Some time ago a reader asked me an interesting question. When the Bodhisattva was struggling to attain enlightenment he said he would be prepared to let his body become emaciated, to die even, in order to realize his goal. Isn’t this, my reader asked, extreme? Does it not contravene the idea of the Middle Way? I have been reading William Manchester’s account of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, A World Lit Only By Fire, Little Brown 1992. Williams takes the lives of Erasmus, Luther and particularly Magellan as illustrative of the spirit of this time. Of course I know about Magellan’s achievements but I, at least, never knew the sheer audacity, the incredible courage, the super-human determination that it involved. Magellan was a real hero and Williams describes the inner workings of a hero like this -
‘The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth, love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge…Guided by an inner gyroscope, he peruses his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejection, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude. Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations – of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man of towering strength of character can suppress them.’
This perhaps gives some idea of what might have been going on in the Bodhisattva’s mind when he renounced his wife and child and when he drove himself with deprivations and austerities. And in this sense Siddhattha Gotama and Magellan were similar – they were both determined to go where no one had even been before, one spiritual the other terrestrial. And I imagine this is the reason why one of the epitaph the early Buddhists gave the Buddha was Great Hero (Mahavira, e.g. S.I,110; 193; III,83).
Incidentally, A World Lit Only By Fire is a great read. Apart from being a hang-on-tight romp through a world long gone, it also offers page after page of evidence for the point I made in my post of 25th October, that religion does not necessarily make people better. As Williams points out, the Middle Ages was not just a time when everyone believed, even the possibility of doubt or skepticism didn’t exist. And yet it was also a time of appalling cruelty and savagery, of unrestrained and unapologetic avariciousness, and in politics of treachery, double-dealing and perfidy that would even make the tyrants of our times gasp - all existing together with a rock-like faith. It was a world where everything was sacred and yet nothing was sacred.