Sayings of the Buddha
Rupert Gethin, translator
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
Anyone who wishes to promote certain values is faced with the challenge of how to maintain those values over time: throughout one’s life, from one generation to the next, and across the centuries. A people’s adherence to values is likely to wane over time, overcome by lower drives, such as the desires for material comfort and personal self-indulgence. We know this well in our own era: the collapse of traditional values has given way to a general slouching into consumerism and individualism. In good times especially, the inner child and the bottomless belly take charge of the soul. The maintenance of values in the face of decadence is no easy thing.
I believe we have much to learn in this respect from the sole ideological systems and spiritual communities which have survived for millennia: the religions. I have personally become convinced that piety, or the religious instinct, plays the critical role in maintaining adherence to values above other impulses. Piety is the only such impulse which can be rationally educated. Indeed, that is why I believe the religious instinct – if well-educated – is more valuable than the strictly ethnocentric one: an ethnocentric Frenchman may defend his people, but enter into petty conflicts with genetically very similar neighboring Europeans, whereas a pious European identitarian defends both the French nation and the great European family of nations of which it is a part.
The creed of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, has largely died out in his native India, and yet over five hundred million souls claim to follow his way of life today, mostly in East and Southeast Asia, but increasingly also in the West, where Buddhism has growing appeal to generations of Europeans lost in an increasingly materialist, relativist, and nihilistic age, looking for spiritual comfort and transcendence.
I am not here judging the content of Buddhist doctrine. What is perhaps the fundamental insight – that one must let go of senses, feelings, the world, all things, indeed the mind itself, for all is flux and vanity – may well be true. But one could also deem this nihilism, and indeed Gautama was accused of this during his own lifetime. What is clear is that Buddhism is evolutionarily maladaptive for its ascetics: the Buddhist monk rejects family life and goes childless. Furthermore, the Buddha explicitly rejected the caste divisions which the Hindus had established to preserve their Aryan blood.
Savitri Devi classes Gautama among the “men above Time” who embody timeless values only by withdrawing from this fallen world, rather than the superior “men against Time” who seek to impose them in this world. Those who wish to see the perpetuation of their people are more likely to be touched by the spirit of the Hindus’ Bhagavad Gita, where in the face of the same cosmic oblivion, the Lord commands Prince Arjuna to embrace his duty as a warrior: “Therefore go to it, grasp fame! And having conquered your enemies, enjoy a thriving kingship.”
What I examine here, and what I think is relevant to all who seek to make lasting cultural change, is the Buddha’s practice and advice for sustaining a spiritual community which can survive the ages. (By “the Buddha,” I mean the figure portrayed in the Pali Canon, which are our earliest records of Gautama’s teachings, as edited by Buddhist disciples generations later. As with other spiritual leaders who left no writings of their own, such as Socrates and Jesus, we are unsure to what extent the Buddha of the scriptures is faithful to the historical Gautama. I will not deal with that question here: I am interested in what the mythical “Buddha” of the scriptures, as established by Buddhist leaders, has to say on what has proved to be a very successful religion.)
I cannot read about Gautama without sensing a certain kinship with our own Western tradition. He was said to have blue eyes and dark hair. He spoke an Indo-European language, descended from the same Aryan conquerors who gave we Europeans most of our languages. Furthermore, though this might appear superficial, I see innumerable parallels between Buddhist insights and practices and those of the Greek philosophical tradition, which began at around the same time. Buddhism and Greek philosophy often wrestle with the very same issues. The early Buddhists debated and bickered about ideas, as one might in a philosophical school. But the parallel between Buddhism and Greek philosophy is most apparent if, like Pierre Hadot, we understand that philosophy not as simply a series of ideas or doctrines, but as a way of life cultivating the soul through spiritual exercises.
