THE CREED OF BUDDHA
EAST AND WEST
THE religions of the civilized world may be divided into two great groups, those of which the paramount deity is the Jewish Jehovah, and those of which the paramount deity is the Indian Brahma. Jehovah reigns, under the title of God the Father, over Europe and the continents which Europe has colonized; and, under the title of Allah, over western Asia and northern Africa. Brahma reigns in the far East, India being under his direct rule, while Indo-China, China, and Japan belong to his “sphere of influence.” Even in India he receives but little formal recognition. But he is content that this should be so. He is content that men should worship other gods until the time comes for them to give their hearts to him.
Between these two worlds, which I will call–loosely and inaccurately–the Western and the Eastern, there is a great gulf fixed, a gulf which few minds can pass over from either side. This gulf has been hollowed out by the erosive action of speculative thought. Western thought, which has always been dominated by the crude philosophy of the “average man,” instinctively takes for granted the reality of outward things. Eastern thought, which, so far as it has been alive and active, has been mainly esoteric, instinctively takes for granted the reality of the “soul,” or inward life. Such at least is the general trend of thought, on its various levels, in each of these dissevered worlds.
As is a man’s conception of reality, so is the God whom he worships. Jehovah, the God of the Western world, is an essentially outward deity. Debarred by its instinctive disbelief in the soul from seeking for God in the world within, constrained by the same cause to identify “Nature” with the world without, the Western mind has conceived of a natural order of things which is real because God has made it so, and of a supernatural order of things which is the dwelling-place of God. But because the Western mind, in its quest of reality, must needs look outward, this supernatural order of things is conceived of as a glorified and etherealized replica of the natural order; and God, though veiled from sight by a cloud of splendour and mystery, is made in the image of man. Thus in the Western cosmology there are two worlds, the natural and the supernatural; and two bases of reality, lifeless matter and supernatural will.
In the East, where the soul is the supreme and fundamental reality, the identification of God with the world-soul, or soul of universal Nature, is the outcome of a movement of thought which is at once natural and logical. This divine soul is the only real existence: by comparison with it all outward things are shadows, and all inward things, so far as they hold aloof from the all-embracing consciousness, are dreams. Thus in the Eastern cosmology there is one world, and one centre of reality, the world of our experience seen as it really is, seen by the soul, which, passing inward, in its quest of absolute reality, from veil to veil, and gathering within itself all things that seem to bar its way, arrives at last at the very fountain-head of its being, at its own true self.
There are evils incidental to the worship of each of these sovereign deities. The despotism of the supernatural God tends to reduce to a minimum the spiritual freedom of his subjects. To tell men in precise detail what they are to believe and what they are to do, is to prohibit (under tremendous penalties) all spiritual initiative, and to pander to one of the most demoralizing of all human weaknesses,–the spiritual indolence of the “average man.” And as in the higher stages of soul-growth freedom is not merely one of the first conditions of life, but is scarcely to be distinguished from life itself, the autocratic restriction of the spontaneous energies of the soul by codes and creeds, by scriptures and churches, must needs bear deadly fruit. In the present condition of the Mahometan world we see what devastation can be wrought by centuries of blind devotion to the irresponsible Lord of Fate. In Christendom the character of Jehovah has been profoundly modified (though the change which has been effected is as yet potential rather than actual) by the influence of the Founder of Christianity, whose ideas, whatever may have been the history of their development in his mind, belong in their essence to the creed of the Far East. The gospel of spiritual freedom which Christ consistently preached was long ignored by Christianity–so potent was the sway of Jehovah–and has not yet been consciously accepted; but the leaven of Christ’s teaching is now producing a visible ferment, and the struggle of the European mind for freedom bears witness to the efficacy of its action. Yet even in the development of that life-giving and soul-redeeming struggle one can trace the baneful influence of the commonplace and unimaginative philosophy which underlies the worship of Jehovah. The deification of the Supernatural too often ends, as it always begins, in the despiritualization of Nature; and the rejection by progressive thought of a supernatural deity prepares the way for the conscious acceptance of a materialistic “theory of things.”
