Early on we learned that Buddha was inspired to share with others what he had learned during his awakening – how suffering was the “fundamental problem of life” and how our suffering could end with an understanding of the four noble truths (Gethin, 1998). Gethin (1998) notes how historians generally believe that the Buddha possessed a charismatic personality and that he was likely a genius (p. 63). One might guess that the Buddha’s charm and charisma is what convinced many, if not all, of his followers to follow him. As Gethin (1998) explains, “That such an individual might well have had a certain success in convincing others of the soundness of his understanding of the nature of the world … does not seem to me historically implausible” (p. 63). When I imagine the Buddha traveling around and offering his insight, I imagine an empathic, intelligent man, clearly motivated by his desire to end the suffering of others.
Fast-forward a few centuries later, and we meet the alcoholic, arrogant, and rather heartless, Virupa. Like the Buddha, Virupa came from a royal family and he too left the comforts of home to follow his Buddhist calling. But, Virupa seems to revel in his ability to exert power over others, almost seeming to become sidetracked from any altruistic motivations he may have started with. Yet, in “Freeing the Heart and Mind,” credit is given to Virupa for helping others as it states: “Through his performance of extraordinary physical, verbal, and mental activities, he benefitted an immense number of sentient beings, all of whom are counted as his disciples (p. 59). So perhaps, even though many of his actions were violent, they still resulted in ending the suffering of others, so it is okay that he went about things the way he did.
Initially, I was somewhat irritated by Virupa’s behavior; I prefer the more humble nature of the Buddha to Virupa’s show-off-y style. But then one of our classmates brought up the fact that many religious stories are rather grandiose and over-the-top. This made me consider that perhaps some of the stories about Virupa have been exaggerated over the years. Then I thought about how even if the stories are true, perhaps Virupa needed to be a little bit eccentric and frightening in order to convince his followers to even follow him. After all, it cannot be any easy thing to convince someone that their long-standing religious beliefs are in fact, incorrect. We know that Hindu’s believe in Atman or a real self, something that Buddhists do not. Perhaps Virupa understood that the only way to convince Hindu’s to follow Buddhism was to scare them into it.
I still have ambivalent feelings toward Virupa, but I can see why he behaved the way he did. I am not sure he would have been effective if he had used a “softer” approach. Still, I think he enjoyed indulging his non-existent ego at times!
Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gyaltsen, K. K. & Chodron, A. K. (Eds.). (2011). Freeing the heart and mind. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.