The figure of the Buddha permeates modern western discourse on Buddhism. “The Buddha” is used to validate and justify the most diverse claims and forms of practice. To my ears, “the Buddha” represents a hackneyed bifurcation. Most contemporary lay teachers, such as Sharon Salzberg and Jon Kabat-Zinn, present a “soft” version of “the Buddha,” one that caters to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises rescue in the form of diurnal restoration, like “real happiness” or ease in the midst of “stress.” Traditional teachers present a “hard” version, derived from Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment,” “satori,” or “nirvana.”
What use is “the Buddha” in the twenty-first century West?
He is perpetually hoisted up as the physician par excellence against the acidic tension intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. His remedy? Gelassenheit in the midst of the infernal samsaric whirlwind. Is that it? Is “the Buddha” a modern-day Epicurean clearing a path to eudaemonia, a garden that “slakes the thirst with a natural cure?” To read the contemporary literature, you would think so. The musty ancients, too, spoke of an adamantine buddha mind forged in an isolated forest glade.
Both versions flourish by virtue of an ageless curative fantasy of human beings. That fantasy? To be under the protection of a spiritual prince; to be guided to our true home; to emerge from life—and death—unscathed.
Is it not time that we jettisoned our childish nostalgia for “the Buddha”? But how? We are so enamored of him. Just look at the love and reverence extended to “living Buddhas” such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. Because it takes a path cleared of grandiose monuments to the revered teacher, because it mutes Buddhism’s vibrato and quells its coercive if well-intentioned charism, Speculative non-Buddhism may offer a new way. Here is my contribution toward overcoming nostalgia for the Buddha. What’s the next step?
Imagining the Buddha
For two and a half millennia, Buddhists have been imagining the life and person of their revered founder. Since virtually the day he died, and probably well before, the Buddha’s followers have been recounting his life story in vivid, loving detail. At first, the story was spread orally throughout India. Later, it was carried in written form by monks and merchants throughout Asia, and beyond, to Greece and the Near East. Today, thanks to even more sophisticated means of information transmission the basic features of the Buddha’s life story are becoming known in the West.
The story goes like this. In a magnificent palace in the pristine mountains of eastern India, on a night when the moon is full, a prince is born to a powerful king and a beautiful queen. At his naming ceremony, a seer emerges from the forest to forecast that the prince will eventually face a stark choice: he will become either a world-conquering emperor or a world-renouncing sage. Desiring the former for his son, the king keeps the prince captive in his palace. The king reasons that if he smothers the prince with comfort and pleasure, fulfilling his every desire, the prince will never have cause for leaving the palace, much less for turning away from the world. But, being young and curious, the prince eventually plots with a trusted servant to venture out into the town. On doing so, he witnesses for the first time in his life sickness, old age, and death. These facts of life distress the prince tremendously. He becomes distraught and confused. If this is what becomes of the world’s beauty, then what’s the point of it all? How can I continue to take pleasure in life surrounded by death and decay? On a final outing, he sees a man whose face radiates peace and contentment. When the prince asks his servant what kind of person this is, the servant replies that he is a holy man who has come from his forest refuge to beg alms in the town center. Filled with a new sense of purpose to solve the riddle of life, the prince determines to flee into the forest. So, the next night, when the moon is full, he creeps out of bed while his wife and son sleep, and makes his way to the forest of seers. For six arduous years he practices severe austerities until on the verge of death. Realizing the peril he is in, he relaxes his efforts. On a night in April when the moon is full, feeling refreshed, he sits under a banyan tree in meditation. In a final cataclysmic battle with the forces of Mara, or Death, the prince overcomes the insatiable demands of lust, craving, and desire, and sees deeply into the nature of reality. Enlightened now, he must decide whether to remain alone in the peaceful forest or share his wisdom with others. After another internal struggle, he decides to re-enter the world as a “teacher of men and gods.” After nearly half a century of training and teaching others, he dies at the age of eighty, entering the eternal bliss of nirvana.
It is not difficult to understand the allure this story has had for people through the ages. In the throes of youth, with its promise of fulfillment and joy, a pampered young man ventures out into the world for the first time. The insight gained through his venture is both personal and universal. For, in coming face to face with harsh truths about his own life, the protagonist is realizing something common to all of life. Similarly, his eventual solution to the dual problem of life’s evanescence and pain is valid for everyone universally. But before he can discover that solution, he must overcome powerful resistance both within himself and in his environment. Through nearly superhuman effort, he does so—and lives to tell the rest of us about it.
