"The extravagances which disfigure the record and practice of Buddhism are to be referred to that inevitable degradation which priesthoods always inflict upon great ideas committed to their charge." Thus writes Sir Edwin Arnold, in the preface to his great Indian poem; and the words may serve to "point a moral" here.
In its origin Buddhism was no more than "a mere system of morality and philosophy, founded on a pessimistic theory of life." It was lacking in the essential element of a religion, for it had no God. And yet it had much in common with Christianity. It resembled it notably in its repudiation of idolatry and priestcraft and asceticism, and in its contempt for everything unworthy, material, and base. And not only in these respects, but also in its doctrine of the "path," it comes nearer to Christianity than does the historic religion of Christendom. A. man's acts and words, important though they be, are in one respect not so important as his aims, and the beliefs that inspire them. For his acts and words may, like the clothes he wears, be assumed; but his aims bespeak the deeper currents of his inner life, and his beliefs are part and parcel of himself.
But though the teaching traditionally attributed to Gautama was thus beautiful and pure, the Buddhism of today is one of the most degraded forms of Paganism. And what concerns us here is to mark that, though Buddhism and Christianity have flowed in channels wholly separate, the corruptions of both are of the same type, both having developed errors and superstitions so precisely similar that the errors of the one cult could easily be adapted to the other. The following most striking language is used by Dr. Rhys Davids in describing the Lamaism of Tibet :- The principles of "the noble eightfold path" are (1) right belief; (2) right aims; (3) right words; (4) right actions; (5) right means of livelihood; (6) right endeavour; (7) right mindfulness and (8) right meditation. The more this is studied the more will the order be approved.
"Lamaism, indeed, with its shaven priests, its bells, and rosaries, its images, and holy water, and gorgeous dresses; its service with double choirs, and processions, and creeds, and mystic rites, and incense, in which the laity are spectators only; its abbots and monks, and nuns of many grades; its worship of the double Virgin, and of the saints and angels; its fasts, confessions, and purgatory; its images, its idols, and its pictures; its huge monasteries, and its gorgeous cathedrals, its powerful hierarchy, its cardinals, its Pope, bears outwardly at least a strong resemblance to Romanism, in spite of the essential difference of its teachings, and of its mode of thought."
Such is Buddhism in countries where it has made its home. Is it any wonder that when Roman Catholic missionaries settled in certain provinces of China, they were amazed to find all the externals of their own religion ready to their hand; and that a change of images and of nomenclature alone seemed needed to "Christianise" the native cult?
But more than this, both Christianity and Buddhism in their decadence bear a family resemblance to the religions of classic Paganism, and to the old-world cults of Babylon and Egypt. What is common to all is the presence of some material representation of the God, a priesthood and an altar, and mystical rites and ceremonies.
This intensely interesting fact has escaped the attention it deserves. How is it to be accounted for? Evolution-talk about "cells and sacs and nerves" and "abnormal reversions" will throw no light on it. Neither dogs, nor donkeys, nor anthropoid apes, display the least appreciation of images, or priests, or millinery, or "incense used ceremonially." Therefore, even if it were only among degraded races that these frauds and fooleries of human religion prevailed, evolution could claim no hearing. Not so, indeed, if men turned naturally to atheism; for the lapse might fairly be described as an "abnormal reversion." But atheism is always a revolt against a false religion, and it never maintains its hold upon the minds of men. The problem here, however, is that the superstitions which prevail in the midst of Western civilisation are essentially identical with those of Buddhism in its most depraved form, and with those of the Pagan religions of the ancient world. Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus! The same phenomena apparent everywhere, whether in ancient Babylon or in modern England; whether in the decaying civilisations of the East or the advancing civilisation of the West. One explanation only is possible, and it is that already urged. Man is by nature the slave of perverted religious instincts. The existence of such instincts is proof of the Divine origin of the race; the perversion of them is proof of a great catastrophe in its primeval history. Man is God's creature in a special sense; but he is a fallen creature, and it is in his religion that the effects of the fall first and most declare themselves.
And not only is man, regarded as a spiritual being, thus subject to a law of "degeneration," but there is some mysterious influence which so guides the operation of that law, that it invariably leads to similar results. No matter what the point of departure, no matter what the environment, man's religion assumes the same phase, and displays the same general characteristics.
In a world so full of doubt it is not easy to find a "rough and ready" test by which to distinguish truth from error. But "Vincent's famous rule,"' already cited, will rarely fail us. (What has been accepted always, everywhere, by all) The method of its application, however, must depend upon the sphere in which it is to be applied. Speaking generally, what mankind in the mass approves is seldom wrong. And the intuitive judgment of the many is not infrequently a safer guide than the reason of the few. But in one province, at least, the presumption is reversed. In the religious sphere anything which satisfies this threefold test we may with reasonable confidence reject. It may generally be taken as an authentic "hall-mark" of falsehood.
In no other sphere save that of religion do men of intelligence and culture willingly subject their minds to delusions. The "historic Church" once tried to compel belief that this planet was the fixed centre of the solar system; but who believes it now? Men cannot be made to believe that water runs uphill, or that five and five make anything but ten. In no other sphere can they be induced to stultify reason and common sense. But in religion there seems to be no limit to their credulity. And in every age, and in all kinds of different environments, credulity fastens, and feeds itself, upon errors and superstitions of a kindred type.
One exception only has there been to this rule. In the ages when His people were in a state of tutelage, God gave them a religion. It was a concession to the weakness of human nature. That Divine religion is expressly described as "a shadow of the good things to come," namely, Christianity; for, to the spiritual discernment, Christ Himself was the sum and substance of it all. It was the only Divine religion the world has ever known; for Christianity is not, strictly speaking, a "religion" at all, but a revelation and a faith, And how did it differ from human religions, not excepting that which calls itself Christian? It differed essentially in these respects :-
(1) In the absence of any material representation of God.
(2) In the absence of mystical rites.
(3) In the absence of a mystically endowed priesthood.
(4) In the absence of tradition. It was based altogether upon a Divine revelation which every Israelite was expected to study and obey.
And though in their apostasy the Jews lapsed into idolatry, the evil was eradicated by the judgments which fell on them in the era of the Captivity; and after the great revival under Ezra it never again declared itself. The post-captivity apostasy was not due to idolatry, but to the prevalence of human tradition, by which, as the Lord declared, they "make the word of God of none effect," "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."'
But never even in the darkest period of the nation's history was, their religion corrupted by the Pagan conception of priesthood. "The Jews' religion" was, I repeat, an apostasy; but it never sank to the level to which "the Christians' religion" has fallen. It never knew the degradation of openly displaying those brand-marks of Paganism - mystical ordinances and a priesthood with mystical powers. "Sacraments" abounded. The priest himself, the appointed rites which he discharged, the altars at which he ministered, the sacrifices which were offered on them, the shrine, and every detail of its divinely ordered furniture - each and all proclaimed some spiritual truth, and pointed forward to the Messiah who was the reality of every type, the substance of every shadow, of the national religion. But there was not a single act, a single rite, in the prescribed ritual, even for the high-priest himself, which would have been beyond the capacity of any member of the congregation to discharge. The priest's position was unique, his privileges and duties were exclusively his own; but mystical powers he had absolutely none. The prophets in Israel were specially inspired. They uttered God-breathed words: they "spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." But if the members of the Aaronic house were, like the prophets, a class apart, it was solely and altogether in virtue of the Divine appointment which separated them to the service of the altar. In no respect did they differ from the people in whose behalf they ministered.
The book has yet to be written which will describe what Israel might have been, and the world would have been, had the favoured nation been true to the revelation God entrusted to them. Solomon's prophetic prayer at the dedication of the temple gives a transient glimpse of the vision. Blessed with the knowledge of the true God in a world that had wilfully lost it, they would have been a rallying centre to which earnest souls of every kindred might have come to seek and find the light. Professing a sublime faith, and commending it by noble and blameless living, they would have been missionaries to all the nations. The traditions of Eden, which even now still linger in some of the old religions of the world, of a coming deliverer, destined to bring blessing to mankind, would have been voiced by every part of their national cult. But that ritual was maintained solely in the interests of a carnal and corrupt priesthood. False prophets were honoured in proportion to the audacity with which they pandered to the nation's pride, and God's sent messengers were persecuted and slain. Appeal followed appeal, warning succeeded warning, one judgment after another fell on them; but all without avail. Their divinely taught religion became utterly degraded, arid in its degradation dragged down the nation to still lower depths; until at last, in the name of that religion - in the name ot the God who gave it them - they became "the betrayers and murderers" of the Son of God.
And these were nominally "the people of God," and their priests were "the priests of God"; and during His life on earth our blessed Lord acknowledged them, and called them to repentance on the ground of their divinely given promises and covenant. If ever there was a people who had seemingly a right to boast of knowing the true God, and of having a divinely ordained religion, it was the Hebrews. In every detail their cult was ordered by an express revelation. During all their pilgrimage from the house of bondage to the land of promise the tabernacle of Jehovah was in their midst. But what was the judgment of God who reads the heart? We here recall the words of the prophet, quoted by the martyr Stephen: "Have ye offered unto me slain beasts and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness? Yea, ye look up to the tabernacle of Moloch."' Outwardly and with their hands they bore the tabernacle of Jehovah; but inwardly and with their hearts they were carrying the tabernacle of Moloch.
Who was the god they served when they stoned the prophets and persecuted the messengers of heaven? That god was Moloch, the god of blood; though Jehovah was the name by which they called him. Who was the god they served when they "killed the Prince of life"? That god was Moloch, though the name they gave him was Jehovah. The nation as a whole had in all respects the same ordinances, and used the same nomenclature, as those among them who were the true "Israel of God"; but they knew nothing of their spiritual significance; they were dead to their spiritual power.
It will be said that the making of the golden calf is proof that the Jews were always idolaters, whereas the Christians' religion has a pure and spiritual worship. The plea will not avail. Idolatry in the sense this argument implies has no existence save perhaps among the most degraded races of mankind. The golden calf was to fill the place of Moses, not of God. But yesterday, Moses the mediator of the covenant had offered the sacrifice by which the covenant was dedicated, and now he had gone up to the Mount, where for forty days he remained with God. The tabernacle had not yet been made -the daily ritual had not yet been appointed. So they cried out for something to represent to them: and make vivid to their minds the solemnities of their religion. And to this end they made an effigy of the calf which was the appointed victim in the great sacrifice of the covenant'; and Aaron forthwith proclaimed a feast, but it was a feast to Jehovah. It is crassly stupid to suppose that these men believed the calf to be the God of their deliverance. It was nothing but an outward symbol. It met the craving of man's fallen nature for something material in religion. It was idolatry, no doubt, but it was idolatry of the kind in which the Christians' religion is steeped. Altars and crucifixes, images and pictures, relics and the "hocus-pocus " of the mass - these fill precisely the same place in the religion of Christendom which the golden calf was designed by Aaron to hold in the cult of Israel. But "God is Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit." All such idolatry is hateful to Him. And are we to learn nothing from all this in our judgment of Christendom? The religion entrusted to the Jews was Divine, but yet "the Jews' religion" was false; false, moreover although in externals it had right ordinances, and it used a correct nomenclature. Why, then, should we suppose that the religion of Christendom is different? Like apostate Judaism, it is a human religion based upon a Divine ideal; and, as we have seen, every human religion gravitates towards error and evil.