Like Socrates, the Buddha is more concerned with ethics than metaphysics, and both practiced prolonged meditation (which in Zen Buddhism becomes the central component) and trained themselves in self-control. Like Plato’s Socrates, a fundamental part of the Buddha’s meditation is the contemplation of death, and the Buddhist, like the philosopher, does not fear death. Like Plato, the Buddha is concerned only with the eternal; he polices his own senses and withdraws from this world to the spiritual one. (A difference: Plato’s philosopher-king is reluctantly dragged back into the political world, whereas the Buddha’s seems to withdraw completely.) Like Diogenes, the Buddhist ascetic lives as a homeless beggar, surviving on self-discipline and alms, teaching morals to the people by his example. But whereas Diogenes did so alone and only had isolated followers, the Buddha established not just a philosophical school but a monastic community: the Sangha. Plato’s praise for Pythagoras, the mathematician-mystic who also established a way of life as part of a kind of monastic community, could well be applied to Gautama:
Is there any evidence that, during his lifetime, [Homer] was a mentor to people, and that they used to value him for his teaching and handed down to their successors a particular Homeric way of life? This is what happened to Pythagoras: he wasn’t only held in extremely high regard for his teaching during his lifetime, but his successors even now call their way of life Pythagorean and somehow seem to stand out from all other people.
For his part, Gautama became, according to the Pali Canon, “a perfect buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, happy, one who understands the world, an unsurpassed charioteer of men to be tamed, teacher of gods and men, a blessed buddha.”
Like the Stoics, the Buddha preaches a studious indifference to that which is in flux, a reconciliation with the nature of existence. The philosophers wish to learn about nature, or the world, in order to align their ideas and lives with it. For Buddhists, “Dharma” means at once the teachings of the Buddha, the nature of existence, and the Buddhist way of life. Pierre Hadot writes that “despite my reticence against the use of comparativism in philosophy” he cannot resist highlighting the similarities between a Buddhist sutra’s description of the ideal sage and the sage of the Socratic tradition:
With regard to all things:
unsmeared. Abandoning all,
in the ending of craving,
The enlightened call him a sage. . . .
The wandering solitary sage,
uncomplacent, unshaken by praise or blame. . . .
Leader of others, by others unled:
The enlightened call him a sage.
The ancient Greeks and Indians did not have the opportunity to interact much in our history. However, it is striking that when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and the two civilizations came into contact, Greco-Indian cultural cross-fertilization proved quite fruitful. The Greeks identified the Indian brahmans (and possibly the Buddhist ascetics) with their own philosophers, calling them “gymnosophists” or “naked sophists.” Evidently, the Greeks were impressed by the yogis’ physical-spiritual exercises. Greek kings ruled parts of India and Afghanistan for only about two centuries after Alexander’s death. And yet, during that time, many of these Greeks embraced Buddhism and created some of that tradition’s finest art with the brief and insufficiently known flowering of Greco-Buddhist culture.
All spiritual traditions are confronted with the problem of whether their followers should be householders or ascetics. When should a gifted man dedicate himself to the “distractions” of working and family life, and when should he dedicate himself completely to spiritual exercises? Different traditions give different answers. The Buddha perfected a tradition of young men leaving their household and going childless in order to dedicate their lives as wandering mendicants to meditation. He says in favor of becoming a family-free monk: “It is not easy to practice the spiritual life in all its fullness and purity, like a polished shell, while living in a house.” The monk learns to live with nothing but his ocher robe and his alms bowl, meditating by roots of trees or in deserted houses. That is enough. The monk has nothing he may lose, he is content, having “no desire for joy,” he “applies and directs his mind toward creating a body made of mind.” He is not a parasitic NEET however, for he is constantly training himself, and serves a useful social purpose: “[H]e brings together those who are divided and encourages those who are united . . . he speaks words that will bring about harmony.”
Much of the appeal of Buddhism is that it requires almost nothing to practice and is far less dependent on speculative metaphysics and fanciful stories than other religions. Buddhism, unlike the long-dead philosophical schools of Antiquity, succeeded in institutionalizing its philosophy and spiritual practice as a religion which endures still today. (I pass over the fact that, obviously, Greco-Roman philosophy was preserved in other senses, e.g. being crystalized in certain Christian practices and doctrines, in inspiring much of the Enlightenment, etc.)
