A lecture by Jorge Luis Borges
The subject today will be Buddhism. I’m not going into the long story that began two thousand five hundred years ago in Benares, when a prince of Nepal – Siddharta or Gautama – who had become Buddha, spun the wheel of the law, proclaimed the four noble truths and the eightfold path. I will speak of the essential in this religion, the most prevalent in the world. The elements of Buddhism have been preserved since the fifth century before Christ: that is, since the epoch of Heraclites, of Pythagoras, of Xenon, until our times when Dr. Suzuki expounds it in Japan. The elements are the same. Now the religion is encrusted with mythology, astronomy, strange beliefs, magic, but because the subject is complex, I will limit myself to what the various sects have in common. They may correspond to Hinayana or the small vehicle. Let us first consider the longevity of Buddhism.
This longevity can be explained for historical reasons, but such reasons are fortuitous or, rather, they are debatable, fallible. I think there are two fundamental causes. The first is Buddhism’s tolerance. That strange tolerance does not correspond, as is the case with other religions, to distinct epochs: Buddhism was always tolerant.
It has never had recourse to steel or fire, has never thought that steel or fire were persuasive. When Asoka, emperor of China, became a Buddhist, he didn’t try to impose his new religion on anybody. A good Buddhist can be Lutheran, or Methodist, or Calvinist, or Sintoist, or Taoist, or Catholic; he can be a proselyte to Islam or to Judaism, with complete freedom. But it is not permissible for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to be a Buddhist.
Buddhism’s tolerance isn’t a weakness, but belongs to its nature. Buddhism was, above all, what we can call a yoga. What is the word yoga? It is the same word that we use when we say yugo [Spanish for yoke], and which has it origin in the Latin yugu. A yoke, a discipline which a person imposes on himself. Then, if we understand what Buddha preached in that first sermon in the Park of Gazelles in Benares two thousand five hundred years ago, we will have understood Buddhism. Except that it isn’t a question of understanding, it’s a question of feeling it deeply, of feeling it in body and soul; except, also, that Buddhism doesn’t admit the reality of body nor of the soul. I will try to explain that.
Furthermore, there is another reason. Buddhism demands much of our faith. This is natural, for every religion is an act of faith. Just as one’s country is an act of faith. What is it, I have often been asked, to be Argentine? To be Argentine is to feel that we are Argentines. What is it to be Buddhist? To be Buddhist is not to understand, for that can be accomplished in a few minutes, but to feel the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Let’s not go into the twists and turns of the eightfold path, for this number obeys the Hindu habit of dividing and sub-dividing, but into the four noble truths.
There is, furthermore, the legend of Buddha. We may disbelieve this legend. I have a Japanese friend, a Zen Buddhist, with whom I have had long and friendly arguments. I told him that I believed in the historic truth of Buddha. I believed and I believe that two thousand five hundred years ago there was a Nepalese prince called Siddharta or Gautama who became the Buddha, that is, the Awoken, the Lucid One – as opposed to us who are asleep or who are dreaming this long dream which is life. I remember one of Joyce’s phrases: “History is a nightmare from which I want to awake.” Well then, Siddharta, at thirty years of age, awoke and became Buddha.
I argued with that friend who was a Buddhist (I’m not sure that I’m a Christian and am sure that I’m not a Buddhist) and I said to him: “Why not believe in Prince Siddharta, who was born in Kapilovastu five hundred years before the Christian era?” He replied: “Because it’s of no importance; what’s important is to believe in the Doctrine”. He added, I think with more ingenuity than truth, that to believe in the historical existence of Buddha or to be interested in it would be like confusing the study of mathematics with the biography of Pythagoras or Newton. One of the subjects of meditation which the monks in the monasteries of Japan and China practice is to doubt the existence of Buddha. It is one of the doubts they must assume in order to reach the truth.
The other religions demand much more credulity on our part. If we are Christians we must believe that one of the three persons of the Divinity condescended to become a man and was crucified in Judea. If we are Muslims we must believe that there is no other god than God and that Mohammad is his apostle. We can be good Buddhists and deny that Buddha existed. Or, rather, we may think, we must think that our belief in history isn’t important: what is important is to believe in the Doctrine. Nevertheless, the legend of Buddha is so beautiful that we cannot help but refer to it.
