Why the Buddha Left Society

Smile of Unbearable Compassion
Smile of Unbearable Compassion

‘The Buddhist Scriptures tell us that when Gotama was twenty-nine years old, he saw for the first time an Old man, a Sick Man, a Dead Man, and a Monk.  The thought that in the course of his past lives he had endured old age, sickness, and death, times without number, terrified him, and he resolved to become a monk.

Leaving home and wife and son, he devoted himself for six years to fasting, bodily torture, and meditation. Finally he became convinced that fasting and bodily torture were not the way of salvation, and abandoned the struggle.  One night he had a wonderful experience.  First he saw the entire course of his past lives.  Next he saw the fate after death of all living beings.  Finally he came to understand the cause of human suffering and the cure for it.

Thus it was that he became the Buddha, the Awakened, the Enlightened.  He saw that the cause of rebirth and suffering was craving for worldly pleasures and life and riches.  He saw that if this craving were uprooted, rebirth and suffering would come to an end.  He saw that this craving could be uprooted by right belief, right living, and meditation.

For forty-five years the Buddha journeyed from place to place, preaching and teaching.  He founded an order of monks and nuns, and won many converts.  He lived to be eighty years old.  Missionaries carried his teachings from India to Ceylon and Burma and China and Tibet and Japan.  In a few hundred years the religion of the Buddha had spread over the whole of Asia.  Hundreds of millions of human beings have accepted his teachings.

(Buddhist Parables: Translated from Pali by Eugene Watson Burlingame – Introductory Notes – Pages xxviii=xxix)

Ch’an Commentary: The picture of the Buddha above is much more likely to depict the way he actually looked after he left the economic and social security of his lavish lifestyle.  In effect he was a homeless person who begged for scraps of food to minimally nourish his body, and rags to cover it.  This is not a glamorous transition of existence, but rather a sudden and dramatic plunge into abject poverty.  Although in parts of Asia, Buddhist monks and nuns still wear thin material and beg for their food, in other parts, monks and nuns wear  expensive material and eat only the best vegetarian food.  In Japan, many monks and nuns marry and eat meat, etc.  In the West, Buddhism is part of the middle class leisure scene, where large and opulent country estates are passed-off as dilapidated cemeteries, or fifth-ridden dung heaps – the very places the Buddha and his disciples often frequented.  It is a true to say that the only people in the West who abandon society are the homeless – who usually end-up in this state involuntarily.  Whilst in the ancient East, voluntarily entering a state of homelessness was considered both noble and brave – in modern Asia and the West – becoming homeless is looked down upon, and viewed as a ‘failure’ to conform to the ‘greed’ imperative that defines modern living.  This has effected many (but not all) trends in modern Buddhism, which have become business entities peddling ‘freedom’ for a price – in contradiction to the example of the Buddha and his disciples, who taught for free.  It is an ironic truth that when Buddhism is linked to economic success – it is embracing the very greed, hatred, and delusion it professes to transcend!  Paying for the Dharma does not free others from greed, but only serves to encourage it.  Look carefully at this depiction of the Buddha – he is free of dependence upon his body and his socio-economic environment.  He ‘smiles’ with a radiant happiness that penetrates the filth and suffering of worldly life.  When he saw the dead person, the old person, and the sick person – this profound shock was juxtaposed with that of the Brahmin monk who sat in a peaceful and tranquil state of and body whilst living amongst the suffering.  Although the Buddha rejected Brahmanism as essentially untrue, and placed humanity above gods (the latter of which he considered not to actually exist outside of the deluded mind), nevertheless his pathway was monastic in the sense that he rejected all greed, hatred, and delusion – and the society premised upon greed, hatred, and delusion.  Ch’an practitioners should think about this deeply and penetrate the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘monastic’ practice.


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