Introduction: The Wheel of Birth/Death
|On ignorance depends karma;
On karma depends consciousness;
On consciousness depend name and form;
On name and form depend the six organs of sense;
On the six organs of sense depends contact;
On contact depends sensation;
On sensation depends desire;
On desire depends attachment;
On attachment depends existence;
On existence depends birth;
On birth depend old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair.- The Buddha’s twelvefold concatenation of cause and effect
The sixth century BC saw the rise of rational philosophers, who used withering arguments to discredit Vedic rites and beliefs. Paralleling the surge in logic was the appearance of super-rigorous practices whose aim was to help the individual achieve union with the god-head by bypassing the priesthood. The Jains were an ascetic sect that advocated the denial of all bodily wants as the highest form of spirituality. The more extreme adherents believed it was a triumph to die of starvation.
Despite its austere creed, Jainism gained many followers. Counterbalancing the ascetics was the increasingly popular Bhakti cult, which proclaimed that a communion with the divine could be only achieved through the senses. Worshippers chose a god or goddess upon whom to project their feelings, then used right-brained experiential pathways to achieve a state of ecstasy. Dance, chanting, shouting, and unbridled sexuality accompanied Bhakti rituals.
The hypertrophy of reason that results from the introduction of alphabet literacy inevitably galvanises a countermovement that seeks to exalt the wisdom of the senses. I would suggest that alphabet literacy was the impetus behind Rationalism, Jainism, and Bhakti in India. It also prepared the ground for a new religion – Buddhism.
The Early Development Childhood of Siddhartha Gautama
In 563 BC, Siddhartha Gautama was born into a noble family near the base of the Himalayas. As a young prince, he availed himself of many earthly pleasures, then married a beautiful princess who loved him. They soon had a son on whom Siddhartha doted. His father, the Raja, beamed with pride at having such a son to whom his kingdom would one day pass.
But this idyllic existence was not to last. When he was twenty-nine years old, Siddhartha increasingly began spending his days outside the royal compound, observing the plight of ordinary people. The pain, poverty, sickness, old age, and suffering he saw troubled him deeply, and a great sadness overcame the handsome prince. He asked himself over and over again until it became like a mantra he could not still: ‘Why is there suffering in the world?’ After much internal turmoil, he decided that he must find this answer, so late one night he slipped away while his wife and son slept peacefully.
Siddhartha traveled to the forest and there encountered a group of ascetics. Confident that these holy men must know the answer, Siddhartha immediately posed his question. They responded with abstruse replies, and hinted that to learn the answer he would have to join them and become an untiring pupil. Siddhartha shucked his royal garments and eagerly adopted he life of a wandering mendicant. Believing that the swiftest route to truth would be to deprive his body more rigorously than anyone else, he embarked on a descent into masochistic excess by sleeping among rotting human corpses that had been left for scavengers. In Siddhartha’s own words,
I thought, what if now I set my teeth, press my tongue to my palate, and restrain, crush and burn out my mind with my mind. (I did so). And sweat flowed from my arm-pits … Then I thought, what if I now practice trance without breathing. So I restrained breathing in and out from mouth and nose. And as I did so there was a violent sound of winds issuing from my ears … just as if a strong man were to crush one’s head with the point of a sword … Then I thought, what if I were to take food only in small amounts, as much as my hollowed palm would hold … My body became extremely lean. The mark of my seat was like a camel’s foot-print through the little food. The bones of my spine, when bent and straightened, were like a row of spindles through the little food … When I thought I would ease myself I there upon fell prone through the little food. To relieve my body, I stroked my limbs within my hand, and as I did so the decayed hairs fell from my body through the little food.
A young woman found him in this moribund state and patiently nursed him until his strength returned.
The body and the bodhi
As extreme self-mortification failed to reveal the answer he sought, Siddhartha tried another approach. He sat down beneath a bodhi tree to meditate and promised himself that he would not leave until he discovered the reason for suffering. One tradition has him sitting immobile for seven years, through the rains of winter and under the scorching sun of the summer. Potential disciples, eager to hear what, if anything, this unusual personage would say, kept vigil at a respectful distance.
