The fourth Buddha

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PMThis is the opening section of my book Spirit Worlds, which, Buddha willing, will be out in October. Look for it in Monument, Cambodia’s bookstore of choice. (It will also be available in Thailand and India, even Australia, but where I know not; it will not be available on Kindle, because the publisher says he doesn’t trust these newfangled inventions).

So: it opens, as you see, with a review of the story of the Buddha. And what could be more fitting, seeing as everyone knows Cambodia is a Buddhist country.

Except it’s not. It’s a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism, which is what makes it so fascinating. You can never be bored in Cambodia. That mix is what I’m trying to explain, or at least illustrate: I want everyone to share my fascination. Anyway, on with the Buddha…



The Buddha becomes a Christian: Saint Josaphat, a charming medieval German illustration from the Getty Center in California. The blog whence this comes has some interesting links, including to the patron saint of hangovers – those medieval monks thought of everything. Click on the image.

According to Buddhist belief there have been many Buddhas (“enlightened beings”) in the immensely long history of the world, and the world itself has gone through an immense number of cycles in which it is created, destroyed, and re-created.

Siddhartha Gautama was the fourth Buddha of the current cycle. His life was practically identical to those of the previous three: divine birth into a princely family, a sheltered upbringing followed by renunciation of the world, the search for enlightenment and its attainment, the teaching ministry, death, and attainment of Nirvana. The life of the fifth will be practically identical again.

There are curious similarities between the life of the Buddha and the life of Jesus as described in the gospels, including an Annunciation, an Immaculate Conception and a Temptation. Scholars believe these are largely coincidental, although it’s a fact that in the first millennium the Buddha’s story made its way from India to medieval Europe, where he became Saint Josaphat  (from Bodhisattva, ‘Seeker of Enlightenment’) with his feast day on 27 November.

(See here for the legend of Josaphat and Balaam in the rather archaic English of the Golden Legend, and here for a review of a book called “In Search of the Christian Buddha”).


The Buddhist cosmos: the right-hand panel shows heavens above (gold), mountain of the gods in the middle (blue), world-continent surrounded by four islands, one of which is Jambudvipa, the Island of the Jambu Tree, the only land where humans live. Below are the hells (red). The left panel shows a top view, looking down on the top of the mountain of the gods, with the four continents in the surrounding ocean – Jambudvipa is the blue one, the sun and moon and stars circle round Sumeru, and the cosmos-filling ocean surrounds all. The blog whence this comes has many additional versions of the basic map – click on the image.

A Bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, a heavenly being who has the power to take human form and teach others the way to salvation. The Bodhisattva who became Siddhartha dwelt in the ‘heaven of the delighted gods’, where a single day is four hundred earthly years and a lifespan is four thousand heavenly years. When the time his birth on Earth arrived the gods of all the heavens gathered before him ‘with hands joined in adoration’ and asked him to be born so that living beings could learn the path to wisdom and enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva identified Jambudvipa as the best continent for his birth, Bharat as the best of lands, and Kapilavastu, city of the Sakyas, as the best of cities. He then searched with the all-seeing gaze of a Buddha for a woman who was chaste and modest and of the highest moral standards, one who through a hundred thousand reincarnations had accumulated merit and fulfilled the Ten Perfections. Such a woman he found in Maya, wife of Suddhodana, king of Kapilavstu.


Queen Maya’s dream of a white elephant – the ultimate origin of the Southeast Asian cult of keeping royal white elephants. Click for the source.

Queen Maya dreamed that the guardian-gods of the four quarters of the universe transported her to the sacred Lake Anotatta on the summit of Mount Meru, whose waters contain the elixir of immortality and will be the last to dry up on the last day of the world. There the heavenly guardians bathed her and led her to a canopied bed strewn with flowers, and the Bodhisattva entered her womb in the form of a white elephant with six tusks. At the moment of the divine conception the ten thousand worlds quaked, the blind saw, the dumb spoke, the lame were made straight, and showers of blossoms fell and lutes and harps gave forth music without the touch of human fingers.

