Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Was the Buddha Black?

Close your eyes.* Imagine Buddha seated in front of you. Spend a moment scanning the scene. What features does your Buddha have?

This is an interesting practice not only because it is a very common traditional practice of Buddhism, the recollection or visualization of the Buddha, but also for what it tells us about our conditioning, cultural or otherwise.

Odds are, you're not visualizing Keanu Reeves, from his role as the Buddha in "Little Buddha." But perhaps something close? With the tree, yellow robe, fair skin, and black, curled hair (flower petals optional).

Or perhaps something a bit more 'Vajrayana'? Perhaps a blue-skinned Medicine Buddha, sitting upon a lotus throne with red, yellow, and green aureolas. (painting courtesy my friends at Osel Shen Phen Ling, Missoula, MT.)
My own little office shrine, with an Indian-carved wooden Buddha in meditation posture and a Tibetan thanka with Buddha in earth-touching posture.

Or another computer-generated or enhanced, but slightly more traditional version... The above is from my time in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma). I call it my "Jesus-Buddha-Bieber" photo. 

Other possibilities abound.

There's the still quite traditional SE Asian form of Buddha found at Borobudur, Indonesia.

And the ever-cute but not correct "Buddha" from Chinese folk mythology, better known as Hotei or Butai. This guy didn't become a or the Buddha as far as I know until some unknowing Westerners started seeing him in Chinese food restaurants (I worked in one such restaurant in high school, and still remember the "Buddha fountain" in the entrance).

And then there's the also incorrect and surely-offensive-to-someone golden Hotei costume... I'm reminded of a post from a bit over a year ago by John over at Zendirtzendust, where he posted a picture of Gollum (From Lord of the Rings) and suggested that the famous "32 Marks" of the Buddha would have left him looking a bit gollumish if he in fact had them. The title, "Buddha, Sex Symbol for the Ages" was a bit irreverent (as was the post) and the discussion quickly went to the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of certain levels or kinds of humor. Nathan, over at Dangerous Harvests, picks up on that whole conversation.

Obviously from all of that, how we imagine the Buddha, given the plethora of scriptural descriptions, paintings, and statues, matters. So it was with some interest today when I came across a very intriguing article simply called, "The Buddha was Bald." The author, Eisel Mazard, cites numerous instances in the Pali Canon supporting the idea that the Buddha was bald and/or undifferentiated from his male companions (who are always depicted as bald).

Mazard makes some headway into exploring how and why later sūtras (mainly from the Mahāyāna) and statues, which began in Gandhara, depict the Buddha with hair. And while I don't agree with all of his conclusions -see the comments in the article- I appreciate the piece for opening new and perhaps more historically correct windows into our imaginations about the historical Buddha. Some suttas even depict the Buddha as being "black" - a culturally loaded term, then as now - usually referring to someone of lower caste and/or with heritage coming from southern India where people were, and are, mostly much darker in skin tone than in the north.

We might then even wonder if we should imagine the Buddha as both bald and black. The great DVD series, Story of India, begins with the story of early human inhabitants in India coming right across the Arabian peninsula and into western and south-western India. And, if I remember correctly, these people remained largely isolated over thousands of years while humanity spread out across the globe, slowly changing their morphology (appearance) as they did so - those going further north generally becoming paler. Then, as we learn in an India or Buddhism 101 course, a warrior/herder/horse-riding people calling themselves the Aryans ("Nobles") moved down from somewhere in the Caucases and into north India.

In Buddhism 201 we could talk about Indo-European languages, noting that the same people who went into India also spread out throughout Europe, as far flung as Ireland. The name "Ireland" itself derives from the word "Aryan." So does the name of another country. Any guesses which one? In any case, these people, along with laying the foundations of a broad variety of languages, were paler than either the people of Africa or those in southern India. Perhaps due to the dynamics of power as the Aryans made their way into India, or due to disease (a thesis powerfully defended by William McNeill in Plagues and Peoples), darker skin came to be seen as inferior or unclean there.

So here the use of the term "black" (kaṇhā), may fall into the category of a general insult, rather than a literal description. On the other hand, the Buddha may well have been much darker skinned than we are accustomed to seeing him depicted as. Shock. If he were, it might also make sense for later Buddhists to overlook this detail, depicting him in the most ideal form conceivable. We already know for instance that the name "Siddhārtha," meaning one who's goal is accomplished, was not 'given' to him in the earliest strata of textual evidence, but only appears later. Likewise, the story of his father as a powerful king has been shown to be greatly exaggerated, if holding any truth at all. So perhaps the myth of a fair and 'golden skinned' Buddha is just that, a myth.

