Rejection of the orthodox
Pala is a rather isolated community whose spirituality seems heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. This makes sense due to the influence of the author, who as an Englishman probably had little exposure to the more traditional Theravada Buddhism. This is rather interesting considering the island’s name, Pala, seems rather reminiscent of Pali, the original language of Buddhist texts. Buddhist texts of Pali script are required by Theravada Buddhist, so perhaps Huxley was aware of the Theravada counterpart. Did Huxley have another reason for going with Mahayana Buddhism other than potentially not being exposed to Theravada Buddhism? Theravada and Mahayana are both branches of Buddhism that work with the same historical concepts of the Buddhists Canon. However, to compare these two would be similar to comparing Catholicism to Protestant faiths.
According to the Buddha Dharma Educations Association, Mahayana is the form that most Westerners are familiar with, and is predominant in Tibet and Japan. It has focuses on meditation through yoga practices and compassionately assisting others to attain enlightenment. Historically it looked at many aspects of the traditional Sutras (Discourses or stories of the Buddha’s life, similar to the Four Gospels) and the Vinaya (rules) and rejected them. After splitting from Theravada, they have since broken into many different sects each with their own scriptural focus. According to Prof. Jeffry’s at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, many Americans who practice the Mahayana Buddhism are Catholic converts, appreciating the non-rigorous attributes to this practice. This particular side of Buddhism focuses more on the enlightenment of all beings.
Theravada meanwhile is considered the conservative branch of Buddhism. It follows the Sutras and Vinayas very strictly, and incorporates many more laws than its more modern cousin. They allow writing to only be done in traditional Pali, and unlike Mahayana there are no real sects of Theravada. There is a focus on individual enlightenment, and that the self is composed of egos and personality. Both of these are a delusion, and only by removing the fetter of the self can one reach enlightenment. Again according to Prof. Jeffrey, many American Catholic-to Buddhist coverts don’t care for the Theravada branch due to the same strict orthodox feeling as Catholicism.
Island is about a utopia that unifies the individuals. To identify the self, and the self’s connection with the community is greatly important. Only by unifying the community as a whole is there any hope for happiness. People are required to work different occupations to understand one another and their toils, families are united to provide children with many homes within their community, and education is of equal opportunity for everyone. They emphasize truly connecting and understanding one’s partner, and to be aware of those in your society. To Huxley this was as close to Utopia as this island society could be. This idea closely aligns already to Mahayana practices, along with an emphasis on yoga practices.
If he were to have given Pala’s society a strong Theravada influence, there would be more focus on the self’s enlightenment. Although not an unhealthy train of thought, it does seem to remove the importance of community well-being. A citizen of a somewhat utopian society should be connected according to Huxley, as is demonstrated in the ceremony following the rock climbing. Vijaya tells the young group, “Each totally aware of his own straining muscles, his own skill, his own fear, his own spirit transcending the fear. And each, of course, aware at the same time of all the others, concerned for them, doing the right things to make sure they’ll be safe” (Huxley pg. 202). Thus, it follows that he would chose to emphasize a Mahayana teaching of Buddhism. Although both follow the same basic principles, Theravada is about one’s own journey, while Mahayana is about the self and those around the self. To be aware of the success and wholeness of one’s society. Only with this awareness, can there be progress towards a possible utopian society.
- Huxley, Aldous. Island: A Novel. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962. Print.
- Jeffry, Derek. The Four Noble Truths-Green Bay. 13 September 2016. Lecture.
- “Buddhist Schools: Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana”, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/schools.htm