The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, July 28, 2012
Religion ...

At our zendo recently, one of the teachers made a comment during a “practice circle” discussion on how Buddhism does not have much “ism” to it, compared with other religions. For one thing, Buddhism does not tell of a god coming to earth to appoint a certain human with the responsibility to spread the cosmic truths to the rest of humankind. Nor does it include a personal force that tempts that certain human to seek human greatness and ignore this celestial calling.

Oh, wait, actually Buddhism does include those two things. After Siddhartha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, with all its oxygen emissions, the Shakyamuni Buddha was in no hurry to go off and spread the word. [There are various names for the founder of Buddhism, including Siddhartha, Gautama, and Shakyamuni.] But the Hindu god Brahma Sahampati soon came to Shaky and convinced him that he needed to teach the Dharma to others. Brahma Sahampati was the creator deity in Hinduism, so this was no small thing. Obviously, Shaky Siddhartha took Sahampati seriously and devoted the rest of his life to relating the Dharma to humankind. OK, so we have a conscious, non-scientific cosmic force here, one who knew that Siddhartha was on to the truth and who could talk and reason with him.

As to the tempter, that would be Mara, the devil-like force who often tried to foil Gautama on his search for the greatest truths. Mara provided beautiful women, fearful beasts, and finally played mind-games with the Big Shaky B, to get him off track. But of course, it didn’t work. The Shaky finally sent Mara packing.

So, do we see things like this in other religions? Look no further than Christianity. When Jesus was baptized by John, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove. Then a voice from heaven said “You are my Son, in you I am pleased”. Or so it is told in the Gospel of Luke (3:22). In the next line, Luke tells us that “Jesus began his work”. This sounds to me like a divine command to get out there and spread the truth, much like what the Pali Canon describes happening to Siddhartha the Shaky one.

As to Jesus and the tempter, well, we need only go a few lines forward in Luke to Chapter 4, where Jesus encounters the Devil during his 40 days in the desert (Shakyamuni took 49 days under his tree, incidentally). As with Gautama, Jesus told the Evil One to get lost.

Where else do we find such stories? How about Islam . . . When Muhammed was still up on the mountain trying to find truth, and the angel came to him saying “O Muhammad! You are the Messenger of Allah and I am Gabriel.” Muhammed said that he was not a reader and thus was not a good choice to convey the message of the Quran; but the angel insisted, commanding him “Recite! Recite!”. And thus the great teaching tradition of Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, get its start. Again, we have a human visited by a heavenly messenger with a mission to spread truth to the world.

As to devils and temptation in Muhammed’s life . . . his experiences here are a bit more interesting. In the “Satanic Verses”, which were later expunged from the Quran, Muhammed briefly exalted three ancient goddesses. So, the Prophet gave in to the evil power of women! But he soon got his monotheistic bearings back after taking some heat from the angel Gabriel.

One thing you can say for Islam is that their founder stayed in the fray of daily life, just like the rest of us. Muhammed was flawed, but somehow still carried the sacred word. Jesus and Buddha by contrast are presented as both perfect and voluntarily separated from daily life and its routines, following their great revelations.

I thought I’d share these observations, as I always enjoy examples of cross-cultural and inter-faith commonalities. But I also need to point out that Buddhism, as least in its early form, had a lot of spiritual transcendence to it. It was not the atheistic religion of the Enlightenment, as it is so often made out to be in modern western society. Most Buddhism being proffered here in the USA is a reformed and revised Buddhism, a “rational” Buddhism. That’s just fine, so long as we don’t imagine that what we teach here in America IS what Buddhism has been all along. In keeping with our own worship of empirical objectivity, we imagine Buddhism as an extension of our study of psychology; a teaching that could be handed down by the ghost of Sigmund Freud, as opposed to Sahampati, the Holy Spirit, or Gabriel.

(Given that pick of ghostly visitors, I’d certainly NOT pick Dr. Freud!!!)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:55 pm      

  1. Jim, Your blog reminds me of something I read recently in Kathleen Norris’ The Virgin of Bennington. Although she was speaking of a small town, I’m reminded of her words. And come to think of it, each “religion” or “spiritual group” can be considered, in some sense, a kind of “small town”, a small group of people. While you are thinking in terms of how American Buddhism has changed from the original, your blog set me to thinking about what often happens in these groups–they result in a need to “share” with other people what goodness has been found in a particular religion or spirituality or even group that has come together because of a particularly charismatic speaker.

    Norris is quoting her mentor Betty Kray who was speaking of the sense of rightness, the “gloss of morality” and “moral justification” “provincial people” often have.

    Kray said: “Better to hear somebody snarl, ‘I want my way,’ than, ‘I am right, you are wrong.’” And isn’t it often the case when someone finds “religion” or finds a new way of doing something that “works” for that person, the instinct is not only to *share* but to then want other people to do the same thing; and soon it becomes a matter of Kray’s, “I am right and you are wrong” situation. In fact in some of the religions you mention, specifically Christians and Muslims, such is the case; it’s also often the case when there’s a kind of “cult-like” group who finds it a *must* for others to know and do what the members of the cult have found helpful for them.

    Makes one wonder about those who insist another do the same as a particular group has found: Is wanting one’s way (as a group or even individually) disguised as “I’m right and you are wrong”? I tend to think often it is. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 29, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

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