Turning Points Spiritual History
III. Buddha -or- Buddhism and Christianity
2 March 1911, Berlin
In these days there is much discussion concerning The Buddha and the Buddhist Creed; and this fact is the more interesting to all who follow the course of human evolution, because a knowledge of the true character of the Buddhist religion, or perhaps more correctly, the longing felt by many for its comprehension has only recently entered into the spiritual life of the Western nations. Let us consider for a moment that most prominent personality, Goethe, who exerted such a powerful influence on Occidental culture, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which influence continued so potently right on into our own period. When we examine his life, his works, and his intellectuality, we find no trace of the Buddhist doctrine; but a little later we note in the concepts of that genius, Schopenhauer (who was in a certain sense a disciple of Goethe), a clear and definite touch of Buddhistic thought; and since that period in which Schopenhauer lived, the interest taken in Eastern spiritual conceptions has steadily increased. Hence it is that there is now a widespread and inherent desire, to analyse and discuss all those matters connected with the name of the Great Buddha, which have found their way into the course of human evolution.
It is a remarkable fact that most people still persist in associating Buddhism, primarily, with the idea of recurrent earth lives, to which concept we have often referred in these lectures. Such an assumption is, however, found to be unwarranted when we have regard to the essential character of the Buddhist belief. We might say, that with the majority of those people who interest themselves in this subject, the notion of repeated earth lives, or as we term it, Reincarnation, forms a well-established and essential part of their preconceived ideas regarding Buddhism. But on the other hand it must be said, even though it sounds grotesque, that to those who probe more deeply into these matters, the association of Buddhism with the idea of reincarnation, appears almost equivalent to saying, — that the most complete knowledge of ancient works of art is to be sought among those peoples who have destroyed them at the commencement of universal development and progress in the Middle Ages. This certainly sounds grotesque, but it is nevertheless true, as we at once realize when we consider that the aim of Buddhism is directed towards the disparagement of our apparently inevitably recurring earth lives, and the reduction of their number as far as may be within our power. Hence, we must regard as the essential moving principle underlying the whole trend of Buddhist spiritual thought that principle which operates in the direction of freedom, that is, redemption from repeated rebirth, or liberation from reincarnation which it accepts as an established and unquestionable fact; in this concept is expressed the true and vital essence of Buddhism.
Even from a superficial glance at the history of Western spiritual life, we learn that the idea of repeated earthly existence is quite independent of an understanding of Buddhism, and vice versa; for during the course of our Occidental spiritual development we find ourselves confronted with a conception of reincarnation, presented in a manner both lofty and sublime, by a personality who most certainly had remained untouched by Buddhist views and trend of thought. This personality was Lessing, who in his treatise on The Education of Mankind, which is regarded as the most matured and mellow of his works, closes with the confession that he himself was a believer in the Doctrine of Reincarnation. With regard to this belief, he gives expression to those deeply significant words, — ‘Is not all eternity mine?‘ Lessing was of opinion that the repetition of our earthly lives was proof that benefit would accrue from mundane endeavour, and that existence in this world is not in vain. For while we toil we look forward to ever widening and fuller recurring corporal states, in which we may bring to maturity the fruits of our by-gone earthly lives. The conception which Lessing really formed was of the prospect and anticipation of a rich and bountiful harvest, to be garnered in the fullness of time coupled with the knowledge that throughout human existence there is ever an inner voice, which in actual expectation of recurrent earth lives, calls to us, saying, — ‘Thou shalt persist in thy labours.’ From what has been said, it is now apparent that it is in the very essence of Buddhism that man must ever strive to obtain such knowledge and wisdom as may serve to free him from those future reincarnations, the prevision of which lies in the spirit. Only when during one of our earth lives we have at last freed ourselves from the need of experiencing those which would otherwise follow, can we enter peacefully upon that condition which we may term Eternity.
I have persistently endeavoured to make it clear that the idea of reincarnation, both with regard to Spiritual Science and Theosophy, was not derived from any one of the ancient traditions, not even from Buddhism; it has in fact thrust itself upon us during our time, as a result of independent observation and reflection concerning life in connection with spiritual investigation. Hence, to associate Buddhism so directly with the idea of reincarnation indicates a superficial attitude. If we would indeed look into the true character and nature of Buddhism, then we must turn our spiritual eyes in quite another direction.
I must now once again draw your attention to that law in human evolution which we met with when we were considering the personality of the great Zarathustra. In accordance with this law, as was then stated, during the gradual passing of time the whole condition and character of man’s soul changed, while it went through varying transitional states. Those events regarding which we obtain information from external historical documents, represent as far as man is concerned, only a comparatively late phase in the evolution of humanity. If, however, we look back with the aid of Spiritual Science to prehistoric times, we gain much further knowledge; we then find that a certain condition of soul was common to primitive man, whereby the normal state of human consciousness was quite other than that of our day.
That pre-eminently intellectual order of consciousness, which leads to the manner in which, during the course of our normal human life, we now regard all things around us combining them by means of our mental powers acting through the brain, so that they shall be connected with and become a part of our wisdom, and our science — was first developed from another form of conscious state. I have emphasized this point before, but I must lay particular stress upon it once again. We have in the chaotic disorder of our dream-life, a last remnant — a species of atavistic heritage – of an old clairvoyance, which was at one time to a certain extent, an ordinary condition of the human soul, and in which mankind assumed a state between that of sleeping and that of being awake; he could then look upon those things hidden behind the perceptual world.
In these days in which our consciousness mainly alternates between the sleeping and the waking conditions, it is only in the latter that we seek to apprehend a state of intellectuality in the soul; but in olden times, clairvoyant visions were not so meaningless as are the dream forms of our period, for they could be quite definitely ascribed to specific superperceptual creations and events. Mankind had in connection with these ancient fluctuating visions a species of conscious state out of which our present intellectuality gradually evolved. Hence, we look back to a certain form of primeval clairvoyance which was followed by the long drawn out evolution of our consciousness as recognized to-day. Because of this by-gone dream-like clairvoyance, prehistoric man could gaze far into the superperceptual worlds, and through this connection with the supersensible, he gained not knowledge alone but a feeling of profound inner satisfaction and bliss from the full realization of the soul’s union with the Spirit-World.
