Buddhism and Mythology

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Buddhism and Mythology

Buddhist Mythology in Context

Buddhism, one of the major religions of the world, was founded in India in the sixth century bce and then spread throughout Asia. Over time, many different Buddhist sects, or unique groups, have developed, each with its own variations of gods and legends. Although Buddhism has produced litde mythology of its own, it has incorporated stories from mythologies of various groups that adopted the religion.

Core Deities and Characters

The roots of Buddhism can be traced to one man: Siddhartha Gautama (pronounced see-DAHR-tuh GAW-tuh-muh), a prince from a small state in northern India. Although he was a historical figure, many of the stories about him are based on legend. This has made it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Yet the basic elements of Siddhartha Gautama's life story—whether real or invented—are well known, as are his religious teachings.

The son of King Suddhodana (pronounced soo-doh-DAH-nah), Gautama was born around 563 bce. According to legend, his mother, Queen Maya, had a dream in which she was expecting a child fathered by a white elephant. Local brahmins, or holy men, interpreted the dream to mean that the queen would give birth to a great man. They said that the child would become a powerful king unless he became aware of human suffering in the world. If that happened, he would become a great holy man and savior.

Some legends say that when Gautama was born the earth shook, rivers stopped flowing, flowers fell from the sky, and a lotus flower sprang from the place where he first touched the earth. Mindful of the prophecy about his son, King Suddhodana did everything possible to shield the boy from knowledge of the outside world and human suffering. He built a palace in which his son could enjoy all of life's pleasures, and he forbade any mention of death, grief, or sickness.

One day Gautama expressed a wish to see the world outside the palace. Suddhodana agreed to take his son to a nearby town, but first he had the town cleaned up and ordered that everything unpleasant be removed. During the visit, however, Gautama saw a sick man, an old man, a beggar, and a corpse. Shocked to discover that people lived in poverty, became sick, grew old, and died, the prince realized that he knew nothing about the real world. Determined to learn the truth about the world, Gautama gave up all his possessions and left his home. He became a beggar and sought truth and understanding by denying himself all pleasures.

After six years of wandering and seeking wisdom from holy men, Gautama realized that he was no nearer truth and understanding than before. He decided to look for the truth within himself and went to the town of Bodh Gaya to sit beneath the Bodhi (pronounced BOH-dee) tree and meditate, or think deeply and spiritually. While he was meditating, the evil spirit Mara tried to tempt Gautama with beautiful women. When this failed, Mara threatened him with demons and finally threw a fiery disc at him. However, the disc turned into flowers that floated down on Gautama's head.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Buddhism describes a “noble eightfold path” to enlightenment:

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

After five weeks of meditation, Gautama came to understand that the only way to avoid suffering was to free oneself from all desires. At the moment he realized this, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the “enlightened one” who is free from suffering. He then began to travel and teach others how to achieve spiritual happiness. Buddha gained many followers before his death around 483 bce.

After the death of Buddha, his followers carried Buddhist teachings throughout Asia. Within a few hundred years, Buddhism was practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma (modern-day Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, and most of Southeast Asia. By the 600s ce, it had spread to central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.

Major Myths

Buddhism teaches that all humans experience many lives and are constantly reincarnated—reborn after death into a different form of existence. The form each person takes in a new life depends on karma, which is the total of one's good and bad deeds in previous lives. The goal of Buddhism is to escape this cycle of death and rebirth by achieving enlightenment. When that happens, a person enters a timeless state known as nirvana and is free of all desire.

The original form of Buddhism, recorded in texts from about 100 bce, is called Theravada Buddhism. Its followers believed that there would be only one Buddha in the world at any one time. Theravada Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, Burma, and much of Southeast Asia. A later form of Buddhism, called Mahayana, taught that many Buddhas might exist at the same time. It attracted followers in China, Japan, Tibet, and Korea.

As Buddhism spread, it divided into many different sects. Each sect developed its own traditions and mythology, often based on a combination of local beliefs and deities with Buddhist teaching.

