A Kick in the Pants

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of yourself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.

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The Price

Today, I present another post for National Poetry Month. This celebration is intended to focus on American poetry or how poetry has contributed to American culture, but we live in a global community and poetry is a universal language, so I choose to ignore that guideline from time to time.

tagore-2014-1One of the world’s great poets, and philosophers, Rabindranath Tagore, inspired the title of this blog, The Endless Further. I have written about Tagore in some detail previously (see below), so I won’t add much to that today. As I’ve noted, he had a great respect for Buddhism and once called Buddha “the greatest man ever born on this earth.”

Here is one of the few poem in which he mentions Buddha. It comes from Fruit-Gathering, a collection published by Macmillan in 1916, and was translated from Bengali to English by Tagore himself.

The Price

Only one lotus braved the blast of winter and bloomed in the garden of Sudas the gardener. He took it to sell to the King.

A traveler said to him on the way, “I will buy this untimely flower, and take it to my master Buddha. Ask your price.”

The gardener asked one golden masha*, and the traveler readily agreed.  Just then the King came there.

“I must take that lotus to Lord Buddha,” he said to the gardener.  “What is your price?”

The gardener claimed two golden mashas.  The King was ready to buy it.  The traveler doubled the price and the King’s offer ran still higher.

The gardener thought in his greed he could get much more from the man for whom they were eagerly bidding.

He hastened with his flower to the grove where Buddha sat silent. Love shone in his eyes, on his lips was wisdom beyond words.

Sudas gazed at him, and stood still.  Suddenly he fell on his knees, placing the lotus at Buddha’s feet.

Buddha smiled and asked, “What is your prayer, my son?”

“Nothing, my lord,” Sudas answered, “only a speck of the dust off your feet.”

* A measurement of rice or wheat berry

– – – – – – – – – –

Previous posts on Rabindranath Tagore:

Rabindranath Tagore

Sadhana and the Big Fish

Love’s Gift is Shy

One Day in Spring

A Myriad Minded Man

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What’s all the hubub, bub?

Bugs Bunny, munching on a carrot, says to Elmer Fudd: “Eh, what’s all the hubub, bub?”

It’s interesting how the recent story about the new discovery at Lumbini in India has been inflated into a sort of Goodyear blimp of news. As I wrote last week, it’s really a great deal of wishful thinking on the part of these scientists. This headline from The Guardian, a UK newspaper, demonstrates how out of proportion it’s getting: “Archaeologists’ discovery puts Buddha’s birth 300 years earlier.” Even the National Geographic has jumped on the bandwagon with “Oldest Buddhist Shrine Uncovered In Nepal May Push Back the Buddha’s Birth Date.”

This team of archaeologists  claim they’ve discovered “a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.” Yet, they really don’t if the shine is Buddhist or not. Let’s say it is, and that it does date from the sixth century BCE.  That would make it the oldest Buddhist shrine discovered by 300 years all right, but that’s about it (not to say that is insignificant). The traditional Buddhist calculation puts the Buddha’s birth at around 623 BCE, while some modern scholars lean toward 500 BCE. The sixth century BCE ended on the last day of 501 BCE, so assuming the shrine is Buddhist, it doesn’t change much in regard to the Buddha’s dates.

Some Buddhists believe the Buddha lived 3000 years ago. But not any reputable historians. Here’s how that got started: When Buddhism was first introduced to China, the Taoists felt threatened by it. So they went around saying, well this Buddha guy is just an emanation of our founder Lao Tzu (604-531? BCE). Some Buddhists got together and decided to push the Buddha’s date back so far that he couldn’t possibly be the emanation of anyone. 1000 BCE sounded good, and indeed, that fixed the Taoist’s wagon. The date was set in stone, so to speak, until modern scholarship came along and rendered it highly unlikely.

So how do historians determine the date for the Buddha? Actually, nothing has  been determined because it’s all guesswork, and it all depends on the dates for King Ashoka, who lived 304 to 232 BCE. Maybe. Last time I checked no one was positive about that either. Solid evidence of Ashoka’s historicity did not emerge until the 19th century.

