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Religion

종교 탐방

VII. Mythology

불교속의 신화

 

Myth in Buddhism is used at various intellectual levels in order to give symbolic and sometimes quasi-historical expression to apprehended or presumed religious truths. Accepted on its own terms, Buddhism is a supernatural religion in the sense that, without a buddha to reveal them, the truths remain unknown. Only after human beings have received the Buddha revelation can they proceed apparently by their own efforts. This teaching was explicit in the early schools, in which the revelation was still thought of as historically related to Shakyamuni's mission in the world. Gradually the idea formed, in some schools, of the Buddha's continuous revelation and gracious assistance, deriving from his glorified state of time-transcending Enlightenment. Thus the comparatively simple mythology of the great Buddha myth developed into the far more elaborate mythology of the Mahayana.

The acceptance of the mythology, whether early or fully developed, depends upon faith. Without faith the whole religion crumbles to nothing, and nothing is left but a demythologized supposedly historical figure who has no special revelation to give. He becomes a wandering ascetic of ancient India, like the many others known to scholars, and his religion has no explanation. One must, thus, emphasize that it was the extraordinary combination of the historical Shakyamuni and the relevant myth that he was seen to fulfill that set the whole great religious tradition known as Buddhism on its varied historical course.

It has been observed also how myth is continually used at second or even third remove to bolster the primary myth and to give it a more convincing expression. These subsidiary forms of myth include, for example, stories about the recitation of the Buddhist canon soon after Shakyamuni's decease, details of his previous lives, and descriptions of the six spheres of rebirth. Some Buddhist traditions take these subsidiary forms of myth more seriously than others. Within each tradition there are variations among individual adherents. But, even for those Buddhists who are most skeptical, the various myths associated with the Buddha and his saving activity remain central and useful. They rest on premises always provisional but, insofar as they serve the gaining of the chief objective, never really false.

1. ShAKYAMUNI IN LITERATURE AND ART

 

1) Traditional literary accounts.

The traditional biographies of Shakyamuni, in whatever language they are written, all derive ultimately from early Indian extracanonical rearrangements of the still earlier, scattered canonical accounts of his great acts. The best-known of the Indian "biographies" are the Sanskrit works, the Mahavastu, the Buddhacarita, and the Lalitavistara; the Chinese Abhiniskramana-sutra, translated from an Indian original; and the Pali Nidanakatha, as well as the commentary on the Buddhavamsa. These early works themselves are the result of a continual traditional growth, and to ascertain the dates of their final versions helps in no way to estimate the actual age or reliability of much of the material they contain. All that can be said is that this material agrees substantially with the earliest known fragmentary canonical accounts and that, once presented in coherent biographical form, there are only minor variations in the later "national" versions of the story. The later Sinhalese, Thai, Myanmar (Burmese), and Kampuchean stories are all firmly based on the earlier Pali versions. The Koreans and Japanese have derived their accounts direct from the Chinese, who in turn derive their traditions, via Central Asia, from Indian sources. The Tibetans, who represent the extreme limits of Indian Buddhist developments, draw their versions from the same earlier Indian versions. The biography of Shakyamuni included by the Tibetan historian Bu-ston (1290-1364) in his Chos 'byung ( History of Buddhism) differs from other traditional accounts only by its listing of the later Mahayana doctrines as part of Shakyamuni's teaching program on Earth. All in all, the unity of the mythological and quasi-historical interpretations of the life and death of the "historical" Buddha, in whatever Buddhist country they have been retold, remains impressive. (see also Index: Tibetan Buddhism)

The kernel of truth in the claim of the Theravadin Buddhists of Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia to represent unadulterated "original Buddhism" derives from the fact that they have remained faithful to the early enthusiastic acclamation of Shakyamuni as the one and only Buddha of the present dispensation. Though other buddhas were recognized from a very early date, the attention of the early community was focused almost exclusively on the person and activities of Shakyamuni.

