Happy Vesak Day

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by Neil Godfrey

Today in Singapore is a public holiday, Vesak Day. It’s a Buddhist festival. One positive about Singapore is that public holidays are officially sanctioned for each of the faiths in this multicultural city state: Buddhist (+Taoist), Christian, Moslem, Hindu (+Sikh).

I’m not a Buddhist and I shy away from its sermonizing about mind-control/thought stopping or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to “remove one’s mind from what might cause suffering”. Not that I’m against CBT. I’m sure it’s a great benefit to many people.

I’m not a fan of the Dalai Lama, either. I don’t like his politics and I especially don’t like his giggly way of justifying a report of poor villagers raising money for a local temple or statue when their health and lives remain at risk from a lack of basic sanitation. Nor do I keep my patience when monks pretend to be striking up a welcoming conversation only to lead the conversation to where they can try to bite me for money. But at least they do provide an alternative floor to sleep on for those who would rather not opt for the subway, so I believe.

But for all that, I do find all the colour and paraphernalia that comes with special Buddhist festivals (and even some of their less ostentatious temples) to convey a happy peacefulness and tranquility.

Sure there are the devotees who are there handing out literature. Maybe it’s my bias, but it does seem to me that they have a more laid-back attitude to their task than their Christian counterparts. These latter have generally come across to me as more intense in their desire to get you to take and read their tracts. (I cannot forget one extreme case of a Jehovah’s Witness looking frantic and fearful and crying out that God holds him accountable for my hearing his message — as I was closing the door on him. First time I ever had the guilt trip put on me in reverse in order to win me over.)

But a happy smiling Buddha, and lots of lotus flowers and tranquil pools of water and graceful statuettes is undeniably a far more positive, relaxing and happy image than the suffering figure of a crucified man. One focuses one’s thoughts on peace and wellbeing for “all sentient beings”, and the other on guilt, pain, suffering, horror, desolation, especially guilt and sin.

Is it surprising that Buddhists I know or know of seem so much more tolerant and at peace with difference, than so many Christians who, speaking generally certainly, at best, struggle with difference and “the other”?

A couple of pics from the opening night of Vesak right in the Aljunied area of Singapore — all recently set up for the coming weekend:

A few more, for what they’re worth, on flickr.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Happy Vesak Day”

  1. Do you enjoy syncretic crossover events between religions? Here is one involving Buddhism and what developed into Islam and came about in part because the Barmakids a wheeler dealer family of viziers for the Abbasid caliphs had originated as hereditary administrators of what was likely the biggest Buddhist monastery in what is now northern Afghanistan. The following is from pages 19-21 of this: https://storage.googleapis.com/wzukusers/user-27418862/documents/58d293f6c44d6yQ0yqp1/20%20Early%20Islam%20An%20Alternative%20Scenario%20of%20its%20Emergence%20-%20Korr%20Markus1.pdf

    The very thought of a historical connection between the emergence of Islam, a strictly monotheistic religion, and Buddhism, a religion without the concept of a personal god from a place as far away as India, seems to be absurd. From a theological or rather philosophical perspective a bigger contrast seems hardly possible. But if we consider the possibility that the territory of emergence of Islam were Arabic speaking pre-Nicaean enclaves on the Silk Road [following the capture and destruction of Hatra in 241 CE Ardashir had the surviving population deported far to the east to places like Merv], where all contemporary religions and belief systems came into contact, then links between these two religions become much more plausible (Gross 2008; 2009). However, the differences are so fundamental, that, should there have been an influence of Buddhism on early Islam, then we should not expect this influence to be visible in the beliefs and the ethics of Islam, but rather in superficial elements or formalities.

    However, when trying to find influences between two religions, we must bear in mind an important caveat: not everything that looks similar is linked or even means the same. So if we want to find out whether a shared feature goes back to parallel development or borrowing, at least one of the following criteria must be met: (1) The parallels coincide in at least one detail, which does not appear in similar cases; (2) the parallel in Islam contradicts what is normal in this religion; and (3) the parallel is only a parallel between Islam and Buddhism and cannot be found in other religions of the area.

    For example, the pilgrimage (ḥajj) is not explicitly described in the Qurʾān, important terms connected to it do not appear or they appear with a different meaning, e.g. ṭawāf, saʿy, 20 ʿumra.9 With all these aforementioned reservations, the following parallels between Buddhism and Islam can be found:

    (1) In Q 2:197 we find the expression al-ḥajjʾashhur maʿlūmāt, “the pilgrimage (or ‘feast’ (the original meaning of the Hebrew equivalent ḥāg) [takes place] during the well-known months.” It is conspicuous that the plural of “month” is used here, which presupposes a minimum of three months. As the ḥajj takes place only during one month, probably something else is meant. The time when most Buddhist young men become monks is the rainy season, which in Buddhism is marked by two big ceremonies. It lasts exactly three months.