There is another way in which the shadow of the Supernatural tends to blight human life. If freedom is to be strangled, love, which is the most expansive and emancipative of all forces, must first be Wounded and disarmed. Dogmatism, intolerance, and uncharitableness are by-products of the worship of Jehovah. The people or the church which believes itself to have received a supernatural revelation, naturally claims to have exclusive possession of “the truth,” and therefore regards all who are beyond the pale of its faith as either outcasts from God’s presence or rebels against his will. The attitude of the Jew towards the Gentile, of the Christian towards the “Heathen,” of the Mahometan towards the “Infidel,” is an attitude of spiritual intolerance in which the “believer” reproduces towards his fellow men the supposed attitude of the “jealous God” whom he worships towards all but a faithful remnant of mankind. In this way supernaturalism tends to introduce hatred–the most anti-spiritual of all passions–into the most sacred of all spheres. The history of the Western world, since it accepted Jehovah as its Lord and Master, has been in the main the history of religious persecutions and religious wars; and men, in perfect good faith, have proved their zeal for God by devoting the bodies of their fellow men to the flames, and their souls to the torments of Hell.
The evils to which the worship of Brahma is exposed are of an entirely different order. Of the creed of him who gives his whole heart to the all-embracing Life I will not attempt to speak. Silence is the true language of cosmic adoration; and it is in sympathetic silence that one should contemplate so pure and profound a creed. When the Western mind accuses the Eastern of pantheism, it instinctively assumes that the Eastern standpoint is the same as its own. In point of fact the “higher pantheism” of the East is an entirely different thing from the materialistic pantheism into which Western thought, in its seasons of revolt from the worship of a supernatural God, is liable to relapse. The only fault that can be found with the former is that very few persons can breathe freely on its exalted heights. To give his heart to One who is not merely supremely real but alone real, and who is therefore in very truth the All of Being, “exceeds man’s might.” For all but a chosen few the figure of Brahma must needs recede into the dim background. As it recedes, lesser Gods–some beautiful, some terrible, some loathsome, some grotesque–emerge from the darkness and claim man’s homage. The further it recedes, the lowlier are the Gods that man worships. In China and Japan, where faith in the individual soul is strong but the “intuition of totality” is weak, Brahma (or his equivalent) becomes the mere shadow of a shade, and the souls that are worshipped are those of departed men. Thus the creed of the East tends to degenerate either into polytheism, which becomes at last the dead worship of dead Gods, or into ancestor-worship, which is indeed within its limits a living faith and does much for the stability of social life, but which, even in its most exalted moods, can present no higher ideal than that of patriotism to the aspiring souls of its votaries.
From the uncharitableness of supernaturalism the creed of the East is, in theory at least, entirely free. All men, without exception, are near and dear to the Universal Soul, for all are sparks from its central fire. More than that, life as such, be it high or low, is sacred because of the fountain from which it issues. Not religious toleration only, but all-embracing charity is of the very essence of the faith that directs itself towards the All. One needs but a superficial acquaintance with the sacred writings of the East to convince oneself that, unlike his Western rival, Brahma is not, in any sense of the word, a “jealous” God. Jehovah’s jealousy of other Gods and vindictiveness towards those who worship them suggest that he is conscious of his own limitations and is not secure of his position. Brahma knows that the lesser Gods whom men worship are his Viceroys,–embodiments in their several ways of the ever-changing dream of him, who is All in All, which possesses the growing soul of Humanity; and, far from resenting the worship that is paid to them, he accepts it as meant for himself:–
Nay, and of hearts which follow other Gods
In simpler faith, their prayers arise to me,
O Kunti’s Son! though they pray wrongfully;
For I am the Receiver and the Lord
Of every sacrifice.
Religions have indeed been persecuted in the East, but always for social or political reasons. Of Buddhism, the dominant creed of the East, one may say more than this; one may say that it has never persecuted, that, in practice as well as principle, it is an entirely tolerant creed. “Throughout the long history of Buddhism,” says Dr Rhys Davids, “. . . the Buddhists have been uniformly tolerant; and have appealed, not to the sword, but to intellectual and moral suasion. We have not a single instance, throughout the whole period, of even one of those religious persecutions which loom so largely in the history of the Christian church. Peacefully the Reformation began; and in peace, so far as its own action is concerned, the Buddhist church has continued till to-day.” The idea of torturing a fellow-man to death because his theology happens to differ from one’s own, is wholly alien from the Eastern tone and temper of thought, as alien as is the assumption which makes religious persecution possible,–the atheistical assumption that Divine Truth can be imprisoned in a form of words.
