Buddhism entered China in the first millennium after Christ, and it fitted well into the religious customs of the yellow race. In ancestor worship they had long prayed to the dead; now they could also pray for them. Buddhism soon amalgamated with the lingering ritualistic practices of disintegrating Taoism. This new synthetic religion with its temples of worship and definite religious ceremonial soon became the generally accepted cult of the peoples of China, Korea, and Japan.
While in some respects it is unfortunate that Buddhism was not carried to the world until after Gautama’s followers had so perverted the traditions and teachings of the cult as to make of him a divine being, nonetheless this myth of his human life, embellished as it was with a multitude of miracles, proved very appealing to the auditors of the northern or Mahayana gospel of Buddhism.
Some of his later followers taught that Sakyamuni Buddha’s spirit returned periodically to earth as a living Buddha, thus opening the way for an indefinite perpetuation of Buddha images, temples, rituals, and impostor “living Buddhas.” Thus did the religion of the great Indian protestant eventually find itself shackled with those very ceremonial practices and ritualistic incantations against which he had so fearlessly fought, and which he had so valiantly denounced.
The great advance made in Buddhist philosophy consisted in its comprehension of the relativity of all truth. Through the mechanism of this hypothesis Buddhists have been able to reconcile and correlate the divergencies within their own religious scriptures as well as the differences between their own and many others. It was taught that the small truth was for little minds, the large truth for great minds.
This philosophy also held that the Buddha (divine) nature resided in all men; that man, through his own endeavors, could attain to the realization of this inner divinity. And this teaching is one of the clearest presentations of the truth of the indwelling Adjusters ever to be made by a Urantian religion.
But a great limitation in the original gospel of Siddhartha, as it was interpreted by his followers, was that it attempted the complete liberation of the human self from all the limitations of the mortal nature by the technique of isolating the self from objective reality. True cosmic self-realization results from identification with cosmic reality and with the finite cosmos of energy, mind, and spirit, bounded by space and conditioned by time.
But though the ceremonies and outward observances of Buddhism became grossly contaminated with those of the lands to which it traveled, this degeneration was not altogether the case in the philosophical life of the great thinkers who, from time to time, embraced this system of thought and belief. Through more than two thousand years, many of the best minds of Asia have concentrated upon the problem of ascertaining absolute truth and the truth of the Absolute.
The evolution of a high concept of the Absolute was achieved through many channels of thought and by devious paths of reasoning. The upward ascent of this doctrine of infinity was not so clearly defined as was the evolution of the God concept in Hebrew theology. Nevertheless, there were certain broad levels which the minds of the Buddhists reached, tarried upon, and passed through on their way to the envisioning of the Primal Source of universes:
1. The Gautama legend. At the base of the concept was the historic fact of the life and teachings of Siddhartha, the prophet prince of India. This legend grew in myth as it traveled through the centuries and across the broad lands of Asia until it surpassed the status of the idea of Gautama as the enlightened one and began to take on additional attributes.
2. The many Buddhas. It was reasoned that, if Gautama had come to the peoples of India, then, in the remote past and in the remote future, the races of mankind must have been, and undoubtedly would be, blessed with other teachers of truth. This gave rise to the teaching that there were many Buddhas, an unlimited and infinite number, even that anyone could aspire to become one—to attain the divinity of a Buddha.
3. The Absolute Buddha. By the time the number of Buddhas was approaching infinity, it became necessary for the minds of those days to reunify this unwieldy concept. Accordingly it began to be taught that all Buddhas were but the manifestation of some higher essence, some Eternal One of infinite and unqualified existence, some Absolute Source of all reality. From here on, the Deity concept of Buddhism, in its highest form, becomes divorced from the human person of Gautama Siddhartha and casts off from the anthropomorphic limitations which have held it in leash. This final conception of the Buddha Eternal can well be identified as the Absolute, sometimes even as the infinite I AM.
While this idea of Absolute Deity never found great popular favor with the peoples of Asia, it did enable the intellectuals of these lands to unify their philosophy and to harmonize their cosmology. The concept of the Buddha Absolute is at times quasi-personal, at times wholly impersonal—even an infinite creative force. Such concepts, though helpful to philosophy, are not vital to religious development. Even an anthropomorphic Yahweh is of greater religious value than an infinitely remote Absolute of Buddhism or Brahmanism.
At times the Absolute was even thought of as contained within the infinite I AM. But these speculations were chill comfort to the hungry multitudes who craved to hear words of promise, to hear the simple gospel of Salem, that faith in God would assure divine favor and eternal survival.