Buddhism 101: A Short Introductory Lecture by Jorge Luis Borges

In 1977, eru­dite Argen­tine writer Jorge Luis Borges deliv­ered a series of sev­en lec­tures in Buenos Aires on a vari­ety of top­ics, includ­ing Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy, night­mares, and the Kab­bal­ah. (The lec­ture series is col­lect­ed in an Eng­lish trans­la­tion enti­tled Sev­en Nights.) One of the lec­tures is sim­ply called “Bud­dhism,” and in it, Borges presents an overview of the ancient East­ern reli­gion. Borges had pre­vi­ous­ly made scat­tered ref­er­ence to Bud­dhist sub­jects in his writ­ing, though he cer­tain­ly nev­er devot­ed as much atten­tion to it as he did Catholi­cism or Judaism, a faith and her­itage he found end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing and admirable.

His por­trait of Bud­dhism, though much less in depth, is no less sym­pa­thet­ic. The lec­ture is adapt­ed, it seems, from a short book writ­ten the pre­vi­ous year, Qué es el Bud­is­mo?, a “clear and con­cise expla­na­tion of the reli­gion, its val­ue sys­tems, and how some of its prin­ci­pal teach­ings share some sim­i­lar­i­ties with oth­er faiths.” So writes the blog Vague­ly Bor­ge­sian, who also com­ment that Borges’ book—and by exten­sion the lecture—“rarely goes beyond what one might find on say a Wikipedia arti­cle on Bud­dhism.” That may be so, but—as we can see in this Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Borges’ lec­ture—the author does sev­er­al times dur­ing his sum­ma­ry offer some dis­tinct­ly Bor­ge­sian com­men­tary of his own. Below are just a few excerpts:

Buddism’s Tol­er­ance:

[Buddhism’s] longevi­ty can be explained for his­tor­i­cal rea­sons, but such rea­sons are for­tu­itous or, rather, they are debat­able, fal­li­ble. I think there are two fun­da­men­tal caus­es. The first is Buddhism’s tol­er­ance. That strange tol­er­ance does not cor­re­spond, as is the case with oth­er reli­gions, to dis­tinct epochs: Bud­dism was always tol­er­ant.

It has nev­er had recourse to steel or fire, has nev­er thought that steel or fire were per­sua­sive…. A good Bud­dhist can be Luther­an, or Methodist, or Calvin­ist, or Sin­toist, or Taoist, or Catholic; he can be a pros­e­lyte to Islam or Judaism, with com­plete free­dom. But it is not per­mis­si­ble for a Chris­t­ian, a Jew or a Mus­lim to be a Bud­dhist.

On the His­tor­i­cal Exis­tence of the Bud­dha:

We may dis­be­lieve this leg­end. I have a Japan­ese friend, a Zen Bud­dhist, with whom I have had long and friend­ly argu­ments. I told him that I believed in the his­toric truth of Bud­dha. I believed and I believe that two thou­sand five hun­dred years ago there was a Nepalese prince called Sid­dhar­ta or Gau­ta­ma who became the Bud­dha, that is, the Awok­en, the Lucid One – as opposed to us who are asleep or who are dream­ing this long dream which is life. I remem­ber one of Joyce’s phras­es: “His­to­ry is a night­mare from which I want to awake.” Well then, Sid­dhar­ta, at thir­ty years of age, awoke and became Bud­dha. 

On Bud­dhism and Belief:

The oth­er reli­gions demand much more creduli­ty on our part. If we are Chris­tians we must believe that one of the three per­sons of the Divin­i­ty con­de­scend­ed to become a man and was cru­ci­fied in Judea. If we are Mus­lims we must believe that there is no oth­er god than God and that Moham­mad is his apos­tle. We can be good Bud­dhists and deny that Bud­dha exist­ed. Or, rather, we may think, we must think that our belief in his­to­ry isn’t impor­tant: what is impor­tant is to believe in the Doc­trine. Nev­er­the­less, the leg­end of Bud­dha is so beau­ti­ful that we can­not help but refer to it.

Borges has much more to say in the full lec­ture on Bud­dhist cos­mol­o­gy and his­to­ry. He con­cludes with the very respect­ful state­ment below:

What I have said today is frag­men­tary. It would have been absurd for me to have expound­ed on a doc­trine to which I have ded­i­cat­ed many years – and of which I have under­stood lit­tle, real­ly – with a wish to show a muse­um piece. 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.

To learn more about Borges and Bud­dhism, see this arti­cle, and the watch the video above, a short intro­duc­tion to a lec­ture course giv­en by Borges’ friend Amelia Bar­ili at UC Berke­ley.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Sto­ries (Read 7 Free Online)

Borges Explains The Task of Art

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • PHOTUE says:

    Sự khoan dung vô hạn của Phật giáo là một thái độ và tất yếu của nhận thức, trong sự ngộ. Cái Một trong hiện hữu, sự không phân biệt,ở mức tối thượng chính là Đức Phật Tỳ lô giá na, tức pháp thân vũ trụ. Tôi có thể giết chết một con sâu hay đồng loại trên cơ sở phân biệt sự khác nhau giữa tôi và con sâu, hay đối tượng. Một khi ý thức con sâu cũng là chính tôi đó, tôi không thể giết nó. Ý thức về sự không khác biệt này,(bất nhị) hình thành trong sự ngộ. Và trên thực tế, nó xuất hiện sau một quá trình thiền định.
    Trong sự ngộ, là một bước nhảy vọt của kinh nghiệm và ý thức thông thường. Khi đó, nhìn nhận các yếu tố tiểu sử không còn đáng kể. Do vậy, Phật giáo chú trọng vào bản thân các hoạt động nhận thức đúng đắn(tứ diệu đế, bát chánh đạo) hơn là bản thân tiểu sử Đức Phật. Tiểu sử như một cái chui đèn, nó có giới hạn. Trong khi ở cái bóng trong khi phát sáng, nó đã hòa nhập với môi trường. Tức rằng, phần chui không còn ý nghĩa trện phương diện nhận thức…

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