Each of these dominant types of religion has, as might be expected, its own psychology, its own eschatology, and its own moral and social life. The West regards the soul as dependent on the body, coming into being with the latter, growing with its growth, and either dying at its death or surviving it by the grace of the Supernatural God. The immediate destiny of the departed soul is a matter with regard to which Western theology is, speaking generally, in a state of complete bewilderment. That survival is not regarded as a natural process is proved by the fact that, both in Christendom and in Islam, the immortality to which the believer is taught to look forward is supernatural and quasi-material. On some future day the outward and visible world (which Western thought identifies with “Nature”) will pass away, and a supernatural order of things, also outward and visible, will take its place. The bodies of the dead will then be raised from the grave, and their souls, which meanwhile have been leading a dubious twilight kind of existence, will be restored to them, and will dwell in them for ever, either in the light of God’s visible presence or in the lurid darkness of Hell. So the two great religions which sprang from the parent stem of Judaism have authoritatively taught, and so for many centuries the whole of Christendom and the whole of Islam were content to believe. Supernaturalism is now being slowly undermined; but wherever belief in the Supernatural is dying, belief in survival is dying with it. Modern scepticism, which is based, like the faith that it repudiates, on an instinctive belief in the reality of the outward world and an instinctive disbelief in the reality of the inward life, sees in death the extinction of the soul (which indeed has never been anything but a name) as well as the dissolution of the body.
Morality is a function of many variables, of which psychology and eschatology are perhaps the most important. The Soul, which is at once One and Many, is the real bond of union among men; and all communal sentiments, such as attachment to country, clan, or family, are ultimately rooted in the sense of oneness in and through the Universal Self. The Western disbelief in the reality of the soul has hastened the dissolution of communal bonds and interests, and has helped to bring in, perhaps prematurely, the régime of individualism,–a necessary stage in the development of the soul, but one in which selfishness is not merely permitted but directly fostered. The Western belief in the reality of the outward world, and therefore in the intrinsic worth of outward goods, has made the struggle for wealth, both by nations and individuals, one of the most prominent features of Western civilization. Against this materialistic individualism, this régime of “competitive selfishness,” the moral precepts of the founders of Christianity and (in a lesser degree) of Islamism have waged an honourable warfare. But in this struggle they have found the eschatological teaching of the churches a hindrance rather than a help. The idea of a natural connection between this life and the after life, or lives, has been almost wholly lost sight of in the West. A mechanical interpretation has been placed upon each of the rival doctrines of salvation, “faith” having been degraded to the level of belief, and “works” to the level of ceremonial observance. The false dualism (so characteristic of Western thought) which divides the future world into Heaven and Hell, has borne its inevitable fruit. However tamely the Western mind may have seemed to acquiesce in the formal conceptions of infinite bliss and infinite misery, it has never failed (at any rate in more recent years) to rise in secret revolt against the assumption that in a single brief earth-life either extreme can fairly be earned. The shadow of Hell has at times fallen heavily on human life; but each man in turn has managed to persuade himself that so tremendous and unjust a penalty was not for him. The doctrine of eternal punishment, when steadily faced, is so intolerable as to become at last incredible; and as there are no intermediate states between Heaven and Hell (Purgatory being merely the ante-room of the halls of Heaven), the instinctive recoil of the soul from the latter throws open to all men the portals of the former. The average man of to-day too readily flatters himself that somehow or other he and his friends will all be “saved.” But a Heaven which can be so cheaply earned is scarcely worth striving for. The practical abolition of Hell carries with it the practical abolition of Heaven, for in proportion as the former ceases to deter the latter ceases to attract. Even among those who call themselves believers there is an ever-growing tendency to live wholly in the present, and to turn away from the contemplation of death and its consequences.