When most people try to meditate, they become acutely aware of the mind’s chattering monkeys vying for attention. Siddhartha reported that he vanquished these distracting inner voices through sheer force of will. When all was still, he reported that he serenely observed an endless cycle of reincarnations. Birth, pain, loss, and death; birth, pain, loss, and death; birth, pain, loss, and death each paraded past his stillpoint inner eye in endless succession. He realised that the agent mandating the soul’s invariable return to what he later called this ‘ocean of tears’ was the impersonal Law of Karma. Craving led inevitably to selfishness, which in turn led to more craving and suffering – a perpetual cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Each person who commits even the slightest misdeed predestines his or her own rebirth. All are condemned to ride the karmic wheel forever.
The Ego and the wheel of Suffering
Appalled by this chain of suffering, Siddhartha focused on how to break the cycle. He concluded that its ultimate source was birth, which initiates each round of craving. Once people are deposited in the world, they want to remain. The vast majority does not want life to end. Despite terminal cancer, hopeless poverty, and the infirmities of old age, they cling tenaciously to life. The agent responsible for this drive is the self. Individuals passionately believe that they are distinct and separate from others. The unshakeable certainty of the idea of a-partness creates this delusion. Once this phantasm – ‘self’ – encases itself in its self-serving armour, it dedicates every waking moment to taking care of number one: itself-I-me-ego.
Siddhartha came to see the ego as a selfish brat that will stop at nothing to continue breathing. To maintain the body, it demands food and drink. To ease its existence, it covets possessions; to reaffirm its identity, it hungers for human relationships. Of all desires, lust is the most pernicious because sexual union inevitably feeds the karmic cycle by providing the never-ending stream of carnal bodies that returning souls must use as vehicles to reenter this vale of woe. The ego, in short, prevents one from combining the soul of the world within each of us with the soul of the world at large. Wedged between them, the self-righteous ego blocks the individual from recognising that the two are really one.
To achieve the state of bliss that would come from this union, Siddhartha recognised that the ego would have to agree to self-destruct – no small task. Its disappearance would allow an individual to achieve enlightenment. Such an “Awakened one” would appreciate that there are no divisions between selves, that every individual is a seamless part of one indivisible unity. Hate would automatically disappear, because the enlightened would proffer love to every other living thing once they apprehended that, at the deepest level, they are one. The suffering that the ego generates out of craving and ignorance would dissipate. The karmic wheel would slow. The fortunate selfless one would be spared that most vainglorious concept, rebirth, and would be released from the karmic wheel, having achieved the state of nirvana, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘extinguished.’
Awakening as extinguishing
Siddhartha was transformed into a Buddha, an “Awakened One”. Although he was now free of the inexorable chain of reincarnation, Siddhartha acknowledged the obligation to share with others his insight, so he chose to stay and teach them as a Boddhisattva: a Buddha who’d decided to remain in this world. One tradition relates that when he returned from his inner sojourn, he stood up and acknowledged the hushed throng that surrounded him by holding up a small flower, smiling enigmatically, and bowing.
Despite Siddhartha’s silence, news quickly spread of his mute attainment of enlightenment, and so large groups came to hear his teachings, Never had a religious leader faced a more perplexing paradox. If his insight was ineffable and could only be gained by intense, silent, self-examination, then how was he to transmit it? Reluctantly, the Buddha began to preach.
The reason people suffer, the Buddha patiently explained, is because everything changes. Everyone lives in a fleeting, transitory world, but all stubbornly refuse to admit it. They cling to that which is impermanent: parents try to hang on to their children; women attempt to preserve their beauty; men worry about keeping their status. Love, fame, money, youth, health, fortune, reputation, and ultimately, life itself, are all subject to decay and permutation. Suffering would cease if we could achieve indifference to pain and loss. If only people did not desire, then they could be free. The price, which the Buddha considered modest, was that the enlightened would be indifferent to the joy of relationships and passion as well.
He founded the first atheistic religion, in that there was no deity to revere. He dismissed the gods and goddesses of Hinduism’s supernatural domain, explaining that they were mere poltergeists in a vast delusional system constructed by humans. He taught that rituals, priests, prayers, demons, angels, devotions, sacrifices, supplications, and incantations were all worthless. He claimed that religious hierarchies were designed to benefit only priests. He resisted the temptation to promulgate a code of law, believing that all laws imposed by an authority eventually degenerate into tyranny.
