The beginning of the 21st century has marked the ending of the period known as “Pax Americana”, with the attack on the Twin Towers being able to destroy in a few hours the “aura of untouchability ” the USA has carefully forged in half a century through cultural, economic, military and political world-leadership. Following the 2008 Crisis, world economies have shrinked drastically, with western countries having themselves seriously questioning whether Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen. Zs (those born between 1997 and 2010) could ever be able to live an adulthood up to the standards that they have been used to by their parents. Along with these purely “human dilemmas”, Global Warming comes into play, further making the burden of both thought and action heavier. In this context of cultural,social,economic (and now even environmental) uncertainty, characterizing each of the passages from an historical phase to the other and leading to the “world’s readjustment” (if we want to use Hindu mythology), basic forms of knowledge and beliefs that have been rooted in us come into being questioned, consequently leading to either their being put aside or to their revitalization (or as we might call it, radicalization). With this in mind, we can easily explain phenomena such as the rise of populist politics, the constant terrorist threat characterizing the last 20 years and, with a more attentive look, the overall nihilistic outlook typical of the younger generations.
Thus, as religion is being revived and revisited, questions risen and answered, one of the main world faiths seems to keep quiet, or, at least, not to make the rumor characterizing others such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, despite it being one of the fastest growing religions worldwide among western countries. This “quiet religion” ,as I like to call it (also known as Buddhism), and its relationship with peace and resistance to evil, will be the topic of this essay; we will start with a short history of Buddhism (first section of the essay), in order to understand the reasons behind its come into being and its later developments up to the current days. The second section will be more theological and philosophical in nature, focusing on explaining the core Buddhist doctrine as well as the difference among the several branches of it (or as they are called, “yanas” -literally “paths”); in this section, we will look both a the vast number of Buddhist sacred texts, as well interviews and quotes by some of the most prominent figures of modern Buddhism (given the particularly great importance given to the figure of the “teacher” in this religion)
The third and last section will be of a political and sociological character, starting with the old relationship between Buddhism and War, to later draw upon some of the most famous recent cases of conflict in which Buddhism has been involved, trying to analyze them and see whether they are compatible with the doctrine explained in the previous section.
We will later move to an excursus on Western perceptionof Buddhism (as said
before, it is one of the fastest growing religions in the West), commenting on the book widely recognized as the gate through which this faith spread to Europe, and later America: Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse.
In the end, we will finish with a conclusion, in which we will summarize the main points set and give a final very very (very) modest judgement on the effectiveness of Buddhist teachings on human nature.
I – History of Buddhism
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, is believed to have lived between the fifth and the forthcentury B.C. in the region now identifiable as both north- eastern India and Nepal; son of a king in present-day Nepal, at the age of 29 he abandons royal titles and family to become an ascetic. The practice of leaving life’s comforts behind in order to find the true essence of being was quite common in the India of the time: being it a region characterized by a continuous state of warfare between a great variety of small kingdoms, the diffused “social malaise” resulting from it couldn’t find relief in the rigid rituals of a priest-dominated Hinduism, thus leading many to the pursuit of a more personal religion (the same “ascetic escape” had been done by Vardhamana, the founder of Javinism, a few years before the one of Siddhartha, in a nearby district.). After 6 years of extreme asceticism, Siddhartha realizes that this his mind is slow and clouded on account of starvation, and discovers what is now known as “The Middle Way” (Madhyamāpratipada) – a path of meditation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He sits under a pipal tree, vowing not to move until he has found the truth; after 49 days of intense meditation, at the age of 35, Siddhartha reaches enlightenment. He starts gathering disciples (a feature common to almost all major world religions) and becomes known to his followers as the Buddha (the Awakened One).
Buddha preaches his first sermon shortly after enlightenment, in a village near Varanasi (holy Hindu city),where he lays the foundations of what are still nowadays recognized by all yanas as the pillars of Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path ; the acknowledgment of the earlier and the following of the latter being the only way through which man can achieve Nirvana (literally “blowing out”), which is the state of enlightenment that had been reached by the Buddha under the pipal tree, and to which every Buddhist practitioner aspires – that is, becoming a Buddha.
The Buddha spends the next 45 years wondering the Gangetic plain, gathering thousands of followers and accepting people of all genders, classes and castes (here, another strong difference between Hinduism and Buddhism). After his death, his teachings are spread orally across the Asian continent, developing the religion into
different strands, each with its differences.
By the time of the death of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism was nothing but one of the many religious movements characterizing the northern part of the Indian Sub- continent; its first major spread begin in the III century B.C thanks to the support of the Mauryan king Ashoka (268 B.C. -232 B.C.), who had established one of the first Pan-Indian empires extending from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka. Kings and rulers of the several kingdoms arising in northeastern India often used to patronize newly emerging sects, seeing this as an opportunity to counterbalance the ever-growing power exercised both politically and socially by the Brahmans (high-caste Hindus). In this context, Buddhism quickly spread throughout India, soon becoming the prevalent religion (Sri Lanka still is to this very day one of the strongholds of Theravada Buddhism). King Ashoka changed the relationship between ruler and Buddhist community: he surrounded himself of Buddhist advisers and helped Buddhist communities by building temples and exempting them from paying taxes; in exchange, the monastic community validated the king by supporting him in all his policies (even violent ones). Monasticism became the backbone of civil society, having the main task of spreading the teachings of peace throughout all levels of the population.
With the beginning of the Common Era, the first Buddhist split came into being: the one between Theravada (literally – “The school of The Elders”) and Mahayana (literally- “The Great Vehicle”). Thanks to the rise in Indian trade from the first century C.E., Theravada is brought to southeast Asia by merchants and monks, quickly becoming the state religion of most realms, which let themselves easily be influenced by the more advanced Indian civilization (most south-east Asia still professes Theravada Buddhism as its main faith). Under the reign of king Kanishka (c. 127 C.E.-150 C.E.) Mahayana became the most dynamic and creative Buddhist tradition, spreading along the Silk Road and reaching into Central Asia and China (China’s main Buddhist tradition still is Mahayana to this very day).
In the VI century C.E., under the Gupta dynasty (320 C.E.-600 C.E.) a third yana developed out of the Mahayana schools of philosophy: Vajrayana (literally- Thunderbolt Vehicle). This strand of Buddhism became a powerful and dynamic religious force, asserting its dominance in Tibet, Nepal and later Mongolia and Russia (Tuva, Kalmykia). In the same century, Buddhism also spread to Japan and Korea, where it mixed and co-existed with local faiths such asShintoism.