Friday, February 27, 2009

The True Dharma Once Delivered to All the Saints

The Episcopal/ Anglican blog sites seem to be in a big palaver over Buddhism, particularly over a certain new Michigan bishop's contacts with that religion. Not being an insider or much of a follower of Episcopal hierarchical politics, I can't and won't comment on that situation.
For some reason lately, the right wing feels threatened by Buddhism. I remember a few years ago seeing folks in the hater section by Rockefeller Center during the Gay Pride Parade carrying signs attacking Buddhism (at a Gay Pride parade?).

I'm not a scholar of religion, but I do find it striking how much misinformation is allowed to pass unchallenged about the Buddhist religion. I'm not a Buddhist. I'm not literate in all the Buddhist scriptures. My knowledge of Buddhist beliefs and practices is limited. But I do know that it is not an "atheist" religion as so many freely claim. I'm not sure the very Western concept of "dualism" fits Buddhism either. In fact, I'm not sure that very Western term "Buddhism" fits, describing something in Christian terms of creed and allegiance that doesn't really apply.

The word "Buddhism" is a creation of 19th century European scholars. It was coined to designate a wide variety of philosophies and religious sects that have a common origin in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (or "Enlightened One"). The same could be said about "Christianity," a term that describes a whole universe of different and conflicting beliefs and practices that have a common focus on Jesus Christ. The difference is that the term Christianity was created -- and now fought over -- by Christians themselves.
Those who Western scholars identify as Buddhists have always been conflicted over just how to describe their faith, as a religion or as a philosophy. What we call Buddhism encompasses such different people as the Dalai Lama regarded by his followers as divine, and writers like Thich Nhat Han who doesn't believe in the divine, at least in the conventional sense.  There are forms of Buddhism that are very liturgical using chanting, incense, imagery and complex symbolism.  There are other anti-liturgical spontaneous forms of Buddhism, just as there are such forms in Christianity.  
 In the East, the teachings of Buddha are usually identified as The Dharma, which translates as "The Way," "The Path," or my favorite, "The Method." What we call the Buddhist "religion" in the East is regarded as a method of salvation that was never intended to supplant other religious allegiances. It was once a commonplace in Japan for people to be married in Shinto ceremonies and given Buddhist funerals when they died (now they all want Christian weddings, not to be Christian, but to look Western; Buddhist funerals continue to be the norm, even for those married in churches). Buddhist funerals are also common in China followed by Confucian ancestor rites. People don't "belong" to religions in the East the way we do. You can decide for yourselves which is the better arrangement.

Instead of rehashing the Dharma and what it's all supposed to be about, I'd rather take a look at the wide variety of Buddhist beliefs and practices as reflected in 2500 years of Buddhist art.

Buddhism began in India, and the earliest Buddhist art is found there.  Buddhism was expelled from India during the Muslim conquest after almost a thousand years of peaceful coexistence with India's other native religions.  Now, Buddhism is making a dramatic comeback in the land of its origin.  There is a growing Buddhist population in India.

The Buddha never appears in the earliest Buddhist art.  The stupa, a modified burial mound containing a relic of the Buddha, serves as a memorial and an indication of his abiding presence.

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, India, ca. 250 BC.  enlarged about 50 BC

In this sculpture from the Stupa at Sanchi, the Buddha's presence is indicated by the disk on the throne as he attains enlightenment under the tree in the deer park.


Theravada is the older more austere form of Buddhism with its emphasis on meditation, personal discipline, and monasticism; on practice over theology.

The 12th century stupas and images at Pollonaruva in Sri Lanka reflect the conservatism of Theravada with their very limited imagery and austere forms

The Buddha Paranirvana at Pollonaruva.  The Buddha lies down peacefully to die and to enter Nirvanna, the release from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth.


Mahayana, "The Greater Vehicle," is religious Buddhism with a large and complex cosmology.  In Mahayana, the historical Buddha was but one of millions of Buddhas.  There are spiritual hierarchies with saints and bodhisatvas -- enlightened beings who delay entering Nirvanna in order to help others.  There is even an apocalypse in the form of a bodhisatva, Maitreya, who will take the whole universe with him when he enters Nirvanna.

Borobudur, Indonesia, completed about 840 AD.

Borobudur is one of the largest and most spectacular Buddhist monuments in the world.  It is a model in stone of the Mahayana universe.  A building with no interior, it was meant to be an aid to personal meditation and instruction as the visitor climbed and circled each terrace on the way up.

