Group Topic: Dun Huang & The Buddhist Tradition

Map of Dun Huang

Dun Huang, was initially established as a military garrison by the Chinese empire.  The first cave temples of Dun Huang were excavated in the fifth century and we came to know soon of Qianfodong or ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’.  From being a semi-autonomous region, to witnessing the rise and fall of many empires, Dun Huang experienced diversity and was exposed to customs and cultures of many parts of the world.  Highly multi-cultural due to having experienced different peoples from the silk road, the languages of the manuscripts and inscriptions and the artistic styles of the paintings reflect the diversity at Dun Huang.

Buddhist traditions travelled along the Silk Road and became manifested in Dun Huang.  There were at least seventeen Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in Dun Huang during the prime time of Buddhism.  This was Indian Buddhism at the peak of its practice with many followers and a rich history of literature and documents that revolved around Buddhist life.

From the Dun Huang region, we learn a lot regarding Indian Buddhism.  We learn how Buddhism was practiced in the region, and the influence it had through the various paintings and statues that remain. We learn of their theological viewpoints and significant figures in Buddhist history such as Maitreya or Siddhartha.

In a way, the one thing that we definitely cannot explore from the Dun Huang region is how it would have fared to time, to our present time.  Had the various explorers not come in and rampaged the area looking and ‘looting’ treasure, this region would still be rich with its precious artifacts.  But that also begs the question:  If Stein and other explorers had not pillaged the region, would the changing of peoples and beliefs let these artifacts go undisturbed?  It does seem highly unlikely.  It would also be quite interesting to witness how Dun Huang fared to the rise of Islam.

Regardless, Dun Huang still exists as a prime example of Indian Buddhism at its best.  I found it extremely fascinating to learn how various items had come into Dun Huang, these included games, foods, and clothing.  It shows how diverse Dun Huang was, and the extent of the mélange of customs and culture that co-existed within it.  Lessons that can be  learnt?  Perhaps!


Official Blog Entry #5: The Buddhist Tradition

buddhistsThe Buddhist tradition (s) can be dated back 2,500 years to the time of the Buddha who supposedly lived from 563-483 B.C.E. Over the centuries, variations in Buddhist rituals and practices have emerged that have enriched the religion, but at the same time, have produced distinct differences between different peoples. Buddhism first reached areas, such as the region of China of the time, through the Silk routes. The Silk Road was always important to the transfer of ideas and customs from one region to another. It can be attributed to the Silk Road the rich and diverse tradition of Buddhism.

Reading the texts of Donald S. Lopez Jr., Sally Hovey Wriggins, and the translation of some excerpts from the Lotus Sutra by Burton Watson, has made me understand the true diverse nature of Buddhism. It is a highly spiritual religion, with a belief in the mystical and the unseen. Each Buddhist holds dear three ‘jewels’ of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In a way, these three jewels are typical of any religion. The founder of the religion, the message he preached, and the first followers of the religion, are always kept in high regard by anyone who follows the religious institution. The Buddhists view the Buddha as the doctor, the dharma as the medicine, and finally the sangha as the nurses. All three are ideal to the propagation of the Buddhist tradition.

Buddhism is in no doubt, a polytheistic religion. Indeed there are different levels of power, but early Buddhists definitely rejected the notion of an ultimate power. There are 33 gods, who surprisingly are not immortal. How can a god be immortal? Buddhists answer this by claiming that one day for a god is about a hundred human years. Gods are in a way personified. They are subject to re-birth, the samsara, just like all humans are. I concluded from this that the Buddha is in fact held in a higher status than these gods. The prince Siddhartha, who became the first Buddha, escaped the cycle of re-birth and achieved nirvana, while these gods do not. Nirvana is achieved by destroying ignorance, not so easily achieved.

There are many similarities between Buddhism and other religions. The Buddhists believe in the asuras who are demigods or titans, mean-spirited lesser deities who bring harm to humans. This is the notion of the evil one, or the Satan in other religious traditions. Buddhists also believe in the succession of Buddhas, and the future fourth Buddha, Maitreya, is waiting in the fourth of the six godly realms. This notion of awaiting the arrival of a promised one is definitely present in other religious traditions, such as the Messiah in Christianity and Islam, or the Imam in Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. I also found another similarity while reading these texts. The Buddhist tradition holds the notion that when people started eating food that society first began to corrupt. Intercourse was introduced and waste became rampant. Other religions have the concept of the consumption of food such as an apple, or forbidden fruit, leading to the committing of the first sin.

I found it surprising that in the realm of desire, where humans are found, hell can be found too. An extensive system of hells is present in Bodhgaya in the realm of desire where humans dwell. Contrary to other beliefs though, Buddhists believe that the universe never came to be. It just never had a beginning. As the Dalai Lama said, Buddhists do not believe in one Big Bang, they believe in many Big Bangs.