Queen Maya awoke and called for her husband, who sent for his Brahmin priests. The Brahmins, when they heard the dream, said: “Be happy, O king, O queen, for a divine being has chosen to be your son. If he lives a life in the world he will become a World Ruler; but if he chooses to renounce the world, he will become a Buddha.”

The pregnancy of the Buddha’s mother lasted exactly ten lunar months. When the time for the birth approached she set out for the home of her parents with an escort of companions and servants, and as they passed the Lumbini Garden the queen commanded that her litter be set down so that she could enjoy the flowers and shady trees.


Queen Maya gives birth to the Buddha in the Lumbini Garden, attended by servants and gods. The infant immediately takes seven steps, signifying his dominion over the cosmos, and at each step a lotus springs up. Wat Ketanak, Rossmore (a Sydney suburb).

In the sweet-scented paths she reached up to touch the blossoms of a sal tree, beloved of the god Vishnu, which bent its branch down to her hand. On the full-moon day of the month of Vesak, standing upright and grasping the branch of the sal tree, she gave birth. The gods Indra and Brahma took the child from her side and the infant stood and took seven paces, a lotus springing up at each step. Looking about the entire universe he proclaimed:

Chief am I in the world,

Eldest am I in the world,

Foremost am I in the world,

This is the final birth,

There is no more coming to be.

Angkor_Guide_Sarak_Buddha b

Birth, enlightenment and nirvana – the three landmarks of the Buddha’s career. The walls of Cambodian monasteries and shrines are encyclopedias of the life of the Buddha.

The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, which is also the anniversary of his Enlightenment, death and Nirvana, is called Visak Bochea in Khmer, and is celebrated on the full-moon day of the sixth lunar month, which falls sometimes in April and sometimes in May. Visak Bochea is a time for gaining merit. The day begins with a pre-dawn assembly at the local monastery at which religious flags are raised and hymns chanted in praise of the Buddha, his teaching and the institution of the monkhood. Monks give sermons reminding the faithful of the way to salvation, Buddha images are washed and offerings of flowers and candles made, alms are given to the beggars at the gates, and birds and fish are released. Particularly important and impressive celebrations are held at the former royal city of Oudong, north of Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh itself the Royal Palace and the shrines on the Riverside by the Mekong are illuminated, and at Angkor there is a particularly impressive son-et-lumiere show.


Visak Bochea at Angkor – Telegraph, AFP/Getty.

The Cosmic Mountain


 01Mount Meru surrounded by heavens and hells

Meru stood at the centre of the world, square, vast, and so high that the sun and moon and stars circled round it. In the gardens and palaces on its summit lived the gods, including Indra their king, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, together with the divine apsara dancers and gandharvas musicians and the innumerable devada handmaidens, nagas, garudas, and many others. Spread out below Meru was Jambudvipa, the world-continent, home of humans, which they shared with animals, and also with spirits and ghosts and demons, and beneath Jambudvipa were the many worlds of hell, and surrounding it was the boundless cosmic ocean.

About a thousand years ago, in the land of the Khmers on the continent of Jambudvipa, a king built a temple in the shape of the universe.

As a visitor to Angkor Wat you start at a moat, representing the cosmic ocean. Crossing a causeway lined with naga-serpents, you pass through a colonnaded boundary wall representing the circling mountain ranges of Jambudvipa and enter the outermost sacred area. When Angor Wat was first built it would not have been permitted for ordinary people to go further than this. Nor would they have wanted to: their gods were family and village spirits, the ancestors who protected them from ghosts and demons. But they would know that at the top of the temple there was a chamber, that this chamber was visited by the god Vishnu, and that important rituals took place there involving the kings and priests.

Time passed, Buddhist monasteries and monks replaced Hindu gods and Brahman priests, and the spirits, the gods and the Buddha became the faith of the modern Khmer people.

Buddhism introduced only a few changes the Brahmanic cosmology. Extra heavens were added above Meru, divided into three realms of Desire, Form, and Formlessness. Beings in the Realm of Desire are governed by the senses and are therefore subject to illusion, even the gods on Meru, who take pleasure in music and dance and sweet scents. The beings of the higher heavens of form and formlessness above Meru are not subject to the senses but are still the victims of illusion. They live for immensely long periods, but even they eventually die and are reborn.