All of the early canonical accounts agree in describing Shakyamuni's experience of Enlightenment as a definitive victory over Mara, the Evil One, and as resulting in a threefold knowledge: that of his own previous births, that of the births and deaths of all other sentient beings, and that of the saving insight that brings final release from the whole unhappy process. However symbolically one may treat the descriptions of the various possible spheres of rebirth among gods, humans, animals, ghosts (pretas), and the denizens of hell, belief in the cosmological myth of continual rebirth is an integral component in the fundamental myth. (see also Index: samsara)

Shakyamuni was acclaimed "Great Sage" (Mahamuni) and Lord (Bhagavat) not because he achieved a state of spiritual equilibrium in the context of ordinary existence but because he attained the supramundane state of nirvana. There are no textual indications that he was ever regarded by his followers as a kind of Socratic sage but rather as a typical perfected yogi (ascetic with magical powers) of his day, possessed--as was then expected--of miraculous powers and divine insight, combined with an altogether extraordinary concern for the spiritual advancement of others. Thus, from the first, his state of Enlightenment, or buddhahood, was recognized as "transcendent" ( lokottara) and as the transient embodiment of such supramundane knowledge. Shakyamuni was identified with the pre-Buddhist Indian myth of the "Great Man" ( Mahapurusa), conceived of as the universal religious teacher who appears on Earth when the circumstances are ripe.

He was thus accepted as the seventh in an imagined series of previous buddhas. Why the seventh is not known, unless the number was derived from astronomical association, and the question may be pointless from the mythical viewpoint. His contemporary Mahavira, leader of the Jains, was linked to a similar series of 24. The essential mythical idea consists not in the numbers but in the notion of a necessary soteriological process. The title Tathagata, probably meaning "He Who Has Thus Attained," is regularly used by Shakyamuni of himself, and it would seem likely (whatever 19th-century demythologizing scholars might say to the contrary) that he did indeed use this title. Apart from such utter confidence in his achievement, his religious movement would doubtless have died with him.

Not only do buddhas appear at more or less regular intervals, but the final appearance of any buddha is the culmination of a whole series of previous lives, during which he gradually advances toward enlightenment. Such a belief accords with the whole worldview in which Buddhism had its origin, and it may be supposed fairly that Shakyamuni believed this of himself. In any case, the earliest known Buddhist tradition most certainly presented him as so believing. Popular mythology soon set to work to give some tangible substance to the fundamental myth, and no scholar would doubt that the stories of Shakyamuni's previous lives ( Jataka), included in such profusion in the early canonical texts, are accretions, culled from Indian folk literature in order to exploit an opportunity provided by an aspect of the fundamental myth.

Another example of an aspect of the fundamental myth supplemented by later additions concerns Mara, the Evil One, who represented the force of spiritual evil that Shakyamuni was conscious of having confronted and overcome. Mara is explicitly identified as Concupiscence and as Death, the twin foes of all those who strive toward the tranquil and immortal state of nirvana. At the same time, he is identified with various demons and evil spirits, and the texts usually describe him in these terms. It should be noted that the definitive victory over Mara, on whatever spiritual or popular level this may be understood, remains an inalienable element of the myth. It is just as important as the belief, universally attested in the earliest traditions of all Buddhists, in the omniscience and the miraculous powers of Shakyamuni.

Since Shakyamuni's followers were interested in him as a marvelous being and a transcendent Buddha, such historical reminiscences as may have been preserved in the story are incidental to the recounting of such things as the great acts of his previous lives, his miraculous birth in his last life, the drama of his final Enlightenment while sitting under the pipal tree, his stupendous decision to convert and save others (as symbolized by his first sermon in the Deer Park near Varanasi [Benares]), and his final decease at Kusinara.

2) Shakyamuni in art and archaeology.

The primary Buddhist monument, both in early Buddhism and in Buddhist usage to the present day, is the stupa, originally a reliquary mound or tumulus. The cult of the stupa may be attested archaeologically from the 3rd century BC onward, but the canonical literary tradition of all Buddhist lands links this all-important cult to the great events associated with Shakyamuni's decease. Mythologically the stupa becomes the supreme symbol of the Buddha in his fully realized state beyond the bonds of mortality. Carved stonework preserved from the 2nd century BC onward, especially from the ancient stupas of Bharhut and Sañchi in India, reveals the total identity of the great Buddha myth, as it has been revealed in the texts and the monuments. The scenes portrayed are those not only of the great events of Shakyamuni's last life but also of the great events of his previous births (Jataka).

