The Chair is ‘Empty’ – The Buddha’s ‘Non-Existence’ Confirmed Within Early Buddhist Iconology
Disclaimer: The following article is a thought experiment designed to breakout of the confines of human beliefs and belief systems. Whether the Buddha existed as a historical personage is unconfirmed at this present time, as the only evidence of such an individual stems entirely from the philosophical works associated with his name. This lack of objective evidence logically suggests that the Buddha did not physically exist – but this does not necessarily mean that this is the last word on the matter. Objective evidence could still come to light that would prove the Buddha’s existence. Whether the Buddha existed or not, does not invalidate the ‘scientific’ nature of the teaching associated with his name, despite the fact that its logical core is encased within a superstructure that contains much religious mythology. Whether the Buddha’s logic influenced Greek thought (as suggested by Christopher Beckwith in his ‘Greek Buddha’), or Greek thought influenced the Buddha, is a matter still open to debate. Furthermore, the idea that Buddhism might simply be another ‘mythic’ religion constructed out of historical circumstance and imaginative fantasy, cannot be completely rejected – as suggested by Hans Penner in his ‘Rediscovering the Buddha’. Whatever the case, the scientific efficacy of the Buddha’s method as a means of psychological (and physical) self-assessment and self-organisation remains strong, and does not need its apparent founder to be an ever present figure – as does most theistic religions premised upon faith. Finally, as matters stand, (and regardless of personal belief) it would be dishonest to suggest that the Buddha ‘definitely’ existed when a forensic examination of the available evidence does not support such a hypothesis. ACW 30.3.2017
The earliest written evidence for the existence of the Buddha is that contained on the numerous stone pillars (and other objects) raised by order of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (304 BCE – 232 BCE), who militarily conquered much of the Indian sub-continent, and ruled from 268 BCE – 232 BCE. Prior to his reign, there exists no evidence of the existence of the Buddha, and this might explain why within early Buddhist iconology, no images of the Buddha’s physical likeness exist. Although generally explained today as being the product of the Buddha’s own philosophy, this does not make sense when viewed in the light of the fact that the Buddha is depicted in those earliest times as ‘not existing’ through an empty chair, a set of idealised foot-prints, a tree or even a chakra-wheel. Indeed, even the stone pillars that have inscribed upon them the teachings of the Buddha often contain not images of a serenely sitting Buddha, but rather depictions of four lions sat facing what is assumed to be the four cardinal points. Logic dictates that as the Buddha does not pre-date these Ashokan inscriptions in anything other than historical assumption, his existence before this point in discernible time must be open to question. Emperor Ashoka cleverly discusses an apparently extraordinary man, who is assumed to have pre-existed the raising of the pillars by a vague couple of hundred years, and in so doing constructs a philosophy that seeks to undermine the prevailing Brahmanic theology and dominant social order – with its rigid caste-system and militant warrior-kings – ensuring its spread throughout India (through imperial decree and protection), and the literal ‘removing’ of any Brahmanic threat to his rule. Where the Brahmins advocated a concept of ‘holy war’ against tyranny and heresy, the Buddha advocated a renouncement of caste and ‘killing’ and a preference for ‘reasoned’ argument not dependent upon the authority of Brahmanic scripture (effectively a rejection of theology). Emperor Ashoka whole-heartedly subscribed to this ‘new’ world-view simply because he invented it. By ascribing a vague date to the Buddha’s existence, Emperor Ashoka immediately ‘mystified’ the Buddha’s origins, and implied that the ancient sages of India were more advanced in insight than the contemporary thinkers of his day. On a practical level, through the use of ‘Buddhism’ – or a form of Greek-like logical use of the mind – Emperor Ashoka sought to utterly transform his new Indian conquest and eradicate any and all vestiges of the old order, by advocating a complete transformation of the mind’s traditional opinions, and the removal of all psychological traits that could be related to the old order. To achieve this, Emperor Ashoka focused his creative efforts on subduing greed, hatred and delusion, whilst simultaneously removing the notion of ‘atman’ from Indian thinking, as this religious concept was the basis of Brahmanic power within Indian society. The ‘atman’ or ‘breath of life’, was the divine-spark that the god Brahma placed in all living creatures at conception – and controlled them thereby throughout their lives. By breaking the link between ordinary living Indians and their ‘imagined’ Brahma-god, Emperor Ashoka ensured that he ruled over a passive population of inverted truth-seekers that had no interest in changing the status-quo. This eradication of Brahmanism from ancient India was a purely ‘revolutionary’ philosophical construct that was clear in its function. Ashokan Buddhism, although advocating passivity once established in the minds and bodies of the people, nevertheless was reliant upon thoroughly over-throwing the old order. This is why Buddhism today retains its old defining impetus of ‘rejecting’ the status-quo, and can be easily adopted to assist revolutionary, political ideologies. The collective religious mythology that underpinned Brahmanic society and Brahmanic militancy, was undermined by a new Buddhist rhetoric that equated suffering and delusion with an adherence to theistic teaching, and sought to replace that model of human understanding, with one that defined freedom from suffering as being synonymous with freedom from religion. Emperor Ashoka’s transformation did not end there, however, but carried-out another piece of deft philosophical footwork, by stating that ‘knowledge’ of conventional Brahmanic religion was actually no knowledge at all (i.e. theology being a product of ‘delusive’ thinking), and that by a deliberate act of ‘unprogramming’ the mind from its previous cultural conditioning, can ‘true’ knowledge be attained. How was his ‘new’ knowledge to be achieved? By training the mind to assess and record the physical (knowable) world through a scientific-like adherence to the observation of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ of matter and its functionality. This transition from idealism (i.e. the inner generated delusion of theism) to a perceptual science premised upon the precise observation of physical matter, ensured that all religiously generated resistance to change was quickly abandoned in the minds of ancient Indians, as Emperor Ashoka set about defining his new regime along the lines of the revolution in thought that was happening in Greece.
Of course, Emperor Ashoka could not simply expect to take all the credit for his new approach to defining reality, but instead created a set of ‘religious-like’ texts, the content of which was anything but ‘religious’ in the old sense, and ascribing their creation to a ‘mythical’ being who lived sometime in the distant past. Emperor Ashoka, along with his able and highly educated ministers, were probably well aware of Greek thought before the arrival of Alexander the Great in India. Whether Emperor Ashoka acquired this knowledge of Greek thought from Indian sources, or directly from Greece is unknown, as is the matter of whether Indian thought influenced Greece, or Greek thought influence India at an earlier date. The point is that prior to the rule of Emperor Ashoka and the development of Buddhism, India did not possess a developed political system of philosophical thought that in anyway resembled that of Ancient Greece. The Buddha’s thought is distinctly ‘scientific’ in nature, and it is probably due to its Greek influence, that Buddhism remains today as popular as it does in the contemporary West. Karma as a vehicle for divine intervention in the physical world (Brahmanism), was transformed through Buddhism into a logical observation of the process of the physically observable world. Emperor Ashoka allows the Buddha a dalliance with a god concept and agency of rebirth (all strong Brahmanic themes), but ultimately uses these ideals as a means to draw an essentially uneducated populace into the Buddhist way of viewing things – ultimately rejecting such ideas as ‘god’ and ‘rebirth’ as the transition is completed. This would suggest that the passionless state known as ‘nirvana’ within Buddhist thought, is in fact a new mind-set that is non-resistant to Emperor Ashoka’s interpretation of spiritual and social order. Further implied in this ‘perfect’ state is the attainment of a pristine logic premised upon the correct observation of all psycho-physical functionality. Such a state of ‘enlightenment’ is said to be ‘free’ of the delusion of the previous ‘theology’ that defined pre-Ashokan Indian society. As a reliance upon Brahmanic theology disappeared, Emperor Ashoka’s reign became ever more stable, to the point where he felt comfortable enough to ‘export’ his new way of thinking to other countries, in the