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Hendrik Willem Van Loon

Buddha and Confucius

Concerning Buddha and Confucius

T HE discoveries of the Portuguese and the Spaniards had brought the Christians of western Europe into close contact with the people of India and of China. They knew of course that Christianity was not the only religion on this earth. There were the Mohammedans and the heathenish tribes of northern Africa who worshipped sticks and stones and dead trees. But in India and in China the Christian conquerors found new millions who had never heard of Christ and who did not want to hear of Him, because they thought their own religion, which was thousands of years old, much better than that of the West. As this is a story of mankind and not an exclusive history of the people of Europe and our western hemisphere, you ought to know something of two men whose teaching and whose example continue to influence the actions and the thoughts of the majority of our fellow-travellers on this earth.


The Three Great Religions

In India, Buddha was recognised as the great religious teacher. His history is an interesting one. He was born in the Sixth Century before the birth of Christ, within sight of the mighty Himalaya Mountains, where four hundred years before Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), the first of the great leaders of the Aryan race (the name which the Eastern branch of the Indo-European race had given to itself), had taught his people to regard life as a continuous struggle between Ahriman, and Ormuzd, the Gods of Evil and Good. Buddha's father was Suddhodana, a mighty chief among the tribe of the Sakiyas. His mother, Maha Maya, was the daughter of a neighbouring king. She had been married when she was a very young girl. But many moons had passed beyond the distant ridge of hills and still her husband was without an heir who should rule his lands after him. At last, when she was fifty years old, her day came and she went forth that she might be among her own people when her baby should come into this world.

It was a long trip to the land of the Koliyans, where Maha Maya had spent her earliest years. One night she was resting among the cool trees of the garden of Lumbini. There her son was born. He was given the name of Siddhartha, but we know him as Buddha, which means the Enlightened One.

In due time, Siddhartha grew up to be a handsome young prince and when he was nineteen years old, he was married to his cousin Yasodhara. During the next ten years he lived far away from all pain and all suffering, behind the protecting walls of the royal palace, awaiting the day when he should succeed his father as King of the Sakiyas.

But it happened that when he was thirty years old, he drove outside of the palace gates and saw a man who was old and worn out with labour and whose weak limbs could hardly carry the burden of life. Siddhartha pointed him out to his coachman, Channa, but Channa answered that there were lots of poor people in this world and that one more or less did not matter. The young prince was very sad but he did not say anything and went back to live with his wife and his father and his mother and tried to be happy. A little while later he left the palace a second time. His carriage met a man who suffered from a terrible disease. Siddhartha asked Channa what had been the cause of this man's suffering, but the coachman answered that there were many sick people in this world and that such things could not be helped and did not matter very much. The young prince was very sad when he heard this but again he returned to his people.

A few weeks passed. One evening Siddhartha ordered his carriage in order to go to the river and bathe. Suddenly his horses were frightened by the sight of a dead man whose rotting body lay sprawling in the ditch beside the road. The young prince, who had never been allowed to see such things, was frightened, but Channa told him not to mind such trifles. The world was full of dead people. It was the rule of life that all things must come to an end. Nothing was eternal. The grave awaited us all and there was no escape.

That evening, when Siddhartha returned to his home, he was received with music. While he was away his wife had given birth to a son. The people were delighted because now they knew that there was an heir to the throne and they celebrated the event by the beating of many drums. Siddhartha, however, did not share their joy. The curtain of life had been lifted and he had learned the horror of man's existence. The sight of death and suffering followed him like a terrible dream.

That night the moon was shining brightly. Siddhartha woke up and began to think of many things. Never again could he be happy until he should have found a solution to the riddle of existence. He decided to find it far away from all those whom he loved. Softly he went into the room where Yasodhara was sleeping with her baby. Then he called for his faithful Channa and told him to follow.

Together the two men went into the darkness of the night, one to find rest for his soul, the other to be a faithful servant unto a beloved master.

