Buddha (560 BCE)
It was on this date, April 8, 560 BCE, according to tradition, that Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in what is now modern Nepal. He grew up in a royal family, so he was sometimes called Prince Siddhartha, and at the age of twenty-nine, he left the kingdom, his wife and newborn son, to lead an ascetic life and meditate on a way to relieve universal suffering. He soon realized that the extremes of denial and gluttony do not lead to fulfillment, so he encouraged people to follow a path of balance he called The Middle Way.
Through introspection and observation the former prince purified his mind and at the age of thirty-five earned the title Buddha, or “Enlightened One” (Sanskrit सिद्धार्थ गौतम;). For the rest of his life, which by some accounts was eighty years, the Buddha helped others reach enlightenment.
Buddha lived at a time of great spiritual revolution in Asia and Asia Minor: the same centuries saw the arrival of the great Greek-Ionian thinkers, Lao-Tse and Confucius in China, and Mahavira, the founder of modern Jainism, in India. There were many similarities in the myths surrounding Buddha’s birth, which miraculously coincide with the birth of a certain Galilean five-and-a-half centuries later: as Andrew D. White wrote in his Warfare of Science with Theology (1876),
As the Buddhist scriptures were more fully examined, there were disclosed interesting anticipations of statements in later sacred books. The miraculous conception of Buddha and his virgin birth, like that of Horus in Egypt and of Krishna in India; the previous annunciation to his mother Maja; his birth during a journey by her; the star appearing in the east, and the angels chanting in the heavens at his birth; his temptation … all these and a multitude of other statements were full of suggestions to larger thought regarding the development of sacred literature in general. … Sir Edwin Arnold, by his poem, The Light of Asia, spread far and wide the knowledge of the anticipation in Buddhism of some ideas which down to the recent period were considered distinctively Christian.
Most religions become corrupted after the death of their founder, and Buddhism was no exception. Myths, traditions and superstitions grew up around the simple philosophical system. In fact, Buddha had no belief in the soul, personal immortality, or any supernatural realities. He didn’t so much deny God as ignore any deity. He was an Atheist — as another Atheist, Gore Vidal, cleverly illustrated in his 1981 novel, Creation. The narrator, Cyrus Spitana, asks Buddha (Tathagata) about immortality:
“Let me ask you a question. If a fire was burning in front of you, would you notice it?”
“If the fire went out, would you notice that?”
“Now, then, when the fire goes out, where does it go? to the east? the west? the north? the south?”
“But the question is to no point, Tathagata. When a fire goes out for lack of fuel to burn, it is… well, it is gone, extinct.”
“You have now answered your own question as to whether or not a holy man is reborn or not reborn. The question is to no point. Like the fire that goes out for lack of fuel to burn, he is gone, extinct.” (p. 240)
It is dishonest to presume that so “spiritual” a thinker must have believed in a God. Buddha had every opportunity to claim divine inspiration — and declined. The Catholic Church sanctified him, anyway, under the name of Saint Josaphat.
Comment on my Rant
On Tue, 2 Sep 2003, I received the following e-mail in response to my commentary:
Dear Mr. Meyer:
You’ve got a great website. I just enjoyed reading your biographic pages on James Madison and the Buddha.
There are a few of points in the Buddha’s bio that I’d like to take issue with, however. According to the most ancient texts that deal with the Buddha’s life and teachings — which were recorded in the Pali language — Siddhartha Gautama (Siddhattha Gotama) was not the product of a virgin birth. I believe that the assertion of a virgin birth was either due to Westerners’ misreading of the texts, or due to their wishful thinking — perhaps wanting to draw a parallel between the Buddha and Jesus.
Furthermore, the “star in the east” likewise doesn’t appear in the oldest Buddhist texts. This does appear in texts written by Buddhist reformers some time after the beginning of the Christian era. Due to the late date of this added “detail,” it is not something that I would consider relevant to the life of the historical Buddha.
