The Spirit of the Buddha

For last month’s contest inspired by the new illustrated edition of E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, we asked you to answer five questions, the last one of which read, “Who found enlightenment under a fig tree?” As many of you were able to tell us, the answer is the Buddha, and in Martine Batchelor’s recent book The Spirit of the Buddha, she describes the seven-day period of deep meditation leading up to her subject’s awakening—during which he sat under the tree known alternately as the Bodhi, ficus religiosa, or sacred fig.

Tracing the faith from these earliest parts of the Buddha’s biography to his legacy today, Batchelor emphasizes the way in which sacred texts are grounded in the context and culture from which they arose, but explains how, “by studying them and practicing their ideas we can make them our own.” Although she grounds her work in texts of the Pali canon, which include translations of the Buddha’s discourses as they were memorized and passed down through generations of his followers, Batchelor reminds her readers “there can be no pure text and no pure meaning passed on through time,” pointing out that this “accords with the main idea of the Buddha that things are impermanent and subject to the flux of conditions.”

In spite of this, Batchelor says that what strikes her most in the teachings of the Pali Canon are the resemblances they bear to modern Buddhism: their emphasis on “morality and compassion,” and “the cultivation of quietness and clarity,” several of the fundamental tenets to which the Buddha was awakened in his meditation beneath the Bodhi tree. Batchelor, who spent ten years of her life as a Buddhist nun in Korea, offers a succinct and engaging history of Buddhism that highlights those elements that she sees “as most beneficial to the modern public.”

In her final chapter, the author discusses the many directions in which Buddhism has developed over the last hundred years, describing its role as a force for social engagement, as its practice freed many Indians from the caste system. We recognize the political significance of Buddhism from newspaper headlines; in the last six months, nine young Tibetan Buddhists have set themselves on fire in order to protest Chinese policies which support “patriotic education” and require citizens to renounce the Dalai Lama.

Batchelor does not address this issue directly, but draws particular attention to the Buddha’s interest in our engagement with the world we live in: “how one should behave.” Because human nature is much the same as it ever was, Batchelor argues, the Buddha’s methods for dealing with negative influences through an increased commitment to “loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity” are as valuable to us as they were to the Buddha’s first followers 2,500 years ago.

See Batchelor read from the second chapter of The Spirit of the Buddha on the Tricycle blog, a “daily diary of the global Buddhist movement.” 

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