Like Socrates, the Buddha was contemptuous of the written word, and discouraged his disciples from transcribing his words. In an age when literacy was a revolutionary innovation, he preferred spoken parables and dialogue, prodding his followers to memorise his sayings and pass them on to future generations orally. The Buddha’s doctrine was notable for its simplicity. He began by elaborating Four Noble Truths. He then proposed Five Moral Rules. These five were the bedrock substrate for those committed to the path to enlightenment. For those who’s circumstances did not permit then to leave their station in life for the life of a monk, he offered the Eightfold Path: eight aphoristic guides to a righteous and pious life. The Buddha’s spare creed replaced the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, and the many other sesquipedalian names of Hindu works.
Buddhism and writing
Let us now pause and examine this doctrine in light of the thesis of my book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word And Image. To prevent confusion, we will consider only the doctrine of the Buddha, as he is purported to have said it, and not the refinements and embellishments that scholars have identified as later additions.
Growing up in a regal compound, Siddhartha would have had access to the new technology of writing, and as eager for knowledge as he was it seems likely that he became literate at an early age. Even if he later disdained waiting, the linear cognition that literacy induces would have strongly influenced his perception of the world. After his enlightenment, the Buddha’s doctrine flowed from his personal experience of nirvana; mere literary narrative could never hope to convey the authenticity of his experiential insight. However, like all great teachers of antiquity, the Buddha used metaphors and straightforward talk to explain the nature of his revelation.
The Buddha believed one way to convey his insights was through his actions – if he were courteous, others would be moved to emulate him. He was kind, gentle, gracious, and courageous. He counseled returning hate with love. Nonviolence was one of the cornerstones of his creed. The Buddha championed the doctrine of equality. While he never actually proposed dismantling the hierarchical caste system, he offended the Brahmin priests by making his teachings available to anyone. He once scandalised his disciples by sharing dinner with a courtesan. To the Buddha, there were no ‘chosen’ people, no privileged castes, no divine right of kings. His liberating universal message was that each individual, through intense personal work, could attain enlightenment, just as he himself had done. He was, he told his disciples, a mere mortal who had discovered a great truth.
Despite his courteousness, the Buddha suffered no one to ask him unanswerable questions. He dismissed speculations about creation, the nature of the soul, and the meaning of the indefinite as distractions from the real work at hand: rejoining the One through a life of inner contemplation. He called such questions ‘the jungle, the desert, the puppet show, the writhing, the entanglement of speculation’. In the humid hothouse that was the Hindu religion, his message was sere in the extreme.
The Buddha’s original teachings included many feminine motifs: nonviolence, equality for all, universal love, the horizontal layering of society, and the striking of power from the male priesthood. The watchwords of all Buddhist sects were Wisdom and Compassion, two concepts traditional associated with the feminine principle.
The Buddha versus the Body
But the Buddha also taught that sexual desire, which resulted in new births, kept the karmic wheel turning. In his own words, ‘What if I, being myself subject to birth, were to seek out the nature of birth … and having seen the wretchedness of the nature of birth, were to seek out the unborn, the supreme peace of Nirvana?’ The danger inherent in all sexuality was the first issue addressed in his very first sermon, or sutra. Ananda, Buddha’s favourite disciple, concerned about the proper stance he should adopt when conversing with women, asked:
– How are we to conduct ourselves, Lord, with regards to womankind?
– As not seeing them, Ananda.
– But if we should see them, what are we to do?
– No talking, Ananda.
– But if they should speak to us, Lord, what are we to do?
– Keep wide awake Ananda.
The ranks of the Buddha’s disciples excluded women, and his monks took vows of celibacy. The message that women were connected with craving and ignorance was being floated on a lotus leaf by a gentle man who was the soul of compassion. His syllogism equating the end of suffering with the negation of birth eviscerates the very essence of womanhood.
The birth of a child is the single most intensely joyous event most people will ever experience. For many mothers, despite the physical pain, the birth of her child is an almost mystical event. Who has not been enthralled at the miracle of a Lilliputian hand curling about one’s little finger? What is more blissful than carrying a sleepy, freshly bathed infant, cocooned in flannel, nestled in one’s arms? How could the Buddha see the journey that constitutes the panorama of life as so inherently painful and terrible that it would be best to ‘never have been born’? Could birth, the quintessential female gift, really be the source of all the world’s pain?
