Samsara: the wheel of becoming

Yama, central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The figure is also known as the Leper King.

Yama, central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The figure is also known as the Leper King.

Yama, god of death and judgement, attended the Buddha at his Enlightenment. He was there because enlightenment means an end to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth over which Yama presides.

Yama is present when every man dies, holding up a mirror to the dying soul. In the mirror the soul sees the Six Realms – the three worlds of men, gods and asuras, from which rebirth into a higher realm is possible, and those of animals, demons and hell-beings (ghosts). Death therefore comes before birth, because death is not the end. The soul is about to undertake a journey to the realms of Yama.

What exactly is the soul? The Buddha’s answer is told in the Vacchagotta Sutta. The sage Vacchagotta asked whether the Buddha held that the immortal soul exists. The Buddha remained silent.  Vacchagotta then asked whether the Buddha held that the soul does not exist. The Buddha still remained silent. Vacchagotta got up and went away. Ananda, the Buddha’s favourite disciple, asked the Buddha why he had not answered Vacchagotta. The Enlightened one replied:

“If I had answered, There is a soul, would that be in accordance with my knowledge that all dammas are without Self?”

“Surely not, Sir.”

“And if I had answered: There is no soul? That would have created greater confusion in the already confused Vacchagotta, for he would have thought: Formerly I had a Self, but now I do not.”

The sage Vacchagotta questions the Buddha on metaphysics.Vacchagotta questions the Buddha about metaphysics: “Do you hold that the universe is eternal or not?  Do you say it is finite or infinite?” To each question the Buddha answers “no.” From Metta Dharma Refuge

Buddhism teaches that the cause of rebirth is vinnana, meaning consciousness, or more precisely still, consciousness of self. So long as this exists, rebirth continues, but consciousness of self is a false consciousness, and a self built upon it is a false self.

A popil, essential to many ceremonies. It's essentially a candle-holder - the cadle is stuck to the broad plate with its own melted wax, and the flame and smoke have both symbolic and magical importance.

Popil, a ceremonial candle-holder essential to many ceremonies – the candle is stuck to the disc with its own wax,

Vinnana is a rarefied notion. Ordinary Cambodians talk about pralung. Pralung is that which animates. It is not uniquely human. Animals have it, as do plants and even certain objects. Pralung is multiple – every individual has nineteen, according to the classic texts. Each night the pralung leave the body and each morning they return, and our dreams are the records of their wanderings. A person who has lost consciousness is said to have lost his pralung, and a folktale tells how some little girls lost in the forest are scared out of their minds “as if they had lost their pralung.”

The pralung seem to be rather simple-minded, even gullible. Evil spirits seduce them into the forest with lying promises of a life of luxury and ease, although in fact the wilderness is a place of great danger. If the pralung listen to the voices and wander off their human owner becomes psychically weakened, prone to bad luck and illness.

Hau pralung ceremony - an achar (specialist in ritual) is reading the hau pralung poem.

Hau pralung ceremony – an achar (specialist in ritual) is reading the hau pralung poem.

There is therefore a ritual for calling the pralung back to the body. It involves the incantation of a poem called the Hau Pralung (“Calling the Souls”), one of the oldest works in Khmer literature and the most widely-performed non-Buddhist work in the Khmer language. The poem itself is the most important ingredient in the ritual, but it also involves various symbolic props which appear over and over in Khmer religious ceremonies: balls of sweet sticky rice, cones made of rolled banana leaves, sticks of black sugarcane, and candles tied to leaf-shaped candle-holders called popil. Some of these, like the rice and sugar cane, are symbols of domestic life, but the popil, which is a modern version of the ancient Shiva-linga, is plainly phallic.

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Tying threads to an infants wrists to keep its pralung in its body.