The Roots of Buddhism

 Buddha04.0Buddha in meditation

 Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a man, not a god. He lived in the foothills of the Himalayas some two and a half thousand years ago, and through inquiry and meditation he came to understand the nature of things. For this reason he is called the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and because he came from the tribe of the Sakyas he is called Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakyas.

The Buddha’s teaching was a reaction to Hinduism, the religion of India at his time. The historical Siddhartha would not have been aware that he lived in India. India in his time was called Bharat; our modern name comes from the word Sindhu, meaning simply “the river,” the modern Indus River in Pakistan.

In ancient times the Persians, close neighbours to the Indians, changed Sindhu to Hindush, and the Greeks adopted this as Indos (for the river) and India (the land). The Romans inherited the name from the Greeks, and Europe inherited it from the Romans. The Arabs called the country, its people and its religion al-Hind, and 19th century European scholars, wishing to discuss the religions of India, invented the term Hinduism.

In Buddha’s time religion was dharma. Dharma was not then, and is not now, a single belief. It encompasses the role and teachings of the Brahmans, the insights of philosophers, the visions of hermits and ascetics, the spirits of nature and the ancestors  worshiped by the villagers, and much else. There was no such concept as Hinduism until scholars tried to draw all this together. For this reason modern scholars talk about Brahmanical religion, a term that includes “Hinduism”, (the inverted commas are because of the difficulty of defining the term), cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which come close to being religions in their own right, Jainism, and many other traditions of which Buddhism is only one.

Three Gems, Four Truths, and the Eightfold Path

 buddha1Buddha teaching

Buddhism begins with the Three Gems:

  • Buddha: The aim of human life is enlightenment, as was reached and taught by the historic Buddha;
  • Dharma: Enlightenment can be attained through understanding dharma, the law of cause and effect that propels the world forward; and
  • Sangha: Dharma can be learned through the sangha, the monkhood.

Having grasped the Three Gems, the student moves on to the Four Noble Truths:

  • Human life is dukkha;
  • The cause of dukkha is craving;
  • There is a way to end dukkha;
  • That way lies through the Noble Eightfold Path.

Dukkha is often translated as suffering. It does refer to the ordinary sufferings of life, but dukkha is also latent in pleasure, because pleasure is transitory. So long as we crave pleasure, we suffer. It is therefore desirable to end craving through the Eightfold Path, whose eight steps, grouped into three categories of wisdom, virtue and awareness, are:

  • Right understanding (wisdom)
  • Right intention (wisdom)
  • Right speech (virtue)
  • Right action (virtue)
  • Right livelihood (virtue)
  • Right effort (concentration)
  • Right mindfulness (awareness)
  • Right concentration (awareness)

Wisdom is found in the Pali scriptures, which must be studied under a teacher, and meditation is also best done under the direction of a teacher. Both are best followed within the monkhood, but virtue is open to all. The essence of virtue is set out in the Ten Precepts.

The Way of Virtue

Monks-in-front-of-the-Royal-PalaceMonks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Ten Precepts are divided into three groups, of which the first, the Five Precepts and their converse the Five Virtues, form the basic moral code for every Buddhist. The Precepts are formulated as undertakings (“I undertake to…”):

  1. Refrain from destroying living creatures;
  2. Refrain from taking that which is not given;
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct;
  4. Refrain from incorrect speech;
  5. Refrain from intoxication;

Like the Ten Commandments, the Five Precepts are easy to grasp but difficult to follow. The First Precept forbids the taking of life – not just human life, but any life at all. Yet fish is the national dish, chicken runs a close second, and every villager keeps cows. How are the facts of life to be reconciled with religion? Sin lies in the act of killing, and to eat meat is not itself against religion. City people buy their fish and chicken in the market, which exempts them from guilt; villagers, closer to the realities of life, will say if asked that the fish that swims into the net has not been killed by the fisherman, that the little boys who wring the necks of chickens are too young to be held morally accountable, and that pigs and cows are slaughtered by non-Buddhists such as Chinese and Cham Muslims Despite the casuistry, there is widespread respect for life and for the welfare of animals.

