Racism in Western Buddhism

“…The Asian Buddhist traditions have all been corrupted on one level or another. Perhaps we can do better, sticking to the core teaching of the Buddha and leaving behind the other cultural traditions that come to be associated with Buddhism.”


The statement above is exemplary of a growing opinion among a largely white, American society regarding the the authenticity of Buddhist teachings. The sentiment seems to include doing away with the “cultural baggage” that comes with culturally specific lineages. But this invalidation of traditional Buddhism comes with several problems.

Firstly, it invalidates the experiences of Buddhists who hail from these parts of the world. Despite its origins in the Indian subcontinent and deep-rooted history in the vast majority of Asia, Buddhism in the West seems to be undergoing a sort of “purification” as envisioned by a group of people disenfranchised by the dominant religious model of this hemisphere, namely, Christianity. Many of us who grew up Christian have come to recognize a sort of moral hypocrisy among many self-proclaimed “Christians.” All too often, our experiences result in various forms of manipulation, bullying, and abuse by church members, who seem unable to empathize with people who have inclinations different than their own. While the separation of church and state would in theory give our society the impetus to accept citizens of all religious affiliations, the idea seems to have devolved in such a way as to render most non-European cultural identities as spiritually-inspired fabrications and therefore, invalid. This may be due to our tendency to expect religious thought to be interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically. If a tradition as powerful and widespread as Christianity fails to be logical, one would presume all other traditions to be just as, if not more, illogical.

This leads to my second point. The tendency of the Western world to secularize the Buddhist tradition is an attempt, perhaps unintended, to make Buddhism accessible to an elite few. Human beings find security in myth. Storytelling is the foundation to which we can relate experiences and develop community. I find it remarkable that secular and atheist thinkers have taken the initiative to “purify” Buddhism from recognizably religious motifs while labeling them “superstition”, when the very body of literature that has developed over the centuries are rife with stories that appeal to a religious audience. These prejudices against folklore make it difficult for other traditions to find a place in Western society. Stories of the gods and spirits passed down by tribes of virtually every background are categorized as “uncivilized,” despite their contributions to the moral and cultural fabric of the respective group. It’s a shame that so many forms of Euro-centric Paganism tend to be built on visions of white supremacy. Otherwise, I think Pagans could do well to address the issue of racism in our religious communities. Perhaps they could offer some insight into the myths of Buddhist tradition as well.

It’s become very apparent that people of color are beginning to respond. In recent years, Buddhist publishers such as Lion’s Roar and the Buddhist Channel have begun to host stories addressing race relations among Buddhists. From Japanese internment to the problems black people face in white sanghas, there seem to be a lot of discrepancies within a spiritual tradition that has a reputation for promoting world peace. And it’s been this way for decades. White people seem to be struggling to leave the comfort of their meditation cushions and admit that in a society that is becoming increasingly more ignorant, hateful, and greedy, black lives actually matter.

It seems appropriate that my patron deity should be dark-skinned. While researching the history of Buddhist art, I came across an image that bore a striking resemblance to the vision I experienced during meditation in Japan. Among several of his incarnations across Asia, Vajrapani has often been depicted with dark skin. The Ajanta cave paintings clearly shows a figure with brown skin, thick black hair, and other features that would bring to mind a person whose origins are certainly not European. Tibetan depictions of the deity, in both peaceful and wrathful form are often shown with deep blue skin.

 

This is actually quite relevant in the South Asian artistic traditions. Take for example, the Hindu god Krishna, whose name derives from the Sanskrit word for “dark” or “black.” The color blue has often been used to exemplify the darker complexions of Indian religious figures. The goddess Kali, whose name is the feminine form of the word “black” is also usually featured in a certain shade of blue. In countries such as Sri Lanka, Maudgalyayana, foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in psychic abilities, is painted with a bright blue skin color. As opposed to the other chief disciple, Shariputra, Maudgalyayana has traditionally been known as hailing from South India, where skin pigment is notably darker than other parts of the country.

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I mention these examples because there seems to be a tendency among all societies to re-appropriate religious figures so that they are more accessible to the local audience. Christianity is a prime example of this phenomenon. Many circles depict Jesus Christ as a white man with blue eyes and blonde hair. Historically speaking, this was probably not the case. It’s ironic that so many Christians would be fearful or hateful of our Muslim neighbors on the basis of race, considering the ethnic and cultural correspondences between Christian and Muslim world views. Buddhism too, is a tradition that seems obsessed with its own culture of origin, and rightfully so, given the complexity of ethics, social values, and mythologies that are clearly inherited by circumstance. It’s only appropriate that an Indian spirit should be recognized, in fact, as Indian.

Lest we forget, the Buddha was also a person of color. The Shakya tribe, where the Buddha hailed from, were the rulers of a small kingdom around the border of India and Nepal. The Lakkhana Sutta describes some physical characteristics of the Buddha. Most notable are a golden skin complexion and deep blue eyes. While blue eyes are very rare among South Asian people, it is not unheard of. One point of interest I would like to mention is the prabashvara, or the Buddha’s aura. According to legend, the Buddha’s halo consisted of a spectrum of five different colors, namely “nila” (sapphire blue), “pita” (golden yellow), “lohita” (crimson), “odata” (white), and “manjesta” (scarlet). These colors eventually became part of the international Buddhist flag, which was designed in 1885 by a Sinhalese man by the name of Carolis Pujitha Gunawardena in 1885. “Prabhashvara” refers to the combination of these colors, which is depicted on the flag as an inverted, vertical row of the previously mentioned colors. However, if we truly combine these colors based on their hex triplet, we get the value #cf7450. I’ve taken the liberty to make an image combining these colors.

