This is no surprise. Mr.Gautama, whom we call “The Buddha” and who (if we believe the Pali Canon) preferred to call himself “Thathagata” (the one who is thus come/gone), peacefully passed away almost 2500 years ago.
From the old texts we can get the impression Mr.Gautama was an incredibly talented psychologist, who had a very deep understanding of the human condition, the pains and sufferings of every day life, which he found to be originated in greed, aversion and illusion.
Fortunately, Mr.Gautama was kind enough to share his experiences with lots of other people, so successfully that we can excavate and study his ideas even today, hundreds of generations after his death. The discourses we find in the old texts are direct, clear and eminently practical. So much, that lots of it can easily bridge the gap of 2500 years and continents and speak to us 21st century global citizens. And if we are lucky enough, we might even meet and study with someone who is living up to all this, and such spares us the effort to learn ancient north Indian dialects and work through thousands of pages of old text.
Why then did it become a religion, called Buddhism (a word most likely coined by 19th century Western scholars)? Why do we have Monks, Nuns, Priests, Temples and all that …?
The Indian society 2500 years ago was strictly organised in terms of social stratification. You were born into your cast, had a life-long obligation to follow your cast’s rules and rituals, merry within your cast and die as a member of your cast. No way to go on-line and browse a bit for “other religions”, no way to dream of “I chose my own beliefs from now on”. Either you were in, one hundred percent committed, or you had to leave. Not just leave your cast, but also your home, your family, your social group, the town you were living in … and go to dwell in the forests.
This is what Mr.Gautama did, leaving home to live in the forest, and so were the people who became his initial audience: the out-casts of Indian society, living in the forests. They supported themselves by begging and sharing and had no significant possession … Mr.Gautamas attempts of getting this bunch of people around him a bit more organised ended up 2500 years later with priests living in luxurious temples wearing brocade robes and making a living by performing funeral services (and occasionally handing down enlightenment certificates). And most recently it lead to an increasing number of Westerners who attempt to integrate a more or less authentic copy&paste version of all this into their daily life as a school teacher, scientist, lawyer or Christian priest.
But aren’t we lucky today, compared to a 2500 years ago Indian who was unhappy with the destiny he or she was born into, who’s only chance was to stay and obey or escape into the forests? We are free to chose our beliefs and way of life, we have free access to an enormous amount of any kind of information and teaching, and usually we have enough spare time every day to study and practise (if we cut down a bit watching TV or working overtime). No need to leave a repressive family, home, social group and society to live in the forest in order to find and go our way!
Isn’t that an excellent perspective? We can just do it! Right here, right now …
Maybe it is this total freedom we did not yet learn to really appreciate, which makes us instead try to import some rules made for ancient Indian people who had to live in the forests – or robes, ranks, titles and rituals employed by professional funeral parlours in modern society Japan? Instead of just freely studying and living Mr.Gautamas insights … what a pity!