeased him, could he have known about it, is that popular religious traditions grew up in which Siddhartha Gautama's historical personage was elevated to the status of a God, and people prayed to him. This is antithetical to his ideas and purposes.

A notable and confusing development has been the penetration of Sakyamuni's ideas into a segment of the traditionally Judeo-Christian world. Many people, like me, are now seeing him from the perspective of the post-Enlightenment, looking directly at a complex individual embedded in a culture we know almost nothing about, jumping over two and a half millenia of historical development of Buddhist ideas and practices.

Sakyamuni's ideas have turned out to be of considerable interest to atheists, agnostics, and liberal theists. Even stripping out some basic beliefs of his time and place which his Western admirers do not share -- the most essential being reincarnation -- his system holds together and seems relevant to existence in our world, no matter how remote from his.

Before providing a precis of his ideas, or saying anything about how I respond to them, I'd love to hear from others. I'm sure many of the people who come here have learned about Buddhism and thought about Buddhist ideas. So tell us how you respond to Sakyamuni and to Buddhism.