Just as present-day man is now convinced through his sense perceptions and intellectuality that his blood is composed of substances which exist without in the physical universe, so was prehistoric man confident that his soul and spiritual nature emanated from that same hidden Spirit-World which he could discern in virtue of his clairvoyant consciousness. It has already been pointed out that there are phenomena connected with the history of mankind, and which are also apparent in certain external facts and happenings, that can only be fully understood when we pre-suppose some such primordial condition of man’s earthly existence. It has further been stated that modern science is coming more and more to the conclusion that it is erroneous to assume, as has been done by the materialistic Anthropology of the nineteenth century, that in primeval times the prevailing state common to man was similar to that found among the most primitive peoples of to-day. It is, in fact, becoming more and more clear that the prehistoric races had extremely exalted theoretical conceptions regarding the Spirit-World, and that these concepts were given to them in the form of visions. All those curious ideas which come to us through myths and legends can only be rightly understood, when they are first connected with and referred back to that ancient wisdom which came to man in a way wholly different from that by which our present intellectual science has been attained.
In these modern times there is not much sympathy expressed with the view that the position in which we find the primitive peoples of our day is not typical of the universal primordial condition of mankind, but is in reality an example of decadence from a primarily highly clairvoyant spiritual state common to all peoples. But facts will yet force a general acceptance of some such hypothesis as that put forward by Spiritual Science as a result of its investigations. Here, as in many other cases, it can be shown that fundamentally there is complete accord between spiritual and external science. Further, a time will come when the conclusions which Spiritual Science has formed regarding the probable future of man’s evolution, viewed from the scientific stand-point, will be entirely confirmed. We must look back, not merely to a form of primeval wisdom, but to a specific order of primordial feeling and apprehension, which we characterize as a clairvoyant bond, erstwhile existent between man and the divine regions of spirit.
We can easily understand that during the transition from the old or clairvoyant state of the human soul to our modern direct, unprejudiced and intellectual method of regarding the external perceptual world, there should arise two different currents of thought. As time went on the first of these made itself manifest more especially among those peoples who had clung to memories of the past, and to their fading psychic power, in such manner that they would say: — ‘In by-gone days mankind was truly in contact with the spirit realms in virtue of the clairvoyant faculty, but since then he has descended into the material world of sense perception.’ This feeling spread throughout the whole soul’s outlook, until those ancient peoples would cry out: — ‘We are indeed now come into a world of manifestations where all is illusion — all is Maya.’ Only at such time as man might commune with the spirit spheres could he truly comprehend, and be united with his very being. Thus it was that there came to those nations who still preserved a dim remembrance of the ancient primal clairvoyant state, a certain feeling of sadness at the thought of what they had lost, and an indifference to all material things which man might apprehend and understand through the medium of his intellect, and with which he is ever in direct and conscious contact.
On the other hand, the second of the two thought currents to which I have referred, may be expressed in the following manner: — ‘We will observe and be active in this new world which has been given to us.’ Thought of this nature is especially noticeable throughout the Zarathustran doctrine. Those who experienced this call to action did not look back with sorrow and longing to the loss of the old clairvoyant power, but felt, ever more and more, that they must keep in close and constant touch with those forces by the aid of which they might penetrate into the secrets and nature of all material things, knowing full well that knowledge and guidance, born of the spirit, would flow in upon them if they would but give themselves up to earnest and profound meditation and piety. Such people felt impelled to link themselves closely with the world — there was no dreaming of the past, but an urge to gaze resolutely into the future and to battle with what might come. They expressed themselves after this fashion: — ‘Interwoven throughout this world, which is now our portion, is the same divine essence that was spread about us and permeated our very beings in by-gone ages; and this spiritual component we must now seek amid our material surroundings. It is our task to unite ourselves with all that is good and of the spirit, and by so doing, to further the progress and evolution of creation.’ These words indicate the essential nature of that current of thought which was occupied with external physical perception, and went forth from those Asiatic countries where the Zarathustran doctrine prevailed, and which lay Northward of the region where mankind looked back in meditation, pondering over that great spiritual gift which had passed away, and was indeed lost.
Thus it came about that upon the soil of India there arose a spiritual life which is entirely comprehensible, when we regard it in the light of all this retrospection concerning a former union with the Spirit-World. If we consider the results in India of the teachings of the Sankhya and Yoga philosophies and the Yoga training, we find that these may be embodied in the following statement: — The Indian has ever striven to re-establish his connection with those Spirit-Worlds from whence he came, and it has been his constant endeavour to eliminate from his earthly life all that was spread around him in the external creation, and by thus freeing himself from material things, to regain his union with that spiritual region from whence humanity has emanated. The principle underlying Yoga philosophy is reunion with the divine realms, and abstraction from all that appertains to the perceptual world.
Only when we assume this fundamental mood of Indian spiritual life can we realize the significance of that mighty impulse brought about by the advent of the Buddha, which blazed up before our spiritual sight, as an after-glow across the evening sky of Indian soul-life, but a few centuries before the Christ-impulse began to dominate Western thought. It is only in the light of the Buddha-mood, when regarded as already characterized, that the outstanding figure of the Buddha can be truly comprehended. In view of that basic assumption to which we have above referred, we can readily conceive that in India there could exist an order of thought and conviction, such as caused mankind to regard the world as having fallen from a spiritual state into one of sense-illusion, or that ‘Great Deception‘, which is indeed Maya. It is also understandable that the Indian, because of his observations concerning this external world with which humanity is so closely connected, pictured to himself that this decline came about suddenly and unexpectedly from time to time, during the passing of the ages. So that Indian philosophy does not regard man’s fall as uniform and continuous, but as having taken place periodically from epoch to epoch. From this point of view we can now understand those contemplative moods, underlying a form of culture which we must regard as being in the departing radiance of its existence; for so must we characterize the Buddhist conception, if we would consider it as having a place in a philosophy such as we have outlined.
Indian thought ever harked back to that dim past when man was truly united with the Spirit-World. For there came a time when the Indian fell away from his exalted spiritual standard; this decline persisted until a certain level was reached, when he rose again, only to sink once more. He continued to alternate in this fashion throughout the ages, every descent taking him still further along the downward path, while each upward step was, as it were, a mitigation granted by some higher power, in order that man might not be compelled to work and live, all too suddenly, in that condition which he had already entered upon during his fall. According to ancient Indian philosophy, as each period of decline was ended there arose a certain outstanding figure whose personality was known as a ‘Buddha‘; the last of these was incarnated as the son of King Suddhodana, and called Gautama Buddha.
