December 01, 2006

Early Buddhism was less devotional and more meditative

Re: a possible integration between Buddhism and Integral Yoga? by Debashish on Sun 19 Nov 2006 11:04 PM PST Profile Permanent Link Quite right about Buddhism "being closer to the scientific doxa of modernity" which as you say is one answer to why Buddhism has become so influential in the west. But of course, the comparison with Integral Yoga is not quite fair because Buddhism has been around since the time of the Buddha (5th c. BCE) and has been percolating into the west in a major way for at least 300 years while Integral Yoga is a teaching of the 20th century.
But that said, yes, it is the more "rational" presentation of Buddhism and the fact that it does not need a God (non-theistic) that has appealed to the west for those 300 years (the modern age). Today there are several other factors playing into this as well, including the political issues around Tibet and the celebrity status (cultural capital) of the Dalai Lama.
Before the late 19th c., when some Indologists gave more serious consideration to the symbolism of the Puranas and the early 20th. when people like Coomaraswamy and John Woodroffe began to introduce Puranic/Tantric ideas in terms of Upanishadic philosophy, most western scholars picked on Buddhism as a "sane" and "reasonable" path to "enlightenment" and labeled the Puranic gods as "monsters." There is a great book titled "Much Maligned Monsters" by Partha Mitter dealing with European receptions of Hinduism.
Re. Buddhism not being a "religion", interestingly, I belive, it is exactly because it presented itself as a "religion" that the post-Upanishadic sects and teachings began organizing themselves into something like a "religion" under the patronage of the Guptas (late 4th c. CE). From the earliest representations of Buddhism (2nd c. BCE), there is also the construction of a mythos where the Buddha performs many miracles (walking on water, disappearing and then reappearing, etc. - in fact several scholars believe that Christ's miracles were borrowed from Buddha) and Buddhists actively went out looking to recruit followers by pointing to these miracles and to the casteless basis of Buddhism.
Ashoka's use of the religion to promote state imperialism of the Mauryans in the 3rd c. BCE established its popularity in South Asia and Sri Lanka, patronage by Kanishka (1st c. CE) consolidated its popularity in NW India and present-day Pakistan/Afghanistan and from there via the Silk Route into Central Asia and later royal partonage helped spread it further to East and SE Asia. By the 6th c. when Xuan Tsang came to India it was already on the wane and by the 10th-12th c. it had been marginalized to a few regional centers in India. This however, was the time of its major exapansion in Tibet, SE Asia, China, Korea and Japan.

Though by now there are many variants of Buddhism and each (or at least many) claim to be the "original" version which the Buddha taught "in secret," the verdict of history seems to be that

  • early Buddhism was less devotional and more geared towards meditative practice leading to Nirvana (Hinayana). It is interesting to note that "nirvana" itself literally means "to snuff out," the image of putting out a candle flame being invoked here. This image is popular in Buddhism because it is used to explain how there is no "soul" or substantiality to the experiencer (anatman). The candle flame looks like a solid thing but it is actually a succession of moments of burning of a wick. Likewise human individuality is an illusion formed by the narrativization of successive experiences due to the causality given by desire. From life to life the momentum of desire-formations (samskaras) keeps us reincranating. Breaking the backbone of desire is like snuffing out the flame and leaves no experiencer, hence a complete extinction.

But this statement gets inflected in many ways by the 1st c. so that there is a proliferation of Buddhist sects, a thriving religion and much devotionalism with the entry of Mahayana schools with their reliance on Bodhisattvas.

  • Madhyamika philosophy propounded by Nagarjuna (2nd or 3rd c. CE) brought about more profound changes in Buddhist philosophy and practice and spawned a variety of derivatives (all variants of Mahayana). Madhyamika's central formula is Samsara = Nirvana. This has been variously interpreted by some to mean that Nirvana has a positive content (is real) and some that samsara is an illusion (unreal).
  • Zen and schools of its kind believe that it points to the absurdity of all assertions and calls for the realization of a state beyond all dualities, realities and unrealities, which cannot and should not be expressed except through paradox and only realized. In terms of "spiritual experiences" this means the goal of Buddhism could either be an erasure of all apparent substantiality (world, soul, mind) through a radical extinction or an entry into a state beyond the manifestation from which world can be "experienced" as either real or unreal.
  • Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) makes extensive use of rituals and male and female spirits (or gods/goddesses), but as in post-Shankara Hindu Tantra, this use is made "under erasure" (one of SCI-Y's most favorite buzzwords) since the ultimate goal is a disappearance of self and world.
  • Western Pure Land (or Amidist) Buddhism (the most popular form in Japan) believes in a final rebirth into a perfect world where everything is full of "Buddha-nature."

Today, it is very difficult to say exactly what "Buddhism" is. But in terms of "Divine Maya of Supermind," certainly none of the varieties of Buddhism see nature on earth as evolutionary and/or transformable to a terrestrial divinity (divine life on earth). The Bodhisattvas are still waiting in the astral sphere to help the last human to snuff himself out. Despite this, there is much that practitioners of Integral Yoga can learn from Buddhism (just as Buddhism through the centuries has learnt much from all other schools of Indic practice). DB

No comments:

Post a comment