The Buddha began his melancholic questioning because he was struck by his insight that life, despite its pleasures, was primarily about recurring loss and separation. But what of the joys? Where is the pain and sorrow associated with walking along a surf line early in the morning? What of the sight of crocuses in springtime or the smell of a Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by family? What of the pleasures of a job well done, a book well read, or a leisurely lunch with a good friend? How could he hold repugnant the oceanic feeling one experiences, limbs entwined, in the aftermath of love-making with someone one loves?
His followers are quick to point out that the Buddha was not an unhappy man. They insist he said that it was attachment that causes suffering. Commitment without attachment, however, is a paradox so supremely difficult to achieve that it prevents the vast majority of people from attaining enlightenment. There is no mention of joy in the Buddha’s Four Noble truths; they all concern dukkha – suffering; what it is, why it is, and how to avoid it. Commonly misunderstanding his position, some disciples advocate suicide. Despite its disappointments and unpleasant surprises, most people would vote yes on the proposition that the joys of living outweigh its sorrows.
Early trauma and the appeal of Buddhism
By his own insistence, the Buddha was a man, not a god. It would not be sacrilegious, therefore, to speculate on the source of his sadness. In terms of emotional development, the greatest single loss any infant can sustain is to become separate from his or her mother. This loss can create a wound so deep that it may never heal. While there are many versions of the Buddha’s birth, one fact appears consistently: his mother died as a result of it.
He was raised, we are told, by his aunt and father. His life fits the profile of an individual who has suffered the ultimate birth trauma – the loss of one’s mother. Siddhartha grew into manhood surrounded by wealth, privilege, and family. Only a man with an incurable sadness corroding the centre of his soul would leave a loving wife, a doting father, and an adoring son (whom he himself loved) to embark on a life of masochistic excess in search of the answer to the question of suffering.
One result of his quest was his conclusion that birth was a cause of human suffering. The loss of a mother, at birth, is a tragedy immense enough to ignite such an intense desire to know the reason for suffering and may in part account for the answer at which he arrived. A clue supporting this speculation: Siddhartha’s mother’s name was Maya – also the Sanskrit word for illusion. To a child who never knew her, Siddhartha’s mother was indeed a phantasm. The man who lost his mother at childbirth developed a system of belief that had as one of its principal tenets an extremely negative stance towards birth.
The Buddha and Women
The Buddha lived to be eighty, and his teachings had a significant impact both during his lifetime and after. Stories abound of his kindliness to every living thing. Assessing his character from his sayings, he seems to have been the gentlest and wisest of human beings. The one discordant note was his initial refusal to allow women to take orders in his new sect.
The aunt who had suckled him, having fulfilled her familial obligations, wanted to join the Master’s group of disciples traveling from village to village. In a rude rejection, the Buddha told her bluntly that she could not join his band. She wept and beseeched him, but he ignored her and turned away to continue walking. She followed him to the next town, and there asked Ananda to intercede on her behalf. Ananda asked the Buddha if women could join the order. The Buddha refused. He asked again, and again the Buddha refused. Exasperated with his Master’s stubbornness, Ananda reproved the Buddha while pointing to the woman who had raised him, standing outside the door, stooped with age, her feet swollen from traveling. Finally, with great reluctance, the Buddha relented, but only if she agreed to eight conditions. The first one states that a nun must rise to acknowledge a monk’s presence, even if she has been in the order for years and the monk is a new initiate. Female subordination inform the other seven as well: women could join, but they just accept second-class status.
Something seems awry in his recounting. Was this the same man who proclaimed that all human beings are valuable, and made equality the centerpiece of his doctrine? Is this the same Buddha who scorned the pretensions of the Brahmin priests? The Buddha would not have treated a dog the way he allegedly spurned the woman who was his surrogate mother. The more fundamental question is, is this story true?
After the Buddha died, his disciples pledged to keep his teachings alive. An oft-repeated anecdote shows just how difficult this talk would prove to be. In the days following his death, while his disciples were still mourning their loss, a rebellious monk jumped up and addressed the grieving group. ‘Enough, sirs! Weep not, neither lament! We are well rid of the great Samana. We used to be annoyed by being told, ‘This beseems you, this beseems you not.’ But now we shall be able to do whatever we like!” The Buddha’s ashes had not yet cooled and already a revisionist had appeared. The Buddha’s more devoted disciples took it upon themselves to erect a hierarchy charged with guarding the purity of his teachings.