Since those olden times, when humanity was still directly united with the Spirit-World, there have arisen a number of such Buddhas, five having appeared subsequent to the last fall. The advent of the Buddhas was a sign that mankind shall not sink into illusion — into Maya — but that again and again there shall come into men’s lives something of the ancient primal wisdom, to succour and to aid humanity. This primordial knowledge, however, because of man’s constant downward trend, fades from time to time; but in order that it shall be renewed there arises periodically a new Buddha, and as we have stated, the last of these was Gautama Buddha.
Before such great teachers could advance, through repeated earth lives, to the dignity of Buddhahood, if we may so express it, they must have already been exalted and attained the lofty standing of a Bodhisattva.1 According to the Indian philosophical outlook, Gautama Buddha, up to his twenty-ninth year, was not regarded as a Buddha, but as a Bodhisattva. It was therefore as a Bodhisattva that he was born into the royal house of Suddhodana; and because his life was ever devoted to toil and to striving, he was at last blessed with that inner illumination, symbolically portrayed in the words, ‘Sitting under the Bodhi tree‘; and that glorious enlightenment which flowed in upon him found expression in the ‘Sermon at Benares’.
Thus did Gautama Buddha rise to the full dignity of Buddahood in his twenty-ninth year, and from that time on, he was empowered to revive once again a last remnant of by-gone primeval wisdom; which, however, in the light of Indian conceptions, would be destined to fall into decadence during the centuries to come. But according to these same concepts, when man has sunk so low, that the wisdom and the knowledge which this last Buddha brought, shall have waned, then will yet another Bodhisattva rise to Buddhahood, the Buddha of the Future — the Maitreya Buddha; whose coming the Indian surely awaits, for it is foretold in his philosophy.
Let us now consider what took place at that time when the last Bodhisattva rose to Buddhahood; when, as we might say, his soul became filled with primordial wisdom. By so doing we can best realize and understand the true significance of that great change, wrought by struggle and toil through repeated earth lives.
There is a legend which tells us that until his twenty-ninth year he had seen nothing of the world outside the Royal Palace of Suddhodana; and that he was protected from that misery and suffering which are factors of existence ever antagonistic to human prosperity in life’s progress. It was under these conditions that the Bodhisattva grew up; but at the same time he was possessed of the Bodhisattva-consciousness, that consciousness so imbued with inner wisdom garnered from previous incarnations. Hence, as he developed, during life’s unfolding, he looked only upon those things which would bring forth true and goodly fruits. Since this legend is so well known, it is only necessary to refer to the main points. It states that when the Buddha at length came outside the Royal Palace he had an experience such as could not have occurred before — namely, he beheld a corpse — and he realized on seeing this body that life is dissolved by death; and that the death element breaks in upon life’s procreative and fruitful progress. He next came upon an ailing and feeble man; and knew that disease enters upon life. Again, he saw an aged person, tottering and weary; and he understood that old age creeps in upon the freshness of youth.
From the stand-point of Buddhism, Indian Philosophy presupposes that: — He who having been a Bodhisattva, and is exalted to Buddhahood, regards all experiences, such as the above, with the Bodhisattva-consciousness. This supposition must be clearly understood. Gautama realized that in the great wisdom which underlies development in all being, there is an element destructive to existence; and the legend states that when this truth first dawned upon him, his great soul was so affected that he cried out: — ‘Life is full of misery.’
Let us now place ourselves in the position of those who look upon experiences of this nature, solely from the Buddhistic point of view, for instance, in the position of this Bodhisattva-Gautama. Gautama was possessed of a higher wisdom which lived within him, but was as yet not fully developed. He had, up to this period, seen only the fortunate and wealthy side of life, and now for the first time beheld the elements of decay and dissolution. If we consider the way in which he must have regarded these happenings, as viewed from the stand-point of assumptions forced upon him in virtue of his being, we can readily understand how it was that this great spiritual Buddha came to express himself in words somewhat as follows: — ‘When we attain to knowledge and to wisdom, it comes about that in virtue of such wisdom we are led onwards toward development and progress; and because of this enlightenment, there enters into the soul the thought of an ever continuous and beneficial growth and advancement; but when we look upon the world about us we see there the elements of destruction as expressed in sickness, old age, and death. Verily, it cannot be wisdom that would thus mingle these destructive factors with life, but something quite apart and distinctive in character.’ At first the great Gautama did not fully grasp all that his Bodhisattva-consciousness implied, and we can well realize how it was that he became imbued with those thoughts which caused him to exclaim: — ‘Man may indeed be possessed of much wisdom, and through his knowledge there may come to him the idea of plenteous benefits; but in life we behold about us not alone the factors of sickness and death, but many another baneful element which brings corruption and decay into our very existence.’
The Bodhisattva thus saw around him a condition which he could not as yet fully comprehend. He had passed through life after life, always applying the experiences gained through his previous incarnations to his soul’s benefit; the while his wisdom became ever greater and greater, till at last he could look down upon all earthly existence from a more exalted vantage-point. But when he came forth from the King’s Palace, and saw before him for the first time the realities of life, its true nature and significance did not at once penetrate his understanding. That knowledge which we gain from the repeated experiences of our earth lives, and which we store within us as wisdom, can never solve the ultimate secrets of our being, for the true origin of these mysteries must lie without — remote from that life which is ours as we pass from reincarnation to reincarnation.
Such thoughts matured in the great soul of Gautama and led him directly to that sublime enlightenment known as ‘The Illumination under the Bodhi Tree ‘.2 There, while seated beneath this tree, it became clear to the Buddha that this world in which we have our being is Maya, — illusion; that here life follows upon life, and that we have come upon this earth from a spiritual realm. While we are yet here we may indeed be exalted, and even rise to noble heights in the divine sense, and we may pass through many reincarnations, becoming ever more and more possessed of wisdom; but because of that which is material and comes to us through contact with this earthly life, we can never solve the great ever-present mystery of existence which finds expression in old age, disease and death. It was at this time of enlightenment that the thought came to Gautama that the teachings born of suffering held for him a greater significance than all the wisdom of a Bodhisattva.
