If you did not catch the airing of “The Buddha” on PBS last night, I am sure it will be shown several times in the future. Be sure to catch it. All in all, it was well done. For those not familiar with the life of (former) Prince Siddhartha who, after achieving a state of enlightenment (i.e., nirvana) became the Buddha, it will be especially beneficial.
Although the dates of Siddhartha’s birth and death are uncertain, most scholars think he died around 400 BC at the age of 80. This places him squarely within the time period that Karl Jaspers and others call the “Axial Age.” Put another way, Siddhartha lived at about the same time as Socrates and Plato. As Axial Age scholars have often noted, it surely is no accident that so many seminal thinkers (i.e., sages) appeared during this time.
One of the first things that stood out was the social and religious context in which Siddhartha lived. He was a prince in one of the many city-states in the area that is today known as India. These city-states were, like so many others in various parts of the world during this time period, constantly warring. This warfare placed a heavy burden on ordinary people. For religion, people living in India could turn only to the Vedic (Hindu) tradition, which — with its many gods and sterile emphasis on ritual — did little to salve the suffering which warfare and inequality engendered. The Vedic tradition, of course, instantiated the notorious caste system as part of the cosmic order, and thus validated an especially pernicious form of social stratification.
Under these trying conditions, Siddhartha renounced his princeship, wife, family, and possessions. He then undertook a long journey in an effort to answer what for him and many others was the most pressing question of the day: What caused human suffering/dissatisfaction, and how might this suffering/dissatisfaction be alleviated or eliminated?
I will not provide the answers or prescriptions here, but suffice it to say that Siddhartha was one of the first psychologists in history. Although the factors causing all this psychological distress were largely external and systemic (i.e., cultural), Buddha perhaps realized that because cultural conditions could not be changed, psychological conditions could. His inward looking prescriptions — which are entirely lacking in dogma or any sort of systematic theology — may result not only in inner peace but also in universal ethics. It is easy to see why his messages were so appealing then and remain so today.
Given Buddhism’s lack of dogma, disdain for ritual, concern with equality, focus on compassion, and emphasis on the ordinary individual living in harmony with nature, the appeal becomes even stronger. Its lack of concern with creation, heaven, hell, demons, devils, doctrine, sin-guilt, ostentation, and priests is another aspect of Buddhism that appeals to many. It also is a remarkable fact of history that no nation-state or empire has ever been able to ally itself with Buddhism for militant purposes. The ethics of Buddhism simply do not lend themselves to armies or intolerance.
Although I have heard some say that Buddhism is not a religion, it has several metaphysical or supernatural aspects which place at least parts of it in the “religious” category. To the extent Buddhism is or is not a religion probably depends on the way in which one chooses to practice or live it. There are many variants of Buddhism, and no demands are made to follow one version or another.
One can only hope that Brit Hume, who stupidly lectured Tiger Woods on the demerits of Buddhism versus the merits of Christianity, watched “The Buddha” and gained some understanding of this venerable tradition.