Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ortega y Gasset and the Schools of Buddhism

I’ve recently been re-reading Jose Ortega y Gasset’s La Rebelion de las Masas. I say “re-reading;” in fact, I read the English version, The Revolt of the Masses many years ago, when I was a teen-ager.  I don’t think the book receives the attention it should today. It is one of the best early recognitions and analyses of the phenomenon of the mass society. One bizarre error at the beginning of the book struck me, though.
In contrasting the “select minorities” who push themselves toward excellence with those of the majority who are content to have no outstanding qualities, Ortega y Gasset writes “[e]sto me recuerda que el budismo ortodoxo se compone de dos religions distintas: una, más rigoras y difícil; otra, más laxa y trivial; el Mahayana – “gran vehículo” o “gran carril” – y el Hinayana – “pequeño vehículo”, “camino menor”.  Lo decisivo es si ponemos nuestra vida a uno u otro vehículo, a un máximo de exigencias o a un minimo. [This reminds me that orthodox Buddhism consists of two distinct religions: one more rigorous and difficult; the other more lax and trivial; Mahayana, “the Great Vehicle” or “Great Way” – and Hinayana – “Small Vehicle,” “Lesser Road.” The decisive issue is whether we place our lives in one or the other vehicle, in the greatest of demands or in the least” – my poor translation].
This contrast fits Ortega y Gasset’s argument. Unfortunately,  he’s got the two major schools of Buddhism completely wrong.  The Gautama Buddha wrote nothing down.  Like Socrates and Jesus, he conveyed his teachings only by word of mouth.  As later adherents institutionalized these teachings, they interpreted them in different ways.  Not long after his death, these adherents called a council to organize and interpret his sermons and to compile a code for monks. Two more councils in the succeeding centuries continued the work. By the third council, held under the sponsorship of the great Buddhist King Asoka at Paliputra in the mid-third century BCE, diverging traditions of interpretation began to split the religion into the two major sects, one of which (Mahayana) came to predominate in the northern lands of China, Japan, and Korea (and is therefore sometimes called the Northern School), while the other came to predominate in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and mainland Southeast Asia (except for Vietnam, because of the Chinese influence in that country).
The differences between the two sects are complicated, but definitely have nothing to do with Mahayana Buddhism somehow demanding greater spiritual efforts of its adherents.  It obtained the title “Greater Vehicle” in somewhat the same way that Lenin and his adherents managed to get themselves labeled as “Bolsheviks” (“Majoritarians”) when Lenin maneuvered them into control of the Russian Social Democratic Party, while sticking the losing faction with the name “Mensheviks” (“Minoritarians”), in spite of the fact that the Mensheviks generally favored a more open and democratic party.  “The designation “Hinayana” was apparently given by the Mahayanists.  Adherents of the Southern School prefer the description “Theravada,” “the way of the elders,” in the belief that they keep an older and purer form of Buddhism.
The greatest difference between the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists is that the latter tend to emphasis individual efforts at merit and insight, while the former place more importance on Bodhisattvas, who can help the great masses toward nirvana. In theory, then, the distinction would appear to be the opposite of Ortega y Gasset’s description.  In reality, of course, neither of these are religious disciplines of spiritual aristocrats. Both are popular, mass religions with millions of followers. I once asked a conventionally religious Theravada Buddhist friend in Thailand what he would ask if the Buddha came to him in a vision.  He thought for a moment and answered, “I’d ask him for the winning lottery number.”  Maybe we need to look outside of all large-scale institutions to find the true elites.

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