The Buddha expressed the fundamental concept underlying his great illumination as follows: — ‘That which spreads itself abroad throughout this world of Maya is not veritable wisdom, indeed, so little of this quality is manifested in life that we can never hope to gain from external experiences a true understanding of affliction, nor acquire that knowledge which will show us the way by which we may be freed from suffering; for interwoven throughout all outer existence is a factor of quite another character, which differs from all wisdom and all knowledge.’
It is therefore obvious that what the Buddha sought was an element through the agency of which the destructive forces of old age, sickness and death become commingled with earthly life, and in which wisdom has no part. He held that freedom from these baneful factors can never come through mundane knowledge and learning for the path which leads to deliverance does not lie in that direction, and can only be found when man withdraws himself entirely from the external world, where life follows upon life and reincarnation upon reincarnation.
Thus it was the Buddha realized from the moment of his illumination that in the teachings and experience born of affliction, lay that basic element necessary to humanity for its future progress; and he conceived a factor (wherein was no wisdom) which he termed The Thirst for Existence to be the true source of all that misery and sorrow which so troubles the world. Upon the one side wisdom, upon the other a thirst for existence, where wisdom has no part. It was this thought which caused Gautama to exclaim: — ‘Only liberation from recurrent earth life can lead humanity to the realization of perfect freedom; for earthly wisdom, even that of the highest learning, cannot save us from grief and anguish.’ He therefore gave himself up to meditation, and sought some means whereby mankind might be led away from all this restlessness in the world of his reincarnations, and guided into that transcendent state which Gautama Buddha has designated Nirvana.
What, then, is the nature of this state — this World of Nirvana — which man shall enter when he has so advanced in his earthly life that ‘The Thirst for Existence‘ has passed, and he no more desires to be reborn? We must understand this concept rightly, for then shall we avoid those grotesque and fantastic ideas, so frequently spread abroad. Nirvana is a condition that can only be characterized in the Buddhist sense. According to this conception, it is a world of redemption and of bliss that can never be expressed in terms of things which may be apprehended in the material state in which we have our being. There is nothing in this physical world, nor in the wide expanse of the cosmos, which can awaken in mankind a realization of the sublime truth underlying such redemption.
Hence, we should forbear from all pronouncements and assertions regarding that glorious region where humanity must seek salvation; and all earth-born predications and profitless statements — such as man is ever prone to make – must be stilled, for in them is nought pertaining to the spheres of eternal bliss. There is, indeed, no possibility of picturing that realm, where all may enter who have overcome the need for reincarnation, since it is not of those things of which we may have awareness on this earth life. When, therefore, we would speak of this condition we must use a negative, an indefinite, term and such a term is Nirvana. He who has conquered all mundane desires shall yet know the nature and the aspect of that other world which we can but indicate with the one vague and neutral word Nirvana. It is a region which, according to the Buddhist, no language can portray. It is not a ‘Nihility‘, it is indeed so far removed from such a concept that we can find no words wherewith to describe this state of being, so complete, so perfect, and all abounding in ecstasy and bliss.
We are now in a position to grasp and apprehend the very essence of Buddhism, its sentiments and its convictions. From the time of the Sermon at Benares, when first the Buddha gave expression to the ‘Doctrine of Suffering‘, Buddhism became permeated with thought and understanding concerning the inner nature of life’s misery and distress, and of that yearning, that Thirst for Existence which leads but to sorrow and affliction. There is, according to this doctrine, only one way in which humanity may truly progress, and that is through gaining freedom and redemption from further reincarnations. Mankind must find that path of knowledge which extends outward and beyond all earthly wisdom — that path which is the way and the means whereby slowly, step by step, man may become so fitted and conditioned that he can at last enter upon that ideal state — Nirvana. In other words, he must learn to utilize the experiences of his rebirths, in such manner that finally recurrent earth life is no longer essential to his development, and he is freed therefrom for evermore.
If we now turn from this brief summary of the conceptions which underlie Buddhism, to the root and essence of this religion, it at once strikes us as peculiar when viewed in the light of our ideas concerning humanity regarded as a whole — for Buddhism in point of fact isolates the individual. Questions are raised relative to man’s destiny, the purport and aim of his existence, his place and relation to the world — all from the stand-point of detached and separate personality. How, indeed, could any other trend of thought underlie a philosophy built upon a fundamental disposition of mind such as we have outlined? A philosophy evolved from a basic mood, which conceives man as being descended from spiritual heights and now finding himself in a world of illusion; from which material existence the wisdom of a Buddha may, from time to time, free him; but this very wisdom (as was seen in the case of the last Buddha) causes him to seek redemption from his earthly life. How could the goal of human existence, born as it was of convictions such as these, be characterized other than by representing man as isolated in his relation to the whole of his environment? According to this philosophy, the fundamental aspect of being is such as to represent decline, while development and evolution in earthly life implies degeneration.
The manner in which the Buddha sought enlightenment is both remarkable and significant, but unless we consider also the peculiar characteristics and circumstances connected with ‘The Illumination‘, neither the Buddha himself, nor Buddhism, can be properly understood. When Gautama craved enlightenment, he went forth into solitude; to a place where he could find entire and absolute isolation. For all that he had acquired from life to life, must be overcome in the utter detachment of his being, so that there could break in upon his soul that clear light whereby he might comprehend and solve the mystery of the world’s wretchedness. There in that place, as one in complete aloofness, dependent upon himself alone, the Buddha awaited the moment of illumination — that moment when there should come to him an understanding which would enable him to realize that the true cause of all human suffering lay in the intense longing manifested by individual man to be born again into this material world. And further, that this yearning for reincarnation, this thirst for existence, is the fundamental source of all that misery and distress which is everywhere about us, and of those pernicious factors which bring ruin and destruction into our very being.
We cannot rightly comprehend the unusual and singular nature of the Buddha-Illumination and of the Buddhistic Doctrine unless we compare them with the knowledge and experience we have gained through Christianity. Six hundred years after the advent of the Great Buddha, there arose in Christendom a wholly different conception, in which we also find man’s position relative to the world and all that is about him expressed in definite terms.