The Buddha created the spiritual community of monks, the Sangha. The state may provide for the Sangha (e.g. alms, donation of parks). However, the spiritual community is independent of the state, the monks ever cultivating their own inner purity. If anything, the state should be informed by the Sangha. The monks honor and revere the great sages who came before them and inspire themselves from their example. The Sangha then moralizes the people towards self-discipline and educates them towards higher truths. One can think of analogous institutions in other traditions.
The Buddha gives prescriptions not only on how the Sangha may be maintained, but also has advice for householders and statesmen. These precepts are generally conservative and sound. In one sutra, the Buddha describes “the householder’s discipline” in terms which would resonate in all traditional societies. He says there are “six ways of losing one’s belongings” which the householder should not pursue:
- being devoted to the recklessness of strong drink and spirits
- wandering in the streets at unseemly hours
- frequenting fairs [where one encounters music and spectacle]
- being devoted to the recklessness of gambling
- being devoted to bad friends
- being habitually idle
The Buddha is then obviously, like all true spiritual leaders, hostile to the “spirit of ‘68.” Each way of losing one’s belongings is accompanied by six dangers, a typical Buddhist mnemonic device. The Buddha also advises against friendship with “one who is all talk.”
The Buddha says that the householder’s piety is not expressed through adherence to sacrificial rituals – apparently an attack against Hindu practice – but through one’s way of life. Hindus symbolically sacrifice in six directions during their rituals, in contrast to the Buddhist householder:
These six directions should be seen as follows: the east should be seen as one’s mother and father, the south as one’s teachers, the west as one’s wife and children, the north as one’s friends and companions, the direction below as servants and workers, the direction above ascetics and brahmans.
Furthermore, Buddhist householders are expected to be good family men with the usual adaptive traditional values: parents must educate their children morally, train them for a trade, find them a wife, and give them an inheritance. If one is good to one’s friends, they will “honor one’s descendants.” Without kindness and justice “then neither mothers nor fathers / Win the respect and worship owed them by their sons.” If Buddhism is maladaptive for ascetics, its precepts for householders are quite healthy. Furthermore, to kill one’s father or mother is considered one of the supreme crimes in Buddhism, akin to wounding a buddha or dividing the Sangha, and ensures one will be reborn in a hell. Even in Buddhism, as in so many traditional worldviews, one finds a pairing of blood and spirit in the supreme moral rules.
The Buddha’s political advice is similarly traditional. Just prior to his death and his attainment of final nirvana, he is said to have given political and religious advice which may perhaps be taken to be his testament. He describes “seven principles for avoiding decline” which, if maintained, would allow a people (in this case, the Vajji Republic) to “be expected to prosper, not to decline.” These seven principles are:
- to meet together frequently and regularly
- to sit down together in concord, to get up together in concord, and to conduct their business in concord
- not to make pronouncements that have not been agreed, not to revoke pronouncements that have been agreed, but to proceed in accordance with the ancient laws of the Vajjis that are agreed pronouncements
- to respect honor, revere, and worship those among them who are their elders, and to listen to what they say
- not to abduct and force women and girls of good family into sexual relations
- to respect, honor, revere, and worship their ancestral shrines, both those that are central those that are outlying, and not to neglect the appropriate offerings that were given and made in the past
- to provide holy men with proper care, protection, and guard, such that those who have not come to their realm are encouraged to come, and those that have come live easily
The Buddha then expresses advice which many would consider sensible: cultivate a spirit of concord and consensus, honor tradition and elders, and respect women and religion.
In this and other sutras, the Buddha and his disciples gives advice on how to have a happy and cohesive Sangha. Some of these are rather amusing, evoking as they do the typical bickering one finds among intellectuals and ideological disciples. The Buddha observes, “[S]ome ascetics and brahmans consume the food offered by the faithful while still addicted to quarrelsome talk.” Furthermore, the monks must not abuse their position as spiritual leaders by charging fees from superstitious laymen for magic tricks and other “childish arts.”
