Just to be clear to readers, regarding my previous post “Religion,” when I say the word ‘religion’ in any post I’m generally referring not just to the current Islamic religious institution (except in cases when I clearly name Islam straight up), but to other orthodox religious institutions as well, including the Church for instance. For me, many of these institutions in my part of the world are radical, perhaps for reasons that have to do more with application than anything else, or so it seems. That said, sometimes revered and holy texts play a part too. But I’m not here to hand down verdicts, pit one religion against another or decide which faith invites more condemnation or praise.
I choose to talk about my own experience, and I’m only responsible for that.
Hopefully, one day, others, whatever their faiths are, or those who have left the faith, revised their approach to it or still cling to it for reasons they know best, can open up and talk about their experiences too, honestly. Be they Muslim, Coptic, atheist, Baha’i, agnostic, Jewish, or Hindu. No religion is above critique, and none is void of some good as well.
My words and anecdotes, from here on, should not be taken as a pretext to “prove” the flaw of this religion or that, or as a launch pad for blame or as a means to boast about the superiority of one ideology or thought over another. At the end of the day, whatever the original thought maybe, if its application or processing are flawed, if questioning is absent, and genuine doubts and concerns are crushed, tabooed, ignored or rebuffed, it doesn’t matter if the thought carries the names of “Muhammad” or “Jesus” or “Moses,” “G-d” or “Buddha” or all of them combined, it doesn’t matter if it was originally desired to bring peace, or love or justice, it still won’t work. Not now, not ever.
Eventually, no matter how much one believes an ideology or religion is not what its followers want it to be, but what it really is, both notions will be mixed and confused.
Our minds depend on associations to understand the world around us.
“All the commentaries have said that Buddha renounced the world. It is not true. The world simply fell away. It has ceased to have any meaning for him.” –– Osho
When Buddha saw it for what it is, when he saw death, sickness and old age, he became disenchanted by the world, and declared, “I cannot fool myself anymore.”
What made the prince declare he was “sick unto death” and drove him out of the palace of his father? What did he do next when he saw that “diamonds” were dust, as scriptures put it? Where did it all begin?
During the next few weeks, I’d like ––in short notes here–– to share some excerpts from literature on the life and teachings of the Buddha, Siddharta Guatama, and general comments on his life and teachings. In my view, some of Buddha’s thoughts are timeless and illuminating.
But before I do so, let me first dispel some stereotypes about Buddha.
And I ask you, while reading this, to please start with a clean slate and forget what the West has promoted about Buddhism. Forget the Dalai Lama, or even the highlighted practices that new age Buddhism has been associated with. Read this with an open heart.
Buddha was not, and is not, a God
He was not a god or deity per se, at least not in the traditional sense or in the way that people in this part of the world define the word “god”.
Budda was a human being, who was as lost and tortured by reality as many around us. He wanted to understand, and he left the familiar in search for meaning. He was a rich prince who had it all, including money, power, a wife and a small child, but one day “having seen everything, and found nothing,” he simply turned inward. He abandoned his life and riches, and the palace of his father, and went on a long journey that ended with him “reaching enlightenment.”
Or rather began with that.
He returned to the house of his father years later, a different man, and then continued speaking to whoever would listen about his experience. He lived a simple life after. His own father and wife became part of his following. Buddha was not a god, he was a prince, a warrior, a swordsman, and one of the best archers of his time, then a monk and a seeker. He was a son, a cousin, a neighbor, a brother, a husband, a father, a teacher and finally an inspiration to those around him.
What is enlightenment?
In the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment is an act of self-destruction and annihilation at its core, its aim is to reach a state of emptiness, and reception of the truth. Buddhism does not define truth, but alludes to it. In its heart of hearts, it has very few absolutes if any.