India Early Buddhism in India was influenced by Brahmanism, an early form of the Hindu religion. Both religions shared the idea of the cycle of birth and reincarnation , and both included Devas, traditional Indian gods, and Asuras, powerful demons.

A principal figure in Indian Buddhism was Amitabha, who was a bodhisattva (pronounced boh-dee-SAT-vah)—a person who had become enlightened but chose not to enter nirvana in order to help others gain enlightenment. According to legend, Amitabha was born from a lotus flower and came to the aid of Buddhists who worshipped him and pronounced his sacred name.

China Arriving in China in about 65 ce, Buddhism developed into one of that country's three most important religions, alongside Taoism and Confucianism. Buddhist gods came to be worshipped in Taoist temples and vice versa, and in some temples, the three religions were practiced side by side.

The Mahayana Buddhism practiced in China was an elaborate form of the religion, with more gods and myths than Theravada Buddhism. In the 600s ce, questions arose about certain Buddhist teachings, so a monk named Xuan Zang (also called Tripitaka) went to India to obtain copies of official scriptures. An account of his legendary trip was published in the 1500s as Journey to the West. In the story, the monkey god Sun Wukong and the pig god Zhu Bajie joined Xuan Zang on his journey. During the fourteen-year expedition, the three travelers had to endure many ordeals and tests of their sincerity, including fighting demons and monsters with the help of a magic stick.

Chinese Buddhists established a complex hierarchy, or ranked order of importance, for gods and goddesses. One of the more important deities was Shang Di, whose main assistant, Dongyue Dadi, was known as Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak. Under him were various departments where the souls of virtuous people worked to manage every aspect of human and animal life.

Some of the other important Buddhist gods were the Four Kings of Heaven, the Four Kings of Hell, and the kitchen god, the most important deity of the home. Another major deity was the bodhisattva Mi-Le (known in India as Maitreya), considered to be the future Buddha. Portrayed as a fat, cheerful man, Mi-Le was sometimes called the Laughing Buddha. Worshipers prayed to join him in paradise. Each district in China had its own local deity, and so did each occupation. Even the smallest details of life were controlled by various minor gods and goddesses.

In Chinese Buddhism, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara evolved from a male figure of sympathy into Kuanyin, the goddess of mercy. Tibetans gave Avalokitesvara's wife, Tara, the title Pandaravasin, meaning “dressed in white.” The Chinese translation of that title is Pai-i-Kuanyin. Chinese Buddhists apparently combined the figure of Tara with the characteristics of Avalokitesvara to create a mother goddess figure. As the one who blesses couples with children, Kuanyin appealed to the Chinese belief in ancestor worship, and she became one of the most popular and important Buddhist deities. In Japan, Avalokitesvara is worshiped in both male and female forms as the deity Kannon.

Japan Buddhism came to Japan in about 550 ce and spread quickly because of support from the Japanese royal family. Although supporters of Shinto, the native religion of Japan, at first opposed Buddhism, the two religions eventually became closely linked. Buddhist temples contained Shinto shrines, and Shinto gods (known collectively as kami) became Buddhist guardians. This mix of Shintoism and Buddhism continued until 1868, when the emperor declared Shinto a state religion and banned Buddhist priests and images from Shinto temples. Yet Buddhism remained popular and still has a larger following in Japan than does Shinto.

Although the various forms of Japanese Buddhism include religious ideas from India and China, they have their own mythologies and gods. One of the main deities is Amida (known in other Buddhist regions as Amitabha), ruler of a paradise called the Pure Land. He is worshipped by some Japanese sects as the savior of humankind. Kannon—a bodhisattva known elsewhere as Kuanyin and Avalokitesvara—is the protector of children, women in childbirth, and dead souls. Another popular deity, the bodhisattva Jizö, protects humans and rescues souls from hell. He is often described as a gentle monk who wanders through the land of the dead bringing light and comfort to the souls imprisoned there.

Tibet Buddhism reached Tibet from India in the 600s ce and gradually absorbed native religious practices, creating a unique form of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists worship many groups of Buddhas, gods, and bodhi-sattvas. They also believe in the existence of numerous demons and evil spirits.

