LECTURE III. Buddhism, the Worship of the Absolute. Supernatural Religion.NO contrast in religion is greater than this, Shinto, the Way of the Gods, and Butsudo, the Way of the Buddhas. In Shinto all is simplicity: the shrine (mya) is the ancient hut slightly modified without elaboration or ornamentation; with the torii, or bird perch, before it, it contains no idol or symbol except a mirror, and, in the great historic temples, the stored insignia; the priests are plain citizens who are versed in the ritual; the prayers are involved in form but simple in substance, and the divinities are the familiar objects of every-day contemplation- mountains, and sea, and sun, and rock, and tree. Around these gather the sacred memories of the dead, and connected with them are the traditions of the past. The worshipper is conscious of adoration, reverence, wonder, depend. ence, but he is unable to tell the inquirer how or why. There is neither creed nor dogma nor required ceremonial, but a dim conviction and a vague emotion which make life the better worth living..
But when from the mya we pass to the tera, how great the contrast! Instead of the simple torii are towering gateways, elaborate, ornate, with immense guardian statues, and within are a large and complicated structure and elaborate worship: gongs, bells, incense, revolving libraries, pagodas, sacred wells, drum towers, images, pictures, carvings, litanies, and companies of tonsured monks. There are monasteries, nunneries, schools for priests, assembly rooms for congregations, holy days and seasons; magnificently illuminated copies of sacred books with everything for the satisfaction of the intelligence, the emotions, and the will.
Shinto has, properly speaking, no sacred book, but the Buddhist canon numbers hundreds of volumes and its perusal is a task beyond the powers of any but the most exceptional students. It has many great sects, some of them mutually hostile, with a large number of minute divisions and subdivisions, as if nothing were too petty for the foundation of a distinct order. Hence it has a minute and intricate theology, with apologetics, dogmatics, exegesis, polemics, and traditions. It thus is in contrast to Shinto on its intellectual as on its material side; the ethics of Shinto are at most "Fear the gods and obey the Emperor," but Buddhism has an ethics which embraces all orders of sentient beings throughout the universe. Shinto is bounded by Japan in time and space, but Buddhism embraces the universe and stretches its claims throughout unnumbered kalpas from eternity to eternity. Shinto has to do with the world we see and hear and touch, but Buddhism conceives this all as a "fleeting show, for man's delusion given," and seeks salvation in a world behind the world.
In Japan the two are in juxtaposition. We may pass at once from mya to tera, and in like fashion the nation itself went from primitive Shinto to the Buddhist faith. For we do not study in this change a slow evolution by means of "resident forces," but a conversion-not growth, but regeneration, - for thus may man's nature respond to external influences and more be accomplished in a generation than otherwise in centuries. The seventh century A.D. was more important to Japan than all the time which had preceded it. We have referred already to the effect of the introduction of Chinese civilisation upon the minds of the leaders of the people. According to the Nihongi, after earlier ineffectual attempts, in the year 552 priests and images came to Yamato and were given a welcome and a habitation, the prime-minister becoming patron of the foreign cult. But shortly after, a pestilence breaking out, it was attributed to the wrath of the native gods, so that the temple was destroyed, the books disappeared, and the statue was cast into the sea.. But the image was recovered miraculously, and shortly after the Emperor's palace was destroyed by fire from heaven, the two chief opponents of Buddhism perishing in the flames. Therefore the Emperor commanded the rebuilding of the temple, and a further mission of Korean priests took the place of those who had been driven away. These were followed by others in increased numbers, and the favour was won not only of the prime-minister but of the court, and finally of the Emperor himself. Anti-foreign and anti-Buddhistic feeling was aroused and a rebellion resulted, but it was put down, and in the year 621 Buddhism became the established religion. Bishops and archbishops were appointed, the country was divided into dioceses, temples were erected in all important places, and students crossed the sea to Korea, and more especially to China to study the religion in its sources. Thenceforth there was still conflict, but Shinto grew steadily weaker and Buddhism stronger, for Shinto could not maintain itself against