Enlightenment is returning to the state of godliness –– what some mystics and Sufis call unity, or merging with the divine, becoming one with it, to the point when the seeker is not distinguishable for what he or she seeks. And from there, the idea of Buddha becoming a “god” has emerged; in the end it’s nothing beyond the idea of Buddha attaining a state of transcendence.
But again, Siddharta [the Buddha that we know] is not unique in that. Buddhism believes that this state of enlightenment ––absolute sight, reaching a knowing, becoming a mirror that reflects truth–– can be reached by anyone. Everyone has the potential, but few of course reach this level of purity, and so they’re revered as ‘super beings.’
Perhaps the term god, in our books, is not the best way to describe the experience, because we use it exclusively to refer to the Creator or the Higher Intelligence that governs the Universe. And in this respect and translating this state into our terms, Buddha, even by Buddhists standard, is not a god, but a human being that saw what others have not yet seen, but which could come to see if they take the path. His state would be similar to what Sufis would refer to as ‘3aref’ or ‘3arefeen.’
In fact, in Sanskrit, buddha is a general term that refers to the enlightened among humans, whoever they are, and Buddha, capitalized, usually refers to the most famous of those, the enlightened prince Siddharta Guatama, the subject of this post.
Buddhism is not a religion
The ritualistic quasi-dogmatic institutionalization that Buddhism is experiencing now is nothing but an innovation by its followers. When Buddha died, around 70 schools of thought were born, each approaching the philosophy differently, and adopting different texts and different degrees of rituals and dogmatism. But original Buddhism is not a religion. In fact, in its pure form, it’s everything but that. It’s merely a signpost, a way of looking at life’s biggest questions; a mystical tradition if you will, and a path that has a very good chance of pointing people to truth. And that’s that.
Only crucial moments are highlighted in the story of Buddha
Buddha never claimed he’s either a deity or a god. But a human being who found a truth he cannot put into words, but so can only describe a possible path to. In fact, the major schools of thought differ on the relevance of the details of Buddha’s life (including when and where he lived precisely) because, in the words of Karen Armstrong, “they were more concerned about the meaning of historical events.” Some stories were there only for allegorical or symbolic meaning, important for their significance regardless of historic accurate detail.
Armstrong says, “The scriptures show that the first Buddhists thought deeply about several crucial moments in [Buddha’s] biography: his birth, his renunciation of normal domestic life, his enlightenment, the start of his teaching career, and his death.” The incidents of great importance are the subject of scripture, which derives its teachings from Buddha’s experiences. “His was essentially an autobiographical philosophy,” says Armstrong.
As Buddha puts it: “He who sees me, sees the dhamma (the teaching), and he who sees the dhamma sees me.” Again quoting Armstrong, “it follows that understanding the Buddha’s life, which is to an extent fused with his teaching, can help us all understand the human predicament.”
Buddha: A guide or a superhuman?
Some monks simply regarded Buddha as a guide and an exemplar, others began to see him as superman. According to Armstrong, traditional scholars used to see the former as a purer form of Buddhism while the latter was seen as a corruption. Modern scholars see both as authentic.
Guatama [Buddha], says Armstrong, “did not want a personality cult, but paradigmatic individuals such as himself, Socrates, Confucius, and Jesus tend to be revered either as gods, or as superhuman beings. Even the Prophet Muhammad, who always insisted that he was an ordinary human being, is venerated by Muslims as the Perfect Man, an archetype of the complete act of surrender (islam) to God. The immensity of the being and achievements of these people seemed to defy ordinary categories. […]
“After his enlightenment, we get no sense of his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, moments of desperation, elation or intense striving. What remains is an impression of a transhuman serenity. The Buddha is often compared to non-human beings––to animals, trees or plants–– not because he is subhuman or inhumane, but because he has utterly transcended the selfishness that most of us regard as inseparable from our condition. The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human.”