According to Tibetan Buddhists, the world goes through an endless cycle of creation and decay, and a new Buddha appears in each world age to teach Buddhist principles. Legend says that one of these Buddhas, Amitabha, ordered a bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara to bring Buddhism to Tibet. At the time, only animals and ogres—large, fearsome creatures—lived there. Avalokitesvara produced a monkey and sent it to meditate in Tibet. The monkey was approached by a female ogre in the form of a beautiful woman, who offered to be his wife. The two had children, but they were covered with hair and had tails. Avalokitesvara sent the children to a forest to mate with other monkeys. He returned a year later and discovered many offspring. When Avalokitesvara gave these creatures food they turned into human beings, and he was then able to convert them to Buddhism.

Key Themes and Symbols

A major theme in Buddhism is the notion of maya, or illusion. Humans believe that their egos and bodily forms are reality, but Buddhism teaches that they are, in fact, just an illusion. Moreover, they are what keep humans entangled in the cycle of birth and rebirth. In order to break out of that cycle and achieve true spiritual liberation, humans must see through the illusion of materiality and ego-consciousness, and embrace the true reality of the divine.

Both the Bohdi tree and the lotus flower symbolize enlightenment in Buddhism. Another prominent symbol is the dharmacakra (pronounced dar-mah-CAK-rah), the “eight-spoked wheel” which represents the “eightfold path” of Buddhism.

Buddhist Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Because Buddhism has spread across so many regions of Asia, there are countless examples of Buddhist art to be found in countries like China, Japan, and Tibet. In India, the land where Buddhism began, examples of Buddhist art are much rarer, as the country is predominantly Hindu and Muslim.

Some Buddhist concepts found their way into Western art and literature in the mid-nineteenth century as Europe and the United States increased trade with Asia. One important export from Asia, in addition to spices and tea, was the drug opium. The phrase “kicking Buddha's gong” eventually came to be slang for using opium, which was popular in Europe and America through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over time, the West became interested in Asia for more than just opium, spices, and tea. The Buddhist philosophy interested many free-thinkers in the nineteenth century, including the American Transcendentalists, who sought alternatives to the dominant Western worldview. The writings of American poet Walt Whitman and social maverick Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, 1854) both show the influence of Buddhism.

Giant Buddhas

Perhaps the greatest example of Buddhism in art was the giant Buddha sculptures of Bamyan in Afghanistan. The two sculptures, each standing over one hundred feet tall, were carved into sandstone cliff walls in the sixth century ce. Details were added using mud plaster, and the statues were originally brightly painted. Being carved from soft sandstone, the statues lost a great deal of their original detail and form due to centuries of erosion by wind and rain. In 2001, the Taliban, an extremist Islamic political party that controlled Afghanistan, destroyed much of what remained of the giant Buddha statues. The giant statues were blasted with dynamite and tank mortars for nearly a month to ensure their destruction.

The Giant Buddhas (2005), a documentary by Christian Frei, details the history of the Bamyan Buddhas and their destruction at the hands of the Taliban. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

German author Herman Hesse introduced many Westerners to Buddhism with his 1922 novel Siddhartha, which was based on the spiritual journey of Siddhartha Gautama. The branch of Buddhism known as Zen Buddhism attracted the attention of the Beat generation writers of the 1950s, and featured prominently in Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Novelist J. D. Salinger's work, including The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters (1963), also reveals the author's interest in Zen Buddhism.

The novel Siddhartha and Buddhist teachings in general became particularly popular in the United States during the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when, again, Buddhism was seen as an alternative to what many perceived as a violent, consumerist Western culture. Robert M. Pirsig's 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values became one of the bestselling books of philosophy of all time.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Many prominent American celebrities have converted to Buddhism in adulthood. Examples include actors Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman, and Mark Wahlberg, as well as singer Tina Turner. Among the general American population, however, adult conversion to Buddhism remains fairly rare. Why do you think celebrities might be more interested in Buddhism than the general population?

SEE ALSO Brahma; Chinese Mythology; Devils and Demons; Flowers in Mythology; Hinduism and Mythology; Japanese Mythology; Reincarnation

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