Concerning the Buddha’s “atheism,” he did in fact deny the existence of a creator god/supreme being, or any other kind of godhead. The ancient gods (devas) that were a part of the proto-Hindu religion of the Vedic tradition are mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, but their status in Buddhism is somewhat lower than that in Vedic Brahmanism. Devas don’t live eternally, none of them are omnipresent or omniscient, and there are several instances in which they approach the Buddha to ask him questions about his teachings.
To understand the Buddha’s attitude towards these celestial beings, one can read a scripture called Sangarava Sutta (from the Majjhima Nikaya collection), in which a man named Sangarava asked the Buddha “How is it, Master Gotama, are there gods?” To which the Buddha answered “It is known to me to be the case that there are gods.” When Sangarava asked the Buddha why he didn’t just reply with a simple affirmative or negative answer, the Buddha said, “It is widely accepted in the world that there are gods.” It appears that Gotama was acknowledging that a class of non-human, celestial beings existed, but that he didn’t consider them to be “gods.”
It is important to consider the above conversation in light of a statement made by the Buddha in another scripture, the Potthapada Sutta (from the Digha Nikaya collection). In this discourse, the Buddha explained that he used certain common terms in his conversations and discourses, but only as conventions of speech. “…these are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathagata (Buddha) uses without misapprehending them.”
It is quite noteworthy that the Buddha never worshipped any of the gods, nor did he recommend the practice of prayer to his disciples. Buddhists are free to pray to gods if they wish, but they certainly aren’t required to; and there isn’t even a necessity to believe in such beings. The attainment of Nirvana (Nibbana) isn’t dependent upon worship, but upon the cultivation of morality, meditation, and wisdom.
Well, I apologize for the length of this message, and I thank you for taking the time to read it. Keep up the good work with your informative website!
Lien Hoa Buddhist Temple
Irving, Texas USA
Thank you for your interest in my series of rants. Your comments are most helpful. Right now my rants are more of a “hobby,” but eventually I hope to collect them all into a book.
I think we both must admit that Buddha was a semi-mythical figure in history; therefore, it is not surprising that myths adhered to him as time passed. Not to be argumentative, but, as Buddha lived in the 500s BCE, and the Theravada Buddhist canon was first written down in the 1st century BCE (in Sri Lanka), it seems reasonable to suppose that many stories were included that are not strictly true, and many were not so recorded — as in the Christian canon. In both cases there was selection and editing.
About Buddha’s virgin birth and the star in the east stories: I’m sure there is just as much factual basis for them in the case of Jesus as there was for Buddha, which is to say none. My point was not to show that the stories were historical fact, but just the opposite: I believe them to be legends in both cases. In fact, there is more documentary evidence supporting the historical existence of Buddha than there is to prove that Jesus ever existed!
Western misinterpretation of Eastern texts is (excuse me) a facile explanation for the appearance of the stories of the star (at Buddha’s conception) and the virgin birth of Buddha. A.D. White was a respected scholar and his sources are impeccable. The “full text” of his Warfare of Science with Theology can be found at this link, but not all of his footnotes are reproduced. White cites Dutch writer Ernest de Bunsen’s Angel-Messiah, (1867) pp. 22, 23; Henry Alabaster’s Wheel of the Law (1871), p. 102; Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia (1891); Bishop Paul Ambrose Bigandet’s Life of Gaudama, the Buddha of the Burmese (1859), p. 30; and Hermann Oldenberg’s Buddha: His Life, His Doctrine, His Order (English translation, 1882), part i, chap. ii.
As for Buddha’s Atheism, if I read your quotation correctly — “It is widely accepted in the world that there are gods.” — it seems that Buddha was not only not personally subscribing to belief in any gods, but also telling his disciple that god-belief is generally held, nonetheless. (This point is underscored in your second quote.)
It is the kind of politically correct response Epicurus might have given to the same question, to avoid the charge of Atheism — a very serious offense in his time. Epicurus claimed to believe in gods, but he also claimed they were too remote to take any part in human affairs. There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between that belief and Atheism.
I understand Buddha to be saying that not only did he lack belief in gods (the commonly understood definition of Atheism), but he considered god-belief irrelevant to leading a moral life.
I am in favor of the cultivation of morality and wisdom, but the utility of “meditation” escapes me — and we both know meditation is not the same as study and reflection.