the doctrines, rites, and complete organisation of its rival. Shinto could only invoke the wrath of the native gods and the love of the people for their divinities. The attribute of deity was power, and it was manifest in the pestilence which broke out when the first temple was erected; but the argument could be turned the other way, and the Buddhists were quick to seize the opportunity, for who could say that the pestilence did not come because of the anger of the Buddhas at the coolness of their reception? The Shinto priests were not fairly matched with the newcomers, neither in dialectics nor in miracles. Thus did the fire fall from heaven to reinforce the argument, and thus later at a crucial moment was a solemn voice from the most holy Shinto temple in Ise heard commanding a hesitating Emperor to build a great statue of Buddha. Dreams and portents added effect to the arguments, and finally the love of the people for their deities was utilised when the ingenious and miracle-working priest, Kobo-Daishi, declared that the native gods were incarnations of Buddha.. Besides, the Buddhist monks were deeply in earnest and devoted to evangelistic labours, and how could simple-hearted laymen like the Shinto priests compete with them? But our sources give us the interpretation of the men themselves who were concerned in the conversion. The nation, we are told, turned to Buddhism because these new gods were powerful, and because Buddhism was the cult of the entire world!The truth could not be summed up more succinctly or more accurately. As we have seen, the Buddhas surpassed the kami in power, but overwhelming was the other argument - the religion of the entire civilised world - securus judicat orbis terrarum! - Korea, illimitable China, and in a dim and fabled background India! Imagination could not mirror the reality nor reason compass it. The world had been portions of the Empire of Japan, and history the incoherent traditions of the past, while life was narrow in range and interests and poor in equipment. But now a curtain was lifted suddenly, and there were revealed a new heaven and a new earth. Old things passed away, and the leaders of the people turned eagerly to the treasures of the continental enlightenment - science, philosophy, art, architecture, medicine, law, literature, poetry, etiquette, highly organised society and government, to set down at random a few of the elements which impressed the Japanese. And they were essentially worshippers of the marvellous, and hence responded with avidity to these wonders. They reformed their government, instituted a system of education, changed their social organisation, turned with eagerness to art, and, not to be tedious, revolutionised their entire life. Thus, in the seventh century, was enacted the same drama which, in the nineteenth, has held the attention of the world. He who, familiar with the transformation of Japan in our own day, comes to the study of the transformation of Japan in the seventh century has a sensation akin to that produced by looking at a familiar scene through a telescope reversed. In both the student has rare material for the investigation of the methods of man's progress and of the causes which contribute to the rapid development of a great civilisation.As the Japanese came into contact with Chinese civilisation, so did the American Indian come into contact with the European, but in one case there was no response, and as result only a degeneration to a more hopeless condition; but in the other there were response and imitation, with a sudden revelation of latent powers, adoption and then adaptation. The acceptance of Chinese civilisation wholesale did not check the natural talents of the Japanese; it aroused, guided, developed, and perfected them. Had the Japanese remained unmoved, their fate would have been that of the Indian and of the Ainu; but now began their history.
Religion was an integral part of the structure of Chinese civilisation. Buddhism was the religion of the state, and the faith of educated men. It was in alliance with Confucianism, and its break with that system was still five hundred years in the future, so that these were the "ages of faith." Not only was Buddhism the religion of the world, but it was the faith of enlightened men and the instrument of culture. Its priests introduced civilisation, taught agriculture, built roads, constructed temples, and were the teachers of medicine, philosophy, jurisprudence, and art. Part and parcel with the civilisation, it was not yet separated from the new enlightenment, for criticism follows and does not precede faith. Moreover the same motives which led to the adoption of the continental civilisation led to religious belief, for these two were not two but one, since religion the world over is an integral part of man's development.
