Monday, 25 January 2016

The Rehabilitation of Buddhism

Boodhism presents a challenge to many systemizations of religion. In many crucial respects it does not conform – or does not seem to conform - to the norms of most other religions. It stands apart. Most obviously, it does not posit a supreme deity as most traditions do and it appears to be indifferent to the metaphysical questions that so occupy other religious systems. Among religions, it is somewhat problematic. This has led certain parties who should know better to make extravagant and often silly statements about it. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, is on record as saying that Boodhism is not a religion at all – which is demonstrable and irksome nonsense but which exploits the fact that Boodhism is different in type to religions in general. Even such an authority as Rene Guenon, the French metaphysician – who, frankly, had a deeper knowledge of these matters than the present Dalai Lama - dismissed it as a “Hindoo heresy” and was reluctant to accord it any serious status as an integral tradition. More generally, for the Perennialist school of thought, guided throughout as it is by the work of Monsieur Guenon, Boodhism remains an uncomfortable fit in its model of orthodoxy which is based upon Platonic/Advaita Vedanta standards.

The present author (whose sympathies are somewhat consonant with the Perennialist school and are certainly Platonic) readily admits that he has had great trouble coming to terms with Boodhism, try as he may. To some measure this is because he has had far too many encounters with the half-baked sentimentalized post-modern pseudo-psychology that is passed off as Boodhism (with much encouragement from the Dalai Lama) in the spiritual wastelands of the West. But even during his many travels in India and Asia, with visits to temples and gompas and conversations with Lamas and Ahats, priests and laymen both, it has never really gelled. The only exception has been the Shin Boodist (Pureland) tradition of Japan, which does make sense to him, but only because it itself deviates from most of the norms of the wider Boodhist fold. He has read books, studied texts, seen movies – but the zest of Boodhism escapes him. Even on his current extended tour of India and Asia, made for the very purpose of becoming more familiar with the Indo-Asian traditions, he takes to Shaivism, Samkya, and other forms of Hindooism without trouble, but his encounters with Boodhism leave him unmoved. 

During his visit to the great Boodhist shrine, the Mahabodhi, at Boodha Gaya in the state of Bihar, however, he was able to witness certain rites that restored Boodhism to the forms of what he calls the alchimie primordiale. As related in previous posts, Boodha Gaya is a small town built around the restored temple that marks the site of the Boodha’s enlightenment. The ancient temple is huge and beautifully reconstructed in modern times, much to the credit of the lenient objectivity of the British Raj. In the rear of the temple court, in the west, stands the Bodhi Tree, the tree under which the Boodha, they say, sat and came to his spiritual realization. Around the temple complex are various sites marking the seven weeks that the Boodha then spent there following his enlightenment, those sites being points of devotion for the thousands of pilgrims who venture there every year. The tree, and under it, the diamond throne, are the very centre of the Boodhist world. It is believed that all Boodhas at all times were enlightened on that exact spot, and that, moreover, that spot was the first point of creation and will be the last point remaining at the end of time. 

The sacred place at which Boodhists press their forehead. Behind it the Bodhi Tree. 

This, in itself, rehabilitates Boodhism to some extent. Many authorities – and conspicuously the Dalai Lama – would have us believe that Boodhism is a system without a cosmology and without a fixed centre. For those of us accustomed to the Platonic/Advaita Vedanta model this supposed formlessness is both irritating and incomprehensible. A religion with no centre? No god? No creation? No start or finish? The Boodhist is urged to not fix upon a centre but to drift like a rudderless dinghy in an endless sea of vague nothing. How is that, one wants to know, a spirituality? 

But one discovers at Boodha Gaya that that is not really the case. Boodhism does have a centre. And a cosmology. And a point of start and finish. This was not explicit and concrete in the many centuries during which the Boodha Gaya temple complex was lost and forgotten in the forests of Bihar, but it is made clear again today. This author spent many hours over many days sitting in the shade of the Bodhi Tree watching the pilgrims come and go. Contrary to the psycho-babbling shapeless mush, the spiritual custard, served up by wide-eyed Boodhist Modernists in the West, and the evasive double-talk one often hears from Boodhists in the East, the very concrete religious mechanisms of Boodhism are perfectly apparent at Boodha Gaya, and they are pretty much identical to those of any other religion.