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Use this as a tool for contemplation. Some of us will say that we are “color blind” and that race does not matter in the long run, because we are all human. But this claim is more often than not, a cop-out. Yes, we are all subject to the laws of karma, and as humans we are all capable of achieving that ultimate state of peace the Buddha taught. But the white Buddhist community needs to wake up to the fact that racism is a deeply rooted problem in our civilization. People are losing jobs, homes, and their very lives because of these factors that a white society takes for granted. Achievement is not limited to color, but to character. The Buddha made it very clear that this is the defining factor that makes one truly noble. Call it a myth, if you like, but the idea is nevertheless true at its core. The Buddha is a prime example of a person whose outstanding character highlights the magnitude of the contribution people of color have made to humanity’s spiritual evolution. But that was then. We are approaching a new era. It is an age of approaching corruption, division, and class warfare. So when will we wake up, stand up, and protect those who need protection?

The answer: When we come to grips with reality.

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Dharma Wheel (of the Year)

It’s always been thought-provoking when I notice symbolic correspondences across religious traditions. The eight-spoked wheel in particular is a motif found throughout various cultures, with different meanings attributed depending on circumstance. In the Buddhist world, it is a primary symbol of faith and representative of the Middle Path, particularly the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the ultimate goal of Nirvana. The icon itself also plays an essential role in magical traditions as the Wheel of the Year. In this context, the wheel represents eight major shifts in the seasons that continue in an annual cycle. So how do these two metaphors relate to each other?

The Lotus Sutra tells of a distant past, countless eons ago, when there was a teacher known as the Buddha of the Light of the Sun and Moon. (Ch: 日月燈明仏, Skt: Chandra-sūrya-pradīpa). 20,000 Buddhas of the same name appeared consecutively throughout the history of the universe, teaching the Dharma to the living beings they came into contact with. It was the last of these Buddhas that had eight sons (八王子) before he renounced the world and became a wandering monk.

Within the Buddhist tradition, we find the concept of the “eight royal days (Ch: 八王日)” a term that seems to share an etymology with that of the ancient Buddha’s eight sons. These days correspond to the solstices, the equinoxes, and the first day of each of the four seasons (立夏, 立秋, 立冬, 立春). The term first appears in The Sutra Preached by the Buddha on the Purification through Samādhi (佛說淨度三昧經 ). These periods are also collectively known as the Eight Nodes (八節) which correspond to the traditional Chinese calendar.

Several folk and earth-based traditions similarly recognize eight phases of the year, which more-or less correspond to the days listed above. The Wiccan Wheel of the Year, while largely a modern interpretation, gives credit to the cross-cultural recognition of time as comprised of seasons that are historically and agriculturally significant. The holidays in parentheses are a mixture of mostly Germanic and Celtic celebrations, and there are numerous variations depending on place and tradition. The corresponding list on the right-hand side are the approximations in Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Winter Solstice (Yule – Germanic)   –   冬至 (Ch: Dōngzhì, Jp: Tōji)

Beginning of Spring (Imbolc – Celtic)   –   立春 (Ch: Lìchūn, Jp: Risshun)

Vernal Equinox (Ostara – Germanic)   –   春分 (Ch: Chūnfēn, Jp: Shunbun)

Beginning of Summer (Beltane – Celtic)   –   立夏 (Ch: Lìxià; Jp: Rikka)

Midsummer (Litha – Anglo-Saxon)   –   夏至 (Ch: Xiàzhì, Jp: Geshi)

Beginning of Autumn Harvest (Lughnasadh/Lammas – Celtic)   –   立秋 (Ch: Lìqiū, Jp: Risshū)

Autumnal equinox (Mabon – Welsh)   –   秋分 (Ch: Qiūfēn, Jp: Shūbun)

Beginning of Winter and end of Harvest (Samhain – Celtic)   –   立冬 (Ch: Lìdōng, Jp: Rittō)

Due to a vastly different climate, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia could not possibly recognize our four calendar-based seasons. Also, the Buddha would have been unfamiliar with the four seasons as we know them. Modern Nepal and India follow a six season calendar, with a monsoon season placed between Summer and Autumn. During the Buddha’s time, the monsoon season or “varsha” was a time for the order to take shelter and focus on their religious discipline. Thus, the early Buddhists used this time as a sort of “hibernal” season.

As Buddhism spread to other cultures and climates, the wandering lifestyle changed as well. Eventually, monasteries became long-term residences. The tradition of living in caves and jungles all but died out. Temples and compounds can still be found in mountains, villages and forests, as well as urban cities throughout the world. Most South-East Asian Buddhists still recognize the varsha season, but Northern Mahayana countries do not observe it due to seasonal differences. Tibetan Buddhism and several schools of Zen however, do have an equivalent three month intensive training.

In a similar vein, it would not be hard to imagine a seasonal retreat in the Western world. Though I hesitate to use the term “West,” as opposed to “East” because of the cultural, ethnic and religious heritage that is falsely implied within this dichotomy. Surely the Japanese and Native American tribes experience a very similar system of seasonal change as Pagans and Christians of Western Europe and North America have, but I digress. In place of the monsoon season, the cold, dark winter months would make for a great excuse for Buddhist wanderers to seek shelter and gather for a period of time. Monks and nuns could find community in their fellow meditators just as many traditions enjoy the company of family during the holiday season.

The phases of the Moon also mark important occasions for Buddhists, Pagans, and Witches alike. The lunar cycle has universally been far more accessible than the seasons, which vary from place to place. Most Native American tribes, for example, gave names to each passing full moon as a way to keep track of time and changes in the natural world. The Jewish calendar, much like other tribal and Pagan traditions, recognizes time in terms of seasonal cycles and places the beginning of each month in correspondence with the first sliver of light after the New Moon. The same is true in the Islamic world, hence the importance of the crescent moon symbol and its association with Ramadan. While the solar Gregorian calendar has become an international standard, several cultures retain their earlier lunar and lunisolar calendars for the purpose of keeping track of their respective celebrations.