The French have paid special attention to the study of the legend of Buddha. Their argument is this: the biography of Buddha is what happened to one man only over a brief span of time. It could have been this way or some other. The legend of Buddha, on the other hand, has illuminated and continues to illuminate millions of people. It is the legend that has inspired countless paintings, sculptures and poems. Buddhism, in addition to being a religion, is a mythology, a cosmology, a metaphysical system, or, rather, a series of metaphysical systems which disagree and are disputable.
The legend of Buddha is illuminating and does not impose itself. In Japan they insist on the non-historicity of Buddha. But not on the Doctrine. The legend begins in heaven. There is someone in heaven who for centuries and centuries, we could literally say for an infinite number of centuries, has been perfecting himself until he understands that in his next incarnation he will be the Buddha.
He chooses the continent on which he is to be born. According to Buddhist cosmogony the world is divided into four triangular continents and in the center is a mountain of gold: Mount Meru. He will be born in the one which corresponds to India. He chooses the century in which he will be born; he chooses the cast, he chooses the mother. Now for the earthly part of the legend. There is a queen, Maya. Maya means illusion. The queen has a dream that runs the risk of seeming outlandish to us, but it isn’t for the Hindus.
Married to King Suddhodana, she dreamed that a white elephant with six tusks, which roamed the mountains of gold, entered into her left side without causing her pain. She awakens; the king convenes his astrologers and they explain to him that the queen will give birth to a son who could be the emperor of the world or who could be the Buddha, the Awakened, the Lucid One, the being destined to save all men. Foreseeably, the king chooses the first destiny: he wants his son to be the emperor of the world.
Let’s go back to the detail about the elephant with six white tusks. Oldemberg reminds us that the elephant in India is a domestic, everyday animal. The color white is always a symbol of innocence. Why six tusks? We must remember (we’ll have to resort to history now and then) that the number six, which for us is arbitrary and somehow uncomfortable (because we prefer three or seven), isn’t in India, where they believe that there are six dimensions in space: up, down, back, forward, right, left. An elephant with six tusks is not a peculiarity for Hindus.
The king summons the magicians and the queen gives birth without pain. A fig tree inclines its branches to help her. The child is born on its feet and takes four steps: to the North, to the South, to the East and to the West, and says with a lion’s voice: “I am the incomparable; this will be my last birth.” Hindus believe in an infinite number of previous births. The prince grows up, he is the best archer, the best horseman, the best swimmer, the best athlete, the best calligrapher, he confounds all the doctors (here we can think of Christ and the doctors). At sixteen years of age he marries.
The father knows – the astrologers told him – that his son runs the risk of being the Buddha, the man who will save all others if he knows four facts, which are: old age, sickness, death and asceticism. He secludes his son in the palace, provides him with a harem. (I won’t mention the number of women because it’s an obvious Hindu exaggeration. But why not say it: they were eighty-four thousand.)
The prince lives a happy life; he doesn’t know that there is suffering in the world, because they hide old age, sickness and death from him. On the predestined day he leaves in his coach through one of the four gates of the rectangular palace. Let’s say the North gate. He covers a distance and sees a being different from all those he had seen till then. He is stooped, wrinkled, has no hair. He can barely walk leaning on a cane. The prince asks who that man is, if it is a man. The coachman answers that he is an old man and that we will all be that man if we go on living.
The prince returns to the palace, perturbed. After six days he leaves again through the South gate. He sees an even stranger man in a ditch, with the paleness of a leper and an emaciated face. He asks who that man is, if it is a man. He is sick, the coachman answers; we will all be that man if we go on living.
The prince, very worried now, returns to the palace. Six days later he leaves again and sees a man who seems to be asleep, but whose color is not of this life. Other men are carrying that man. He asks who he is. The coachman tells him that he is dead and that we will all be that dead man if we live long enough.
The prince is desolate. Three horrible truths have been revealed to him: the truth of old age, the truth of sickness, the truth of death. He leaves a fourth time. He sees an almost naked man whose face is full of serenity. He asks who he is. He is told that he is an ascetic, a man who has renounced everything and has achieved beatitude.
The prince decides to renounce everything; he, who has lived such a rich life. Buddhism believes that asceticism may be advisable, but only after having tasted life. It doesn’t believe that anyone should begin by renouncing anything. It’s necessary to live life to the limit, to the dregs, and then reject it; but not without knowing it.
