XXVIII. The Life of Gautama Buddha
When the mind grapples with a great and intricate problem, it makes its advances step by step, with but little realization of the gains it has made, until suddenly, with an effect of abrupt illumination, it realizes its victory. So it happened to Gautama. He had seated himself under a great tree by the side of a river to eat, when this sense of clear version came to him. It seemed to him that he saw life plain. He is said to have sat all day and all night in profound thought, and then he rose up to impart his vision to the world.
He went on to Benares and there he sought out and won back his lost disciples to his new teaching. In the King's Deer Park at Benares they built themselves huts and set up a sort of school to which came many who were seeking after wisdom.
The starting point of his teaching was his own question as a fortunate young man, "Why am I not completely happy?" It was an introspective question. It was a question very different in quality from the frank and self-forgetful externalized curiosity with which Thales and Heraclitus were attacking the problems of the universe, or the equally self-forgetful burthen of moral obligation that the culminating prophets were imposing upon the Hebrew mind. The Indian teacher did not forget self, he concentrated upon self and sought to destroy it. All suffering, he taught, was due to the greedy desires of the individual. Until man has conquered his personal cravings his life is trouble and his end sorrow. There were three principal forms that the craving for life took and they were all evil. The first was the desire of the appetites, greed and all forms of sensuousness, the second was the desire for a personal and egotistic immortality, the third was the craving for personal success, worldliness, avarice and the like. All these forms of desire had to be overcome to escape from the distresses and chagrins of life. When they were overcome, when self had vanished altogether, then serenity of soul, Nirvana, the highest good was attained.
This was the gist of his teaching, a very subtle and metaphysical teaching indeed, not nearly so easy to understand as the Greek injunction to see and know fearlessly and rightly and the Hebrew command to fear God and accomplish righteousness. It was a teaching much beyond the understanding of even Gautama's immediate disciples, and it is no wonder that so soon as his personal influence was withdrawn it became corrupted and coarsened. There was a widespread belief in India at that time that at long intervals Wisdom came to earth and was incarnate in some chosen person who was known as the Buddha. Gautama's disciples declared that he was a Buddha, the latest of the Buddhas, though there is no evidence that he himself ever accepted the title. Before he was well dead, a cycle of fantastic legends began to be woven about him. The human heart was always preferred a wonder story to a moral effort, and Gautama Buddha became very wonderful.
Yet there remained a substantial gain in the world. If Nirvana was too high and subtle for most men's imaginations, if the myth-making impulse in the race was too strong for the simple facts of Gautama's life, they could at least grasp something of the intention of what Gautama called the Eight-fold way, the Aryan or Noble Path in life. In this there was an insistence upon mental uprightness, upon right aims and speech, right conduct and honest livelihood. There was a quickening of the conscience and an appeal to generous and self-forgetful ends.