Now, regarding Buddhism, and speaking in an abstract and general manner, we can say: — The philosophic outlook concerning the cosmos, as set forth in Buddhistic teachings, is not treated historically, and this unhistoric method is thoroughly typical of all Eastern countries. These countries have seen one Buddha epoch follow upon another, only to gradually die out and eventually come to an end. Such descriptions as are concerned merely with man’s descent from higher to lower states, do not of themselves constitute what we term history, for the factors of true history would include the upward endeavour of humanity to reach some appointed goal, and the nature and possibilities of man’s association and union with the world as a whole, both in the past and in the future. We would then have veritable history. But the Buddhist stands isolated and alone, concerned only with the basic principles of his being, ever seeking to gain through the conduct of his personal life those powers which may lead him to freedom from ‘the thirst for existence‘, so that having attained to this freedom he may at last win redemption from rebirth.
In Christendom, six hundred years after the Buddha period, the attitude of individual man toward the evolution of humanity in general was of quite another kind. Putting aside all prejudice, which is so common a failing throughout the world, we can characterize one particular Christian trend of thought as follows: — From that part of the Christian concept which is founded upon the stories in the Old Testament it is realized that the ancients were related to the spiritual realms in a manner wholly different from that which was subsequently the case; as is seen in the grand and lofty imagery depicted in Genesis. Now, a curious fact comes to light, namely, in Christendom we find man’s relation to the world to be of a character entirely unlike that which obtains in Buddhism. The following may be considered as the Christian’s point of view: — ‘Within my being is understanding begotten of that condition of soul which is now mine; and because of the way and the manner in which I observe and comprehend this outer perceptual world, there is born in me wisdom, intelligence and an aptitude for the practical conduct of life. But I can look back into the distant past when the human soul was differently conditioned, and there came about a circumstance, namely, “The Fall of Man”, which cannot be regarded simply from the Buddhistic stand-point.’ This event, which we so often find portrayed in a figurative form based upon misconception, the Buddhist believes to be a [natural result of man’s] descent from Divine spiritual heights into a world of Maya, or illusion. This great ‘Fall’ must, however, be looked upon in a quite different way, for truly characterized it is The Fall of Man [as caused wholly through his own transgression, and was not due as the Buddhist thinks, merely to his coming down from a higher spiritual state and entering a world of deception].
Although man may have his own opinion concerning this matter, nevertheless, there is one thing we must admit, and that will suffice for the present, namely, that in connection with the thought of ‘The Fall’ there is an inner sentiment which causes man to exclaim: — ‘As I am now there work within me certain impulses and forces that have of a surety not developed in my being alone, for similar factors were active in a not so very distant past, when they played a part in happenings of such a nature that the human race, to which I belong, not only lapsed from its former higher spiritual standard, but is so far fallen that mankind has come into another relation with the world to the one which would have been, if the original conditions had but endured.’
When man fell away from his previous high spiritual state, he sank to a definitely lower level, and this change was brought about by what may be termed his own conscious sin. We are therefore not merely concerned with the fact of descent, as is the case when ‘The Fall’ is viewed from the Buddhist stand-point, for we must take into consideration varying mood during this period of decadence. If man’s first nature had but continued unchanged this decline would not have that character which it has now assumed, where the soul-state is such that he is ever prone to fall into temptation.
He who penetrates beneath the surface of Christianity and studies deeply, learns that while history ran its course man’s soul-quality altered. In other words, because of certain events which happened in ancient times, man’s soul (the working of which may be likened to a subconscious mind with his being) took to itself a quality quite other to that which was primarily intended. Now, the Buddhist’s position relative to the material world may be expressed as follows; he would say: — ‘I have been taken out of a Divine spiritual realm and placed upon this earth; when I look around me I find nought but illusion — all is Maya.’ But the Christian, on the other hand, would exclaim: — ‘When I came down into this material life, had I but conformed to the order and intent of that Divine plan in which I had my part, I could even now look beyond this perceptual pretence, behind all this deception, this Maya; and I would at all times have power to realize and discern that which is genuine and true. But because, when I descended upon this earth my deeds were not in harmony with those things which had been ordained, I have, through my own act, caused this world to become an illusion.’
To the question: — ‘Why is this world one of Maya?’ the Buddhist answers: — ‘It is the world itself that is Maya.’ But the Christian says: — ‘It is I who am at fault, I alone; my limited capacity for discernment and my whole soul-state have placed me in such a position that I can no more apprehend that which was in the beginning; and my actions and conduct have ceased to be of such a nature that results follow smoothly, ever attended with beneficial and fruitful progress. I myself have enwrapped this material life in a veil of Maya.’ The Buddhist’s stand-point is: that the world is a great illusion, and must be overcome. The Christian exclaims: — ‘I have been placed upon this earth and must here find the purpose and object of my being.’ When he once understands that through Spiritual Science knowledge may be acquired concerning recurrent earth lives, he then realizes that he may use this wisdom for the achievement of the true aim of his existence. He then becomes convinced that the reason why we now look upon a world of sorrow and deception, is because we have wandered from our allotted path. He considers that this change to Maya is the direct result of man’s deeds, and the manner in which he regards the world. The Christian, therefore, is of opinion that in order to attain to eternal bliss, we must not seek to withdraw ourselves from this earth-state but master that condition which we alone have brought about, and through which the aspect of all material things has been transformed into one of illusion, such that we no longer apprehend them in their truth and reality; we must turn back and overcome this deception, then may we follow the course of our first duly appointed destiny — for latent within each one of us abides a higher personality. If this more noble hidden-self were not hindered and could but look around upon the world, it would apprehend it in all its verity; man would then no longer continue an existence hampered by sickness and by death but lead an everlasting life in all the freshness of youth.
Such, then, is the true inner self that we have veiled. Veiled, because in the past we have been associated with a certain event in the world’s development, the effects of which have continued on, while the primary impulses still work within us, thus proving that we do not exist isolated and alone. We must not believe that we have been led to our present condition through a ‘thirst for existence’ common to individual man; but rather must we realize that each one of us is a definite unit in the sum total of humanity, and as such must take his share and suffer from the results of any original transgression committed by mankind.
