Buddha versus Buddhism
The Speaker, November 17, 1900
Buddha And Buddhism. By Arthur Lillie. Edinburgh : T. and T. Clark
Mr. Arthur Lillie calls his book Buddha and Buddhism, and much of it is devoted to explaining that they are very different things. His primary and most interesting thesis amounts to this: that so far from the great nihilistic philosophy which attracts European pessimists to Buddhism being, as is maintained, the pure metaphysic of Gautama himself since corrupted into a mere religion, it is this nihilism which is itself a vast decadent development of the words of a teacher who was as primal, ethical and direct as the Founder of Christianity. Mr. Lillie has a lively instinct for literature, and he opens his case with a telling and amusing apologue in which he describes some future historian proving conclusively that mediaeval Catholicism must have been a priestly corruption of the religion of Comte. Nightmare speculations on the essential non-existence of everything are the chief hobby of the Pyhrro-Buddhic pessimists- if, indeed, pessimism can be properly attributed to them, for it is difficult to believe in the worst of all possible worlds if you do not believe that any worlds are possible at all. But we think Mr. Lillie has done a great service in clearing the character of the great Gautama of this war upon Nature- this matricidal mysticism. The question affects not only Buddhism, but Christianity also, which is now constantly accused of nihilism by its enemies as Buddhism is accused by its friends.
Schopenhauer, with that brilliant futility which made him so striking considered merely as a literary man, maintains that Christianity is akin to his own pessimism because it rejects the vanities of the world. The remark is a good instance of that class of ingenious observations against which we can say nothing except that they are obviously not true. Any one can see that a man floating in visions of certain felicity is not in the same state of mind as a man who believes all felicity impossible: and the two are not made essentially any more similar by the accident that they both take the same attitude towards something else. Schopenhauer and the most maniacal ascetic of the middle ages are no more like each other than a man who does not take an omnibus because he cannot afford it and a man who does not take an omnibus because he prefers his landau. Buddhism might be called an intermediary link, for the Buddhist felicity was in a sense negative; but the monkish felicity was full of the fieriest human images, and if he scoffed at non-religious pleasures it was as a lover might scoff at the mass of women or a patriot at the mass of nations. We say this of the most evil forms of actual Christian asceticism. That the religion of Jesus was not Pyhrro-Buddhic (though it is sometimes called so) is clear from the somewhat obvious distinction that Pyhrro-Buddhism encourages poverty because it takes a man out of the natural order, whereas Jesus encouraged poverty avowedly because it united him with the natural order- with the birds and the lilies of the field. No mortal ingenuity can make an "Anti-Cosmic Nihilist" of a teacher who recommended a certain course on the express ground that it was the law of the animal and vegetable world. It is highly possible that ambition, commerce and much that civilisation values appeared to Jesus a huge and grotesque excrescence on the face of life. But to Pyhrro-Buddhism it is life itself that is the excrescence: being is a disease: the stars are a disfigurement to the purity of night, a kind of cosmic rash, and the eternal hills are mere protuberances, as shameful as the boils of Job. It is the iniquitous completeness of this imaginative conception that has really attracted men like Schopenhauer to metaphysical Buddhism, for the Indian pessimist holds it with an appalling sweetness and calm which the fretful German could only envy as he pursued the impossible paradox of using cosmic energy in defiance of the Cosmos and not so much cutting off his nose to spite his face as cutting the rest of himself off his nose that he might turn up his nose at it.
But though we can well believe, with Mr. Lillie, that the real Buddha was a noble elemental moralist and that his teachings were very different from the bewildering rhetoric of annihilation which fills later Indian metaphysics, we think that there is, perhaps, a more natural connection between them than he is inclined to allow. To us, at least, the Buddhist peoples, especially of India, seem to present the unfathomable spiritual tragedy of a people who have looked upon God and lived. They have stared at the white light too long and their intellects have suffered. The Jews, with their wonderful instinct for practical religion, swore that he who looked upon Jehovah died; but in a large number of transcendental schools and sages the sentence of death has been commuted to a doom of gibbering idiotcy. To the Buddhists was given a conception of God of extraordinary intellectual purity; but, in growling familiar with the featureless splendour, they have lost their heads: they babble; they say that everything is nothing and nothing is everything, that black is white because white is black. We fancy that the frightful universal negatives, at which, as we have seen, they have at last arrived, are really little more than the final mental collapse of men trying always to find an abstraction big enough for all things. "I have said what I understood not: things too great for me, that I knew not. I will put my hand upon my mouth." Job was a wise man.
Perhaps the most unsatisfactory part of Mr. Lillie's very satisfactory book is the chapter devoted to the parallels between Christ and Buddha, upon which are founded the theories that Christianity was borrowed from Buddhism. Historically we do not think this probable, if for no other reason than for the reason that the basic scheme of ideas on which Christ reared His Gospel may be found in Isaiah and the ancient Jews; but there can be no doubt that there are very interesting resemblances. Mr. Lillie, however, in the excitement of finding parallels, provides a list of which nine-tenths are parallels of no significance whatever. To say of two Eastern teachers that they were both concerned on one occasion with the washing of feet is not even a coincidence; we might as well call it a coincidence that they both had feet to wash. Sometimes Mr. Lillie's parallels are not even parallel as far as they go. He tells us as a pendant to the text, "They parted my garments," that "on the death of the Bokte Lama his garments are cut into little stripes and prized immensely." This is the very reverse of a similarity; the parting of Christ's garments was done by his enemies; it was an expression of contempt, and the garments were not "prized immensely," except for what they would fetch in the rag-shops of Jerusalem. Mr. Lillie quotes the fact that in Buddhist scripture the divine voice speaks "out of the sky," as if in any religion one would expect it to come out of the coal-cellar. He makes a more radical error in comparing the Gospel "house on the sand" with the Buddhist saying, "The seen world is like a city of sand." Not only does the Christian parable not enunciate the latter sentiment, it enunciates something like the opposite. The man who built on the sand was the man who did not carry out his conceptions into the seen world. We can only refer Mr. Lillie to the passage.
Mr. Lillie speaks with just dissent of some distinctions made by Christians between the two creeds founded merely on doctrines, even such central doctrines as personal deity and immortality. But whereas Mr. Lillie seems to think the difference more or less imaginary, we fancy it is deeper than any doctrines. Both Christianity and Buddhism do indeed stand for simplicity, for the fact that it is in the primal part of us that we are nearest to the unseen. But Buddhism stands for a simplification of the mind and a reliance on the most indestructible ideas; Christianity stands for a simplification of the heart and a reliance on the most indestructible sentiments. The greater Christian insistance upon personal deity and immortality is not, we fancy, the cause so much as the effect of this essential trend towards an ancient passion and pathos as the power that most nearly rends the veil from the nature of things. Both creeds grope after the same secret sun, but Buddhism dreams of its light and Christianity of its heat. Buddhism seeks after God with the largest conception it can find, the all-producing and all-absorbing Om; Christianity seeks for God with the most elementary passion it can find; the craving for a father, the hunger that is as old as the hills. It turns the whole cry of a lost universe into the cry of a lost child.