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Until recently I never made much of a connection between the two major religions of the Far East, Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism I associated with India; Buddhism was related in my mind to Asia, particularly China and Japan. Note the differences in representations. (The Japanese Buddha at the top of this page is thin and stoic, where the Chinese Buddha is fat and happy. The former is probably more life-like.) Indeed I used to believe that the Buddha himself, whom I first read about in Hermann Hesse's fictionalized account, the novel Siddhartha, hailed from Japan.

Actually Siddhartha was an Indian prince who was raised a Hindu. Duh! And after leaving his palace for the forest in search of enlightenment he studied with the most celebrated sages of the land before finally turning within, stilling the mind, and experiencing truth in the form of bliss for himself. The result was awakening and the name, Buddha, which means just that: Awakened One. Buddha spent 45 years, from the time of his awakening until leaving his body at the age of 80, preaching the message based on personal experience. He is said to have cut all ties with the Hindus of the time (500's BC) whose religion had degenerated into a mindless observance of ornate rituals practiced by corrupt officials who were guaranteed positions of power by birth and usually abused their authority till death. Instead Buddha established a highly individualized religion based on personal effort. He preached that there was no personal God, no deity to pray to as other; nor was there even an individual soul. All that existed he called Nirvana, "the unchangeable place" where, once you have gone, you will suffer no more; and through the Eightfold Path of Righteousness one could attain that blissful state, one's true nature. But a careful reading of some of the Master's writings, which emerged a century and a half after his death, indicates a powerful if subtle influence that the central tenets of Hinduism (and other beliefs) exerted on this founder of a world religion.

Buddha stressed time and again the importance of stilling the mind. "It is good to tame the mind," states the Dhammapada, "which is difficult to hold in and flighty, rushing wherever it listeth; a tamed mind brings happiness." The practice of stilling the mind is a major feature of yoga, which over the course of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna urges Arjuna to undertake many times.

Remain equipoised in the face of either praise or blame, is a tenet of Hinduism (and most religions). Buddha's words on the subject: "As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, wise people falter not amidst blame and praise."

Be desireless is another frequent refrain in the Indian scriptures. Buddha's thoughts are no different: "Those who are free from all worldly desires attain Nirvana."

"Do not kill, nor cause slaughter." Which echoes the Bible's Ten Commandments.

"Let no one forget his own duty for the sake of another's, however great; let a man, after he has discerned his own duty, be always attentive to his duty." This wisdom bears a striking resemblance to karma yoga, the Hindu method of purifying the self through selfless service and the performance of duty.

"Look upon the world as a bubble, look upon it as a mirage." That life is a dream is another oft-repeated message in the Hindu texts.

That there is no good or evil but only knowledge and ignorance is a Hindu teaching. Buddha's wisdom therefore is this: "Ignorance is the greatest taint."

"Don't go to another man's wife" is a restatement of the Bible's proscription against coveting. Buddha advised against drinking intoxicating liquors whereas wine was a frequent guest at Biblical parties.

The Hindu sannyasin (renunciate) is one who has renounced all worldly ties, and is said to be above hatred and love, not feeling these emotions, which are like two sides of a coin, one flipping to the other. Instead the sannyasin radiates the bliss of his/her nature, which shines as an effulgence of the soul Buddha says we do not have and truly deserves the name of love. "Let therefore, no man love anything; loss of the beloved is evil. Those who love nothing and hate nothing, have no fetters."

The Hindus hold that the universe, which is manifold and constantly changing, has no absolute reality. Buddha made similar statements. "All created things perish. All created things are grief and pain. All forms are unreal." All this in an effort to turn the aspirant away from the unreal phenomenal world to the absolute reality shining as consciousness from within. To awaken from the dream, for "the disciples of Buddha are always well awake."

Over and over again the Buddha emphasized the importance of watching the thoughts as a way to taming the mind, and taming the mind as the method for conquering one's self, and thus becoming the Arhat (Self-realized).

You are not the body is another Hindu message. Buddha often repeated the same: Never identify yourself with name and form.

It is interesting that the religion of Buddha has been so embraced by Asian countries which place such an emphasis on community. Note how the Japanese travel in groups and each takes the same picture of a landmark. And how the Chinese are so family oriented, with several generations living under the same roof. Buddhism, at least as taught by its founder, is a solitary occupation. "Rouse thyself by thyself," says Buddha; "examine thyself by thyself, thus self-protected and attentive will you live happily." And: "If a traveler does not meet with one who is his better, or his equal, let him firmly keep to his solitary journey; there is no companionship with a fool." (On a personal note that pretty much summarizes most of my childhood friendships.) In short, Buddha's message was to keep aloof, frequent no houses, even live alone in the forest. It is no wonder why all the monasteries sprang up in the wake of the man's death.

Like Christ, who a Jew himself reformed Judaism into something new and refined, turning aspirants away from blind authority and temple materialism in favor of a religion of love - Buddha, born a Hindu, helped to evolve a religion that had been stagnating, turning it into something less religious and more spiritual in its essence. To these great masters we owe two new religions, and all the bloody battles waged in the name of spreading Christianity. (Me being cynical.) Buddhism as put forth in the Pali Canon bears such a resemblance to the wisdom of the Chinese Tao and to the Hindu's Advaita Vedanta, which sees the Oneness behind the many and recognizes the same theme uniting all religions: God is One whose essence is Love. The resemblance between Hinduism, Buddhism and Tao is at times so strong that it becomes difficult to distinguish them, or to say definitively which influenced which. Not that it really matters. It's the message, not who said it first that counts - though points often go to who says it best. Which is a matter of personal opinion.

Personally, I prefer Buddha's aphorisms to those of Hinduism et al. I am left ruing that my childhood was so devoted to the Hindu epics and their various deities when I could have simply dwelled on the wisdom of the Buddha, a distillation of the teachings of the Hindu avatars, or even better turned within and found that truth inside my own heart. But Hinduism was perhaps a primer. Because as rivers leading into the same ocean, all religions lead to Oneness. And whatever step sends you up the mountain of bliss, or into its ocean, is a step worth taking. Whether it's in the spirit of Christ, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed or your Inner Voice is up to you.

And for the socialites in the room, though Buddha preached solitude, branches of the religion have sprung up which emphasize community. Proving that if you wish to practice Buddha's Way, to tread his Path, while living your average daily life, with its joys and cares, working your normal nine to five - that is also cool. To what degree you seek to realize the truths preached by so many masters is up to you. The journey is yours, and whether you worship in groups, pray alone, or accepting Buddha's rejection of God live Nirvana quietly out in your daily life, watching your thoughts, taming your passions, doing your duties towards others, it is all up to you. That's power.


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