It is in this way that the Christian feels that he is historically united with the whole human race, and while he looks into the future, he exclaims: — ’Through travail and toil I must regain touch with that greater self which because of Man’s Fall, now lies enshrouded within my being. It is not Nirvana that I must seek, but my more noble Ego. Alone, must I find the way back to my true nature, then will the outer world be no longer an illusion, a vision of unreality, but a world wherein I shall overcome, of my own power and effort, all sorrow, sickness, and death. While the Buddhist would seek freedom from earthly conditions and from rebirth, through his struggle with ‘The Thirst for Existence’, — the Christian seeks liberation from his lower personality, and looks forward to the awakening of his higher self, that more exalted Ego, which he alone has veiled; so that through his awakening he may at last apprehend this perceptual world in the light of Divine truth.
When we compare those significant words of St. Paul: — ‘Yet not I but Christ liveth in me’ (Galatians ii, 20) with the wisdom revealed by the Buddha, the contrast is as that between light and darkness. In St. Paul’s words, we find expressed that positive knowledge, that definite consciousness, which is ever active deep within us, and in virtue of which we take our place as human personalities in the world. According to the Buddhist, mankind has lapsed from spiritual heights, because this material world has pressed him down and implanted in him a ‘thirst for existence’; and this desire he must overcome — he must away! The Christian, on the other hand, says: — ‘No! the world is not to blame because of my present state, the fault lies with me alone.’
We Christians dwell upon this earth equipped with our accustomed consciousness; but beneath all awareness and understanding there is a something ever active in each individual personality which in by-gone times found expression in the form of a clairvoyant visioned consciousness, now no more extant, for even while we possessed this faculty, we transgressed. If we would indeed reach the ultimate goal of our existence, then must we first atone for this human error. No man who is advanced in years may say: — ‘In my early life I have sinned; it is unjust that I should now be called upon to make atonement for youthful faults, committed at a time when I had not yet attained to that fuller knowledge which is now mine.’ It would be equally wrong for him to assert that it is unfair that he be expected to use his present conscious power to such end that he may compensate for misdeeds enacted while in possession of a different conscious faculty, which faculty no longer exists, for it has been replaced by an intellectual cognition.
The only way in which man may truly atone, when indeed the will is there, is for him to raise himself upward from his present conscious-state and existing Ego, to a higher plane of personality — a more exalted ‘I’. Those words of St. Paul, — ‘Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,’ could then be characterized as follows, — ‘Yet not I, but a higher consciousness liveth in me.’ The Christian conception can be expressed in these words: — ‘I have fallen from a higher spiritual state, and have entered upon a different condition from that which was previously ordained; but I must rise again; and this I must do, not through that quality of Ego which is mine, but in virtue of a power that can enter into my very being, uplifting me far above that “I”, which I now possess. Such a change can alone come to pass when the Christ-influence is once more active within, leading me onward until the world has lost all power of illusion, and I can apprehend it in its true reality. Ever upward until those baneful forces which have brought sickness and death upon the earth may be vanquished, — conquered by that higher spiritual power which Christ has quickened within my being.’
The innermost essence of Buddhism is best understood by comparing the Buddhist creed with that of Christianity. When we do this, we at once realize why it was that Lessing should have made use of the phrase, — ‘Is not all Eternity mine?’ — in his book entitled The Education of Mankind. These words imply that if we employ the experiences gained during our repeated reincarnations, in such manner as to suffer the Christ-force to abide ever more and more within us, we shall at last reach the eternal spheres which realms we cannot as yet hope to attain, because we have of our own act, enveloped the inner being as with a veil. The idea of reincarnation will present a wholly different aspect when illumined by the glory of Christianity; but it is not merely the actual belief in rebirth which matters for the present, for with the advance of Christian culture, humanity will gradually be driven to the acceptance of this concept as a truth brought forward by Spiritual Science. But it is important that we should realize that, whereas the deepest sentiments and convictions of the Buddhist’s faith cause him to blame the World for everything that is Maya — the Christian, on the other hand, looks upon himself, and mankind in general, as responsible for all earthly deception and illusion. The while he stores within his innermost being those qualities which are prerequisite and necessary to him, in order that he may rise to that state which we term Redemption. In the Christian sense, however, this does not only imply deliverance, but actual resurrection; for when man has attained to this state, his Ego is already raised to the level of that more exalted ‘I’ from which he has fallen. The Buddhist, when he looks around upon the world, finds himself concerned with an original sin, but feels that he has been placed upon this earth merely for a time, he therefore desires his freedom. The Christian likewise realizes his connection with an original sin, but seeks amendment and to atone for this first transgression. Such is an historical line of thought, for while the Christian feels that his present existence is associated with an incident which took place in olden times among the ancients, he also connects his life with an event that will surely come to pass when he is so advanced that his whole being will shine forth, filled with that radiance which we designate as the essence of the Christ-Being.
Hence it is that during the world’s development we find nothing in Christianity corresponding to successive Buddha-epochs coming one after another, as one might say, unhistorically, each Buddha proclaiming a like doctrine. Christianity brings forward but one single glorious event during the whole of man’s earthly progress. In the same way as the Buddhist pictures the Buddha, seated isolated and alone under the Bodhi tree, at the moment when he was exalted and the great illumination came to him; so does the Christian visualize Jesus of Nazareth at that time when there descended upon Him the all-inspiring Spirit of the cosmos. The baptism of Christ by John, as described in the Bible, is as vivid and clear a picture as is the Buddhist’s conception of the Illumination of the Buddha. Thus we have, in the first case, the Buddha seated under the Bodhi tree, concerned only with his own soul; in the second, Jesus of Nazareth, standing in the Jordan, while there descended upon Him that cosmic essence, that Spirit, symbolically represented as a dove, which entered into His innermost being.
