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Controversial Beliefs in Buddhism

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Charley Yong

Sophomore Seminar: Life After Death

Dr. Quesada


Sharing is Caring

Undeniably, all religions change from when they were first founded. Although certain aspects remain solid within the tradition, many others change with time. This is just an undeniable fact of religion as long as humans are involved. To tell someone that Mormonism has the same God as Judaism would baffle anyone with no previous knowledge of the two when looking at all of their differing beliefs, customs, rituals, etc. Obviously, this change took thousands of years and had multiple steps along the way, but it goes to show how a religion can morph as it matures overtime and spreads to new people, lands, and cultures. Although some try to knock Buddhism down from a religion to system of ethics or psychology, it is not exempt from these drastic changes over time.

The specific change that I will look at is the concept of sharing karma, the cultivation of good deeds, or merit. This practice was not practiced in early Buddhism, but is widely practiced in Buddhist communities throughout the world. The idea that karma can be shared has given rise to new schools of Buddhism, new rituals, and new customs. I will explore these rituals, what they say about the communities’ belief on the afterlife, and how they alter beliefs from the earliest form of Buddhism, and its implications.

When Siddhartha Gautama got up from his spot under the Bo tree, he was no longer just a prince in India, he was the Buddha, or the “Awakened One.” After he left his spot under the tree, he brought Buddhism to the world, along with the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path. When Siddhartha became the Buddha, he did so all by himself, through his meditation, insights and cultivation of karma. Although the Buddhist doctrine of experience over dogma tells us that he cannot simply say what he did to share his experience. Although he knew his words themselves could not make those he encountered understand, he knew he should try to get them to experience what he had so others could break free from the suffering of samsara, or the cycle of death and rebirth. At the heart of his teachers are the Four Noble Truths: 1. life is marked by suffering 2. suffering has an origin 3. suffering can be eliminated 4. the path to the elimination of suffering is the Eightfold Path. This represents the basic teachings of the Buddha as he spread his teachings throughout India. The Eightfold Path consists of “right” understanding, effort, mindfulness, concentration, thought, speech, action, and livelihood (Powers, 24-26).

Among the many changes in beliefs from Buddhism’s earliest days, the belief that Karma can be given to you from an outside source has caused many changes in traditions around the world. It even led to the Mahayana school being formed. In the wake the Buddha’s death, the First Buddhist Council was held around the fifth century B.C.E. They agreed on a canon of the Buddha’s teachings known as the Tripitaka (also referred to as the Pāli Canon), or ‘Three Baskets’ (Prothero, 187). The earliest school of Buddhism, Theravada (“Way of the Elders”), is based off of this text and the closest to the Buddha’s original teachings (Prothero, 177).  During the Second Buddhist Council, the first major split happened, and the Mahayana school was formed (Violatti). Two of the big doctrinal differences they had was their rejection of Theravada’s strictly monastic practice and the belief that the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) has supernatural abilities, not only that, but that there were multiple god-like Buddhas (Prothero, 190).  Mahayana Buddhists believe in the concept of a bodhisattva (“awakened being”). “The bodhisattva uses his huge storehouse of merit to assist others…it became possible to get nirvana through outside assistance rather than self-reliance-through devotion to a bodhisattva, who would use his merit to take away your suffering” (Prothero, 188-189). Through their belief in multiple Buddhas and bodhisattva’s, Mahayana Buddhism is strikingly similar to the bhakti yoga path of Hinduism, which emerged around the same time (Prothero, 188). Like Bhakti yoga in Hinduism, Mahayana is much more inclusive of the common practitioner. It is not hard to see the appeal, as you no longer had to devote your entire life as a monk to maybe reach nirvana.

At the core of these two main differences in belief, is the sharing of karma or merit. The belief that the Buddhas or budhisattvas could grant karma and liberation, obviously, requires them to be able to share it. The Theravada school follows the Buddha’s teachings in that nirvana can only be reached through your own work. To accomplish this level of focus and mental discipline needed, the only way to achieve spiritual enlightenment was to become a monk or nun. If a Buddha or bodhisattva can grant you good karma, why would you need to drop out of society to become a monk? Therefore, the dispute over monasticism can also be traced back to the sharing of karma.

As Buddhism has spread, it has morphed to accommodate many local practices. One practice that is almost universal is ancestor worship. In a contributing essay found in Buddhist Thought and Ritual, P.D. Premasiri, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka, claims that, “Ancestor worship is regarded as one of the great branches of the religions of mankind. It is believed that the principles of this practice help to keep up the social relations of the living world” (152). Although I am not going to argue for or against that second claim, the fact is that ancestor worship can be found in many communities. The community under focus here is Sri Lankan Buddhists, who have altered Vedic rituals to fit closer to Buddhism. Sri Lanka is by no means the only community to do this, and according to Premasiri, the adoption of local practices is very Buddhist. He states, “Whenever possible, Buddhism attached a new meaning and significance to contemporary rituals and admitted them to the Buddhist fold, giving them a novel ethical character,” and that the focus on Sri Lanka will show, “the way in which Buddhism attached a new significance to the pre-Buddhistic ritual concerning ancestor worship and transformed an existing ritual to fit in with the moral and pragmatic outlook of Buddhism” (Premasiri, 152). In this pre-Buddhist ritual, material offerings were made to the ancestors. These ancestors are considered petas, meaning they are the “hungry ghost” realm. However, in the Buddhist ritual the offerings must be made to the sangha (Buddhist monk/nun community). In order for the petas to benefit, the offering must be expressly dedicated to the ancestors. The previous belief that the ancestors or petas directly benefit from material offerings is not accepted and goes against the Buddhist doctrine. In Mahayana Buddhism, the merit acquired by the living can be donated to the ancestor like the existing ritual believed. However, much of Sri Lanka is Theravadin, so the idea that the merit that the living relative receives can be donated to the ancestor goes against their beliefs. Therefore, it is rationalized through the idea that the ancestors become happy and take joy from the fact that a good deed was done in their name. This makes their situation better, as they are usually suffering since they are in the “hungry ghosts” realm because of their bad karma.



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