Within Buddhism, the most important days of the lunar cycle fall under the full moon and new moon, and occasionally on the quarter moons. According to tradition, various supernatural occurrences happened during the full moon, such as the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. At the request of King Bimbisara, the Buddha took advantage of the Vedic observance of the lunar cycle as an opportunity for his monks to practice and teach the Dharma. It was also an opportunity for them to recite the code of conduct expected from cohabitation with fellow seekers. Devout lay Buddhists spend this time observing the eight precepts, in which they gain a deeper understanding into the homeless life while creating merit and perfecting the “craft” of meditation.

While the full moon and new moon days in Buddhism may be objectively more solemn than observances in other traditions, many Buddhists have continued to find ways to integrate their culture’s respective folklore and mythology into the year and celebrate their place in the natural world. One example is the Japanese Buddhist celebration of Setsubun, which falls around the first day of spring. Traditionally, celebrations consist of throwing roasted soybeans out of the home or at family members wearing demon costumes while shouting, “Demons out! Good fortune in!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!) I can’t help but think of the Imbolc tradition of tossing coins into wells for good luck as a comparison.

This month’s full moon is one of the holiest days in Buddhism. Named after the Indian lunar month, Vaishakh celebrates the Buddha’s birth, awakening and memorial all in one and serves as an opportunity to develop mindfulness. It is also the full moon in Scorpio, a time when we take a look at our passions and dreams and follow them until the very end.

It seems then that there’s plenty of  opportunity to relate to each other on socio-cultural terms. If we can learn to appreciate ourselves and see ourselves in others, we may develop the capacity to empathize in ways that unify rather than divide people. We can better understand the nature of things by respectfully embracing people who suffer due to the color of their skin, or their religious background, or their culture of origin and realizing, with discernment, that we’re all just trying to stay afloat in the ocean of samsara. May we all find peace and happiness. Blessed be.

Name & Form

The other day, my partner related a story to me about a family who used to raise cattle for slaughter. The meat produced from a single cow could feed them throughout the winter. But on one occasion, the kids gave names to two of the cows. It was only a matter of time that the family could not longer bring themselves to kill these living beings, because they were each blessed with a name. The cows have been part of the family ever since.

The act of giving something a name has a funny way of speaking to our psyche. It’s so much easier to empathize with something that we understand in our own terms. In this case, language is the proprietor of the name, the word, which ultimately results in the association. To bestow a name on something or someone gives them substance that we can relate to. You begin to embody what may be considered a “mother,” “sister,” “lover,” or “friend.”

Despite popular opinion regarding human-animal relations, a cow’s existence does not persist solely on its physical parts, as a giant walking bag of meat. Neither does a human being consist of only flesh and bones. To be so would leave us a life-less mass of material–a limited source of sustenance–meat. As such, we become a product for consumption and vulnerable to the cravings of those controlled by greed, hatred and ignorance. These views are pervasive in lifestyles and industries that place focus on the economic value of the body: sex trafficking, slaughter, and slavery.

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Never again

Yes, the body is a very important factor in our ability to experience the world. But to see something as solely or primarily physical is the process of “dehumanizing” it. By this I mean, we relegate it to an inferior role, even if we recognize it as a living being. This is true even of our fellow human beings. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia; these are all examples of the ways we dissociate from each other, and is largely inspired by fear and ignorance of physical difference. Even body-shaming is a form of dehumanization, because it returns the focus on the physical and the stress we create in a society that values a picture-perfect fiction of what everyone is supposed to embody. It misses out on the fact that everyone is beautiful because everyone is unique.

Corporations and individuals play on these insecurities as another means to make an extra buck. We are told that we need this or that product to have a better complexion, we need that pair of $1000 pants to show off to our peers, or that all-black Beamer, at least until the next big thing takes the capitalist stage. But the world cannot exist only in terms of things and matter. Energy is important as well. The Buddha tells us what actually makes a person:

“And what makes up name and form?

Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called ‘name’.

The four great elements (air, fire, water, and earth), and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called ‘form.'” (SN 12.2)

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The Alchemists would seem to agree.

Name and form, also known as “nāmarūpa” in Buddhist circles, is the manifestation of psychological and physical elements that make up who we are. Who we are is the combination of parts that create an experience. You are neither your body nor your mind. Just as Albert Einstein proved that matter and energy are essentially the same, so are these qualities interchangeable and dependent on each other. You are both because of this interdependent existence, and you are neither because name and form are constantly subject to fluctuation and therefore, impermanent.

Every living thing has a purpose. By “purpose,” I don’t mean that our fate is sealed by the stars or cosmic forces. Rather, people are predisposed to think, speak, and act in a way that is dependent on circumstances of birth, such as family, environment, and social status. But like name and form, none of these things ultimately define who we are. They are only conventional stepping stones on the journey through life. In reality, people have an unimaginable power to change their place in the world. The ability to change is to exercise selflessness. And when there is no self, the potential is endless.

Counting Stars: An Introduction to the Star Mandala

The Star Mandala has played a key role in the early history of esoteric Japanese Buddhism. The Tendai and Shingon sects in particular have made extensive use of astrological concepts found therein. According to Japanese scholar Tsuda Testsuei, images of the stars as deities were already in circulation as early as the Nara period of the 8th-century CE. In the following century, mention of many of these deities were found in sutras and ritual manuals. The current version of the Star Mandala has its roots in these traditions with the approach of the Muromachi Period in the 13-14th centuries CE.