Suddenly before the eyes of the people were unfolded new, strange, and wonderful forms of worship: imposing structures, images of artistic merit, priests in picturesque garments, a ceremonial impressive and varied, and the novelty of a missionary enterprise teaching that this is the way of salvation. Soon behind the outward pomp was placed the power of the Government ready to punish opposition,and more, to give all its prestige to the faith. The emotions which belonged to Shinto were thus heightened and broadened. No demand was made for a change in the emotions, but their object was transformed. No longer did reverence and dependence attach themselves chiefly to nature, for the artistic production of man took its place. Shinto was not deserted, but it was turned to account, for when the native gods were declared to be the incarnations of Buddha, the Indian system became the authorised interpreter of the old. Before, there had been no theology, but now it was understood that the mystery had been revealed, and that the world behind the world, the nature above nature, which previously had been dimly felt after, had its official teachers and expounders. In this then there was essentially not a call to repentance, nor a demand for a new heart, but the proclamation of a new knowledge. "What ye in ignorance worship that declare we unto you."
The effect was immediate. Near Nara we may still visit Horuiji and see a temple which dates from the seventh century, and the great Dai-Butsuat Nara is from the eighth, and besides enough other specimens of ancient religious art remain to show how rapid was the acquisition, and how proficient were the adapters of the new faith.Even in the pages of the Nihongi there is repeated testimony to the strength of Buddhism, for temples had already been built in all considerable towns, and lands had been lavishly set apart for their maintenance.. It was a nation born in a day, for with nations a hundred years are but as yesterday when it is passed.
Impressive as was the appeal to the senses, no less strong was the appeal to the mind. For gen. erations something of Chinese literature had been known to the select few, but only in the seventh century were there lasting results. After the reformation of 645, a university with faculties of medicine, astrology, and literature was established, and the men of the higher classes had "their hearts set on learning." Their teachers were Buddhist monks, as the learning of the whole world conformed to their system. Schools were attached to the temples, and a certain degree of learning was put within the reach of wide circles. Far later than this period scholarship was the badge of the priesthood, and in the seventeenth century it was thought to be essentially effeminate and incompatible with the calling of a soldier.
Literature received a religious colouring, science was controlled by theology, and philosophy was nothing other than the "Way of the Buddhas." And what a world of wonder was thus opened to the mind, for Buddhism when it came to Japan was by no means the simple system unfolded by modern scholars in their efforts to get back to the original sources. They represent Buddha as turning from philosophic contemplation and ascetic self-torture to the ordinary duties of charity, kindliness, and uprightness. He renounced the search for the Absolute, and taught that salvation is not in absorption in the being of God, nor in transcendental heaven beyond the grave, but is in the victory over passions and the self. He renounced dependence upon God, angels, ceremonies, and forbade to place faith in any saviour, divine or human, but taught that we are to have reliance in ourselves, and that without prayers or sacrifices or the paraphernalia of worship we are to associate ourselves with others like-minded, that together we may follow the noble eightfold path which is based on the four great truths, and thus attain the end of our labours - salvation.
This simple teaching did not long satisfy the intellect of India nor the needs of the people. All that had been exorcised came back again, demons and gods and miracles, the soul, the Absolute, and salvation by metaphysics and ascetics. The message of the historic Buddha was held to be only the beginning of his teaching, and a philosophic creed was set forth as the true wisdom which could make men wise unto salvation. Nor was it considered that the two doctrines do not differ as less and greater, but are in thorough-going contradiction, the salvation sought by Buddha being the reverse of that proclaimed by his followers.
The system which came to Japan was the Greater Vehicle,. the developed and magnified Buddhism of Korea and China. The Little Vehicle, too, was recognised, but only as a temporary device for the weakminded and faint-hearted who could not endure sound doctrine. This, however, was not all, for the religion had changed in outward form as in inner meaning. In its long journey of more than a thousand years from India to Japan, it had gathered to itself strange deities as it had invented strange Buddhas. It adorned its temples with their images, and they became the gods of the common people: Kwannon,, the Goddess of Mercy, whose benignant statue is found in countless temples, and whose delineation became the favourite task of artists; Binzuru, God of Medicine, whose virtue is transferred by the hand of mothers from his wooden eyes and ears to the eyes and ears of their offspring; Ema, God of the Dead, and many others. Before these images the simple-hearted peasants stand, make their offerings of a tiny fraction of a cent, clap their hands, repeat a prayer in an unknown tongue, and depart, confident that some blessing for the life which now is has been gained, for the religion of the great Indian protestant against salvation by faith has turned back to the worship which he rejected. This worship is indistinguishable from Shinto, for in tera as in mya is shown the same reverence for the wonderful, the same reliance upon powers superior and invisible, and the same longing for protection against the evils of the present world, and the same desire for its goods. There is the same want of dogma, with the same unthinking obedience to custom. With the peasantry, with rare exceptions, Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine are alike, and if a Christian church be entered casually there are the same motions of reverence, the same muttered words, and perhaps the same offerings of a fraction of a cent. In Buddhism also, "not knowing what it is," he worships and implores. Nor in popular Buddhism is the moral nature yet aroused or any demand made for holiness. Shinto yielded to Buddhism simply as the less to the greater, the Chinese system appealing irresistibly to the emotions and the imagination, merely intensifying the religious experience.
