Friday, January 22, 2010


This talk resumes with more mythical accounts of happenings in the history of the Buddha.

According to folklore, at age eighty years the Buddha continued to travel on foot and speak of his awakening experience. Realizing that he was in poor health, his followers wondered if he would appoint an heir to carry on his teaching. The Buddha said he had never considered himself a leader; therefore, there was no need for a successor.

“Instead of following someone like a pack of hungry dogs,” the Buddha said. “Think for yourselves. Do not blindly accept what you might hear, weigh everything in your own mind. Be your own person, and concern yourselves with the well-being of all beings.”

In the words of Professor Damien Keown, “In keeping with the Buddha’s advice, there never arose a central source of authority in Buddhism on matters of doctrine.”

Wait a minute, you say. What about the Dali Lama? Isn’t he the big cheese of Buddhism?

No, the Dali Lama is not the head of Buddhism per se. He is the chief abbot and spiritual leader of the Tibetan school known as the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hats.

I won’t go into the fascinating world of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as Lamaism. Basically, it is a hierarchical school, with many levels of priesthood. Lamaism is rich in ceremony and mysticism. Its leadership is occupied by the Dalai Lama, and the Panchen Lama.

Let’s stick with Zen, which shies clear of ritual, and urges meditation as the way to an intuitive realization of one’s true, inner nature.

Getting back to mythology, the Buddha is alleged to have died lying on his right side, from food poisoning. Today, many statues in Asia show him this way. True or false, what difference does it make? There is no record whether the Buddha was right-handed or left-handed. What difference does it make?

His supposed last words were, “Decay is inherent in all things. Be sure to strive with clarity of mind for complete awakening.”

You may have heard of a pre-Buddhist legend called Radiance mythology. It’s an origin story that parallels and combines a sort of Biblical genesis account with the fanciful tale of Pandora’s Box. The Radiance account says the first thing to exist was white light and black light. Then an enormous extraterrestrial egg appeared that filled the universe. From the egg, black light produced evils. However, white light, or Radiance, offset this by producing happiness and prosperity.

Joseph Campbell wrote several books on comparative mythology and comparative religions. He once said myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths. He also said that every religion is true when understood metaphorically. But if you interpret metaphors as facts, you are in trouble.

One of Buddhism’s most stable legends concerns Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, who supposedly left his homeland to bring Buddhist teachings to China. In metaphorical terms, Bodhidharma planted the Indian seed of enlightenment in Chinese soil.

The Buddhism practiced in China in Bodhidharma’s time was elaborate and fanciful, and it had countless gods and myths. There is a story that in the A.D. 600s a monk went to China to gather copies of official writings. The monkey god and the pig god joined him and helped him to fight various demons with a magic stick.

Can you picture that?
Other significant Buddhist deities of the time included the four kings of heaven, the four kings of hell, the kitchen god, and Mi-le, known in India as Maitreya. Mi-le is also known as the laughing god. Carved images of him are sold in Chinese schlock shops. He’s the little guy with the big belly and the jolly face.

Wandering back to Zen, most koans are stories of mythical encounters between masters and monks. They were told as parables designed to bring about awakening, or to explain the meaning of existence by means of metaphor.
One master asked another master, “What does the golden fish that has passed through the net use for food?”
The other master answered, “When you come out of the net, I’ll tell you.”
A monk asked Master Yun Men, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?”
“Cake,” Yun Men answered.
Does either of these koans open the meaning of life to you?
Joseph Campbell wrote that he didn’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.
Think for yourselves. Do not blindly accept what you might hear. Weigh everything in your own mind. Be your own person, and concern yourselves with the well-being of all beings.

In the words of Dogen:
To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.


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