by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I spent a good chunk of time last Tuesday watching a show on PBS that I’d recorded just before the operation: The Buddha, a two-hour documentary on the life and times of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha and the surprisingly low-keyed, user-friendly religion he left behind. I was dimly aware of the basics of the story — how he was born an Indian prince (albeit to a family of Kshatryas — “warriors” — the second, just below the Brahmans or priests, in India’s insane system of caste; ironically, Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of nonviolence in the 20th century, was also born into a Kshatrya clan) and spent the first 29 years living in the lap of luxury, with no worldly good or pleasure denied him. (Though the show didn’t mention this, I’ve learned elsewhere that the reason the Buddha is always depicted with distended earlobes is because they got that way from the heavy jeweled earrings he wore in his days as a prince.)
Though he married at 16 in a match arranged by his and his wife’s family, he genuinely fell in love — or at least lust — with her; there’s a legend that one day they were having sex on the roof of one of the family palaces and they got so into it that they fell off the roof and didn’t even notice; they continued fucking away in the bed of lotus blossoms that miraculously cushioned their fall and allowed them to survive the experience. (I love stories like that.) Then, almost by accident, he encountered people who were old, sick, dead — all the vicissitudes of normal humanity he’d carefully been shielded from — and the experience led him to flee from the palace and his life of pleasure, live among ordinary humanity and seek answers to the big questions, of which number one on his list was why do people suffer.
For the next six years he lived the life of an ascetic, surviving on as little food as possible (to this day India is full of holy ascetics who pride themselves on being able to survive on one grain of rice a day), sleeping outdoors (sometimes on beds of nails or other equally — and deliberately — uncomfortable accommodations) and generally living a life as miserable as human ingenuity could make it in hopes that denying himself all physical pleasure would bring him closer to enlightenment. It was at the point when he realized that this wasn’t giving him the answers that he did his famous sit-down under the bodhi tree and resolved not to move until he’d got the answers he was seeking — and what he came up with was what are called the “Four Noble Truths”: that there is suffering in the world; that the cause of it is within our own human minds; that we can be free of suffering if learn to understand it and learn to live, as the show’s script put it, “with the confused and entangling desires of our own minds … [and] with the fourth and final Noble Truth, the Buddha laid out a series of instructions for his disciples to follow: a way of leading the mind to enlightenment called the Noble Eightfold Path—the cultivation of moral discipline, mindfulness, and wisdom.”
One quirk of the show was how it demonstrated that certain spiritual (or supposedly spiritual) practices seem to cut across lines of religion, sect and culture and crop up in country after country, even among people with little or no contact with each other: people from many different religions, races and geographies have sought spiritual enlightenment through vows of chastity, poverty, asceticism — and the myth of the Buddha contains some familiar elements, including two times during which Buddha was tempted by Maja, the God of Desire (once when he was about to leave the palace and once when he was under the bodhi tree) that certainly sound an awful lot like the Western myth of Christ’s temptation.
The show, directed by David Grubin and narrated by celebrity and Buddhist Richard Gere, was generally well done (though I could have done without the dorky animations meant to represent, in allegedly suitably “Eastern” artistic style, the key elements in the Buddha’s story) and respectful, and it certainly strengthened and deepened my admiration for Buddhism as probably the most sweetly reasonable religion ever created: it doesn’t divide the world into Saved and Damned, it doesn’t preach fire-and-brimstone punishments in the afterlife (in fact it doesn’t preach an afterlife at all — not even one of reincarnation, contrary to popular belief about it), it doesn’t require its followers to spread its message with swords and armies (indeed, it teaches the principle that those who do violence, even in a “good” cause, beget violence in return — one story told in the movie is that late in the Buddha’s life he received word that an invading army had crushed the kingdom where he was born and killed everybody in it, including Buddha’s entire family — and he reacted to the news in utter silence and apparent calm) and it’s really less of a religion than a philosophical system to understand the dark sides of human existence and transcend them. Indeed, if my impression of Buddhism from this movie is correct, one could be an atheist and still be a Buddhist — or vice versa.
The film showed a wide variety of sources, mostly practicing Buddhists either from Asia or the U.S. (among the latter were the poet W. S. Merwin), including the Dalai Lama, whose sayings were fascinating even though I had to keep reminding myself that the Dalai Lama no more speaks for all Buddhists than the Pope speaks for all Christians — like the Pope, he’s simply the leader of one particularly venerable and (mostly) respected branch of his faith. Indeed, if Buddhism is as it’s described here it’s probably the most scientific religion ever developed — Buddha based his revelations not on messages from burning bushes, stone tablets or angels but on his own observations and experiments of what worked for him and what didn’t — and at times it somewhat reminded me of Marxism before people like Lenin, Stalin and Mao got hold of it and turned what was originally designed as a system of scientific inquiry into ways of bringing about desirable social change into a system of dogmas as stultifying, and as easily pressed into justifying evil, as any religion.
In some ways I watched this show transfixed that there is in the world a religion that became a science — an interesting turn of the coin from Marxism, a science that became a religion — even though one fundamental tenet of Buddhism is at the opposite pole from one of the key beliefs in Marxism: Buddhists believe that the root cause of suffering is in people’s own spirits and minds and therefore the change has to happen within before it can happen outside; Marxists believe that the existing social structures encourage people to think and behave in certain ways and therefore they have to be changed before individual consciousnesses will change. What I liked about The Buddha — and about the vision of Buddhism it presented — is the very idea of balance, the concept of a “Middle Way” between total pleasure and total asceticism, the sense that life and its fulfillment are to be found in moderation and in understanding — and in “compassion,” one of the big Buddhist words but one whose meaning in Buddhist thought goes far beyond its literal sense in English, and was defined in the show by one of the interviewees, poet Jane Hirshfield, as “the deep affection that we feel for everything because we’re all in it together. Be it other human beings, other animals, the planet as a whole, the creatures of this planet, the trees and rivers of this planet. Everything is connected.”