form of sending gift-bearing emissaries. These couriers of the new Ashokan order would arrive in theistic-led societies and immediately set-about converting this mind-set into a reliance upon the use of logic and reason – although this message was often reinforced with quasi-religious trinkets such as assumed body-parts taken from the cremated remains of the ‘Buddha’. Quite often the Buddha’s remains were ‘worshipped’ as if he were a god, but his message of secular wisdom was embraced nonetheless. This process may be viewed as a temporary collaboration with inverted thinking associated with a belief in theism, as a means to eventually transition such populations away from the old and toward the new. By eradicating Brahmanic thought within India, and similar systems of theistic belief in the countries surrounding India, Emperor Ashoka was effectively removing any internal or external threats to his rule. In so doing, he applied the Buddha’s thought (as if he were a real person that had lived in the past) to his own kingdom (as if he were venerating a wise man that had lived long ago). The fact of the matter is that there is no physical evidence for the existence of the Buddha in the pre-Ashokan age, and any evidence that appears to suggest otherwise, is either the product of misidentification, misdating, fraud, or deliberate misinterpretation. The Buddha’s story begins in the Ashokan age, and the lack of evidence prior to this time (for the existence of a teacher who is supposed to have lived hundreds of years before), is explained by the clever artifice that the Buddha could not read or write – and that his teachings were submitted to memory and conveyed by word of mouth (a process that conveniently left no discernible mark until advent of the Ashokan age). It seems incredible that this method of ad hoc recording could eventually spawn a literature of around 5,000 different texts (i.e. sutras), all expressing the same opinion about a revolutionary, but otherwise unified vision for society and the world. The Buddha, although stating that what he teaches is a ‘rediscovery’ of an ancient system of Indian understanding, the reality is that India had never known such a manner of understanding existence prior to Emperor Ashoka. By ascribing an ‘ancient’ origination to the Buddha’s thinking (as opposed to ‘foreign’), the bitter pill of uprooting and replacing Brahmanism was thereby ‘sweetened’ as a consequence. Buddhism was not to be thought of as ‘new’ (it just seemed ‘new’), but was in reality a ‘return’ to a ‘pre-Brahmanic’ understanding, an understanding so ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ that the subsequent Brahmanic system marked a considerable divergence from it.
Emperor Ashoka, for practical political reasons, could not be seen to be the originator of ‘Buddhism’, as this assumption would have added to the military opposition he faced when subduing the country. The term ’Buddha’, in and of itself, simply refers to a specific use of the human mind. It is the replacement of religious ‘faith’ with personally experienced knowledge. Its usage demarks a movement away from speculative theology, premised as it is on imagination, and a transition to a reliance upon verifiable fact ascertained through the senses. However, the Buddha’s path maximised this observational activity by demanding that the observer be ‘detached’ from the method of observation. This may be considered similar to a modern scientist observing phenomena, without allowing personal belief to intercede whilst recording the results. Since the rediscovering of Emperor Ashoka’s pillars by British archaeologists in the 19th century, the Western scholarly tradition has tended to take the inscriptions ‘literally’ and ‘uncritically’ – ascribing all kinds of dates to the Buddha’s presumed existence. With no body, tomb or written work, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha existed as an independent personage outside of the Ashokan inscriptions. Once this ‘disembodied’ existence is taken seriously, then any speculation as to the Buddha’s birth and death dates is a free for all, with one assumption being as good (or ‘false’) as any other. In reality, the physical Buddha never physically existed, and neither is he a composite figure created from the many examples of Indian holy ascetics. His biography (contained within his teachings) is improbable and illogical. Why would a rich man with every physical and spiritual advantage his society could give, renounce this privilege simply upon a vaguely defined philosophical disquiet premised upon the experience of how life is, rather than what he thought it might be (in his immature and youthful understanding)? By walking-out of his life