Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
167 of 1105



BUDDHISM is a religion which to-day has more adherents than any other on the face of the earth. Professed in China and Japan, in the islands of Ceylon and Java, in Cochin China and Laos, in Burmah and Pegu, in Nepaul and Thibet, in Kashmire, in Mongolia and Tartary, it has at least three hundred millions of adherents; and although in these countries, so remote from each other, it has assumed different forms, it has still preserved its individuality which neither time nor place has been able to modify in any essential degree. For this reason alone, Buddhism merits the greatest attention, since it holds so prominent a place in the religious history of mankind. What renders it besides no less worthy of interest is the fact that in reality it is a doctrine which seems to contradict in many regards the most natural instincts of the heart and mind. But it possesses the glory of having never been propagated by force and persecution, and of never having employed other than the mildest methods of persuasion to extend itself over so many peoples and lands. If we try to sound its special dogmas, an absolute ignorance of God is discovered, of whom Buddhism has never had the slightest notion, and a negation not less absolute of the immortality of the soul, which seeks external salvation only in annihilation, an unshaken belief in metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls, and a complete system of nihilism as its sole philosophy. Considered under these aspects, Buddhism is one of the most curious and afflicting phenomena which can be examined. It is only within the last half century that Buddhism has become known in an authentic manner, and it was only after the discovery of its sacred books that it was possible to find out anything definite about it. Up to that time, the only sources of information regarding it was faith in the most obscure and least certain traditions. It was Mr. Brian Houghton Hodgson, an English resident at Kathmandu, the capital of Nepaul, who first made this splendid discovery and revealed it to the learned world. Intimate with Buddhist priests, he gained their confidence and soon learned that in the convents of the country Sanskrit books were preserved which were the foundation of the whole Buddhist religion. These books contained the discourses and biography of Buddha, the rules of discipline which he had imposed on his monks, and the metaphysics of the whole Buddhistic doctrine. Mr. Hodgson procured copies of these books, which he gave to such learned societies as could make best use of them—the Asiatic societies at London and Paris, and the Asiatic society of Bengal at Calcutta. He repeated these generous gifts at various times, and the learned world was put in possession of 88 of the principal works which from the canon of the Buddhist scriptures. This took place in the interval between 1824 and 1834. Almost contemporary with Mr. Hodgson, a young Hungarian doctor, Cosma de Körös, entered Thibet and learned the language which no European before him knew, and was able to analyze two great collections of more than three hundred Thibetan volumes, faithful translations of the Sanskrit originals discovered by Mr. Hodgson. Mr. J. L. Schmidt, of St. Petersburg, established the fact, that the Thibetan translations of Buddhist Sanskrit books had in turn been translated into Mongolian, and that just as the Buddhistic faith had passed with the books containing it from India to Nepaul and from Nepaul to Thibet, it passed from Thibet to Mongolia. At the other extremity of India, in the island of Ceylon, treasures no less precious were discovered. Mr. George Turnour, a civil employé like Mr. Hodgson, discovered a second rendering of the Buddhist scriptures in a dialect derived from, and very nearly allied to the Sanskrit, the Pali, which has become the sacred language of the Singhalese; and he published a Pali work, the Mahavamsa, containing the annals of Ceylon after it was converted to Buddhism. About 1868, M. Grimblot, consul of France at Colombo, brought home with him a complete collection of the Buddhist canon, in Pali, according to the southern text, and this collection deposited in the national library invites the labor and knowledge of our Hindoo scholars, who will find in it unexpected treasures. Sinologues added the testimony of China to that already collected from so many sides. China, like Thibet and Mongolia, had translated the Buddhist scriptures in the early centuries of the Christian era, and M. Abel Remusat published, in 1836, the travels of Fa-hein, one of those courageous missionaries who went from the celestial empire into India, to search for the sacred books and bring them home. Later it was reserved for M. Stanislas Julien to complete information of this kind by a translation of the Biography and Memons of Hiouen-Thsang, the most instructive and illustrious of the Chinese pilgrims. In the seventh century of our era he traveled, for 16 years, through all the Buddhistic kingdoms of India and northern Asia. All these data on Buddhism were confirmed, 20 years ago, by the discovery of numerous inscriptions in every part of India, containing decrees of a Buddhist king Piyadasi or Asoka, who reigned in the third century before Christ (from 263 to 226).