Your comments have been most enlightening and have inspired me to change the page. I am in your debt.
—Ronald Bruce Meyer
On Wed, 3 Sep 2003, I received the following e-mail in response to my commentary:
Dear Mr. Meyer:
“I think we both must admit that Buddha was a semi-mythical figure in history;”
I’m not sure that I can agree with your statement (above). Yes, there are mythic elements in the life story of the Buddha, along with possible transcription errors and/or interpolations; but the central doctrines and life events of Gotama are repeated with consistency throughout the voluminous Pali canon. If it were all fictional, then someone went to a lot of trouble to make it look otherwise—the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism alone are approximately 11 times the size of the Christian Bible!
I do dismiss as myth the stories of the baby Prince Siddhartha walking and talking immediately after his birth—and other tales of that type. What is most important is Gotama as teacher and exemplar of wisdom, compassion, love, and purity.
The historicity of Gotama Buddha has good support from many archaeological finds, including urns containing the remains of the Buddha and his two chief disciples (at different sites in India). Also, ruins of some of the cities mentioned in the ancient Pali texts have been found. Perhaps more importantly, Mahavira (an important figure in the Jain religion) is mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, and Gotama is also mentioned in some Jain texts of that era. So each religion validates the historical existence of the other one’s teacher.
“Western misinterpretation of Eastern texts is (excuse me) a facile explanation for the appearance of the stories of the star (at Buddha’s conception) and the virgin birth of Buddha. A.D. White was a respected scholar and his sources are impeccable.”
My comment about misinterpretation was directed at the “virgin birth” story. The “star in the east” was deliberately added to the Buddha’s life story by Mahayana reformers, some time after the time of Christianity’s beginning.
With all due respect, most of your referenced texts are from what I call the “Orientalist” period. Understanding of the Pali language and of key Buddhist concepts has improved greatly since those days. One good example of this is the term Brahmacariya, which literally means “Brahma-conduct”. Early translators variously translated this as “God-living”, “God-life”, or “walking with God”. In fact, the normative translation of the term in Theravada Buddhism is either “celibacy” or “Holy Life”.
What I believe happened, regarding the “virgin birth” thing, is that early translators read about the baby Siddhartha (Siddhattha) being born from his mother’s side. Or perhaps they misunderstood the meaning of the “prophetic” dream that she had the night that she conceived. In any event, there are no modern translations from the Pali canon or books written by modern Theravada scholars, that say anything about a virgin birth.
“I am in favor of the cultivation of morality and wisdom, but the utility of “meditation” escapes me — and we both know meditation is not the same as study and reflection.”
The practice of Meditation aids in the development of concentration and mindfulness (present-moment awareness). In a state of single-pointed focus of mind (cittassa ekaggata or samadhi), the mind is not only in deep concentration, but in a temporary state of peacefulness, as well. Concentration meditation has been hailed by many as a means of reducing stress. A book by a secular author, Dr. Herbert Benson, M.D., discusses studies that were done, in which blood pressure was lowered due to meditation. The research was conducted at Harvard Medical School and at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Obviously, medical meditation wasn’t the Buddha’s angle, but if it works, that’s great!
In the practice of mindfulness, one maintains the mind in a state of openness or present-moment awareness, in which one observes whatever is going on in the body and mind in the present moment. By observing these phenomena as they arise and cease, one becomes more conscious of habitual behaviors and thought patterns—some of which may have negative consequences.
Mindfulness enables us to overcome conditioned responses to life situations. For example, a person at work insults you. you get angry and insult him back. The boss comes by and hears you, but didn’t hear the other guy. You get fired. If you were mindful at the moment that the anger arose in your mind, you could have chosen to let it go and turned away from the insulting co-worker without insulting him back—thus keeping your job. I realize that this example is very simplistic, but you can understand the general principle, anyway.
Please note that “letting go” of anger is not the same as suppressing it. There are two extremes: one is giving in, and the other is suppression. “Letting go” is the middle way between the two extremes.