It is noteworthy that in the earliest period (viz, the centuries BC) the supramundane lord is represented by symbols -- a tree indicating his Enlightenment, a wheel his first preaching, and a miniature stupa his final nirvana. Such was felt to be the sanctity of his being, that, after his birth as Shakyamuni, even before his Enlightenment, he was not physically portrayed. The tree cult itself involved ancient pre-Buddhist traditions that coalesced with the act of the Enlightenment as performed beneath the pipal or bodhi tree. The wheel was both the symbol of the universal monarch (cakravartin) and of the Buddha as universal guide and teacher. The stupa cult, with its extraordinary preoccupation with human relics, may have been a special Buddhist development, related to the clearly expressed faith in nirvana as a supramundane state. It is in marked contrast with the usual Hindu (Brahmanic) horror of mortal remains as unclean.

Shakyamuni began to be figured in sculpture in northwestern India from about the 1st century BC onward, and stereotyped presentations of him soon became the model for future use throughout Asia. Common types of Buddha image are those that represent his calling the earth to witness against Mara by touching it with the fingertips of the right hand, the meditating Buddha protected by a cobra's hood, and the Buddha lying on his right side as he enters final nirvana. The Buddha protected by a cobra's hood represents a coalescing of the Buddha myth with the pre-Buddhist cult of snakes as protecting divinities (the naga cult). This coalescence was justified canonically by a legend that recounts an occasion on which the Buddha was protected from a rainstorm by a great naga king named Mucilinda. (see also Index: Indian sculpture)

Iconographically, the Buddha image was adapted to all of the main scenes of Shakyamuni's life, and while the later stupas in India and Southeast Asia achieve ever greater artistic splendour, they remain fundamentally the symbols of Shakyamuni's transcendence and continue to be decorated by scenes from his previous lives as well as from his last life. Famous examples are Amaravati in South India, dating from about the 3rd century AD (some of its stone carvings are preserved in the British Museum), and Borobudur in Java, 9th century AD. Borobudur is "Mahayanist" or even "Vajrayanist" in its symbolic structure, but it reveals the close association between later developments and the great Buddha myth of Shakyamuni.

Temples and indeed whole monasteries hewn out of the rock were used by Buddhists at least from the 2nd century BC until the 8th century AD and probably later. Early cave monasteries, famous for their temples with internal stupas set in a kind of sanctuary, are Bhaja, Bhedsa, and Karli, all within reach of Bombay; others famous for the development of the iconography of the Buddha figure are Kanheri (near Bombay), Nasik, Ellora, and, especially, Ajanta. At Ajanta are also preserved fine murals dating from the 1st century BC to the 9th century AD. These mainly represent Shakyamuni in his last life and in his previous lives as a compassionate bodhisattva. (see also Index: Ajanta Caves)

The traditions of imagery relating to Shakyamuni thrive to this day chiefly in Sri Lanka and the Southeast Asian countries where Theravada Buddhism prevails, but even in the Mahayana countries of Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea the same iconographic traditions are preserved whenever an image or painting of Shakyamuni is required. Nowhere, thus, are they really lost so long as Buddhism remains.

2. CELESTIAL BUDDHAS AND BODHISATTVAS

 

1) Literary references.

The starting point of all of the later developed Buddhology was the great Buddha myth under one aspect or another. The early idea of a series of buddhas in time, first 7 and later 24, soon allowed for the idea of a future Buddha, the bodhisattva Maitreya. Next was mooted the possibility of buddhas in other buddha lands elsewhere through endless space. Vague popular knowledge in northwestern India of the great Iranian divinity Ahura Mazda seems to have led to the general belief in a Great Buddha of the West, known as "Infinite Light" ( Amitabha) or "Infinite Life" (Amitayus). From its beginnings in northwestern India this cult spread across Central Asia to China, Korea, and Japan, where it still has an enormous influence.

In Indian beliefs this Western Buddha was balanced with the Buddha of the East, the "Imperturbable" (Aksobhya), who iconographically is identical with Shakyamuni in the "earth-witness" posture. The cult of the "Imperturbable" Buddha probably derives from the actual Buddha cult at Bodh Gaya, the historical place of enlightenment. In addition to Amitabha of the West and Aksobhya of the East, there are three others--Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, and Amoghasiddhi--that make up the Five Celestial Buddhas (one for the centre of the universe and one for the other two cardinal directions). Vairocana, the "Illuminator" (centre), is the universal sage or cakravartin buddha, indicated by his gesture of preaching and by the symbol of the wheel. Ratnasambhava, the "Jewel Born" (south), represents the Buddha's selfless giving, indicated by the gesture of giving gifts--right hand open, pointing outward and downward. Amoghasiddhi, "Infallible Success" (north), represents the miraculous power to save, indicated by the hand gesture of giving protection--right hand raised, palm outward and pointing upward. These Five Celestial Buddhas, also sometimes called Dhyani Buddhas, seem--in the early stages of their development--to have been hypostases (concrete manifestations) of various aspects of Shakyamuni.

