I have read the article on seeing the world through Buddha’s eyes, and it reminds me of some of the things I learnt in Buddhist Studies I took in secondary school, though I have forgotten some of them as well. As the article noted, “Prince Siddhartha left home and became a spiritual seeker for one compelling reason: to understand the needless suffering human beings cause themselves and others and to find a way to assuage it.” From what I remember reading the textbook, Siddhartha grew up in a palace and indeed he had everything he desired for comfort and luxury. He had not known any kind of suffering yet because his father, the king, did not want the sage’s prophecy that his son would become a Buddha to come true, and wanted to keep his son in the palace to succeed the throne. However, one day, as a young man, Siddhartha went out of the palace for a walk in a nearby village, and witnessed reality for himself, such as people suffering from sickness, old age and death. He was deeply saddened by the reality of human sufferings, and decided to renounce his princely life, and decided to seek the truth for himself. In a sense, his situation reminded me of King Solomon who also had everything he desired, yet could not find any meaning in life.
Eventually, after learning from a few ascetic teachers, Siddhartha still could not find satisfactory answers to the question of sufferings in life. He tried extreme asceticism himself, by fasting for days and living on bare minimum, but one day he nearly fainted and drowned in a river while bathing due to prolonged hunger. He then decided to find a middle path – one that avoids the extremes of luxury and pleasure on one hand, and the extreme of hardship and pain on the other hand, in order to find a balance in life. So, as the story goes, he accepted some food offered by a kind woman, and ate, and sat under a Bodhi and began to meditate on the nature of sufferings and life.
As the article noted:
“He came to three core conclusions about the way the world works, called the “three marks of conditioned existence.” These three are radical impermanence (anicca), pervasive suffering (dukkha) and no fixed or permanent personal identity (anatta).”
(From “Right View: Seeing the World through Buddha’s Eyes” by Lewis Richmond)
At this point, I decided to refer to Wikipedia to refresh my memory on the life of Siddhartha and how he became a Buddha when he sat under a Bodhi tree and meditate for many days on the nature of sufferings.
“According to Buddhism, at the time of his awakening he realized complete insight into the cause of suffering, and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the “Four Noble Truths”, which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching. Through mastery of these truths, a state of supreme liberation, or Nirvana, is believed to be possible for any being. The Buddha described Nirvana as the perfect peace of a mind that’s free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states, or “defilements” (kilesas). Nirvana is also regarded as the “end of the world”, in that no personal identity or boundaries of the mind remain.”
(From Wikipedia on Gautama Buddha)
The first two marks of conditioned existence – “nothing is permanent” and “life is suffering” – as mentioned in the article, are also observed by Peter Rollins in his video message on pyrotheology, when he shared that nothing can give us certainty and satisfaction or make us whole and complete, and that life is difficult and there are no easy answers.
When I first learnt about the impermanence of all things in school, I thought it sounded depressing, even though it is based on a true observation that everything is temporary and will die or disappear one day, whether plants, animals or humans. I haven’t learnt about metaphysics then, though today I would say that impermanence is true in a material sense, but in a non-material sense, there is energy that cannot be created nor destroyed, and can only be transformed from one form to another.
Nevertheless, there is a certain inner peace when one accepts that nothing in the material world is permanent, whether it is health, longevity of life, material possessions, status, power, influence, and so on, and so does not hold tightly onto these things. By accepting the reality of impermanence, one can embrace and overcome the sufferings that arise when these things are no longer in existence. This takes a certain mindset to meditate on regularly.
I think it is remarkable that Buddha received the knowledge and understanding about the nature of sufferings not by formal education but rather through his own personal observations and experiences in life. As the article noted: “In fifth century B.C. India, there were numerous philosophical and metaphysical schools teaching various theories about matter, spirit, soul, causation and the appropriate way to live. Siddhartha studied these theories, but rejected them in favor of a more experiential approach. He was, like the pre-Socratic Greeks, among history’s first empiricists, relying on his own experience and observation to understand the world.”
I think it testifies to the usefulness of meditation and contemplation because oftentimes living in a modern, fast-paced society, many people tend to be caught up with running the rat race, maintaining status quo and indulging in entertainment and so on, to the extent that they forget to take time to slow down and get in touch with themselves and ponder the nature of sufferings in life. This is a reminder for me to slow down and meditate as well, because I am a product of the modern society and formal education that has moulded me to fit into the socio-economic system. I think in this sense, the teachings of Buddha are timeless because his realisation of the three marks of conditional existence – impermanence, sufferings and egolessness – remain unchanged, and they are just as relevant and applicable today as it was thousands of years ago.