The most elaborate carvings on Borobudur are near the base where we begin with scenes of the earthly life; tales of orgiastic pleasure and cruel torment.  We move up the terraces through scenes from the Jataka tales, stories of the previous incarnations of the historical Buddha.

Finally, at the top of the structure, the stories cease, and we enter a realm of hollow stupas each containing a magnificent meditating Buddha of unearthly calm and self possession.  We are now beyond the lower worlds of time and desire.

China has its own splendid Buddhist imagery inspired by the rich speculative cosmology of Mahayana Buddhism.  Among the best surviving examples are the isolated caves on the edge of the Gobi desert where large communities of monks spent their time in meditation far away from the distractions of the cities.

One of the most spectacular and remote of such cave communities is Dun Huang in western China along the old Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert.  There are over 500 surviving Buddhist caves with paintings still brilliant after more than 1500 years.

Cave 285, Dunhuang, 538 AD.

Caves like this one are covered with brilliantly colored paintings of the inhabitants of the Mahayana cosmos including Buddhas of creation, of medicine, of mercy, of earthquakes, of stars, apsaras (like angels), bodhisatvas, lohans (saints), etc.

Pure Land

Pure Land Buddhism is a type of Mahayana Buddhism that remains the most popular form in much of China and Japan.  It is "salvation by faith" Buddhism.  It focuses on the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise, who in his former life, wanted to help those who had no hope to attain Nirvana in a thousand lifetimes of practice and meditation.  

A "Descending Raigo (Haya Raigo)" or "welcoming" picture from Japan, 13th century, intended to be hung near the beds of the dying.  It shows Amida Buddha accompanied by bodhisatvas and apsaras appearing at the summons of a dying priest who sits upright in lotus position, the position in which his bones will be arranged for burial after cremation.
The believer need only to say the name of the Amida Buddha in sincerity, and he/she will enter the Western Paradise to complete his/her journey to Nirvana.

One of the finest temples of Pure Land Buddhism is the 11th century Byodoin Temple at Uji near Kyoto.  It was built out of the estate of a powerful nobleman of the Fujiwara family.  It sits in the middle of a splendid garden, and is intended to be an image of the Western Paradise.

Inside the Phoenix Hall at the center of the Byodoin Temple is this masterpiece by the great bushi or Buddhist sculptor, Jocho showing the Amida Buddha enthroned at the center of paradise.
Pure Land Buddhism has a very low reputation in the West, mostly because of its superficial resemblance to Christianity.  Like Christianity, it has a savior.  Faith in that savior is the key to salvation.  Also like Christianity, it has heaven and hell.  Unlike Christianity, there is no judge or judgement.  Placement in either heaven or hell is due to the impersonal workings of karma.  Both heaven and hell are temporary.  The goal of Pure Land Buddhism, like all Buddhism, is not paradise, but Nirvana, the release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Pure Land Buddhism comes out of a central tenet of the Buddha's teaching that is sometimes overlooked by the more demanding and esoteric forms of Buddhism, compassion.


All the historic forms of Buddhism began in India, including a movement to return Buddhism to its origins as a philosophy and a practice instead of a religion.  It got rid of all the imagery, the bells and smells rituals of Pure Land and Esoteric Buddhism, and replaced ritual with discipline and practice.  In China, this form of Buddhism was called Chan.  When it arrived in Japan, it was known as Zen.

Interior of the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto from the 1480s.

It's hardly recognizable as a religious structure.  It is a simple hall with tatami mats for meditation.

The focus of meditation is not an image of the Buddha, but this 15th century garden of sand, rocks, and moss that suggests islands in the sea receding to the horizon.

A haboku, or "splashed ink" painting by Sesshu, 16th century

The paradox of Zen is that it is a disciplined and methodical emptying of the self to prepare for a spontaneous moment of enlightenment.  That strange combination of discipline and spontaneity is at the heart of Zen ink painting, begun by Chinese masters such as Mu qi and Liang Kai, and given a further Japanese form by great painters like Sesshu.  Zen was very popular with the Samurai and other members of the Japanese warrior classes.

And there are still more forms of Buddhism that I've missed like the many forms of Tantric Buddhism that flourish in the Himalayas, and more modern forms created as Buddhism, like all faiths, meets the challenges of modern experience.

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