—Thus Indian inscriptions, Chinese translations and narratives of Chinese pilgrims, Pali texts, annals of Ceylon, Mongol and Thibetan translations, and especially the original Sanskrit, are the basis on which rests our knowledge of Buddhism to-day, to say nothing of a few less direct ideas which the Greeks have transmitted to us from the expedition of Alexander to the time of Clement of Alexandria. It is well to collect here all these details concerning the authenticity of Buddhism, so that there may be no doubt on such a subject; and as the doctrines of Buddhism are calculated to cause the most painful surprises, it is necessary that we should well understand that if they contain many errors, they no longer present any points of obscurity. They may be deplored, but it is clearly known what they are. The two most important Buddhistic works have been translated into French. The one is the Lalitavistára, translated from Thibetan and compared with the original Sanskrit by M. Ph. Ed. Foucaux, containing the biography of Buddha. The other is the Lotus of the Good Law, translated from the Sanskrit by the much to be regretted Eugène Burnouf, and containing one of the sutras or sermons of Buddha.


—We can now see the principal points in the history of Buddha and his doctrine. Buddha, that is to say, the Intelligent, the Wise, died 543 years before our era, at the age of 80. This is the most probable date despite striking divergences, and it is taken from the Singhalese annals. Buddha, son of a king of Kapilavastu, in the north of India, on the left bank of the Ganges, was called Siddhârtha, from his title of prince, and he took that of Buddha only when he had decided, after long meditation, on the basis of the new doctrines which he presented to mankind to save and instruct them. Married, at an early age, by his father who observed in him an unconquerable melancholy, he left the court and the world to adopt the life of a mendicant at the age of 29. Going first to the Brahman schools at Vaisali and Râdjagriha, the capital of Magadha, (the present Bihar), he soon convinced himself of the insufficiency of their systems and to strengthen himself better in his own, he shut himself up, for six years, in the most austere retreat near the village of Onrouvilva on the banks of the Nairandjanâ, the Phalgou of modern geography, not far from mount Gaya. Subjecting himself to mortifications which frightened the gods themselves, struggling inflexibly against his youth and his senses, the Bodhisattva remained five years in this rude hermitage, and after having many ecstacies, he had one at last in which he thought he had found, in all its fullness, the law which could lead men to salvation and eternal deliverance. Thanks to this beneficent law, man could save himself from the odious necessity of being perpetually born over again; he might issue out of the circle of successive existences; in a word, save himself from transmigration. Once in possession of this marvelous doctrine, Buddha, "perfectly accomplished," left his long retreat and went to Benares to preach his religion, or, as the Buddhists phrase it, "to make the wheel of the law turn round." During the remainder of his life, that is to say, during 45 years, he did nothing but teach, by word and persuasion, peoples and kings who were willing to believe in him. He resided chiefly at Râdjagriha, in Magadha, at Sravasti. in Kosala (Fizabad in Oude), and died near Kusinagara in the kingdom of that name, in the shade of a grove composed of trees called salas (shorea robusta). His disciples gave him a magnificent funeral and divided his sacred relics among themselves, some of which, if popular superstition is to be believed, exist to the present time. This life of Buddha, so simple and so probable, was disfigured later by the most extravagant legends, from under which, however, it may be rescued and written.


—Buddha dead, the devotees or bhikshus assembled in council under the protection of king Adjâtasatrou, and the most influential among them, Kâsyapa, Ananda and Upâli, drew up the works which were henceforth to form the orthodox canon. Kâsyapa, who as president of the council had directed all the deliberations, took charge of the metaphysics or Abhidharma; Ananda, first cousin of Buddha, revised his sermons or sutras; and Upâli compiled everything relating to discipline or Vinaya. The Abhidharma, the sutras and the Vinaya comprise what the Buddhists call the Triple Basket or Tripitaka, just as the Buddha, the Law and the Council, form the Three Pearls or the Three Precious Things, the Triratna. This first council, held under the patronage of Adjâtasatrou, who was converted by Buddha himself, was followed by two others, of uncertain date, one of which was held under king Asoka who extended his rule over the entire Indian peninsula, during the third century before our era. It was these three councils that settled the text of the Buddhist works such as they have come down to us and such as they were accepted by all the peoples who submitted to Buddhism.