Like what the article concluded: “Seeing the world through Buddha’s eyes is the work of a lifetime, one that constantly needs to be renewed at every life stage and in every societal circumstance.” Yes, it is an ongoing process to see the world through Buddha’s eyes, so in this sense, my understanding of “awakening” is not a one-time event but rather a continual and conscious act of practising awareness of the reality that nothing is permanent (at least in the material world), life is suffering and the ego is an illusion.
I was also reflecting recently that whenever I need guidance in life, I would instinctively or intuitively look to Jesus, or sometimes Buddha, for inspiration and guidance, as they have set admirable examples for me to live, as they have inspired me by the way they show compassion, bear sufferings with patience, wanting the best for others, and so on. I am open to the possibility that Jesus might have travelled to India to learn buddhism before returning to Israel because their teachings of love and compassion share a number of similarities, except that they used different terminologies to reach out to difference audiences – Jesus might have used “Father in heaven” to speak the Jewish lingo, for example. Both Jesus and Buddha have tasted various kinds of sufferings in life, such as rejection, hunger, and so on, although Jesus died a painful death as a scapegoat whereas Buddha passed away peacefully at the age of 80. So in this sense, I have a higher regard for Jesus, in view of his self-sacrificial love, than Buddha, comparatively speaking.
Meanwhile, here’s sharing this article below I find interesting about the gospel of Thomas that reveals the influence of Buddhism on Jesus’ teachings.
“Exploring the Gospel of Thomas, we discover that Jesus believed the self and the divine to be identical and one. Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven is not in the future but is “right here.” and one only needs to be awakened to this perfection. Jesus, in this gospel, speaks of enlightenment, the same type that is taught by Shakyamuni Buddha, Shin teachers and Zen Masters. In addition, Thomas does not have a narrative story line but just 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, many of which are akin to Zen koans. Here, Jesus is never presented as Lord or Savior, but rather as a spiritual guide who is equal to his students. In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not contain a supernatural virgin birth or the doctrine of the Virgin Mary. It does not teach of original sin. It does not mention Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection. It does not teach Jesus’ death as a payment of debt to “atone” for humanity’s sins. It does not include any supernatural healings or miracles. It does not mention the so-called end-times or the wrath of God. It does not mention salvation through faith in Christ. It does not exclude women.
The Exclusion of Thomas
Why was the Gospel of Thomas disqualified from the Christian Bible and eventually outlawed? During the reign of Emperor Constantine around the 4th century C.E., the Roman Empire was looking to reconstitute and solidify its power. The Emperor and the existing power structure chose the Pauline sect of Christianity as the “official” religion, which include the epistles of Paul and the Gospels and books from his disciples that form the present-day New Testament. Teachings from the Gospel of Thomas and other Nag Hammadi texts were seen as a danger to the developing ecclesiastical and political structure because they rejected the authority of the bishops, priests and deacons. Roman Church father Ignatius warned the Christians to “honor and obey the bishop as you would God.” It is quite easy to see why the church councils did not choose the Gospel of Thomas and other similar texts for their Bible. As a result, for political reasons these texts were banned and later destroyed for the good of Empire and Church. After all, bishops and priests would lose their power and influence with the common people, if the common people learned that Jesus taught they did not need such religious authority/intermediaries of the Church, bishops and priests, and that the Kingdom is within all and is directly accessible to everyone without them; we all are sons/daughters of God.
Why Study the Gospel of Thomas?
You might be wondering why Shin Buddhists should even bother to study the early teachings of Jesus? Our interest in learning about the early teachings of Jesus is not to discredit Christianity but because this Gospel shares similar mystical content with the Shin and Zen Buddhist traditions, we 21st century Buddhists can learn a lot from this ancient mystic, called Jesus of Nazareth. So, by studying the teachings of the Gospel of Thomas through the lenses of Buddhist thought and religious experience, we can further deepen our spiritual path and awaken to our True Nature, our universal Buddha-nature, which ultimately has no name but is experienced as faith, compassion and wisdom.”