The people of India among whom Siddhartha wandered for many years were just then in a state of change. Their ancestors, the native Indians, had been conquered without great difficulty by the war-like Aryans (our distant cousins) and thereafter the Aryans had been the rulers and masters of tens of millions of docile little brown men. To maintain themselves in the seat of the mighty, they had divided the population into different classes and gradually a system of "caste" of the most rigid sort had been enforced upon the natives. The descendants of the Indo-European conquerors belonged to the highest "caste," the class of warriors and nobles. Next came the caste of the priests. Below these followed the peasants and the business men. The ancient natives, however, who were called Pariahs, formed a class of despised and miserable slaves and never could hope to be anything else.

Even the religion of the people was a matter of caste. The old Indo-Europeans, during their thousands of years of wandering, had met with many strange adventures. These had been collected in a book called the Veda. The language of this book was called Sanskrit, and it was closely related to the different languages of the European continent, to Greek and Latin and Russian and German and two-score others. The three highest castes were allowed to read these holy scriptures. The Pariah, however, the despised member of the lowest caste, was not permitted to know its contents. Woe to the man of noble or priestly caste who should teach a Pariah to study the sacred volume!

The majority of the Indian people, therefore, lived in misery. Since this planet offered them very little joy, salvation from suffering must be found elsewhere. They tried to derive a little consolation from meditation upon the bliss of their future existence.

Brahma, the all-creator who was regarded by the Indian people as the supreme ruler of life and death, was worshipped as the highest ideal of perfection. To become like Brahma, to lose all desires for riches and power, was recognised as the most exalted purpose of existence. Holy thoughts were regarded as more important than holy deeds, and many people went into the desert and lived upon the leaves of trees and starved their bodies that they might feed their souls with the glorious contemplation of the splendours of Brahma, the Wise, the Good and the Merciful.

Siddhartha, who had often observed these solitary wanderers who were seeking the truth far away from the turmoil of the cities and the villages, decided to follow their example. He cut his hair. He took his pearls and his rubies and sent them back to his family with a message of farewell, which the ever faithful Channa carried. Without a single follower, the young prince then moved into the wilderness.

Soon the fame of his holy conduct spread among the mountains. Five young men came to him and asked that they might be allowed to listen to his words of wisdom. He agreed to be their master if they would follow him. They consented, and he took them into the hills and for six years he taught them all he knew amidst the lonely peaks of the Vindhya Mountains. But at the end of this period of study, he felt that he was still far from perfection. The world that he had left continued to tempt him. He now asked that his pupils leave him and then he fasted for forty-nine days and nights, sitting upon the roots of an old tree. At last he received his reward. In the dusk of the fiftieth evening, Brahma revealed himself to his faithful servant. From that moment on, Siddhartha was called Buddha and he was revered as the Enlightened One who had come to save men from their unhappy mortal fate.

The last forty-five years of his life, Buddha spent within the valley of the Ganges River, teaching his simple lesson of submission and meekness unto all men. In the year 488 before our era, he died, full of years and beloved by millions of people. He had not preached his doctrines for the benefit of a single class. Even the lowest Pariah might call himself his disciple.


Buddha Goes Into the Mountains

This, however, did not please the nobles and the priests and the merchants who did their best to destroy a creed which recognised the equality of all living creatures and offered men the hope of a second life (a reincarnation) under happier circumstances. As soon as they could, they encouraged the people of India to return to the ancient doctrines of the Brahmin creed with its fasting and its tortures of the sinful body. But Buddhism could not be destroyed. Slowly the disciples of the Enlightened One wandered across the valleys of the Himalayas, and moved into China. They crossed the Yellow Sea and preached the wisdom of their master unto the people of Japan, and they faithfully obeyed the will of their great master, who had forbidden them to use force. to-day more people recognise Buddha as their teacher than ever before and their number surpasses that of the combined followers of Christ and Mohammed.

As for Confucius, the wise old man of the Chinese, his story is a simple one. He was born in the year 550 B.C. He led a quiet, dignified and uneventful life at a time when China was without a strong central government and when the Chinese people were at the mercy of bandits and robber-barons who went from city to city, pillaging and stealing and murdering and turning the busy plains of northern and central China into a wilderness of starving people.

