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The Two Ways of Life and Death

Life and Death

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.”

So opens the Didache–The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles–perhaps the only authentic document we possess authored by the apostles of Jesus assembled in Jerusalem a few years after his death and resurrection. They were no doubt echoing words spoken to them by Jesus, and he was no doubt recalling the fifteenth and sixteenth verses of the Dhammapada which he would have either read or heard during the years he lived in the Buddhist monasteries of Northern India. In those verses Buddha set forth the two ways of life.

When Buddha first spoke to others the knowledge gained through his enlightenment, the first principle he gave was: “There is suffering.” This is the fundamental fact of relative existence. It is nonsense to accuse Buddha of being pessimistic or negative for saying this, for he continued with three other facts that give hope to anyone who ponders them: “Suffering has a cause. Suffering can be ended. There is a way to end suffering.” Everything else spoken by Buddha was the practical way to demonstrate the truth of these Four Aryan Truths by attaining Nirvana–the ending of all possibility of suffering.

Now in the Dhammapada Buddha is going to put it very succinctly:

“Here and beyond he suffers. The wrong-doer suffers both ways. He suffers and is tormented to see his own depraved behavior. Here and beyond he is glad. The doer of good is glad both ways. He is glad and rejoices to see his own good deeds” (Dhammapada 15, 16).

The “Big Catch”

Since duality is necessary for relative existence, there is no thing that does not have both advantages and drawbacks. Countless people in the West have hoped to escape the truth about their wrongdoing and its attendant guilt and retribution by seeking spiritual asylum in Oriental religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. “No hell here!” they exult, unaware that the popular scriptures of both Hinduism and Buddhism contain far more material on hell and threats of hell (often for incredibly petty offenses) than the Bible. “No talk about sin!” they shrill, perhaps not so unaware that both religions contain virtual libraries of material on those unescaped bugaboos. “No guilt!” they shout, not realizing that their desperation proves just the opposite.

It is definitely true that Hinduism and Buddhism have a far more accurate and optimistic definition and outlook regarding these things, but that is because they greatly emphasize the two things those refugees have most been seeking to escape: personal responsibility for wrongdoing and the inevitability of retribution for it. For those seeking a higher consciousness through the adoption of a higher (i.e., sin-free) life, hope and confidence are abundantly proffered:

“Though a man be soiled with the sins of a lifetime, let him but love me, rightly resolved, in utter devotion: I see no sinner, that man is holy. Holiness soon shall refashion his nature to peace eternal; O son of Kunti, of this be certain: the man that loves me, he shall not perish. (Bhagavad Gita 9:30, 31)

But there is no optimism for those who intend to stay in the hog-wallow mud of ignorance and evil:

“Men of demonic nature know neither what they ought to do, nor what they should refrain from doing. There is no truth in them, or purity, or right conduct. They maintain that the scriptures are a lie, and that the universe is not based upon a moral law, but godless, conceived in lust and created by copulation, without any other cause. Because they believe this in the darkness of their little minds, these degraded creatures do horrible deeds, attempting to destroy the world. They are enemies of mankind.

“Their lust can never be appeased. They are arrogant, and vain, and drunk with pride. They run blindly after what is evil. The ends they work for are unclean. They are sure that life has only one purpose: gratification of the senses. And so they are plagued by innumerable cares, from which death alone can release them. Anxiety binds them with a hundred chains, delivering them over to lust and wrath. They are ceaselessly busy, piling up dishonest gains to satisfy their cravings.

“‘I wanted this and today I got it. I want that: I shall get it tomorrow. All these riches are now mine: soon I shall have more. I have killed this enemy. I will kill all the rest. I am a ruler of men. I enjoy the things of this world. I am successful, strong and happy. Who is my equal? I am so wealthy and so nobly born. I will sacrifice to the gods. I will give alms. I will make merry.’ That is what they say to themselves, in the blindness of their ignorance.

“They are addicts of sensual pleasure, made restless by their many desires, and caught in the net of delusion. They fall into the filthy hell of their own evil minds. Conceited, haughty, foolishly proud, and intoxicated by their wealth, they offer sacrifice to God in name only, for outward show, without following the sacred rituals. These malignant creatures are full of egoism, vanity, lust, wrath, and consciousness of power. They loathe me, and deny my presence both in themselves and in others. They are enemies of all men and of myself; cruel, despicable and vile. I cast them back, again and again, into the wombs of degraded parents, subjecting them to the wheel of birth and death. And so they are constantly reborn, in degradation and delusion. They do not reach me, but sink down to the lowest possible condition of the soul” (Bhagavad Gita 16:7-20).

That is how Krishna put the matter before Buddha did; the sum of both are the same.

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