Why the Buddha taught.
In our modern world, it seems that every bad act, every crime and atrocity, every sorrowful thing that happens in our world is instantly reported all around the world. Every now and then we will see a report of someone doing a compassionate act for other people but for the most part these things simply are not news news. Certainly, reading and watching history has a tendency to instill a belief that the human race is irredeemable. We have been slaughtering and killing each other as far back as our memory goes and that’s as far back as history goes. The depravity of humanity would seem intrinsic and without end, a part of our nature that seems to define us above all other things.
Many if not most of the religions of the world have for all intents and purposes encouraged us to have no faith in humanity but to have faith in something else that will reach down from the heavens and redeem us and change our very nature, or at least forgive our nature. St. Augustine canonized this concept in what he called Original Sin. And in many religions the belief that humans are fundamentally and irretrievably flawed is part of the teaching. It’s certainly not hard after you’ve lived a few years to believe this to be the case. That there is no possibility of man as a species resolving the issue of the depravity of his nature on his own.
One of the things that separates Buddhism from most other religions is that it has not accepted the concept that man as a species or even that an individual person for that matter cannot change or improve their nature. I recently put the phrase “why Buddha taught” into a major search engine on the Internet. I received absolutely no results for that inquiry, every single result that I received was entitled “what Buddha taught”. Unless these major search engines are flawed this will be the first essay available on the Internet about why Buddha taught.
Embedded in several stories about Buddha’s original enlightenment are several short and curt sentences addressing the debate Buddha held with himself after he awakened. In at least one of them he walks a few paces away from where he had been sitting under the bodhi tree and points to that spot and declares “this cannot be taught”. In other stories of the Canon the gods themselves come down and plead with Buddha to teach what he has learned, I’ve read most of the Pali canon and the many Mahayana sutras but I have never seen the issue of why Buddha decided to spend his entire life teaching what he had learned to others. Just because I haven’t seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do exist there fairly well hid or considered of little interest.
I’m going to make some simple deductions here since so little source material seems to address this issue in any depth at all. The very idea of a Buddha, and the man that we called the Buddha and his story demands that we believe that a human can become enlightened or awaken by means of his own human endeavor and his own human nature and intelligence. If this idea is removed from the story of Buddha there simply would be no Buddha and there would be no Buddhism. Clearly one of the things to which Buddha was awakened and observed was that a human being could through his or her own effort overcome what all the other religions would call our Original Sin or intrinsically flawed nature. That self redemption is possible.
In all of Buddhist teachings it is clear that skillful means are being provided by which each individual can change and improve those things that we despise in ourselves. One of the very pillars upon which Buddhism stands is that each person with effort, study, and self-observation can move themselves closer to what we now call a Buddha. In modern day terms, I think it would be clear to say that Buddha taught for over 50 years because he had faith in humanity. It seems that one could call Buddha the first self-improvement guru, but I think that would be trivializing his teachings. He framed his original sermon as a diagnosis and prescription for an illness, he certainly didn’t believe that illness was incurable. The ocean of human suffering in which he and all other humans swim was an illness not a birth defect .
In our world as a child grows up and starts to seek spiritual awareness and an understanding of the world around them one of the first mistakes they seem to make is to believe it is other people’s responsibility to prove to them that humanity is and can be good. As mentioned above our own personal experience and the centuries of history which we have read shows us a great many people who were what almost any moral system would call bad. We see centuries of killing and tormenting and torturing each other in what seems like an endless cycle of depravity. This creates a weight upon our soul and often slays our hope and faith for humanity. Religions occur and reoccur implying that you must get permission from some higher power to be kind and compassionate and loving in your thought actions and words.
Perhaps one of the reasons that we find our present world so disheartening is that we especially in Zen have abandoned the ideas of karma and rebirth and only look at the present from which to take our cues. It seems simple for the Westerner, the American teacher of Zen to cut these ideas away from their teachings seeing them as primitive superstition. That in itself narrows their own view and that of their students as to what is possible and what can be done. In the end most of them conclude that nothing can be done, that one can only accept this horrible world in which we live. I am Soto Zen and the man who started the school of Buddhism was a brilliant Buddhist scholar perhaps one of the most brilliant that has ever lived. Anyone who is read anything that he is written cannot honestly say that his teachings and writings can be summed up into parking your butt on a pillow and shutting down your mind . Many of the things that he said were paradox in and of themselves, if you can't work out that the greatest Buddhist scholar of his age and perhaps any other was speaking about also relying upon studying the Buddhists teachings, that he didn't consider them to be useless doesn't need to be teaching anyone.
It is my hope one day that Zen will go back and begin to incorporate Buddhism in their teachings again and have less of this easy idea that there is nothing to be learned and nothing to be done and that self-improvement through meditation, learning and teaching is a delusion. It’s easy to sell an empty box or so it would seem from what I have observed in recent years.
Buddha thought that change starts with you, that it is entirely possible for you to rid yourself of the kind of thinking that has enslaved humanity into an endless cycle of suffering as far back as anyone can remember. This is why Buddha taught. This is why he spent his entire life from the moment of his awakening walking up and down the world teaching what he had learned. The only humanity you need to have faith in is yourself. but never forget that you are humanity in whole and in part .