He is not the only buddha, many came before, and many would come after, he said
“[Buddha] would have said that there was nothing unique about his life. There had been other Buddhas before him, each of whom delivered the same dhamma (teachings) and had exactly the same experiences. Buddhist tradition claims that there have been twenty-five such enlightened human beings and that after the present historical era, when knowledge of his essential truth has faded, a new Buddha, called Metteya, will come to earth and go through the same life-cycle.”
Buddha’s Prophecy and the last buddha
Metteya, the buddha of the next age that Buddha spoke of, is commonly represented sitting on a raised seat, his feat resting on the ground, a sign that he will arise from his seat and appear in the world. The Sanskrit word for the name Metteya means “friendly and benevolent” and/or “love.” And unlike, the thin famished-looking Buddha of that world, depicted in meditation, with his eyes closed, in a state of “listening/reception” or “waiting,” the Chinese depict the next Buddha in an image of abundance and joy and he’s usually smiling or laughing. Metteya, whom Buddha spoke of, would achieve complete enlightenment when he appears and would teach the purest form of the Dhamma (the teachings that lead to enlightement or illumination). He will appear in a time when this Dhamma had been forgotten.This Metteya, according to ancient Buddhist scripture, was expected to come in the future as the last of the earthly Buddhas.
This is a mysterious aspect of Buddhism, this prophecy, and many Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars have elaborated on this concept of Metteya (as well as many claiming to know who he was). And what I personally found interesting is that some Sanskrit researchers, including Muslim ones, have concluded that this “last and final awakened Buddha” is none other than our Prophet Muhammad, the last of this heavenly kin. According to some versions of the prophecy, Buddha said that Metteya would appear “in the West,” which to India and China, is our part of the world. He would appear in a distant future before the “end of time.”
In the words of Osho, “There have been many buddhas before him and there have been many buddhas after him –– and as long as every human being can become a buddha, new buddhas will go on springing up in the future. Everyone has the potentiality … it is only a matter of waiting for the right time. Some day, tortured by the outside reality, in despair of having seen everything and found nothing, you are bound to turn inward.”
Buddha has not abandoned the world, he just saw it for what it is
“Buddha has not renounced the world, he has renounced his illusions about it,” says Osho. “And that … was a happening, not an act. When renunciation comes as a happening it has a tremendous beauty, because there is no motive in it. It is not a means to gain something else. It is total. You are finished with desiring, you are finished with the future, you are finished with power, money and prestige, because you have seen the futility of it all.”
Buddha on the nature of truth
“Whether you believe or not makes no difference to truth. But if you believe in God you will go on seeing––at least thinking that you see––God. If you don’t believe in God, this disbelief in God will prevent you from knowing. All beliefs prevent you because they become prejudices around you, they become ‘thought-coverings’ –– what Buddha calls avarnas.
The man of intelligence does not believe in anything and does not disbelieve in anything. The man of intelligence is open to recognizing whatsoever is the case. If God is there he will recognize––but not according to his belief. He has no belief.
[…] You cannot see something that goes against your belief; you will become afraid, you will become shaky, you will start trembling. You have put so much into your belief––so much life, so much time, so much prayers. For fifty years a man has been devoted to his belief––now, suddenly, how can he recognize the fact that there is no God? A man has put his whole life into communism, believing that there is no God; how can he come to see if God is there? He will go on avoiding.
I’m not saying anything about whether God exists or is not. What I am saying is something concerned with you, not with God. A clear mind is needed, an intelligence is needed that does not cling to any belief. Then you are like a mirror: you reflect that which is; you don’t distort it.”
Buddha on Knowledge and information
“Buddha is not knowledgeable. An intelligent person does not care much about information and knowledge. An intelligent person cares much more for the capacity to know. His authentic interest is in knowing, not in knowledge.