None the less irresistible was the appeal to the intellect. This was for the few; and yet, as always, the few determined the faith of the many. Of the teaching of the earliest sects we know nothing, and our survey begins with the doctrines promulgated in the eighth and ninth centuries; nor can we more than point out in the most general fashion their characteristics, since our limits do not permit even a cursory review of the history of Buddhist doctrine. Yet we may readily find enough for our purposes, as the mind of man works along such well-defined lines that we need only a sign-post at the beginning to comprehend the destination.
According to the Greater Vehicle, the development of doctrine in the Buddhist community has corresponded to the successive periods of Buddha's life after his attainment, represented to the imagination by his conflict and victory under the Bo tree.Our modern scholars interpret the struggle psychologically. It was a victory over temptations common to men; that is, Buddha, on coming to full self-consciousness, is tempted to use his powers for conquest, or at least to rest content with his own salvation, without undertaking the thankless and onerous task of saving others. But so prosaic an explanation does not satisfy even the Little Vehicle, for it describes the scene with all the wealth of imagery at the command of the Indian imagination, showing Gautama assailed by infernal powers, but remaining unmoved and serene until the Evil One himself recognises his defeat. This, however, is not sufficient for the Greater Vehicle, for it not only raises the conflict to a struggle of cosmic significance, but it foreshadows in the sermon preached at its conclusion the entire development of Buddhist doctrine. Thus, while in his mortal body Buddha preaches to men, with a spiritual body he proclaims the same truth to all who in the future shall become Buddhas, and with his third and real body he is simultaneously fixed in his eternal state in contemplation of the Absolute. Already, then, we have the fundamental metaphysical distinction, the things which are unseen are real and eternal, while the things which are seen are temporal and illusory.
The same distinction belongs to all of Buddha's activities. He begins his labours by a sermon, and the great tope near Benares still marks the place of its delivery. Its substance, according to the Little Vehicle, was a simple summary of the elementary truths,and readily understood by the people, but the Greater Vehicle makes it the first period of Buddha's activities, and in its account of the same discourse are found all which is esoteric and metaphysical in the doctrine of the developed schools.. This first brief period of activity was named Kegon. But it was too advanced for the multitude and therefore ensued a period of twelve years, called Rokukon (Deer Park) from the place of Buddha's residence. Because of the hardness of men's hearts the Master set forth the doctrines of the Little Vehicle, and from this period come the scriptures which constitute its canon. Then followed a period of expansion, when he preached to Bodhsattvas in the ten regions, his doctrine assuming a form of greater importance and profundity (Hodo), but this was only introductory to a fourth period (Dai Hannya), when he teaches the doctrine of the Absolute, which is the negation of all which is finite, and therefore can be neither described nor comprehended by the ordinary processes of the intellect. But Buddha did not stop here. In the fifth period, with more positive conceptions he described the one heart and the one nature of the Absolute, which is in all things and constitutes them all, which cannot be set forth indeed in words, but which is incarnate and manifested by successive Buddhas, and in which we live and move and have our being. This last period is called Nirvana (Nehan), and from it come the characteristic scriptures of the Greater Vehicle.