The prince decides to be the Buddha. At that moment they bring him news: his wife, Jasodhara, has given birth to a son. He exclaims: “a link has been forged.” It is the son who ties him to life. Therefore, they name him Link. Siddharta is in his harem, he sees all those women who are young and beautiful and he sees the horrible old people, the lepers. He goes to his wife’s chamber. She is sleeping. She has the child in her arms. He is about to kiss her, but he knows that if he kisses her he will not be able to separate from her, and he leaves.
He looks for teachers. Here we have a part of the biography which may not be legendary. Why show him as a disciple of teachers who he later abandons? The teachers teach him asceticism, which he practices for a long time. Finally, he lies in the middle of a field, his body is motionless and the gods who see him from the thirty three heavens think he is dead. One of them, the wisest, says: “No, he isn’t dead; he will be the Buddha.” The prince wakes up, runs to a nearby stream, takes some nourishment and sits under the sacred fig tree: the tree of the law, we could say.
A magic interval follows, which is similar to the Gospels: fighting against the devil. The devil is called Mara. We have already seen the word nightmare [in English – trans.], demon of the night. The demon feels that he dominates the world but is now is at risk, so he leaves his palace. The strings of his musical instruments are broken, the water has dried up in the cisterns. He prepares his armies, mounts an elephant which is I don’t know how many meters tall, multiplies his arms, multiplies his weapons and attacks the prince. The prince is sitting at dusk under the tree of knowledge, the tree that was born the same time as he.
The demon and his hordes of tigers, lions, camels, elephants, and monstrous warriors shoot arrows at him. When they reach him they are flowers. They throw mountains of fire at him, which form a canopy over his head. The prince meditates, motionless, with his arms crossed. Perhaps he doesn’t know that they are attacking him. He thinks about life; he is approaching nirvana, salvation. Before sundown the demon has been defeated. A long night of meditation follows; after that night Siddharta is no longer Siddharta. He is the Buddha: he has arrived at nirvana.
He decides to preach the law. He stands up, he is already saved, and wants to save the rest. He preaches his first sermon in the Park of Gazelles in Benares. Then another sermon, about fire, in which he says that everything is burning: souls, bodies, things are on fire. More or less at the same time Heraclitus of Ephesus said that everything is fire.
His law is not that of asceticism, because for Buddha asceticism is an error. Man should not give himself up to carnal life because carnal life is low, ignoble, shameful and painful; he should not practice asceticism either, which is also ignoble and painful. He preaches a middle way – to use theological terminology. He has already attained nirvana and lives forty plus years, which he devotes to preaching. He could have been immortal, but he chooses the moment of his death once he has many disciples.
He dies in a blacksmith’s house. His disciples surround him. They are desperate. What will they do without him? He tells them that he doesn’t exist, that he is a man like them, as unreal and mortal as they are, but that he leaves them his Law. Here we have a great difference with Christ. I think that Christ said to his disciples that if two are together, he will be with them. But Buddha tells them: I leave you my Law. That is, he set in motion the wheel of the law in the first sermon. The history of Buddhism will come later. It has many parts: Lamaism, magic Buddhism, Mahayana or the great vehicle, which follows Hinayana or the little vehicle, Zen Buddhism of Japan.
It seems to me that if there are two Buddhisms that are similar, that are almost identical, they are the one which Buddha preached and the one which is taught now in China and Japan, Zen Buddhism. The rest are mythological incrustations, fables. Some of these fables are interesting. It is known that Buddha could perform miracles, but as was the case with Jesus Christ, he disliked miracles, he disliked performing them. I’ll tell you a story now – of the sandalwood bowl.
A merchant in a city of India has a piece of sandalwood carved in the form of a bowl. He places it at the top of a series of bamboo canes, a kind of very high soaped pole. He says that he’ll give the sandalwood bowl to whoever can reach it. Heretical teachers try in vain. They want to bribe the merchant to say that they reached it. The merchant refuses and one of the Buddha’s minor disciples comes along. His name is not mentioned except in this episode. The disciple rises up in the air, circles the bowl six times, takes the bowl and delivers it to the merchant. When the Buddha hears of it, he expels him from the order for having performed something so trivial.
But the Buddha also performed miracles. For example this, a miracle of courtesy. The Buddha must cross the desert at midday. The gods, from their thirty-three circles, each throws down a parasol to him. The Buddha, not wishing to offend any of the gods, multiplies himself into thirty-three Buddhas, so that each of the gods sees, from above, a Buddha protected by the parasol which he threw him.