For a Buddhist monk, excessive talking is a sign of restlessness and of not living the way. One of the Buddha’s disciples calmed monks who were “agitated, uncontrolled, restless, talkative, conversing about this and that; with their minds astray, they were not fully aware, not concentrated; their thoughts wandered and their senses were uncontrolled.”
There was also evidently conflict between monks who specialized in erudition and those who specialized in practice, as a certain Mahacunda said:
Monks who are specialists in the teachings disparage monks who are meditators: “Those meditators, they meditate and meditate, always saying, ‘We are the ones who meditate!’ But what do they meditate for? Why do they meditate? How exactly do they meditate?” . . .
On the other hand, monks who are meditators disparage monks who are specialists in the teachings: “Those specialists in the teachings, who are always saying, ‘We are the ones who are specialists in the teachings!’ – they are agitated, uncontrolled, restless, talkative, conversing about this and their; with their minds astray, they are not fully aware, not concentrated; their thoughts wander and their senses are uncontrolled. But what are they specialists in the teachings for? Why are they specialists in the teachings? How exactly are they specialists in the teaching?” . . .
So, friends, you should train yourselves to think: “As monks who are specialists in the teachings we will speaking in praise of monks who are meditators.” Why must you train yourselves this way? They are remarkable and difficult to find in this world, these people who live having experienced the deathless directly.
So, friends, you should train yourselves to think: “As monks who are meditators we will speak in praise of monks who are specialists in the teachings.” Why must you train yourselves in this way? They are remarkable and difficult to find in this world, these people who reach insight, having penetrated the deep significance of a term by their understanding.
Any spiritual movement will then tend to be divided between scholars and practitioners, and the two must respect each other.
The Buddha also condemned those monks who learn only to better assert themselves in argument, rather than to live better. He likened such “learning” to grabbing a snake without knowing how to hold it properly, and so getting bitten:
Monks, some foolish men learn the teaching – the sayings, chants, analyses, verses, utterances, traditions, birth stories, marvels, and dialogues. Yet after they have learned the teaching they do not use wisdom to consider the purpose of those teachings. And when they do not use wisdom to consider their purpose the teachings don’t succeed in bearing deep reflection: the only benefit those people get from learning the teaching is the ability to argue and counter criticism; the point of their learning the teaching is missed by them.
The Buddha’s most detailed advice for the Sangha, at least in this volume, is to be found in the sutra on his final nirvana, beside his political advice to the Vajjis. Again, the Buddha says that if the Sangha continuously follows these precepts, it can “be expected to prosper, not to decline.” The first seven principles for avoiding decline are:
- meet together frequently and regularly
- sit down together in concord, to get up together in concord, and to conduct the business of the community in concord
- not to make pronouncements that have not been agreed, not to revoke pronouncements that have been agreed, but to proceed in accordance with the precepts that are agreed pronouncements
- respect, honor, revere, and worship those monks who are elders, possess the pearls of wisdom, went forth into the religious life long ago, are the fathers and leaders of the community, and to listen to what they say
- to not be overcome by the kind of craving that leads to rebirth
- to have regard for living in the forest”
- individually continue to establish mindfulness, such that well-behaved companions in the spiritual life who have not come are encouraged to come, and that have come live easily
There must then be frequent gatherings of the faithful, respect for consensus, respect for elders, and sticking to the practice (including pride in the austerity of “life in the forest”). This is similar in some respects to the Buddha’s political advice. He provides other advice for monks to preserve the Sangha; among these I highlight: to not become enamored with pleasure, to avoid bad associates, to “not give up halfway with some inferior achievement,” to maintain the spiritual practices (e.g. mindfulness) and doctrines (e.g. notions of impermanence and illusion of the self), “to show friendliness to their companions in the spiritual life in their acts of body . . . in their acts of speech . . . in their acts of thoughts both in their presence and in private,” to only rightfully own possessions, and to maintain good conduct.
