The recent spate of interest in Buddhism in magazines (like Time) and on television (like “The Oprah Winfrey Show”) inspired the students in my BS (for Buddhist Studies) 230: Introduction to Buddhism to compile a list of the ten most common misconceptions that Americans have about Buddhism. The students were the first to admit that they themselves held many of these very misconceptions just a few months ago. Now they know better. The list is provided below, with commentary:
1.“ Buddha” is spelled “Buddah.”
Outside the temple of the Daibutsu in Kamakura, Japan (perhaps the most famous Buddha image in the world), a sign asks visitors to display a respectful attitude in the presence of the Bhudda. One of the most important rock albums of all time, Safe as Milk by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, was released on Buddah records. The problem is the “floating hsyndrome,” which often causes the leader of the Indian independence movement to be identified as Mahatma Ghandi. The culprit is the Sanskrit letter dha the aspirate d.
2. All Buddhists meditate.
Meditation has been identified as the central practice of Buddhism (Edward Conze said that meditation is for Buddhism what prayer is for Christianity). It is unclear how many Christians actually pray, but the majority of Buddhists throughout history have not meditated. Meditation has, until rather recently, been considered a monastic practice, and even then, as a practice reserved for only certain monks.
3. All Buddhists are bald.
Although the shaving of the head has come into fashion of late, the shaved head is one sign of being a monk or a nun in the Buddhist tradition, where it is considered to reduce attachment to worldly beauty and to improve personal hygiene. Anthropologists have seen hair as a symbol of sexuality. Hence, shaving the head symbolizes castration, that is, monastic celibacy. (This theory is apparently unknown to Charles Barkley.)
4. All Buddhists are vegetarians.
It seems that in the early tradition, monks and nuns were instructed to eat whatever was put into their begging bowls. (You’ve probably heard the one about the leper.) According to some sources, the bout of dysentery that hastened the Buddha’s entry into nirvana was caused by eating bad pork. It was only after the Buddha’s death that vegetarianism was promoted in Buddhist texts. It caught on in India and China, but not in Tibet or Southeast Asia.]
5. The Buddha is the fat guy.
Not simply found in ashtrays and paperweights, the fat guy sits in the central position of many Buddhist temples in East Asia. He is Pu-tai, the hemp-bag monk, a popular figure in Chinese Buddhism (especially Ch’an), a simple and jolly mendicant beloved by children, who want to see what he carries in his bag. Some say he is Maitreya. So maybe he is the Buddha.
6. All Buddhists live in monasteries.
Most Buddhists throughout history have been laypeople and hence have not lived in monasteries. They could not do so, because without the laity the monasteries could not survive. At least that’s the theory. In fact, many monasteries were self-supporting institutions, owning property and even slaves.
7. All roads lead to the same mountaintop.
Many great Buddhist figures, from Dogen to the current Dalai Lama, are emphatic on the point that enlightenment is only possible by following the Buddhist path. You can only get so far following other religions: all roads lead to Everest base camp, but from there, Buddhism is the only route to the summit.
8. All Buddhists are pacifists.
There have, of course, been wars between Buddhists (such as the war that put the fifth Dalai Lama on the throne of Tibet) as well as wars waged by Buddhists against non-Buddhists (modern Sri Lanka), and Zen masters have supported war (the Soto hierarchy in Japan during World War II).
9. Buddhism is a philosophy.
The terms “philosophy” and “religion” need to be scrutinized in applying either one to non-Western traditions. But to claim that Buddhism is not a religion because is really about no-self and nirvana is to demean the daily life of millions of Asians across the centuries. Buddhism is a religion, by any definition of that indefinable term.
10. Reincarnation is fun.
As much as anyone might like to come back to play centerfield for the Yankees, this is just not the way it works. If you are tired of people saying “Been there. Done that,” just remember that Buddhists have been saying it in so many words for a couple of millennia. There is no place you have not been reborn, no form of sentient life that you have not already been a zillion times. It all should be a tedious bore right now, and all you should want to do is get out. Unless, of course, you’re a bodhisattva.
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