Lately, in reading the suttas, I can’t shake the feeling that in the Buddha’s progress from spiritual seeker and solitary wanderer, culminating in awakening and his weeks of blissful enjoyment of perfect peace and freedom, to his subsequent “career” as the leader of an increasingly large sangha and lay religious movement, there is a sad feeling of decline brought on by the Buddha’s worldly re-engagement.
We see squabbling debates with Jains and others about whose leader is smarter, and angry outcries over whether or not the Teacher is being “misrepresented”; fights among the followers; repetitive and unenlightening scholastic analytic doctrinal formulations that often give the impression of having been committed to memory by people who didn’t understand them; jostling and rivalries among non-practicing lay followers about who gets to feed the Buddha or his chief followers; the rivalry with other sects for lay support; the whole Devadatta business; all that quasi-political business with the warring kings; the brutal destruction of the Sakyas; and the complex proliferation of rules and institutional structures.
I wish I could say that the Buddha, as an enlightened being, seems to remain blissfully calm throughout. But frankly, sometimes he seems sad and worn out by the whole business, and even perhaps plagued by second thoughts. There is some weary exasperation at the end, where the Buddha seems somewhat fed up with everybody’s curiosity about the destinations of the dead, Ananda’s inability to grasp what are truly the most marvelous qualities of his teacher, and even maybe a kind of eschewal of the refuge idea. There are some sweet and inspiring moments too, but an air of tragedy and tragic decline hangs over the spectacle.
These days, whenever I need a spiritual “charge” or inspiration, I turn to the texts that seem to be from, or look back upon, the Buddha’s earlier days as a forest wanderer meeting and conquering his fear and dread, battling with Mara, discovering for himself the inner means to the end of suffering, and eschewing doctrines, institutions and social entanglements. Much of the later putting in place of a lay Buddhist “religion” leaves me cold.
*serious question, not making fun, despite what it may look like
For those who do not listen to music on principal, otherwise, I would highly recommend the words in their proper context, with or without sense contact fascination:
I only want to say,
if there is a way,
take this cup away from me,
for I don’t want to taste its poison,
feel it burn me, I have changed, I’m not as sure as when we started.
Then, I was inspired.
Now, I’m sad and tired.
Listen, surely I’ve exceeded expectations?
I’ve tried for three years, seems like thirty.
Could you ask as much from any other man?
But if I die see this saga through and do the things you ask of me.
Let them hate me, hit me, hurt me, nail me to their tree.
I’d want to know, I’d want to know my God.
I’d wanna see, I’d wanna see my God.
Why I should die?
Would I be more noticed than I ever was before?
Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more?
I’d have to know, I’d have to know my Lord.
I’d have to see, I’d have to see my Lord.
If I die what will be my reward?
I’d have to know, I’d have to know my Lord.
Why should I die?
Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain.
Show me theres a reason for your wanting me to die.
Far too keen on where and how but not so hot on why.
Alright I will die! See how I die!
Then I was inspired.
Now I’m sad and tired.
After all I’ve tried for three years, seems like ninety.
Why then am I scared to finish what I started?
What you started. I didn’t start it.
God thy will is hard, but you hold every card.
I will drink your cup of poison.
Nail me to your cross and break me.
Bleed me, beat me, kill me, take me now before I change my mind.
Mmm… Not necessarily tragic. There are many tragic elements present throughout his life, but the Buddha did end up living and dying on his own terms, so there’s that. I’m trying to think of a better descriptor for his life as a whole, but it eludes me at the moment.
We can assign labels to characterize any human being, even a Buddha. But do they ever hold, per se? Can we ever boil down any human being’s variegated life into a soundbite, a convenient characterization? I think not.
Well, yes, and we don’t have direct contact with the Buddha and his life, since what we know is mediated through oral and written transmissions of texts that give us only an imperfect glimpse. But it does seem to me that in putting together a comprehensive narrative from all of these narrative glimpses, we are left with a picture that contains some sadness, and a falling away from beautiful peace and purity of the original spiritual experiences.
Establishing a long-lasting religious dispensation is almost invariably going to need some wading about in pretty murky worldly affairs (plus a whole lot of luck): competing for political patronage, infighting with rival sects (the story of the murder of Sundari the female wanderer in the Udana comes to mind) and within one’s own sect too. A lot of headaches. Perhaps why the Buddha seemed somewhat reluctant to found a religion at all in the first place. Stephen Batchelor’s account of the final part of the Buddha’s life came to mind and is quite a harrowing one (see here for an account). I don’t know enough to judge the veracity of all of the individual points in Batchelor’s argument (no doubt many will find fault with some here). It’s an interesting, though provocative, read.
He argues that towards the end of the Buddha’s life, things were looking quite bleak. There had already been a patched-up schism. The three principal sources of political patronage, which had been a great boon earlier in his life, had dried up (or even become hostile). The Buddha’s two principal disciples had already died (one being brutally murdered). Then, after his death, Batchelor argues that essentially an aggressive interloper, Mahakassapa, won the power struggle for control of the order (sidelining and denigrating Ananda).
Quoting from the article:
And with a stern, elderly Brahmin at the head, sidelining Ananda, it looked set to become just another Indian religion controlled by priests. But that’s what’s so extraordinary about the Buddha, says Batchelor. “Here’s a person dealing with all these ambitious relatives and kings, and yet in the midst of his struggles establishes his dharma sufficiently well so that we are talking about it now, 2,500 years later.”
To take a quote from Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ : “A beginning is a very delicate time.” IMO Buddhism could very very easily (if the toss of the dice had fallen a slightly different way) never have gotten off the ground at all (or remained a fairly obscure regional religion, or even being eventually swept away by the sands of time and consigned to the footnotes of history books). However, a great deal went right in the centuries after the Buddha’s death, e.g. the fortuitous Constantine-like figure of Ashoka.
A “falling away”? Why not “a blossoming”? If he hadn’t taught, if he had remained a solitary sage basking in the bliss of Nibbana, would we and countless other beings in this realm have heard the Buddhadhamma? Would those seeds have spread as they have?
Yes, interesting! But whatever truth there might be in the Kassapa story, it doesn’t appear he succeeded in “taking over” the sangha, since the texts present us with a complex and multi-sided picture in which Kassspa’s perspective only appears as one among many, and Ananda emerges as one of the most beloved of followers. It looks like the followers of several of the original main followers all had a voice in shaping the nikayas.
No doubt it was better for us that the Buddha and his followers embroiled themselves in all that activity. But maybe sad for the Buddha? And maybe not all of the doctrinal and disciplinary preoccupations that eventually became part of the developed religion were all that important to the Buddha’s highest realizations?
I can’t find the sutta at the moment, but the one I have in mind states the Tathagatha is unperturbed by whatever the reactions of those he is teaching, whether positive or negative. So to say the “Buddha is sad” does not make sense.
He retreats into solitude for the sake of compassion, for future generations, for ourselves, to set an example. Again the suttas back this up but I cannot recall the specific references. He doesn’t do so for the reason of being “fed up” or “sad” or “compelled.” These are motivations that drive us puthujanas or trainees, not arahants let alone a Buddha.
The whole of history is a tragedy. After 2500 years of the Buddha’s Dispensation, the great majority of us folk are still caught up in samsara. Have we learned much? Still, we have to face life’s sufferings with wisdom, virtue, and courage: heroically. (Maybe I’m just being a bit too dramatic. )