- Founder/s: Gautama Siddhartha (known to us as the Buddha)
- Approximate age: 2500 years
- Place of origin: India
- Holy book/s: Tripitaka (aka. Pali Canon), Mahayana Sutras & Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Original language of holy book/s: Pali & Sanskrit
- Demonym of adherents: Buddhists
- Approximate number of current global adherents: 300,000,000
- Place of worship name/s: stupa, temple, vihara
Assuming the above book is true, I must say there are a lot of things about Buddhism I like. Not Buddhism as it’s currently practised so much, more as Buddha himself preached.
First of all, Gautama himself was an anti-Hindu. Though born in the Kshatriya (warrior-prince-landowner) caste, he renounced his faith upon learning of the existence of suffering. Since then he spent the rest of his life working on his own spiritual development, and ideologically opposing the racist, misogynist order of the day. And those who upheld it.
While Hinduism agrees with him that the material world is impermanent and always changing, he had the balls to posit that the spiritual “world” (for want of a better term) is the same! Souls change along with their bodies. He even went so far as to claim that there was no samsara (reincarnation) but souls go to nirvana. In the West we think nirvana is equivalent to the Judaeo-Christian heaven – it’s not even close. Nirvana means extinction of self into the primordial state of existence, which is non-existence or nothingness.
Features I dislike:
As in all religions, Buddhism has splintered into several different sects, some of which re-adopted old Hindu beliefs. That’s why there’s Mahāyāna, Theravāda, Nichiren, Zen, etc. Also, there are distinct schools of thought similar to Islām. But unlike Islām they’re clearly identifiable by country.
Gautama’s insistence that existence is illusory just because it’s temporary and ever-changing. That concept has never sat well with me, it inevitably invokes a sense of nothing matters. Things that are temporary and mutable are still real, it just means there’ll be a point when they’re not real.
This also raises the discussion of what real means, but that’s for another time.
He also posited that there’s no such thing as “self”. I followed the argument through as laid out in the book, and I still don’t buy it. Everyone experiences themselves as a distinct something from everything else. In the book it explained Buddha’s line of thought that since existence is ever-changing, the self that existed 1 second ago has ceased to exist and been replaced with another self. However, to reconcile that with the self-awareness that everyone has, he explained that each new self that pops into existence is causally dependent on the previous self. That stretches backward in time to no-one-knows-when. To me that didn’t prove the non-existence of self, just gave it another explanation.
Oh, and each country/ ethnic group that follows Buddhism has effectively claimed him. This is why most people think Buddha was Chinese when he was actually Indian, because China (and east Asia in general) most fervently took on this faith. Statues of Buddha often show him as Easian, like so…
Some have even tried to make him look Western (i.e. ‘white’) but whatever. Obviously he was Indian, and considering he was of the Kshatriya caste it makes sense to think he was light-skinned. That’s assuming the castes were as colour-struck back then as now, which wasn’t the case initially.
Interestingly, many older statues depict him as having peppercorn hair. Furthermore, according to the Maha-Saccaka sutta his skin colour changed depending on how much he ate. It had been described at various points as black, brown and golden – the less he ate the lighter it got. I have read that ancient Indians revered dark skin, and it was a simple case of darker = better. If true it makes sense that he regarded his lightened skin as “deteriorated”. But I digress.
Contrary to popular imagination, in countries where Buddhists are the majority they often use violence to maintain the status quo. They do it to everyone: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jains, they don’t care! Not surprising considering how up-themselves Buddhists have been in history.
And on the topic of meditation, contrary to popular understanding meditation was NOT part and parcel of Buddhist practice. Well, not for normal people. It was only meant to be for monks/nuns, while laypeople’s duty was charity. Kinda gives the image of hardworking people being leeched off by a bunch of wildmen* sitting on their asses thinking about how to be free from existence.
* Meant pretty literally. Buddhist monks/nuns were often meditating in wilderness for months on end. When they returned to the cities people complained they were dirty and unkempt.
As anti-Hindu as Gautama was, various supernatural miracles have been attributed to him & his disciples:
- He flew to heaven to teach his mother (who’d been reincarnated as a goddess) his philosophy.
- Nagarjuna, one of his adherents, received holy texts from the underwater dragon king to found the Madhyamaka school.
- Kumarajiva, who brought Madhyamaka to China, could swallow needles without being pricked by them.
- Mastering the 4th level of meditation gave one psychic powers like intangibility, flight, touching the sun & moon, and walking on water – which were attained by Buddha’s disciple Mahamaudgalyayana.
- Gautama used to be a god in his previous life, and had only one rebirth to do before reaching nirvana. That’s why he came to Earth: to teach people how to avoid rebirth and go to nirvana, something apparently even the other gods didn’t know!
Back to Part 4
On to Part 6