Sakyamuni the Buddha was born five and half centuries before Christ. He was the eldest and only son of a ruling prince. He was heir to a throne - not perhaps an important one, but still a throne. He had tasted the cup which only those can drink who are born to, or who early achieve wealth, rank, and opportunity beyond their fellows. He had tasted also the fruits of the intellectual life. He came of a race which more than any other, the Greeks not excepted, reveled in philosophical discussion; and though later he came to depreciate the value of metaphysical speculation, he was, it would seem adept in that art.

Tradition records that his actual decision to leave all, in order to seek some remedy for human ills, was precipitated by the sight, first of a man worn out by age, then of another broken by disease, followed by the spectacle of a beggar's decaying corpse. It was the realization of the suffering of other men that spurred him to action and renunciation.

A thing which almost held, 'the bond most difficult to break', was affection for his new-born son. His resolve to break this bond and leave home forever did not entail any material hardship to his wife and child.

For six years after his flight from home he strove to find the secret of escape from the misery and futility of life. First he sought it by the way of philosophic inquiry. When this failed, he tried the way of self-torturing asceticism recommended by the idealist teachers of his day. This failed also. Then, after an interval of absolute despair, one day as in intense meditation he sat under the Bo-tree, there came the Great Illumination. He saw in a flash the secret of existence. He grasped the cause of all life's misery; and with knowledge of the cause went understanding of the one sure way of complete deliverance. At that moment he became a Buddha, that is, one who has attained complete enlightenment.

When this knowledge had arisen within me, my heart and mind were freed from the drug of lust, from the drug of rebirth, from the drug of ignorance. In me, thus freed, arose knowledge and freedom, and I knew that rebirth was at an end, and that the goal had been reached.

The secret of the Universe realized by Buddha was stated in what he called the Four Noble Truths. Of these the first three are to some extent theoretical, the fourth is practical.

The Noble Truth of Suffering:

Birth is suffering; death is suffering; presence of the hated is suffering; age is suffering; sickness is suffering; absence of the loved is suffering; to wish and not to get is suffering; briefly, the fivefold nature by which beings cling to existence is suffering.

The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering:

Desire (lit. thirst) is the cause; it leads from birth to birth, bringing with it delight and longing, seeking its gratification here and there - namely, desire for sensual pleasure, desire for existence, desire for prosperity.

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering:

Suffering ceases with the cessation of this desire - a cessation consisting in the absence of every passion - with the abandoning of desire, with the doing away with it, with deliverance from it, with the destruction of desire.

The fourth of the Noble Truths, that 'of the Path which leads to the Cessation of Suffering', is unexpectedly practical and ethical. It is known as the Holy Eightfold Path, and consists in:

Right belief, right feeling, right speech, right action, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right recollectedness, right meditation.

What he was concerned to stress was the futility of sacrifice, ceremony, and prayer. The gods themselves like men, are subject to the wheel of Karma and rebirth, and are impotent to give mankind the only help that can be of any profit. Knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, persistence along the eightfold Noble Path was the only way to deliverance, and, one who has reached deliverance along this road, and has become a Buddha, stands higher than the highest of the gods. He is, as they are not, freed from the tyranny of desire and the necessity of rebirth; he has achieved Nirvana.

And what is Nirvana? Is it extinction, or is it identity with the Absolute? On this point Buddhist sects give varying answers and modern experts disagree. Sakyamuni himself declined to say - perhaps because he depreciated speculation on the matter, perhaps because it seemed futile to attempt to express the inexpressible. However, to him the supreme problem was the problem of pain.

In history we can see that Buddhism split into two divisions, Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana which was propagated by Buddha, was an agnostic religion with no God, while Mahayana evolved with the concept of a divine savior. The Hinayana scriptures are in Pali, while the Mahayana writings are in Sanskrit. Since Sanskrit originated after Christ, we can conclude that Mahayana Buddhism developed under the influence of Christianity.


'The Buddha and the Christ', The Bampton Lectures for 1932, Burnett Hillman Streeter, Macmillan and Co., 1932.

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