When I was studying the whole concept of religion, and the study of religion, I read that most anthropologists held a negative view of the religions of earlier people because it appeared as they believed in the ‘magical’. Reading about some of the beliefs of the Buddhists has made me understand why early anthropologists would have thought so. In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha could utter the letter ‘a’ and everybody could hear a discourse in his or her native tongue. The Buddha could also emit a ray of light from a tuft of white hair between his eyebrows, and that would light up eighteen thousand worlds in the east. I can see from this why some early anthropologists would have arrived to the conclusions they did.

Overall, the Buddha’s teachings were very flexible, and this added to his absence after his death, created rituals unheard of before. An example of such a ritual is the chanting of the name Amitabha, which helps the Buddhist follower experience the religious experience. When a people deviate from the original meaning of the message that the founder preached, many rituals emerge that were never present in the ‘original’ tradition. This, to me, sounds very similar to Sufism, where Sufis chant specific words over and over again until they faint, or they enter a ‘spiritual realm’ to experience the unseen, completely unheard of in early Islam.

As time goes on, and centuries go by, the Buddhist traditions will continue to get diverse. But is the diversification of religion really such a good thing? Do not the variations that emerge deviate from the original message of the religion? That is a question each believer must ponder, and must make the conscious decision of what to believe and what to reject in the face of increasing skepticism in our times.

Official Blog Entry #4: Zoroastrianism

One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism is practiced in many parts of the world.  Originating in the present geographical region of Iran, Zoroastrians have continued to remain as a tight-knit community, even though they are moving to all corners of the world.  With their numbers dwindling, Zoroastrians, or those who follow the teachings of their prophet Zarathustra, are trying to, and many have indeed succeeded, to rise to prominent positions.

Inspite of being one of the world’s oldest religions, there is not much known on Zoroastrianism.  Following the break of Zoroastrians into Iranian Zoroastrians, and the Parsis in India and Pakistan, the community’s adherence to their rituals, customs and beliefs started to come under extreme questioning and scrutiny, especially with the rise of western scholars specializing in the ancient Avestan language.  Due to the complexity of the language, Zoroastrians or Parsis themselves have begun to have theological doubts about the actual meanings of their texts, and the actual teachings that Zarathustra preached.  This has opened a new area of research for western and Zoroastrian scholars, who are still trying to comprehend the Avestan texts in their entirety.

I find it surprising that despite Zoroastrianism being one of the oldest religions in the world, not much is known on them other than the basic rituals and rites they perform.  Despite having a strong community in India and Pakistan, Muslims and Hindus do not know much on the Zoroastrian faith.  Only basic stereotypes have formed, such as the notion of all Zoroastrians being “fire worshippers”, and that Zoroastrians are the ones who leave their deceased behind on mountains to be devoured by vultures.  Not much is known on the theology of the belief, and so not many similarities or contrasts have been made with regards to Zoroastrianism and Islam.

I found it surprising that Zoroastrians believe that the world was made in seven stages, where in Christianity and Islam, there exists the belief that God created the Earth in six days, with God either resting or returning to His throne on the seventh day.  Zoroastrians also believed in the final day, the Day of Judgment, where those who have died will be brought back to life and great fires will ravage the Earth.  This belief is followed by Muslims, Jews, and Christians as well.  Zoroastrians also had the belief in the Evil Spirit, the Angra Mainyu, similar to other monotheistic religions which entitle the Satan, or Shaitan as the embodiment of evil.  Spenta Mainyu, or the Holy Spirit, could easily be seen as similar to the Angel Gabriel, again present in the monotheistic religions.  Zoroastrians also performed ritual ablutions.  Overall, there are many similarities between Zoroastrianism and the world’s three main monotheistic religions, which raises the issue of how much one religion can affect another.

Overall Zoroastrians were more than just “fire worshippers”, they ultimately revered nature.  Fire being one of the most holy creations (its “birth” is still celebrated in Iran as Now Roz, which is surprising since modern day Iran is under a very strict version of Shi’ite Islam), Zoroastrians respected nature and tried to understand it.  Man came from Earth, and to it he will return.  The relationship between man and nature is to be respected and always honoured.  Even after many centuries, Zoroastrians or Parsis have still managed to hold on to many of their ancient traditions, making the oral tradition of zorastrianism live on in the modern age of technological advancements.

Norouzetan- Mobarak

A common Persian greeting for the holiday of Nowroz. Assumed to be founded by Zoroaster himself, it is surprising that Nowroz is still celebrated in modern day Iran under its strict Shi'ite regime.