Saturday, May 18, 2013

Buddhism Meets Monty Python

     Years ago when I was living in a desert in central Burma someone gave me a set of several books entitled The Great Chronicle of Buddhas. It is an English translation of a work written by the renowned Ashin Vicittasārābhivasa, better known in Burma as Mingun Tipiakadhara Sayadaw, who was the reciter at the Buddhist Sixth Council held in 1956, who was a brilliant scholar with a long list of ecclesiastical titles, and who, I've been told, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for memorizing the entire forty-volume Pali Tipiaka by heart, not to mention several other books.
     The Great Chronicle of Buddhas (translated by U Ko Lay and U Tin Lwin, Ti=Ni Publishing Center, Yangon 1992) is based upon the canonical Pali text Buddhavasa and its official commentary. I found in these books information that was totally amazing to me, including, in volume I, part 2, the following details of the alleged life of Magala Buddha, who arose 22 Buddhas before "our" Buddha Gotama: 

     Date of Birth: Two incalculable eons plus 100,000 world cycles before present
     Place of Birth: The city of Uttara (in India, on a previous Earth)
     Father's name: King Uttara
     Mother's name: Queen Uttarā
     Place of his Enlightenment: Uttara Park 
     Name of the woman who offered rice milk on the eve of his Enlightenment: Uttarā
     Name of the village in which she lived: Uttara
     Name of the ascetic who offered him grass with which to make a seat beneath the Bodhi tree: Uttara
     His height: 88 ratanas or cubits (approximately 132 feet, or 40 meters)
     His lifespan: 90,000 years

     From the moment he took conception light radiated from his mother's body to a distance of eight cubits all around, which could not be overpowered even by the light of the sun. Not requiring other lights, the pregnant queen moved about by means of her own luminescence.
     When Magala renounced the household life, three kois of people (thirty million) renounced it also and practiced severe austerities with him.
     The light from Magala Buddha's body shone night and day throughout 10,000 world systems. During the 90,000 years of his life everything appeared golden in color, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets gave no light. Since there was no obvious sunlight the demarcation between night and day was not distinct; yet people were able to attend to their business by means of the Buddha's rays.
     This great luminescence of Magala Buddha was due to a wish he made in a previous life, the details of which are as follows: Once, when he was a bodhisatta, he was a man renowned for his great generosity. Hearing about his generosity, an ogre (yakkha) disguised himself as a Brahmin, approached the bodhisatta, and asked for the bodhisatta's two children. The bodhisatta gladly handed them over, whereupon the entire earth trembled all the way down to the water on which it floats. Then the ogre devoured the two children in the presence of the bodhisatta, and bright red blood flowed from his mouth as he ate. However, there arose not one iota of distress in the bodhisatta's mind—instead he was greatly delighted, thinking, "This is my excellent act of charity." He then expressed his wish: "As a result of this generous act of mine, may my body emanate rays in future bright like the blood (flowing from the ogre's mouth)." 
     On one occasion Magala Buddha delivered a series of discourses to the Universal Monarch (i.e. King of the Entire World) Sunanda and his retinue numbering ninety kois (900 million), at which time all of them became fully enlightened arahants. Then the Buddha stretched forth his right arm and said, "Etha Bhikkhavo" (Come, monks), causing the entire multitude instantaneously to become ordained bhikkhus, complete with bowls, robes, and cropped hair.
     During the time of Magala Buddha the bodhisatta destined to become Gotama Buddha was a Brahmin named Suruci. On a certain occasion the Brahmin Suruci offered alms food for a week plus a set of robes to the Buddha and to each of his retinue of bhikkhus, numbering altogether one hundred thousand kois (one trillion) of monks. The set of robes offered to the most junior bhikkhu was worth 100,000 pieces of money. The god Sakka himself produced a huge jeweled pavilion for the occasion.
     After Magala Buddha's death and parinibbāna his relics were enshrined in a pagoda thirty yojanas (approximately 300 miles) in height made of powdered "red orpiment" (arsenic sulfide), oil, and butter, and encrusted with seven kinds of precious gems.
*   *   *
     I hope you don't think I'm trying to mock Dhamma by mentioning this. It is right there in the texts, so we might as well admit it.
     Burmese Buddhists may blandly accept these kinds of stories without raising an eyebrow; if it's in Theravada Buddhist texts, especially if it's in the scriptures and commentaries, then it's true, and that's all there is to it. It is not far-fetched at all. It's historical, gospel truth.
     Devout Western Buddhists tend not to be so openminded when it comes to accepting such tales (and this certainly isn't the only apparent howler in the texts); they tend to prefer to pretend that they don't exist. Even to mention such stories as the biography of Magala Buddha is considered to be crass bad taste.
     But to ignore or reject facts is not so good. In fact that would seem to be a characteristic of delusion.
     We needn't take such stories very seriously, but there is something important to consider with regard to them. The men who included this information in the Tipiaka and its commentaries were not particularly foolish, nor were they stupid. In all likelihood they were at least as wise and intelligent as modern Western Buddhists are, possibly more so. They simply belonged to a very different culture, and worked with a very different set of assumptions. It may be that 500 years from now people will look back on some of the assumptions of modern scientific materialist culture and see them as just as ridiculous as we consider the assumptions of ancient Indian mythologizers to have been.
     One important point to bear in mind, one that many Western Buddhists ignore, is that, since the men who compiled and edited the Pali texts were well educated monastic scholars, and were certainly not stupid, most of the absurdities and misinformation to be found in the texts are not likely to be obvious. There is plenty of stuff that modern Westerners might consider to be absurd even in the so-called core texts (for example the mass of legends found in the Magala-esque Acchariyabbhutadhamma Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M123), or the strange Sela Sutta in which the Buddha reportedly shows his genitalia to a Brahmin and then licks his own ears and eyebrows, found in both the Majjhima and the Sutta Nipāta); but still, it stands to reason that most of what is unreliable is not obviously unreliable. Consequently it is a careless mistake to assume that whatever is not obviously ridiculous is therefore trustworthy.
     Which leads us to one of the great dilemmas for intelligent Western Buddhists: We must sail a middle course between the Scylla and Charybdis of unquestioning Asian-style dogmatism on the one hand, and on the other the typical Western method of following "common sense" and casually dismissing whatever parts we don't like—which in some cases may be really essential parts. 
     This has been a dilemma since ancient times; we Westerners didn't invent it. Consider the following passage from the Sandaka Sutta, reportedly the venerable Ānanda's discourse to the non-Buddhist philosopher Sandaka (M76):
Here, Sandaka, some teacher is a traditionalist, finding truth in traditions. He teaches a dharma by tradition, from somebody else's words handed down, according to a collection of texts (piaka). But for a traditionalist, Sandaka, for a teacher who finds truth in traditions, some of it is well learned, and some of it is not well learned; and so [in some ways] he is right, and [in some ways] he is otherwise….     
And furthermore, Sandaka, here some teacher is a reasoner, one who investigates. He teaches a dharma hammered out by reason, following his investigations, based on his own intelligence. But for a reasoner, Sandaka, for a teacher who investigates, some of it is well reasoned and some of it is not well reasoned; and so [in some ways] he is right, and [in some ways] he is otherwise.
From this it would seem that the alternative, the Middle Way between these two, would involve simply falling between two stools. However, what is required is not to accept or reject tradition or "common sense" too hastily, but to move forward carefully, with our eyes and ears open, as though walking on thin ice.

"There are some who call me…Tim?" 

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