“…because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent [Obama] wins, for a variety of reasons,” [Rev. Arnold] Conrad said.
The quotation above is from a recent political rally in Minnesota by a Christian priest. Politics aside, this notion of “praying to Buddha” is a charge I’ve seen leveled at Buddhists before, and always in a negative context. Back when I lived in Seattle, I had a masochistic desire to watch the local fundamentalist TV channel, and I remember seeing at a particular rally, a pastor there also said something to the effect that “Buddha can’t save you, no mantra can save you”, etc. etc.
The problem here lies in the misunderstanding about the Buddha and who he was, and how we Buddhists relate to him. Critics argue that we pray to Buddha as a form of idol worship. Meanwhile, modern, Western Buddhists try to downplay the Buddha’s role as nothing more than a person and a teacher.
I think the best approach to understanding the Buddha was to look at his life and the teachings he embodied. In the Pali Canon* there are stories about the Buddha’s life. Sometimes, he’s telling other people about his own life, and how he came to the truth. In other examples though, we can see some of the great deeds he committed:
- He confronted the murderer Angulimala, alone, and convinced him to give up his ways. He then protected Angulimala from punishment, and in time Angulimala became Enlightened as well.
- He ventured out alone and stopped a war between two rival armies over access to a river.
- He saved a woman who was mentally ill over the loss of her son, and helped her reach balance in her life. She became one of his first nuns, and reached Enlightenment as well.
- He never took the generosity of the laity for granted, and many of the monastic rules (the Vinaya) were intended to intrude upon lay people as little as possible.
- He lived an exemplary, moral life and never gave anyone cause for slander.
- He never harmed anyone, verbally or physically, in his time as the Buddha.
- He was patient, and taught those who sought knowledge, and carefully corrected those who had misunderstood. The stubborn and confused both came around and attained awakening.
- He saw the value of all beings, likening them to “lotus flowers”, some who were near to bloom, others who had a ways to go.
And so on. People then often wonder why in Asian cultures some pray to the Buddha for things like winning the lottery or curing disease. There’s two ways to look at this. First, not all followers of an organized religion are mature followers. One can quickly point out the Christian followers who pray to angels for good luck (which has no part in the Bible), or pray to be wealthy, even though Jesus exhorted his followers to give up what they had and walk with him.
One should never judge a religion by its weakest or worst followers because all beings come to religion imperfect. Only some choose to make the hard choices that ultimately lead to spiritual growth.
Speaking from experience, I do know people in Asia who are definitely spiritually mature, so there’s a silent majority in Asian Buddhism who do a lot more than just pray for good lottery numbers. One could say the same thing in the US among Christians, or other religions elsewhere. If an organized religion reaches a certain size, you’ll see a wide spectrum between the spiritually mature, and those who are not.
Second, in Mahayana Buddhism in particular is the notion of upaya or expedient means which is a term first coined in the Lotus Sutra. Upaya is a doctrine whereby the Buddha and Bodhisattvas use various means to lead people who aren’t yet spiritually mature along the path, even when they’re not really aware of it. So, in this context, if a person in Asia does pray for lottery numbers, this is not necessarily discouraged either, because it helps build up a relationship between that person and the figure they pray to. In time, that relationship may move beyond mundane prayers to something deeper. Since we don’t walk in that person’s shoes, we can’t really judge how they’ll turn out say 10 or 20 years later.
So, no, the Buddha is not a god,** but I like to think he’s more than a mere teacher or philosopher. He embodied very deep and profound truths, not just with his words and doctrine, but also with his life and his efforts to help all beings. Buddhism is praxis, doing stuff, first and foremost. Not empty philosophizing.***
In later Buddhism, you see the emphasis shift away from the historical Buddha to the eternal Buddha, or Dharmakaya, but this concept is also an embodiment of the teachings and life of the man who lived 2,500 years ago, without getting hung up on the historical details.
So when one prays to the Buddha this is a gesture of gratitude for pointing the way to the Truth, but also a praise of the exemplary life he lived, and that we too can live that life. It is also a reminder that the truth, though obscure and difficult, can be brought to light nevertheless.
P.S. People who don’t understand Buddhism have a funny habit of always calling the Buddha just “Buddha”, as if its his name. That’s like calling the President just “President” or the Pope just “Pope”. The term “Buddha” is a title, not a name.
* – Or the Mahayana equivalent, the Sarvastivadin Canon or Agamas.
** – Buddhism does import the Hindu gods, or devas but they play a minor role at best as foolish, though well-meaning, protectors of Buddhism. Some even end up as gods in Japanese Shinto religion, though their names have changed quite a bit over time. I was quite surprised when I found out that the Hindu goddess, Saraswati, became a “luck goddess” in Shinto, not Buddhism, named Benzaiten.
*** – Something Buddhists still have a funny habit of doing. ;p