—The following is the doctrine contained therein. Buddha sets out with the axiom accepted by all in India, and in a great part of Asia: Man has been condemned from all eternity to perpetual renewals of existence which succeed each other without end, and the present life, exposed to sickness, old age and death, is a terrible chain from which he should seek to free himself at any cost, and in such a manner as never to fall into the same abyss again. Brahmanism, with its complicated worship drawn from the Vedas, gave to men the means of salvation; but Buddha proclaimed these means to be ineffectual, and he wished to substitute better or rather infallible means for them. The first theory which he taught to lead man to the desire for deliverance, was that of the four sublime truths. These truths are the following: 1, pain is the inevitable heritage of man in life; 2, the cause of pain arises from acts, activity, desires, passions and faults; 3, pain for man may cease forever through Nirvâna; 4, the way to reach this final end of pain is that taught by Buddha. These four sublime truths were resumed in the sacramental verses adopted by all the Buddhists and repeated by them continually as a creed or act of faith.


—The four sublime truths are followed by ten prohibitions which form the Buddhist decalogue: Not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to lie, not to get drunk, not to eat outside the appointed hours, not to attend dances or theatrical representations, not to use perfumes or dress with luxury, not to have rich beds, and not to accept either gold or silver. Of these commands some are addressed to all the faithful, others more particularly to the monks for whom moral discipline is more severe. Buddhist monks have special observances of extreme rigor. They are allowed to clothe themselves only in rags collected on the streets, in the dirt heaps or in cemeteries, as Buddha did; they can not have more than three of these wretched dresses, sewed with their own hands, and always covered with a yellow mantle obtained through the same means. Their food is more simple still than their dress. The monks can live only on alms, receiving food given them in the wooden vase which they hold out without saying the least word to ask for it, and without any sign of impatience. They eat but one meal a day and before noon. The woods are their only habitation. In sleeping they sit with the back against the trunk of a tree, and the rest of the body on a mat. Once a month, at least, they pass the night in a cemetery to meditate on the instability of human things. Moreover, the monk must remain in celibacy and the most complete chastity. The only mild provision in this fierce code is that in the rainy season, the winter of these climates, it is permitted to the bhikshous or mendicants to shelter themselves in viharas or convents, which the sympathy of the people or the munificence of kings had erected for their use in all the Buddhist countries.


—As to ordinary believers, Buddha recommended to them the practice of the six transcendent virtues: almsgiving, purity, patience, courage, contemplation, and knowledge. He added reserve in speech in order to avoid all grossness and all calumny, and humility which guarantees man against the evils of pride. He prescribed also to the monks and even to laymen, the public confession of their sins, and this institution has existed for a long time and under various forms, as may be seen from the moral edicts of Piyadasi and the memoirs of Hiouen-Thsang.


—Such is the code of Buddhist morals, exaggerated in some parts, excellent in nearly all, and in general worthy of Christianity itself. This code has exercised a salutary influence upon simple men, on kings, and even nations, as is shown by an array of facts to be found in the sutras, in the legends, and even in civil and political history of Buddhist nations. It is founded upon a metaphysical system of which only a few words can be said here, but which should not be passed over in silence. Transmigration of souls, accepted as a dogma not to be discussed, meant for Buddha that man before coming into this world and after leaving it, may have already appeared under millions and millions of different forms, from inert matter and stone, for example, up to living matter in the bodies of the most perfect animals, including man. The only cause for these transformations is the conduct of men in a previous existence. In the present the fate of the future life is determined. But what was the cause of man's first existence, and how did the series commence? Buddha neglected this impenetrable problem of the origin, and seemed to believe in the eternity of beings, or rather, in their eternal mutability. Accordingly he declared that everything in the world is void, that there are only appearances without reality, and that the only faith possible is to believe in nothing, or rather, to believe in nothing but Nirvâna.