According to a Harvard University paper, there are three issues considered:

“The question of the dates of Emperor Ashoka (especially the date of his “anointment” or “coronation”),

The differences among various sources and traditions on the question of how many years separated the Buddha’s death from Ashoka’s ascension to the throne,

The various lists of kings and Vinaya Masters (i.e., monks recognized by the tradition as authorities on the code of monastic discipline) who were said to have lived during the years between the Buddha’s death and Ashoka’s coronation.”

The team of archaeologists who made this latest discovery also claim to have definitively established Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace, but this is old news that must be considered speculative. It’s based on the presence of a stone pillar King Ashoka erected proclaiming Lumbini Gardens as the Buddha’s birthplace. The marker was discovered over a hundred years ago. We have no idea of what evidence Ashoka had. It’s possible he might have simply relied on the traditional tale of the Buddha’s life, which may be a bunch for hooey for all anyone knows.

Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent. He was sort of an Indian version of Constantine. Both were very bad guys until they found religion and saw the light. The story goes that following his bloodthirsty conquest of the state of Kalinga, Ashoka repented and adopted Buddhism, after which he practiced non-violence. Thereafter, he also ruled in a more humane manner, gave state support to Buddhism, and dispatched monks all over India, and even to foreign countries, to spread the dharma (dhamma).

And he issued “rock edicts.” These were proclamations on various subjects he had inscribed on stone pillars erected throughout the land. They were mostly moral exhortations to his subjects and many of them promoted Buddha-dharma. In the edicts, Ashoka often refers to himself as King Piyadasi. Here are some excerpts:

“In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased. But now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dhamma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dhamma. The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years. But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father and elders, such sightings have increased.

These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dhamma practice. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dhamma practice until the end of time; living by Dhamma and virtue, they will instruct in Dhamma. Truly, this is the highest work, to instruct in Dhamma. But practicing the Dhamma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable.

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation.”

– First rock inscription at Girnar

“Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken. I consider it proper, reverend sirs, to advise on how the good Dhamma should last long.

These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech — these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember. Likewise the laymen and laywomen. I have had this written that you may know my intentions.”

– Third Minor Rock Edict

“Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”

– First Minor Pillar Edict

This last edict is the one at Lumbini. It is believed that the pillar was erected during the 3rd century BCE, but it was buried from the 15th to the 19th century when a group of archaeologists unearthed it in 1896.

And now, back to our show . . .

Elmer Fudd, replying to Bugs: “Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I am digging for an ancient wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Wabbit swine? Some sort of crossbreed, Doc?”
Elmer: “No, a swine was were the ancient wabbits worshiped.”
Bugs: “Oh, you mean a rabbit shrine.”
Elmer: “That’s what I said, a wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Gee, what a maroon.”

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Buddha’s Birthplace Found?

I ran across a number of articles on the Internet about a claim that scientists have confirmed the Buddha’s birthplace and discovered the earliest Buddhist shrine. This research, published in Antiquity Journal (accessible by subscription or pay per view only) may be significant. However the headlines are a bit misleading.

It is widely held that Lumbini in Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and where he lived until the age of 29. There are a couple of reasons why many believe this. First, according to Buddhist tradition, his mother Maya gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini. Secondly, there is a marker dating from the time of King Ashoka (304–232? BCE) proclaiming Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace. Up until now, almost all so-called hard evidence we have about the Buddha’s life dates from the Ashoka period. However, as in the case of the birthplace marker, none of it is conclusive. It only tells us that this what people who lived some 2 or 3 hundred years after the Buddha believed.

Today, Lumbini is a pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recently, a team of archeologists uncovered the remains of a previously unknown timber structure in the Maya Devi Temple. Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation, said in a press conference Monday, “What’s interesting is we identified a roof tile … all around the edges of the temple and not in the center. This indicated something that was very special about the center of the temple. When we started excavating we found another early temple below.”

Within this new temple, they found ancient tree roots, evidence, they say, of a “tree shrine.” Coningham links this to the story about the Buddha’s mother holding the tree branch, which seems like quite a leap of faith for a scientist to make. Not to mention that it is possible that this inner structure has nothing to do with the Buddha. However, if all this is correct, and it is at least the earliest the earliest Buddhist shrine, if not the actual birthplace, it could push the Buddha’s birth back 100 or so years to 623 BCE. It might have significant implications for historians, although that’s not something to go into today.

If you are an Antiquity Journal subscriber or have some extra $ to spend, here is a link to the report. And, if not, you can read this article from Discovery.com.

