Friday, October 9, 2009

Pre-Christian Buddhist Christmas Stories

Editors (WQ) reaction to American Atheist magazine article

As popularized in the very important phenom Zeitgeist, many of the details surrounding Christ are in fact astronomically/astrologically important features found in many popular religions. The reasons for this are explained very well in the original movie (and for some reason, perhaps research trying to verifying them, left out of Zeitgeist: Addendum).

While the facts may be accurate with regard to other pre-Christian faiths, many are certainly not consistent with the life of the Buddha. The Buddha gave rise to Buddhism, which gave rise 200 years later to Mahayana Buddhism, which gave rise to many Christian ideas and ideals. Christ can very easily be interpreted as a bodhisattva (or Maitreya, the messiah Buddha), vowing to save the world. The similarities are too striking and Christ's years in India (Hemis Gompa, Ladakh) too well established to think them coincidences and overlapping religious beliefs.

As to the facts surrounding the details of the Buddha's life, here are the alleged claims followed by corrections:

Buddha (Siddartha Gautama) c. 563 BCE
(American Athiest magazine)
  • Born on December 25?

No. Siddhartha, who became the Buddha at age 35, was born on approximately May 15 (technically on the full moon day of the lunar month Vesak).

  • Born of the Virgin Maya (“the Queen of Heaven”).

No. His mother was an earthly queen named Maya, who was a pure person but not at all a "virgin" (either in the technical sense of being an "unmarried maiden" or in the popular sense of being sexually inexperienced).

  • Announced by a star and attended by wise men presenting costly gifts.

No. There was no particular star to our knowledge and certainly no wise men bearing gifts. He was born in a garden grove named Lumbini somewhere in greater India, known then as Bharat, when India was much larger and encompassed Afghanistan and parts of the Near East. Dubious scholarship posits that Lumbini was in modern southern Nepal near the Indian border, while at least one scholar ( places Lumbini much farther west.

  • At his birth Brahma angels sang hymns.

Sort of. Devas (not brahmas) rejoiced and are said to have shown signs of their delight knowing that this being reborn on earth was intending to strive for enlightenment and teach. Devas are unseen being -- earthbound fairies as well as celestials, approximating the meaning of "angels."

  • Tempted by Mara, the Evil One, while fasting, but overcame the temptation, putting the Evil One to flight.

Yes. The Buddha very famously resisted the pull of habit, the personification of death, Mara. (The Pali word for death is marana). Nirvana is in a sense "deathlessness," removed from and transcending both birth and death. There are unseen beings, literally "killers," who would rather than no being escape Samsara, the cycle of birth and death. One being in particular corresponds very closely in some regards to the Christian devil. He is, however, far from all powerful. He is a mara ("killer") named Namuci ("the Non-liberator"). He takes it upon himself to thwart the good done or attempted by significant persons. He is confounded with Mara devaputra, a kind of celestial "Cupid" character. But for the most part, Buddhist scholars do not think of Mara as a literal personality in any sense other than a figurative or metaphorical one: Therefore, there are Mara's Daughters (Craving, Discontent, and Lust), Mara's hosts, and various failings and defilements (kilesas) regarded as the influence of Mara, and so on. (See The Buddha's Encounters with Mara the Tempter for an excellent overview).

  • Taught in temple at age 12 and was able to match the wise religious scholars in their understanding.

No. No such episode is recorded according to our knowledge. Siddhartha grew up as a hedonist, keeping to the three luxurious palaces his father had built for him. He enjoyed a distracted, royal upbringing. And while he was very compassionate and popular, he did not display spiritual inclinations until the age of 29.

  • He healed the sick; fed 500 from a small basket of cakes.

Not as such. The only sicknesses he healed were spiritual, emotional, and mental. Three remarkable healing episodes are recorded, wherein the Seven Factors of Enlightenment are brought to mind and recited, which then miraculously cures a painful ailment akin to cholera or dysentery. (See the Maha Kassapa Bojjhanga). He promoted hygeine, and on at least one occasion he rolled up his sleeves and helped clean and comfort a monk suffering from terrible sores (carbuncles or leprosy) imploring the other monks to help one another when sick. There is no feeding of the masses, although such a thing would certainly have been possible. During one period of famine, the monks had to travel a long way to collect alms. One of the Buddha's chief male disciples (Maha Moggallana) offers to use his supernormal powers to provide for them. The Buddha does not agree. And in the long run, the famine passes, and people live within normal natural laws and limitations.