The cult of Shakyamuni in his previous lives when he was a future buddha ( bodhisattva) likewise developed manifold forms. Maitreya, the buddha-yet-to-come, was already known in the earlier period, but from the 1st century onward there was a great cult of celestial bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas who became especially popular included Mañjughosa ("Gentle Voice") or Mañjushri ("Glorious Gentle One"), the representative of divine wisdom; Avalokiteshvara, the "Lord of Compassion"; and Vajrapani, "the one who wields the ritual thunderbolt (vajra)" and who, as lord of yaksas (a class of local Indian divinities), entered the pantheon as a great protector. In accord with later developments, these three bodhisattvas were associated with particular buddhas. With the development of the set of Five Buddhas, attendant bodhisattvas were allocated symmetrically to each. Such a balanced systematization was, however, a gradual process and can be traced in the main Mahayana sutras.

The Saddharmapundarika ("Lotus of the Good Law"), a text existing before the 2nd century AD, reveals a great theophany (divine manifestation) of Shakyamuni as glorified lord of the universe. The text of the Sukhavati-vyuha recounts the wonders of Amitabha's Western "Land of Bliss" (Sukhavati). The Karunapundarika ("The White Lotus of Compassion") is a text concerned with a Buddha Padmottara of the southeast direction but treats also of other buddhas, especially Amitabha and Shakyamuni, as well as of their previous manifestations as bodhisattvas. An important distinction is made between pure Buddha Lands, like that of Amitabha, and impure Buddha Lands, such as the present world in which Shakyamuni appeared. In some texts Shakyamuni is praised as the more noble because out of his great compassion he chose an impure Land. (see also Index: "Lotus Sutra," )

A new mythology of great importance in East Asian Buddhism developed in association with the pure Buddha Lands. In popular aspiration these replaced for Buddhists the paradises of the ordinary Indian gods, which already formed part of the fivefold or sixfold "wheel of life"--a metaphor for and diagrammatic schematization of the cycle of rebirths. In the case of the pure Buddha Lands, there was the great added advantage of never falling back into unhappy states of existence. (see also Index: Sukhavati)

Faith alone suffices to ensure one's rebirth in Amitabha's Western paradise. This particular Buddhist devotion may have begun in northwestern India, whence it passed to Central Asia and on to China and Japan. It had some following in India and Nepal, whence it passed to Tibet, but Amitabha usually remains in later Indian tradition as merely one important member of the Five Buddha group. (see also Index: Pure Land Buddhism)

The fully developed "Five Buddha" complex found its primary expression in the Tattvasamgraha ("Symposium of Truth of All the Buddhas"), in which Shakyamuni, as Vairocana, appears as the central buddha. Another related text is the Mahavairocana-sutra, important for Japanese Esoteric Buddhism (Shingon). The set of Five Buddhas represents the limits of Mahayana Buddhological developments, preparing the way for the psychophysical theories of the tantras. The set of five was correlated not only with the centre and four compass points, namely, the macrocosm, conceived as a unity of the Five Great Elements, but also with the microcosm of the human personality understood in terms of the Five Components ( skandhas)--rupa (material qualities), vedana (feeling or sensation), samjña (perception), samskara (components of consciousness), and vijñana (consciousness)--and with the Five Great Evils (ignorance, wrath, desire, malignity, and envy), typifying normal phenomenal existence. At this stage mythology and psychological symbolization are inextricably bound together.

