An Introduction to Buddhism (From Jorge Luis Borges)
Borges dedicated the fourth of his “Seven Nights” lectures to showcasing some of the essential premises of this philosophy.
When Borges navigated the mythological or the historical, his destinations were generally revealing territories. Seen in retrospect, irrespective of whether these oceans were Islamic, Scandinavian, Greek or Christian, the Argentine writer’s rudder of exploration always brought good results.
Borges offered a series of conferences at the Coliseo Theatre in Buenos Aires in 1977 called Seven Nights. In each session he dealt with a different theme, and the talks were published as a book under the same title three years later. The fourth of the seven nights was dedicated to Buddhism.
After warning that he would omit a large part of the unfathomable Buddhist panorama, the talk focused on some aspects of the tradition that we could describe as essential in the sense that they are shared by all of Buddhism’s streams. He also recalled the legend of Buddha, Siddharta Gautama, the tradition’s narrative axis, and after talking in-depth about Zen, he touched on the concept of nirvana.
The following is a brief summary of some of the more notable premises that the author of “The Aleph” discussed on the night of July 6. ––The full conference can be read here.
Tolerance and Faith
At the start of his talk, Borges highlighted the longevity of the tradition that, beyond its historical circumstances, he attributes to two fundamental qualities of Buddhism.
Firstly: tolerance. “Buddhism was always tolerant (…) It has never had recourse to steel or fire, has never thought that steel or fire were persuasive.” This aspect contrasts with most of the major religions that have historically cultivated intolerance as their main incongruence.
Secondly, there is faith; the basic engine of any spiritual doctrine but which in the case of Buddhism demands a singular constancy and daily dedication. In fact, in Buddhism faith is exercised to the point that, Borges says, there are meditations focused on doubting the very existence of the Buddha. And precisely because faith is so palpable here and it is so incorporated into its practice, Buddhism can afford the luxury of tolerance. Because it is in no way an exclusive philosophy and makes no attempt at imposition, it never feels threatened.
Transmigration and Karma
This pairing is particularly disturbing for the West. Its understanding or virtual acceptance frequently challenge Western thinking. Karma, however, Borges says, is a recurrent theme in Western literature and philosophy, although perhaps in a more archetypal than conscious form. From Pythagoras and Plato to Rubén Darío and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this kind of pre-voluntary fate exists in the imagination.
What is essential is that we believe that our destiny has been predetermined by our karma or karman. If I was to be born in Buenos Aires in 1899, if I was to be blind, if I am to be giving this lecture to you tonight, it is all the result of my previous life. There isn’t a single event in my life which hasn’t been predetermined by my previous life. This is what is called karma. Karma, as I have already said, is like a mental structure, an extremely fine mental structure.
Zen, as Borges calls it, is a branch of Buddhism particular to the Mahayana. It emerged in China from Indian monk Bodhidharma and from there it spread to other regions of the world and Japan would emerge as its mecca.
Evidently, Zen is the school of Buddhism that Borges favors and considers it the most genuine (together with the common trunk):
It seems to me that if there are two Buddhisms that are similar, that are almost identical, they are the one which Buddha preached and the one which is taught now in China and Japan, Zen Buddhism. The rest are mythological incrustations, fables.
To finalize his comments on Zen, and after reflecting on some of the most notable precepts, Borges highlights a fascinating Zen tool: intuition as a means of achieving enlightenment, “to reach truth through brusque intuition via an illogical answer,” and thus consummate the satori.
This is one of the most attractive concepts within Buddhism. In fact, as Borges points out, nirvana is one of the reasons why the Buddhist tradition has provoked such interest in the West.
Nirvana could not only be perceived, albeit incorrectly, as the ultimate end of the practice, but for ‘externals’ it exists as a kind of paradise. But unlike the Christian or Islamic paradises, nirvana does not imply external stimuli – neither pristine lawns nor angelical women – but rather it refers to a state of being that transcends.
What does it mean to achieve nirvana? Simply that our acts no longer cast shadows. While we are in this world we are subject to karma. Every one of our acts interweaves that mental structure called karma. When we have achieved nirvana our acts no longer cast shadows, we are free.
Practice as the vehicle of salvation
After reflecting on this tradition and taking advantage of the introduction Borges gave us that night, we could say that Buddhism is more practice than belief; it is to thread together a network of acts in time-space until we create a way that, with a little Buddhist luck, allows us to free ourselves. But from what? From the arrow (that is “all that we have stuck in us,” from our concept of the universe to the idea of the self. It is the illusion that our reality embraces until the moment we wake up).
Buddhism offers generous lessons for us, irrespective of our creed. Its openness, tolerance and inclusion, its “transcendental practicality” make the tradition a valuable tool that favors discipline and, at least in essence, rejects dogma. Borges concludes:
Buddhism is not a museum piece for me: it is a path to salvation. Not for me, but for millions of people. It is the most widely held religion in the world and I believe that I have treated it with respect when explaining it tonight.
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