Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners Week 2 Transcript

Rita Gross

Week 2--The Buddha's Original Ideas

Hello again. We're continuing an accurate and nonsectarian history of Buddhism, focusing on the historical Buddha, his immediate context.
Last time we looked at some of the lives of the Buddha, some of the many ways that story has been told over the centuries. Today we're going to focus in a little more on something that is more history and less story, and that's to answer a question that people often ask me, which is, "Well, how much of what the Buddha taught was original with him, and how much of it was something that other people were saying, too, something that was already part of the religious teachings of India of his day?" Today we're going to focus on what he adopted from the religious context of his day and what he rejected. Then next time we'll focus on what the Buddha taught that was really unique and new, and that is distinctive and has been the heart of Buddhism ever since.
I think the first thing we need to know is that India of the Buddha's day was a very sophisticated place. Buddhism grew up in the Gangetic Valley, which is toward the eastern end of India, and the Gangetic Plains. At that point in time, that was a very fertile, rich, thriving part of India. By this time, India already had a very long and sophisticated history, a great deal of religious speculation and philosophy had already occurred. Buddha obviously knew about and participated in the milieu of religious speculation and practice that was going on in his day. He did not invent everything that we know as Buddhism whole cloth himself. I think it's really important to know what Buddhism shares with its religious neighbors and what is distinctive to Buddhism.
One thing that I think is important--people often say, "Well, what did he adopt from Hinduism?" What we now know as Hinduism did not yet exist at the day of the Buddha. There were, of course, indigenous Indian religions, the precursors of contemporary Hinduism, but what we now know as Hinduism was not the religion of the Buddha's day. The religion of the Buddha's day was a combination--a descendant of the early religions of India, which mainly concerned ritual and worship of the deities, and especially sacrificial ritual. Out of that had grown a rich repertoire of philosophical speculation about the origin of the world and about the nature of reality. Buddha was operating against the background of both of those sets of teachings, both the rituals and sacrifice AND the speculation about the nature of reality and the origin of the world.
So, we could say that much of the basic Buddhist worldview was already in place in the Buddha's day, the worldview that we think of as the Buddhist worldview. There is rebirth, taken for granted in most Buddhist cultures, that rebirth is controlled by karma, that there are multiple world systems in all directions of the cosmos--a much bigger view of the universe than those of us who grew up in a Judeo-Christian world grew up with. It's interesting to think that so long ago, people had a view of the world that much more resembles our modern view of the world as immensely vast, that there is endless space, and in that endless space, there are many, many worlds and cosmoses. That was already the view in India by the time of the Buddha's day. He pretty much took that on and took it for granted.
The Buddha also took for granted the view that there were many kinds of beings living in many different dimensions of the universe, in many parts of the universe or multiverse, and that they were all basically caught in the same basic situation.
So many of the things that we think of as Buddhist were already part of India at the time of the life of the Buddha. What was it that he accepted from the worldview that he grew up in or that he inherited? I think the most important one to discuss first is the view that many modern people find very difficult to understand or find very almost off-putting, the view that it is necessary--the classical language is that it's necessary to go forth from home to homelessness, in other words, what is often called robed renunciation, but to go forth from home to homelessness. In the Buddha's life, there's a very dramatic narrative about how he realized that, in order to solve the problems of old age, sickness, and death, he would have to do something a little more drastic than stay in his cushy, cozy world--that he was going to have to find a solution to old age, sickness, and death, he would have to go forth and really seek. There's that very dramatic scene where he looks at his wife and his newborn child, and realizes that it would be nice to stay there, but it won't lead to the aim he's looking for. The way that this is put in the older texts is in a very beautiful phrase, "to find the unaging, unailing, deathless, undefiled, sorrowless, unexcelled security from bondage that is nirvana." I'll read that again: "To find the unaging, unailing, deathless, undefiled, sorrowless, unexcelled security from bondage that is nirvana." Many of us have heard of the term "nirvana" and wondered what that's all about. The most common synonym for the term "nirvana" in the old scriptures is "deathlessness." It's very interesting that all these words say what it is NOT. That's very characteristic of early Buddhism--we can never way what it IS that nirvana is, but we can say what it is NOT. It's unaging, unailing, deathless--all of those things that weigh us down so much, they have somehow been solved.
The view in that time, shared by many, many people, was that to find that unaging, deathless nirvana, one needed to do something drastic, to go forth from home to homelessness. For many modern people--most of us are lay Buddhists--it's a very hard lesson. But it was taken for granted in that day that there was no other way. Now why is this? It's because, if we think about it, we all have to make choices in life. It is not possible to have it all, to have everything. And especially if one wants to have a serious dharma practice, there are consequences, there are costs. There are things that one is going to have to give up to have a serious dharma practice. That's all there is to it. It might not be that we have to renounce our homes and wander around. Most of the climates that we live in, it wouldn't even be possible to renounce our homes and wander around. But there will be consequences and there will be costs to having a serious dharma practice. We won't be able probably to make as much money, or if we do make as much money, we won't be able to keep all of it, because we will be needing to spend a lot of it to support the dharma.