Japanese astrologers followed the lineage known as “sukuyō-dō” or “Way of the Constellations and Planets” and were comprised primarily of Buddhist monks. The purpose of their magical practices was to divert calamities that would befall the nation and the individual due to the position of these celestial bodies in the sky. While the development of this form of occultism was largely cultural, it did not come without a heavy Buddhist influence. Buddhist sutras such as the Mahāsaṃnipata Sūtra and the Xiùyào Jīng (Sutra of Constellations and Planets) was compiled by Amoghavajra between 759 and 764 CE. The latter scripture functions as an astrology manual and became a significant text among Buddhist circles in Tang China. Shingon Buddhist founder Kūkai, also known as Kōbō-Daishi among believers, brought a copy of this sutra to Japan in 806 CE. Tendai monk Ennin, or Jikaku Daishi followed suit in 858 CE.

There are two primary variations of this mandala: one rectangular and one circular, belonging to the Shingon and Tendai traditions respectively. Like many cosmological mandalas, the center is reserved for the Buddha. In the Star Mandala, the most common figure is the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, or Śākyamuni. Here, He sits in meditation with a golden wheel in His hand.

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Shingon mandala
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Tendai mandala

Within this inner frame are the seven stars of the Big Dipper and the nine planets. In the modern era, the twelve zodiac signs have become standard in reading horoscopes and receiving good fortunes. But back in the day, according to Takeo Izumi of the Kyoto National Museum, it was more common to receive fortunes from the stars of the Big Dipper. Particularly in the Heian period, a person’s astrological sign corresponded to one of these seven stars based on the month and day of birth and readings were conducted based on which star presided over a particular day. The person whose fate was in question devoted themselves to a particular god representing their star.

An example of the Big Dipper stars.
An example of the Big Dipper stars.

The other icons within this frame are known as the Nine Luminaries. These consist of the sun, moon, and five planets as understood within an astrological worldview. The five planets were associated with the five elements of Chinese medicine. Along with the sun and moon, these seven figures make up the days of the week in Japanese. There are also two distinctly Indian figures play a role in this grouping: Rāhu and Ketu. These may be called “pseudo-planets” as they do generally represent physical bodies, except in Buddhist literature. Rāhu is a deity understood as a personification of the eclipse and has also come to represent the ascending node of the moon. Ketu holds jurisdiction over comets and also functions as the descending node.

The second border contains twelve figures that may be surprisingly familiar to aficionados of the Western zodiac. These are analogous to the astrological signs of ancient Babylon, later adopted by the Greeks and spread throughout Mediterranean and European civilizations. They are also found in the Islamic worldview. As we can see, the Buddhist tradition carried these ideas as far as China and Japan. There is some pictorial variation however, so that the signs could be easily assimilated into the culture. For example, Capricorn is not depicted as a goat-fish hybrid, but as an incarnation of Makara, an ancient sea-creature from Indian culture.

Aquarius as the Treasure Vase. This is also a common symbol among the Eight Auspicious Signs in Tibetan Buddhism.
Aquarius as the Treasure Vase. This is also a common symbol among the Eight Auspicious Signs of Tibetan Buddhism.

The outer-most border depicts twenty-eight icons known as the Lunar Mansions. Known as the Nakṣatras in Sanskrit, they represent the area of the ecliptic that the moon proceeds through on a nightly basis. These “mansions” are an integral part of Indian and East Asian astrology. They provided much greater precision in calculating celestial events and determining auspicious dates for events such as marriage, rituals, and business dealings. Both Indian and Chinese astronomers utilized the idea of the Lunar Mansion, although they developed independently from each other. When the Buddhist version arrived in China, The Chinese and Indian cosmologies intertwined so that the mansions could corresponded.

The automobile company Subaru is named after the Lunar Mansion equivalent to the star cluster Pleiades.
The automobile company Subaru is named after the Lunar Mansion equivalent to the star cluster Pleiades, as seen on the right.

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The elements of the Star Mandala are still widely used in modern-day Japan. While the 12 signs of the zodiac are the most recognizable icons in popular astrological readings, the Lunar Mansions also play a prominent role within the realm of fortune-telling at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples across the country. The Star Mandala represents a collaboration of cultures from across the world to represent a single, harmonious cosmology. This should only be appropriate if we are to understand Buddhism as a religion and philosophy that can transcend cultural boundaries. After all, everyone still finds themselves under the same night sky.

 

SOURCES:

Butsuzō zui 仏像図彙 (Illustrated Compendium of Buddhist Images). http://www.lib.ehime-u.ac.jp/SUZUKA/316/index.html.
Izumi, Takeo. “The Star Mandala.” Kyoto National Museum, 10 Sept. 1994, http://www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/dictio/kaiga/mandara.html.
Kotyk, Jeffrey. “Japanese Buddhist Astrologers: Sukuyō-dō 宿曜道.” Flower Ornament Depository, 29 Jun. 2015, http://huayanzang.blogspot.com/2015/06/japanese-buddhist-astrologers-sukuyo-do.html.
McArthur, Meher. “Cosmic Contemplations: A Glimpse of Japan’s Rarew Star Mandalas.” Buddhistdoor Global, 2 Sept. 2016, https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/cosmic-contemplations-a-glimpse-of-japans-rare-star-mandalas.
Tesui, Tsuda. “The Images of Stars and their Significance in Japanese Esoteric Buddhist Art.” Culture and Cosmos, 2009, pp. 149.

Calling Quarters: The Guardian Kings and the Elementals

When I first moved to the city, I often found myself roaming the streets during the late hours of the evening. My job at the time required me to stay until well after public transportation was no longer an alternative means to get home. The four mile hike had its perks. Besides the exercise, I could be more attentive of my surroundings, with no barrier between myself and the elements of the concrete jungle.