To those who profess Buddhism, there is something about the Buddha and his works which is as a voice ever saying, — ‘Thou shalt still this thirst for earthly existence, tear it out by the roots, and follow the Buddha — on to those realms which no earthly words can describe.’ The Christian has a similar feeling, with regard to the life and example of Christ, for there seems to come forth an influence, which makes it possible for him to atone for that primeval deed, committed by ancient humanity. He knows that when in his soul, the Divine cosmic influence (born of that great spiritual world which lies behind this perceptual earth) becomes as great a living force as in the Christ himself, then will he carry into his future reincarnations the increasing realization of the truth of St. Paul’s words: — ‘Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’; and he will be raised more and more, ever upwards, to that Divine state from which he is now fallen. When such a faith is ours, we cannot help but be deeply moved, when we hear the story of how the Buddha, as he addressed his intimate disciples, spoke to them as follows: — ‘When I look back upon my former lives, as I might look into an open book, where I can read page after page, and review each life in turn that is passed, I find in every one of these earthly existences that I have built for myself a material body, in which my spirit has dwelt as in a temple; but I now know that this same body in which I have become Buddha will of a verity be the last.’ Speaking of that Nirvana, into which he would so soon enter, the Buddha said: — ‘I already feel that the beams (“Balken”) are cracking and the supports giving way; that this physical body which has been raised up for the last time will soon be wholly and finally destroyed.’
Let us compare the above with the words of Christ, as recorded in the Gospel of St. John (ii. 19), when Jesus, intimating that He lived in a body which was external and apart, said: — ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Here we have an exactly opposite point of view, which might be interpreted thus: — ‘I will perform a deed which shall quicken and make fruitful, all that in this world is of God, and has come down to man from primeval times, and entered into his being.’ These words imply that the Christian, during his recurrent earth lives must exercise his every faculty, in order to give truth to the affirmation: — ‘Yet not I, but Christ Iiveth in me.’ We must, however, clearly understand that Christ’s reference to the rebuilding of the temple has an eternal significance and means that the Christ-power ever enters into, and is absorbed by, all who truly realize that they themselves must play a constructive part in the collective evolution of humanity. It is entirely wrong to speak of that event which gave rise to what we term the Christ-impulse, as though we anticipated its recurrence in some form during the further development of mankind.
The Buddhist, when he ponders in accordance with the true concepts of his creed, pictures the advent of several Buddhas, appearing one after another throughout recurring Buddha-epochs, all of which during the course of their earth lives had a similar character and significance. The Christian looks back to a single past event which is described as — The Fall of Man through Sin — while he points to its converse in the Mystery of Golgotha. He who believes that the Christ-event will at some later period be repeated, merely shows that he has not grasped the true essence of the historical evolution of mankind. History tells us that this idea has been frequently put forward in the past and it is likely that it will again reappear in the future.
The course of true history must always be dependent upon some single basic event. Just as the arm of a balance must have one point of equilibrium and the beam from which the scales hang one point of support only; so in the case of a true record of the evolution of mankind there must be some single circumstance to which its historical development (taken either backwards or forwards) ever points. It is as absurd to speak of a repetition of the Christ-event as it would be to assert that the beam of a balance could be supported and swing upon two points. That Eastern wisdom should hold to the belief that a number of similar spiritual personalities succeed each other at intervals, as it does in the case of the Buddhas, is characteristic of the difference existing between the Oriental cosmic conception and that which has sprung up among the Occidental countries, as the result of so much painstaking observation and thought concerning the course of evolution. The Western concept first began to take definite form at the time of the manifestation of the Christ-impulse, which we must regard as a unique circumstance. If we oppose the oneness and singular character of the Christ-event, we argue against the possibility of the true historical evolution of mankind; and to argue against historical evolution betrays a misunderstanding of genuine history.
We can, in its deepest sense, term that consciousness possessed by individual man of indissoluble association with humanity as a whole, the Christian consciousness. Through it we become aware of a definite purpose, underlying the course of all human evolution, and realize that here indeed can be no mere repetition. Such consciousness is an attribute of Christianity, from which it cannot be separated. The real progress which mankind has made during its period of development is shown in the advance from the ancient Eastern cosmic conception to the philosophic concept of modern times — from the unhistoric to the historic — from a belief that the wheels of human chance roll on through a succession of similar events to a conviction that underlying the whole of man’s evolution is a definite purpose, a design of profound significance.
We realize that it is Christianity which has first revealed the true meaning of the doctrine of reincarnation. We can now state that the reason why man must experience recurrent earth lives is that he may be again and again instilled with the true import of material existence; with this object he is confronted with a different aspect of being during each of his incarnations. There is throughout humanity an upward tendency that is not merely confined to the isolated individual, but extends to the entire human race with which we feel ourselves so intimately connected. The Christ-impulse, the centre of all, causes us to realize that man can become conscious of the glory of this divine relation; then no more will he only acknowledge the creed of a Buddha, who cries out to him: — ‘Free thyself!’ — but will become aware of his union with The Christ, Whose deed has reclaimed him from the consequences of that decadence, symbolically represented as: — ‘The Fall of Man through Sin.’
We cannot describe Buddhism better than by showing that it is the after-glow of a cosmic conception, the sun of which has nearly set; but with the advent of Gautama it shone forth with one last brilliant, powerful ray. We revere the Buddha none the less, we honour him as a Great Spirit — as one whose voice called into the past and brought back into this earthly life, once again that mood which brings with it so clear a consciousness of man’s connection with ancient primordial wisdom. On the other hand, we know that the Christ-impulse points resolutely towards the future, ever penetrating more and more deeply into the very soul of man; so that humanity may realize that it is not release and freedom that it should seek, but Resurrection that glorious transfiguration of our earthly being. It is in such a metamorphosis that we find the inner meaning of our material life. It is futile to search among dogmas, concepts and ideas for the active principle of existence; for the vital element of life lies in our impulses, emotions and feelings, and it is through these moods that we may apprehend the true significance of man’s evolution and development.
There may be some who feel themselves more drawn toward Buddhism than toward Christianity; and we must admit that even in our time there is something about Buddhism which inspires a certain sympathy in many minds, and which is to a certain extent in the nature of a Buddha-mood or disposition. Such a feeling, however, did not exist with Goethe, who sought to free himself from the pangs which he endured owing to the narrow-mindedness he found everywhere about him, at the time of his first sojourn in Weimar. His endeavour in this respect was wholly due to his love of life and conviction that interwoven throughout all external being is the same spiritual essence which is the true origin of the Divine element in man. Goethe strove to achieve this Iiberation from distress through observation of the outer world, going from plant to plant, from mineral to mineral, and from one work of art to another — ever seeking that underlying spirit from which the human soul emanates; the while he sought to unify himself with that Divine essence which manifests throughout all external things.
