In the middle of the sixth century before Christ appeared Goutama Buddha, a prince of one of the peoples of North-East India. Long a pupil of the Brahmins, he abandoned position and family, became a sannyassee and wandered through a large part of India. His teaching was not revolutionary in Brahmin metaphysics, since he retained the two chief doctrines of Brahminism — life treated as an evil and the transmigration of souls. The difference was that he did not concern himself with the question of the first beginnings of things; he was not concerned with God or gods and did not accept the immortality of the soul. Belief in the soul was early condemned in pure Buddhism as the “heresy of individuality”. Similarly pure Buddhism does not accept the efficacy of prayer.
All this would not have caused a religious revolution in Asia. The fundamental difference for communal life lies in the fact that Buddha overthrew the principle of Brahmin ethics, according to which spiritual victories are only to be attained through bodily renunciations. Buddhism also attaches no importance to castes, does not fill life with penances, even abolishes sacrifice. So at least Prince Sakyamuni, Gautama Buddha taught.
Neither Brahminism nor Buddhism strives to remove evil. The constant migration of the soul, the wandering of the human individual forced to adopt a new body and to live (and so suffer) again without end, is an unceasingly moving “circle of desires and anxieties”, a hunting for non-existent happiness. The nature of the reincarnation is decided by karma, that is a reckoning of moral pluses and minuses in the previous life. The transmigration of souls lasts until moral excellence, consisting in complete annihilation of all attachment to being, is achieved. At this point the karma of the individual concerned is exhausted and a new one is not formed. Then follows the divine state of nirvana, which accompanies the last life of the perfect man. This is “a sinless, peaceful state of soul”. It is possible to reach this state relatively quickly, but it may also take thousands of years. Approach to nirvana or increasing distance from it is determined by the degree of morality of the last karma.
Gautama Buddha opposed Brahminism decisively by creating a morality. A true Buddhist must be a good man and be victorious over himself. A Buddhist is not allowed to reject his responsibilities. The example of Sakyamuni, still based on Brahminism, did not survive in face of the morality which he himself later preached. The begging order, in which from the beginning caste was not recognised, became the characteristic feature of Buddhism. Begging and constant wandering are obligatory. Monks are in addition bound by special moral regulation?610 The begging of the Buddhist order is not, however, intended to honour poverty, but to show that the beggar aims at nothing in external life, that he really does not possess this life, and so cannot attach himself to anything. This state approaches the perfection of nirvana.
It is a state of complete a-civilisation. Pure Buddhism remained indifferent to the five categories of life: the human quincunx means Evil. Buddhism cannot of itself create any civilisation. It builds nothing because it is not allowed to want anything. An active attitude to life is ruled out. Perfection consists in the disappearance of the categories of life.
For the generality Buddhism contains only five rules: do not kill (not even animals!), do not steal, do not lie, do not get drunk and keep clean. There are other rules for monks only. Sacral law is non-existent; pure Buddhism contains nothing sacral.
Despite everything Buddhism could have created its own civilisation in India if it had continued to take the firm stand for the abolition of the caste system to which its rapid initial spread was due. But in time Buddhism grew reconciled to castes. The history of Buddhism in India covers a whole millenium from the fifth century before Christ to the seventh after Christ. When it accepted the caste system, other breaches followed and it began again to resemble Brahminism. Buddhism then ceased to act as a leaven, ceased to operate creatively in the history of India. Ceasing to reform, it became unnecessary to the Indians. Brahminism was better suited to castes, and castes to Brahminism. About the beginning of the Christian era, India was again divided between the two religions; from the seventh century there was a renewed predominance of Brahmiiijism, until finally Buddhism disappeared. In the eleventh century some Indian rulers still supported it, but by the twelfth century, when the Moslems conquered Kashmir, there were hardly any Buddhists left. Yet Brahminism held its own even against Islam.
Exterminated in its homeland, Buddhism nevertheless became a universal religion. In the fifth century it reached Ceylon and thence spread to Burma, Siam, Java and on to Sumatra. By the road leading from India through Eastern Turkestan it reached beyond the Himalayan crests, and on the other side as far as China, where Buddhism became the State religion in the fourth century, and Korea, which adopted Buddhism at the same time. In 552 Buddhism reached Japan, and then penetrated back across the Himalayas to conquer Nepal and Tibet.
But what kind of Buddhism was it? It spread by compromises, and increasingly serious ones, until in the end for the mass of believers whole mythologies arose, and under the appearance of Buddhism the forces of nature were honoured, evil spirits worshipped and sorcery, incantation and witchcraft practised. Compromises entered into even the monasteries. True Buddhism, the Buddhism of Gautama-Buddha, is almost without adherents. Some sects, the polytheist Jains, for example, reject even a genetic link with it. In China also, Buddhism has changed so much that scholars long regarded it not as Buddhism but as a separate religion.
And so there is Buddhism and Buddhism — a plurality of Buddhisms.
Lamaism would wish to be regarded as the most legitimate Buddhism, but its characteristic feature, overgrown monasticism, is organised in open violation of Buddhism, because hierarchically, and in Tibet is coupled with the exercise of theocratic government. In lamaism the sacral principle has grown to such an extent that it extends to the whole of life, which it is hard even to glimpse apart from the sacral.
Among peoples of a low standard of civilisation monasticism has become a caricature. The Mongolians, for example, are divided into two rites, red and yellow, with the red not regarding celibacy as a condition of their estate. And in Nepal the Tantra system “poor in form, repulsive and unworthy in content”611 belongs to the worship paid the god Shiva. In these lands Buddhism has certainly not raised the standard of civilisation.
Buddhism adapted itself to every civilisation it encountered, not excluding the lowest levels. It is possible with and without castes, and so under diametrically opposed systems of community life: evidently it contains within itself no system. Buddhism is as the civilisation is. Civilisations do not adapt themselves to Buddhism, but it to them. Theoretically, from the point of view of civilisation it contains nothing, in practice everything.
The religious thread is so weak, so barely visible that it needs to be supported and supplemented by other beliefs if Buddhism is to become a positive religion. These additions give adherents of Buddhism organisation and form the base of civilisation: frequently also an existing base is taken over, as it were the outer Buddhist garment cut to the local civilisation.612