Monday, October 8, 2012

om eye, ohm my, oh my?

My dear friend Jennie asked me about my impressions of Buddhism. I sit here wondering what I can say of any significance other than I know so little of its history or ideas. I suppose I could go to Wikipedia and read a simplified version and sound knowledgeable to you. I have heard guides relate mythological stories and speak of elaborate cosmogonies filled with various spirits, jinns, gods and goddesses. I know that Buddha was a young prince who 2500 years ago who left the palace and saw the suffering of the people and then developed into the ninth emanation of Vishnu, the Hindu supreme, who incidentally will reincarnate again. Does this sound familiar? Well its all Greek to me! or Judeo-Christian-Moslem for that matter.

Again what are my impressions? One thing I know for certain, Hinduism and Buddhism are not on a noticeable decline nor does it appear that religious zeal is waning in the Third World. Even if it were, it would hardly be noticeable, Until you travel extensively, it is hard to grasp that there is just a mind boggling number of people out here and most are followers of some religion.

This sobering realization slapped me squarely in the face that the other day when I found myself in a market which had several hundred booths selling amulets,statues, and various trinkets. Bins and shelves were overflowing with at least a million images of various deities cast in metal, or carved out of wood, plastic, stone or glass. These little items were either to be worn, placed around the house on a shrine, to help in prayer or to be used to ward off spirits. If it works, don't question it!

I have already visited any number of temples and historical sites from which the above photos were taken. I have seen people lighting candles, burning incense, bringing flowers, kneeling in prayer, and placing their palms together, fingers pointing upwards, to show their devotion and gratitude before the placid visage of Buddha. He gazes peacefully outward and projects inner clarity. His expression appears All-Knowing and encourages correct thinking which includes detachment from worldly needs. Whether he could maintain that composure in rush hour freeway traffic is anyone's guess, but I find his image certainly more palatable than an altar adorned with the depiction of the gruesome suffering of Christ on the cross.

How do I feel about Buddhism? In the last analysis, it remains a muddle for me. I am a cantankerous historian. I watch and record, but can not, in clear conscience, join. My mind does not let me suspend judgment. I am told to listen with my heart and feel the energy. but the most I achieve is hearing the crooning voices of the Beach Boys singing "Good Vibrations." I am a restless, rebellious sort. Let the humble figure it out. I'd rather take the photo and my chances with the All.

The three photos were taken at Ayutthaya, a World Heritage site, a former capital of Thailand. It was built a thousand years ago but was sacked by the Burmese army in the 18th century. The last photo also from there was an original head which was discarded by looters one hundred years ago because the nose was broken. It was left on the ground and a tree grew around the remains and created this image.


  1. I don't know much about Buddhism either, except that it seems to encourage people to be peaceful and non-judgmental, and I admire both qualities. I do like your photos. The last is unexpected. I'll bet you were surprised, too.

  2. Regardless of our personal beliefs, I don't think we can argue with the idea of teaching peace and practicing non-judgmental behavior, so I agree with tapirgal. Fascinating photos! I do love the last one!

  3. Okay, that does it! This post requires at least a blog post of my own, or a very long email, or maybe both to do it justice. Or maybe I'll just get on my current interfaith discussion board and rant at someone on the subject of idolatry. Maybe I'll tell them how stupid it is to waste a lot of energy defining it and raising a stink about it.

    It's not that all those images of deities made out of ticky-tacky aren't ridiculous--that goes without saying. But to my mind working one's self up into a fit of real or fake outrage over it is even more ridiculous, basically because it's such a cheap shot. It's a way for the proponents of the monotheistic religions (especially) to feel superior to everyone else without ever having to confront their own idolatry, a far more subtle and insidious thing. Now I know you didn't do that, but again I've been spending too much time around people who do, who worship their own self-righteousness.

    You would not believe what's been going on around here the past two days--or maybe you would. Let's just say synchronicity is working overtime again.

  4. Isn't it interesting that according to various polls, the happiest and most contented people are those in the Scandinavia countries where religion has been relegated to a back seat, where some folks still go through the formalities of religion but understand them to be mythological and without substance?

    In fact, Phil Zuckerman has written a book dealing with this fascinating find, "Society Without God" - 2008 New York University Press.

    I understand what you're saying re religion around the world. Not much evolution in that regard over the years. On occasion I read some blogs from India and the prominence of religious ritual and festivals and the adoration of temples and religious artifacts is stunning in this day and age.

    One good sign, in my opinion, is that the latest religious poll was released this morning showing 1) that the religiously non-affiliated in the U.S. has risen to 20% of the population, 2) that about 6% now describe themselves as atheistic/agnostic, and 3) that for the first time ever, Protestantism is in the minority!

