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Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

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Published by writerhari
lecture on buddhisim
lecture on buddhisim

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Published by: writerhari on Aug 11, 2010
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02/20/2014

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Buddhism
by
Jorge Luis Borges
 
 The subject today will be Buddhism
. I’m not going into thelong story that began two thousand five hundred years ago inBenares, when a prince of Nepal – Siddharta or Gautama – whohad become Buddha, spun the wheel of the law, proclaimed thefour noble truths and the eightfold path. I will speak of theessential in this religion, the most prevalent in the world. Theelements of Buddhism have been preserved since the fifth century before Christ: that is, since the epoch of Heraclites, of Pythagoras,of Xenon, until our times when Dr. Suzuki expounds it in Japan. The elements are the same. Now the religion is encrusted withmythology, astronomy, strange beliefs, magic, but because thesubject is complex, I will limit myself to what the various sects havein common. They may correspond to Hinayana or the small vehicle. Let us first consider the longevity of Buddhism. This longevity can be explained for historical reasons, but suchreasons are fortuitous or, rather, they are debatable, fallible. I think there are two fundamental causes. The first is Buddhism’stolerance. That strange tolerance does not correspond, as is thecase with other religions, to distinct epochs: Buddhism was alwaystolerant.
 
It has never had recourse to steel or fire, has never thought thatsteel or fire were persuasive. When Asoka, emperor of China,became a Buddhist, he didn’t try to impose his new religion onanybody. A good Buddhist can be Lutheran, or Methodist, orCalvinist, or Sintoist, or Taoist, or Catholic; he can be a proselyteto Islam or to Judaism, with complete freedom. But it is notpermissible for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to be a Buddhist.
 
Buddhism’s tolerance isn’t a weakness, but belongs to its nature.Buddhism was, above all, what we can call a yoga. What is the wordyoga? It is the same word that we use when we say 
 yugo
[Spanishfor yoke], and which has it origin in the Latin
 yugu.
A yoke, adiscipline which a person imposes on himself. Then, if weunderstand what Buddha preached in that first sermon in the Park of Gazelles in Benares two thousand five hundred years ago, we will have understood Buddhism. Except that it isn’t a question of understanding, it’s a question of feeling it deeply, of feeling it inbody and soul; except, also, that Buddhism doesn’t admit the reality of body not of the soul. I will try to explain that.
 
Furthermore, there is another reason. Buddhism demands much of our faith. This is natural, for every religion is an act of faith. Just asone’s country is an act of faith. What is it, I have often been asked,to be Argentine? To be Argentine is to feel that we are Argentines. What is it to be Buddhist? To be Buddhist is, not to understand,for that can be accomplished in a few minutes, but to
 feel 
the fournoble truths and the eightfold path. Let’s not go into the twists andturns of the eightfold path, for this number obeys the Hindu habitof dividing and sub-dividing, but into the four noble truths. There is, furthermore, the legend of Buddha. We may disbelievethis legend. I have a Japanese friend, a Zen Buddhist, with whom I
 
have had long and friendly arguments. I told him that I believed inthe historic truth of Buddha. I believed and I believe that twothousand five hundred years ago there was a Nepalese prince calledSiddharta or Gautama who became the Buddha, that is, the Awoken, the Lucid One – as opposed to us who are asleep or whoare dreaming this long dream which is life. I remember one of  Joyce’s phrases: “History is a nightmare from which I want toawake.” Well then, Siddharta, at thirty years of age, awoke andbecame Buddha.I argued with that friend who was a Buddhist (I’m not sure that I’ma Christian and am sure that I’m not a Buddhist) and I said to him:“Why not believe in Prince Siddharta, who was born inKapilovastu five hundred years before the Christian era?” Hereplied: “Because it’s of no importance; what’s important is tobelieve in the Doctrine”. He added, I think with more ingenuity than truth, that to believe in the historical existence of Buddha orto be interested in it would be like confusing the study of mathematics with the biography of Pythagoras or Newton. One of the subjects of meditation which the monks in the monasteries of  Japan and China practice is to doubt the existence of Buddha. It isone of the doubts they must assume in order to reach the truth.
 