The main reason that I’ve taken the time to explain all of this about meditation, is because I wanted you to understand that it isn’t about religious delusions like “becoming one with God” or “one with the universe” or what have you. Meditation is about cultivating the mind. Also, it’s important to understand that one can practice meditation, or the Noble Eightfold Path, for that matter, without “converting” to Buddhism. The Path is more of a way of life than a set of beliefs—which is why you’ll find Catholics, Jews, and Atheists in many meditation groups, sitting side by side with Buddhists!
Well, that’s more than enough words for one day. Thanks again for taking the time to read this.
Lien Hoa Budhist Temple
I am always happy to read what you have to say, as you have done me the same courtesy. In many ways we are in agreement, although we use different words to reach the same end.
A number of points in your latest response beg for comment, but at least we agree on the central assertion of my tiny essay on Buddha: that he was, by any reasonable understanding of the word, an Atheist.
However, let me try to clarify my thoughts on the following:
1. Buddha was a semi-mythical figure in history.
I was overstating the case to make a point. But, as you seem to indicate (and to some extent I agree), it doesn’t really matter that Buddha — as a person — existed. What is important to his disciples is his teachings. However, I’m certain you understand that people will go to a lot of trouble to support a myth if the rewards are great enough. For example, the urns you mention prove nothing: in medieval times there existed enough pieces of the “true cross” of Jesus to build a small town.
2. Whether or not the texts I cited were from the “Orientalist” period, I can’t quite bring myself to say that serious scholars of the 19th century were fools and today we have perfect knowledge. Indeed, many 19th century scholars were rationalists and proponents of the “Higher Criticism” of the Judeo-Christian texts. If their translation of Brahmacariya was inaccurate next to the modern translation, it may show a love of poetry rather than a lack of scholarship. Or perhaps Buddhist studies are not immune to revisionism!
3. I used to practice TM. No longer. I take issue with the utility of meditation only because its benefits are asserted rather than demonstrated — and the claims for its beneficial effects are wildly overstated. The Khandakapala Buddhist Center, a Western Buddhist Meditation Temple in Los Angeles, claims that meditation can help you to:
* Experience an inner calm and relax your body and mind_* Deal with challenges in a positive way_* Be wise when relationships rock, and then repair them
For my part, I experience inner calm when I sleep. I deal with challenges and attain wisdom by learning from experience. Zoning out is only a colossal waste of time: as the Dalai Lama said (December 8, 1999), “Change only takes place through action, not through meditation and prayer.”
From what I can see, the point of meditation seems to be the pursuit of alpha waves in the brain, as well as a mindless loss of individuality. Alpha waves are not indicative of a lack of stress and producing them does not lessen stress. Alpha waves occur in relaxed states such as meditation, but also in unpleasant states: they are produced in the absence of visual stimuli and lack of mental focus. I find neither of these conditions desirable on a regular basis, just as I don’t desire to be perpetually inebriated.
The mind is a wonderful instrument, as long as you remember two facts about it: like a car, it functions best when “in gear”; also, there is no “mind” apart from the physical brain. Thought is a chemical process, not a mystical state. And it is thinking, not meditating, that benefits humanity.
In fact, I can think of many products of thinking and doing, rather than meditating, that have helped humanity. Can you name as many benefits to humanity achieved through meditation?
There’s air conditioning, anesthetics, antibiotics, antiseptics, atomic energy, the automobile, the birth control pill, Braille, computers, deep ocean navigation, democratic-republican government, electric light, the germ theory of disease, heavier-than-air flight, insulin, the Internet, the laser, liquid fuel rockets, the microscope, pasteurization, photography, plastics, the printing press, public sanitation, radio, the steam engine, the telephone, the telescope, television, the toothbrush, the transistor, x-ray photography, and so on.
I hope you will not take my reply as an attack on you personally, as that is not my aim. You have obviously studied Buddhism in greater depth than I have, or desire to, and perhaps that way of life is of benefit to you. In my opinion, if the Dalai Lama can be believed, there is at least one hopeful sign in Buddhism that I don’t find in most religions: When asked what Buddhists would do if science discovered that something they’d been teaching turned out to be false, he said that if the scientists were right, the Buddhists would change their teaching.
I have to respect that!
—Ronald Bruce Meyer
Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.