THE MESSAGE OF BUDDHA
(The following beautiful essay on the Buddha by the famous French writer, Anatole France, will be new to most of our readers, as it does not appear in any of the American editions of his works.)
Without believing for a moment that Eu-rope is ready to embrace the doctrine of Nirvana, we must recognize that Buddhism, now that it is better known, has a singular attraction for free minds, and that the charm of Shakya-Muni works readily on an unprejudiced heart. And it is, if one thinks of it, wonderful that this spring of morality, which gushed from the foot of the Himalayas before the blooming of the Hellenic genius, should have preserved its fruitful purity, its delicious freshness; and that the Sage of Kapilavastu should be still the best of counsellors and the sweetest of consolers of our old suffering humanity.
Buddhism is hardly a religion; it has neither cosmogony, nor gods, nor properly speaking ...a worship. It is a system of morality, and the most beautiful of all; it is a philosophy which is in agreement with the most daring speculations of the modern spirit. It has conquered Tibet, Burma, Nepal, Cambodia, Annam, China, and Japan ...without spilling one drop of blood. It has been unable to maintain itself in the Indies, excepting Ceylon, but it still numbers 400 million of the faithful of Asia. If one reflects, its fortune in Europe during the last sixty years has been no less extraordinary. It was barely known when it inspired the most powerful of modern German philosophers with a doctrine ...whose ingenious solidity —is uncontested. It is well known that Schopenhauer built his theory of the Will on the basis of the Buddhistic philosophy. The great pessimist, who kept a golden Buddha in his modest bedroom, did not deny this.
The progress of comparative Philology and the science of religions ...has greatly advanced our knowledge of Buddhism. It must also be recognized that, during the last few years, the group of Theosophists has largely contributed to the propagation in France and England of Shakya-muni's precepts. If we consider only its spirit, Buddhism is wholly compact of wisdom, love and pity.
On the first of May, 1890, chance directed me into the peaceful halls of Musee Guimet, and there, alone among the gods of Asia, in the shadow and silence of meditation, but still aware of the things of our own day, from which it is not permitted to any one to detach himself, I reflected on the harsh necessities of life, the law of toil, and the sufferings of existence; halting before a statue of the antique sage whose voice is still heard today by more than 400 millions of human beings, I admit that I felt tempted to pray to him as to a god, and to demand the secret of the proper conduct of life, for which governments and peoples search in vain. It seemed as though the kindly ascetic, eternally young, seated cross-legged on the lotus of purity, with his right hand raised in admonition, answered in these two words: "Pity and Resignation." His whole history, true or legendary, but in any case beautiful, spoke for him; he said: "Son of a king, nourished in magnificent palaces, in flowering gardens, where, under gushing fountains, peacocks displayed their many-eyed tails on the lawns, and where the world's miseries were hidden from me by high walls, my heart was overcome by sadness, for one thought filled my mind. And when my women, covered with perfumes, played music and danced, my harem changed before my eyes into a charnel-house, and I said, 'I am in a cemetery.'
"Now, having four times emerged from my garden, I met an old man, and felt myself attached by his decrepitude; I met a sick man, and felt that I suffered his illness; I met a corpse and felt that death was in me; I met an ascetic, and feeling that he had gained internal peace, I resolved to gain it by following his example. One night, while the whole palace slept, I cast a last glance on my sleeping wife and child, and mounting my white horse, I fled into the jungle, in order to meditate on human suffering, its innumerable causes, and the means whereby to avoid it.
"On this subject I inquired of two famous recluses ....who taught me that man may acquire wisdom by bodily torture. But I knew that they lacked wisdom, and I was so much weakened after a long fast, that the shepherds of Mount Gaya said: 'Look at the hermit, he is black and blue, the color of the madjoura fish.' My pupils shone in the hollow sockets of my eyes, orbital cavities like the reflections of two stars at the bottom of a well; I was on the point of death ...without having attained the knowledge that I sought. This is why, coming down to the shores of Lake Nuirandjana, I ate a mess of milk and honey offered me by a young girl. Thus strengthened, I sat that evening at the foot of the Buddhi tree, and passed the night in meditation. Towards dawn my understanding opened like the white flower of the lotus, and I realized that all our miseries arise from desire, which deceives us regarding the true nature of things, and that if we had a true knowledge of the Universe it would appear that there is naught to be desired, and thus there would be an end of our woes. From that day forward I busied myself in killing desire within me, and in teaching men how to kill it in their hearts. I taught equality and simplicity; I said:
'It is neither plaited hair, nor wealth,
Nor both ...which make the Brahmin.
