Wednesday, February 28, 2007 02/28/07-Buddha's Innovation

In today's excerpt, after practicing the asceticism of the holy men of his time, and reflecting on a formative "Nirvana" moment he had years before under a rose-apple tree, Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, rejects pure asceticism for a middle way:

"Since he had left home six years before, Gotama had been fighting his human nature and crushing its every impulse. He had come to distrust any kind of pleasure. But, he now asked himself, why should he be afraid of the type of joy he had experienced on that long-ago afternoon? That pure delight had had nothing to do with greedy craving or sensual desire. Some joyful experiences could actually lead to an abandonment of egotism and to the achievement of an exalted yogic state. ...

"He had, of course, already been behaving along these lines by observing the 'five prohibition's which had forbidden such 'unhelpful' (akusala) activities as violence, lying, stealing, intoxication and sex. But now, he realized, this was not enough. He must cultivate the positive attitudes that were the opposite of these five restraints. Later, he would say that a person seeking enlightenment must be 'energetic, resolute and persevering' in pursuing those 'helpful,' '“wholesome' or 'skillful' (kusala) states that would promote spiritual health. Ahimsa (harmlessness) could only take one part of the way; instead of simply avoiding violence, an aspirant must behave gently and kindly to everything and everyone; he must cultivate thoughts of loving-kindness to counter any incipient feelings of ill will. It was very important not to tell lies, but it was also crucial to engage in 'right talk' and make sure that whatever you said was worth saying: 'reasoned, accurate, clear and beneficial.' Besides refraining from stealing, a bhikkhu should positively rejoice in taking whatever alms he was given, expressing no personal preference, and should take delight in possessing the bare minimum. The yogins had always maintained that avoiding the five prohibitions would lead to 'infinite happiness,' but by deliberately cultivating these positive states of mind, such exstasis could surely be redoubled. Once this 'skillful' behavior became so habitual that it was second nature, the aspirant, Gotama believed, would 'feel within himself a pure joy,' similar to if not identical with the bliss that he had felt as a boy under the rose-apple tree. ...

"Gotama was developing what he called a 'Middle Way' which shunned physical and emotional self-indulgence on the one hand, and extreme asceticism (which could be just as destructive) on the other.

Karen Armstrong, Buddha, Penguin, 2001, pp. 69-71.


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