Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Essence of Buddhism

Brahmachari Arya Asanga

Among the great religions of the world Buddhism occupies a singular, nay an exceptional, not to say a unique position. By this statement I do not want to imply that it is in any way better or superior to the other religions. My intention is simply to stress here, at the outset, its difference from the others, so that I may in the end lead you through this difference to the fundamental unity of Buddhism with all the other great faiths of mankind.

If we ask what are the criteria or characteristic marks, possessing which a certain philosophy of life and of the destiny of man may be rightly called a religion, the answer is that there are at least three cardinal points of doctrine, in which most, if not all, religions agree. These are:

I. The belief in God as the Supreme, the Absolute Ruler of the entire universe.

II. The belief in man’s Soul derived from God and possessed of an immortal nature.

III. The belief in the efficacy of prayers and ceremonies to establish communication between God and man, and to ensure to man’s soul a future of unimpaired happiness and bliss throughout all eternity.

Now it is a most noteworthy fact that in Buddhism we find nothing of the kind at all. It knows nothing of these three articles of belief. I will not go so far as to say that it categorically denies their truth, but it certainly rejects them altogether as points of doctrine to be accepted and believed as truth by those who want to go by the name of Buddhists.

Why this negative attitude? Because such points of doctrine are mere theoretical concepts. Nobody knows the truth about them. Nobody has ever seen God, has ever seen the immortal Soul of man, has ever seen prayer or ceremony effect eternal bliss. These things have to be accepted on faith, or rejected on equally uncertain grounds. And it is a strange phenomenon that, even because of their uncertain nature, men apparently cling to them the more tenaciously, the more fanatically, the more narrowly, so that the slightest divergence in detail from the established point of doctrine is treated as the grievousest wrong, and it gives rise to interminable discussions, endless wranglings, and bitter quarrellings, often ending in the most ferocious cruelties and atrocities.

Is it a wonder that the Buddha firmly refused to have anything to do with them at any time? Time after time he refused to enter into discussion regarding them, keeping aloof from them either by guarding a discreet silence, or by refusing to be bound to any positive and therefore, of necessity, one-sided opinion. He stigmatized all such purely intellectual conceptions and opinions as "a thicket of theorizing, a wilderness of theorizing, a tangle of theorizing, the bondage and shackles of theorizing." They can only bring "ill distress, perturbation, and fever," strife and, in the end, oppression and persecution. "This is the danger I discern in these views," were the Buddha’s own emphatic words, "which makes me scout them all."

But if so, if indeed Buddhism in this respect does not conform at all to the three characteristic marks we have agreed upon for all or most religions, how is it then that it is still counted among the great faiths of the world?

Without God, without Soul, without prayers and ceremonies, can it be still called a religion? By common consent it is so considered. What then is the criterion by which such a judgment is passed? Is there, perhaps, besides the three we have until now put forward, another characteristic by which to distinguish a religion? So there is, and it is the most important of all–the recognition of a great and good man as the Teacher by whom the religion was founded, and his advice to every-body to lead the good life of which his own is the exemplary embodiment.

There is no doubt that this criterion of a religion stands in direct contrast to the three we have considered before. Instead of being of a theoretical, it is eminently of a practical nature. Besides, instead of being valid only for most religions, it is a characteristic of all religions without exception. Indeed, if there were not this injunction, this advice, or this command to its followers to lead a good life, and to avoid evil in one’s actions, speech and thought, whatever one may believe on the other points, I am sure that common consent would deny to such a faith the dignity of a religion. As I said, this hall-mark of religion brooks no exception. Only he deserves to be called a religious man who earnestly strives to live the same kind of life of which the Master gave the glorious example, and only thus–mind, not in any other way–may he secure for himself and others that freedom from sorrow, misery and pain, which constitutes real happiness and the bliss imperishable.