  5. Here's the last of my comment:

    Fascinating. Except we know that non-religious people remain in a dark place so far as most folks go. Several states still have laws on their books banning atheists from holding public office, even though such laws are blatantly unconstitutional. Furthermore, people who don't believe are considered immoral or amoral and not to be trusted. Such beliefs, of course, have nothing to back them up. On the other hand, the notion that religion has little or nothing to do with morals or ethics and that frequently religious people act in the most immoral or unethical ways has been proven scientifically over and over again.

    Perhaps in southeast Asia religion is more benign. I don't think so, though. In spite of Buddha and his followers! We know that Hindus and Muslims have clashed with great violence a number of times and the hatred involved is pure and hot.

    I care nothing about "idolatry" for that is a religious concept without any real meaning as is the notion that there are "mortal" and "venial" sins. The concept of sin is a religious concept that has no real meaning other than the meaning it is given by religious authorities who use it to keep the flock from wandering off to follow another shepherd. By and large, "sin" has nothing to do with good and/or evil.

    Generally speaking, one can be good without God and often those without God are much "gooder" than those who believe. Religion always divides people; that is its nature! Every single religion claims to have the "truth," and thus every other religion must be false. If you believe that false religions must be combated and that the adherents of those religions are a threat to you, violence (in one form or another) almost always ensues.

    One of my granddaughters got involved in a Christian fundamentalist college and married a clown who was also a student at that school. You cannot deal with him or reason with him. Obama, he says, is a Muslim. Oprah is the anti-Christ. He wrote recently that he was frustrated because there are so many sinners in the world who constantly, by word and deed, defy God, and he could not understand why God did not strike them all dead like he used to do in Old Testament times! He conveniently neglects that passage in his Gospel of John, chapter 3, which says that "God so loved the world..."

    When I see the manifestations of religious belief as portrayed in your photos today, I get kind of sad. So much time, energy and money is wasted on this crap - and I use that word advisedly! It is crap. The statues and idols are as empty as the crucifixes and idols that adorn both Roman and Protestant churches in this land. The beliefs are as nonsensical and unrelated to reality as the doctrine of the Trinity!

    And now I've got to go warm up my coffee. Enjoyed your post and you rattled my rafters a bit so that was fun. Hope you're enjoying things in and amidst the deities' broken heads and noses and funny faces in ficus trees!

    1. Thank you for a wonderful thought-provoking comment, Lowell. I’d like to comment a little bit on your comment, but first I should probably clarify what I said earlier about idolatry. When I said images of deities were “ridiculous” I meant mainly esthetically. I had in mind the icky-sentimental images of saints in Catholic gift shops, or the hundreds of cheap and gaudy renditions of the Virgin of Guadalupe you find at the swap meets in my neighborhood. But I have nothing against the Virgin of Guadalupe herself or the physical depictions of her, as long as they are in reasonably good taste. I have nothing against any of the Hindu or pagan gods and goddesses or the people who venerate them, or the images of Buddha and the various bodhisattvas, like the Green Tara my daughter has on her home altar.

      What I was trying to say earlier is that it’s human nature to anthropomorphize. It’s almost inevitable that we create God in our image to one degree or another. There is nothing wrong with that—as long as we remember we’re doing it!

      Unfortunately, it’s the people who most need to remember that they create God in their own image who are most likely not only to forget, but to vehemently deny they are doing it. They insist that God is an immensely powerful being separate from themselves and separate from “his” creation, who revealed himself to so-and-so (Mohammed, Moses, etc.) in the one and only true, authoritative and final revelation. And if only “our” God can be the true God and only “our” revelation can be the authoritative one even for those who claim to worship the same God, then all others must be false and their followers deluded at best, and more likely under the influence of demonic forces. From your description of your granddaughter’s fundamentalist husband, you are all too familiar with the kind of irrationality and fanaticism that results—inevitably. As far as I’m concerned, fundamentalism is the real idolatry.

      For the record, I consider myself a pantheist, panentheist or freethinker (take your pick) rather than an atheist, although I often express myself in the traditional theistic language of Judaism. The problem is that I don’t limit myself to it, which sometimes causes the Orthodox Jews I tangle with on various religion discussion boards to label me an idolator.

  6. If you can stand away from any religion, you can understand what it's really about. It's just part of human culture and it's shaped depending on the reality that every culture is related with. For me gods are good if we see them as a source of inspiration for human arts. Of course, not any statue or image of a deity is good art, but there are really good works that worth.

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