One night, by happenstance, I came across several playing cards strewn along the side of the road. Nine in total, they seemed rather random, except for the full suit of Jacks that was included. This brought me to ponder the suits of playing cards correlation with the suits of the tarot cards. The divinatory tarot as we know it today was derived from the Italian equivalent of the French playing cards. The latter variety is what we use to play card games in the US. Interestingly, playing cards first gained popularity in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907) as early as the 9th century CE, when Buddhism was flourishing in the country.

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The complete suit of the Jacks also reminded me of the four elements as they function in the tarot. Classical western philosophy tends to recognize a system of four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. Between the tarot and playing cards, these elements correspond to swords/spades, wands/clubs, cups/hearts, and coins/diamonds, respectively. In contemporary magical traditions such as Wicca and the Golden Dawn, each of these elements are associated with the cardinal directions East, South, West, and North. Often, when a witch or magician wants aid in the protection of circle casting, they will evoke the energies of an element associated with each direction. These are referred to as elementals, guardians, or watchtowers, depending on the tradition. Among Christian and Jewish-influenced traditions, these directions are associated with the archangels Raphael, Michael, Gabriel, and Uriel.

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Buddhist traditions also recognize the above four classical elements, although their association with particular directions vary by school and cultural milieu. Tibetan tradition dictates a north/air, south/earth, west/fire, east/water scheme, while in Japanese schools, an arrangement of east/earth, south/fire, west/water, north/air is commonplace, but variations exist, especially when the craft in question utilizes the five elements (Ch: Wǔ Xíng) of Chinese philosophy. All of these expressions of directional/elemental correspondence are valid and are cherished as deeply meaningful traditions within their respective societies. But what is the Western world to make of these cultural variations? Some people are unable to connect with these traditions for many reasons. They become lost in translation, so to speak. As it turns out, we already have the cultural heritage necessary to make sense of this. Buddhism might provide us with the opportunity to reclaim the magical and Pagan roots that unite us as a global society.

Newcomers to Buddhism would be surprised to find that the cardinal guardians and their invocation have been sanctioned in the tradition since early on and can be found in all schools of Buddhism. These guardians are known as the Four Great Kings or Four Heavenly Kings and according to tradition, approached the Buddha with their spirit armies in order to relay a message about how Buddhists can protect themselves from sinister forces. The introduction of this legend describes how certain nature spirits were not particularly fond of the Buddha’s message because they found the five precepts unpalatable. Perhaps because these spirits exist as primal forces, they are not always capable of upholding certain standards of behavior for spiritual evolution. They view the Buddha’s teachings as somehow “puritanical” which results in animosity toward practicing Buddhists, which disrupts meditation . Vaiśravaṇa, guardian deity of the North, is the one who informs the Buddha of the method of calling quarters in the form of a lengthy poem. An English translation can be found here.

In brief, the the Four Kings of the Quarters are as follows:

Dhṛtarāṣṭra – Guardian of the East, lord of the gandharva spirits

Virūḍhaka – Guardian of the South, lord of the kumbhanda spirits

Virūpākṣa – Guardian of the West, lord of the naga spirits

Vaiśravaṇa – Guardian of the North, lord of the yaksha spirits

As listed above, the four guardians are associated with different types of nature spirits. If we look back to the Western tradition, we may begin to see some correspondence. Swiss-German philosopher Paracelsus (16th century CE) equated the directions with certain elemental spirits, popularly referred to as “Elementals.” These are the sylphs (East/Air), salamanders (South/Fire), undines (West/Water), and gnomes (North/Earth). If these creatures are superimposed onto those associated with the Four Heavenly Kings, there are some noticeable similarities. Let’s explore them.

East / Air

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Gandharvas, like sylphs and fairies, are often depicted as fair creatures that fly around in the air. Both are associated with flowers and forests. The Buddha describes them as dwelling in the fragrance of heartwood, softwood, bark, shoots, leaves, flowers, fruits, sap, and scents. That’s right, there might be fairies in your incense. They are also understood to be celestial musicians, ranking among the court musicians of the gods. One gandharva, Pañcaśikha, is the messenger of the king of the gods and plays a veena lute, somewhat reminiscent of the Greek Hermes and his lyre.

Where the gandharva’s skills lie in musical instruments, their female counterparts, the apsara, are the singers and dancers of the celestial plane. They are depicted as youthful, beautiful spirits, skilled in various arts and capable of seducing skilled meditators with their charms and elegance.

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Here come dat gurl

For this reason, they may be compared to both the muses and nymphs, as well as sirens. Some take on responsibility as caretakers of fallen heroes, reminiscent of the valkyries of German mythology.

South / Fire

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Salamanders are the elementals of fire. Despite the name, they are not always depicted as a typical four-legged amphibian. Sometimes they are found in the form of fiery balls, tongues of fire, and deformed beings with animal heads, running through fields and peering into people’s homes. The latter description can be found in depictions of the Arabian jinn, who are said to be made of “smokeless fire.”

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Animal-headed Jinn (Arabian)
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Animal-headed kumbhandas (Tibetan)

The Buddhist equivalent of the spirits of the South are the pretas and kumbhandas, described as ghost-like figures of varyious shapes and sizes. The term “kumbhanda” is derived from the Sanskrit word for “vase” or “pot,” and this breed of ghost in particular is known to have a distended stomach or unnaturally large genitals to fit this shape. Others are emaciated and cannot eat human food, or else it turns into fire in their mouths. Some are incredibly tall and slender, while others have human bodies and the heads of various domesticated animals such as cattle and horses. The elementals of the South can be potentially dangerous to one’s emotional well-being, since they are also the ones associated with sleep paralysis.