 The other religions demand much more credulity on our part. If weare Christians we must believe that one of the three persons of theDivinity condescended to become a man and was crucified in Judea. If we are Muslims we must believe that there is no other godthan God and that Mohammad is his apostle. We can be goodBuddhists and deny that Buddha existed. Or, rather, we may think, we must think that our belief in history isn’t important: what isimportant is to believe in the Doctrine. Nevertheless, the legend of Buddha is so beautiful that we cannot help but refer to it.
 
 The French have paid special attention to the study of the legendof Buddha. Their argument is this: the biography of Buddha is what happened to one man only over a brief span of time. It couldhave been this way or some other. The legend of Buddha, on theother hand, has illuminated and continues to illuminate millions of people. It is the legend that has inspired countless paintings,sculptures and poems. Buddhism, in addition to being a religion, isa mythology, a cosmology, a metaphysical system, or, rather, aseries of metaphysical systems which disagree and are disputable. The legend of Buddha is illuminating and does not impose itself. In Japan they insist on the non-historicity of Buddha. But not on theDoctrine. The legend begins in heaven. There is someone inheaven who for centuries and centuries, we could literally say foran infinite number of centuries, has been perfecting himself untilhe understands that in his next incarnation he will be the Buddha.
 
He chooses the continent on which he is to be born. According toBuddhist cosmogony the world is divided into four triangularcontinents and in the center is a mountain of gold: Mount Meru.He will be born in the one which corresponds to India. He choosesthe century in which he will be born; he chooses the cast, hechooses the mother. Now for the earthly part of the legend. There
 
is a queen, Maya. Maya means
illusion 
. The queen has a dream thatruns the risk of seeming outlandish to us, but it isn’t for theHindus.
 
Married to King Suddhodana, she dreamed that a white elephant with six tusks, which roamed the mountains of gold, entered intoher left side without causing her pain. She awakens; the king convenes his astrologers and they explain to him that the queen will give birth to a son who could be the emperor of the world or who could be the Buddha, the Awakened, the Lucid One, the being destined to save all men. Foreseeably, the king chooses the firstdestiny: he wants his son to be the emperor of the world.Let’s go back to the detail about the elephant with six white tusks.Oldemberg reminds us that the elephant in India is a domestic,everyday animal. The color white is always a symbol of innocence. Why six tusks? We must remember (we’ll have to resort to history now and then) that the number six, which for us is arbitrary andsomehow uncomfortable (because we prefer three or seven), isn’tin India, where they believe that there are six dimensions in space:up, down, back, forward, right, left. An elephant with six tusks isnot a peculiarity for Hindus.
 
 The king summons the magicians and the queen gives birth without pain. A fig tree inclines its branches to help her. The childis born on its feet and takes four steps: to the North, to the South,to the East and to the West, and says with a lion’s voice: “I am theincomparable; this will be my last birth.” Hindus believe in aninfinite number of previous births. The prince grows up, he is thebest archer, the best horseman, the best swimmer, the best athlete,the best calligrapher, he confounds all the doctors (here we canthink of Christ and the doctors). At sixteen years of age he marries.
 
 The father knows – the astrologers told him – that his son runs therisk of being the Buddha, the man who will save all others if heknows four facts, which are: old age, sickness, death and asceticism.He secludes his son in the palace, provides him with a harem. (I won’t mention the number of women because it’s an obviousHindu exaggeration. But why not say it: they were eighty-fourthousand.) The prince lives a happy life; he doesn’t know that there issuffering in the world, because they hide old age, sickness anddeath from him. On the predestined day he leaves in his coachthrough one of the four gates of the rectangular palace. Let’s say the North gate. He covers a distance and sees a being differentfrom all those he had seen till then. He is stooped, wrinkled, has nohair. He can barely walk leaning on a cane. The prince asks whothat man is, if it is a man. The coachman answers that he is an oldman and that we will all be that man if we go on living. The prince returns to the palace, perturbed. After six days he leavesagain through the South gate. He sees an even stranger man in aditch, with the paleness of a leper and an emaciated face. He asks who that man is, if it is a man. He is sick, the coachman answers; we will all be that man if we go on living.
 
 The prince, very worried now, returns to the palace. Six days laterhe leaves again and sees a man who seems to be asleep, but whose

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