Smothered in Legend

THE LIFE OF BUDDHA. By A. Ferdinand Herold. (A. & C. [?], N. Y.)

ONE of the tragedies of history is to be felt in contemplating the fact that very often, if not always, when a great spirit has come into the world and striven to raise human consciousness to the level of some higher vision, either the teaching has been ignored, as in the case of Akhnaton, or it has triumphed through some misinterpretation that tends to darken its original meaning for most of those who believe themselves to be its devotees. We must live largely by sense data, and it is not strange that we should miss the meaning of a supersensuous vision by attempting to translate it into terms of sense — obviously an impossibility. It is our human way to shape sense forms for spiritual conceptions and then to mistake the former for the vision they were intended in vain to express. Some have regarded this human tendency as significant of original sin; but it seems more likely that the problem involved is one of epistemology. No conception can be greater than the consciousness that holds it.

In reading Herold’s “Life of Buddha,” the foregoing remarks seem especially applicable. In the original French the work is said to have had a large sale — a fact that must have been concerned to a very considerable extent with a restless popular curiosity and a taste for anything that is “different.”

In a foreward, the author tells us that his “Life” is not a work of fiction, that he has relied, in great part, upon the Lalita Vistara, which he describes as “a jumbled collection of legends and scholastic dissertations” concerned with the life and teachings of the Buddha. But there can be few things more certain than that such “legends and scholastic dissertations” are not only fiction, but fiction of an exceedingly crude type — so crude, at times, that they are in direct opposition to the one vital idea in the doctrine of Gotama. An example is that of the Buddha’s alleged wrath at his disciple, Nanda, who dared to wear a robe of the same size as that of the Master. What do you mean by such audacity?” cries the one who has attained ultimate wisdom and is therefore free of all desire, all vanity, all illusion. “You must shorten your robe, Nanda, and in future any monk who makes a robe for himself as long as Buddha’s will be severely punished.” If Gotama had attained anything, he had risen there the quantitative conception of value, and the inventor of such legends certainly had not.

Buddhism, in its essential meaning, is one of the sublime spiritual adventures of the human race, and when considered without the crude legends that obviously were created out of the misunderstandings of inferior intelligences, it attains heights of marvelous beauty. Herold’s life makes one think of a fine silken garment that has been patched by overzealous generations of bunglers fatuously striving to improve it.

For one interested in the curiosities of religious dogmatism, Herold’s work is excellent. But for those who believe that religion and poetry in their pure forms are identical, a better work on the life of Gotama is “The Splendor of Asia” by the remarkable woman who calls herself E. Barrington and is also known as M. Beck.