With the tantras, Buddhist mythology began at last to part company with the original Buddha myth and clearly linked up with the Hindu mythology in a scarcely disguised form. Aksobhya thus has as his fierce Tantric form what is in effect the fierce form of the Hindu god Shiva; in this form he is known under Buddhist names such as Heruka, Hevajra, or Samvara. He is known in Japan in this fierce form as Fudo ("Imperturbable"). The Indian god Bhairava, a fierce bull-headed divinity, was adopted by Tantric Buddhists as Vajrabhairava. Also known as Yamantaka ("Slayer of Death") and identified as the fierce form of the gentle Mañjushri, he was accorded quasi-buddha rank. (see also Index: Hinduism)

Some bodhisattvas have become the object of very special devotion. Chief of these is Avalokiteshvara, the Lord of Compassion, who as patron saint of Tibet is believed to reincarnate in the Dalai lamas. As Kuan-yin in China, Kannon in Japan, and Kwanseium in Korea, this bodhisattva coalesces with his feminine counterpart, Tara, and becomes a kindly madonna. The bodhisattva Ksitigarbha ("Womb of the Earth"), who was of no great significance in India and hence of none in Nepal and Tibet, attracted a cult as lord of the underworld in Central Asia, whence it spread to China and East Asia generally. Known as Ti-ts'ang in Chinese and Jizo in Japanese, he is Lord of hell and therefore the centre of afterdeath liturgies.

2) Celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas in art and archaeology.

It is mainly from archaeological and artistic remains that scholars have been able to trace the remarkable spread of Mahayana Buddhist mythology throughout the whole of Asia from the 1st century AD onward. The main points of departure were northwestern India for Central Asia and East Asia, and the Bay of Bengal, especially the port of Tamralipti. Early Mahayana developments also affected South India, and thence Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

In India itself, Bihar and Bengal remained Buddhist, largely late Mahayana and Tantric, until the 13th century, and in Java and Sumatra there is ample iconographic evidence of the popularity of the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and fierce quasi-buddha figures mentioned above. There are even traces in Myanmar, Thailand, and Kampuchea of images and paintings of late Mahayana and Tantric divinities. Alone in Southeast Asia, the island of Bali still retains a living but mixed Hindu-Tantric Buddhist culture.

Paintings and figures unearthed during the 20th century in Central Asia (Chinese Turkistan) have revealed the manner in which Buddhist architecture, iconography, and painting passed from northwestern India to China and East Asia. Especially important are the paintings of buddhas and bodhisattvas in the caves of Tun-huang (4th to 10th century AD). Especially popular in China, and hence in Japan and Korea, are Amitabha-Amitayus, Vairocana, Maitreya, Ma{n macron}jushri, Ksitigarbha, and Avalokiteshvara (as the goddess Kuan-yin).

The main repository of Indian Mahayana and Vajrayana iconographic traditions is Tibet, where Buddhism was introduced, mainly via Nepal, from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Until the communist takeover of 1959 the Tibetans preserved Indian (Pala) styles of iconography. They also preserved ancient techniques and styles of Indian Buddhist painting that were modified and enriched in some schools by much later influence from China.

3. RECURRENT MYTHIC THEMES

 

1) Myths of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The buddhas, the celestial bodhisattvas, and the fierce quasi-buddha manifestations recognized by the followers of the tantras all transcend phenomenal existence in their absolute state while readily involving themselves in it for the sake of suffering living creatures. Although this idea was fully developed only by the Mahayana and Esoteric traditions, it has been noted above that the same fundamental conception of a buddha as supramundane, but at the same time operative as world saviour in an immanent sense, belonged to the great Buddha myth constructed around Shakyamuni by the first Buddhist believers. Thus, while a small contemplative elite may always regard any buddha as the impersonal symbol of the ineffable state of enlightenment, most of the faithful have been equally justified in approaching him as a divine saviour. Buddhism has always been a religion of faith, whether of faith in the realizability of final enlightenment or of faith in the buddhas and bodhisattvas as helpers along the way. The Mahayana and certainly the Esoteric schools vastly increased the available means of progress to suit all local tastes and propensities, but the fundamental psychology of an accepted dual approach remains scarcely changed. The direct, immediate approach aims at comparatively rapid results and risks wholesale denials, both bodily and mental. The slow approach, through devotion to buddhas and bodhisattvas as divine beings and through the practice of morality in the everyday world, posits religious realities that some members of the spiritual elite in theory deny. But in practice they readily accept them, for they know that a denial would be just as relative to the desired end as the actual acceptance.

2) Mythic figures in the Three Worlds cosmology.