Goethe, when in converse with Schopenhauer regarding the influence of his thoughts and ideas upon his pupil, once said: — ‘When your carefully considered and worthy conceptions come into contact with a wholly different trend of thought, they will be found at variance with one another.’ Schopenhauer had established a maxim which, expressed in his oft-repeated words, was as follows: — ‘Life is ever precarious, and it is through deep meditation that I seek to alleviate its burdens.’ What he really sought was that illumination which would reveal and make clear the true origin [and intent] of existence. It was therefore only natural that Buddhist concepts should enter his mind and mingle with his ideas, thus causing him to ponder upon this olden creed.
During the progress of the nineteenth century the different branches of human culture have yielded such great and far-reaching results, that the mind of man seems incapable of adjusting itself in harmony with the flood of new ideas which continually pour in upon it, as a consequence of effort expended in scientific research; and it feels ever more and more helpless before the enormous mass of facts which is the unceasing product of such investigations. We have found this vast world of accepted truths to be wonderfully in accord with the concepts of Spiritual Science, but it is worthy of note that during the last century, although man’s reasoning powers increased greatly nevertheless they soon failed to keep pace with the immense inflow of scientific data. Thus it was that just toward the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, man realized that he could not hope to understand and to master all this new knowledge by means of the human intellect alone; for everything about us is connected with, and extends into the cosmos and the world of spirit — and this outer realm is still beyond the limits of man’s normal faculties of comprehension. He must, therefore, seek another way, some as yet untrodden path.
Hence it is that mankind has sought a cosmic philosophy, not wholly at variance with all those facts coming from the outer world which make inward appeal to the soul. Spiritual Science is based upon the most profound conceptions and experiences of divine wisdom, and is ever ready to deal with all fresh truths and data brought forward by external science, to assimilate them, and throw new light upon their significance, showing at the same time that in all which has actuality in external life, is embodied the divine essence — the spirit. There are some people, however, who find the concepts of Spiritual Science inconvenient and unsuitable. They turn away from the world of reality, which demands so much thought and effort for its unfoldment, and, according to their own knowledge and personal ideas, seek a higher plane merely through the development of their individual souls. Thus we have what may be termed an ‘Unconscious Buddhism’, which has long existed and been active in the philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When an ‘Unconscious Buddhist’ comes into contact with true Buddhism then, because of indolence and inertia, he feels himself more ‘at home’ with this Eastern creed than with European Spiritual Science, which comes to grips with widespread facts, because it knows that throughout the entire range of reality the Divine spirit is ever manifest.
There is no doubt that the present sympathy and interest evinced with regard to Buddhism is due, in part, to feebleness of will and want of faith, faith, born of undeveloped spiritual knowledge. The whole essence of the Christian cosmic conception, which seems to have been in Goethe’s mind, demands that man shall not give way to his own weak spiritual understanding and talk of ‘the limitations of human knowledge’, but feel that there is within him a something which will carry him above all illusion and bring him to truth and reality, thus freeing him for evermore from terrestrial existence. A cosmic conception of this nature may call for much patient resignation, but such is of quite a different order to that which shrinks before the contemplation of the limits of human understanding. Resignation, in the Kantian sense, implies that mankind is altogether incapable of penetrating the deep secrets of the cosmos, and its chief feature lies in the special acknowledgment of the feebleness of man’s comprehension; but that of Goethe is of a different character, and is expressed in these words: — ‘Thou hast not as yet come so far, that thou canst apprehend the Universe in all its glorious reality, but thou art capable of developing thyself.’ Resignation of this kind leads on to that stage of growth and progress when man will truly be in a position to call forth his Christ-nature from within his being; he yields, because he realizes that the highest point of his mundane development has not yet been attained. Such an attitude is noble and fully in accord with human understanding. It implies that we pass from life to life, with the consciousness of being, looking ever forward into the future in the knowledge that with regard to recurrent earthly existence all eternity is ours.
When we consider man’s evolution, we find ourselves confronted with two modern currents of thought, each leading to a different cosmic conception. One of which, due to Schopenhauer, pictures the world with all its misery and suffering, as of such nature that we can only realize and appreciate man’s true position when we gaze upon the works of the great artists. In these masterpieces we oft-times find portrayed the form and figure of a being, who through asceticism, has attained to something approaching to liberation from earthly existence, and already hovers, as it were, above this lower terrestrial life. Fundamentally, Schopenhauer was of opinion that in the case of a human being thus freed, retrospection concerning material conditions no longer exists and that herein lies the pre-eminent characteristic of such liberation. Hence, he who has thus won his way to freedom, can truly say: — ‘I am still clothed in my bodily garment, but it has now lost all significance, and there is nought left about me which might in time to come recall my earthly life. I strive ever upward, in anticipation of that state with which I shall gain contact when I have at last wholly overcome the world, and all that appertains thereto.’ Of such nature was the sentiment of Schopenhauer, after he had become imbued with those ideas and convictions, which Buddhist teaching has spread abroad in the world.
Goethe, on the other hand, led on by his truly Christian impulse, regarded the world after the manner of his character — Faust. When we cease to look about us in trivial mood, when we truly realize that all material works must perish, and death at last overtake the body, then with Goethe we can say: — ‘If we but take heed and ponder concerning our earthly activities there will come knowledge born of experience, teaching us that while all those things wrought and accomplished which are of this world must pass away, that which we have built up within ourselves through toil and striving during our contact with the ‘School of Earthly Life’, shall not perish, for such is indeed everlasting.’
So with Faust we think not of how our mundane works may endure, but look forward to the fruits which they shall bring forth in the course of the soul’s eternal life; thus are we carried far out and beyond the narrow confines of the Buddhist creed, into a world of thought which finds brief expression in those impressive words of Goethe:-
‘Eons cannot erase
The traces of my days on earth.’
Notes for this lecture:
1. Bodhisattva (Sanskrit). A Bodisat, one whose essence is enlightenment, that is, one destined to become a Buddha. A Buddha Elect (vide, A Concise Dictionary of Eastern Religion, by Winternitz).
2. Bodhi Tree — Fig-tree (Ficus religiosa); known also as the Bo Tree. [Ed.]