Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thus I Have Heard...

Meters swum today: 1450
Playing on the iPod: "Kiss Me" by TinTin

There's an old Protestant joke where a Catholic comes across a Protestant and says, "What's that you're reading there?" The Protestant says, "The Bible." The Catholic says, "Oh, how is it?" Which is not to say that Catholics are stupid, but that the Catholic church didn't expect its members to actually read the Good Book, at least in the grand tradition. It was the job of the priests to tell the parishioners what they needed to know. To be fair, though, most people didn't know how to read for the majority of the Church's history.

By the time the Reformation rolled around, literacy was wider spread and Protestants were expected to not only read the Bible but to figure out for themselves what it meant. That whole "no intercession between God and humankind" thing. Which may have seemed like a good deal when the Reformation first started, but one of the end results was the splitting of the Christian church into a bunch of surly little denominations, each certain that its interpretation of the Bible is the right one. Of course, the Catholic approach has its own problems - lots of wars started in the name of Biblical rightness, among other things - but letting the priests decide does have a certain elegance to it.

I bring this up because I'm kind of a Catholic Buddhist. I've never actually read the Sutras, the legends and the other source material of things Buddhist. I mentioned this to my brother-in-law and he sent me a copy of Buddhist Scriptures, the Penguin Classic edition. I've been making my way through it over the last however many nights before going to bed. (I did this when I was a good Christian, too. Read my little copy of "Light for Today," scan the relevant Bible verse, ponder its significance, blah blah blah.) I haven't gotten to the Sutras yet, but I'm a little worried that I'm not even gonna make it through the legend of Shakyamuni. I dunno if it's the translation, the fact that this edition is from the 195os, or what, exactly, but I gotta ask: Is all religious literature this boring? I made it through all the "begats" in the Book of Numbers without this much aggravation.

I mean, the story of Shakyamuni is pretty cool. And in case you've never heard it, here's the five second version: King hears prophecy his son will become a great sage, would rather have a warlord, shelters said son from anything negative, son finds out as an adult that people get old and die, freaks out, leaves the palace and becomes a wandering mendicant in search of some way to conquer suffering; almost starves to death, takes some food from a pretty girl, sits down under the Bodhi tree, meditates, penetrates to the heart of existence, discovers that all things are temporary, decides that's fine, conquers Mara the god of Death and becomes Buddha the Enlightened One, refuses Nirvana until even the grass is enlightened and spends the rest of his life wandering and teaching.

In this particular version, though, Shakyamuni is in more danger of flowery Hindu turns of phrase than he is of suffering and death. I mean, shortly after giving birth his mother is so transported by joy that she goes directly to heaven. Nice, right? So why did it take an entire chapter to tell us this? To say nothing of the fact that the rest of Buddha's post-enlightenment life gets wrapped up in about two paragraphs. He's born, he's enlightened, he dies. Wait a minute. Didn't the guy live into his eighties? Didn't he pass along many life lessons to his followers? This is kind of like Jesus going straight from the manger to the cross and then rising from the dead just long enough to say, "See ya" while Mary goes straight to heaven on the trail of long elaborate descriptions of what she happened to be wearing at the time.

Well, maybe it gets better. Maybe all the stuff Buddha taught about is in the Sutras. I hope so, or I'm going back to Buddhist Catholicism on the next bus.

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