—There has been much discussion among scholars as to the meaning to be attached to Nirvâna. Some have pretended that it is the absorption of the human soul in God, but it has been answered that Buddhism believes neither in God nor in the human soul; and it may be seen by the preceding that neither the one nor the other has a place in the Buddhist system. Nirvâna, therefore, had for Buddha no other meaning than nothingness from which man never returns because he no longer exists. This faith is an abominable one, but it forms unquestionably the basis itself of Buddhism. First of all, the sacred books attest it, and although a doctrine of this kind is necessarily very obscure, it is what the sutras set forth. Moreover this doctrine is perfectly in accord with the atheism of Buddhism; it is the same which the Brahmans who have a horror of it, attribute to their adversaries; it springs from the whole system of Buddhist metaphysics, and it is still in our day the faith of all the Buddhist priests, who have been consulted by Christian missionaries, as can be seen by reference to the works of Spence Hardy, Bigandet, Wassilief, Müllens, Grimblot, and many others. This interpretation of Nirvâna is adopted by Eugene Burnouf, the most competent judge in these questions, and his arguments may be found in his admirable work: Introduction à l'histoire du Boudhisme Indien.


—If it be a matter of surprise that nothingness should be the object of religious worship for so large a portion of humanity, we may answer, first of all, that these people are in this as in many other regards, very different from us, and that they seem to despise life at least as much as we love it. It may be added that nations generally understand little of the ultimate principles of the religions they profess, and it is not probable that among Christians there are many more who understand the admirable depths of the Christian faith than there are among Buddhists who can give an account of the true sense of Nirvâna. They adore Buddha, they pay a mild and simple worship to his virtues, they turn to him in their prayers without ever having thought of making him a god; they try to imitate his virtues and free themselves from transmigration by following his precepts. But for them, as well as for Christians, metaphysics are of little account, and it is only the ablest adepts who read the Pradjná páramitá, or the book of transcendental wisdom, a vast collection which we possess in three or four orthodox versions, and which-contain nothing but a system of absolute nihilism, as decided as it is absurd. In one word, it is no longer permitted to doubt the significance given by Buddha and his most intelligent disciples to Nirvâna. For them Nirvâna is nothingness; that is the most definite and deplorable assurance that man can give himself against every return to life under whatever form it may be.


—Although there are voluminous works on Buddhism it is impossible to write its history at present, and perhaps it will never be written. We can easily see that even with all the necessary material it would be very difficult to write, on account of its enormous extent and long duration, since it comprises 15 or 20 nations, at least, from Kashmire to China and Japan, and covers a period of 2,500 years. All that may be stated here is, that Buddhism had its birth in India, on the banks of the Ganges, and was able to grow and flourish there for about 1,200 years, since it was still very prosperous when the Chinese pilgrim, Hiouen-Thsang, visited the country (from 629 to 645 of our era). Brahmanism, long tolerant, apparently stopped being so at this epoch; and Buddhism, exiled forever from India, its birthplace, existed only in the neighboring countries. It had penetrated into Ceylon about two centuries after the death of Buddha. It entered China about the Christian era, and the zeal of the Chinese was so intense that they produced thousands of works of every kind on this pious subject. Buddhism was not introduced until somewhat later into Nepaul, Kashmire, Thibet and Mongolia, and the countries forming the so-called India beyond the Ganges. But in all these countries it has struck firm roots, and it is there that it must be studied to-day, if we wish to know what it has become and on what it subsists. Ceylon is one of its principal centres, though in this island itself the progress of Christianity, especially under the form of Catholicism, becomes more considerable and more menacing to Buddhism from day to day.