Yet the very materialism of the West has been, in a sense, its salvation. The soul of man has grown in the Western world, not because religion has directly fostered its growth, but because circumstances which the very irreligiousness of popular thought–its very indifference to what is inward and spiritual–has helped to create, have actually compelled it to grow. The intense interest which the Western mind takes in the outward world, has caused it to devote itself with whole-hearted energy to the study of physical science. Scientific research prepares the way for practical discoveries and inventions; and these are ever tending to modify–some of them have in recent years revolutionized–the material conditions of human life. In its efforts to adapt itself to the never-ending changes in its environment which Western inventiveness tends to produce, the soul is not only kept alive and awake, but must needs make considerable growth in certain directions. That the growth which it makes is inharmonious and one-sided; that the spiritual side of it has not kept pace, in its development, with the intellectual; that its spiritual faculties have been to some extent atrophied by the diversion of its vital energies into the channel of mental growth, is unhappily true. But the fact remains that the sap of life is running strongly in the soul of the Western world; and from this one may perhaps infer that it will make vigorous growth in the right direction, when the higher impulses and the higher guidance for which it is waiting are given to it. Even that strong and ever-growing individualism which, for the time being, seems to have raised selfishness and ambition to the rank of virtues, has a moral value which cannot well be over-estimated. It is in the soil of social individualism that the seeds of freedom and of the love of freedom must be sown; and though in its earlier stages the struggle for freedom may take the form of selfish rebellion against wise and lawful restraint, it is certain that, with the gradual growth of the soul, man’s conception of freedom will be expanded and purified, till at last the prize of which he dreams will reveal itself to him as the first condition, nay, as the very counterpart, of spiritual life. In this way–so ready is Nature to turn her loss to gain–the social individualism which is one of the by-products of Western philosophy, tends to become the champion of spiritual freedom against the tyrannical encroachments of supernaturalism,–itself one of the more direct and obvious products of the selfsame tendency of thought.
The psychology of the East is as simple as it is profound. The soul, or inward life, alone is real. Eternity is a vital aspect of reality. Birthlessness and deathlessness are the temporal aspects of eternity. The present existence of the soul is not more certain than its pre-existence and its future existence; and these three–the past, the present, and the future lives–are stages in an entirely natural process. The present life is always brief and fleeting; but the past begins, as the future ends, in eternity, in the timeless life of God himself. Issuing from the Universal Soul, and passing through axons of what I may call pre-natal existence, the soul at last becomes individualized, and enters on a career of conscious activity. Far from being dependent on the body, it accretes to itself, on whatever plane it may energize, the outward form that it needs and deserves; and, in each of its many deaths, it is the body that dies, deprived of the vitalizing presence that animated it,–not the soul.
Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never;
Never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!
Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever;
Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it seems!
The destiny of the soul is determined by its origin. Issuing from the Universal Soul, it must eventually be reabsorbed into its divine source. Beginning its individualized career as a spiritual germ, it passes through innumerable lives on its way to the goal of spiritual maturity. The development of the germ-soul takes the form of the gradual expansion of its consciousness and the gradual universalization of its life. As it nears its goal, the chains of individuality relax their hold upon it; and at last,–with the final extinction of egoism, with the final triumph of selflessness, with the expansion of consciousness till it has become all-embracing,–the sense of separateness entirely ceases, and the soul finds its true self, or, in other words, becomes fully and clearly conscious of its oneness with the living Whole.
This pure and exalted creed, besides placing before man the highest and truest of all ideals–that of utter selflessness–has the merit of bringing the whole of human life under the dominion of natural law. Indeed, it applies to the life of the soul that great natural law, the discovery of which in the sphere of physical life has been one of the foremost achievements of modern thought,–the law of evolution. One consequence of this is that the notions of arbitrariness, favouritism, and caprice, which cling, de facto if not de jure, to the conception of a supernatural God, and which introduce a gambling element–a readiness to take risks, a tendency to put off things to the eleventh hour–into the practical morality of the West, have no place in the ethical philosophy of the East. The Catholic belief in the efficacy of the last rites of the Church, the Protestant belief that a deathbed repentance may open the door of Salvation to one who has led an impious life, bear witness, each in its own way, to the presence in the religious atmosphere of the West of a fantastic conception of God which is absolutely irreconcilable with the primary assumption of Eastern thought. It is of Brahma rather than of Jehovah that the words of the Lawgiver hold good: “God is not a man that he shall lie, neither the son of man that he shall repent.” The successive lives of the soul, to which Eastern thought looks backward and forward, are linked together by a chain of natural causation. What a man sows that shall he reap, not in this earth-life only but also in the lives that are yet to be. The primary relation between the individual and the Universal Self is an essentially natural relation; and through this vast conception the whole spiritual world is brought under the dominion of natural law.