So in that day, the practice was going from home to homelessness to be serious about finding "the unaging, unailing, deathless, undefiled, sorrowless, unexcelled security from bondage that is nirvana." That's a hard lesson, that's something worth thinking about. If you want to truly find what is the elixir of life, what is truly unique and undying about us humans, we have to look for it. It's not just going to drop into our laps unsought.
Secondly, the Buddha adopted--just took for granted--the view that the unexamined or undisciplined life would lead to endless rebirths and cyclic existence. This was already a very common presupposition of the day. We hear the term "samsara" and people don't know what that means. It's usually translated as "cyclic existence," which is a pretty good translation. What cyclic existence means is that we literally keep running around in circles, life after life after life, it's the same old, same old, same old. I used to tell my students at the university, if you want immortal life, don't do anything; you've already got it. You'll just be coming back time after time after time. Now, you're going to have to go through diaper training again, you're going to have to go through high school again, and it might not be in the human realm, but don't worry about it--you'll be back. If immortal life is what you want, don't do a thing about it. And of course, that was very confusing to them. But the view already in India at that day, at least among certain circles of people, was that if we did not examine our lives, and if we just do the first thing that comes to mind, pursue mindless pleasure, and nothing but mindless pleasure, all that will lead to is another rebirth, chasing our tails, trying to be happy, and never finding lasting happiness.
So endless rebirth and cyclic existence would be our guaranteed future, unless we take up some examination and some discipline in our lives. That's why the Buddha left home, because he already had everything that samsara could offer. He already had everything that one could find in the best possible cyclic existence, and yet he was experiencing anxiety and dissatisfaction and feeling that this wasn't quite right. There was something missing, something lacking. Lacking, of course, is knowing who one really is and what life is really about.
Also already prevalent in Buddha's day was the view that one's actions--especially one's actions, but actions are always led by intentions--determine what one's position in samsara or cyclic existence is and whether or not one can actually find the deathless. That one's intentions and actions determine one's own state of being. In other words, where we find ourselves is not the result of fate, it's not the result of an accident, and it's not the result of the will of God. It's the result of our own actions, fueled by our intentions. That, in other words, we determine our own position in samsara, we determine whether or not we find the deathless by our own actions, fueled by our intentions.
Thus, this is in a nutshell, but his teachings about karma, another set of teachings that really puzzle people a lot, but the basic outlines of karma were something that Buddha already inherited, was already part of the worldview in which he was working.
So we have here three major terms. We have karma or determinative actions--the word karma just means an act. Determinative actions--actions leading to reactions. We have samsara or cyclic existence. And we have the term nirvana or deathlessness, which is pretty much uniquely a Buddhist term, but the idea that one could escape from samsara by practicing the right spiritual disciplines was already there in pre-Buddhist India. So those are pretty major aspects of the Buddhist worldview that are there already in the Buddha's day.
Now as I've already said, but I want to elaborate on it a little more, in the Buddha's day already, there also was a cosmology of an unimaginably vast cosmos with multiple worlds and levels. One of my colleagues used to have a poster of a black, starry sky, and there was a little, tiny dot in that black, starry sky with the caption, "You are here." That is a picture of how ancient Indians also viewed the cosmos. And we are here on Jambudvipa, Rose Apple Island, which is the continent of India, surrounded by layers and layers in all directions of multiple worlds and levels, all or most of them filled with gods and spirits, with whom at least some humans could interact. Now let's pause here for a second. Buddhism is always said to be a nontheistic religion, and it IS nontheistic. What that means is that there is no creator of the universe and no one who can give us salvation, no external salvation. It does not mean that there are not more powerful, longer-lived beings called gods with a small "g," but they are also still in cyclic existence; they haven't found the solution either. So when we talk about gods in Buddhism, they're just kind of luckier people, luckier beings whose karma brings them to a life that's longer and more filled with pleasure, which is not considered to be really all that good a place to be.
In early layers of the Buddha's story, Buddha regularly communicates with deities of the various levels. They have these very interesting little chats, little visits. They get together and talk things over or some of the gods come and ask him questions. It's very quaint and very nice.
And also in the worldview of the Buddha's day, there's a very common assumption that people who are especially spiritually advanced could perform feats that most of us would find unimaginable, and therefore, we would call them miracles, because most of us couldn't imagine anybody being able to do such things. But it was very commonly held that people who were advanced and spiritually adept could do such things.
The view is also already present that the world goes through many cycles of creation and destruction, that it doesn't just come into existence once and then run its course and devolve. But once it's run its course and has run out of energy, then it rests for a while, and it recreates. Buddhist stories later on, especially in Mahayana texts, just love to multiply the length of time and the number of cycles the world has gone through; they just really take it to an extreme.