As thus Gautama's life was divided into five periods which corresponded with the great divisions of his teaching, so has the community followed the same order of development. Thus for centuries only the Little Vehicle was preached, until in the fulness of times mature teachers were born who were able to comprehend the profounder aspects of the Master's doctrine, and the highest stage was reached in the Buddhism of China and Japan; nor were these teachers inferior in authority to the historic Gautama, but were incarnations of the same original Buddha of enlightenment..
It is apparent how far we have come. Buddha is no longer the historical Gautama, nor is the truth identical with his system. As simultaneously he was visible to men and gods in a human body under the Bo tree, and was present in eternal, unchangeable, spiritual communion with the Absolute, so Buddha is at once the historical personages, who have taught successively the truth to men, and the Absolute itself.The historic Buddhas have been many, and their phenomenal consciousness has varied, but essentially they are all one in the invisible being of the Infinite. Two results are gained at once, the historical Gautama occupies a subordinate place since a way is opened for belief in many Buddhas, and salvation in Nirvana is replaced by the desire for the attainment of Buddhahood and absorption in the Absolute. Hence the ancient gods of Japan were proclaimed to be incarnations, and an all-embracing comprehensiveness was attained, but at the cost of surrendering that which was distinctive, the most characteristic features of primitive Buddhism.
The comprehensiveness of Buddhism embraced not only differing scriptures, divergent and contradictory, but different ways of attaining salvation - by contemplation, by philosophic comprehension, by ascetic practices, - and various sects set forth these differing methods. The great sect in Japan called Ten Dai, however, is eclectic, and combines the various ways of salvation. Founded in the ninth century, it has become the parent of the other sects, for its strength was its weakness, as men laid hold of differing doctrines and differing methods, and on these basing their hopes established new sects and taught exclusive and mutually contradictory doctrines. The more transcendental forms are illustrated by two great sects, the Shin-gon (True Word) and the Zen.
The Shin-gon sect was founded by the great priest Kobo Daishi in the tenth century. Kobo visited China, wrought miracles, and was esteemed an incarnation of Buddha. His system shows Buddha as the centre of a world of ideas, which exists behind and within the unreal world of appearances. The centre of the world of ideas is Dai Nichi, identified by the common people with the sun, and around him are the four Buddhas of contemplation representing the highest abstractions, and around these group after group significant of genera and species, until the individual is reached. This is the "diamond" world, unchanging and real, while the phenomenal world is also grouped around Dai Nichi, who is represented not now as the sun surrounded by four planets, but as the centre of the lotus with eight Buddhas about him as petals. Thus he, or better IT, is the centre of all things, real and phenomenal, and correspondingly there are two ways of salvation, by meditation and knowledge, and by a righteous life. The end of the "Way" is reached when perfect knowledge is attained and the individual is absorbed in the Infinite. In popular language we become Buddha. Thus was the historic Buddha himself absorbed, and as his individuality disappeared, so has his distinctive teaching and glory, for he remains in the system only as one of the four Buddhas of contemplation, a symbol of the highest abstraction, one of the last ideas which remain before all is swallowed up in the Absolute.
The metaphysical character of the Greater Vehicle is revealed still more clearly by the Zen sect. It seeks salvation by meditation, and a divine emptiness. Its favourite hymn might well be:
"Oh, to be nothing, nothing!"It distinguishes two selves - the first, of our conscious life, the self of presentations, the self of which we think and speak, the self of our ordinary feelings, thoughts, and will, the self which has the world as its object. But this self, with its distinctions between subject and object the knower and the known, the ego and the nonego, is itself temporal, phenomenal, and illusive. The true self is beneath it and salvation is in its knowledge. We are to get below these distinctions of subject-object, ego-non-ego, knower-known, the I and the world, to the unchanging undifferentiated self, which is before them all and of which all are but temporary manifestations. To do this we are to rid our minds of their ordinary modes of operation, to put away study and striving of all kinds, and to destroy desire. Then in the undifferentiated pure material of consciousness we shall reach reality, a reality without describable content, excepting that it bears with it everlasting peace.
