Life among the pagodas
Outside a monastery my friend Sean spoke with our neighbor.
‘We as Buddhists must not kill any living thing. To do that automatically sentences us to hell in our next life.’ ‘Don’t you love to eat meat?’ Asked Sean, ‘Oh, of course, pork is the best!’ ‘How is it that you must not kill, but love to eat meat?’ ‘Well, that’s easy! We don’t kill the animal, we just buy it from the market. Someone else kills it.’ Then Sean responded, ‘So you don’t kill the animal, but you pay the killer.’ ‘Exactly right, we just pay the killer.’
Understanding Buddhism can be confusing. The particular branch in Myanmar is called Theravada. The question at the core of Theravada Buddhism is, ‘How can one escape the cycle of suffering?”
The answer that Buddhism gives to this question is essentially, seek detachment, and through enough rigorous self-effort, you will escape all suffering and cease to exist. Of course, it’s quite a bit more complex than this, but put simply; concerted diligent effort towards an eternal “snuffing out” is the goal of Theravada Buddhism.
According to this system, Buddha isn’t some sort of divine being that superintends the matters of the world, listens to the prayers of his subjects, or intervenes on behalf of those who are committed to him. In this system, Buddha left behind the requisite knowledge needed to escape the suffering in this world, and subsequent reincarnations, then upon his death he himself achieved this snuffing out. He wasn’t born into another world as another creature, spirit or human. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is eternal death.
A poor man invited all the monks in town to visit his house and be fed. He personally cooked the meal and provided chicken and pork curries, as well as large helpings of rice. At the end of the donation ceremony, when the monks and honored guests had eaten their fill, the head monk chanted a blessing on the house and called out ‘well done, well done, well done.’ But in his heart, the man knew that the evil of killing the chickens and the pig for the ceremony had far outweighed the good of feeding his guests.
As the saying goes, a pinch of merit and a pound of hell.
Though the theory of Buddhism is all about detachment and seeking to escape suffering by personal effort, the vast majority of Buddhists I know aren’t seeking to pull themselves out of existence. They are looking for blessing. They are seeking power to help their business succeed, power to heal their illnesses and those of their loved ones. They are looking for some kind of grace. They are subjecting themselves to a power that they believe is able to save them from trouble and deliver them safely to a better life now and in the life to come.
For this reason, they keep golden Buddha idols in their homes, and they spend much energy and money to keep these idols maintained. Further, many will have separate idol houses outside the house to appease the spirits of the house. At the monastery, monks are venerated, and a golden image of the Buddha is worshiped with utmost reverence. Any day of the week, lay people can be found at the local pagoda, earning merit and praying for both temporal and eternal blessings.
More careful Buddhists will admit that Buddhism admits no prayer to a higher power, and will say that they are merely ‘sending good to others.’ However, in times of trouble, the religious and irreligious alike fall to their knees and pray for help.
I remember shortly after moving here asking a Buddhist friend, ‘When people pray to the Buddha, does he hear them?’ He considered my question for a while and said, ‘I don’t know.’