An Eight-fold Road: Buddha and his Message

As we looked last time at some of the major Hindu religious texts, it's clear that there are some things within the Hindu tradition that are quite similar to the teachings of other religions and philosophies, and there is plenty of material to support the Toynbee view that all the major world religions have enough in common that they might eventually meld together on the basis of certain fundamental shared beliefs.  However, there are some major facets of Hindu tradition that are not so easilty blended with other religions.  Hindu rituals and Hindu laws some, to an extent, culture-bound.  And when it comes to deeper truths, too,  Hindu thought often moves in it's own distinctive direction.  Very striking, for instance, is the push toward pantheism, the idea that everything is God, and the acompanying desire to obliterate individual distinctions and to blend into the oneness of Brahma.  Another striking difference, the way that Hindus handle the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people? The Bhagavad Gita's answer (and the general Hindu answer) is that suffering is merited: Karma always catches up to us: if not in this life, then in a life to come.

For some, I suppose, that's a satisfactory enough answer.  But in India too (as in Western socieities) the problem of evil is a disturbing enough phenomenon that it's hard to be content with the idea that one has really solved it.  It's not surprising that, within India itself, there were some important reform movements, movements designed to help understand and reduce suffering.
  The two of these movements, Jainism and Buddhism.

Both Jainism and Buddhism start in the 6th century BC, and they spring out of the same roots.  The great founders of these religions have similar stories.  Jainism was founded by a man named Vardhamana, who, initially, was born into a wealthy, powerful family.  At the age of 30, he left all this behind and spent 12 years living an ascetic lifestyle and puruing the truth.  He gave up all material positions (including his clothes!) and eventually found what he was looking for.  He becomes "Mahavira," the enlightened teacher.  At his death, he escapes the cycle of birth and death (he had had 24 previous incarnations!) and enters Nirvana.  His followers hope that, in following his teachings, they will be able to do the same.

Jainism (as we shall see, very similar to Buddhism) stresses the importance of "right knowlege" and "right conduct" as part of the route to Nirvana.   Here are the "Five Great Vows" of the Jains:
            1. Non-violence   (Ahimasa) Ahimsa
            2. Truth                      
            3. Non-stealing                    
            4. Celibacy/Chastity               
            5. Non-attachment/Non-possession  

The first of these is the most important and perhaps most distinctive feature of the Jains.  Here's a summary [Source:
Pravin K. Shah, Jain Study Center of North Carolina]

       "Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment,
          torture, or kill any creature or living being."

      According to Jainism all living beings, irrespective of their
      size, shape, or different spiritual developments are equal.  No
      living being has a right to harm, injure, or kill any other living
      being, including animals, insects, and plants.  Every living being has
      a right to exist and it is necessary to live with every other living
      being in perfect harmony and peace.

      Nonviolence is based on love and kindness for all living beings.
      Nonviolence in Jainism is not a negative virtue.  It is based upon
      the positive quality of universal love and compassion.  One who is
      actuated by this ideal cannot be indifferent to the suffering of

      Violence of every type should be completely forbidden.  Mental
      tortures by way of harsh words, actions, and any type of bodily
      injuries should also be avoided.  Even thinking evil of some one is
      considered violence in Jainism.

      Practically, it is impossible to survive without killing or injuring
      some of the smallest living beings.  Some lives are killed even
      when we breathe, drink water, or eat food.  Therefore, Jainism
      says that minimum killing of the lowest form of life should be our
      ideal for survival.

Jainism's emphasis on Ahimsa certaintly has a universal appeal, but it's not surprising that Jainism tends to be pretty much confined to a specific historical/social context: it's not really a world religion.

Buddhism, on the other hand, though it has many similarities to Jainism, is very different in this respect, and it certainly is a "world" religion.

<>Like Jainism, Buddhism gets its start in the 6th century BC with a teacher whose basic story is very similar to Vardhamana's: Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, the Englightened One.  [See this short account of the story of the Buddha and this summary of Buddhist belief].

Buddha was born into a noble family, living a very sheltered life with every good thing a man could want.  Not until his early adulthood did he encounter the evils of this world: suffering, disease, and death.  These things so troubled him, that he left his privileges behind and went into the world to seek an answer to the problem of suffering and evil.  His answer: the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-Fold Path.  These beliefs form the core of Buddhist philosophy:

The Four Noble Truths are these:

1.  There is suffering in the world.
2.  Suffering comes from unfulfilled desire
3.  To cease from suffering, cease from desire
4. To cease from desire, one must follow the eight-fold path

Note how different Buddha's solution is from that we generally take in the West.  In the West, we try to end suffering by giving people what they want.  Buddha thinks this won't work: no matter how much you give people, they will always want more, they will always have unfulfilled desires.  Only by ceasing from desire can one end suffering.

The steps along the Eight-fold Path are these:

1. Right knowledge: one must know the Four Noble Truths
2. Right purpose: you have to *want* to give up your desires
3. Right speech: you must be truthful, or you will make no progress on the 8-fold path
4. Right behavior: be chaste, temperate, etc.
5. Right livelihood: some professions really get in the way, while others (e.g., becoming a Buddhist monk) can really help in following the path
6. Right effort (one must try hard!)
7. Right awareness: know *why* you want things and it wil be easier to cease from desire
8. Right meditation

Now some of this, particularly the idea of good moral conduct and the importance of meditation, is part of Western tradition as well.  But the end goal is very different.  One follows the 8-fold path to become enlightened, to cease from desire, and to escape from the cycle of birth and death.  No more incarnations for you!  Instead, enlightenment leads to Nirvana, oneness with the universe.

Buddhist belief spread rapidly in India, and for a time (under Asoka), Buddhism looked as if it might replace Hinduism.  But the great strenght of Hinduism is that it can so easily absorb new religious impulses.  Hindus simply added Buddhist teaching to the mix.  Buddha himself they began to regard as yet another avatar of Vishnu, so pure Buddhism tended to diappear in India.

But Buddhism is a missionary religion: Buddhists want to share their beliefs and help other escape from this world of suffering.  Buddhist missionaries travelled to Tibet, China, and eventually Japan--and it is in these countries that (today) one is more likely to find the teaching of Buddha himself emphasized rather than in Buddha's native India.