A full hau pralung is extremely dramatic. It begins by invoking the protection of the Buddha and all the gods and the tevoda in streams and hills, then warns the pralung of the ghosts and evil spirits in the forest. It appeals to them to come home to “silk mattresses and wool carpets, cushions and pillows,” and ends by welcoming them back to the family. “The nineteen pralung have arrived and are entering their home. After three days of calling I am tying strings around your wrists to unite you with your relatives, old and young, grandmothers and grandfathers. May you recover as of today.”

The two photos above are from Reyum, part of an article reviewing a publication on the Hau Pralung.

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Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

Buddha meets God

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Buddha worshiped by the gods

The 31 worlds are stacked like plates in a cupboard. The world we know is fifth from the bottom, the four below are the hell-worlds, and the 26 above are the heavens.

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The Buddhist cosmos: our world is the one where the two cones meet, heavens above, hells below. From Huntington archives.

There is, of course, no God in this cosmos, because it has no beginning and no end, and is not even real, being the product of mind and misapprehension. There are however, gods in the heavens, and one of them is surprisingly like the Christian (Jewish, Muslim) God (Yahweh, Allah). His name is Baka Brahma, (any resemblance to the name of the current President of the US is purely coincidental, I swear), and you can learn about him in the Brahma-nimantanika Sutta, one of the holy texts of Buddhism (look for a copy in your nearest monastery library).

This divine being – his name means “Crane Brahma”, and I have no idea why – is an object lesson in the sad effects of pride. He began as a human, a hermit named Kesava, and through his many good deeds was reborn as a deva (a higher god) in one of the highest heavens. Now the hubris kicks in: his confidence in his goodness led to pride, and thanks to his pride he began to sink downwards through the heavens, from one reincarnation to the next (because reincarnation applies to gods as much as to humans), until he arrived in the middle heavens where he was no more than a common or garden brahma (intermediate-level god).

Buddha+and+Baka+BrahmaBuddha reveals Baka’s previous lives, which he had forgotten – here Baka, as the hermit Kesava, saves some people from an an angry naga. In this life the Buddha had been Kessava’s student. From Amida-ji Retreat Temple Romania (there’s a Buddhist retreat in Romania?)

Gods, as you know, live very long lives, and the Crane God had lived so long that he now forgot that he had ever had any previous lives. He was, in fact, convinced that he was immortal, and had existed from the beginning of the universe. In fact he became convinced that he was the only god (God, Yahweh, Allah) and that he had created the Universe. It’s the sort of mistake any divinity in his position might make.

defeat4The Buddha, who knew better, went to visit this lonely god in his heaven in order to remove his illusions (“I believe in One God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and it’s me…”) The god, who wasn’t a bad sort at heart, welcomed the Buddha and couldn’t help bragging about himself (“I am the One God, etc etc”).  The Buddha informed him that his heaven was only one of many, and he himself  one of many brahma-gods.

Baka couldn’t believe this, and challenged the Buddha to a vanishing contest – each would disappear from the sight of the other, and sure enough, Baka was unable to escape from the sight of the Buddha, while the Buddha easily escaped from Baka. (It’s a little difficult to explain why the Enlightened One and the god chose this peculiar form of contest, but it has to do with the doctrine of Dependent Origination, which means that the apparent reality of the world originates from our ignorance of its non-reality – or at least I think that’s what it means. Baka is ignorant of his limitations, the Buddha has complete knowledge, so the Buddha has access to worlds where Baka does not exist, while Baka is confined to the one world that he thinks he created and rules).

History Of Buddhism

History Of Buddhism

The Buddha disappears from the sight of  Baka Brahma – from Daily Enlightenment.com

This is about as close as Buddhism comes to critiquing the Western concept of a single omnipotent creator-god. That concept is based on a complex of what are ultimately metaphysical positions – the apparent world (world of the senses) is real, and the senses therefore reliable (basic to Western scientific thought); time moves in a line, from past to future (Buddhist and Hindu time moves in cycles, forever returning to the starting point); the world, therefore, has a beginning and that beginning has a cause which exists outside it, which is God. I can’t see many points where Buddhism and Christianity could agree on fundamentals.