By MARLIN JESCHKE
There may not be many Buddhists in Michiana, though I’m told there is a temple in Bristol. But it is still the majority religion in South-East Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Buddhism actually began in India just over 500 years before the time of Jesus. Its founder was Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince of a small north India kingdom.
According to Buddhist legend, this prince’s father hoped his son would become a successful ruler, and so Siddhartha was pampered with the luxury of dancing girls and pleasure rides.
On one of these luxury rides in a royal chariot the prince saw an old decrepit man, on a successive ride a sick man, and on still another ride a corpse. On each of these rides the young Prince, otherwise shielded from the harsh realities of the world, asked his chariot driver about the scenes that shocked his sensibilities, asking, “And do we too grow old, get sick, and die?” to which his chariot driver answered, “Yes.”
These exposures to the realities of life set the prince brooding. And so one night after the dancing girls that were entertaining him got tired out and dropped to the floor to fall asleep right in front of him, he arose, got his stable boy to bring him his horse, rode into the forest, dismissed the stable boy and horse, and began his quest for peace of mind.
He first tried asceticism, a common Hindu practice at the time, but it did not bring him peace of mind any more than his previous indulgence had. So he sat himself down under a Bodhi tree, says Buddhist literature, determined not to move from there until he achieved enlightenment.
Enlightenment did come to
him, claims the story, the realization that it is desire, attachment, and craving that make life unsatisfactory, whether it is
desire for pleasure, riches, power, or fame. And the path to overcoming desire, attachment, and craving is meditation upon the truth of existence, a meditation that brings us enlightenment.
That is why Siddhartha got called the Buddha, a title that means “The Enlightened One.”
Buddhist lore says the Buddha could have been content with his own enlightenment, but out of compassion decided to teach others the truth he had found.
Followers who accepted his teaching, he organized into a monastic community in which they were shielded from the world’s temptations of attachment and craving and provided disciplined meditation until they also could realize enlightenment.
At first Buddhism made provision for only its monastic community, but it eventually gained lay supporters and propounded an ethical life also for such non-monastic adherents.
In Thailand, for example, it has become an ideal for many laymen to spend a few months in a monastic setting before returning to lay life.
Buddhism eventually spread north of India into Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, but in quite radically modified forms. It actually died out in India, the land of its birth. It has come to the West only in modern times, appealing to quite a few Americans in the 1970s era of student unrest.
Buddhism has one basic thing in common with Christianity that not enough people recognize — the conviction that there is something wrong in human nature or human thinking that needs to be changed and can be changed.
Christianity has sometimes called it original sin, a doctrine Islam rejects.
Buddhism calls for transformation in our thinking, something which Christianity also calls for, a teaching many Christians neglect to notice in their own faith.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of Religion & Philosophy at Goshen College.