Follow by Email

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Smithsonian Class IV: Buddhism and Bodh Gaya

Is a Buddhist an atheist?

A student in the fourth of the Smithsonian Associates’ series of classes, “Sacred Spaces and Spiritual Journeys,” wanted to know.

The lecturer, Robert DeCaroli, an associate professor of history and art history at George Mason University said “no”; however, some might term Buddhism an agnostic faith. The religion does not honor a single deity.

Wikipedia says estimates vary about the number of people calling themselves Buddhists: between 230 and 500 million.

Buddha was born a prince in what is generally accepted as Nepal in and around the fifth century BC. He was named Siddhartha, and his father, a king, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps but as life seldom goes according to the parent’s plan, the son chose otherwise, Dr. DeCaroli said.

His father created an idyllic compound for his son’s living quarters, wanting to shield him from life’s turmoils. Before Siddhartha was 30, a chariot driver took him outside the compound where, in the “real world" Siddhartha experienced the “Four Sights” which affected him deeply, giving rise to Buddhism.

He witnessed an old man suffering the culprits of aging; he saw disease and death, and he saw how a hermit lived. Siddhartha lived a hermit’s life for a while, realizing that his deprivations (hunger, suffering) made such heavy demands upon his body that he was not able to concentrate and bring about improvement.
He believed that life is suffering (anxiety, unrest, uncertainty) produced by desire which, if broken, can mean happiness.

To help overcome anxiety he adopted meditation and, at the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya in India, now a shrine, he received “enlightenment.”

It is almost certain that a portion of the tree with its roots remains in the tree which lives on the site today. The tree attracts Buddhists from around the world who come to the site and the nearby Mahabodhi Temple on pilgrimages.

The Temple is believed to have been built around the first century, and was rebuilt In the 1870s by Sir Alexander Cunningham, a British architect. A tree does not exist in photographs of the Cunningham period, Professor DeCaroli said.

Several Buddhist temples and monasteries built in style of the original Mahabodhi Temple may be found throughout Asia, many containing the famous Buddha statue.

Throughout his presentation Professor DeCaroli showed numerous pictures of the temple, the Buddha statue, and maps generating many questions from students. He said Bodh Gaya is “an international place.”

The series ended on July 16 with “Christianity: Holy Pilgrimages.”

No comments: