- The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in Victorian England, 1870–1900
Now this, O Bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning suffering. Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, the five aggregates which spring from attachment (the conditions of individuality and their cause) are painful.
This then, O Bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning suffering.— T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Suttas1
This First of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, along with the subsequent three, appeared in various expressions in dozens of scholarly and popular books and essays between 1870 and 1900.2 I reproduce above the Buddha’s first sermon (c. 530 bce), as recounted in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, translated from Pali by T.W. Rhys Davids, the most renowned Buddhologist of his time.3 Only after the mid-nineteenth century did Europeans fully recognize the centrality of these Four Noble Truths within Buddhism, a centrality comparable to the Christian belief in a creator who gives to all humans a soul as well as eternal life in a place determined by God’s judgment.4 In contrast to those lofty Christian dogmas, how—not a few Victorians asked—could a religion be founded on beliefs so simple-minded, contrary to obvious truths, and blasphemous in ignoring God that they often were summarized like this: “(1) Existence is miserable; (2) Misery will always accompany existence; (3) But an end may be put to existence and misery; (4) The ‘way’ to such termination, in eight sections,” is the Middle Way of the Noble Eightfold Path (Armstrong 187)?5
Starting around the 1860s, information about Buddhism spread through England from missionary writings and the proliferating scholarship of comparative religion to wider popular debates in the periodical press and in the representation of Buddhist figures and concepts in literary works.6 A major concern in all arenas was the Victorian “Christianity-versus-Buddhism debate” (Franklin 20), in which there emerged a “good Buddhism” and a “bad Buddhism.” “Good Buddhism” consisted of those aspects with which Victorians readily identified, namely the Jesus-like saintliness of its founder, its ethical system (the Precepts, the Eightfold Path), and certain perceived parallels to the history of Protestantism. “Bad Buddhism” represented a response to those aspects least compatible with dominant religious and social ideologies; in particular, the [End Page 21] Four Noble Truths; nibbāna (nirvana), understood erroneously as utter annihilation; and the Three Marks of Existence, the “fundamental doctrines which are to be understood as underlying all Buddhist statements”:
1. Anicca (Anitya in Sanskrit), “impermanence,” “The Impermanence of every Individual”;
2. Dukkha (Duhkha), “unsatisfactoriness,” “The Sorrow Inherent in Individuality”; also the name of the first of the Four Noble Truths; and
3. Anatta (Anatman), the “no-self” doctrine, “The Non-reality of any abiding Principle, of any Soul in the Christian sense” (T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhism, Its 134)7
In the most insightful Victorian treatment of these doctrines (Buddhism, Its History and Literature, 1896), T.W. Rhys Davids spends eighteen pages explicating the Three Marks of Existence as a foundation for understanding the Four Noble Truths. But he was exceptional.
Most Victorians encountered these doctrines in the baldest form and without preamble, starting with the unappealing proposition that “existence is necessarily bad” (Monier-Williams 339). Understandably, then, a common response was to turn away in incomprehension or disgust and to reduce Buddhism to pessimism, fatalism, and nihilism. Pessimism was a charge “repeated almost without exception” in response to the first Noble Truth, because “the world, as any healthy Westerner knew, simply was not like that” (Brear 150–51). The real world for many Britons was one of self-determining individuals who possessed eternal souls and lived in a nation whose supremacy and perpetual progress were assured by history and by God. This world view was directly contradicted by the Four Truths in a number of ways. Buddhist psychology disclaims all forms of Western individualism as dangerous illusion, not least because most posit autonomy from other living beings and the natural universe...