Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Many oddball claims have been laid to Buddhism by misinformed or misguided individuals. To name a few such delusions, Buddhism is a religion; the Buddha was a saint, or a magician; the Buddha was, or is, a pope-like head of an international conspiracy—I mean organization; and so on and so on. Such claims arise from notions that are based on myths and legends.

Myths are cozy little stories that may have a basis in fact, or they may be far removed from reality. They are usually devised to simplify teachings for a particular, often unsophisticated, audience. Unfortunately, many people take myths and other far-fetched stories as gospel.

I personally don’t put much store in myths. Instead, I prefer talking about practical, living matters. Still, some of the Buddhist myths are worth mentioning because they are a historical part of the tradition.

There is no existing biography that deals with the life of the Buddha. Such literary records were unknown some twenty-five hundred years ago. However, certain key episodes stand out.

When it comes to the birth of the Buddha, the stories fly wildly off the chart. His expectant mother dreamed that a baby elephant entered her side. Sages and second-guessers interpreted this to mean that the child would be come a great political leader or else a great religious teacher. How that interpretation arose, I can’t imagine.

An elephant? Maybe back then India was heavily Republican.

Historically, the birth took place at Lumbini, a city that is honored as a holy site to this day. At his birth, the child supposedly took a few steps and announced this was the last time he would be born. That meant he had experienced several reincarnations.

Flash forward.

At age sixteen Guatama Siddhartha was married to Yashodhara, and they had a son they named Rahula. Though Siddhartha venerated family life, when he was twenty-nine, he left his home in an attempt to seek knowledge. After six years spent wandering and investigating various disciplines, at age thirty-five he attained what we refer to as “enlightenment,” and he became known as the Buddha, or the Awakened One. Over the next forty-five years he wandered in northern India, teaching what he had realized in his awakening.

You have probably read about the supernatural being, Mara, who tried to distract the Buddha from meditation. It’s a story paralleled in Christianity by that of Satan tempting Christ when he was praying.

In the excellent book, Buddhism, by Damien Keown, a British professor of Buddhist Ethics, the author mentions that references to the royal status of the Buddha’s family are most likely an exaggeration. Still, stories of the Buddha’s aristocratic background probably helped open a door to India’s stratified castes.

There is no bona fide record of the date the Buddha was born, but there are lots of good guesses. In the Western—Gregorian—calendar, the dates range from May 8 to May 25, depending on the current year. For the year 2010, the day commemorated is May 21.

So, if anyone wants to celebrate a BBD—a Buddha Born Day—let’s have a cake with lot of candles.

As we have heard many times over, when the Buddha went out from his placid home, he experienced what are referred to as the four signs. He encountered an aged person, an ailing person, a dead person, and a beggar. He was so struck by these tokens of suffering that he left the palace walls to try to understand the nature of human life.

Remember that Buddhism doesn’t have anything to do with the acceptance of strange beliefs and rituals. Buddhism is about looking at our own lives, and realizing how to understand ourselves and understand all forms of life.

According to some scholars, when the Buddha was out on the streets he was first taught a form of serene and blissful meditation. He thought this was well and good, but that there was more to understanding life than tuning out. Another teacher introduced him to a mystical state of consciousness, a sort of mental negation of existence.

“But, I don’t want to remove myself from humanity, the Buddha thought. I want to be an integral part of it in order to comprehend it.”

Then the Buddha practiced rigorous breath control, but that only gave him headaches. He practiced self-mortification by fasting to the point of emaciation. He went without sleep. He may even have lain on a bed of nails or broken glass, or walked on hot coals, as many religious Indian ascetics are likely to do.

Although none of these severe activities helped the Buddha to understand life, he did come to see that extremes were unproductive. As the writer Damien Keown said, “The most appropriate lifestyle, accordingly, would be one of moderation in which the appetites were neither denied nor indulged to excess.”

So the Buddha seated himself under the branches of a fig tree, and went back to straightforward meditation—what Dogen would much later call shikantaza: Zazen in which the mind and body are totally involved in nothing but the sitting itself.

It was then the Buddha had his awakening.

1. He understood that life is dissatisfaction, and dissatisfaction is common to all humans.

2. He saw that we, as humans, cause our own dissatisfaction.

3. He perceived that we can end dissatisfaction by stopping what causes it: greed, acquisitiveness, craving, discontent.

4. He decided that dissatisfaction can be overcome by following a certain pattern of behavior.

These realizations came to be referred to as The Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths may sound like a handy construct, but they form the basis for the tradition and practice of Buddhism.

That’s enough for this talk. We’ll pick up again next time.


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