The religious instinct’s power is pervasive in human affairs. This can be so consciously, as with organized religions and certain ideologies, or it can be unconsciously so, as with the hatred of liberal bigots against those who think differently. But that power cannot be denied. I believe more generally that the religious impulse has evolved among humans both as an emotional mechanism to give meaning to their individual lives and as a social mechanism to enforce group norms. Today, the cost of publishing and of spreading memes, at least on a Website, is almost reduced to zero by the wonders of technology. In past ages, the most ancient texts and memes that have survived are typically religious ones, precisely because the religious sentiment is such a powerful drive in ordering human societies and giving meaning to a human life. Only the religions have been able to maintain adherence to certain texts, doctrines, and symbols throughout the millennia.
We may differ with the Buddha’s apparent contempt for the blood and his withdrawal from the household and the world. Jeremy Turner tells me that with the technology and high standards of living of the modern era, one does not need to reject household life to be a good European activist. But the Buddha’s lessons for how to create and maintain a spiritual community, both within ourselves and as a group, strike me as having enduring relevance. For whatever happens politically, we will need something like a “European identitarian Sangha” independent of the state, training ourselves and perfecting our principles, enlightening the people, and ensuring the prince’s action is righteous. For we all hope for a new spiritual law among the European peoples.
1. In one story, two disciples report to the Buddha their encounter with high-caste Hindus:
“The Brahman class,” they say, “is the best; the other classes are inferior. The brahman class is fair, the other classes are dark. Only brahmans can be pure, not non-brahmans. Only brahmans are true sons of Brahma, born from his mouth, coming from Brahma, created by Brahma, heirs of Brahma. You have given up the best class and joined an inferior class, that of those pathetic, shaven-headed, extravagant ascetics, the dark descendants of our ancestor’s feet.” (Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Aggañña Sutta [The Origin of Things], pp. 117-8)
The Buddha then rebuts the Hindus.
2. W. J. Johnson (trans.), The Bhagavad Gita (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), Chapter 11, paragraph 33.
3. Nine of the fourteen stages of the Buddha’s meditation for “establishing mindfulness” in the Satipatṭhāna Sutta involve contemplating one’s own body as a corpse in various stages of putrefaction. This grisly embrace of death is something Western Buddhists (and popular yoga practitioners) tend to gloss over.
4. I am thinking of the ideal Buddhist king’s withdrawal from the world into the “Palace of Dharma” in the Mahāsudassana Sutta.
5. Plato (trans. Robin Waterfield), The Republic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 600b.
6. Gethin, Sayings, Bodhirajakumara Sutta (Dialogue with Prince Body), pp. 192-193.
8. To name only a few: Socrates was a good soldier and a father, albeit a negligent one, ultimately choosing death and abandoning his family in the name of philosophy; the Emperor Julian argued that Cynicism was meant for true ascetics and the easier Stoicism was meant for householders; Catholic priests do not marry, whereas Protestant and Orthodox ones may; good National Socialists are with few exceptions (most notably Hitler himself) expected to beget children.
9. Gethin, Sayings, Samaññaphala Sutta (The Fruits of the Ascetic Life), p. 19.
10. Ibid., pp. 29-30.
11. Ibid., p. 20.
12. Ibid., Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (The Buddha’s Final Nirvana), p. 131.
13. Ibid., p. 133.
14. Ibid., p. 135.
15. Ibid., p. 136.
16. Ibid., p. 138.
17. Ibid., p. 276.
18. Ibid., Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (The Buddha’s Final Nirvana), pp. 39-40.
19. Ibid., Samaññaphala Sutta (The Fruits of the Ascetic Life), p. 22.
20. Ibid., Moggallāna, p. 239.
21. Ibid., Mahācunda , pp. 260-1.
22. Ibid., Alagaddūpama Sutta (The Simile of the Snake), pp. 159-160.
23. Ibid., Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (The Buddha’s Final Nirvana), p. 42.
24. Ibid., p. 44.