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OP-ED: The politics and relevance of Buddhism

  • Published at 02:18 am June 1st, 2021
buddhist worshippers
Buddhist worshippers on the occasion of Buddha Purnima in Bangladesh MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

An analysis on the metamorphosis and transformation of Siddhartha Gautama

The recorded history and the archived memory of the faithful inform us that in the sixth century before the contemporary era, there was born in Lumbini to Suddhodana and his wife Maya Devi a baby boy. The child, intellectually precocious and possessed of stunning beauty, was to cause a social and cultural earthquake, the tremors of which would be felt in every corner of the civilized world, and the nature of whose existence and teaching continues to be an inspiration to the religion and a way of life which evolved, and continues to evolve with its myriad tributaries, to this day.

While growing up in the perfect bliss represented by the passage of time from infancy to adolescence, young Siddhartha lacked for nothing, and wanted for less. His childhood and formative years were set in the context of the explosion of material civilization which divided up the Northern Fertile Plain in a blanket of contiguous Mahajanapadas. 

And in keeping with the spirit of the times, all available intellectual resources were brought to bear in the years beyond adolescence as the young regent was exposed to and tutored in the ways and means of spirituality, culture, literature, and the science of governance. No stone was left unturned in the process of imparting a complete curriculum. 

But Siddhartha’s burning intelligence consumed and dispensed with the scripture and belief of his forefathers, the entire body of spiritual and philosophical literature represented by the Brahmanical canon which drew its ultimate inspiration from the wisdom of the four Vedas, as well as all available secular knowledge considered worth obtaining, at a speed and level of comprehension that his baffled tutors found difficult to match and eventually impossible to feed.

As time and history and the phalanx of the wise never cease to remind, in the unique corner of humankind that we as South Asians occupy, we bear in our bones the knowledge that what is ordained has its implacable logic and will come to pass, regardless of obstacle or distraction. Thus it was that Siddhartha, for whom to take the next step to political supremacy was merely a question of planning and timing, eventually outgrew, dissatisfied, all the resources of the body and mind that his privileged confines could possibly offer. 

A questioning mind

Leaving the royal premises with his trusted charioteer and favorite horse, Siddhartha conducted forays incognito into the outside world, permitting reality to assault his sensitive disposition and questioning mind. 

In quick succession, Siddhartha was confronted by the inexorable mechanics of life through poverty, suffering, sickness, old age, and death which appeared to permeate the notion of existence. Existence, surely, but of what use when devoid of meaning? Life to what end? It was the contented demeanor of an ascetic, calmly treading the streets with outstretched hand, which was to shape and define the chosen life of the regent.

Do recall again, dear reader, that it was foretold. Not the high privilege bestowed by power, position, extraordinary intellect, birth and wealth, nor the ironclad call of duty to wife and son, could deter him from his chosen path. And it came to pass that at the darkest moment of night which from its depths heralds the onset of the orange dawn, Siddhartha kissed Rahula, stared down with the presumably smiling melancholy that only a husband is capable of at the face of Yashodhara, supine and oblivious, turned on his heel and strode out of the portals of the palace. The greatest seer to have walked the earth had taken the first steps on the long and arduous path of enlightenment.

Six years later, at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama gained ultimate knowledge and peace under the spreading boughs of the Bodhi tree at Gaya. The beautiful countenance, radiating peace and goodwill to mankind, belying the awful tribulations endured at every step of the quest, would be anointed as the “Buddha,” the Enlightened One. 

For the better part of the next 45 years, the Buddha traversed the Northern Fertile Plain, spreading a message of astonishing simplicity: Do good to others, the way you conduct yourself through life is of sole importance, and righteous conduct and behaviour begets true and permanent happiness. 

In a radical deviation from the temper of established religion and thought, the Enlightened One did not see the need to pay even lip service to the concept of God. For the Buddha and his acolytes, the road to perfection was forged and trodden by oneself alone, fortified by the conduct which defines and forges each individual.

Capturing the imagination of humanity

Countless generations later, the irony cannot be lost on the world. The endless rows of serene statues in meditative posture in the cathedrals and temple complexes cutting a benign swathe through Southeast Asia and beyond, from Colombo to Beijing, bear mute testimony to the elevation, willingly or unwillingly, of an intensely human teacher to a symbol of Godhead, establishing a religion and philosophy in the process to rival those already in existence. 

The Enlightened One had, unwittingly, succeeded in capturing the imagination and mental space of a slice of humanity that thought nothing of adding him to the ever-growing pantheon of the heavens.

A formidable body of scripture and commentary was built about his person and the Sangam, a cadre of the truly faithful and committed. They were quietened and peaceful, rather than inflamed, by this theology. Why did this spiritual literature, constituted of the words and teachings of the Buddha as gathered in the Sutras, the Pali Canon represented by the Tripitaka, the Mahayana Sutras and the Tibetan Book of the Dead find no more than a miniscule representation in the land of its origin, a land so vast and diverse as to rightly presume that in its infinitude, there is sufficient space (and the accumulation of a substantial following as its concomitant) for every art of creed, ethos, and way of life?

Did the first principles of the new faith lack doctrinal conviction? Was the bedrock of the new prose built on a sea of shifting sand made even more turbulent by rival philosophies? Conversely, were the commentaries too esoteric, bearing little relation to the simplicity of the Buddha’s personal sermons? 

Was the calm and beautiful man not fiery enough in a more traditionally theological and theocratic sense? Was this inward-looking directive too introverted, even for the (by all accounts) cerebral and individual-based Hinduism with which the subcontinent was already familiar for so many centuries? Did the space no longer exist for alternate modes of thought and belief, the vacuum filled as it were by the beliefs of our Vedic forefathers? 