  • Walked on water.

No. In fact, quite the opposite happened. It is possible to walk on water. Any yogi adept or successful meditator (taking earth or solidity as the object of absorption) may develop this psychic ability. That is not remarkable. On one occasion, the Buddha and Ananda came to a swollen river. The Buddha asked Ananda to secure a ferry ride across. As the boatman was paddling them across, Ananda was looking around. To his amazement, he saw a yogi walking across on top of the water in a marvelous supernatural display. He exclaimed to the Buddha, "Why did we hire a boat when we could have done that instead?! The Buddha replied by asking, "Ananda, how much did this boat ride cost?" "Two cents," Ananda answered. "Well, there's the value of that then," the Buddha explained. While the Buddha did not display his psychic abilities for show, seeing great danger in doing so, he did on occasion employ them for other reasons. To cross a body of water when necessary, he (and not him alone but other disciples and adepts as well) was able to cross it in the time it would take "a strong man to flex a straigtht arm or straighten a flexed arm."

  • Buddha's disciple wanted to hear his lord preach so he started to cross a stream – he doubted and started to sink but he built up his faith and continued to walk across the water.

Not that we know of, but a citation would put this and every other claim here to rest. Certainly such a thing is possible. An adept who wills, for example, water to be earth, that water will become solid for such a person or for whomever that person designates. The exact instructions for how to do this are detailed in the ancient Visuddhi Magga ("Path of Purification" by Ven. Buddhaghosa), a compendious Theravadin meditation manual and scholarly triumph.

  • Came to fulfill the law and preached the establishment of a kingdom of righteousness.

Okay. That's a very flowery way of saying that the Buddha "turned the Wheel of the Dharma" (often translated as natural Law) and established it (a path to enlightenment and profitable rebirth destinations. Either India, Jambudvipa (the middle portion of the subcontinent corresponding somewhat to the Ganges), or the Buddhist world as a whole would then be this "kingdom"? That does not follow since righteousness exists where righteousness is practiced, under whatever banner or title in whatever location. A Buddhist area does not suddenly become a better area simply because people take on the name "Buddhist." Even if they do not, but conduct themselves better, any place becomes a better place. This is not limited to the Buddha's Dharma (the social obligations people choose to fulfill as distinct from the karma coming to fruit for them in terms of circumstances).

  • He obliged followers to live in poverty and to renounce the world.

Not quite. These are the obligations one takes on as a monastic, and the vast majority of Buddhists are neither monastic nor impoverished. The sutras speak of many millionaires and royals and successful merchants who practice the Dharma. Those wishing to strive for enlightenment most directly do renounce the world or at least their attachment to it. Those who wish to remain attached and unliberated continue to do so. They gain success by giving (dana) -- which reduces their poverty, greed, selfishness, and clinging -- and by practicing virtue (sila) and meditation (bhavana).

  • In his final years, Buddha was said to have 'crushed a serpent's head' and to have been transfigured on a mount...'

Some of these claims come to seem quite silly. Given that quotes are employed, it's baffling why citations are not. This "serpent" could be a naga. There is an episode recorded where the Naga Nandopananda is subdued, but not by the Buddha. Maha Moggallana transforms himself into the shape of a bigger naga and squeezes Nandopananda, who is described as assuming the form of a dragon. He is not crushed, just subdued. But "transfigured on a mount"? If transfiguring is utilizing the power of transforming oneself, and doing so on a mount refers to spending a lot of time on the peak of a hill in Ragjir...anything is possible. But the suggestion that these things are analogous to Christian events or myths is silly.

  • It was Buddha, not Christ, who first said: 'If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'

It's possible. For in fact the Buddha went much further in the "Parable of the Saw." This saying certainly accords with Buddhist principles, and Jesus borrowed a great deal from India (where he became an adept yogi), Mahayana Buddhism, and Buddhist lore in general. A citation or the exact quote settle the matter in an instant. "Victory breeds hatred, for the defeated live in pain. Happily live the peaceful, giving up victory and defeat" (Dhammapada 201).