West / Water

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Nagas are those spirits associated with snakes and dragons, who live in palaces deep in the oceans. They are usually depicted with the top half humanoid, and the bottom half serpentine. Like the undine, nagas and mermaids share many similarities. In fact, some mermaids have been given both fish and snake features. These water spirits also seem to have a habit of hiding their true colors from mankind. Within European folklore, there is a story about a water spirit named Melusina who hides among mankind as a human woman. One day her husband, Count Siegfried of Luxembourg, peers into her quarters. He is startled to discover her bathing in her true form, complete with fishtail.

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Or in some cases, a snake tail.

This is reminiscent of a Buddhist story, in which a naga disguises himself as a human in order to be admitted into the order of monks. While asleep, he accidentally turns into a giant snake, which understandably shocks the cohabiting monk. The Buddha is informed of the scenario and makes a rule that only human beings can become part of the order of Buddhist mendicants. In consolation, the naga is given the five precepts so that he may be reborn as a human in his next life. Today, prospective monks are called “nagas” in commemoration of this tale.

In East Asia, nagas tend to be conflated with dragons, which can have properties of both fire and water, depending on the species. European dragons also share this division among mythologies. While fire-breathing dragons are fairly common, European and Middle-Eastern cultures also have an abundance of stories about sea serpents and aquatic dragons such as the Greco-Roman Hydra.

There also seems to be some overlap between the air and water elementals. Apsaras will occasionally reside in small bodies of water such as fountains and streams, which is also a common habitat for Western fairies. Some nagas are said to hold romantic and sexual relationships with humans, as is true of undines, sirens, and merfolk. Interestingly, the element of water in tarot, symbolized as the suit of cups/hearts, tends to represent romantic love, a quality displayed by the sensual apsaras. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to consider the symbolic and cultural relationships between East and West. Personally, I prefer to view mermaids as spiritual archetypes rather than fanciful cryptids.

North / Earth:

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Lastly, the yakshas and gnomes both play a prominent role in the earth element. Much like dwarves, gnomes live in the earth and seem to have jurisdiction over precious jewels and metals found therein. The guardian King of the North, Vaiśravaṇa, is viewed in several cultures as a patron of wealth and prosperity under the title Kubera, which would be appropriate given his rulership over the treasure-protecting earth elementals.

The yakshas tend to be categorized into two groups: earth-dwellers and tree-dwellers. The guhyaka is a name for the class of yaksha that are keepers of secret treasures found in caves and mountains. Some are stout and portly, while others, especially the female variety, are slim and seductive, not unlike European elves. Tree-dwelling yakshas are often associated with specific geographic area such as cities, fields, and the shadows of trees, similar to the role of Lares in ancient Roman religion. Despite their association with forests, they seem to be afraid of palm leaves. Some yakshas are fierce and violent, taking on monstrous forms like those of the goblins or vampires, which are also related to the demonic rakshasas.

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Japanese depiction of the Four Kings

Some people would dismiss these stories as simple superstitions, or that they are corruptions of the Dharma added by cultures that preceded modern scientific secularism. But I’d like to think that whether true or not, these myths might represent a fundamental human connection among cultures and societies. Just as classical antiquity of mythology and folklore influenced art and literature during the Renaissance, I think that Buddhists can re-evaluate these themes in a global context. Art and storytelling are the elements that unite us as tribes, as neighbors, and as comrades. They blur the distinction among nationalities while encouraging us to admire and embrace the objective diversity of each other’s cultures.

The calling of quarters does not always have to be magical or supernatural either. The point of the craft is to exercise knowledge and intention; to esteem higher qualities that exist symbolically in the elements we come into contact with every moment of our lives. Perhaps this is why the Buddha gave another approach to venerating the directions East, South, West, North, as well as Below and Above.

Parents as the East,

Teachers as the South,

Spouse and family as the West,

Friends and colleagues as the North,

Workers Below,

Spiritual leaders Above;

Each of these directions include commitments that we undertake as well as reciprocal acts that are to be expected from our benefactors. In other words, there is a practical aspect to evoking and venerating the cardinal directions. It functions as an allegory concerned with establishing and maintaining relationships with each other while pursuing our respective paths toward spiritual growth and social responsibility.

I see no problem in studying cultural distinctions given above for comparative analysis and even actively practicing them if one is truly sincere and respectful of the cultures from which they are derived. It appears as though the schema presented by Western thought is not entirely dissociated from traditional Buddhist lore after all. Can people across the globe become united through shared traditions of symbolism and folklore? Can there be a Western Buddhism?

I believe so.

We Are…

When I look back on my childhood, I come to realize that I was fairly sheltered for the majority of my adolescent life. I was never allowed to ask questions about the world I wasn’t raised in. I had few friends that could be spoken to outside the confines of my parents’ house. My learning was a strict, prescribed curriculum, though I was rebellious enough to search for answers wherever I could find them. My deep curiosity about the world led to an endless supply of questions, and I found myself turning into a sort of contemplative. To my later dismay, I could not explore the world and its perils until I was cast into it head first. Surely I am not the only one to have been socialized through the bars of a gilded cage. There was another person who grew up like this:

The Buddha.

Despite my involuntary reclusiveness, I’m lucky to have grown up deep in the forest, in the middle of nowhere. It just so happens to be where many seekers found home.


By the time I came to college, my involvement in Buddhism had developed from a profound interest to a sincere faith. I was still very new to the tradition and probably way in over my head. But something had inspired me to take up the life of an upāsaka, a lay follower of the Buddha. It seemed so easy. I didn’t know the pressures of society that would dissuade me from following the five precepts, let alone how difficult it would be to practice compassion and loving-kindness. Much of my practice and knowledge of Buddhism was limited to whatever books I could get my hands on. From Sinhalese Theravada to Japanese Zen, I could have sworn I knew it all, or that I was at least on the right track. Naivety would get the better of me.