Among the deeds of the Buddha, one is illuminating: the parable of the arrow. A man has been wounded in battle and he doesn’t want them to remove the arrow. First he wants to know the name of the archer and what cast he belongs to, the material of the arrow, where the archer was, the length of the arrow. While they are discussing these questions, he dies. “I, however,” says the Buddha, “teach how to pull out the arrow.” What is the arrow? It is the universe. The arrow is the idea of the I, of everything we have stuck in us. The Buddha says that we must not waste time on useless questions. For example: Is the universe finite or infinite? Will the Buddha live after nirvana or not? That is all useless, what is important is that we pull out the arrow. It’s about an exorcism, about a law of salvation.
The Buddha says: “Just as the vast ocean has only one taste, the taste of salt, the taste of the law is the taste of salvation.” The law he teaches is as vast as the sea, but has only one taste: the taste of salvation. Of course those who followed have gotten lost (or perhaps have gained) much in metaphysical disquisitions. That is not the goal of Buddhism. A Buddhist may profess any religion as long as he follows that law. What is important is salvation and the four noble truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the healing of suffering and the means for healing. At the end is nirvana. The order of the truths doesn’t matter. It has been said that it corresponds to an ancient medical tradition: illness, diagnosis, treatment and cure. The cure, in this case, is nirvana.
Now we come to the hard part. That which our western minds tend to reject: transmigration, which for us is above all a poetic concept. What transmigrates isn’t the soul, because Buddhism denies the soul’s existence, but karma, which is a kind of mental organism that transmigrates infinite times. In the west this idea is associated with various thinkers, above all Pythagoras. Pythagoras recognized the shield with which he fought in the battle of Troy, when he had another name. In Book Ten of The Republic by Plato is the dream of Er. That soldier sees the souls who, before drinking in the River of Forgetting, choose their destiny. Agamemnon chooses to be an eagle, Orpheus a swan and Ulysses – who was once called Nobody – chooses to be the most modest and most unknown of men.
There’s a passage in Empedocles of Agrigenta in which he remembers his past lives: “I was a maiden, I was a branch, I was a deer and I was a mute fish that springs from the sea.” Caesar attributes this doctrine to the Druids. The Celtic poet Taliesi says there is no form in the universe that hasn’t been his: “I have been a chief in battle, I have been a sword in hand, I have been a bridge that crosses sixty rivers, I have been bewitched in the water’s foam, I have been a star, I have been a light, I have been a tree, I have been a word in a book, I have been a book in the beginning.” There’s a poem by Ruben Darío, perhaps his most beautiful, which starts thus: “I was a soldier who slept in the bed / of Cleopatra the queen…”
Transmigration has been an important theme in literature. We also find it in the mystics. Plotin says that passing from one life to another is like sleeping in different beds in different rooms. I think we have all had the sensation of having lived a similar moment in a past life. In a beautiful poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sudden Light, we read, “I have been here before…” It is directed to a woman whom he has possessed or is going to possess and he tells her: “You have been mine an infinite number of times and will continue being mine infinitely.” This leads us to the doctrine of cycles, which is so close to Buddhism and which St. Augustine refuted in The City of God.
The Hindu doctrine that the universe consists of an infinite number of cycles which are measured in calpas had come to the notice of the Stoics and the Pythagoreans. The calpa transcends man’s imagination. Imagine a wall of iron. It is sixteen miles high and every six hundred years an angel brushes it with a very fine cloth from Benares. When the cloth has worn down the wall which is sixteen miles high, the first day of one of the calpas will have passed and the gods also last as long as the calpas last and then die.
The history of the universe is divided into cycles and in these cycles there are long eclipses during which there is nothing or in which only the words of the Veda remain. Those words are archetypes which serve to create things. La divinity Brahma also dies and is reborn. There is a quite pathetic moment when Brahma is in his palace. He has been reborn after one of the calpas, after one of the eclipses. He walks through the rooms, which are empty. He thinks of other gods. The other gods appear at his command, and they think that Brahma has created them because they were there before.
Let’s pause at this vision of the history of the universe. There is no God in Buddhism; or there could be a God, but it isn’t the essential thing. What is essential is that we believe that our destiny has been predetermined by our karma or karman. If I was to be born in Buenos Aires in 1899, if I was to be blind, if I am to be giving this lecture to you tonight, it is all the result of my previous life. There isn’t a single event in my life which hasn’t been predetermined by my previous life. This is what is called karma. Karma, as I have already said, is like a mental structure, an extremely fine mental structure.
