"It is really an element of unbelief and paralysis of will, born of a feebleness of spiritual knowledge, that awakens the attraction to Buddhism today."
Rudolf Steiner, from a lecture given March 2, 1911:
We must look back not only to a kind of primeval wisdom but also to primeval feelings and perceptions in man whose clairvoyant powers gave him knowledge of his connection with the spiritual world.
It is also natural that as the Indian looked at the external world with which human life is so closely interwoven, he should have evolved the idea that this descent from Spirit into the world of maya had proceeded stage by stage, as it were, passing from epoch to epoch. We can now understand the deeply devotional mood of Indian culture — albeit a culture representing the glow of sunset — and how the concept of Buddhahood there finds a natural place. The Indian looked back to an age when man was united with the spiritual world; he then descended to a certain level, rose once more and again sank, rose, sank — but in such a way that each descent was deeper than the last.
The legend is well-known and we need only consider the main details. We read how Gautama left the royal Palace and saw something he had never seen before — a corpse. At the sight of the corpse he realized that death consumes life, that the element of death enters life with its fruitfulness and power of increase. He saw a sick man — disease eats its way into health. He saw an old man tottering wearily along his way — age creeps into the freshness of youth.
Let us try to enter into the soul of Gautama the Bodhisattva. He possessed mighty wisdom, although he was not as yet fully conscious of this wisdom. In his earlier years he had seen only the fruitfulness of life. Then his eyes fell on the image of destruction, of corruption, and within his soul the feeling arose that all attainment of knowledge and wisdom leads man to increasing life. His soul is then filled with the idea of “Becoming” — a process of perpetual fruitfulness. The idea of fruitful growth proceeds from wisdom. Gazing into the world, what do we behold? Forces of destruction, sickness, old age, death. Knowledge and wisdom cannot surely have brought old age, sickness and death into the world. Something else must have been their cause!
And so the great Gautama felt — because he was not yet fully conscious of his Bodhisattvic wisdom — that man may be filled with wisdom and through this wisdom be filled with ever-fruitful forces of growth, but life reveals decay, sickness, death, and many other destructive elements. Here was a mystery unfathomable even to the Bodhisattva. He had passed through many lives, through incarnation after incarnation had accumulated an ever-increasing store of wisdom, until he had reached a point whence he could survey life from the very heights of existence. Yet when he left the palace, and life in its grim realities stood before him, the meaning of it all did not wholly penetrate his consciousness. The accumulated knowledge and wisdom of earthly lives cannot, in effect, lead to the solution of the ultimate mysteries of existence, for these mysteries lie hidden beyond the region of the life that passes from incarnation to incarnation.
He then realized that the doctrine of suffering was greater than the wisdom of a Bodhisattva. In his illumination he knew that all that is spread abroad in the world of illusion is not true wisdom, for even after countless births, outer existence gives us no understanding of suffering, nor can we release ourselves from pain. Outer existence contains something that is far removed from true wisdom. And so it came about that the Buddha saw an element void of wisdom as the cause of old age, sickness and death. The wisdom of this world could never bring liberation; liberation could only proceed from something this world cannot give. Man must withdraw from outer existence and from his repeated births.
Buddha then sought the means whereby man could be led away from the scene of his successive births to a world which we must learn to understand aright, for many fantastic and grotesque ideas have arisen as to the meaning of “Nirvana.” One who has reached a point in life where there is no more a thirst for existence and no desire for rebirth passes into Nirvana. What is the nature of this world?
How did Buddha himself seek illumination? Unless we consider this, we shall never understand Buddha himself, or Buddhism. He sought illumination, as we know, in complete isolation. He went out from his father's palace into solitude. All knowledge gained from previous lives must be silenced in a life of solitude, where he must seek an inner illumination of the soul which shall reveal the mystery of the suffering world. In isolation the Buddha awaits the enlightenment which reveals: The cause of suffering inheres in the thirst for existence and rebirth which burns in every individual soul. The world too thirsts for existence and this is the cause of all the suffering and all the destructive elements in life.
The two modes of thought are very different. The Buddhist asks why this world is illusion and is taught that illusion is its very nature. The Christian asks the same question but realizes: “The fault is mine! My powers of cognition and the state of my soul no longer enable me to see the original reality. My actions are not fruitful. I myself have drawn a veil of illusion over the world.” The Buddhist says that the world is in itself the Great Illusion, therefore he must overcome the world, but the Christian feels himself in the world, and in the world he must seek his goal.
There is a higher man. If this higher man could look upon the world, he would see it in its reality; he would not pass through an existence of sickness and death but a life of health, full of the freshness of youth. A veil has been drawn before this inner man because humanity took part in a certain event in the evolution of the world. Man is not an isolated entity, an individual, nor is thirst for existence responsible for his present state. He is indeed one with all humanity and shared in the original sin of the whole human race.
The Buddhist seeks liberation from the world and from rebirths by overcoming the thirst for existence. The Christian seeks liberation from the lower man, seeks to awaken the higher man within, whom he himself has veiled, in order that he may behold the world in its truth. How great a contrast lies here between the wisdom of Buddha and Paul's words: “Not I, but Christ in me!” — words which express a consciousness that places man in the world as an individuality! The Buddhist says: “Man has descended from spiritual heights because the world has urged him downwards; therefore a world that has implanted in him the thirst for existence must be overcome. He must leave this world!” But the Christian says: “It is not the fault of the world that I am as I am. Mine is the fault!”
