The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Religion II.


By Professor C. R. Lanman

THE life of Gotama, the Enlightened One, or Buddha, a life of eighty years, is divided into two parts, one of thirty-five years and one of forty-five, by the event of his Enlightenment or Bodhi. This seeing of a new light is to a Buddhist the one supreme event of the incalculably long aeon now current, just as is the birth of Jesus in Occidental chronology. Those first thirty-five years are again divided into two parts, the period of his life as a prince or the time from his birth until (at the age of twenty-nine[1]) he forsook the world to struggle for the Supreme Enlightenment, and the period of the six years of that struggle. Of these thirty-five years we have elaborate accounts.[2] Of the last forty-five, tradition has little to say in the way of entertaining story, but very much by way of reporting "the Teacher's" teachings. These teachings as laid down in the canonical scriptures of Buddhism are in very deed his life in the truest sense.


The belief that a man must be born and live and die, only to be born and die again and again through a weary round of existences, was widespread in India long before Buddha's day. And accordingly the "biography" of a Buddha must include an account of some of those former "births" or existences. The story of Sumedha[3] is one of these. The "Jātaka," the most charming of all Buddhist story books,[4] contains the narrative of not less than 547 former existences of Gotama. Next after all this prenatal biography comes the account of Buddha's birth into the existence which concerns us most nearly, the actual one of the sixth century before Christ, and this forms the subject of the second of Warren's translations, "The Birth of the Buddha."[5] That translation is from a later work. It is most instructive for the student of religious tradition to compare the meager statements of the oldest canonical account with such an account as this, in order to see how the loving imagination of devout disciples may embellish a simple and prosaic fact with a multitude of picturesque details. Thus the presages of Buddha's birth[6] are quite comparable, except for beauty of poetic diction, with those of the birth of Jesus in Milton's hymn "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity."[7] As an example of new accretions to the older story may be cited the later tradition that Buddha was born from his mother's right side, a trait that appears not only in the Lalita-vistara and in St. Jerome, but also in many of the sculptured representations of the scene.


The teachings of Buddha are indeed his life, his very self. In the house of a potter the venerable Vakkali lay nigh unto death.[8] The Exalted One (Buddha) came to his pillow and made kindest inquiries. "Long have I wished to go to the Exalted One to see him, but there was not enough strength in my body to go." "Peace, Vakkali! what should it profit thee to see this my corrupt body? Whoso, O Vakkali, seeth my teachings, he seeth me." Here the Teacher identifies himself with his teachings no less completely than does Jesus when he declares unto Thomas, "I am the way." And yet, despite Buddha's merging of his personality in his doctrine, it is of utmost importance to remember two things: First that Buddha most explicitly disclaims acceptance of his teachings on the score of authority; and secondly that it was, after all, their intrinsic excellence which (whether we take it as the fruit of a transcendental illumination or as the outcome of his personality) has maintained them as a mighty world power for five and twenty centuries.

First then his position as to authority. The Exalted One, when making a tour through Kosala, once stopped at Kesaputta, a town of the Kālāmans. They asked him: "Master, so many teachers come to us with their doctrines. Who of them is right and who is wrong?" "Not because it is tradition," he answers, "not because it has been handed down from one to another, not because ye think 'Our teacher is one to whom great deference is due,' should ye accept a doctrine. When, O Kālāmans, when ye of yourselves recognize that such and such things are bad and conduce to evil and sorrow, then do ye reject them."[9] And again, "When a man's conviction of a truth is dependent on no one but himself, this, O Kaccāna, is what constitutes Right Belief."[10] It is hard for us of the twentieth century to estimate aright the significance of Buddha's attitude. He lived in a land and age when deference to authority was well-nigh universal. To break with it as he did, implies an intelligence far beyond the common and a lofty courage.

Secondly as to the intrinsic excellence of Buddha's teaching. That teaching is well characterized by a few brief phrases which occur as a commonplace in the canonical texts and are used as one of the forty subjects of meditation or "businesses" by devout Buddhists: "Well taught by the Exalted One is the doctrine. It avails even in the present life, is immediate in its blessed results, is inviting, is conducive to salvation, and may be mastered by any intelligent man for himself."[11] Frankly disclaiming knowledge of what happens after death, Buddha addressed himself to the problem of sorrow as we have it here and now, and sought to relieve it by leading men into the path of righteousness and good-will and freedom from lust. A would-be disciple once asked him to answer certain dogmatic questions about life after death. Buddha parried them all as irrelevances in the dialogue which Warren gives[12] and which is one of the finest presentations of Religion versus Dogma to be found in antiquity. The holy life, he says, does not depend upon the answers to any of these questions.

