First, as always dear reader, start here – please.
Thailand is a country of very many people. (ed Note: 66 million). Approximately 85% of these folks are Buddhist. These people fucking love the Buddha. They have approx a metric shit-ton of temples. (ed note: 47,000 to be specific). They have been Buddhists for thousands of years. Btw, you are saying it wrong. You pronounce it ‘boo-dah’. I did, too. No one in Thailand pronounces it like that, though. Even the wonderful folks who speak English in Thailand have no idea what you are saying when you pronounce it like that. You want the ‘u’ in Buddha to be like it is in pudding.
Here, listen to how Joseph Campbell says it. You need more Joseph Campbell. We all do, really… but you especially. Ever heard ‘follow your bliss’?
No? Man, you really need more Joseph Campbell.
So, you have approx. 60 million people who have been Buddhists as far back as their family tree goes. Now, how about if I tell you, and them, they are doing it wrong… and have been all along? Who am I to throw this wrench into world history? Well, a recovering Catholic who took a couple years of comparative religion and who owns the entire ‘Power of Myth’ series on VHS. So… yeah… I’m kinda a big deal.
Let’s look at the very basic tenets of Buddhism; All life is sorrow. Sorrow comes from attachment to things. The worst, and most avoidable, attachment is in the physical realm. Your favorite baseball cap, or parent. In time, you will lose ALL of these things… especially if you keep having to do life over and over again. All this is going to do is make you sad. You are a selfish greedy materialistic pig. So I am. Buddhism is about letting those things go.
In Buddhism, the primary purpose of life is to end suffering. The Buddha taught that humans suffer because we continually strive after things that do not give lasting happiness. We desperately try to hold on to things – friends, health, material things – that do not last, and this causes sorrow.
The Buddha did not deny that there are things in life that give joy, but pointed out that none of them last and our attachment to them only causes more suffering. His teachings were focused entirely on this problem and its solution.
There is a saying that Joseph Campbell loves to tell to quickly explain Buddhist philosophy. “if you see the Buddha in the road, kill him.” This is what it means to me, and (I think) to him; if you see the Buddha in the road, it means you are looking externally for knowledge and enlightenment and understanding and bla bla bla. These things are all inside you at all times. If you are looking for them outside of yourself, you are kinda missing the whole point. God isn’t in heaven, or church. God is in you. It is why I allow myself to stay home on Sundays and watch football instead of going to mass.
There is much I love and respect about what I know of the Buddha. He was a very real man, who never wanted to be a religion. He certainly never regarded himself as immortal. He never believed you should take his word over all. Buddhism is NOT a religion. It is a philosophy. There are no rules. To be a Buddhist monk, for sure, there are rules. To be a Buddhist… well – don’t be a dick ****
Knowing these things, why are there these amazing monuments and elegies to ‘Lord Buddha’? That is what they call him in Thailand… lord Buddha. Well, were he here today he would have stopped that nonsense first and foremost. To build the greatest and grandest temple to Buddha is to miss the entire fucking point.
It seemed every Wat we were in (Wat is what they call the temples) there was a contest for the most Buddha statues and likenesses. In one beautiful temple, we counted 124 different Buddha statues. Our guide taught us about how each temple had its own ‘most valuable Buddha’. We saw one made entirely of gold. One made entirely of jade. We saw one the size, literally, of a football field. This statue was so big they built it first, and then put the building around it. (ed note: this is Wat Pho) Ah yes, the longest Buddha, the most expensive Buddha, the shiniest Buddha. Buddhism is entirely about NOT being attached to material things… like golden idols.
Thankfully, we spent a few extra bahts to have a guide with us. He kinda unwittingly explained the whole thing to me. It won’t be too surprising. As we were in one Wat that had about 80 full life sized Buddha statues; I noticed the faces were all a bit different. I asked my guide why that was. He said “well, since it was so long ago… no one really knows what the Buddha looked like. So, each King kinda molded the Buddha statues during his reign to match his own likeness. This is how they are able to date the various statues.” BINGO.
Did you catch that? These statues, really, have NOTHING to do with Buddha. These are kings dressing themselves up as Buddhas so that history knows what a great and religious and pious and super rich each king was. In my eyes, none of this was built for Buddha. He not only didn’t want it, it misses the point entirely.
Next week, I’ll throw this little wrench in to history. You will read that Angkor Wat is the greatest and oldest and most significant Buddhist temple ever. It isn’t. Angkor Wat has almost nothing to do with Buddhism at all. It is 99% a Hindu temple. Again, we’ll hit that later.
**** we are talking Mayahaya Buddhism, here. The more hardcore and disciplined wing of Buddhism is called ‘Theravada. Pretty sure those guys would cane me if they read this. Seriously. I am of the Mahayana side, very much so. That is the happy hippy dippy ‘we are all Buddhas inside. I accept you all… let’s hug’. Think of it like reformed Jews, or unitarian Christians. Theravada is like first testament Christianity. There is only god, and man is he ANGRY.
In closing, you know that awesome scene from Talledega Nights at the dinner table? They are all gathered in prayer, and talking about how they specifically imagine what baby Jesus looks like? Well, Buddhism is kinda like that. There are about 54 specific recognized Budda poses and postures. This is my favorite.
Note what the hands are doing, it is very important. The left hand is resting, and opened up. This is to accept knowledge and change. In my eyes, with this hand he accepts and embraces life’s’ changes, and eagerly requests more knowledge. His right hand, however, is also saying ‘BUT… you best back the fuck off. Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.”