Some years ago the present author, in his academic guise, published an article on the symbolism of Islamic prayer. The prayer, he related, is a centering exercise that brings the devotee back to the spiritual centre that is, at once, the earth and the deepest reality of his or her inner state. This state, he argued, is Adamic, and he sketched the ways in which the prayer expresses the alchemical theme of autochthony. The full text of the article can be found here. In practice, the devotee – taking the place of Adam, formed of clay - stands in the Edenic sacred space marked by the prayer mat, the prayer mat traditionally decorated with a stylization of the Tree of Life, and proceeds to press his forehead to the point of sajda – annihilation – on the earth, the point where full submission transmutes the clay of his creation to the gold of spiritual fulfillment (the extreme malleability of gold being the operative metaphor for submission to the Divine Will.) Moreover, in a related article, the present author has added to this some observations concerning other peculiarities of the Islamic prayer ritual, specifically the way in which devotees arrange their feet in order to place pressure upon the liver, that organ having an important (but long forgotten) place in spiritual alchemy.

The Boodhist rites at Boodha Gaya conform to these practices exactly. The symbolism is the same. The author sat there watching these rites and suddenly recognized the ways in which the Boodhist spiritual economy is precisely consonant with that of Islam as he had sketched it on those articles. 

Pressing the forebead to the frame behind which is the Bodhi Tree. The frame and the surrounding walls are coated in a gold film. 

Boodhism, that is, is no different. There is, of course, a different arrangement of symbols, but the symbols themselves are the same, operate in the same way, and towards the same end. The state of fana – annihilation, submission – that is the objective of the Muslim prayer is exactly the same as this “Void” or “Nothingness” with which Boodhist double-speak so often confounds us. And what is the Bodhi Tree but the Tree of Life? And what is Boodha Gaya – the first and last – but Eden? What is it but the qibla of the Muslim, with the profound emptiness of the Kaaba in Mecca a symbol of that same Boodhist Void and Nothingess? 

But whereas the Muslim observes the prayer in the canonical manner at the appointed times each day, the Boodhist observes exactly the same in his pilgrimage to the Bodhi Tree, for there one can witness Boodhists in Islam-like prostration, turning to the Diamond Throne, falling to their knees and pressing their forehead to the earth in the gesture of sajda. Indeed, many of them adopt the same peculiar feet arrangement that is common in Islam and about which this author has written previously. 

Prostration towards the Bodhi Tree, along with the distinctive Muslim-like arrangement of the feet. 

It is a remarkable coincidence of practices and symbolisms. More than that, as the long procession of Boodhist devotees files past the place of the Throne under the Tree (the Tree in the Midst – to stress it again, precisely the same symbolism as the Tree in Eden) they turn and press their foreheads to a particular point on the fence that surrounds the sacred place. This point is framed by a rectangle that is much the same size as an Islamic prayer rug and which itself frames the sacred Tree behind it – so here we have an exact visual duplicate of the prayer rug with the Edenic Tree and that point, that centre, where the inner and outer worlds meet. 

Even more startling, the alchemical symbolism of that configuration of symbols is perfectly explicit because the surrounding fence, including the point where the Boodhist presses his forehead, has been painted with a film of pure gold paint. When he presses his forehead to the designated point the gold paint – peeling from the wear of years and the constant touching of the devoted – flakes off leaving a spot of pure gold on his forehead over his ‘third eye’. Devotees walk away from their devotions with a mark of gold on them – the Adamic gold of the autochthon on their forehead. In other words, these Boodhist rites exactly conform to those alchemical aspects of the Islamic rites – and so are united therein – that the present author explicated in his writings years ago. 

Needless to say, for someone looking for a solid foothold in the formless and featureless path of Boodhism, this came as a very welcome revelation. Boodhism is not so different after all. The view that it is different can largely be attributed to the intensely annoying habit of Boodhists to obfuscate and insist on exceptionalism. There are numerous commentators of a 'Perennialist' flavor, and other students of that disreputable shibboleth called 'comparative religion', who have attempted to explain how Boodhism 'approximates' other traditions. These efforts, usually highly theoretical, are not very helpful either. Instead, one needs to witness the living practices - read fewer books and see with eyes that can see what is plain to see. Boodhism isn't a centreless swamp of vapid nothingness after all. In its central rites, restored in Boodha Gaya just over a century ago, Boodhism is very obviously just another expression, a different configuration, of the alchimie primordiale, whatever Boodhist themselves might say.


Harper McAlpine Black

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