As a scholar, I would appreciate more attention to this issue. And I'm sure those with anti/post-colonialist tendencies can find further directions to take this. As for practitioners - it seems that Buddhism, both in many doctrines and art, has taken on many different shapes as it has progressed through time and geography. So perhaps whatever way you imagine your Buddha is just fine as it is.

* This was also posted at americanbuddhist.blogspot.com a bit back, but I figured it has relevance amongst Progressive Buddhist folks, so here it is.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Is life a roller coaster ride?

I don't know what life is, but I do hope that quickly after death we will each find out.

An answer you can find in old movies [for example, "Heaven Can Wait" or "The Horn Blows at Midnight"] is that after life you are on a cloud, in a long line, waiting for Angel Gabriel to let you in His gate -- or not.

Another possiblity is that you are deleted. There is less than nothing after life; you are as much not around as the memory you don't have of yourself before you were born.

It can be that you pass through the Bardo, a spooky old place, dream-like and filled with potential terrors, on your way to a next birth, as a human or some other sentient being on this or some other planet or somewhere or somehow in some other universe that you could never imagine. And it can be, that your reborn self comes tagged with lessons that you need to learn from all your prior lives, bringing you pains and pleasures that you deserve.

Many of us Buddhists pull out text from some sutra and say that Buddha told us not to speculate on those things be cannot know. And what might happen to us after death is just the kind of time-wasting speculation he was talking about. But Buddha also told us to use our own judgment of what we should think or do, and I think that considering the possibilities of what death might mean is a good use of a modest chunk of our life's time.

My hope is that we find out that a life is just a crazy old roller coaster ride.

At the end of life, you find yourself in a roller coaster car, passing out of a dark tunnel. The track takes you up and down a few modest bumps, splashing through water, then your car is brought to a halt. You then remember before you were born when you embarked on the ride. And unless you had a remarkable life, in an instant you see how silly you were in life, misjudging what was important and what was unimportant.

Just as with rollercoasters in amusement parks throughout the world, there is no lesson to be learned from a ride, and you disembark at the same place where you got on. Life, it turns out, is just a stunning experience, playing with that magical substance Ignorance. We are all of us, really, this single great Cosmic Self, frozen with absolute knowledge of everything and thus incapable of laughter, love, terror or hope. It is only through Ignorance that Cosmic Self can have adventures and experience the myriad feelings that Ignorance make possible.

While life isn't a land of lessons, we do learn things about it: It turns out that chasing after money and status is not only life's biggest time waster, it is as destructive as living a life of crime. There is nothing that one can achieve by being well off financially and being respected by others. Indeed, by taking more than your share of earth's bounty and putting yourself above others, you add to the collective pool of misery. It is only from a deeply felt compassion for others, and having modest possessions, that a life is profoundly satisfying.

But life is not a lesson. And whether we live as a seriel killer or an ego-free saint, there are no rewards nor punishments to receive or endure after life's passing. There is only this: Certain knowledge about everything, and the opportunity to ride again.

Funny thing -- or, I should say, seriously, that it is not so funny a thing -- the Roller Coaster Theory does not pick up much religious support. I think the reason for this is that religions thrive when obedience to the religion is rewarded with prizes and benefits after death. The Twin Towers suicide terrorists each had twenty submissive virgins waiting for them after their murderous crashes. Good Christians have an eternity in Heaven. Well behaved Hindus and Buddhists have karmic rewards, which might include a next life graced with prosperity, health, and attractive physical features. And, of course, for Buddhists there is Paranirvana, an absolute end to all suffering.

The Roller Coaster Theory comes then with marketting problems. The afterlife of the major religions promise a Parential [usually, Fatherly] Approval, and with it, happiness and security. So, there is a reason for us to be Good; our life has meaning. Be Good to make the Great Cosmic Dad proud.

In the Roller Coaster Theory, you are not still a child -- one of God's children -- you are a grown up. And while dangers and terrors and random acts of violence are for the most part outside what you can control or influence, there is no one more in charge than you are. Your life can go wonderfully or horribly, despite your will, effort and talents; there is no guardian angel to guide or protect you. And so it is hard to feel that there is ultimately any meaning to being alive.

Why be good if there is no eventual reward? At the first level of understanding, it is because you can only really be good if there is no reward. At the second level of understanding -- which trumps the first, obliterating it -- we should be good for its own sake: Good for Goodness' sake. That's all. There's nothing else.

But what is Good? And what is Goodness' sake? There is no one outside yourself to tell you. As our heart/mind matures, the ideal of good becomes less treacly and rule-bound. We do the right thing outside the call of reasons for what feels like [and is] a growing abundance of wisdom and compassion.
* This was also posted to Homeless Tom a bit back, but I figured it has relevance amongst Progressive Buddhist folks, so here it is.