Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Many oddball claims have been laid on Buddhism by misguided individuals. To name a few: Buddhism is a religion; the Buddha was a saint, or even a magician; the Buddha is a pope-like head of a worldwide religion. And so on and so on. Most claims start from pure ignorance. Other claims pop up from notions that are based on myths and legends.

Myths are cozy little tales that may have a basis in fact. On the other hand, 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 as dogma.

Let’s see. There is Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth
Fairy . . . .

Oh, and did you know that angels play harps while they fly? That’s like texting while driving.

I don’t put much stock in fanciful legends. Instead, I prefer practical, living issues. Still, some of the Buddhist myths are worth mentioning because they are a historical part of the tradition. Also, a few people actually believe in them.

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

When it comes to the Buddha’s birth the fanciful stories fly off the chart. His expectant mother dreamed that a baby elephant entered her side. Second-guessers of the time interpreted this to mean the child would become a great political leader or else grow up to be a great religious teacher. How those interpretations 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. There were no elephants involved.

Another myth: At his birth the Buddha infant supposedly tottered a few steps and announced this was the last time he would be born. That was taken to mean he had experienced several Hindu-style reincarnations.

Flash forward.

Fact: At age sixteen Guatama Siddhartha married a woman named Yashodhara, and they had a son they named Rahula. Though Siddhartha valued family life, when he was twenty-nine he left 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.” He was then 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.

As we have heard many times over, when the Buddha went out from his royal home he witnessed four incidents. He encountered an aged person, an ailing person, a dead person, and a beggar. He was so struck by these indications of suffering that he left home to try to understand the nature of human existence.

According to some scholars, when the Buddha was out on the streets he was first taught a form of serene 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 stretched on a bed of nails or broken glass, or walked on hot coals, as do many pious Indian ascetics.

Although none of these activities helped the Buddha to understand life, he did come to see that such 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 sat under the branches of a fig tree, and went back to straightforward meditation—what Dogen would 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, which often is called enlightenment.

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 avoiding what causes it: greed, craving, and 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 grocery list, but they form the basis for the tradition and practice of Buddhism.

Myths and fairy tales may make for entertaining reading, and may serve as adolescent guideposts. Just remember that Buddhism doesn’t deal in beliefs and rituals. Buddhism is about looking at our own lives and understanding ourselves.


Post a Comment

<< Home