He in whom are joined—Truth and Justice,
...Is a Brahmin.'
"I said further:
'Be without pride and arrogance;
Destroy the passions,
Which are the weapons of death,
As an elephant destroys a reed hut.
One can no more sate oneself
With all the objects of desire
Than one can quench one's thirst
With all the waters of the sea.
Wisdom is what satisfies the soul.
Be without pride, hatred, and hypocrisy.
Be tolerant with the intolerant,
Gentle with the violent
And detached from all things
Amidst those who are attached to all things.
Do always what you would others should do.
Do evil to no man.'
"This it was that I taught to rich and poor,
For five and forty years, after which
I deserved to enter into the blessed repose
Which I now enjoy for ever."
And the golden idol, with raised finger, smiling, his beautiful eyes open, fell silent.
Alas! If he ever existed, which I believe, ...Shakya-Muni was the best of men. "He was a Saint," exclaimed Marco Polo on learning his story. Yes, he was both Sage and Saint. To those who know how to listen to him ...he offers great and solemn lessons. The value of his words may cure more than one hidden wound, and soften more than one private sorrow.
Before leaving the Musee Guimet, I obtained permission to enter the beautiful Rotunda where the books are. I turned over a few. The Histoire des religions de l'Inde, by M. L. de Milloue, M. Guimet's learned collaborator: the Histoire de la literature hindoue, by Jean Lahor, a pseudonym which conceals a learned and philosophical poet, and a few others.
Amidst several Buddhistic legends, I read a beautiful story which I crave permission to tell you, not as it is written, unfortunately, but as I was able to carry it in my mind. I am full of it, and I feel compelled to relate it.
At Matura in Bengal there was a courtesan of great beauty, named Vasavadattam who ...having once met young Oupagoupta, the son of a rich merchant in the town, fell violently in love with him. She sent her maid to say that she would be pleased to receive him at her home. But Oupagoupta would not go. He was chaste, kind and full of pity; he was learned; he observed the law, and lived according to the rule of Buddha. For this reason, he despised the woman's love.
Now it happened, a little later, that Vasavadatta, having committed some crime, was condemned to have her hands, feet, ears and nose cut off. She was taken to a cemetery, where the sentence was carried out, and Vasavadatta was left on the spot where she had suffered her punishment. She still lived.
Her maid, who loved her, remained by her side, and drove away the flies with a fan, in order that the victim might die in peace. While she was accomplishing this pious work, she saw a man approaching, not with an air of curiosity, but composedly, and dressed as a visitor full of deference. Indeed a child was holding an umbrella above his head. Recognizing the young Oupagoupta, the maid collected her mistress's scattered members and hid them hastily under her mantle.
Approaching Vasavadatta, the merchant's son stopped and silently contemplated her—whose beauty had lately shone like a pearl in the city. Meanwhile the courtesan, recognizing him she loved, said with her last breath: "Oupagoupta, Oupagoupta! When my body, adorned with golden rings and gossamer stuffs, was as sweet as the lotus flower, I unhappily awaited you in vain. While I inspired desire, you came not. Oupagoupta, Oupagoupta! Why come you now, when my bleeding and mutilated flesh is nothing more than an object of horror and disgust?"
Oupagoupta replied with gentle sweetness: "Sister Vasavadatta, in those fleeting days when you seemed beautiful ...my senses were not deceived by vain appearances. With the eye of meditation I already saw you as you appear today. I know that your beautiful body was but a vessel of corruption. I tell you in truth, sister, that for him who sees and understands, you have lost nothing. Therefore be without regret. Deplore not the shadows —of the joys and pleasures— which are escaping you, and allow the evil dream of life to fade away. Say to yourself that the pleasures of this world ....are but as the reflection of the moon upon the water. Your misfortune arises from desiring too much; desire nothing, be kind to yourself, and you shall be greater than the gods. Oh, long no more for life; one lives only by wishing to do so; and you see plainly, sister, that life is evil. I love thee; believe me, Sister Vasavadatta, and consent to rest."
The courtesan heard his words, and knowing that they were true she died without desire, and departed—holy—from this world of illusions.
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