Improving Buddhism

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Buddha's Environment

One of the things that Buddha taught is that cause and effect are universal. Every effect has a cause. Following this prescription, we can ask what was the cause for Buddha living the life he did and creating the teaching he did, which later became one of the world’s leading religions. Perhaps the best place to start is with his environment.


Buddha grew up in what is now northern India, northeast of modern Delhi, near or possibly across the current Nepal border. He was born as first son to the king of the Sakyas, who occupied a former republic there which had been conquered by the Gosala Empire and remained its vassal; we are not too sure how large it was, but it was certainly large enough to support the young Siddhartha and a large number of relatives in very lavish conditions. Very likely there were many more people being supported by what we now call taxation. The area was large enough to have supported a million people, but there may not have been that many.


The population in the area has some linguistic links to Iranian people of the time and those in the north of Iran, and there is some controversy about an invasion from the northwest starting about 3500 years ago, first into the Indus River valley, and then east to the territory to the east, which later, around 3300 years ago, became the Paurava Empire, occupying what later became the Sakya kingdom. These invaders established themselves as rulers of the land in this area.


Religion in that area was in a state of flux at the time of his birth, about twenty-five centuries ago. About a half millennium earlier before his birth, the Vedas were written, India’s oldest religious texts. They included a procedural code for sacrifices and a group to perform them, the brahmans, in order to gain favor from the gods, who were anthropomorphic creations in charge of weather, animals, and virtually everything. The Brahmans had likely been present for many centuries before the Vedas were written, as were the Khastrias, the warriors and rulers.


About three centuries before Siddhartha’s birth, the Paurava Empire broke up, and many smaller states were formed. This was a time of great religious creativity, and the Upanishads were written. These further developed new religious ideas, and contained the concept of the atman, or the individual essence of a person, as well as of karma and reincarnation, or samsara. These concepts became widespread, and fulfilled a great role in helping society remain stable and productive. The idea was that there were four castes, the Brahmans, the Khastrias, another of merchants and peasants, the Vaisya, and menial workers, the Sudras. Those who wanted to have a better life were told that they could have one if they fulfilled all the requirements of those in the caste and profession, and then died to be reborn in a better situation. This obviously was a theological system that induced productivity and maintenance of the existing social structure.


Each caste and profession within a caste had duties to fulfill. The Brahmans lived a life of four stages, one of youth and education, another of a married householder, performer of necessary rites, advisor, and more, then the third as a hermit in the forest, and lastly, still as a hermit but meditating and seeking insight into the universe. Some of those who sought insight into the nature of life and the universe became wandering teachers, and by the time Siddhartha was born, there were multiple teachers who had gained popularity among the higher castes. They proposed different views and included those from the brahmanic system, recommending the four stages of life, and those disagreeing with the current thinking, called the shramanic block. Some of the more famous of these included something like Calvinism, where predestination was believed and consequently there was no use in following the dictates of the Upanishads, another sect something like Epicureanism, which rejected samsara and sought to enjoy the pleasures of the world as much as possible as there is no future life, another which has become the Jain religion present in India today and believed in samsara and karma and practiced severe asceticism, and another sect which believed in what is today called agnosticism. Undoubtedly there were many others, less well recorded.


Most of the teachers of these sects were itinerants, wandering from village to village, kingdom to kingdom, and certainly Siddhartha would have been exposed to a variety of belief systems. He would also have been witness to the economic changes happening in his kingdom and neighboring ones. Private property had been an institution for centuries, but the rise of crafts, trading and the merchant profession led to the accumulation of huge fortunes on the part of some individuals. The forces of government sometimes fought back, with taxes or other means of re-balancing the wealth of the rulers and the merchant class.


The general view of the world that the Upanishads proposed and which was widely accepted, was that the world was a place of suffering, which was typically listed as death, grieving, sickness and old age. Following the karmic path would eventually lead someone to better living standards, but they would still be subject to these other types of suffering, which could only be alleviated by continuing up the spiral of lifeforms until one became something of a godlike spirit creature. This theology made the theocratic system of the time quite stable as it quelled resentment for one’s living standards by informing that person that those who were better off or higher in caste had become this way because they worked their way up, by performing the lower roles fully and energetically, and this was exactly what it took to keep the society functioning and prosperous, at least for the upper castes and some of the merchants.


Siddhartha grew up immersed in this political, economic, and theological system of castes, karma, atman, and samsara, and did not speak about changing it ever in his life, and on some instances talked about restricting his disciples to only higher castes, and on other instances opening discipleship to all, perhaps only in theory but perhaps also in practice. Like in any society, there would have been individuals who strongly believed in everything that kept society going, and those who saw its flaws and objected to one or more aspects. This was a time where ideas flowed freely, meaning it was certainly a time when someone could perform the role of founder of a new sect. It was a time when abstract ideas could be conceived of and communicated.


In much earlier eras, religious teaching was done by means of stories, usually involving some anthropomorphic god interacting with some ordinary people. The three main gods at the top of the pantheon were Brahma, the creator of the universe and what is in it, Vishnu, the preserver of life and society, and Shiva, the destroyer of that which needs destroying. The last two, in some stories, could take on human or almost-human appearance, or other forms as needed, in their battles with demons and monsters of animal or chimeric form. As time went on and the society became more prosperous, individuals capable of logic, reasoning, abstraction, and other critical thinking skills arose and produced religious teachings in a less simplistic mode. But the philosophical equipment that is necessary to clearly think about these concepts critically, as well approaching them from a more quantitative or scientific viewpoint, had not arisen in this region of the Indian Subcontinent and would not do so for millenia. This means that while many interesting-sounding ideas could be proposed, there was little capability for comparing them or validating them. Much space for creativity and little for analysis. Thus it is no surprise at all that many religions and sects rose up in this time and place. This situation also explains why mercantile wealth should suddenly start accumulating in great quantities: much creativity and naivety, and little quantitative and analytical understandings.


The position of a person in Sakya society was determined by who his parents were. There was no mechanism within the Upanishads or other religious teachings for switching castes. In fact, there were subcastes or family groupings which even more tightly constrained one’s role in society. Siddhartha never introduced any idea of caste migration during a single life, perhaps because ithe caste system was such an ingrained part of society that it was never questioned. There are some quotes in his history where he talks about lower castes being allowed to be disciples, but they never would be able to alter their caste by joining his or any other sect. Nor was there much thought about the gender roles that were set out in society. Siddhartha grew up knowing the proper roles for men and women of each caste, and had no qualms about that structure continuing. He instead was fascinated by the novel abstract concepts which had become prevalent at that time among the different mendicants that he undoubtedly encountered within the palace he lived in, and these abstract concepts related to mental states, not to physical states. Thus it is also not surprising that he became Buddha, a leading mendicant and persuader of others to adopt his ritualistic relationships between these abstract concepts of mental states. Various types of yogas had been invented long ago, and these involved abstract concepts as well, leading to another influence on the young Siddhartha.


What was necessary for a brilliant communicator to found a new sect was readily available, as were inspirations from other who had done this and yoga masters as well. Siddhartha turned out to be the person whose teachings attracted the most adherents, and that is what we need to remember him for, rather than for any specific teachings, which are all someone vague and outdated. Instead, we use him as a shining example of how to found a religion which met the current needs of the population, at least in spiritual themes.


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