An image of the Buddha.
Like anyone else who is faithful, I’m very interested in learning more about my faith. Unlike many people who are faithful, I have a penchant for the bizarre. So, in that spirit, I decided to investigate bizarre stories, practices, and customs of Buddhism. I should clarify–I’m a philosophical Buddhist, not a religious one. So I don’t take the old stories literally, but rather look at the teachings as a guide to life. That was the Buddha’s intent, but as we will see that intent became distorted over time as his followers began to take the stories a mite too literally, not to mention that they mixed in some of their own.
Here in the West, the word Buddhism brings to mind images of peaceful monks who speak in riddles and wear awesome robes. And rightfully so – it’s a largely monastic religion/philosophy with a penchant for poetry and prose that (intentionally) flummox the thought processes. Also, people on this side of the pond think of Buddhists as enlightened and largely rational if a bit mystic around the edges (you of course get the crazy fundies/atheists who respectively call us idolaters/practitioners of an evil faith, but no one really listens to them so they don’t count for all that much.)
With those thoughts in mind, and knowing what I do of the heart and soul of the Buddha’s teachings, I thought it might be interesting to see how real practice diverges from the perception and the ideal. Keep in mind that any religion or philosophy is filtered through the cultural lens of its practitioners. And, like any ideas, they can evolve over time, sometimes to the point they would be nigh unrecognizable to early proponents.
That being said, Buddhism is at least 2500 years old. It sprang from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, who based many of his ideas on Hindu practices. The Buddha was born royalty. It was prophesied that he would either become a great teacher or a great leader. His father, a king concerned with leaving a legacy, naturally wished for the latter. To see that it happened, he sheltered his son and gave in to his every whim.
It might seem surprising to some to hear this, but the Buddha lived in decadence and hedonism for a good portion of his life. He didn’t find any of this fulfilling though, nor did he find it fulfilling when he settled down with a wife and had a child.
This lack of fulfillment came to a head when, one day, the bubble he’d lived in his entire life was popped. For the first time in his life, he encountered true suffering – he saw a sick man on the side of the road, an old man, and a dead man. These things struck him hard, and they would change the course of his life and ultimately the course of history. They lead him to ask a very deep question – why is there suffering in the world? He forsook the life he had lived and become an ascetic, traveling in search of Enlightenment and an answer to his question.
Like anything worth having though, Enlightenment wasn’t something easy to come by. He practiced all sorts of odd things in his search, most of them pretty unpleasant. He would often go days only eating a few scraps of rice, the idea being that forsaking physical things would lead to spiritual Enlightenment. He almost starved himself, and still found no answer to his question.
The Buddha was not satisfied, and after feeding himself and earning the ire of his fellow practitioners, he sat down at the foot of a Bhodi tree and determined that he would not rise again until he had answered his question.
An image of Buddha under the Bhodi tree.
It was then that, according to the stories, Mara appeared with a legion of demons to sow doubt in the Buddha’s heart. Mara is the equivalent of Satan in Buddhist mythology. Also, I should note that not ALL of this story is taken literally by most Buddhists. Sure, you have fundamentalists and what not, but a good many of us recognize the story for what it is – allegory. Mara and the demons represent the Buddha’s doubts and fears, nothing more.
Anyway, the Buddha fended off all of the demonic attacks by maintaining his meditative focus. At one point, it was said that the legion of demons fired a volley of flaming arrows at the Buddha, and that when they came near him they burst into clouds of flower petals. When the Buddha was close to Enlightenment, Mara threw what amounted to a Hail Mary pass, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), that with no witnesses around that no one would believe him. The Buddha didn’t say a word, but rather touched the earth with two fingers, as if to say the earth and all the universe bore witness to his Enlightenment. Mara and his legion of demons disappeared, replaced by a burst of greenery and flowers. It was said that at that moment the Bhodi also burst into life, and that its shadow remained fixed in place to provide shade for the newly minted Buddha.
As you can see, Buddhism has some pretty rich (and admittedly odd) stories. Most are taken strictly allegorically by monks and laypeople, but really it depends on where you go. Buddhism spread from India all the way to Japan and everywhere in between. Many times it was assimilated into existing belief systems, and other times it assimilated existing belief systems into itself, like Christianity did in Europe.
That being said, I want to briefly point out the heart of the teachings, both because I feel they are important (I’m biased, what can I say?) and because it will give some context to future posts in the series.
The Buddha realized that he had lived in two extremes. First he had lived a life of materialism, where he indulged his every desire. It did not relieve his suffering, which spurred him to swing to the next extreme, that of denial. Denying his desires completely, to the point of nearly killing himself, also didn’t relieve his suffering. He realized that his answer lay between the two extremes, in the Middle Way.
This realization stemmed from a more fundamental one – the answer to the question that made him leave his home several years before and take up the life of an ascetic. He realized that suffering is a part of life. It is the nature of all things to decay, to pass away, and to end. This is the result of living in a world driven by karmic forces (karma meaning cause/effect, not the system of reward/punishment we often associate with it.)
The Dharmachakra – each spoke represents a facet of the Eight Fold Path
From this realization came an even finer realization, which resulted in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold path. All sentient beings seek happiness and seek to avoid suffering. However, in doing so they often bring more suffering onto themselves. Why is that? Because of ignorance, or more accurately misperception. They perceive an object as existing inherently (existing in and of itself, as if it is above the processes of karma and decay I talked about above) and from this misperception, they exaggerate its good or bad qualities. The fundamental misperception balloons into negative emotions of one sort or another, and then leads to suffering.
The Middle Way is the confluence of the philosophy of Emptiness, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight Fold Path. It seeks to see reality clearly, to root out mental suffering at its core and bring peace to the practitioner.
And that is a way, way too brief primer on the core of Buddhist thought (in future series, I may go into detail about each part. For now, follow the links if you are curious!) We will see in coming weeks how those basic principles molded and meshed with local customs and different schools of thought to produce some very strange practices and beliefs. Come with me and journey into the bizarre confluence of religion, culture, and mysticism that is Bizarre Buddhism!