Philosophy Weekend: Buddha-Nature

A surprising news bulletin made the rounds this week: “Incredible Discovery Reveals Birthplace of Buddha“. They did what? The story appears to be credible, though many Westerners like me who feel the significance aren’t quite sure how to react. Shouldn’t a discovery this momentous be bigger news? Shouldn’t it at least be accompanied by some kind of astral event or bright comet? (Oh, right.)

It’s strange to think of Buddha’s traces in the material world, though Prince Siddhartha Guatama of Kapilavastu was certainly a historical figure, and was a celebrated personality in his community even before he became the Enlightened One. His teachings are similar in many ways to those of Jesus of Nazareth, but their life trajectories were opposite. Jesus was born in poverty and anonymity, and died an early violent death after being hailed as the King of the Jews. Buddha was born a royal, but nobody thought of him as a Prince or King any more by the time he died peacefully at the age of 80.

Siddhartha Gautama was a great and inspiring philosopher — like Jesus, and also like Socrates — and his powerful words remain inspiring and relevant today. But his legacy is also widely misunderstood, and I often hear expressions of these misunderstandings among my family and friends. Some people are suspicious of Buddhism’s core teaching that desire is an illusion. Is it not our nature to desire, and isn’t it the lustful energy of our whole human race that makes us great?

Similiarly, some are offended by Buddhism’s emphasis on nothingness, which appears to point to nihilism or cosmic negativity. “The end result of Buddhism is death,” a serious friend with an earnest philosophical streak once told me. It was hard for me to find the words with which to turn aside his depressing misconception, which may have accurately reflected one single aspect of Buddhist wisdom but certainly did not capture the spirit or motivation of the whole.

I finally told my friend something like this: yes, Buddhist philosophers emphasize nothingness, but only because our world is so full of somethingness or everythingness that nothingness is not a viable threat. We ponder the meaning of nothingness in order to understand the world better, and to live in it better. Similarly, Buddhist philosophers preach that we must overcome desire, but evidence shows that we do not need to worry about taking this too far. Overcoming desire may look easy, but anyone who appears to succeed in actually overcoming desire is probably doing it wrong.

Buddhist teachings on nothingness and self-denial are valuable for the perspective and relief these teachings bring us in our everyday lives — lives that are filled with the trappings of existence and desire, but are too often lacking in peace or satisfaction or interpersonal understanding.

I’m sure there are joyless Buddhists in the world, but I have more often met joyful Buddhists, and it’s most significant that Siddhartha Guatama managed to live a long, peaceful and happy life. I wonder if the new discovery of an ancient buried temple under the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal brings us closer to the historical Buddha today. His physical relics may carry some meaning today; it’s his words that remain essential and alive, today and always.

6 Responses

  1. …perhaps the methods are
    …perhaps the methods are very similar, Jesus being an ardent advocate of light burdens. Clear the mind, truth assured. The thoughtactionss of a forgiven man. Attached to the actions. We can only hope. Everything else is divine. Faith and love. Hope is all. Make some room, clear a space. Look up and see eternity. 60 million light years away is eternal enough to co.nvince. Surely to influence. On and on. All the crusades and masquerades and christian slaves. Ride, baby ride! We got our spot. For awhile. The truth, uncoverd a grain of sand at a time. Bissau was an enlightened dude.

  2. There is something odd about
    There is something odd about the need to combine historical accuracy with the power of myth. Birthplace of Buddha? Birthplace of Jesus? It is odd that those “facts” would matter. But perhaps I am being too simple-minded about the usefulness of myth and/or religion.

  3. Just as Jesus never
    Just as Jesus never considered himself to be “Christian”, so it was with Siddhartha who never would have referred to himself to be “Buddhist”… and so it goes with every religion our hu’manity has given thought to and has instituted up thru today.

    The overall message from any of the “Prophets”, (again, not of their own calling but rather so-named by their followers), appears to be at odds because of the limitations of our languages and the importance of how valuable each “Prophet’s” understanding of their own Enlightenment affected them… how each person who has or had a religious following was inspired by their own Self Realization and how they were changed by the phenomenon.

    We are all participants in life’s evolutionary journey and evolve at our own pace, that which we are born with and will die with, each seeking the answers to our own questions in order to best understand this great mystery we call Life. The enlightenment of such folks like Siddhartha and Jesus, et al, better understand and accept these mysteries as wonders that will never be fully understood by the limitations imposed upon us as hu’mans but indeed, increase our love by knowing we are all connected by this Life as the common thread of existence as we know it and understand it by our questioning mind revealing life within all things that live and die in the perpetual cycle of existence, working in a perfect harmony beyond our comprehension as to the reason behind it all.

    From the Silence we were born and to the Silence we shall return. Therein lies the True Nothingness from which all Life emanates.

  4. I admire your response to
    I admire your response to your friend’s comment. But isn’t the end result of everything death? We call it an “end” because we don’t know what happens after that. We call it an end out of ignorance.

    So I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong: everything dies. It’s only the “end” as long as we limit our thinking to linear misconceptions. I would argue it is the beginning!

    I’m more fascinated with where Shakyamuni went after he was born. A good book, somewhat fictional somewhat fact is “Buddha” by Deepak Chopra. Has anybody here read that? What did you think?

    That’s one of my favorite books for the reason stated above: where he went, what he did, who he associated with, etc. is what interests me most.

  5. …these are merely the pre
    …these are merely the pre death years of our eternal life…it is there for the taking…to some, for sure, to some, maybe, to some, no way…all will consider…most will decide…faith is given, not produced…we are too smart for faith…the intellectual trap…the devil’s snare…if you believe in him/her anyway.

  6. I have heard this nilhilistic
    I have heard this nilhilistic critique of Buddha and his teachings before. But being a buddhist,albeit being just twenty,I would try to diagnose this misconception.

    the western critique tends to treat and analyse Buddhist notions of emptiness or whatever you call it with the same nihilistic tendencies and preconceptions (following Nietzsche et al). To be empty is always to be empty of something. Buddha preaches the material world is empty of inherent nature or existence. That nothing exists in itself.

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