Thursday, January 30, 2014

Man par excellence

For "Buddhism and Modern Thought" we're reading one of the classics of introductions to Buddhism, Walpola Rahula's 1959 What the Buddha Taught. I dare say it's how I was introduced to Buddhism, too! Returning to it now, older if not perhaps wiser, I can appreciate its achievement - how it fashioned an image of a universally acknowledged original Buddhist core which also happened to be more modern than the best of Western moderns! Behold how brilliantly he begins:

Among the founders of religions the Buddha (if we are permitted to call him the founder of a religion in the popular sense of the term) was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple. Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him. The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either. He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence. A man and only a man can become a Buddha. Every man has within himself the potentiality of becoming a Buddha, if he so wills it and endeavours. We can call the Buddha a man par excellence. He was so perfect in his 'human-ness' that he came to be regarded later in popular religion almost as 'super-human'. (1)

From this start he can assert that Buddhism isn't a religion. Certainly beautiful customs and ceremonies emerge to support those less advanced ... along the Path (50, 81), and, less happily, noble traditions of meditation deteriorated or degenerated into a kind of ritual or ceremony almost technical in its routine (67). In this lesser Buddhists are like "religious" people everywhere, creating God, the Soul and other errors to console themselves in their ignorance (51). But truest Buddhism, unique among religions and philosophies, is truest humanism!

Whatever issues one might have with its construction of Buddhism (in "Theorizing Religion" I call appeals to timelessly accessible ancient sources which claim it possible and necessary to bypass the long intervening history of barbarous bowdlerizations "Protestant"), Walpola's gambit is a worthy riposte to the hollow humanism of the colonial West!

Walpola Sri Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (Revised Edition) (NY: Grove, 1974)

No comments: