Saturday, February 22, 2014

Buddhism and "The Gift of Men"

I was reading the introductory chapter on Buddhism in Finding God Among Our Neighbors earlier today and was struck by the description of Dr. Largen's description of the Buddha's final moments:
"The Buddha lived and taught for eighty years, choosing for himself when it was time for him to end his life and attain final nirvana. He entered into final meditation peacefully, lying on his side, surrounded by all manner of animals, disciples, and even gods..."[79]
For those that aren't familiar with Buddhism or may have an incorrect knowledge of it, nirvana can be described as a release from the cycle of samsara or the cyclical nature of our universe. The reason I was struck by this passage is because although I was familiar with the concepts of samsara and nirvana before reading this chapter I did not remember hearing the description of Buddha's death, if we can use that term for his final moments. The way Dr. Largen phrased Buddha's choice also brought this passage from a favorite book of mine to mind:
"Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenóreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep."
 This passage is of course from The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. The reason this came to mind was the gift that Aragorn refers to is what is called "The Gift of Men." The Gift of Men was given to humans by Ilúvatar and part of the gift was the ability to lay down at the time of their choosing and die. The Kings of Númenór had the custom of using this gift to escape Middle Earth before they became too feeble to rule and this is exactly what Aragorn was doing when he lay down and slept. Another aspect of the Gift of Men was a complete release from Middle Earth which is opposed to the Elves which have their immortality. While immortality may seem like a greater gift the Elves came in time to be jealous of the Gift of Men because their immortality lead to a longing for release due to the ages of care and woe they would experience as the millennia wore on.

While Middle Earth does not have a cyclical nature like the Buddhists believe in, I was struck by this similarity between the religion and the story. In both there are the very wise which have the ability to choose their own time to depart their world. These very wise are the leaders of the people and they are given a great amount of dignity to deal with how and when they depart the mortal coil, and I find that a wonderful and enlightening coincidence.

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