Also already present in the Buddha's day were many spiritual disciplines. There was a high level of interest in spiritual discipline and spiritual experience in the Buddha's day. Many, many people did what he did. Many young men said, "I've had it--I want to find something more meaningful than this," left their homes, went into the forest, gathered in groups, studied with teachers, meditated, practiced, did all sorts of things. The Buddha was not unusual at all in that. He was just the most successful of all the young men who said, "I've had it," left home, and looked for another way.
So what were the kinds of spiritual disciplines that were very common in the Buddha's day? There was a lot of asceticism, a lot of extreme self-discipline, self-mortification. If you know the Buddha's life stories well, you know that he also tried those for quite a while and in quite an extreme fashion. So that was one form of discipline. This was kind of based on the feeling that there was some kind of dross in our physical bodies, and if we stressed our bodies enough, we could get rid of that dross in our physical bodies, then that would bring us to that which is truly valuable in our lives.
There were various styles of meditation that were already being practiced. An important part of the Buddha's life story is that he practiced asceticism seriously and severely for a number of years. He also studied with two teachers of his day, and he very quickly mastered what they had to teach. They offered him to co-lead their groups and, in each case, he rejected the offer for a very specific reason. He realized that the meditation he had done had produced a very peaceful, settled state of mind, but that this was a mind-created and therefore impermanent state of mind, subject to destruction, that it would not lead to the deathless or to the undying, because it was created, made, it had come into existence, therefore it would go out of existence; it would not lead to any kind of permanent solution, any kind of permanent experience of the undying. This was a very important part of the story of the Buddha and what he accepted and what he rejected, because what this means is that, in terms of Buddhist meditation, the disciplines that we call "shamatha" or calming meditations, are usually said to have already been part of the Indian scene. The people already knew how to practice shamatha. The Buddha did not invent shamatha. He did not invent techniques of calming and stilling the mind so that one could hold the mind single-pointedly, without distraction and in a peaceful state, for however long one wanted to. He did not invent that, though we, of course, use it in Buddhism--it's a very basic, foundational technique. But it was not invented by the Buddha.
So I think that that pretty well covers what was already there that the Buddha took on or adopted, and I think you can see, it's quite a bit. It's really quite a bit of what we now know as Buddhism, what we think of as Buddhism today. So the Buddha was a great innovator, but like all great innovators, he built on the foundations of what was already there. It's always important to give credit to what's already there, what's already gone before. In a certain sense, even someone as great as the Buddha was limited in how much he could invent on his own.
So now let's talk about a few features that were common in the religion of the Buddha's day, which he left behind, that he didn't really carry forward at all. The first of them which is talked about with great pride is that the Buddha totally rejected animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice had been an important part of Indian religion prior to the Buddha's day and actually throughout Buddhist history, even to the present day. I myself have seen animal sacrifices done in Nepal, so it's still something that goes on. You may think that's horrible, but if you ask the people who practice the ritual what's going on, it makes sense in their own terms. I'm not going to go into that. I just want to say this is something the Buddha found unacceptable and left it behind.
But more important, the Buddha also left behind as inadequate reliance on ritual. A lot of aspects of pre-Buddhist religion very heavily relied on the notion that if you performed a ritual correctly--absolutely precisely, every detail correct, not missing a step--it had to yield results. It could not but help result. It was like there was a power of being able to do a ritual correctly that meant that it would have results and that's all there was to it. People really relied on just learning how to do the rituals correctly, because the results were supposed to be so foolproof. The Buddha really totally left that behind. There's a lot of emphasis in Buddhist teachings on things that people get caught on, things that people get attached to, and one of the great attachments which is often taught is to rely on ritual, as if you can just make a few little ritual gestures, and that will solve your problem for you. Buddha thought that that was not the case at all. There are many descriptions of daily life among Buddha's followers, but performing rituals, either for the laity or for their own help, never enters the picture. I mention this because, in the last talk, ritual becomes very important in certain forms of Buddhism later on. But I often have been very amused that I think the Buddha would be bemused if he could come upon the scene today in some Buddhist temples and some forms of Buddhism and see the elaboration of the rituals that are being performed in his name.
The second thing the Buddha left behind at least almost entirely is the Indian caste system. This is a point of great pride for many Buddhists--great, great pride, and next time, when we talk about gender, we're going to wonder why he didn't leave the gender system behind, too, but he didn't as successfully. But texts in the Pali canon represent the Buddha as saying that people from all castes were equally members of the sangha and the caste origins should be forgotten. This has not always prevailed in all Buddhist cultures, but it is the Buddhist ideal.
And then finally, this ties in very closely with where we'll pick up next time about what is unique among the Buddha's teachings. The Buddha left behind or argued with the teaching of the seers of the Upanishads, the great proto-Hindu seers of his day, that there is a true self that one could find and that would bring deathlessness--if one could find that true self, that would bring deathlessness. Buddha said no, that's not quite the case. He didn't think that was a good idea. This ties in with the Buddha's teachings on ego and egolessness, which is where we will begin with our next talk.

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