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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4. More Meditations

Chapter 14. Buddhist messianism

Mu Soeng also writes:

The notion of past Buddhas was most likely accepted even during the lifetime of Shakyamuni…. By first century C.E., …the notion of past and future Buddhas seems to have been well established. We can only speculate what influence the concept of world savior to come (sayosant), from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, might have exercised on these developments. (P. 55.)

With regard to the idea of a world savior, i.e. the messianic idea, I would not agree that it was probably imported. It is intrinsic to Buddhism, in the way of a prime given, that Buddha Shakyamuni[1], by finding his own way to Realization (assuming he did), and then preaching that way to others, broke the ground for all humanity and showed them a way to salvation. By definition, his achievement (if it indeed occurred) is extraordinary and of universal significance.

The story goes that he could have been satisfied with his own personal escape from samsara; but out of compassion (karuna) for other sentient beings, he chose to put off his final departure (parinirvana) so as to help them out first. We may therefore consider him as an unselfish person, one wishing to save others, and admit that Buddhism from its inception had ambitious soteriological motives.

This does not mean that Shakyamuni’s breakthrough was necessarily unique. There is no logical reason to exclude that there may have been past Buddhas before this one or that there would be future ones after this one. On the contrary, granting that Shakyamuni’s achievement was ‘natural’ (in a large sense, allowing for the transcending of immanent nature, i.e. of physical and mental identity), we would expect past and future Buddhas to be possible and likely.

Shakyamuni may have been the first, or there may have been others before him whose existence and whose possible teaching may not have left a historical trace. As for future Buddhas, the very fact that Shakyamuni taught implies that he considered that others could also attain buddhahood.

In this perspective, the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva appears like a perfectly natural development. By his own altruism, in delaying his parinirvana to teach, the Buddha gave the example of this practice. However, in time the bodhisattva ideal was perhaps taken to extremes. As Mu Soeng points out:

The bodhisattva was thought to embody not only a spirit of compassion but also one of voluntary suffering. At times, the resolve of the bodhisattva was expressed in almost Christian terms. The idea of the suffering savior may have existed in some form in the Middle East before Christianity arose, but it did not appear in Buddhism until after the Christian era. The suffering bodhisattva so closely resembles the Christian conception of God in the form of Jesus who gave his life for others that we cannot dismiss the possibility that Buddhism borrowed this doctrine from Christianity, which was vigorous in Persia from the third century C.E. onward. (P. 55.)[2]

There is (in my opinion) little in the original teaching of Buddhism to justify this particular development. Though Shakyamuni gave the example of altruism, he did not take it to the extreme of personal sacrifice, i.e. of suffering greatly for others. This notion could even be conceived as antithetical to original Buddhism, which after all is intended as a path for removing and avoiding suffering. Its teaching was positive, intended to make people healthy and happy, and not to cause them difficulties. The Buddha remained serene all his life, according to reports.

We should perhaps here distinguish two ways of suffering for others. A person wishing to help others may accept to suffer incidentally or accidentally in this pursuit. The suffering involved is not per se the means to the helpful goal, but only an unfortunate side effect. For example, a war hero goes first into battle, hoping to clear the way for his friends; he knows he may get killed or wounded, but that is not his intention; on the contrary, the more unscathed he gets through, the better (for he can then carry on fighting).

More prosaically, one may carry an old lady’s shopping bag to stop her suffering muscular pains. The Christian ideal is not this – but rather one of “taking up the suffering of others”. This means, not just relieving others’ burdens (which cause them suffering), but experiencing their suffering in their stead. Jesus on the cross is depicted as suffering in the place of sinners, so they do not have to pay the price for their sins. This is a distinctive concept of altruism, which I doubt was originally intended in Buddhism.

I do not see how suffering as such can have any utility to anyone. To free someone else of suffering one must neutralize the causes of that suffering. Such intervention may occasionally cause oneself suffering – and it is easy to appreciate the virtue, value and beauty of such ‘selfless’ acts. If one realizes the relativity and impermanence of this world, one is not afraid of such personal sacrifice. But it is not one’s suffering that relieves the person one helps, but one’s effective action. The bodhisattva’s role is not to suffer, but to be effective[3].

[1] This name simply means “the Sage from Shakya”, referring to his place of origin.

[2] The Christian trinity is another doctrine which has a very close parallel in Buddhism, viz. the trikaya (three bodies of the Buddha). The resemblance between “father, holy ghost and son” (mentioned in Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14) and “dharmakaya, samboghakaya and nirmanakaya” (see Mu Soeng, pp. 89-90) is striking, although some differences can no doubt be pointed to. Here again, whether there has been an influence either way, or this is a similar response of the human intellect to the same problem of unification, is a moot issue. Judaism, for its part, has no recourse to a trinitarian concept of God.

[3] Suffering when helping others is not necessarily proof of unusual goodness; it is often just a sign of incompetence. Sometimes risks are taken and may result in personal pain, damage or destruction, but this is usually due to lack of skill. Tragedy is usually indicative of some weakness and failure.

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