The Christian stands in the world acknowledging that beneath his ordinary consciousness a power is at work which once gave him a clairvoyant picture-consciousness. Man sinned and lost this spiritual vision. For this he must make amends if he would reach his goal. In later life a man does not feel it unjust that he should suffer from the faults of youthful actions committed in a different consciousness. Equally, he should not feel it an injustice that he should atone in his present state for an act arising out of an earlier consciousness. This former consciousness he no longer possesses, for his intellect and reason have usurped its place. Atonement is only possible when the will arises in man to press forward with his present ego-consciousness to that higher state described in Paul's words: “Not I, but Christ in me!” The Christian should say: “I have descended into conditions other than those ordained for me from the beginning. I must re-ascend — not with the help of the ego I now possess but through a power which can live within me and lead me beyond my human ego. This I can only do if Christ works in me, leading me to behold the world in its reality and not in illusion. The forces which have brought illness and death into the world can be overcome by what Christ fulfils in me.”
This however is not the point at issue. The point is that the essential attitude of Buddhism makes the world responsible for maya or illusion, while the Christian holds himself, as man, responsible — knowing that the path to redemption lies in his own innermost being. In the Christian sense, redemption is also a resurrection because the ego is raised to a higher Ego whence it has descended. The Buddhist believes in the “original sin” of the world and seeks liberation from the world. The Christian's conception is a historical one, for human life is seen as linked both with an event of a prehistoric past and with a future event through which he may reach a point where his whole life will be illuminated by the Being of Christ.
Compare these words with an utterance of the Christ recorded in the Gospel of St. John. Christ indicates that He is living in an outer body: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will build it up again.” Here we have exactly the opposite conception, for it can be thus interpreted: “I shall accomplish a deed that will make fruitful and living all that from God — from primeval humanity — flows into this world and into us.” These words indicate that the Christian, through repeated earthly lives, comes to cry in truth, “Not I, but Christ in me!” We must however understand that the rebuilding of this Temple has an eternal significance in that it points to the inpouring of the Christ Power into all who share in the collective evolution of mankind. There can be no repetition of the Christ Event in the course of evolution. The true Buddhist assumes a repetition of earthly epochs, a succession of Buddhas having each a fundamentally similar mission, but the Christian looks back to the Fall of Man and must point also to a further and unique event — the Mystery of Golgotha and man's redemption from the Fall.
Goethe once said to his pupil Schopenhauer: “All your splendid conceptions will be at war with themselves directly they pass into other minds.” Schopenhauer's motto can be expressed in his own words: “Life is full of perplexity. I try to make it easier by contemplation.” Trying to find an explanation of the origin of existence he turned naturally to Buddhism, and his ideas assumed a Buddhistic colouring.
In contrast to this, Spiritual Science takes its start from the deepest principles and experiences of spiritual knowledge; it is able to compass and elaborate all the facts brought to light by outer science and to show how the Spirit lives in outer reality.
Now, many people do not like this. So far at least as knowledge is concerned, they draw back from the investigation of the world of facts and strive to reach a higher stage merely in the inner being, by a development of soul. This has led to an “unconscious Buddhism” which has been in existence for some time now. We can find traces of it in the philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
When such people — and they are really unconscious Buddhists — come into contact with Buddhism, their longing for ease makes them feel more readily drawn to this mode of thought than to Spiritual Science. For Spiritual Science deals with the whole mass of facts, with the knowledge that Spirit manifests in them all.
The Christian conception of the universe — as it lived in Goethe, for instance — demands that man should not give way to his own weakness and speak of “boundaries of knowledge” but rather feel that something within him can rise above all illusion and lead to truth and freedom. True, a certain amount of resignation is demanded here, but not the resignation which shrinks back before “boundaries of knowledge.” In the Kantian sense resignation means that man is altogether unable to penetrate the depths of the universe. This is a resignation born of weakness. But there is another kind whereby man can say with Goethe: “I have not yet reached the stage where the world can be known in its truth, yet I can evolve to it.” This resignation leads him to the stage where he can bring to birth the “higher man” — the Christ-man. He is resigned because he knows that for the moment he has not reached this highest level of human life. This indeed is a heroic resignation, for it says: “We pass from life to life with the feeling that we exist, and we know as we look toward the future that in the repetition of earthly existence all Eternity is ours.”
Goethe, stimulated by a purely Christian impulse, looks out upon the world as Faust looks out upon it. And if we in our time rise above external trivialities, though realizing that our works will perish when the Earth has become a corpse, we too can say with Goethe: We learn from our experiences on Earth; what we build on Earth must perish, but what we acquire in the school of life does not perish. Like Faust, we look not upon the permanency of our works but upon their fruits in the eternity of the soul, and gazing at horizons wider than those of Buddhism we can say with Goethe: “Aeons cannot obliterate the traces of any man's days on Earth.” —
Nicht in Aeonen untergehen!”