The method of attainment is by meditation and suggestion. There is a curriculum with prescribed postures and methods through which the seeker passes. His instructor suggests puzzling questions and trusts to the intuitive activities of the mind for knowledge of the answer. If a class be gathered, the comprehension passes from mind to mind without audible words, the teacher noting the enlightenment by the expression of the face. Naturally the Zen sect has not been numerous, but it still holds an honoured place, and its scholars are men of repute.
The Shin-gon and Zen sects are extreme illustrations of the divergence of the Greater Vehicle from the teachings of Gautama. The two Vehicles indeed have many points of difference. The "Little" has to do with only one Buddha, the historic Gautama, while the Greater Vehicle obscures his importance in a multitude of mythical Buddhas past and present and to come; the Little Vehicle sets forth Nirvana as the object of attainment, the Greater strives after Buddhahood, and teaches that each disciple may become like the Master and aid in the salvation of others; the Little Vehicle refuses to speak of the ultimate questions, and is a religion without a God or a soul, the Greater is metaphysical through and through, and sets up again these ontological entities. But the chief difference, that in which all the rest converge, is in the doctrine of the Absolute. Gautama is represented as dissuading his disciples from seeking it, while in the Greater Vehicle its understanding is the end of endeavour, and believers are ever mindful of its presence behind the phenomenal world.
Wide as is the difference between original Buddhism, as set forth in the first course of lectures in this series, and the doctrines of the Shin-gon and the Zen sects in Japan, yet none the less there are resemblances uniting all in one. Thus the beginning of Buddhism, its a, b, c, literally its". i, ro, ha, is the impermanence of all things. Everything passes away, nothing remains; to learn this is to make a beginning of wisdom. And the second truth is like unto it: in the fleeting, "borrowed" world there can be no salvation, no true satisfaction. In its very nature as fleeting, misery is embedded, and man, who desires permanence, chases shadows as he attempts gratification in a sphere of illusion. The practical lesson therefore is plain, flee the world, its relationships, its labours, its pleasures, its losses and its gains. Only thus is there salvation. To be religious is to be a monk, and there is room for lay brethren only by accommodation, as the best they can hope is for a chance for the truly religious life in some future existence.
Another point of importance is transmigration. Gautama denies the doctrine of the soul, but he believes in the reincarnation of influence, of the net result of our lives, and as this is given mythological form it differs from transmigratiom not religiously, nor popularly, but only ontologically. Gautama is represented as conscious of the infinite succession of previous existences, and in the birth stories he concludes by declaring that the lion, the prince, the beggar, or whatever form the hero might have taken, was himself. Doubtless he took over this doctrine from the popular belief, nor is it necessary to his system, but none the less it became of the highest importance.
On the one hand, the doctrine of successive existences all alike impermanent, all alike emphasising the folly, of seeking satisfaction in any of them, heightened the first doctrine and minimised the world. It was adding the entire universe of the imagination to the motive which led to flight from the world we now inhabit.." But precisely in proportion as this teaching was thus emphasised became the necessity for a metaphysics, for here men were forced to distinguish between appearance and substance, though Gautama refused to answer such questions, and his immediate disciples declared them understandable only by a Buddha - that is, by omniscience. Meanwhile a certain explanation is vouchsafed with which the ordinary intellect is to rest content. Thus, though all things disappear, karma, the law, cause and effect, forever endures. This is unchangeable, eternal, and it is not only embodied in all phenomena but it constitutes them. Thus in ourselves it is karma, the result of our previous series of activities, which forms us and constitutes us men or animals or insects or gods.