The second and fourth precepts prohibit stealing and lying, and this raises major problems in a country where teachers expect daily “tea money” from even the youngest pupils and firemen will not begin to put out fires until they’ve been paid. This is endured but not approved. A young food vendor who was interviewed in the course of a study into Cambodian social values said that a good man is one who neither lies nor cheats and takes only good and legal employment, but that there were not many good men in Cambodia.

Precepts three and five prohibiting sexual misconduct and alcohol are widely broken, but as with the second and fourth there is a general recognition that this is not good behaviour.

Corresponding to the five precepts (undertakings to avoid) are five virtues (undertakings to practice). These are:

  1. Practice compassion towards living creatures;
  2. Practice patience in right means of livelihood;
  3. Practice contentment in married life;
  4. Practice truthfulness in speech;
  5. Practice watchfulness (intoxication prevents the mind from being watchful).

The Five Precepts plus the following three are mandatory for monks and are followed voluntarily by many religiously-minded lay people, making a list of the Eight Precepts:

  1. To refrain from eating between midday and morning;
  2. To refrain from dancing, music, singing, and other such pursuits;
  3. To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and beds. (The last can be interpreted as the avoidance of luxury in general).

Monks observe two additional precepts, making up the Ten Precepts:

  1. To refrain from the use of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and other things used to beautify and adorn the person;
  2. To avoid handling money.

Karma & Reincarnation

 _DSF4124Coffin at Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh

In the opening verses of the Book of Job we find the upright Job blessed with sons and daughters, possessing sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and servants, “the greatest man among all the people of the East.” His friends take his blessings as the outward sign that God has rewarded him because he is a righteous man. God puts Job’s righteousness to the test, killing his sons and daughters, robbing him of his wealth, and afflicting him with loathsome diseases, and his friends now advise him to look into his heart and discover what evil he has committed that has caused God to replace blessings with suffering. The assumption, in short, is that good fortune is the divine reward for good deeds, while suffering is the outward sign of inner corruption.

The concept of karma is similar, up to a point. Karma means the way actions determine outcomes – good deeds lead to happiness, bad deeds to suffering. Where karma differs from the Old Testament is in the absence of God or gods – karma is as impersonal as the law of gravity.

Reincarnation is the idea that there exists a kernel of individual existence – a “soul” – that survives death and is reborn. When this concept is linked to the workings of karma, it becomes clear, or at least plausible, that the good and bad deeds of this life will have their rewards and punishments in the next.

Enlightenment and Nirvana

Nirvana-BuddhaDeath and Nirvana of the Buddha

The Buddha taught that the conscious mind forms an an impression of its existence as a unique self, but this is based on a misapprehension. This misapprehension is the cause of craving, and thereby of the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth. This cycle, called samsara, is what the Buddha’s teaching promises to end.

Even the gods are not immortal, although their lives are immensely long, millions and millions of years, but they too are subject to the workings of karma and rebirth. The ultimate goal is not to be reborn as a god, but to move beyond rebirth and the three realms and reach the state of nirvana.

In Pali nirvana is called nibbana. The word means “blowing out”, as in extinguishing a candle, and fire imagery is frequently used when the scriptures describe nibbana. The fires to be extinguished are those of attachment, lust, and ignorance. We are attached to the things of this world through our senses; because we are attached to them we lust after them, wanting those things we don’t have, fearing to lose the things we possess; being ignorant of the means of escape we remain attached, and the world continues to be dukkha.

Dukkha is the result of attachment to things which are not-self, attachment arises from the illusion that self and not-self are separate. Dukkha can be overcome by understanding the nature of the illusion.

Every act, good or bad, will sow a seed in the mind, and this seed will bring its appropriate crop. Most karma will keep the individual bound to the wheel of rebirth, but some will accumulate merit and lead to nibbana. The monk, and indeed the religiously awakened layperson, will therefore strive to accumulate merit.