Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and Buddhism: The Middle Way for China?


A fair case could be made that from a cultural perspective, China is governed by the so-called Three Teachings. Two of them: Daoism and Confucianism, have been covered through previous articles. Today, it’s time to put Buddhism under the proverbial microscope to understand its role in Chinese culture and, yes, ultimately even economic behavior.

To start with the origins of Buddhism, it’s important to point out that Siddhartha Gautama (later known as Buddha and believed to have been born in today’s Nepal region) was a man of great wealth, who was sheltered until his late twenties so as to be prepared for a glorious role in later life. However, as Siddhartha Gautama started leaving his palace to embark on small excursions, he noticed how dramatic of a difference there was between his luxurious lifestyle and the condition of his fellow men. The suffering of the people he came across made him unhappy and, indeed, “suffering” is the operative word when it comes to Buddhism.

After having his suffering-oriented epiphany, Siddhartha Gautama left the comfort of his palace so as to travel, learn and discover… among other things, himself. He went from extreme wealth to extreme poverty, almost starving himself to death because he believed extreme deprivation would bring him piece. As he eventually discovered, it hadn’t.

It was only when someone bought him milk out of compassion when he realized that yes, the truth is indeed in the middle. And as such, he used the term “Middle Way” to describe the path that he believes leads to liberation, the Noble Eightfold Path, in other words. A path of neither deprivation nor extreme luxury, something that describes the mindset of the average Chinese citizen quite well and reinforced by the other two teachings as well.

Perhaps the most important word to remember as a result of reading this article is “moderation” in light of the fact that more so in the East (China in particular) than in the West, it is the cultural norm to be guided by this mindset. In fact, many sometimes wonder why there is unease and frustration within the Chinese society despite the dramatic economic growth which has taken place as of let’s say the 1978 reform period.

The answer is that, among other things, the average Chinese citizen feels that the moderation dimension of a person’s existence has been set out of balance by China’s oftentimes hectic to the point of unsustainable economic growth. As such, as more and more people find themselves dramatically better off from a material perspective, they cannot help but feel that something is missing or even more so, that something might have been lost.

Buddhism provides quite a few clues in this respect.

In a nutshell, Buddhism makes it clear that it is ultimately suffering that unites us… the human condition, if you will. Or the fleeting nature of our experience on this planet, depending on which terminology you choose to refer to it. To achieve enlightenment and ultimately even Nirvana, one of the keys is represented by the compassion it takes to acknowledge the suffering of your fellow men and so something about it.

Again, it is paramount to understand that the “remedy” envisioned by Buddha in no way revolved around extremes. In a nutshell, the Middle Way is all about seeking enlightenment by acknowledging The Four Noble Truths : realizing that there is suffering all around us, understanding that it is our desires which lead to the previously mentioned suffering, that suffering can be transcended by removing desires from the equation and that The Noble Eightfold Path enables us to move beyond suffering (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration).

For an extended period of time, Western observers have found it peculiar that wisdom is perceived as a habit in the East, similar to a muscle that needs to be trained rather than a stage that is simply reached and at which you can remain effortlessly upon achieving it. However, as time passed, it is not only the West that influenced the East. On the contrary, quite a few Westerners have embraced concepts such as mindfulness and, as such, a case can be made that Buddhism has enabled the cultural gap between the East and West to be narrowed.

And, indeed, this has been our main goal with right from day one: making it clear that understanding one another in a meaningful rather than superficial manner paves the way for, among many other things, economic prosperity as well. To do just that, understanding Buddhism in particular and the Three Teachings for a broader perspective is paramount. In the absence of this exercise, there is a ceiling with which the Western observer will inevitably be confronted in terms of his understanding of China and the East.

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