But it is impossible to check inquiry at this point. A pragmatic philosophy, which declares itself content with truth in which all agree, will not long content any. And so it was with the Mahâyâna, its scholars pressed on to further inquiries and further explanations. For how is it that Buddha, in all his incarnations - god, insect, animal, bird, man, - is ever one, and how is it that the never-ending law produces again and again the same results in series which are identically the same? Thus my teacher in Buddhism once said to me: "In all preceding worlds there has been an American named Knox, seated in a room precisely like this, studying Buddhism with a Japanese named Takahashi, and so shall it be in all the worlds to come." How comes it that the great wheel of existence thus forever revolves without alteration though with seeming change? Whenever this question is asked, the answer is the same, the change is an illusion, the unchangeless is the reality, - the things which are seen are temporal, the things which are unseen are eternal. And the lesson drawn is forever the same: we must free ourselves from the phenomenal and cleave only to the noumenal. In many portions and forms this is the message of the Mahâyâna, for the object of its endless search is the Absolute, and the end of its salvation is the absorption of the finite in the Infinite. It is apparent that thence come various sects and schools, since all efforts fail and each must be tried in turn. The greater the earnestness, the greater the dissatisfaction, and the greater the probability that the devout soul will turn to some new device for the attainment of the desired end.
Thus is Buddhism transformed, making central what Gautama denied, and thus does metaphysics revenge itself upon its denial. So far as we may judge, Gautama simply took over transmigration, as we have said. It is not of the essence of his system, though he doubtless believed in it. The modern exponents of his doctrines are quite able to teach them without faith in this mythology, and find his truth the clearer without it. And this statement raises the question as to the essential feature in the system. Was it the great truths and the noble eightfold path? Was it the revolt against metaphysics and asceticism, and the emphasis on charity and a common morality? In these things, at least, we find Buddha's differentia; in them he turned from the religious thinking and methods of his times, and in them he made a contribution to the ethics and religions of the world. But if we mean by essential not his own world view, nor his own teaching; if we are to find it not in the religion of Buddha but in Buddhism, and if we are to take as determinative the faith of the majority of the adherents to the complex systems which bear his name, then we shall answer our question from the Mahâyâna, and shall find that Buddha was not a Buddhist. For thus do the traditional drapings of a teaching obscure its meaning, the clothing choke the life.
The transition from the primitive religion of Japan to Buddhism is illustrative of the change from natural to supernatural religion. In Shinto is the worship of the world which now is; but in Buddhism, even in the Hînayâna, this world is denied, and the emphasis is transferred to another sphere. In the story of Buddha under the Bo tree already the Hînayâna sees him in conflict with transcendental foes, while the Mahâyâna transforms him into the representative of its scheme of metaphysics. In both instances we have the religion of the supernatural - that is, of the world behind the world; in one instance it is formed by the sensuous imagination, and in the other of concepts, a transition which is the outcome of the natural working of man's mind.
The explanation of the origin of supernatural religion has been sought in many directions - in ghosts, in dreams, in the anthropomorphisation of the world, in the projection of man's own shadow upon the universe, in the irruption of the subconscious into the conscious, in abnormal states wherein the subject is really deranged, in second sight, in hypnotism and the allied phenomena, in apparitions, in visions, revelations, and miracles. But none of these, nor all of them, account for the phenomena, which are as old and as universal as humanity itself. Men everywhere have been believers in the world behind the world, refusing to be content with the visible, audible, and tangible world of sense and time. So universal a fact must have an explanation, and this in man's mind.
Max Müller and many others suppose religion to be the discernment of the Infinite in the finite, and in their explanations they describe the Infinite not as the Absolute, nor the limitless of the metaphysician, but as this consciousness of something more in which reality consists. But, as we have seen, there is religion when as yet there is no clear thought of the invisible world. It remains wholly within the realm of nature. It worships the object itself, as tree, mountain, cavern, sun, sea, awaken reverence and excite acts of devotion and feelings of dependence with prayers and offerings. Man knows no soul neither in himself nor in nature, though he is dimly conscious of a greater than himself to which he renders homage, and intuitionally feels that the fulness of the object of sense is not exhausted in what he touches, sees, and hears.
