Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
BUDDHISM is a religion which originated in India some five hundred years before the Christian Era. Its founder was Siddhartha Gautama, of royal lineage, who, becoming dissatisfied with the life he was born to enjoy, turned away from all forms of ease and luxury which surrounded him. He retired into the Himalaya Mountains when he was nineteen years old, or, according to another tradition, at the age of twenty-nine. He then devoted himself to penance and mortification, which was at the time considered a necessary discipline for those who sought wisdom and enlightenment. He visited many saints and philosophers whose virtue and wisdom were recognized by the people. Some years of rigorous ascetic life passed, and he was acknowledged by his religious comrades as their spiritual leader. But Gautama himself was not satisfied with this, because he was quite convinced that asceticism was not at all conducive to moral culture and spiritual enlightenment. He then altogether abandoned the practice of fasting and other modes of self-torture, and for taking this course of life he was
deserted by his comrades. But his conviction and determination were not to be shaken by such trifling affairs; he kept on following what he thought would help him best to attain to wisdom and enlightenment.
After several years of deep meditation he awoke one morning under the Bodhi tree and most clearly perceived the way of enlightenment. He was now no more Gautama, a royal prince, but a Buddha, the enlightened one. He was so overjoyed with the revelation that he spent about a week most profoundly absorbed in contemplation, and it is even said that he was not at all inclined to come out of his transcendental ecstasy and self-reflection and to engage in active propaganda work in the world. But in the meantime his great compassionate heart asserted itself. His thought turned toward the miserable spiritual conditions under which his former associates were laboring and from which he was now completely free. He went back to the woods where they were living. At first, they were disposed to deride their former leader, but as he approached his serene countenance and majestic demeanor completely unnerved them, and they prostrated themselves before him and asked his instruction. They were all converted to his view and came to enjoy the real bliss of life and enlightenment.
Buddha now thought of the world at large: "Though the masses are wretchedly struggling
under delusion, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and superstition, there must be some in the world who are open to conviction, seeking the light of Dharma, Good Law, and those must be saved by all means. If they become enlightened, they will be able to perpetuate my teaching, posterity will learn through them of wisdom and enlightenment, and the truth will not be lost among sentient beings." Thus resolved, the Buddha came out into the world and made Deer Park in Central India the place of his first missionary activity. In describing this event, the Buddhists say that the Wheel of the Good Law, Dharmachakra, has been caused to revolve in this place for the first time in the history of mankind, marking the formal establishment of Buddhism.
The Buddha's long life of near ninety years consisted in never-tiring peregrinations along the banks of the Ganges and over the plains of Central India. He died while thus traveling, and there were present at the time only a few of his disciples surrounding his death-bed. His body was cremated and distributed among eight principal Buddhist kings of India who wished to honor their spiritual benefactor, each by erecting a splendid stupa or pagoda over his earthly remains.
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Having thus roughly sketched the life of the founder of Buddhism, we ask now what is the
[paragraph continues] Wheel of the Good Law caused by him to revolve more than twenty-four centuries ago.
The most powerful motive that influenced Buddha, who was a royal prince, to abandon all his claims to the earthly advantages and to live a monkish, retiring, contemplative life, was his deep insight into the nature of life. He knew that life as it is lived by most of sentient beings was no more than a series of sufferings, for in trying to escape one misery they invariably fall into another misery which is perhaps greater and heavier to endure. He asked himself whether this misery could be exterminated. To ascertain this it was necessary to find out the real fundamental cause of it all. The removal of the cause was the removal of the effect.
In Ignorance he found the cause of misery that surrounds and oppresses us, sentient beings.
People are ignorant as to the real significance of existence; they blindly crave for it and its continuance merely for its own enjoyment; they do not know what destiny is awaiting them at the end of their earthly career; they do not know how pregnant of meaning is their every act, their every thought, their every feeling; they do not know under what conditions a phenomenon called life is possible, and finally they have a very confused notion concerning the true nature of the soul which they identify with the ego, simple, permanent, and absolute. On account of this ignorance, they suffer; on account
of this ignorance, they keep on augmenting the causes of misery, and are unable to see the light of wisdom.
Buddha declares, there is no doubt that life is suffering, but it also affords enjoyment. The Buddhist life, however, is not to cling to either, for its real purpose is above the concatenation of pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy. Let us first be enlightened and not deviate from the path of righteousness, and we are saved.
The world in which we abide is a world of contrasts; the life we live is a life of opposites. We have the day and the night, we have the spring and the fall, we have men and women. Some are young, others are old; some are just breathing their last, others have now come to the world. The elements attract and repulse one another. The moon waxes and wanes. The waves are rising and receding. The stars are running toward one another and running away from one another. This is the world of constant change, of eternal motion, where takes place a never-ending interaction of forces. It is one force or one set of forces now that predominates, and then another. The point of concentration is eternally shifting. This is the actual experience of life and also its necessary condition.
