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Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy
Buddhism: The Buddha

Abstract:  A brief summary of Buddha's life is given together with Huston Smith's brief assessment of Buddhism as a religion.

I.  Huston Smith* notes that there are only two persons in the history of the world that we wonder what they were rather than who they were.

    A. When asked who he was, Buddha replied, "I am awake." "Buddha" means the "enlightened one" or "awakened one."

      1. The implication is that ordinary consciousness is like a deep sleep.

      2. As I come to the end of this sentence, think of yourself thinking of this sentence.

    B. When born in 560 BC in northern India, the fortune tellers said he would either be (1) a universal king who conquers India or (2) the savior of the world.

      1. His father spared no effort to get him attached to worldly things.

      2. His upbringing was luxurious; he was extremely handsome; he married at 16--well-born on both sides.

      3. He was destined for wealth, power, and prestige--like Siddhartha in Hesse's novel, he had everything going for him.

II. The Four Passing Sights: when in his twenties, a discontent came over him.

    A. In spite of his father's care and guard, he saw ...

      1. An old man: the fact of old age. 
      2. A body racked with disease: the fact of illness. 
      3. A corpse: the fact of death. 
      4. A monk with a shaven head: the fact of withdrawal from the world. 

      Thus, the inescapable facts of disease, decrepitude, and death made him realize that happiness cannot be found on this earth as Maya.

    B. The Great Going Forth: when he was 29 years old, he became a forest-dweller for six years. (Cf., Siddhartha and the Samanas in chapter 2 of Siddhartha).

      1. He studied raja yoga in such depth that even today, the Hindus claim his as a Hindu.

      2. He exhibited enormous will power through his asceticism.

      3. As a result of his self-torture, Buddha proposed a "middle way" between asceticism and indulgence.

    C. The remaining 45 years of his life were spent in teaching. Although he was called divine during his life, he always replied that he was human in every respect.

III. Is Buddhism religion or psychology?
    A. Smith points out that there are six main aspects of religion:

      1. Authority--both human and divine.

      2. Ritual--celebration of the origin of the religion.

      3. Speculation--the sense of wonder.

      4. Tradition--the institutions and practices to perpetuate the faith.

      5. God's transcendence and power--our existence is contingent upon God.

      6. Mystery, magic, mysticism, and miracles.

    B. Buddha rejected all of these aspects of religion. He preached a "religion" ...

      1. Devoid of authority: "Be ye lamps unto yourself."

      2. Devoid of ritual: one of the fetters which bind our spirit.

      3. Devoid of speculation: "The Noble Silence." He flatly refused to discuss metaphysics such as  "Is the world finite?" or "What is the relation between the soul and the body?"

        Parable of the Poisoned Arrow: doing metaphysics is like a physician wanting to know all of the background information before he will pull out a poisoned arrow from a patient.

      4. Devoid of tradition: don't go by what is handed down. "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

      5. As opposed to God, he taught a religion of intense self-effort; no Gods can be counted on--even the Buddha, himself, cannot be counted on.

      6. Devoid of the supernatural: he taught a religion of personal experience.
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* Huston Smith, The World's Religions (New York; HarperCollins, 1991).

 

 
     

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