Buddhism helping the international community

Some Buddhist traditions observe Vesak, a celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death, on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which this year was Saturday, May 21.

And this year, President Barack Obama issued the first-ever official recognition of Vesak with a proclamation.  Of course, US Presidents declare a lot of different observances by proclamation (list here) so it’s not that big a deal. .  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also issued a statement.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, which has recognized Vesak since 1999, had something to say, too.  The comments by Obama and Trudeau were the standard stuff, but Ban Ki-moon (whose mother is Buddhist) went a bit further.   Like the others, he acknowledged the contribution Buddhism has made to “the spirituality of humanity”, but as the UN press release from Thursday reads, he added that


[The] teachings of Buddhism can help the international community tackle pressing challenges, including mass population movements, violent conflicts, atrocious human rights abuses and hateful rhetoric aimed at dividing communities.

“The fundamental equality of all people, the imperative to seek justice, and the interdependence of life and the environment are more than abstract concepts for scholars to debate; they are living guidelines for Buddhists and others navigating the path to a better future . . .”

Citing the story of Srimala, a woman who pledged to help all those suffering from injustice, illness, poverty or disaster, Mr. Ban said that this spirit of solidarity can animate global efforts to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, carry out the Paris Agreement on climate change, and promote human rights while advancing human dignity worldwide.

The actions of Srimala also illustrate the primary role that women can play in advocating for peace, justice and human rights. Gender equality and the empowerment of women remain urgent priorities that will drive progress across the international agenda.”

The Srimaladeva Simhanada Sutra, translated as “The Sutra of Queen Srimala” or “Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala” is an important and early Mahayana text composed by an unknown author during the third century BCE.  Srimala means “glorious garland.”  Through the concept of the dharma-body of tathagata-garbha or “womb of the Buddha”, the sutra teaches that all sentient beings originally posses the potential for awakening  (Buddha-nature).

By portraying a woman in the leading role, Queen Srimala,  the sutra affirms the positive role of women as bodhisattvas and teachers, as well as promoting the view that women too can become Buddhas.

The term “lion’s roar” refers generally to righteousness or correctness in dharma talk.  In an early sutta, the Buddha says that when the Tathagata (Thus-Come-One)  is upmost in his powers he “roars his lion’s roar and sets rolling the supreme Wheel of the Dhamma.”

The “Lion’s Roar” of Queen Srimala includes these words:

Lioness-RoaringThose who search through all sufferings, who transcend all sources of suffering, who directly realize the transformation of suffering attain the pure, tranquil, and cooling Nirvana in the world fevered by impermanence and chronic dis-ease, and they become the guardians and refuge of the world in a world without safety and refuge.  How is this?  It is because Nirvana is not realized by those who discriminate superior and inferior natures: it is realized by those for whom wisdom is equal; it is realized by those for whom pure wisdom and insight are equal.  Thus, the realization of Nirvana is called ekarasa, ‘the one taste.’  That is to say, the tastes of wisdom and liberation are indistinguishable.”


If You Meet the Buddha on the Street

Last Friday, May 17th, was celebrated as the Buddha’s Birthday by many dharma followers around the world. It’s known as Vesak, which refers to the lunar month falling in April and May, and is actually a celebration of not only the Buddha’s birth, but also his enlightenment and death.

I used to go to Vesak ceremonies here in Los Angeles. They were always put on by Theravada monks, and they were pretty boring. It mostly involved having people line up to bath a statue of a baby Buddha with water, along with some speeches by monks with thick accents who used many words to say very little, and then lunch. The lunch part always bothered me because the monks would eat first while everyone else waited.  Anyway, I quit going.

In the Japanese traditions, like Zen, Vesak, called Hanamatsuri, is celebrated in April. This year it was on the 8th. The Japanese do not go by the Chinese Lunar Calendar as many other Asia countries do. But then, the birth date is arbitrary as no one knows when the Buddha was born.

Which brings me to the old Zen saying, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. There are various interpretations of this phrase, but I have always taken it as an admonition against idealizing the Buddha too much. Which, of course, throughout history many of his followers have done, and continue to do.

Allegedly a portrait painted when he was 41 by his disciple, Purna, that supposedly resides in a British museum. Seems rather iffy . . .
Allegedly a portrait of Buddha painted when he was 41 by his disciple, Purna, that supposedly resides in a British museum.

Frankly, I doubt if we met the Buddha on the road, we would recognize him. We only know the canonized, lionized Buddha, not the historical one. We’d probably think him to be some homeless person. Rather than a nice, fresh brightly colored robe, the Buddha probably wore what we would consider beggar’s rags. The robes of mendicant’s at that time were made from scraps of cloth scavenged from trash. Instead of the neat mane of curly hair we see in paintings and on statutes, I imagine his hair was an unruly mess and he wore a scraggly beard, like other mendicant philosophers of the time, although its possible his head was clean-shaven. No doubt he would seem uncouth and brutish in comparison to our modern manners and sensibilities. And he probably stunk to high heaven, because they didn’t bathe all that often back then. He might have been Black.

Whatever the case, I think it’s safe to say he didn’t resemble Keanu Reeves in The Little Buddha, and I doubt he had a halo. But no one knows. Indeed, what we can say for sure about the historical Buddha is not much.

Tradition offers us the dubious story of how he was born out of his mother’s side. That is a standard mythological device. Almost all of the world’s great religious figures are said to have had miraculous births.

Evidently, Gautama was from Kapilavastu, a town on a busy trade route north of Banaras, near the area known today as Nepal.  He belonged to the Shakya clan, who inhabited a territory that was about fifty square miles in size. The Shakyas had a republican style government at the time, not a monarchy, so it’s unlikely that his father, Suddhodana, was a rich and powerful king, instead he was probably the elected head of a tribal ruling council.

Soon after the Buddha’s passing, or perhaps even during his lifetime, his followers began to elaborate his life story, borrowing elements from traditional folklore and other myths. By magnifying his early life to that of a royal prince enjoying every luxury and contrasting it with his period of extreme asceticism, they were able to illustrate the Buddha’s concept of the Middle Way, a path that runs between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. According to the Buddha, the key to spiritual wayfaring is moderation, to live a well-rounded life by avoiding either extreme.

Since so much is unknown about the Buddha, it’s hard to say how he would feel about the veneration afforded him. I remember reading years ago how the Buddha expressly forbade his disciples to worship his relics, and yet, there is an early sutta in which he gives precise instructions on how veneration of his relics should be carried out. So, who knows?

I have great respect for traditional Buddhism, but much of it is centered around the monks. I like Buddhism that is centered around the people.

I think everyone has a right to view the Buddha however they wish, as long as it’s reasonable. He’s open to interpretation. My Buddha wouldn’t like all this adoration. He’d say, “Don’t take so much care about me, take care about others. Don’t waste time bathing some stupid baby Buddha statue, bathe a homeless child. Give some clothes to the needy. Do something meaningful.”

My Buddha would have said to the monks, “The people eat first. We eat last.”


Vesak 2011

Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

– Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)