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.

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