In the early Buddhist tradition Gotama is represented as denying all importance to the questions of whether or not the universe is infinite and whether or not it is eternal. It was enough to realize that normal existence consists of a process of continual birth, death, and rebirth, a process from which, by following the path the Buddha had discovered, one might procure release. If the early texts are correct, however, such an ordinance did not prevent the Buddha, and certainly did not prevent his followers, from accepting the general cosmological beliefs of the time, modified by conclusions drawn from the Buddha's own moral and religious insights.

The cosmology, as it was systematized by later Buddhists, included three different realms, all of which were within the confines of samsara (the ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) and were regulated more or less strictly by the law of karma, according to which good and pious deeds are rewarded while evil and impious deeds are punished. At the top of this universe is the arupa-dhatu ("realm of formlessness"), which has no material qualities. This realm is inhabited by extremely long-lived brahma deities who are absorbed in the deepest levels of yogic trance. Although the existence of the arupa realm is theoretically important for the cosmological system as a whole, the inhabitant deities (when they are distinguished from other brahma deities) play no active role in Buddhist mythology.

Situated just below the arupa-dhatu is the rupa-dhatu "the realm of form," which has only a remnant of material qualities. This realm is inhabited by brahma deities who are associated with somewhat less exalted levels of yogic attainment than the deities of the arupa-dhatu. Unlike the deities that inhabit the arupa realm, the brahma deities of the rupa-dhatu have a role in Buddhist mythology, particularly in the Buddhist cosmogony through which the lower strata of the cosmological structure are brought back into being after each of the eschatological cataclysms that periodically destroy them. According to one influential version of the primary creation myth, certain brahma deities whose abode is above the destruction begin--as the waters that are left from the old cataclysm start to coagulate below them--to savour the taste of the matter that constitutes these lower strata. As the strata take form, these brahma deities gradually descend into the lower realms and eventually become the first inhabitants of the new earth from whom all the other human inhabitants then descend.

Below the two realms inhabited by brahma deities is the kama-dhatu "the realm of desire." This realm includes a set of six gatis, or destinies, that have played an important role in virtually all Buddhist traditions in Asia. The highest of these six destinies is that of the devata (though both gods and goddesses are included among the devata, the goddesses generally have a secondary role). Within this destiny there are many heavens, each inhabited by many deities. Mythologically the most important are the Tusita Heaven where the future Buddha, Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), awaits the time for his coming to Earth; the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods, which is presided over by Inda (Sanskrit: Indra; a deity sometimes called Sakka [Sanskrit: Shakra], who plays a significant mythological role, especially but not exclusively in the Theravada tradition); and the Heaven of the Four Guardian Kings, who are important protective deities in many Buddhist contexts.

The second of the six gatis is the destiny that is enjoyed and suffered by human beings. It is the locus for a myriad of mythic stories about pious monks, nuns, kings, and other laypersons. The third gati is the destiny of the asuras; it is relatively uninteresting from a mythic point of view, and it is often omitted. The fourth gati is the destiny of the animals. It provides the setting for the description of many fabulous creatures, including nagas, Garuda, lions, and elephants.

The two remaining gatis, those of the pretas (hungry ghosts) and the hell beings, are mythically important in two respects. The descriptions provided of the punishments that are inflicted and suffered in these realms are very vivid indeed. In addition, there are widely distributed and well-known mythic stories of compassionate bodhisattvas and Buddhist saints who make journeys to these gatis to assuage the torment of those who suffer and to secure their release.

In different areas of Asia new gods, goddesses, and demonic figures were incorporated into the cosmology (for example, in Southeast Asia the great Hindu gods Vishnu [Visnu] and Shiva were often depicted as devas). Despite the new mythic contents that were added, however, the structure itself remained remarkably intact.

3) Local gods and demons.

While the contemplative elite may deny the real existence of gods and demons together with the rest of phenomenal existence, the majority of Buddhists from the earliest times in India, and in other countries where Buddhism has spread, have never neglected indigenous religious beliefs. It has already been noted how Mara, the manifestation of spiritual evil, was presented in the earliest literature in the terms of local demonological beliefs. It is also to be noted that the early stupas and entrances to cave temples were decorated with local male and female deities (usually referred to as yaksaand yaksini) who were presumably already conceived as converted defenders of the new faith. This proved the easier way of justifying the continuance of the cult of local deities, and it has been employed in varying degrees in every Buddhist land. There thus began to develop a pantheon of minor deities, which from a common original stock has continued to take in new members wherever Buddhism has become an established religion.

The Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions have given these local deities a more ready welcome, even admitting some of their cults as a subsidiary part of the liturgies in honour of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Such favoured deities include Mahakala, the great black divinity; the mother goddess Hariti; Kuvera, the god of wealth; and especially Hayagriva, a fierce horse-faced god who is powerful in driving off unconverted demonic forces.

Throughout the Mahayana and Vajrayana world local deities have become manifestations of various buddhas and bodhisattvas. Perhaps the locus classicus for this process is Japan, where the identification of buddhas and bodhisattvas with indigenous kami has extended from the elite level (for example, in the identification of the buddha Mahavairocana with the great ancestral Sun goddess, Amaterasu) to temples throughout the country, where a particular buddha or bodhisattva is identified with the kami of the local territory.

In other cases that are equally widespread, local gods and demons have been conquered, converted and brought into the pantheon, or relegated to the periphery (where they may still require propitiation). Perhaps the most interesting example is found in Tibet, where it is commonly believed that Buddhism became established in the 8th century only as the result of the wholesale subjugation of opposing local deities--a subjugation that must, from time to time, be repeated through the performance of rituals marked by their dynamism and ferocity.

Quite as much in Theravada as in Mahayana countries, Buddhism has had to come to terms with local beliefs. In some cases well-organized pantheons have been constructed. For example, in Sri Lanka various local, Hindu, and Buddhist deities hold places within a hierarchy headed by the Buddha himself. In Myanmar the traditional hierarchy of local nats is headed by Thagya Min nat, who is identified with Inda (also known as Sakka). As Inda, he becomes a divine protector of Buddhism, who--in the classical Buddhist cosmology--reigns in the Heaven of the Thirty-Three Gods.

These neatly organized systems, even where they exist, are, however, only a small part of the story. Throughout the various Theravada countries a wide variety of deities and spirits have been incorporated into the Buddhist world as the inhabitants of particular realms within the Buddhist cosmos or as the guardians of various images, stupas, and temples. At the same time, there are others who, like the demons of Tibet, remain only partially encompassed within the Buddhist domain.

4) Female deities.

In many Buddhist traditions female deities and spirits have been relegated to minor and secondary positions in the pantheon. Among the Theravadins, for example, it is rare for female deities to play a major role. In Sri Lanka, however, the goddess Pattini is a major deity.

In the Mahayana tradition several female deities became major figures. For example, Supreme Wisdom (Prajñaparamita) is often personified as the Mother of All Buddhas who is manifest especially in Mahamaya, the virgin mother of Shakyamuni. Tara, the saviouress, is a closely related and much more popular figure who has often been taken to be the female counterpart of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. In China and Japan Avalokiteshvara himself gradually assumed a female form. As Kuan-yin (Japanese: Kannon) he/she became probably the most popular figure in the entire panoply of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

It was, however, in the Vajrayana and Esoteric traditions that female deities became ubiquitous at the highest levels of the pantheon. From the 7th century onward a riot of female divinities began to find their way into certain circles of Buddhist yogis, where they were actually represented by women partners in a special kind of sexual yoga (physical and mental discipline). The process was gradually interpreted as an internal form of celibate yoga, for, in accordance with Vajrayana and Esoteric theory, enlightenment was achieved by the union of Wisdom and Method, now conceived of symbolically as female and male. Thus it became possible to present supreme buddhahood as the union of a male and female pair and then to represent every celestial buddha or quasi-buddha by a pair of male and female forms. The actual sexual ritual was certainly performed at one time in India and Nepal, seemingly to a very limited extent in Tibet, and perhaps not at all in China and Japan. Nonetheless this form of Tantric symbolism, with its plethora of female buddhas and quasi-buddhas, became a powerful symbolism that virtually all Vajrayana and Esoteric Buddhists have simply taken for granted as part of their received tradition. (see also Index: sexual intercourse)

5) Kings and yogis.