We are weaving and inter-weaving in every moment of our lives. For not only our volitions, our deeds, our semi-dreams, our sleep, our semi-waking are woven: we are perpetually weaving that thing [karma]. When we die another being is born who inherits our karma.
Schopenhauer’s disciple Deussen, who loved Buddhism, relates that he met a blind beggar in India, and took pity on him. The beggar said to him: “If I was born blind, it is because of the faults committed in my previous life; it is just that I am blind.” People accept pain. Gandhi was opposed to building hospitals saying that hospitals and charitable works simply delay the payment of a debt, that one should not help others: if the others suffer they must suffer because it is a fault they must pay and if I help them I am only delaying their payment.
Karma is a cruel law, but it has a curious mathematical consequence: if my present life is determined by my previous one, that previous one was determined by an other; and that other, by an other, and so on without end. That is: the letter z was determined by the y, the y by the x, the x by the w, the w by the v, except that this alphabet has an end but no beginning. Buddhists and Hindus, in general, believe in a real infinity; they believe that to arrive at this moment an infinite time has passed, and that when I say infinite I don’t mean undefined, innumerable, I mean strictly infinite.
Of the six destinies permitted to man (someone can be a demon, can be a plant, can be an animal), the most difficult is to be a human being, and we must take advantage of it in order to save ourselves.
Buddha imagines a tortoise at the bottom of the sea and a bangle that floats. Every six hundred years the tortoise lifts its head out of the water and it would be very seldom that its head enters the bangle. Well, says Buddha, as infrequently as that happens with the tortoise and the bangle is the fact that we are humans. We must take advantage of being humans to reach nirvana.
What is the cause of suffering, the cause of life, if we deny the concept of a God, if there is no personal god who creates the universe? This concept is what Buddha calls Zen. The word Zen may seem strange to us, but we will compare it with other words we know.
Let’s think for example of Schopenhauer’s Will. Schopenhauer conceives of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, The World as Will and Representation [mental picture]. There is a Will which incarnates in each one of us and produces that representation which is the world. We find this in other philosophers by a different name. Bergson speaks of the élan vital; Bernard Shaw of the “life force”, which is the same. But there is a difference: for Bergson and Shaw the élan vital are forces which must prevail, we must continue dreaming the world, creating the world. For Schopenhauer, for gloomy Schopenhauer, and for the Buddha, the world is a dream, we must stop dreaming it and we can achieve this by means of long exercises. At first we have suffering, which is Zen. And Zen produces life and life is, necessarily, misfortune; because what is living? Living is being born, growing old, being ill, dying, along with other evils, among which is a very pathetic one, which for the Buddha is one of the most pathetic: not being with those we love.
We have to renounce passion. Suicide doesn’t help because it’s a passionate act. A person who commits suicide is always in the world of dreams. We must come to understand that the world is an apparition, a dream, that life is a dream. But we must feel this profoundly, achieve it through meditation exercises. In Buddhist monasteries one of the exercises is this: the neophyte has to live every moment of his life completely immersed in it. He must think: “It is now midday, I am now crossing the courtyard, I will now meet the superior,” and at the same moment he must think that midday, the courtyard and the superior are unreal, are as unreal as he and his thoughts. Because Buddhism negates the I.
One of the greatest disillusions is the I. Buddhism agrees on this with Hume, with Schopenhauer and with our Macedonio Fernández. There is no subject, what there is, is a series of mental states. If I say “I think”, I am incurring in error, because I suppose a constant subject and then an act of this subject. This is not so. Hume points out we should not say “I think”, but “it thinks”, like “it’s raining”. When we “it’s raining”, we are not thinking that the rain is carrying out an action; no, something is happening. In the same way, just as we say it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s raining, we must say: it thinks, it suffers, and avoid the subject.
In Buddhist monasteries the neophytes are subjected to a very hard discipline. They can leave the monastery whenever they wish. They don’t even write down their names – María Kodama tells me. The neophyte enters the monastery and is subjected to very hard tasks. He sleeps and after a quarter of an hour they wake him up; he must wash, he must sweep up; if he falls asleep they punish him physically. Thus he must think at all times not of his faults, but of the unreality of everything. He has to perform a continuous exercise of unreality.
We now come to Zen Buddhism and to Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was the first missionary, in the sixth century. He goes from India to China and meets with an emperor who had promoted Buddhism and enumerates the monasteries and sanctuaries and the number of Buddhist neophytes. Bodhidharma tells him: “All that belongs to the world of illusion; the monasteries and the monks are as unreal as you and I.” Then he meditates and leans against a wall.
