I’ve been reading Spiro’s Buddhism and Society in my spare time because it is an interesting study on Theravada Buddhism in village Burma and its cultural significance. The following is a a short and interesting passage from the book:
“In the Theravada tradition, the Buddha is not a god in either the Hindu-Buddhist or the Judaeo-Christian sense of the term. He is superior to all the gods in the Hindu-Buddhist sense of “god”…Nor is he a god in the Judaeo-Christian sense, for the Buddha is neither a Savior–in Theravada Buddhism, as we shall see, man must save himself–nor is He alive.”
“The preponderant view concerning the Buddha in normative Buddhism (a view shared by almost all Burmese) is that, having attained nirvana, He is no longer alive, in any sense at least in which He can serve as a Savior. He shows the way to, but is not the agent of, salvation.”
-Interesting excerpts from Buddhism and Society (Melford E. Spiro)
This question has been puzzling and confusing to me all my life. Technically speaking, within Theravada Buddhism, the primary tradition practiced in Burma, there is no palpable importance attached to the notion of ‘God’ or the divinity of Buddha. Sure, there are hundreds, if not thousands of gods and goddesses, including Hindu ones like Thuyathadi (Saraswati) or spirits like nat that the Burmese worship in times of need. But one interesting point of contention is whether God figures any role in Burmese Buddhism.
I think some of my confusion arose from my being lost in translation. While growing up, I always equated the Burmese word shi-kho (ရှိခိုး) with English ‘worship,’ which I thought was its closest equivalent. When I actually looked up shi-kho recently, it is defined as “to do obeisance; to pay homage.” Whenever my parents would say Phaya shi-kho or ‘Pay homage to Buddha,’ I would inherently think I was worshiping Buddha, like Christians would to God. This may be because I grew up in the U.S. and what I saw all around me, made me want to find parallels in my own life. I probably fooled myself into thinking that Buddha chose who to punish (like the cartoons that showed God choosing who went through the pearly gates of heaven), especially when I would pray “Andaye kin, bay shin” (အန္တရာယ်ကင်းဘေးရှင်း) or literally “Be free from dangers and clear of harm’s way.” I remember in the third grade, a presumably Christian girl taunted me for being Buddhist, that “Behind Buddha is the Devil,” something I will never forget. Maybe she assumed that all Buddhists worship Buddha as God (as some Mahayana Buddhists do) or that I was idolatrous. I guess in a way, I was a naive kid. It didn’t help that a variety of Burmese phrases like “Phaya ma lo” (ဘုရားမလို့, rough equivalent “Thank God!”) or “Phaya mo gyo pyit” (ဘုရားမိုးကြိုးပစ်, rough equivalent “I swear to God”) that led me to assume Buddha is God.
But even my conception of who Buddha is and his role in Buddhism was skewed from the start. Perhaps my parents assumed that I understood what I was doing every time I put my hands together to pray because they couldn’t find a perfect way to explain to their American-born kids. I think part of my confusion stems from my own parents’ skepticism and lack of faith in the Burmese monkhood. My mom told me that as a child, her father forbade her from going to the monastery alone or without adults, because in his eyes, “monks are only people.” This general distrust of the Sangha is particularly resonant in America.
My parents, like many other Burmese Buddhists in the U.S., criticize the seemingly Americanized monks who own nice cell phones, refuse to wash their own dishes, drive brand new cars, live comfortable lives, fly first-class and loudly preach the concept that donating to the monastery as the best way to gain kutho (merit). In some ways, this is completely true. There is no sense of social obligation to help the poor or to feed the hungry in the Buddhist sermons I hear nowadays, even though those acts of kindness are just as spiritually rewarding (but I guess not financially rewarding to the monastery). Also, I think the that the reputation of Burmese monks in the U.S. has been marred by their inability to stay united (there are over 11 monasteries alone in Southern California, despite the fact that all share the same doctrine and are part of the same order–it’s mostly because of personal problems between monks that caused such splintering).
By the same token, the same reason many Burmese Buddhists reject Christianity is because of the Christian notion of God. As in the words of one of my aunts, “Christians believe that murderers and rapists can go to heaven as long as they accept Jesus Christ as their savior,” which completely defies Buddhist expectations, that heinous acts like rape and murder (which are prohibited in the Five Precepts) result in accumulation of bad karma. I think that this, along with the ubiquitous nature of Buddhism in Burma, have prevented Christianity from gaining much ground among most Burmese. However, Buddhism is not completely compatible with some Burmese beliefs either, such as the permanence of the soul, which the Burmese call a leikpya (butterfly), even though Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent and that in Nirvana, the soul no longer exists. Nor is the Burmese belief in “luck” truly compatible with the Buddhist concept of karma (the Burmese word for both “luck” and “karma” is kan, but the Burmese use “luck” and “karma” in separate contexts).
The Burmese concept of God does not really exist, then, because Buddha does not control who is reincarnated. Burmese Buddhism teaches that each individual makes his or her own choices, accumulates his or her own merit to be reincarnated as a higher being or reach Nirvana. Buddha is only a beacon, the prime example of someone who eschewed attachment to reach Nirvana. Now that I think about it, Buddhists don’t pray to go to heaven or pray to be saved.
I’ve been thinking much about religion these past two years in college, because some of my evangelical Christian friends who have some pretty rigid and orthodox views who asked why I was Buddhist or why I didn’t convert. Also, while studying evolutionary biology, my professor remarked that “Only in America is evolution rejected,” blatantly referring to the creationists who assert that God created all life. I wondered about what Buddhism taught on the origin of life. I felt at first, that I needed to truly understand my roots, what I believe. I was born to a Buddhist family, but I was a nominal Buddhist for much of the time, just a convenient label for who I was. For the past 19 years of my life, I’ve never had a complete grasp of what Buddhism, at least the Theravada tradition, really is, an experience mirrored among many first generation Asian Americans. To me, it’s been so detached and ceremonial, ritualized in a sense, more like a staged play than honest faith from within my heart. I’ve had so many questions and I’m only starting to get them answered.
Better late than never.
By the way, I apologize for this possibly dizzying entry. I was just sorting out what was on my mind. I’ll post a refined update later on.