    (2) The so-called saʿy (running from Ṣafā to Marwa during the pilgrimage) is an activity totally unknown in normal Islamic life. It has, however, a parallel in Buddhist “walking meditation,” if the pace is slowed. Ṣafā (Aramaic: Rock) might designate Jerusalem (the Dome of the Rock) and Marw-ā (the city [Merv] on the Silk Road). The run then would symbolize ʿAbd al-Malik’s travel from Marw [Merv in present day Turkmenistan] to Jerusalem.

    (3) The clothes to be worn during the pilgrimage have a conspicuous characteristic for men: the right shoulder is uncovered. This is unparalleled in normal Islamic clothing, but exactly resembles Buddhist monks’ robes. For women, the veil, gloves etc. are not only not obligatory, as in normal life in many Islamic countries, but forbidden.

    (4) The pilgrims’ clothes are white, and according to one ḥadīth may not be colored with ‘wars’, a substance which dyes them “between red and yellow,” exactly the range of colors of Buddhist monks of different denominations. White clothes are typical for Buddhist lay followers.

    (5) At the beginning of both the pilgrimage and an ordination as a monk the head is shaved and the body perfumed.

    (6) Both a Buddhist temple and the Kaʿba are circumambulated, a practice normally unknown in Islam. The direction in Buddhism is clockwise, except during funerals (as in Islam).

    (7) The description of the Kaʿba resembles the one of the Nowbahār in Afghanistan, e.g., both buildings are veiled.

    (8) Some Islamic concepts are not explicitly treated in the Qurʾān, one of them being the niyya, “intention.” A similar concept is very important in Buddhism. It is known as cetanā (Sanskrit/ Pali: “intention,” a presupposition for the karmic impact of a deed). Another key Buddhist term to be considered in this context is sammā-sati and sati-patthāna (“mindfulness”).

    (9) There are several parallels in the life of Buddha and Muḥammad: Before Buddha’s mother conceived she saw a white elephant in a dream, whereas the Prophet was born in “the year of the elephant” (a story later connected to a military campaign of Abraha from Yemen).

    (10) According to one tradition, Muḥammad was born, received his first revelation and died on the same day. One of the most important holidays in Buddhism is Vesākha (also called “Buddha day”), the day the Buddha allegedly was born, entered the state of houselessness, attained enlightenment and passed away (“parinirvāna”).

    (11) There is at least one parallel text in the Qurʾān and the Buddhist canon: Q 109 very much resembles the 8th speech of the first part (Sīlakkhandhavaggapāḷi) of the so-called Long Discourses (Dīghanikāya) of the Pali Canon.

    If these features and elements should really go back to Buddhist influence, the question arises why they were introduced. Here a parallel case from Christianity can help: Christmas is originally the holiday of the ancient Roman sol invictus, a competing cult of late antiquity. The emperor Constantine had coins struck with the Christogram Chi Rho on one side and the symbol of sol invictus on the other. The re-interpretation of the old holiday as the birthday of Christ facilitated conversions from the competitor cult. As newcomers they found something in the new religion that they knew already.

    Similarly it is imaginable that these (superficially) Buddhist elements were secondarily introduced into Islam. The fact that during the earliest era of Islam there must have been links between the Arabic speaking world and India is also demonstrated by the oldest dictionary of Arabic, the Kitāb al-ʿayn, authored by Khalīl b. Aḥmad. The sequence of letters is not the one current in Arabic or any other Semitic language, but of the sacred language of India: Sanskrit (Plato forthcoming).

    Apart from the above a long article on this by the same author in German is here: http://inarah.de/sammelbaende-und-artikel/inarah-band-3/buddhistische-einfluesse-im-fruehen-islam-1-teil/

    Alternately a search of ‘buddhist’ on the website of Inârah. Institut zur Erforschung der frühen Islamgeschichte und des Koran yields: http://inarah.de/?s=buddhist

    The Barmakid family originally from Balkh were viziers under the Abbasids following their conversion. Among the various meanings and interpretations found in historical sources for the word “Barmak,” it seems likely that Barmak was a general title given to the hereditary administrators/guards of the Buddhist temple Nawbahar [“Nava Vihāra Sanskrit: नवविहार “New Monastery”, modern Nowbehār, Persian: نوبهار‎] in northern Afghanistan. The word derived from the Sanskrit word parmaka in the sense of a Buddhist religious leader.