Therefore, they will come inevitably to grief--they that disregard this experience and condition of life, they that seek in this world nothing but an everlasting continuation of pleasant,
agreeable sensations. They want to live, and they do not know that their living is really their death. This contradiction causes them an immeasurable amount of suffering. Apparently they are living, that is, they are moving bodily in the world of contrasts and opposites, of pleasures and pains, of sorrows and joys, of good and evil; and yet they want to escape from this actual state of things, they want to enter into a region where they have only monotony, stagnation, and abeyance, and even extinction. For are they not trying to keep the pendulum of life always up on one side only? The pendulum owes its existence to a constant swinging from one side to the other. When this is stopped, it ceases to be itself and exists no more. To live is to move, to change, to walk up and down, to come in and out, to enjoy and to suffer, to -smile and to weep. To refuse to do so is simply courting death. Life is a fabric interwoven with the woof of pain and the warp of pleasure. It cannot be a monotonous series of pleasures, nor that of pains. Therefore, to enjoy life is not to crave for agreeable stimulations alone, nor is it to shun evils. It is to be above them, both pain and pleasure. It is to use the world, as not abusing it, to state it from the Christian point of view.
But many are they that are ignorant of this our actual experience of life. How hard they endeavor to create as much pleasure as they can
and to cling to it as long as they can, utterly regardless of the true meaning of life! But it is altogether outside of their power to check the approaching shadow of misery which gradually and stealthily but surely envelops them in the end. The greater the joy of the moment, the stronger its reverse. For where the mountains are high, the seas are deep; and the blackness of a raven looks blacker in the whiteness of snow. It is therefore well to remind these hedonists of the necessary condition of life, that there is no pleasure that is not mingled with pain, that there is no bliss which can be obtained without struggle. Whatever blind pleasure-seekers think to be bliss or curse is no other than the products of sensualism and egoism, so long as they are bound with the iron chain of ignorance. Their deeds, sentiments, and thoughts have no moral or religious significance whatever. Their lives are like the bubbles or foam that vanish without leaving any mark on the water. They die just as they are born, blind, ignorant, and benighted.
Life, according to Buddhism, is worth living, because it enables us to do something, because it gives us a chance to work, to apply ourselves, because it is the condition which makes possible the realization of our moral and spiritual aspirations. Even if it is thought by some to be worth living because it supplies us with pleasures of passing moments or because it is desirable for its own sake, Buddhists will not hesitate to surrender
their lives once for all and will most gladly be absorbed in the eternal abyss of death. Life has nothing in itself worth clinging to, if it did not promise us an opportunity to work. As sentient, conscious beings that we are, it would be most degrading in us to live the life of a stone, to exist just for the sake of existence and for no other purpose.
All conscientious Buddhists realize that there are laws, natural as well as spiritual, in this universe, and that those who dare to infringe upon them are unerringly and even mercilessly punished therefor. It does not make any difference that this infringement is unknowingly or knowingly done, nor does it help the violator to ask for a special grace. An evil act is committed, and the universe is sorrowful for it, as it retards so much the progress and realization of goodness. But it will not let the evil-doer go unpunished. Therefore, this existence has a purpose to attain, an end to reach, an ideal to manifest; and all beings animate and inanimate are working for this universal goal. Our limited consciousness may not have a very clear conception as to every phase of the significance of life, but all enlightened minds are aware of this, that life is not for mere living, but that it is the path which leads to goodness, suchness, and oneness. The moral and spiritual laws are instrumental for these causes, and as long as we are moving in conformity to the laws of conduct, we are promoting the
noble, worthy ideals, and our duties of life are thereby discharged. Pleasures and pains, joys and sorrows are merely accidents of life. They do not enter into its essential fabric. And consequently they are ignored by the Buddhists. They are not taken into any serious consideration in the determination or selection of duties of life.
Therefore, let us work, let us develop all our possibilities; not for ourselves, but for our fellow-creatures. Let us be enlightened in our efforts, let us strive after the general welfare of humanity and indeed of all creations. We are born here to do certain things. Life may be misery or not; it concerns us not; let us do what we have to do. We are not here wholly alone, we are not the center of the universe, everything is not coming to us. But our existence is conditioned. The fact that we are here at all is due to our mutual support and dependence. We cannot save ourselves unless others are saved. We cannot advance unless the general progress is assured. We must help one another, we must abandon our vulgar ego-centric ideas, we must expand ourselves so that the entire universe is identified with us, and so that our interests are those of humanity. It is therefore most evident that the assertion of the self-will and the giving way to the clamors of the ego-soul is against the reason of life. The attainment of Nirvâna and the manifestation of the Buddhist life is possible
only through the denial of selfhood and through the united labor of all our brother creatures.
This is the doctrine proclaimed by the Buddha after many years of profound meditation on the bank of the Ganges, and constitutes the essence of the Wheel of the Good Law which has been in fact revolving ever since the dawn of sentiency.
The statements above made are usually put down in formula and called the Fourfold Noble Truth; viz., (1) Life is suffering, (2) There is cause for it, which is ignorance, (3) Nirvâna, which transcends pain and pleasure, is the goal of our life, and (4) To reach it the moral laws must be put into practice. 1
110:1 As for what is the practical ethics of Buddhism, read the article entitled "Buddhist Ethics." (p. 69.)