It was during the summer before freshman year that students were given information about our prospective roommates. I distinctly remember mentioning in our email correspondence that I was a practicing Buddhist, which led at least one of the kids to the assumption that I was “some weird Indian,” devoting my time to sitting around candles and lighting incense. Nah. Just your average white boy.

My Resident Assistant was Indian-American, and a practicing Hindu. The evenings passed with conversations of Indian lore, Vedic, Brahmanic, and Buddhist alike. We discussed the many similarities between Vedic and Buddhist orthodoxy, as well as their many differences. Her family were devout Smarta Brahmins, and were eager to share their traditions with me. On one occasion they even invited me into their home, just to show me an enormous altar that took up the space of the entire first floor. Among the many statuettes encircling the main altar was one of Gautama Buddha, an incarnation of Vishnu according to the Hindu tradition. They performed a puja ceremony for me, despite the awkwardness of being reprimanded for placing my left hand upon the sacred flame. I didn’t know any better than to use my dominant hand.

Crisis averted, I was later invited to Saraswati Puja, in commemoration of none other than Saraswati, the goddess of learning. It was only appropriate that her jurisdiction would lay among the Hindus of a college town. I think she was watching over me as well. In Buddhist circles, she’s often known by her Japanese name, “Benzaiten,” meaning something along the lines of “heavenly eloquence.” How appropriate. The hymns were met with shrill cries and birdsong by the women in the back. “Oh, they must hail from elsewhere.” the Brahmin surmised. It was simply regional variations of worship. Diversity among diversity.

At the time, I had decided to take up the particularly arduous uposatha observance during the full moon of every month. The Buddhist sabbath consisted of a few extra lifestyle changes. The standard five precepts became eight disciplines, including celibacy, refraining from secular entertainment and ornamental accessories, sleeping on high beds, and the most difficult, fasting from noon until the dawn the next day. Luckily the bed was high enough off the ground that I could roll myself under at the end of the night. The RA must have been impressed by my penance. She explained the situation to her father, who later presented me a white kurta after visiting family in India. Lay Buddhists had traditionally worn white clothing during their fasting period, so I suppose it was only reasonable to accept their generosity.

The student populace didn’t seem to know what to make of a white, devout Buddhist. It was incredibly difficult maintaining a textbook image of the perfect layperson while learning how to develop relationships with “real” people in the “real” world. I was blissfully unaware of the dynamics of partying, drinking and hookup culture, that now seems all-pervasive among college youth. People also like to talk. Oh boy, do they like to talk. Reputations in school seemed to be limited to how much money or power you had, what family you came from and who you were sleeping with. The pressure was on. If I was to fit in, I would have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

In 2008, State College, Pennsylvania had few options for a Buddhist to find a spiritual community. I became involved in student-run organizations such as the Asian Student Association (ASA), which while short-lived, enriched my understanding of the issues faced by the Asian-American community. I was kindly invited by founding members to support the club as an officer. I had befriended several Vietnamese-American students who must have thought it would be a good laugh to propose the appearance of a token white boy. One of the members, Jessica, once told me, “You can’t know us through books.” I am much obliged to her for directing my attention to the fact that one of the biggest issues with Western academia is its objectification of people of color. To label an entire group of people as “exotic” and to likewise treat their customs, religions, and languages is to dissociate them from time and space. They become the “other” and not the “us.” It becomes too easy to turn people and culture into some sort of product brand and not see them simply as people.

I suppose my experience with the Japanese community in New Jersey also served as the inspiration to get more involved with the group. The more time I spent with them, the more I realized how ridiculous the whole situation was. There was a lot of peer pressure for me to drink at social functions. I resolved to decline, for a while. This was only met with animosity. I had a begrudging decision to make. If I was to retain a relationship with the people around me, I would have to conform to the larger culture–the only culture–the social side of campus had to offer. I renounced the precepts in word, but kept them in spirit, in case I ever decided to return to that level of practice. But I retained my refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The only problem was: Where was the Sangha?

I was still left without a spiritual outlet. That is, until I came across a cafe nestled in the outskirts of town. East-West Crossings was a space devoted to providing artistic and spiritual expression for the residents of State College. Every Tuesday evening the owners–a little old hippie woman dabbling in Tibetan Buddhism and her husband, a retired physicist from India–would host group sitting and walking meditation. I thought that this could be the perfect opportunity to become more involved with fellow meditators and decided to attend a session.

There was one occasion during these retreats that I will never forget. I can’t recall what time of year it was; winter, spring, fall, or summer. I think it was winter. The cold nights tend to encourage spiritual introspection. Or maybe that’s just me. I just remember that Michael Jackson passed away later that year. Regardless, I happened to be particularly clear-headed this time around and totally prepared for a 15 minute sit. As usual, I would assume full lotus position, stabilizing my awareness with a quick body scan. My attention moved to the sensation of the breath moving in and out of my nostrils. Inhalation, followed by exhalation. A thought would sporadically come up and disappear. In and out. Less thought. Just breath.

In. Out.

In.

Out.

Until something happened. I kept my mind focused on the in and out breath, moving from thoughts, to words, to the sensation. It was then that I experienced something that could only be described as an enormous mind slipping through a keyhole. When I reached the other side, the weight was gone. It was as though my sense of self had expanded to encompass the entire room. Except there was no self. There was perception, but no perceiver. There was my body, but nothing to embody. It was simply being. Was it transcendence? It’s frustrating to attempt putting it into words. It’s indescribable. It was peace.


Teachers often warn us against becoming attached to the experiences we gain through meditation. To strive for these episodes of thought or feeling is the antithesis of what the practice is about. It’s the practice itself that we must devote our attention to, not its outcome. That would come later. Several years later.