In the first generation after his death, chief monks entrusted his message to scholars who memorised the sutras and taught them to groups of initiates; they in turn recited them daily. According to this plan, the corpus of what the Buddha said was supposed to pass intact from one generation to the next; those in charge believed the participation of many monks ensured that the integrity of the Master’s message would be maintained.
The words of the Buddha were not put into written form until three hundred years after his death. The Pali Canon, the compiled sayings of the Master, was not canonised until five hundred years after his death. Half a millennium is a very long time. In the next twenty centuries, Buddhism radiated into many differing sects. If this has been the fate of his written words, might not alterations have occurred during the centuries when his message was passed along orally?
Writing and the transmission of the Buddha’s message
Since scholars commonly used writing in the Buddha’s time, it seems unlikely that not a single monk wrote down a few mnemonics to help him remember the long sutras. As the centuries passed, and as more and more monks resorted to writing, that act imperceptibly may have changed the Buddha’s message. Those who used the Brahmi script may have pushed the Buddha’s teachings toward the masculine, because the use of the alphabet changes the perceptions and values of the whole culture. We cannot know what the Pali Canon would say today if women had joined men in transferring his message down through the ages, or if only women had passed it along.
As originally set forth by the Buddha, Buddhism was a difficult religion to follow, and nirvana took a very long time to achieve. Many chose the easier and more familiar part of worshipping the Buddha as a deity. A humanistic philosopher who did not believe in gods, Buddha suffered the ignoble fate of being turned into one. One of the reasons many of his monks encouraged his deification was because it conformed to Buddhism’s metamorphosis into a patriarchal region based on an alphabetic sacred text.
Hindu polytheism has always involved a profusion of exotic images. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha disdained images and banned them, believing they encouraged idol worship and distracted people from the self-discipline necessary to achieve enlightenment. This proscription seems odd in light of the Buddha’s teaching that people should cultivate a detached indifference to reality itself, which he said was an illusion.
Perhaps the Buddha’s purported ban on images was attributed to him by a scribe editing much later and may have been due to the change in values that accompanies the transcription of the spoken word to written text. To perceive information in a linear, sequential form seems to engender a scorn of images. Crisp, clear alphabets entice readers to believe in spare, imageless religions. They also bring about patriarchy. Buddhism was Hinduism’s “Protestant Reformation”.
Buddha’s doctrine is based on feminine principles but contains an abhorrence of sexuality, a suspicion of women, and a negative attitude toward birth. It was predictable that the religion that evolved from these oppositions would betray a considerable amount of gender confusion. I believe that Buddhism would have continued to prosper in India if it had not been an essentially feminine religion overwhelmed by the tide of patriarchy and literacy that was then sweeping the country.
Its initial popularity was, I believe, related to the change in consciousness that accompanies the early stages of alphabet literacy. But its failure to embrace the alphabet was a major factor in its decline in India. When Buddhism finally reversed its position on this vital cultural innovation five hundred years later, it was too late. Every country where Buddhism subsequently found a receptive home was either largely illiterate, or used a written language that was non-alphabetic. Until the modern age, Buddhism had never succeeded in an alphabet-based society. In the Buddha’s time, India was the eastward frontier of the spread of the alphabet.
In the early years of Buddhism the Brahmin priests, witnessing the rapid defection of many of their followers to the new religion, counterattacked. Within two hundred years of the Buddha’s death, they outflanked his new creed with that most effective patriarchal weapon, a written set of laws. Imposed upon the people from on high, the Manu Code was in alphabetic form. Only males wrote, interpreted, administered, and judged the Laws.
In the long run, Buddhism, with its themes of universal love, equality for all, and retreat from the affairs of society, was no match for this reinvigorated literate Hinduism. In the contest between the spoken word and the written one, the outcome was predictable. Buddhism accepted its mauling at the hands of the alphabet with considerable grace. The Hindus did not kill the Buddhists. Buddhism simply climbed off the karmic wheel and achieved nirvana. In the homeland of its orign, the light that was Buddhism was extringuished.
This is an edited version of the chapter ‘Birth/Death’ in Leonard Shlain’s book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word And Image. To read the full book, please click here.