Now this universal injunction towards the good life has found expression in the different religions in a series of practical rules of life and good conduct, like, for instance, the Christian or rather the Hebrew Ten Commandments, or the Five Precepts, the Panchasila, of Buddhism. The latter are:

1. Not to kill,

2. Not to steal,

3. Not to be unchaste,

4. Not to lie,

5. Not to take intoxicants or drugs.

I cannot go into an analysis of each of these precepts here. It would take too much of the space allotted to me for this article. Besides, there is a shorter way to give you an idea of the essence of Buddhism. For the quintessence of all the practical rules of life are summed up in one virtue, which crowns them all, from which they are all derived, and which from time immemorial has been inculcated by the great Teachers of mankind, from Vyasa and Buddha and Zarathustra down to Christ and Mahommed and Ramakrishna. And that is that no religion is worthy of that name, which is not a religion of love and compassion, ‘karuna’, embracing every living thing without exception. As the great Bhishma, lying on his bed of arrows on Kurukshetra, said to Yudhishthira, this is "that religion which comprises all religions within it." (MB. XIII, 104).

In the two great Indian faiths, Hinduism and Buddhism, this religion of love has found its highest expression in the one virtue which is the crest-jewel of all other virtues–ahimsa, harmlessness, not injuring anybody or anything. As the same Bhishma has said: "The religion of universal compassion, and the abstention from injury is the highest religion." (Ibid)

The words of the Buddha are as unequivocal. If we ask who the true religious man is, his answer rings out clear as gold.

Walking the holy path in righteousness,
Laying aside all harm to living things,
True mendicant, ascetic, Brahmin he!



The wanderer harms not others: no recluse
Is he who harasses his fellow-men.

(Dh. 184)

The appellations of mendicant, ascetic, Brahmin, wanderer, recluse are of course but different names for the religious man.

And again:

He is no Aryan who creatures harms.
By harmlessness to every living thing
A man is Aryan called.

(Dh. 270)

‘Aryan’ means good, noble. Yet there are people in the world today who are proud of their Aryan descent, but who apparently have forgotten or are ignorant of their true Aryan heritage, of the duties this honorific title imposes upon them. Noblesse oblige is an old French dictum. To belong to the Noble brings with it the obligations of the Noble. To belong to the Aryan race brings with it atleast the recognition and acceptance of harmlessness as the highest virtue of that race, taught as such to its members by its two greatest sons, Vyasa and Buddha. Aggressiveness and violence, injurious actions of any kind, are a direct negation of one’s birthright, a violation of one’s Aryan descent. And a people, who though not of Aryan extraction yet profess Buddhism as their religion, are guilty of the same denial of their spiritual inheritance, of renouncing their Teacher, when they indulge in acts of violence.

Indeed, there is only one word which can be the word of liberation for the warring castes and classes and nations allover the world, which may bring peace and harmony and concord where now there is only strife and violence and hatred. And that word is Ahimsa, harmlessness, non-injury, non-violence, India’s greatest contribution to the world, and applicable to every phase of life, even to politics, as shown by India herself in her struggle for freedom as a challenge in the teeth of a world to which politics and violence are but synonyms.

That you may carry with you, in a last recapitulation, the undefiled spirit of the Buddha himself, I will conclude by quoting to you a few more verses from the Dhammapada, rightly called the Buddhist’s Bible, or rather his New Testament.

Who neither strikes, nor makes to strike,
Whoso, ‘mid those who strive together, strikes no blow,
‘Mid those who wield the rod, remains dispassionate.
Him I deem a Brahmana.

(Dh. 405-6)

All beings fear to die, all love their life;
Regard them as thyself, strike not nor slay.

(Dh. 129-30)

Let not a Brahmana assail a Brahmana,
Nor Jet him with the assailant angry be,
Shame on the striker; greater shame
To him that, stricken, strikes again.


How strongly this reminds us of the Christ’s injunction to his followers: "I say unto you that ye do not resist evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Mat. 5, 32). It proves how all great religious teachers, and therefore all great religions, in their fundamental teaching–the right conduct of life–are basically one.

Finally, there are those beautiful verses about how hatred and violence come into the world through injury done, and how the world cannot be freed again from the terrors of these demons but by leaving injury, which one has suffered, unrevenged, unretaliated.

"This man abused me, he beat me and conquered,
Conquered and plundered me," Harbouring such thoughts.
Never appeased is the hatred of such men,
"This man abused me, he beat me and conquered,
Conquered and plundered me," Rejecting such thoughts,
Quickly appeased is the hatred of such men.
Never by hatred is hatred appeased,
Nay! but by kindness: that’s the old-time Law.

(Dh. 3,5)

Such, then, is the essence of Buddhism.

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