Two Remarkable Aspects of the Buddha’s Teaching

Angulimala Confronts the Buddha
Angulimala Confronts the Buddha

In at least two respects, the teachings of the Buddha were quite remarkable.  In the first place, he insisted on the virtue of moderation.  He urged upon his hearers to avoid the two extremes of a life devoted to fasting and self-torture and a life of self-indulgence.  In the second place, he taught that a man must love his neighbour as himself, returning good for evil and love for hatred.  But this was not all.  He taught men not to injure or kill any living creature, whether a human being or an animal, even in self-defence.  All war, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is unholy.

(Buddhist Parables: Translated from Pali by Eugene Watson Burlingame – Page xxix of the Introductory Notes)

Ch’an Commentary: The Buddha was a follower of the Brahmanic religious by birth, and within that scheme, was a member of the warrior (and king) caste (Kshatriya).  Of the four main castes of that system, the Buddha’s caste was ranked the second highest- technically below that of the Brahmin caste – who were professional priests.  In reality, however, at least by the time of the Buddha’s lifetime, the caste of warriors and kings held all the temporal power in society.  They lived a life of luxury, opulence, and pampering from birth.  They were well educated in the Sanskrit sacred texts, and trained in mediation, yoga, martial arts, and political leadership skills.  They were waited on hand and foot by servants, and were permitted to indulge any and all sexual desire – in the Buddha’s case this was with the various young women who acted as maids.  When reaching adulthood, a Kshatriya was allowed to marry for the first time any number of wives – up to four in number.  In return for this refined upbringing, the warriors and kings not only administered society on behalf of the Brahmins, (the Buddha’s father was a local leader), but also led the royal armies into battle during times of war.  As they could die during times of war, the Kshatriyas were pre-emptively rewarded for their technical sacrifice during their lifetimes.  In this religiously organised society, the caste system was viewed as emanating from the god Brahma himself, and everything that happened was correct and pre-determined either by the will of god – or personal choices made by individuals in past lifetimes prior to the present incarnation.

This was the theory of determined Brahmanic karma that the Buddha rejected.  This karma taught that warfare was ‘holy’ because it was the will of god – the Buddha thoroughly rejected this type of karma, and the notion that warfare could be holy.  He had to do this because he rejected not only the caste system, but also the very theocracy it was premised upon.  The Buddha replaced the Brahmanic notion of caste and replaced it with that of the individual who could change his or her karma from moment to moment (through mental discipline and behavioural modification), rather than from lifetime to lifetime.  Warfare on religious grounds was abandoned as being the product of just more delusive thinking.  This total and complete rejection of the norms and standards of his society was nothing less than shockingly radical and revolutionary.  The Buddha did not compromise with his society – he literally walked out on it and did not look back.  By rejecting the norms of his society, he also rejected the greed, hatred, and delusion that his society encouraged, preserved, rewarded, and perpetuated.  In this regard the Buddha did not negotiate with the status quo, but made it obvious that things as they exist (or appear to exist), are not conducive to the realisation of enlightenment.  This being the case, it is an interesting question to ask as to who Buddhism in the West has become so conservative in its attitudes, and the actual inverse of the Buddha’s teaching?  When did Buddhist practitioners in the West abandon the Buddha’s truly revolutionary path?  This is important as the Buddha did not compromise with the ego in any way, shape, or form.

It is also interesting to note a certain ‘Christian’ gloss creeping into the Buddha’s teaching in the above fascinating paragraph written by Burlingame in the early 1920’s.  This is indicative of the usual difficulties surrounding the translation of one culture’s ideas, into the intellectual milieu of another.  The Buddha did not teach that hatred is over-come by love – but rather that hatred is over-come through uprooting it’s habit from the mind (see Dhammapada).  This is the technical position.  The generation of loving kindness (metta), and compassion (karuna), are always developed hand-in-hand with wisdom (panna), and are never artificially produced, or used to super-impose a positive state (love) over a negative state (hate), as this would be contradictory to Buddhist logic.  All this is premised upon the realisation of the emptiness of ‘self’, and the emptiness of substantiality involving the chain of dependent origination – unless, of course, one happens to follow the Hinayana teaching which suggests that the physical world is ‘real’.  Use these contradictions – do not reject them.  Instead, develop the strength of insight to ‘see’ through the contradictions.



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