If a physician of forty years ago had been asked to foretell the then presumable advances of medical science, his guesses might well have included the discovery of new specifics, such as quinine for malaria; for medicine was then the healing art, its aim was to cure. True, we had heard from our childhood that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But how was the ounce of prevention to be had? Doubtless by finding out the cause of disease. And this is on the whole the most significant achievement of modern medicine. Now it was precisely this problem in the world of the spirit that Buddha claimed to solve, the ætiology of man's misery. His solution he publicly announced in his first sermon, the gist of which was destined to become known to untold millions, the sermon of the Deerpark of Benares.

His most important point is the cause of human suffering,[13] and that he finds in the craving for existence (no matter how noble that existence) and for pleasure. If you can only master these cravings, you are on the road to salvation, to Nirvana. This, so far as the present life is concerned, means the going out of the fires of lust and ill will and delusion, and further a getting rid thereby of the round of rebirth.


Without attempting to discuss so many-sided a subject as Nirvana, or rightly to evaluate Buddha's prescription of the abandonment of all craving, it is clear that his ethical teachings, like his spotless life, have stood and will stand the test of centuries. The Deerpark sermon urges the excellence of the golden mean between the life of self-castigation and the life of ease and luxury, and propounds the Noble Eightfold Path, which is, after all, in brief, the life of righteousness in thought and word and deed. Many notable similarities between the teachings of Buddha and those of Jesus have been pointed out.[14] These need not surprise us. Nor is there any à priori reason for assuming a borrowing in either direction. If I make an entirely original demonstration of the fact that the inner angles of a triangle amount to two right angles, my demonstration will agree in essence with that of Pythagoras because mathematical truth does not differ from land to land nor from age to age. Nor yet does goodness. And accordingly many of the teachings of the great teachers of righteousness must coincide.

On the other hand it is interesting to note that Buddha's teachings lay great emphasis, and lay it often, upon things about which in the Gospels comparatively little or nothing is expressly said. Don't hurry, don't worry, the simple life; don't accept a belief upon the authority of me or of anyone else; don't let your outgo exceed your income; the relation of master and servant; the duty not only of kindness but even of courtesy to animals: these are some of the themes upon which Buddha discourses, now with a touch of humor, now with pathos, and always with gentleness and wisdom and cogency.

To the readers of Warren's faithful translations a word is due as to the extreme repetitiousness of much of the Buddhist writings. The charming stories are free from it. Not so the doctrinal discourses. Scientific opinion upon this strange and tedious fault is rapidly clearing.[15] These texts that claim to be the actual "Buddha-word" are in reality the product of conscious scholastic literary activity, and of a time considerably subsequent to that of Buddha. This is quite certain. But no less so is it that they do in fact contain the real sayings of Buddha. "Be ye heirs of things spiritual, not heirs of things carnal."[16] This, we may confidently assert, is in its simplicity and pregnant brevity, an absolutely authentic utterance of Gotama Buddha. At the same time it is the substance, and indeed we may say the entire substance, of a discourse of about four hundred Pali words attributed to Buddha.[17] Of the lengths to which perverse scholasticism may go, the case is a luculent illustration.[18]

  1. Harvard Classics, xlv, 643.
  2. H. C., xlv, 603-646.
  3. H. C., xlv, 577-602. The story of the "Wise Hare," pages 697-701, is a Jātaka or Birth story.
  4. Translated by various hands under the editorship of E. B. Cowell, 6 vols., Cambridge, 1895-1907.
  5. H. C., xlv, 603-12.
  6. H. C., xlv, 607-608.
  7. H.C., iv, 7.
  8. Samyutta-Nikāya, xxii, 87 (3.119).
  9. Anguttara-Nikāya, iii, 65 (1.189).
  10. H. C., xlv, 661.
  11. H. C., xlv, 749.
  12. H. C., xlv, 647-652.
  13. "Buddha's Four Eminent Truths concern suffering, its cause, its surcease, and the way thereto. They coincide with those of the Yoga system and are indeed the four cardinal subjects of Hindu medical science applied to spiritual healing—a fact which famous ancient Hindu writers have themselves not failed to observe.
  14. So by Albert J. Edmunds in his "Buddhist and Christian Gospels," 4th ed., 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1908-9.
  15. See R. Otto Franke, Dīgha-Nikāya, Gottingen, 1913, p. x.
  16. The antithesis of this saying of Buddha, we may note in passing, is familiar to readers of the New Testament.
  17. Majjhima-Nikāya, vol. i, p. 12-13.
  18. The method of the expansion one may easily guess after reading Warren's "Questions," H. C., xlv, 647-652. Its motive is probably pedagogical.