Cynically put, was the Shakya clan, sun-worshippers who claimed descent from the mythical Ikshvaku, and ethnically and culturally teetering on the periphery of the Aryan pale, consigned by propaganda and the prejudices of the day to playing second fiddle to the hegemony of Hinduism built on the unassailable foundations of the Vedas? 

And while on the subject of propaganda, was the appeal of the Buddha so great as to warrant desperate measures by the leviathan of Vaishnava Hinduism, fighting a rearguard action with the stubborn Shaivites, by scrambling to absorb the Master as an incarnation in the personal pantheon of Lord Vishnu?

We may never know for sure.

Relevance today

Two thousand five hundred years later, a short and simple chant, based on the essence of the Buddha, has captured the imagination of the urban chatterati. The guttural intonation of “Namu myoho renge kyo” reverberates in the halls of prayer meetings and yoga sessions, corridors of power and corporate offices, and even invades the intimacy of the bedroom. 

Known as the Daimoku, it was fashioned by the monk Saicho in the ninth century and further reinforced by the monk Genshin in the eleventh century. The chant is a vow, an expression of determination, to embrace our “Buddhist nature,” that is, to understand one’s true self and conquer the suffering within, for each of us has the ability to overcome any obstacle encountered in the progression of life. 

We are each and individually an extension of the universe of which we are a part, and it is from this infinite vastness that we beget the power to realize, comprehend, and overcome. The words to describe are loftier than the action sought, and the action sought is astoundingly easy to grasp.

What does the Buddha mean for us today, and how does the sacred name of one of the most successful teachers of recorded history manifest itself in the thoughts of the contemporary educated and otherwise? Incantations are modish among the fashionably conscious, and the coffee-table subjects of meditation, incense, peace and quiet, and the seeming ubiquity of yoga appear to pervade. 

To illustrate, the downside of the spiritual quest is that the gentle monk, who took on the establishment of a deeply feudal society by the strength of his moral force, has in sections of the civil society of today been reduced to a fad. 

Unwittingly, Nichiren has provided the newly wealthy and socially aggressive circles with a questionable sense of purpose. The grapevine ensures that the chant is on every fourth pair of lips sculpted by perfect makeup, while peer pressure ensures that the residue of the wannabes is at least constrained to memorize it. 

“Oh, how peaceful it is! Take it seriously, it will do wonders! It’s so soothing! I say it whenever I get a chance … How about you? Why don’t you come and chant with us sometime? We’re all meeting up next weekend. WhatsApp you the details? Take care! No, Uttara, it’s not a religion, it’s a philosophy. Just close your eyes and absorb it!”

So spout the educated illiterate of contemporary life, instinct honed to pluck a few profound words from the chatter in the atmosphere and craft the next sound bite into some impressive-sounding intelligibility.

The cult status

Our recognition of the presence of the Enlightened One in the arbitrary times in which we live is peripheral at best, furtive and infrequent. One chances upon the benign expression of the seated teacher in the lobby of a company headquarters or a friend’s well-appointed living room, with the possible bonus of the teacher smiling down from a framed painting or thangka in what would be one of a thousand ways of portrayal made popular by an art industry sensing opportunity. 

The Enlightened One has “won” a cult status of sorts, similar to what Che Guevara and Bob Marley were for the pop culture of a generation past with their outlines emblazoned on every third t-shirt. One sees the occasional festoon of coloured flags strung between the handlebars of a motorcycle or pasted in the rear window of the car in front reminiscent of the Tibetan Lama-based Buddhism familiar through domestic travel.

A profusion of sects has flowered under the broad auspices of the Tripitaka, unable, however, to separate their first principles from those enunciated by the Enlightened One, and yet having the confidence to proclaim a new religious order. The elements all exist, but unfortunately, just a drop in the ocean.

Chinese influence

We are confronted today with the unlikely phenomenon of the People’s Republic of China, officially considering no religion other than the precepts of an agrarian communism as expounded by Chairman Mao, of systematically propagating China as the centre, and only centre, of world Buddhism. 

In a classic case of God being championed by the “godless,” conferences, theme parks, religious centres, and annual symposiums are organized and constructed in a determined bid to aggregate and consolidate and ensure that the name of Siddhartha Gautama will one day be associated only with Mainland China.

Bottomless coffers, a commanding share of the world economy, the relative administrative ease of executing directives in the monolith of one-party rule, and the civilizational advantage of spirituality embedded in thousands of years of the Confucian way of life have all contributed in the ability to hijack the person of the Buddha in a by-all-means novel diplomatic offensive on spiritual fellow travelers in the comity of nations.

By all accounts, the evidence would suggest that China has achieved considerable success in this endeavour as evidenced by the legions of monks and their spiritual leadership who congregate from the four corners of the world annually in China to meditate on the name of the Enlightened One and partake of the largesse of arguably the most powerful nation on earth.

But all is not lost. The essence of the Buddha permeates the fabric of society across the diverse expanse of the subcontinent. Today, in an increasingly agnostic and ignorant world, if Hinduism and Islam command the lion’s share of devotion, so has Siddhartha Gautama established himself in the minds and hearts of hundreds of millions, providing inspiration to a steadily growing pool of believers, as they manifest themselves in clubs, communities, cults, sects, lobbies, pressure groups and indeed, new religions and philosophies.

Buddha Purnima was celebrated on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. In the sacred wake of the 2,565th birthday of the Great Teacher, dear reader, dear citizen of this subcontinent that we can be so proud of, join me in realizing our “Buddhist nature” and taking those tentative steps to reclaim our collective heritage.

For it is not yet too late. 

 Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India, and is a freelance contributor.

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