Confucius, who loved his people, tried to save them. He did not have much faith in the use of violence. He was a very peaceful person. He did not think that he could make people over by giving them a lot of new laws. He knew that the only possible salvation would come from a change of heart, and he set out upon the seemingly hopeless task of changing the character of his millions of fellow men who inhabited the wide plains of eastern Asia. The Chinese had never been much interested in religion as we understand that word. They believed in devils and spooks as most primitive people do. But they had no prophets and recognised no "revealed truth." Confucius is almost the only one among the great moral leaders who did not see visions, who did not proclaim himself as the messenger of a divine power; who did not, at some time or another, claim that he was inspired by voices from above.

He was just a very sensible and kindly man, rather given to lonely wanderings and melancholy tunes upon his faithful flute. He asked for no recognition. He did not demand that any one should follow him or worship him. He reminds us of the ancient Greek philosophers, especially those of the Stoic School, men who believed in right living and righteous thinking without the hope of a reward but simply for the peace of the soul that comes with a good conscience.

Confucius was a very tolerant man. He went out of his way to visit Lao-Tse, the other great Chinese leader and the founder of a philosophic system called "Taoism," which was merely an early Chinese version of the Golden Rule.

Confucius bore no hatred to any one. He taught the virtue of supreme self-possession. A person of real worth, according to the teaching of Confucius, did not allow himself to be ruffled by anger and suffered whatever fate brought him with the resignation of those sages who understand that everything which happens, in one way or another, is meant for the best.


The Great Moral Leaders

At first he had only a few students. Gradually the number increased. Before his death, in the year 478 B.C., several of the kings and the princes of China confessed themselves his disciples. When Christ was born in Bethlehem, the philosophy of Confucius had already become a part of the mental make-up of most Chinamen. It has continued to influence their lives ever since. Not however in its pure, original form. Most religions change as time goes on. Christ preached humility and meekness and absence from worldly ambitions, but fifteen centuries after Golgotha, the head of the Christian church was spending millions upon the erection of a building that bore little relation to the lonely stable of Bethlehem.

Lao-Tse taught the Golden Rule, and in less than three centuries the ignorant masses had made him into a real and very cruel God and had buried his wise commandments under a rubbish-heap of superstition which made the lives of the average Chinese one long series of frights and fears and horrors.

Confucius had shown his students the beauties of honouring their Father and their Mother. They soon began to be more interested in the memory of their departed parents than in the happiness of their children and their grandchildren. Deliberately they turned their backs upon the future and tried to peer into the vast darkness of the past. The worship of the ancestors became a positive religious system. Rather than disturb a cemetery situated upon the sunny and fertile side of a mountain, they would plant their rice and wheat upon the barren rocks of the other slope where nothing could possibly grow. And they preferred hunger and famine to the desecration of the ancestral grave.

At the same time the wise words of Confucius never quite lost their hold upon the increasing millions of eastern Asia. Confucianism, with its profound sayings and shrewd observations, added a touch of common-sense philosophy to the soul of every Chinaman and influenced his entire life, whether he was a simple laundryman in a steaming basement or the ruler of vast provinces who dwelt behind the high walls of a secluded palace.

In the sixteenth century the enthusiastic but rather uncivilised Christians of the western world came face to face with the older creeds of the East. The early Spaniards and Portuguese looked upon the peaceful statues of Buddha and contemplated the venerable pictures of Confucius and did not in the least know what to make of those worthy prophets with their far-away smile. They came to the easy conclusion that these strange divinities were just plain devils who represented something idolatrous and heretical and did not deserve the respect of the true sons of the Church. Whenever the spirit of Buddha or Confucius seemed to interfere with the trade in spices and silks, the Europeans attacked the "evil influence" with bullets and grape-shot. That system had certain very definite disadvantages. It has left us an unpleasant heritage of ill-will which promises little good for the immediate future.