The doctrine arrives in Japan and divides into various sects. The most famous is Zen. In Zen a procedure has been discovered to achieve illumination. It is only effective after years of mediation. You arrive abruptly; it is not a series of syllogisms. One must suddenly intuit the truth. The procedure is called satori and consists of an abrupt act, which is beyond logic.
We always think in terms of subject, object, cause, effect, logic, illogic, something and its opposite; we must surpass these categories. According to the Zen doctors, we must arrive at the truth through a brusque intuition, by means of an illogical answer. The neophyte asks the teacher what is Buddha. The teacher answers: “The cypress is the orchard.” A completely illogical answer which can awaken the truth. The neophyte asks why Bodhidharma came from the west. The teacher may reply: “Three pounds of linen.” These words do not involve an allegorical meaning; they are an absurd reply to awaken, suddenly, intuition. It could also be a blow. The disciple may ask something and the teacher answers with a blow. There is a story – of course it must be legendary – about Bodhidharma.
A disciple accompanied Bodhidharma and asked him questions and Bodhidharma never answered. The disciple tried to meditate and after a while he cut off his left arm and came before the teacher as proof that he wanted to be his disciple. He mutilated himself deliberately as proof of his intention. The teacher, not paying attention to the act which, after all, was a physical act, an illusion, said: “What do you want?” The disciple answered: “I have been seeking my mind for a long time, and have not found it.” The teacher summed up: “You haven’t found it because it doesn’t exist.” At that moment the disciple understood the truth, understood that the I doesn’t exist, understood that everything is unreal. Here we have, more or less, the essential in Zen Buddhism.
It’s very difficult to describe a religion, especially one which one doesn’t profess. I think it is important that we don’t conceive of Buddhism as a set of legends, but as a discipline; a discipline which is within our reach and doesn’t demand asceticism of us. It also doesn’t allow us to abandon ourselves to the licenses of carnal life. What it asks of us is meditation, a meditation which isn’t about our faults, about our past life.
One of the themes of Zen Buddhist meditation is to think that our past life was illusory. If I were a Buddhist monk I would think at this moment that I have begun to live now, that the past life of Borges was a dream, that the entire universal history was a dream. By means of intellectual meditation we gradually liberate ourselves from the Zen. Once we understand that the I doesn’t exist, we cannot think that the I can be happy or that it is our duty to make it happy. We achieve a state of calm. This doesn’t mean that nirvana is equivalent to the sensation of thought and a proof of this would be in the legend of the Buddha. The Buddha under the sacred fig tree achieves nirvana and nevertheless continues living and preaching the law for many years.
What does it mean to achieve nirvana? Simply that our acts no longer cast shadows. While we are in this world we are subject to karma. Every one of our acts interweaves that mental structure called karma. When we have achieved nirvana our acts no longer cast shadows, we are free. Saint Augustine said that once we are saved we no longer have reason to think about good or about evil. We will continue doing the good, without thinking about it.
What is nirvana? Much of the attention that Buddhism has aroused in the west is due to this beautiful word. It seems impossible that the word nirvana doesn’t involve something precious. What is nirvana literally? It is extinction, snuffing out. It has been conjectured that when someone achieves nirvana, they are snuffed out. But when they die it is the great nirvana, and then extinction. On the other hand, an Austrian orientalist notes that the Buddha used the physics of his time, and the idea of extinction wasn’t the same as it is now: because it was thought that a flame, upon being snuffed out, doesn’t disappear. It was thought that the flame continued living, that it persisted in a different state, and that nirvana doesn’t necessarily signify extinction. In can be that we continue in a different way. In a way inconceivable for us. In general the metaphors of the mystics are prophetic ones, but those of the Buddhists are different. When they speak of nirvana they don’t speak of the wine of nirvana or the rose of nirvana or the embrace of nirvana. Rather do they compare it to an island. To a firm island in the midst of storms. They compare it to a tall tower; it can also be compared to a garden. It’s something which exists on its own, independent of us.
What I have said today is fragmentary. It would have been absurd for me to have expounded on a doctrine to which I have dedicated many years – and of which I have understood little, really – with a wish to show a museum piece. Buddhism is not a museum piece for me: it is a path to salvation. Not for me, but for millions of people. It is the most widely held religion in the world and I believe that I have treated it with respect when explaining it tonight.
Translation: Frank Thomas Smith