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THE contrast between the rapidity with which Buddhism, in the early centuries of its history, spread over all adjoining lands, and its apparent inertness in these later centuries is very striking. We are only just beginning to gather the facts as to its original progress. And modern Buddhists are not in the habit of making any parade of their intentions, or even of their hopes. Any attempt, therefore, to explain this contrast, or to form a judgment as to whether it is likely, or not, to be permanent is beset with difficulty, and must be subject to revision.
It will not be without interest, however, to state shortly what is at present known on the matter, and to refer to some of those points which will be important, or at least suggestive, in any ultimate decision.
There are, of course, no statistics available as to the number of the adherents of the reforming movement in the early days of Buddhism. But the ground had been well prepared. Gotama, the Buddha, was careful in all his discourses to build on foundations already laid. He not only claimed to be, but in fact was, for the most part, a teacher who took up and emphasized the best teaching of the past. On certain points only were his doctrines new. The most important and far-reaching of these points was his ignoring the then universally accepted theory of a soul; that is, of a vague and subtle, but real and material, entity supposed to reside during life within the body, and to fly out, at death, usually through a hole at the top of the head, to continue its existence, as a separate and conscious individual, elsewhere. We know for certain that this position, the refusal to use this hypothesis, was, among Indian thinkers, peculiar to Buddhism.
On other points we must still be content to reserve our judgment. The Buddha, for instance, is sometimes said to have abolished caste. But we are entirely unwarranted in supposing the system we now call the caste system to have existed in its present form when Buddha arose, in the sixth century before Christ, in the valley of the Ganges. On the contrary, the key-stone of the arch of the peculiarly Indian caste organization-the absolute supremacy of the Brahmins-had not yet been put in position, had not, in fact, been made ready. And in many other details the caste system did not yet exist. It was only in process of evolution. In face of these conditions, the Buddha's doctrine was necessarily twofold. Within his own order, over which alone he had complete control, he ignored completely and absolutely all advantages or disadvantages arising from birth, occupation, or social status, and swept away all barriers and disabilities arising from the arbitrary rules of mere ceremonial or social impurity. Now, we know there had existed orders before Gotama founded his. But their records are at present available only in so fragmentary a state that we do not yet know whether any of them had taken a similar step before.
On the other hand, outside his own order, the Buddha adopted, as regards what we now fairly call “questions of caste," the only course then open to any man of sense-that is to say, he strove to influence public opinion (on which such observances depend) by a constant inculcation of reasonable views. Thus, in the Amagandha Sutta it is laid down, in eloquent words, that defilement does not come from eating this or that, prepared or given by this or that person, but from: folly in deed or word or thought. And here the very document itself, in giving the doctrine, gives it as the word of an Awakened One (a Buddha) of old. In other words, the Buddhist records put forward this view as having been enunciated long before, with the intended implication that it was common ground to the wise.
This is only one example out of many. The Buddhist doctrines that salvation from suffering, from mere quantitative existence indefinitely prolonged, depended on the choice of a right ideal; that goodness was a function of intelligence; that the sacrifice of the heart was better than a sacrifice of bullocks; that the ideal of man was to be sought, not in birth or wealth or rank, but in wisdom and goodness; that the habitual practice of the rapture of deep reverie was a useful means of ethical training, of acquiring that intellectual insight on which self-culture depends; a great part of the theory of the origin of evil; a great part of the theory of Karma; the fundamental doctrine of the impermanency of all phenomena; the spirit of unquestioning toleration in all matters of religion and speculation-all these, and others besides, were pre-Buddhistic, and were widely held when Buddhism arose.
Even the doctrine that salvation can be obtained in this life was pre-Buddhistic. The Buddha merely added that it could only be enjoyed in this life, that there was no salvation at all beyond the grave.
There was no organized church to attack. It was taken as granted, indeed, that the knowledge of the magic, the mystery, of sacrifice was confined to Brahmins, but the majority of the Brahmins, then as now, followed other pursuits. They were land-owners, officials, even traders. Many of them openly adopted, more of them were in favor of, the new school. And the new school itself was no organized body. No one, unless he actually became a member of Gotama's order, as a considerable number of Brahmins actually did, had to make any break in his life, had to lose any social consideration, by following, in whole or in part, the party of reform.