One way of understanding this story of the Buddha’s life is as a coming-of-age, innocence-to-experience tale. What the young prince realized about life’s brevity and difficulty, after all, comes with maturity. And his enlightenment is in many ways simply adult wisdom writ large. It is also possible to see the story as a classic saga of the hero’s journey. In such a story, the protagonist is called to a perilous adventure, painstakingly initiated into new forms of knowledge, and returns triumphantly from whence he came to teach others this new knowledge, resulting in a better world.
However the story might be understood, it is a profoundly hopeful tale. Emerson wrote that for every insightful person there are two absorbing facts: I and the abyss. Being human means persisting in life as a feeling, desiring, happiness-seeking self on the way to decay, death, and, ultimately…who knows: paradise? rebirth? eternal oblivion? Tomorrow, much less our ultimate end, lies in darkness. As told, the Buddha’s life story unsentimentally highlights the facts of sickness, aging, and death while simultaneously encapsulating resolutions to them. And along the way, his story presents a living exemplar of human perfection and sustained, ultimate bliss. The story assures us that we, like the Buddha, can somehow emerge from life, and from death, unscathed.
Cure yourselves of your nostalgias…Let the moment do its work. Let it reabsorb your dreams.
—E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
I am not satisfied with this story. It warms my heart, yes, and it lifts me up; but I am not happy with it. I find it dissatisfying on two fronts. First, as a long-time student of Indian Buddhism, I know better than to believe that there is any evidence for, well, virtually any of it. Neither can I ignore the fact that the story, as commonly related, stems from the pen—and the luxuriant imagination—of a man named Ashvaghosha. Ashvaghosha lived in the first or second century A.D. He was a world-class poet who took on the enormous creative challenge of recasting the story of the Buddha in the style of high literature that was popular in his day, that of ornate Sanskrit poetry. Working from basic templates that had been around for centuries, Ashvaghosha, as poets do, embellished, enhanced, expanded, and, when necessary, made up from scratch whatever he deemed necessary for his work of art. His achievement, titled Buddhacharita, or The Life of the Buddha, was monumental. Ashvaghosha was so good at what he did, that, here we are, two millennia later, recounting his tale. The poet, though, can’t be blamed for the fact that we read his creation as biography. So why do we do so?
As dissatisfying as the story is for me as a student of Buddhism, it fails me even more as a simple human being trying to make sense of life. In examining the reasons for my dissatisfaction, I think I can go some way toward explaining why we persist in telling ourselves and others fanciful accounts of the Buddha’s life, and why we need an alternative narrative.
To begin, I agree with Emerson that our life-guides, our “great men,” as he somewhat ironically called them, “must be related to us, and our life receive from [them] some promise of explanation.” That assessment makes sense to me; otherwise, what good would such a man or woman be as a guide to life? The figure of the Buddha as handed down to us is not really a man or a human at all, or, if he is, barely so. Certainly, he is no life-guide. Who can keep up with him? If he is great, he is too great. He is too much the Enlightened One, the Blessed One, the omniscient Sage. This Buddha reveals too few of the qualities that you and I—real people—possess. What, for instance, became of his desire, hope, cynicism, disappointment, loneliness, sadness, regret, uncertainty? What became of his pleasure, his longing, perhaps even lust, for the beautiful people and things that surrounded him? In short, what became of his humanity, of his connection to our world?
Many readers may be thinking: His enlightenment did all of that; his enlightenment uprooted desire and uncovered bliss and washed away human frailty. He was connected to a greater world. As a response to this ancient, persistent, and wide-spread belief in special types of human beings, I would like to quote at length from an essay by Émil Cioran. I think Cioran expresses simultaneously the common wish and the common miscalculation that so animates our religious/spiritual quests.
