At the birth of Siddhatta Gotama, as Buddha was known before he reached enlightenment, Karen Armstrong says his father was told a prophecy. His son would be a great emperor, with tremendous worldly power and a huge army, unless he sees four things: a sick man, a corpse, an old man suffering senility and a monk, one of the wandering mystics "Going Forth" to discover the true meaning of life. His father, a wealthy man with a large palace, wanted worldly power for Gotama, so he tried to ensure that his son never witnesses suffering of any kind and kept him sheltered at home.
It didn't work. The gods intervened, ensuring that Gotama saw all three. At 29, he left his wife, child and a comfortable life to find life's meaning.
Armstrong is up-front on the difficulties of trying to do a biography of Buddha. Unlike Muhammad and Jesus, we know very little about Buddha's ministry. There's very little in the way of personal anecdotes, or even a recognizable personality. Buddha appears as a type, a personification of a teaching.
The differences in the culture of India at the time is also a handicap to understanding Buddhism. Few in the West understand that reincarnation was not looked at as a good thing, Armstrong says. It meant you had to struggle, age, sicken and die over and over again. Even if you amassed massive amounts of karma and became a god, it was still only temporary. After lording it over mortals for a while, you'd still die -- and then probably come back as a slug or a louse.
What people were looking for was a release, to end the cycle. Gotama was one of many trying to discover how to accomplish this.
Still, the similarities between Buddhism and the other so-called Axial Age religions and philosophies are striking. Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets preached similar ideas, around the same time.
"He who sees me sees the Dhamma (teaching) and he who sees the Dhamma sees me,'' Armstrong quotes the Buddha as saying.
Sound familiar? Jesus said, "He who sees the Father sees me and he who sees me sees the Father." No wonder some believe Jesus took a side trip to India in his first 30 years.
Other similarities are more well-known: All of the major world religions teach the need to give up the ego and selfishness and replace it with compassion, because that's what makes us human. The Golden Rule is common to all the major religions.
There are, of course, differences. To the Buddha, whether God existed was almost irrelevant. He believed any effort to personify the divine presence was a distraction that would hold people back from reaching enlightenment. The divine was simply incomprehensible in any rational way, and trying to pretend otherwise meant you weren't truly giving up your ego. Muslims and Jews banned images of God for similar reasons. Christians, on the other hand, believe God took human form.
Buddhism is also a practical religion, Armstrong says: Buddhism is true, they believe, because it works. Shedding the ego, practicing meditation and developing compassion and empathy with others, makes you happier. Therefore, it's correct.
Armstrong goes into enough detail of Buddha's eventual answer to get a flavor: He built on what went before, becoming very adept at yoga, for example. The secret ingredient was compassion and empathy, reaching out with loving-kindness to every living thing, at a depth that could only be attained when all ego, all self, was left behind.
He was a new kind of human being: no longer caught in the toils of greed and hatred, he had learned to manipulate his psyche in order to live without egotism. He was still living in the world, but inhabited another sacred dimension, too, which monotheists would call the divine presence.
The ultimate Buddhist way of measuring success is to examine the result: Buddha may not have become the powerful emperor that his father had hoped, but the community he started is still going strong, 2,500 years later. None of the empires in his day are still around. The father's attempt to protect his son by sheltering him backfired, but it created something much more lasting.
"The message seems to be that it is not by protecting and defending yourself that you survive, but by giving yourself away."
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