Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ideal Buddhist Altar (with women)

Seven and Macpherson, Wisdom Quarterly (COMMENTARY)

Altar at Wat Traimit, Bangkok, Thailand, a Theravadan country (Flickr/Stewie1980)

If an altar is intended to help one recollect the qualities of the Buddha (see below), it might have just a Buddha (perhaps with Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion, situated near his heart. After all, a very popular motif throughout Mahayanist Asia is Kwan Yin with a sitting Buddha at her head symbolizing wisdom).

If an altar is intended to reflect the Dharma as well, it might have a eight-spoke wheel, a line of scripture, or a book to symbolize the teachings.

If an altar is intended to bring to mind the Sangha, it might include the Buddha's four chief disciples: starting with the venerable nun Khema, foremost in wisdom among female arhat disciples, followed by Sariputra, chief among male disciples to the Buddha's right. To his left would stand Maha Moggallana, foremost in magical powers among male arhat disciples, followed by Uppallavana, chief among female disciples.

These seven symbols make the ideal Buddhist altar complete. But the community of enlightened practitioners, which is the real object of veneration for Buddhists, also had other prominent figures:

  • Ven. Ananda, the attendant, whose remarkable memory preserved most of the sutras
  • Maha Kassapa, founder of Buddh-ism, who convened the First Buddhist Council to organize and the Dharma (discourses, discipline, and higher teachings) and Sangha into a formal "religion" -- Prior to that, it was simply the Buddha-Dharma, or "Doctrine taught by the Buddha" (designated a karma-vada, "Doctrine of Action," by his contemporaries, which insists that it is not who we are but what we do that matters in terms of nobility, happiness, and liberation). In this original sense, people can say Buddhism is not really a religion or faith but only a very clearly defined path-of-practice.
  • Maha Pajapati (the Buddha's stepmother, history's first Buddhist nun), who by being nearly ignored creates a vacuum filled with goddesses expressing the feminine (yin)

What else comes of not recognizing Buddhism's enlightened females? In an interesting twist, throughout Asia, the Buddha himself is depicted in more and more feminine ways. His ascetic robe is made sheer, nearly transparent, and form fitting; his lips are puckered and painted; his golden features are rounded, softened, and made perfectly symmetrical; his gorgeous hair (jata) is knotted or he is given a headdress, earrings, and exquisite fingers holding mudras...

This artistic tendency is not limited to Shakyamuni. Bodhisattvas and Maitreya (the future buddha) are done up even more elaborately on Vajrayana (Tibetan) and Mahayana (Chinese) altars. Theravada is no way immune to this art-sification and not very subtle emasculation. Ven. Buddhadasa and Zen go back to something simpler and more austere.

But Goddesses have their way. One sees them expressed everywhere in Buddhisst art as space devas, "delightful extra-terrestrial nymphs," or their human allies.

Because women are not directly depicted -- and no such altars as described here can be found anywhere -- Buddhism is deemed patriarchal, sexist, and manipulating the progressive truth taught by the Enlightened One: he treated women better than any leader of a world religion ever has. So the ideal Buddhist altar recognizes women.

The Buddha had many noble female and male followers, disciples, and royal patrons.

Recollection of the Buddha
Itipi so bhagava arahan samma-sambuddho,
He is indeed the Blessed One, far from all defilements, who unaided attained supreme enlightenment.
vijja-carana-sampanno sugato lokavidu,
The One fully possessed of perfect wisdom and conduct, who travelled the good way, knower of worlds,
anuttaro purisa-damma-sarathi sattha deva-manussanam buddho bhagavati.
the incomparable trainer of those ready to be trained, teacher of deities and human beings, the awakened and noble one....

Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa.

Namo = honor, tassa = to him, bhagavato = the worthy, arahato = without defilements, samma-sam = supremely/perfectly/completely, buddhassa = enlightened awakened to the utmost.

  • PHOTOS: Shakyamuni Buddha with Sariputra and Maha Moggallana at Wat Traimit, Bangkok (Stewie1980). Kwan Yin with the Buddha on her crown at BAUS, New York (Wisdom Quarterly). Buddha altar at Namdroling Kagyu Nalanda Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, India (AbhishekSundaram). Maitreya Buddha at Thiksey Monestary, Ladakh, India (Wikimedia). Apsaras of Angkor Wat complex, Cambodia ( Buddha and a larger set of disciples, a sangha (community) in the broadest sense ( Big outdoor white Buddha altar on a hilltop in Mahintale, Sri Lanka (BGaz/Flickr)

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