Invoking the Keeper: Part I

A long time ago, so I have heard, the Buddha was abiding deep in the jungle, as all good meditators tend to do. A Brahmin priest, well-versed in the arts of mantra, magic, and otherworldly knowledge had heard about the Buddha’s presence near his village and felt inclined to look into the matter. The Buddha’s reputation had grown in immense popularity by this time in his career as a teacher, spreading compassion and wisdom to all living beings he came into contact with, humans and gods alike.

The Brahmin consulted his pupil, Ambattha, to speak with the Buddha on his behalf. It was his wish to put the Buddha to the test, to know that he was indeed the wise man spoken of in legend. Ambattha consented. He hopped onto his chariot and rode deep into the jungle with his possé until he could go no further. After going further into the dense, dark forest on foot, he came across several monks in deep meditative concentration, walking around in the open air. He asked them, “Where is the reverend Gautama to be found? I would like to speak with him.”

The monks pointed out the Buddha’s veranda, which Ambattha promptly approached with his men. The Buddha greeted them, and after exchanging courtesies, the entourage sat to one side. Ambattha on the other hand, was not so cordial, and having rudely imposed himself on the Buddha, set the stage for an exciting confrontation.

Ambattha’s position was that the monks were of significantly lower status. He called them menials, peons, and even went so far as to degrade them status based on their color. “black scourings from Brahma’s foot,” is enough of an insult to prove that colorism existed in ancient India. He further reprimanded the Buddha’s family, the Shakyans, for not giving him the praise and attention he thought he deserved as a learned priest. Ambattha’s prestige as a Brahmin had dragged him to the extremes of narcissism. He was totally oblivious to the fact that his perverted notions of class only proved to be rude and discriminatory.

“What is your clan?” The Buddha inquired. “According to our ancestral lineage, you are descended from a slave girl of the Shakyans.” Ambattha’s clique snapped back, insisting that he was a born into prestige; that he was high-class, and well-learned! How could anyone be so bold as to call out this great man for his arrogance? The Buddha continued, and asked if Ambattha had already known about his family history. The Brahmin remained silent.

“Answer me now, Ambattha, this is not the time to be silent. Whoever does not answer a question put forth by a Buddha, by the third time, his head will be smashed into seven pieces.”

Despite this warning, Ambattha did not speak. So it was, that above the Buddha there appeared a fierce yaksha, a spirit of forests and mountain caves. Wielding a flaming, blazing scepter, like a thunderbolt or a diamond, the old spirit was ready to make good on the promise he made to the Buddha eons ago. It was his sworn duty to protect the new religion, by any means necessary. Ambattha realized that he had crossed fires with a power far greater than his own. The Brahmin fell to the ground, close to the Buddha’s feet, crying out, “What did the Reverend Gautama say? May the Reverend Gautama repeat what He said!”

 


 

It was the Fall semester of 2010 that I studied abroad in Japan. I had come with a couple good friends, one a Kemetic Pagan, the other a Jewish witch. As a Buddhist, the three of us made a triad of contemplatives of vastly different, but interrelated traditions. It was late October and the festival of Samhain was approaching. The veil between worlds was thinning and the old spirits were drawing close. They had already returned for the Japanese Buddhists during the summer for Obon. It was the Pagans’ turn. We were so many worlds apart, born and raised in a totally distinct culture, but united by our humanity, or rather, our spirit.

Together, the three of us spoke of magic, faith, and gods. There were so many gods. The Japanese landscape, painted painted with mountains, valleys and rivers were like a paradise for Pagans, whose worldview reflected something universal. The ancient Shinto religion saw the spiritual in all phenomena. Temples and shrines embellished the countryside as well as the city streets. Divine forces did not discriminate. The Pagans of the ancient world of Europe and the Mediterranean similarly recognized the spiritual realms of forests, rivers, oceans, and mountains. The sacred existed both far outside our world, beneath our feet, and somewhere in between. It was the same for the Indians.

We set out on our meditation. With the dawning of a new season, it was only appropriate that we open ourselves up to the universe and ask for guidance. As an empathetic group of spiritual seekers, it wasn’t difficult to create a unifying sacred space. In a land full of gods, nothing is impossible. For many Pagans, spiritual guardians often manifest in the form of animals, such as wolves, snakes, and crows, each with their unique characteristics. But I was unprepared for such a vision.

As I became further absorbed in concentration, the fabrications of sunny hills and babbling brookes collapsed into the void. I was left with only empty space, and breath.

Inhale.

I scaled the slopes of the cosmic mountain.

Exhale.

Upwards and out, to the liminal stage, between god and man.

Om.

From the darkness of space, a human-shaped silhouette began to manifest, outlined by the faintest light. It was as if the universe had been sealed in a single grasp, like a spark of swirling energy moments before the big bang.

Huuuuuuuummmmm.

The vibration was subtle, yet pervasive. The power was tremendous.

Their sinuous fingers were matched by that of their long, thin body. It was a shape I could perhaps call “androgynous.” The shape appeared to melt and re-materialize within the surrounding barrenness of space, barely tangible if not for the golden glow that came forth through swirling clouds and half-opened eyes. They peered back at me almost knowingly, paired with an inhuman smirk, not quite conceited. It was reassuring. I felt safe.

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When I came to, I knew I had witnessed something otherworldly. Had some sort of god, a deva, or bodhisattva made contact? The image was still fresh in my mind. It was reminiscent of the many paintings of celestial beings throughout the Buddhist world, with their golden bodies and flowing garments. It must have been a god! Or perhaps it was just the internal ramblings of a dreamer. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Over the next few years, things would become much more clear.