The great Buddha myth is a combination of the ideals of universal kingship and universal religious preeminence. This is clearly expressed in the myth of the prophetic utterance of future greatness by the sage Asita--an astrologer who examined auspicious signs on the infant Gotama--over the child bodhisattva. Also in his previous life as Vessantara (Sanskrit: Vishvantara), Gotama had already realized the perfection of the extraordinary combination of kingship and all-abandoning asceticism. As crown prince, Vessantara was famous for his vast generosity, and, to the despair of his more practical-minded father, he accepted banishment to the forest, where he attained the ultimate of self-abnegation by giving away his children and his wife and in some accounts even his own eyes. These and all the rest were restored to him miraculously, and, responding to the demands of his countrymen, he returned home to become the best of kings. Similarly, the last life of Gotama, up to the time of his great renunciation, is told entirely as a royal story.

Although the practice of Buddhist religion strictly required withdrawal from the world, or at least renunciation of its pleasures, Buddhist monks were, understandably enough, anxious to win royal support. They always needed benefactors, and what better benefactor than a king. Any suggestion of royal benefaction thus resulted in the revival of the "myth" of the vastly generous monarch. Whenever Mahayana tendencies have been at work, the notion of the beneficent king as a bodhisattva has been prominent. The most famous example of the mythologized kings is the Indian emperor Ashoka, who facilitated the spread of Buddhism and concerning whom vast legends have grown up. Among other things, he is credited with having built 84,000 stupas. Surrounding countries all claim to have received Buddhism through his mediacy. On a smaller scale legends embellish the life of King Tissa of Sri Lanka (3rd century BC), who presided over the arrival of Buddhism. In the same context one may mention Prince Shotoku of Japan (d. AD 621) and Srong-brtsan-sgam-po of Tibet (d. AD 650), noting, however, that the enthusiasm of the first for Buddhism is genuinely historical. This is also true of Tibet's two other great "kings of religion": Khri-srong-lde-btsan (reigned 755-797) and Ral-pa-can, assassinated by enemies of the faith in AD 838.

The great stupa of Borobudur, mentioned above, deliberately represents the self-identification of the ruling monarch of Java with the aspiration toward buddhahood. The king presents himself as the bodhisattva par excellence. At the other side of the Buddhist world, the Tibetans developed the same idea when they identified their reincarnating Dalai Lama as a manifestation of their patron "saint," the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. By polite mythical fiction the Manchu emperors of China were regarded as manifestations of the bodhisattva Mañjushri. As a result of the more restrained nature of their doctrines, Theravadin countries have provided less support for these interesting developments. There such kings as Dhammaceti of Pegu (d. 1491) or Mindon of Myanmar (d. 1878), and even great religious ascetics, remain transient mortal beings of flesh and blood.

Under the aspect of the pre-Buddhist Indian myth of the ideal perfected yogi, possessed of miraculous powers, however, the greatness of the Buddhist ascetic is a theme well suited to Buddhism everywhere. The early disciples of Shakyamuni, known as arhats when they achieved perfection, were conceived of as miracle-working yogis, and the early canonical literature presents them in this way. This same ideal was acknowledged in Theravadin Sri Lanka, and the Sinhalese claim their share of arhats. But it was in Tibet, which drew on the more developed Indian myth of the "great yogi" ( mahasiddha) of the Tantric period (8th to 12th century AD) that this theme showed its most luxurious development. Especially famous are Padmasambhava (also called Guru Rimpoche), an 8th-century Indian yogi credited with having quelled the evil spirits of Tibet, and the strange figure of Pha-dam-pa Sangs-rgyas (d. 1117), a Brahman of South India who became a Buddhist and visited Tibet and possibly China in the 11th century. Doubtless historical, Pha-dam-pa Sangs-rgyas passed out of history into myth with his fantastic powers and equally fantastic longevity. Better known in Europe is the story of the Tibetan yogi Mi-la-ras-pa (1040-1123).

Early in the history of Chinese Buddhism the same mythical tendencies appeared. Bodhidharma (6th century), the founder of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism, was also an Indian yogi, appearing in quasi-historical, quasi-mythical guise. Subsequently the ideal of the Buddhist sage, as typified by the arhats, coalesced in Chinese thought with the Taoist immortals. In Japan new mythicized stories developed, some associated with the founders of Japanese sects, such as Kukai and Shinran, others with popular holy men who were the Buddhist counterparts of indigenous shamans and ascetics. Through the continued generation of such new myths and stories, Buddhism was able to move from culture to culture, taking root in each one along the way. 

   


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