Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland

The East and the West

I am going to tell you the story of the life of a very great man. He was not great as the world usually regards greatness, being neither a conqueror nor a hero in any worldly sense—in fact, for many years of his life he was a beggar. Buddha is the name by which he is generally known; but before I begin my story I must tell you something of the lands where he lived and taught—in the great mysterious East, which is so different in every way from the part of the world we live in.

The most remarkable feature of our modern Western world is Change. Think what changes have taken place in the last hundred years. Railways and motor-cars have been brought into use, wonderful inventions have been made in machinery, wonderful discoveries in science; electricity has been made use of for lighting our houses and towns, and many other purposes. If our grandfathers could see our Western world as we see it, they would hardly recognize it.

The people of the East have no wish for such changes, and where they have not been disturbed by Western ideas their manners and customs have remained the same during hundreds of years. If one of the Patriarchs of whom we read in the Bible were to visit the scenes in which he once dwelt, he would find a familiar world, and the common things of everyday life would be much as he remembered them. He would see the oxen treading out the corn, and the women carrying their pitchers to the well as they used to do more than two thousand years ago. Even in appearance the people would be little changed, for there are no new fashions in the East, and the same graceful draperies which were worn in the days of the Patriarchs are to be seen at the present day.

The hurry and rush of our lives is also in strange contrast to the passive and dreamy life of the East. In the West most people are busy, and anxious to get through as much as they can in the day; if they are not working they are very busy amusing themselves, and few sit still to think—they would consider this a waste of time. But in the East no one hurries himself who is not obliged, and little value is attached to time or punctuality.

The West, then, is the new world of Action and Progress, the East the old world of Thought. One cannot say that either is right or either wrong. Different races of mankind possess different qualities, and try to improve the world in the direction that seems to them of the greatest importance. Thus the Greeks have taught us what true Beauty is, and left us models of beauty which have never been surpassed. The nations of the West have been foremost in science and all mechanical arts, and to them we owe most of the comforts and conveniences of everyday life. But it is to the East that we must look for the spiritual thought out of which have grown the religions which have most deeply influenced the world. It was there that all the great teachers of mankind arose—Moses, Buddha, Mohammed the Prophet of Arabia; and we must not forget that it was to an Eastern people, amid Eastern surroundings, that Christ's message was first delivered. All deep thought on spiritual matters has had its beginning in the East, and the world could better spare all the improvements of modern civilization than the wisdom of the East. It would not really matter if you had to take a pitcher to the well to fetch water, instead of turning on the hot and cold water taps; but it would matter a great deal if you had never heard of a life beyond this earthly life, and of the Kingdom of Righteousness.

The aims, then, of the East and the West have been altogether different. Who can tell which has chosen the better part?

The very name of the East has a sound of enchantment and mystery, and your first visit to an Eastern country is like opening a new book of strange and beautiful fairy stories, in which everything is quite unlike the common experiences of everyday life. The gorgeous colours, glowing yet more brightly under the sapphire sky, the gay-plumaged birds, the wondrous fruits and blossoms, and the many new and strange sights make you feel as if you were living in a land of dreams.

You must not, however, picture the East as nothing but a fairyland of delight—there is sadness there, as there is everywhere, if we look beneath the surface. In civilized countries sad and horrible sights are hidden from us as much as possible, and those of us who happen to be fortunate and lead pleasant lives scarcely know of the misery that is in the world. But in the East things go their own way, and Nature's laws are enforced without interference. "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together"—we are often reminded of this by the sad sights that meet our eyes in an Eastern city. There you may see the beggars lying, like Lazarus, with their sores exposed to the scorching rays of the sun, asking alms of the passers-by; and the steps of a mosque or other large building will often be crowded with the maimed and the blind. Perhaps a man with a covering over his head may, as he passes by, reveal the face of a leper as white as snow. And in wandering through the rice-fields you may see a dying bullock surrounded by a flock of vultures, which approach as near as they dare, awaiting the coming feast.

Thus the people of the East become familiar with suffering and disease; they have more patience and resignation than we have, and are less in fear of death. The sadness of life is accepted as a thing which must be. We notice this in many ways. Music is a language which expresses the thoughts and feelings of a people. In Europe the tunes and songs which become popular are mostly of a joyful nature, but the music of the East is usually sad and pathetic, though often very beautiful. A plaintive little tune, covering a range of about three notes, will be repeated again and again in % endless monotony.

But though the fact that life is, on the whole, sad lies at the root of their beliefs, Eastern people are quite capable of enjoying the pleasures that come to them. They are in many ways very simple-minded people, and enjoy simple pleasures almost like children. They live in closer touch with Nature than it is possible for us to do. Modern civilization has tended to make our lives artificial, and we spend the greater part of our time in houses, going out at stated intervals for exercise or, amusement. Except the few of us who have studied the subject, we know little of the habits of birds and animals, and are apt to look on Nature as something entirely apart from man. But in the East it is different; the people have no need to study Nature in books, as their daily lives are bound up with her, and they live on familiar terms with the birds and animals. Thus in the plains of India you will see little naked boys taking the water buffalo out to graze on the outskirts of the jungle, and the great beasts will follow the children submissively and understand their ways, though it is often not safe for the stranger from Europe to approach them.

The religions of India are very old indeed, and were practised many hundreds of years before the age of Christianity. Formerly Europeans knew very little about these ancient religions, and were inclined to consider all people professing other creeds than their own as heathens and idolaters. It is only in modern times that scholars have learnt the ancient languages, and so have been able to understand the sacred books of the Hindus, Buddhists, and others. During the nineteenth century many translations were made of these old writings, and through them we learn that God had not forgotten these people, nor left them in utter darkness. Though they never had the opportunity of coming to a full knowledge of God, enough light was given them to enable them to lead noble lives and to guide them into the paths of truth and self-denial.