Elephants & Demons

I’ll be upfront, until recently everything I learned about Buddhism and the Dalai Lama I learned from Facebook memes which meant it was pretty much limited to some feel-good pull quotes which espoused some fairly logical, universalsounding truths. It was a start and I was intrigued, so I looked up the Dalai Lama’s website. He’s a pretty hip dude who has accomplished quite a lot for being a “simple Buddhist monk.”

Instead of skipping straight to the Dalai Lama’s teachings I instead decided to further investigate the origins of Buddhism. I listened to a few comparative religion podcasts and got some books about the subject.

I really liked what John Snellling says in The Buddhist Handbook, right up front on page 3:

Buddhism does not demand that anyone accepts its teachings on trust. The practitioner is instead invited to try them out, to experiment with them. If he finds that they work in practice, then by all means he can take them on board. But there is no compulsion; and if he happens to find the truth elsewhere or otherwise, then all is good.

This point is reiterated on page 43:

Buddhism is not a fundamentalist religion. Its teachings are not dogmas or articles of faith that have to be blindly accepted at the cost of suspending reason, critical judgement, common sense, or experience. Quite the contrary, in fact; their basic aim is to help us gain direct insight into the truth for ourselves. We are therefore invited to try these teachings in our everyday lives. If they work, then we will want to naturally take them on board. If they don’t work for us, then we can cast them aside with no qualms.

The Noble Eightfold Path (detailed on page 46) also holds basic appeal, and the echo (or are perhaps echoed?) by Paul in Philippians 4:8 (NIV) where he says:

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Noble Eightfold Path is as follows:

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right thought
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

If people are focused on doing/thinking/acting on what is right, pure, lovely admirable, excellent and praiseworthy in all aspects of their life, then their lives will likely neatly mesh with the eight “right” things.

These are all great ideas, but there are some points in Buddha’s back-story I had issues with:

  • Buddha’s conception, involved a dream his mother had about a white elephant entering into her.
  • After his awakening he abandoned his wife and son to seek further enlightenment.
  • Buddha also deals with some demons who tempt him?

That’s really about as far as I’ve gotten in my reading and then I got distracted by everything else going on.

I was having a hard time with the elephant conception and the abandonment issues until I talked with a friend of mine who was raised in one of the many Buddhist traditions. She said that Siddhartha’s back story was allegorical, no one takes the white-elephant conception story or the demons seriously. The leaving his wife and child was just to drive home a point about everything he gave up to seek enlightenment.

No big deal, it is allegorical, who would believe otherwise? It’s not like we’re Christian and actually think that:

  • The earth was created in 6 days.
  • Women were created from man’s ribs.
  • There is such a think as immaculate conception and virgin birth (in humans anyway).
  • God would allow his son to be thrown to an angry mob and killed.
  • That the wine & bread is transformed through transubstantiation into Jesus’ blood and body.

My friend went on to point out that I shouldn’t get hung up on the back story, the message is what is important.

What is important is the message beyond the elephants and demons. I like the message, I like the aspect of kindness, the lack of dogma and faith. I’m a little fuzzy on the issues of reincarnation and nirvana, but Buddhism seems to encourage people to take what works for them in a way Christianity does not.

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One thought on “Elephants & Demons

  1. Bill Sweet says:

    The Buddhists have done a much faster and better job of taking to quantum physics than the Christians and Christian Science until recent attempts at it.

    Several of us at Spindrift attended a quantum physics seminar in Michigan at a Buddhist retreat campus and farm. Aside from the bizarre way the Buddhists dress in skirts, the weekend was an intelligent and sharing time. We hope to return for another seminar someday.

    I liked the line you quoted which was “Buddhism does not demand that anyone accepts its teachings on trust. The practitioner is instead invited to try them out, to experiment with them.”

    A Buddhist told me that he believes in the virgin birth of Buddha.

    Krishna is believed to have had a virgin birth also.

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