Knowing gives you understanding; knowledge only gives you a feeling of understanding without giving you real understanding. Knowledge is a false coin; it is deceptive. It only gives you the feeling that you know, yet you don’t know at all. You can accumulate knowledge as much as you want, you can go on hoarding, you can become extremely knowledgeable. You can write books, you can have PhDs and LittDs, and still you remain the same ignorant, stupid person you have always been. Those degrees don’t change you; they can’t change you. In fact, your stupidity becomes stronger; it has degrees now! It proves itself through certificates. It cannot prove itself through life, but it can prove itself through the certificates.
I have seen intelligent farmers, but I have not seen intelligent professors. I have seen intelligent woodcutters, but I have not seen intelligent professors. Why? What has gone wrong with these people?
One thing has gone wrong: they can depend on knowledge. They need not become knowers, they can depend on knowledge. They have found a secondhand way. The firsthand needs courage. The firsthand, knowing, only a few people can afford––the adventurers, people who go beyond the ordinary path where crowds move, people who take small footpaths into the jungle of the unknowable. The danger is that they may get lost. The risk is high. When you can get secondhand knowledge, why bother? You can just sit in your chair. You can go to the library or to the university, you can collect information. You can make a big pile of information and sit on top of it.”
Buddha on death
Buddha chose the color yellow for his followers’ robes. Yellow represents death, the setting sun, the evening. According to Osho, “Buddha emphasized death, and it helps in a way. People become more and more aware of life in contrast to death. When you emphasize death again and again, you help people to awaken; they have to be awake because death is coming. Wherever Buddha would initiate a new sannyasin, he would tell him, “Go to the cemetery; just be there and watch funeral pyres, dead bodies being carried and burned … go on watching. And remember that this is going to happen to you, too.” Three months’ meditation on death, then coming back–– that was the beginning of sannyas.
On Godliness and the moment of illumination
“The human being becomes the center of religion, his innermost being becomes godliness, for which you do not have to go anywhere, you simply have to stop going outside. You have to remain within, slowly, slowly settling at your center. The day you are settled at the center, the explosion happens.”
On the enlightenment of Buddha
“It rarely happens that a human being becomes enlightened. It is such a rare and unique phenomenon that the very soul of existence waits for it, longs for it. Thousands of years pass, and then somebody becomes enlightened,” says Osho.
When Buddha reached that state, he sat in silence. He found no use in speaking. Higher forces, call them deities or angels, came down to earth, touched his feet and asked him to speak, urging him, telling him that existence is waiting.
“But Guatam Buddha has his own arguments,” says Osho. “He said, ‘I can understand your compassion, and I would like to speak. For seven days I have been wavering between the two, whether to speak or not to speak, and every argument goes for not speaking … I am going to be misunderstood. I am going to be condemned; nobody is going to listen to me in the way that the words of an enlightened man have to be listened to. Listening needs a certain training, a discipline; it is not just hearing.”
The beings, after deliberation, responded telling him that he can go misunderstood by the majority of men, but if he is understood by only one percent, then this is enough, “it is not small in this vast universe. Even if one person in the whole universe becomes enlightened because of your speaking, it is worth it.”
Buddha preached for forty-two years after enlightenment, and until his death. And those who become enlightened “did not become enlightened because of what Buddha was saying, they become enlightened because they could feel what Buddha was––his presence, his vibe, his silence.” Tradition has it that only a few reached that state.
That’s the first of my posts about Buddha and his life. In later posts I will share more of his words, and wisdom, in the hope that whatever your religion or faith is, or the lack thereof, his philosophy can help you ponder on the beauty and mystery of life, and of the inner self, and its potential for complete illumination. For me, faced with the teachings of Buddha, I find myself quoting النجاشي the King of Ethiopia’s words to early Muslims بتصرف, directed to my Buddhist brothers and friends:
.والله إن هذا وما نزل على محمد ليخرج من مشكاة واحدة
Peace and Amituofo.
Note: Dhamma or Dharma: Law, or natural laws, what sustains the order that uphold the Universe, a body of teachings, or sometimes it also means religion and duty or the knowledge of and the duty to the conduct set by the Buddha as a way of achievening enlightenement.