    1. The very thought of a historical connection between the emergence of Islam, a strictly monotheistic religion, and Buddhism, a religion without the concept of a personal god from a place as far away as India, seems to be absurd. From a theological or rather philosophical perspective a bigger contrast seems hardly possible.

      As “absurd” as the idea of the Jewish God adapting from the pagan gods El and Yahweh, and the Islamic crescent moon from the cult of the moon god Sin in Harran.

      1. I wonder if Mr. Giggly [“not a fan of the Dalai Lama, either. I don’t like his politics and I especially don’t like his giggly way of justifying a report of poor villagers raising money for a local temple or statue when their health and lives remain at risk from a lack of basic sanitation.”] knows all about the great king Demetrius?

        The Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (205-171 BC) himself may have been the prototype for the image of the Buddha. He was king and saviour of India, as confirmed by his successors King Apollodotus I and Menander I, who were officially described as BASILEOS SOTHROS “Saviour King” in the bilingual Greek and Kharoshthi legends of their coins. Demetrius was named Dharmamita (“Friend of the Dharma”) in the Indian text of the Yuga Purana. Buddhism flourished under his reign and that of his successors, precisely as it was being oppressed by the Indian dynasty of the Sunga in the East.

        The earliest Hellenistic statues of the Buddha portray him in a style reminiscent of a king, where the traditional Buddhist symbols (the Dharma wheel, the empty throne, the Bodhi tree, the lions) are absent. Demetrius may have been deified, and the first Hellenistic statues of the Buddha we know may be representations of the idealized Greek king, princely, yet friendly, protective and open to Indian culture. As they progressively incorporated more Buddhist elements, they became central to the Buddhist movement, and influenced the representations of the Buddha in Greco-Buddhist art and later.

        Another characteristic of Demetrius is associated to the Buddha: they share the same protector deity. In Gandharan art, the Buddha is often shown under the protection of the Greek god Herakles, standing with his club (and later a diamond rod) resting over his arm [4]. This unusual representation of Herakles is the same as the one on the back of Demetrius’ coins, and it is exclusively associated to him (and his son Euthydemus II), seen only on the back of his coins.

        Soon, the figure of the Buddha was incorporated within architectural designs, such as Corinthian pillars and friezes. Scenes of the life of the Buddha are typically depicted in a Greek architectural environment, with protagonist wearing Greek clothes.

        From: http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Greece/Art/Ancient/en/GrecoBuddhistArt.html

        And perfect timing for the date: Winged cupids are another popular motif in Greco-Buddhist art. They usually fly in pair, holding a wreath, the Greek symbol of victory and kingship, over the Buddha.


        The word Yona in Pali and the Prakrits, and the analogue “Yavana” in Sanskrit, are words used in Ancient India to designate Greek speakers. “Yona” and “Yavana” are transliterations of the Greek word for “Ionians” (Ancient Greek: Ἴωνες < Ἰάoνες < *Ἰάϝoνες), who were probably the first Greeks to be known in the East.


      2. From a Quranite (sola scriptura) translation:

        Taken together – the narrative as we have it in the Qur’an, the historical record free of the Traditionalist’s overlay and the internal grammatical evidence – I can come to no other conclusion than that al masjid al ḥarām was abandoned at the direction of God. It had served its purpose. Muḥammad had warned the people. His job was done.

        To return to 9:28, the reality, surely, is simpler than the Traditionalist would have us believe and the instance of jussive of the form I verb (q-r-b) at 9:28 correctly reads lā taqrabū and not lā yaqrabū. This reading brings all 11 instances of the form I verb (q-r-b) into harmony meaning exactly what it means at 2:35, 2:187, 2:222, 4:43, 6:151, 6:152, 7:19, 17:32, 17:34, namely: do not approach.

        The implications of such a position are many and obvious. Bereft of the place of pilgrimage he loves so much and which he, in effect, worships, the Traditionalist is lost. He has no claims to specialness: no special prayer, no special city, no special centre for his Caliphate-building projects, nowhere to go every year to kill lots of animals – because we can now point to the Qur’anic narrative, to the integral grammatical structures and to historical facts and demonstrate that the messenger of God (like those before him) was not in the religion-creation business.

        The Traditionalist is left with a choice. Either he can ignore the evidence, or he can content himself with what the Qur’an tells followers of the messenger to do; namely: to fear God, to do good works and to follow the messenger’s example of warning people by means of the Qur’an.


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