This is while he remains unreflective, while power attracts his attention and the passing scene suffices. When memory and anticipation become active and reflection begins, then he gains a larger world, past and future, and he begins to classify his objects and to discriminate. He had been as the man who saw trees as men walking, but now, as he attempts to assign effects to causes, a new world opens before him, as to the man whose eyes were touched the second time, and he sees all things clearly. It is a new world, and yet the old, and its newness is in the ideas and the imagination which give form and substance to the universe he constructs, the universe of science, philosophy, mythology, and religion, and which becomes to him reality in a higher sense. He has obtained his measure for the fleeting world, which, in comparison with the unchanging world beyond, flows away in worthless speed. This apprehension of the temporal, the tangible, as illusive and unreal, represents the Buddhist faith in its first stage, while contrasted with it is the Brahman assertion of the permanence of the concept - that is, of the substance, of the noumenon, of the Absolute. All phenomena pass, the underlying reality only remains. But against this Buddha protested, for to him there was neither soul nor Absolute, and we gain salvation only by ceasing the bootless search, for Nirvana is the utter passing away, the complete going out, from which there is no returning.
But, as we have noticed, even for Buddha there was karma, law, unchanging forever, and this constituted itself the reality of his religion. For it only abides and is eternal behind phenomena. Hence the world behind the world came back again, and Buddhism, to the majority of its followers, is as metaphysical as Brahmanism, and as supernaturalistic as popular Hinduism.
Incidentally, then, we may answer the question which has often been put: How comes it that the religion which knows neither the soul nor God, neither Heaven nor Hell, and which has no place for prayer, has claimed unnumbered multitudes as its votaries? Our answer is that it has not, for Buddhism has met the needs of men by conforming to man's mind, and by a perfectly natural process reinstating what its founder denied. Buddhism in the beginning attempted to be entirely of nature, but karma and the inherited belief in transmigration rendered its denial of the soul and of God of none effect, since material was given for the construction of the world behind the world, the super-nature. On the one hand it was conceptual, the world of ideas deified; on the other it was popular, the imagination given free play in the greater world, which is not bound by the laws of time and space. The Lesser Vehicle revels in the latter, and the Greater Vehicle in both.
This, the achievement of supernatural religion in placing reality in the world behind the world, is none the less the achievement of philosophy and of science. These three agree in turning from mere phenomena to that on which they depend. Popular religion uses the traditions and myths of the people and weaves them into a magic world; philosophy turns from percepts and images to concepts and reifies them, and science makes up its world out of atoms, or, if the fashion changes, out of centres of force, or electrons, and changeless laws, so that, though the world and the fashion of it change, continuity is preserved and the fundamental laws are held as everlasting. Indeed, the scientist may dream of reducing all qualitative differences to quantitative, so that behind the world of an infinite variety we have a series of numbers of a limitless monotony, which is the reality of the universe itself.
Doubtless, the abnormal in man has stimulated the notion of a super-nature, which breaks into the world of scientific law and knowledge and doubtless these abnormal phenomena have given rise to forms of magical religion; but this is secondary, and it is not the source of supernatural religion, which cannot come from the abnormal nor find its necessary content in miracle or magic, since it is co-extensive with reflective humanity.
The super-world of the imagination, revealed in diverse fashions, excites no religious emotion in many minds, as it seems inferior to the world we know. So do the visions of positive religions fade away; reflecting the life and hopes of their own times, they grow cold and dim. We should not like the Republic of Plato were it offered to us, not the Heaven of Mohammed, nor the Paradise of the Chinese Buddhists. As heavens cease to call forth desires, so do men outgrow gods, and, like Buddha, they may deny the superworld in order to preserve their religion.
But even so straightway man constructs another order of the supernatural. Thus have philosophers in all ages, denying the other world of the sensuous imagination, rendered worship to pure ideas, and they have found themselves in the peace of a perfect trust in the contemplation of the unseen and the eternal, and salvation has come as they have identified themselves with it. So was it with Spinoza, and with the Chinese philosophers of the eleventh century A.D., and with the Buddhist monks of the Mahâyâna. Or man may make science his religion as he feels himself in the presence of that which is greater than himself, which he reverences and adores, and in dependence upon it finds peace and rest. For irreligion essentially, in the world and in the super-world, is the habit of mind which, finding nothing which it adores, no superior to itself, is at once satisfied with its own pre-eminence and selfsufficiency. But such an attitude is at once abnormal and untrue to the facts of our common experience. So that religion, far from being the offspring of the abnormal and the lawless, is itself the emotional expression of man's deep consciousness of his true position in the universe.