IN SEARCH OF A NON-MAN
For a long time I have searched for someone who would know everything about himself and about others, a demon-sage, divinely clairvoyant. Each time I believed that I had found him, he obliged me, upon scrutiny, to sing a different tune: the new elect always possessed some flaw, some defect, some recess of unconsciousness or weakness which lowered him to the level of human beings. I perceived in him certain traces of desire and hope, some hint of regret. His cynicism, manifestly, was incomplete. What a disappointment! And I still pursued my quest, and always my idols of the moment sinned in some direction: the man was always present in them, painted over or juggled out of sight. I ended by understanding the despotism of the Race and no longer dreaming of a non-man, a monster who might by totally imbued with his nothingness. It was madness to conceive of him: he could not exist, absolute lucidity being incompatible with the reality of the organs. (From the essay “Rages and Resignations” in The Temptation to Exist)
Apparently, given the religious history of the world, the extreme condition of madness is not always required for such conceptions of, such longings for, “demon-sages.” Mere humanness will do. The present post endeavors to reconsider the life of the man we call the Buddha in a manner that is compatible with “the reality of the organs.” In doing so, a human figure will emerge where a sage once was. The cost may be “absolute lucidity”—that is, an infallible standard of rightness or goodness. But we will gain, perhaps, a genuine story of a life passionately lived.
Richard Robinson, a leading scholar of Buddhism in the twentieth century, put it succinctly:
The quest for the objective Gotama [the Buddha], like that of the historical Jesus, is foredoomed to a measure of failure. We cannot get behind the portrait that the early communities synthesized for their founders; their reports are all we have. (The Buddhist Religion)
We may not be able to get behind these pious accounts, but we can read between their lines. Robinson is saying that, in effect, religious books—scriptures—are cooked. Like the Christ of the Bible (as opposed to the historical Jesus), or like Plato’s literary figure known as “Socrates,” a figure called “the Buddha” has been written into the primary source material. “The Buddha” is an idealization of a man named Siddhattha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit).
That is not to say that there is no flesh and bone on this figure, or that his teachings as recorded are not authentic. But how can we distinguish between the literary figure and the historical person? How can we get closer to the real-life person on whom the community’s pious portrait is based?
Considering why this distinction between person and idol exists in the first place will help us to see a way forward. The first task of any religious teacher’s followers, whether in Greece, Rome, Arabia, India, or the United States is twofold: to propagate and to preserve the teachings. The decisive importance of the former goal, however, drastically impacts the latter. That is, propagation is a Darwinian struggle of competition and adaptation; and the very engagement in this struggle shapes the form of the preservation. Spreading the teachings required that Gotama’s followers successfully contend with fierce competition from several quarters. The most crucial—and ruthless—struggle centered on patronage. Without the support of the leading figures in society, a community had no chance of survival. Patronage involved not only financial and material support, but social prestige. The latter was particularly important for a community such as Gotama’s, which challenged the orthodoxy of the day. There was also the struggle with rival teachers and hostile sects, who made claims—and held out promises—for their teachings that were different from, and more attractive than, Gotama’s. Buddhist literature is full of evidence of such struggles. The literature also reveals the extraordinary internal tensions that arose from the need to maintain unity and morale. Soon enough, moreover, Gotama’s community had to meet these enormous challenges bereft of its charismatic teacher.
A common strategy, then as now, in this struggle for recognition is to cast the teacher’s sayings, discourses, dialogues, lectures, random utterances, and so on, as “sacred” or “religious” literature. I call a text “religious” if it or its proponents claim for the work’s origin and contents some special quality, possessed by the originator, that is fundamentally non-natural, and hence, categorically unavailable to the common person.
As far as I know, there is no cult of Mozart. We see him as a musical genius, yes. But no one seriously claims that his music was divinely inspired, that is, that it derived from anything but human capacities. If we do speak of Mozart’s achievement in religious terms (it is transcendent, sacred, holy, revelatory, otherworldly, etc.), we do so figuratively, poetically, in an attempt to match language to a breathtaking natural achievement.
I contend that Gotama’s followers (and perhaps Gotama himself) made a conscious decision to cast his teachings in overtly religious terms. Such an alteration—from secular, naturalistic, and commonsensical to sectarian, supernatural, and super-sensual—required that the teachings’ custodians combine the central teachings with particular adornments. These adornments—frames, conceits, rhetorical structures, supernatural interlocutors, awe-inspiring miracles, extra-sensory perception—tip off the reader or hearer to the uncanny, even daemonic, power of the teachings. At the very least, such adornments demand attention, inspire confidence, and make a compelling case. Only in this manner could Gotama’s community win the patronage necessary for prospering.