Hope you enjoyed that moment of Zen. I thought I’d take this post to sort of collect some of the more interesting facets of Buddhism I’ve learned over the past year of two for your enjoyment. Apologies again for falling off the weekly updates. Still doing some Fulbright and book work, nothing really to report.
Most of you reading this know the origins of Buddhism, how Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince from around 500 BCE achieved enlightenment by giving up all earthly attachments, claiming that one could bypass the Hindu cycle of death and rebirth in a single lifetime, proceeding straight rom Nirvana and obtaining release from the suffering of the world. Since then, there have been other buddhas, some of which have ascended to Nirvana, and others who have decided to remain on Earth and help others obtain enlightenment. These are known as Boddhisatvas.
Buddhism is now well known all over the world, and specifically in China it was brought around the year 71 CE by two Indian masters. The temple constructed in their honor, Fawang Temple, is right near the Shaolin monastery, and was apparently the first Buddhist temple in China. It wasn’t for another 600 years that a Chinese monk Tang Xuanzong journeyed to India to retrieve the original sutras, seeking to better understand the essence of Buddhism. (This was later immortalized in the “Journey to the West” where Tang Xuanzong is joined by the Monkey King Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie the pig, and a third companion whose name escapes me. It’s one of China’s four great classic novels, and is still a huge influence on Chinese popular culture.
Here’s some things you might not know though.
- Zen Buddhism, most often associated with Japan, was actually from China (called 禅 chan in Chinese), and is actually what the Shaolin monks practice. (This was a trivia question a couple months ago).
- Buddhism is mainly split into two sects, Mahayana and Theravada. You might have read something about this from when I went to Myanmar and had my first interaction with Theravada Buddhism, but for my new readers, get ready for a knowledge drop. There are debates about why the split happened, most accounts are either biased to one side or the other, but for my system I tend to think of Theravada (which is practiced in South and most of Southeast asia) as “orthodox Buddhism” as it is more conservative and is practiced in the birthplace of the religion. It uses Pali in its worship as opposed to Sanskrit for Mahayana, has some more exclusionary rules for women and has a bunch of other funny rules. To hear a Theravada practicioner tell it, Mahayana Buddhists take the easy way out, as they have a lot more ritual designed to get you good karma, and put more emphasis on helping others on the path to enlightenment rather than your own personal journey oddly enough.
- Buddhism is incredibly malleable, and incredibly fashionable. For example, when Buddhism reached Tibet, it was fused with traditional Tibetan mysticism, which gives us the ghost daggers, mask rituals, and other trappings that many people associate with Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan prayer flags, the house decoration ubiquitous to Berkeley liberals are actually somewhat born of sloth. Tibetan Buddhism mandates its followers must recite the sutras every day. So apparently if you print the sutras on these colorful flags, simply looking at them counts as reading. Same with the prayer wheels. Spinning the wheels speeds up the pace at which the text passes your eyes, and allows you to “read” them much faster. Go figure.
- When Tibetan Buddhism got to Mongolia, it was adopted by the Mongolian princes, flags and all. To make it more palatable to the masses though, they incorporated a lot of imagery from traditional Mongolian shamanism, so Mongolian Buddhist temples will feature a lot of horses, archery imagery and what not.
- The same thing happened in Myanmar actually. A Burmese (Bamar) king Anawratha converted to Buddhism, and mandated all his subjects do the same. To do that though, he again had to incorporate all of Myanmar’s various legends, spirits, and deities. They also imported certain Indian myths like the Naga and other Buddhist deities.
- Lay Buddhists and practicing Buddhist monks have different rules. Lay Buddhists must observe five commands. 1. Do not kill. 2. Do not steal. 3. Do not lie. 4. Do not engage in sexual misconduct. 5. Do not partake in alcohol and drugs (as if you do you’ll be more likely to break tenets one through four). Buddhist monks, in addition to that, have to give up mirrors, beds, singing, dancing, anything that could be viewed as a luxury. They’re not supposed to have possessions period actually, they just use things. But if only you use something, isn’t that kind of like ownership? There’s your philosophical question for the day.
- In modern China, Buddhism is one of the state sponsored religions, and people flock to temples to offer incense, pray etc. There’s even a word 香客 （xiangke, xiang kuh）which refers to people who only pray at temples and just do it for the experience really. The word comes from 游客 (you ke, tourist, literally travel guest) and 背包客 (bei bao ke, backpacker, literally backpack guest), so xiangke are “incense guests”. Fun, huh?
- The “fat” Buddha often found in China, is not actually a Buddha, but rather a historical monk who became a folk god of prosperity and then sort of got meme’d into immortality.
I could go on and on, Buddhism is incredibly interesting, but I’ll keep this post to just this information and these observations. And of course, as with any religion, people don’t observe all its tenets. Does drinking make you a bad Buddhist? No. And there are plenty of people who claim to be Buddhist and still engage in violence. I agree with the Dalai Lama, those people just straight aren’t Buddhists, and overall I think it’s a wonderful religion that preaches peace while encouraging people to strive to better themselves. As one of my Buddhist friends puts it though, to be a true Buddhist is to deny your human nature, which is an incredible feat, and ultimately unattainable for some people, myself included I suspect. To remove all your emotion, all desire, all attachment to the world, is to truly disengage with modern society. While I certainly find that admirable, I wonder at the responsibility of it in this day and age, and I counter that anything humans are capable of still falls in the realm of humanity, just a different kind of humanity. So with that in mind, take a moment to just sit and listen today, another moment of Zen if you will.