of high caste privilege, the Buddha also abandoned his caste duties, his parents, his friends and his wife and child, not to mention his servants and animals, etc. This bizarre behaviour only makes sense if it is interpreted as a general message intended for the people of India, and designed to justify Emperor Ashoka’s reign, by encouraging the whole-sale abandoning of Brahmanism as a religious practice, and as a basis for organising society. It is only within this social-engineering context, that the Buddha’s story makes any sense at all. The Buddha leaves and rejects Brahmanic society (and culture), because this is exactly the same social policy of the Ashokan government. Emperor Ashoka uses the tenants of Buddhism to persuade the Indian people that they have wilfully chosen to be ruled by him, and that he is not oppressing them in anyway, when he demands nothing less than the complete abandonment of their Brahmanic culture. Although Emperor Ashoka used extreme military violence (and atrocity) to conquer India, he has to immediately out-law the use of similar violence by everyone else – to prevent his own government from being usurped in a similar fashion. A non-violent approach to his rule is presented as a spiritually superior way to behave, that leads to the eventual emancipation from the wheel of suffering.
From the West’s re-discovery of Buddhism in the 19th century in India, its history has been completely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Most obviously in this misinterpretation has been implicit in Western analysis, a Christian gloss over Buddhist philosophy that has no historical place or relevance in the development of Indian thought. This interpretive error has been compounded by a relentless ‘literalism’ that has conveyed Buddhism into the Western psyche as a new kind of secular religion, the founder of which actually existed independently from the texts that convey his teaching. This continuous process of missing the point and avoiding the correct context, has led to a wild goose chase with regard to ‘proving’ the Buddha’s physical existence. The Buddha’s physical existence cannot be proven, logic dictates, because he never existed in the physical sense. The Buddha is a rhetorical device designed to facilitate Emperor Ashoka’s new political, cultural and social vision for the India that he conquered. This understanding reveals that Western scholarship in this area is in disarray, and that Indian scholarship, premised as it often is on the concept of ‘Indian nationalism’ is equally misled. Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma or Nepal, etc, exist within the imagination of Emperor Ashoka, and accept without criticism everything contained within the Buddhist teachings. More than this, however, these very same countries also ascribed to Buddha a god-like quality that Emperor Ashoka tried to avoid, and create social schisms by separating men from women, and ascribing a superior status to men. Monks are viewed as superior to nuns, and monastics superior to the laity – and yet all this ‘contemporary’ Buddhism can be seen as incorrect from even a cursory viewing of the Buddhist texts – errors in interpretation that maybe viewed as a consequence of historical deviations from Emperor Ashoka’s original vision for Buddhism – the central purpose of which, appears to be the achievement of ‘equality’ throughout the society he ruled. Within Emperor Ashoka’s original vision, all social barriers implicit within theological Brahmanism, were to be demolished through the use of Buddhistic logic and reason. In this sense, ‘Buddhism’ is a method for using and applying the mind in the transformation of society, and nothing more, Buddhism was certainly not intended to be like the religious system it replaced, or recreate the social injustices it reformed. However, the Buddhism of the modern world, although in places still retaining this original vision, is riddled with revisionism and contradiction which sees Buddhist monastics embracing the greed of capitalism, and getting involved in all kinds of worldly affairs. Whereas Emperor Ashoka sought to prevent and stop all meat-eating (and thereby animal slaughter), many Buddhists today eat meat (accept in China), thinking that hurting animals is inaccordance with the Buddha’s teaching. Emperor Ashoka developed Buddhism as a means to create a revolution throughout society – and this aspect of Buddhism remains its central tenant. Revolution within the mind represents revolution in the environment and vice versa. Bourgeois modes of Buddhist distortion, of course invert this defining reality, and transforms Buddhism into just another middle class plaything that supports and sustain the status quo.