So pure, and so exalted is the inner faith of the East, that the excess of these qualities is perhaps its only defect. The ideas that it embodies immensely transcend the normal range of human desire and human thought, with the result that it has ever been and will long continue to be an esoteric creed. Yet the life of the masses in the East owes much to its occult influence. Besides investing the ethics of half the human race with an atmosphere of natural law, the Brahmanic ideal of duty, though beyond the apprehension of ordinary mortals, makes two contributions of inestimable value to the popular morality,–the sentiment of devotion to impersonal causes, and the kindred sense of detachment from material aims and interests. We have seen that, as the figure of Brahma recedes into the dim background, lesser Gods come forth and claim man’s homage. So too, as the Brahmanic ideal (devotion to, culminating in reunion with, the Universal Self) fades into the background, lesser ideals, such as patriotism, tribal loyalty, filial piety, and the like, come forth and claim man’s devotion. In Japan, whose people during the past 50 years have transferred to their country the devotion which they formerly gave to the family and the clan, patriotism–as wide-spread as it is intense–has transformed an obscure, remote, and apparently helpless country into one of the foremost nations of the world. In China, where patriotism has but an embryonic existence, filial piety will move a man to sell himself into slavery or to devote himself to certain death. Men who value life lightly will set but little store on those perishable accessories of life which the Western world esteems so highly. Among the personal desires which the sentiment of devotion to impersonal causes tends to suppress, the first and most obvious is the desire for material possessions,–the thirst for wealth. One might wander far and wide through Europe and America without finding such calm indifference to the charms of property, on the part of a man of business, as the Burmese contractor displayed who spent five-sixths of his modest income in charity, and was ready to retire from business because he had enough to live on quietly (his personal wants being very few) for the rest of his life. 1 “His action,” says the writer who tells of him, “is no exception, but the rule.”
But the very disinterestedness of the Oriental mind may well become the cause of its undoing. Just as the West has the qualities of its defects, so the East has the defects of its qualities. The communism and idealism of the East have been unfavourable to the growth of physical science (the nidus of which has been in the main utilitarian), and to the development by man of the material resources of the earth. As science and industrialism are among the chief causes of change in the external conditions of human life, and as the endeavour to adapt itself to a changing environment is one of the chief causes of the development of the human spirit, we seem to be driven to the paradoxical conclusion that the periodic immobility of the East, which arrests the growth of the soul, both by denying it the opportunities for growth and making it revere custom for its own dead sake, is due in no small measure to the very strength of the Eastern faith in the soul. So too, though the suppression of individuality is the last and highest achievement of the soul in its struggle for spiritual freedom, the war which Eastern thought has ever waged against individualism tends to keep the mass of men in leading strings, and to deny them that initial boon of social freedom without which the struggle for spiritual freedom–a struggle in which the soul is schooled by its very blunders, and taught to conquer by its very failures–cannot well be begun.
Separated from each other for thousands of miles by impassable mountain-chains and pathless deserts, the two worlds–the Eastern and Western–have had so little intercourse with each other, that each in turn has been free to develop, without let or hindrance, its own type of civilization, its own philosophy, its own ideal of life. 1 Of late years, intercourse between the two worlds has been fostered by various causes, and there is reason to believe that it will become closer and more continuous as time goes on. With the removal of the barriers that held the two worlds apart, their respective ideals will begin to influence each other; and one may venture to hope, or at least to dream, that in the far-off future a new ideal, higher and truer than either of these “mighty opposites,” will be evolved by their reciprocal action, and will become the common possession of the whole human race. Meanwhile, it is essential that an attempt should be made by the more advanced spirits in each world to understand the thoughts, the dreams, the aims, the aspirations of the other. Recognition of the profundity of the abyss that parts the two types of mind, is the first step in the direction that I have indicated. Recognition of the possible one-sidedness and inadequacy of one’s own spiritual prejudices, is the second. The thinker of either world who cannot divest himself, even provisionally and hypothetically, of his own habits of thought will never be initiated into the mysteries of the other world. The abyss between East and West is not to be crossed by any bridge of controversial argument; for, owing to the two philosophies having, as philosophies, no common ground of agreement, the piers that should support the bridge could never get down to the bedrock of proof. It is only by outsoaring the abyss on the wings of imaginative sympathy that one may hope to span its depths.
The Creed of Buddha, by Edmond Holmes,