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From Human to Holy

You’ve probably heard about or watched video replays of the botched Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, Iranian-American scholar of religion who just published a new book on Jesus, so I won’t waste time going over that. Suffice it to say that the incident helped propel Aslan’s book to the #1 spot on the Amazon Best Seller list.

The book is called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it. I did read a review in the Los Angeles Times. Charlotte Allen says there isn’t much original or new about it. Ground already covered by many other scholars. That may be, but I like that the book’s message is reaching so many people.

What is the message? Basically, that the historical Jesus was not divine, and when he died, he stayed dead. Evidently, Aslan portrays Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary, who was not the half-man, half-god with a virgin birth, who preformed miracles, walked on water, and rose from the dead.

jesus-buddhaThere are many these days who like to draw parallels between Jesus and Buddha. For instance Thich Nhat Hanh’s popular book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that according to Amazon, has them “walking, hand in hand, down the same path to salvation.” To me, that’s a bit of a stretch, as I see them walking in two radically different directions. Yes, they both taught about compassion, but that is a common religious teaching. In everything else Jesus points to a path that leads out of this world, while the Buddha’s path leads us within ourselves.

It’s when we strip away the layers of mythology from each man that we find real similarities. Like Jesus, Buddha was also a revolutionary. He rebelled against the Vedas, denied the authority of the Brahmin priests, opposed the caste system, and was pessimistic (at the very least) about the existence of gods and the efficacy of prayer.

Even more striking are the parallels in the history of their marketing. What I mean is how a king helped to elevate each of them to a status above that of common mortal.

In the case of Jesus, it was Constantine the Great, a warrior who murdered his way to the throne of Rome by killing the rightful Emperor, Maxentius, and his two sons. Constantine was a Sun God worshipper, who supposedly converted to Christianity, but in actuality never renounced his faith in Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). He convened the First Council of Nice in 325 CE (held in part to combat the Arian heresy), during which the human Jesus was transformed into the Jesus the god, or “Lord of Light,” the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday, and it was decided which books would be included in the Bible.

Similarly, the transformation of the human Gautama into the supermundane Buddha – with the miraculous birth and supernatural powers, who could perform miracles but refused to do so, etc. – was advanced significantly during the reign of the Indian king Ashoka, approximately two and a half centuries after the Buddha’s death. Ashoka was also a murderous warrior, who converted to a new religion, but unlike Constantine, the conversion seems to have taken hold, and Ashoka became a changed man. He, too, presided over a council, The Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE. The details of what transpired during that event are not well-known but apparently it was convened in order to rid the Sangha of corruption and eliminate certain heresies. At any rate, it was during Ashoka’s rule, and due in no small part to his patronage and his propagation of Buddhism (through the “Rock Edicts”), that Buddha-dharma was established as a major sect in India, the Sangha evolved to the shape that we know it today, and the Buddha was elevated to almost god-like status.

I don’t know if Aslan’s book discusses the role Constantine played in the Jesus story or not. And frankly, how much truth resides any of the stories about Constantine or Ashoka, as in the case of Buddha and Jesus, is hard to determine.

I’m not aware of any biographies that attempt to demystify the Buddha, as Aslan and others have done with Jesus. I recently mentioned Trevor Ling’s The Buddha, which presents the most realistic portrait that I’ve read, but that only amounts to a relatively small section in a work largely devoted to a sociological study how Buddhism developed through succeeding centuries in India and Sri Lanka.

Buddhism has no real need for a central figure with extraordinary powers and super-consciousness. Buddhism works just fine without the mythological Buddha. In fact, Buddhism could survive without a historical Buddha. As Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” That’s because Buddhism is about what the Buddha taught, not that he taught.

I wonder, though, if you take divinity away from Jesus, what survives in Christianity. The very essence of Christianity, as it stands today, is faith in Jesus as presented in the New Testament, the Son of God, the divine Messiah.

I also wonder about the folks reading Aslan’s book. Are they the atheistic and agnostic reading it to find loopholes in the Jesus story, perhaps to confirm suspicions they already harbor? Are they people of faith, who exposed to this information for the first time will take it seriously and reevaluate their beliefs, maybe precipitating a sort of mass revolution in Christian thinking? I’d like to think it is the latter, but I’m not willing to place any bets on it.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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