—It is not to be hoped that Christianity will ever replace Buddhism among the populations who have accepted that faith, and who find it on a level with their light and their needs. Christian missionaries undertake a most laudable work, but it is to be feared that this work will be as fruitless as it is beautiful, which does not. of course, prevent attempting it with persistence. There are hidden and all powerful reasons, no doubt, why these peoples should have accepted Buddhism and clung to it with so blind and sincere a devotion. Their turn of mind, their manners and habits, demand no more reasonable or complicated worship. Buddha, the man, is a sufficient ideal for them, and it is certain that this worship, deplorable though it appear to us, has formed some noble souls, such as Hiouen-Thsang, for example, who may be ranked among saints and sages. But as far as one may judge, the Buddhist faith has not greatly favored the advance of civilization among the peoples converted to it; they have never been able to organize in their midst regular and firm governments; and it is undoubted that when, in the concerns of life, such renunciation is practiced as Buddha recommends, and which those nations are instinctively ready for, men are ill prepared for all the labors and struggles demanded by civilization. The personality of man, destroyed by the idea of universal transmigration, has never cared for the liberty which it does not recognize in itself and which it seeks not to establish and cause to be respected by others. All Asia seems at all times devoted to despotism, but the Buddhistic peoples are particularly adapted thereto, and it would have been a marvel if Buddhism, which has never suspected that man is a free being, should have sought to maintain his freedom and dignity in the society in which he lived. But since the needs of society necessitate a governing power, whatever power has been established in Asia has been allowed to have its own way. It has never sought to control, limit or improve it in any way. The only attention paid to government there is to overthrow it with violence when it can no longer be endured.


—It is quite remarkable that the Buddhist monks, while distinct from the crowd, and having a species of hierarchy in their different schools, have never thought of forming a corporation properly speaking, and founding a spiritual power side by side with the temporal. It is only in Thibet that this has been attempted by Lamaism, and there it has not produced any of the results witnessed in Christian lands. The Buddhist priests make a vow of poverty and keep this vow strictly; those of Ceylon, for example, do not possess any property individually. Still, among the greater part of the Buddhist peoples, the piety of the faithful and of kings has erected for the use of devotees during the rainy season splendid convents, capable sometimes of receiving thousands of guests. To these convents temples have been joined, and to the temples estates have been added for the maintenance of worship. The Buddhist clergy do not appear generally to have abused this consideration, and conflicts have been rare between them and the civil power, which has always remained the master. In Brahmanism, on the contrary, the religious body, upheld by caste, became the veritable master of society, and the political power submitted as a matter of fact to the spiritual authority. The kshatriya had nothing except under the hand and with the tacit permission of the Brahman. After long and bloody struggles the kings were obliged to yield and remain forever obedient.


—Buddhism, born in the midst of Brahmanism, and perhaps 12 or 15 centuries later, tried to reform the latter, but failed in the undertaking, and India has not accepted it because she did not find it better than the ancient faith to which she has remained invincibly attached. For us, who are impartial in these debates, Buddhism must also seem very inferior to its rival, and although Vedic worship has not borne very good fruits, it was of much more value than that which sought to replace it. It has allowed the Indian genius to unfold with luxuriance in nearly every direction, while Buddhism, both puerile and sombre, has inclosed in a narrow and cheerless circle the people who embraced it. The Buddhist nations have absolutely no literature outside their sacred books; and as the human mind never loses its rights, rein has been given to the imagination in the orthodox books themselves with a license to reason that is truly wonderful. We may easily be convinced of this by reading the Lotus of the Good Law, or Lalitavistâra. If the Buddhist religion is the most widely spread among men, it is also the most singular and deplorable they have ever professed, though it has more than one apparent resemblance to Christianity; and among the founders of religions the figure of Buddha is the most pure and noble after that of Christ himself. Moreover the resemblances which men have sometimes tried to find between Christianity and Buddhism are altogether mistaken. The systems originated and were developed independently of each other, and Christianity would have to blush at being the child or the father of Buddhism as has sometimes been pretended through motives that were neither honorable nor well founded.


—To become acquainted with Buddhism, it is necessary to read the books cited above, and also the work on "Buddha and his Religion," in which the author of this article has collected all the results obtained by erudition up to the present day. Compare Alabaster, The Modern Buddhist, London, 1870; Beal, Outline of Buddhist from Chinese Sources, London, 1870; Eitel, Buddhism, its Historical, Theoretical and Popular Aspects, London, 1873. (See BRAHMANISM, LAMAISM).


167 of 1105

Return to top