First of all I have to apologize for not actively posting over the past few weeks. All I can say is sometimes life gets in the way. If from time to time you do not see anything new I urge you to read some of my past postings. Often the concepts that they contain will build on each other so it is really best to read from the past to the present.
When early Christian missionaries came to Japan and saw Buddhist monks kneeling in front of a Buddha image with their hands clasped together they thought they were praying to the Buddha as they would to God. They weren’t entirely incorrect in their assumptions. What they didn’t know is that in India there is the custom of Anjali (Gassho in Japanese) where when two people meet they both press their hands together as a sign of respect and a greeting. This is much more akin to the military salute than religious reverence. Since Christians put their hands together in similar fashion when they prayed to God they just naturally assumed that the Buddha must be a God as well. So is the Buddha a God?
If you are relatively new to Buddhism that question may be much more difficult to answer than it first appears. The historical Buddha was clearly a man and neither he nor his original followers thought of him as divine. He was the Buddha, the enlighten one. While this was highly revered and considered an incredibly difficult achievement he had not become a God in the eye of his early followers. They obviously thought that it wasn’t god like because they sought to obtain the same state of enlightenment themselves. Christ was a Jew and he redefined the Jewish faith on his own terms into what his followers later called Christianity. The Buddha likewise was a Hindu and he redefined the Hindu teachings into what his followers called Buddhism. Of course they added teachings that were specifically their own as well. Hinduism was Polytheistic and therefore had many gods and spiritual beings but lacked a single all powerful creator god as in the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. So it follows that in Buddhism there is a belief in spiritual and even god like beings they are very different than our western sense of God. In Mahayana Buddhism we have a whole pantheon of spiritual beings but again not a single all powerful one.
I believe that over time, just like in other faiths, corruptions and misunderstandings have crept into the Buddha Dharma. I know this sounds like an arrogant claim but in general I believe that it can be shown to be true. I have lived in Asia for a very long time and I see examples of this all around. As Buddhism spread across Asia it generally mixed with each of the cultures it came into contact with. At the same time all of these cultures had local religions that just did not disappear because Buddhism arrived. For the most part I believe that this is where most of the corruptions originated. The other thing is that a large portion of the population of these countries and cultures that adopted Buddhism were rural and therefore not generally highly educated. I do not mean this in any disparaging way but the vast majority of people during the time that Buddhism was spreading across Asia were farmers who spent long days working in the fields and by the very nature of their situation were not afforded higher education. The only reason this matters is that these very same people were highly superstitious and did not give up all the practices of their local religions. Instead they blended them with this new religion called Buddhism.
In Burma they believe in what are Nats. These are water and tree spirits but also they are spirits of actual humans that have lived in the past. These spirits are prayed to by people for good luck or good fortune. In Thailand they have little spirit houses somewhere near their homes. They idea is that you provide a home for the spirits of dead people that may have passed in your home. You have the monks come and perform a ceremony to move any spirits that may be living in your home to the spirit house. These things are wonderful examples of the cultures in these countries and I am not disparaging them in any way. But my question is, that in these countries where 90% of the population are Theravadin Buddhist, are these practices actually Buddhist? Since these practices are not practiced in other Buddhist countries and are not mentioned specifically in the sutras then these are likely carry overs from the local religions of these regions. Also since Anatta is a core Buddhist teaching in all Buddhist faiths it goes completely against the idea of these practices. If there is no abiding individual self then who or what is the spirit of the dead person?
I am just using these two examples (there are a multitude more) to point out that just because a practice is part and parcel of a particular cultures Buddhist practice does not mean that they are specifically Buddhist. Obviously this presents a problem for those new to Buddhism, especially those that are learning on their own. If you begin to study a particular form of Buddhism from one culture you would likely automatically assume that all the practices that that culture adheres to are teachings that the Buddha taught. This is one of the many things that people new to Buddhist practice find difficult. Why are the many differences in the Buddhist trappings and practices from one form of Buddhism to another? Which ones are right? Why did I say that the early Christian missionaries “weren’t entirely incorrect in their assumptions” about Buddhist praying to the Buddha? Because sometimes they are.
Many Buddhist around the world do pray to the Buddha for intervention in all sorts of things that affect their daily life. If the Buddha is not a God then who are they actually praying to? In Japanese Buddhism they have something called Jiriki, which is obtaining salvation by your own power, and Tariki which is obtaining your salvation by an external power. That word salvation is a very loaded word. We will take a closer look at, salvation in a Buddhist sense, and these two terms and a possible third explanation in part two.