Sunday, 17 April 2016

Isis in the Roman tradition

Bronze statue of Isis-Venus, 1st-2nd century CE
When (some) Romans first came to worship Isis in the first century BCE they embraced a religion that was even older than Christianity now is to us, for Isis had been worshipped in Egypt since the mid 2000s BCE. In neighbouring Greece she had been attracting worshippers since the 4th century BCE. Five-hundred years later, during the peak of the Roman empire, she was worshipped from as far west as England to as far east as Afghanistan; Tacitus even claimed she was worshipped as far north as Germania. She must have seemed exotically alluring to Romans in the same way that Indian spirituality captures the imagination of many Westerners today. Beyond the enticing mysteries of the orient the success of Isiacism was at least partly attributable to its ability to meet the needs of the increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan societies of the Roman empire. As a Goddess who subsumed the numerous other Gods of different regions Isis was able to achieve universal appeal – her cult was not restricted to Egyptians, but was embraced by people of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, Isis was revered by the educated elite as well as slaves, and by women as well as (or perhaps even more than) men.

Lucius Apuleius, an intellectual from Roman Numidia, reverently described a vision of the Goddess in his Metamorphoses (more commonly known as The Golden Ass):
“… she had a full head of hair which hung down, gradually curling as it spread loosely and flowed gently over her divine neck. Her lofty head was encircled by a garland interwoven with diverse blossoms, at the centre of which above her brow was a flat disk resembling a mirror, or rather the orb of the moon, which emitted a glittering light. The crown was held in place by coils of rearing snakes on right and left, and it was adorned above with waving ears of corn. She wore a multicoloured dress woven from fine linen, one part of which shone radiantly white, a second glowed yellow with saffron blossom, and a third blazed rosy red. But what riveted my eyes above all else was her jet-black cloak, which gleamed with a dark sheen as it enveloped her … Stars glittered here and there along its woven border and on its flat surface, and in their midst a full moon exhaled fiery flames. Wherever the hem of that magnificent cloak billowed out, a garland composed of every flower and every fruit was inseparably attached to it … In her right hand she carried a bronze rattle … when she shook the rattle vigorously three times with her arm, the rods gave out a shrill sound. From her left hand dangled a boat-shaped vessel, on the handle of which was the figure of a serpent … Her feet, divinely white, were shod of sandals fashioned from the leaves of the palm of victory … She breathed forth the fertile fragrance of Arabia [likely frankincense] as she deigned to address me in words divine: ‘Here I am, Lucius, roused by your prayers. I am the mother of the world of nature, mistress of all the elements, first-born in the realm of time. I am the loftiest of deities, queen of departed spirits, foremost of heavenly dwellers, the single embodiment of all Gods and Goddesses. I order with my nod the luminous heights of heaven, the healthy sea breezes, the sad silences of the infernal dwellers. The whole world worships this single godhead under a variety of shapes and liturgies and titles. In one land the Phrygians, first born of men, hail me as the Pessinnuntian mother of the Gods; elsewhere the native dwellers of Attica call me Cecropian Minerva; in other climes the wave-tossed Cypriots name me Paphian Venus; the Cretan archers, Dictynna Diana; the trilingual Sicilians, Ortygian Proserpina; the Eleusians, the ancients Goddess Ceres; some call me Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, and others still Rhamnusia. But the peoples [of Ethiopia and Egypt] … worship me with the liturgy that is my own, and call me by my true name, which is Queen Isis.  
… set aside your grief, for through my providence your day of salvation is now dawning … Your future life will be blessed … and when you have lived out your life’s span and you journey to the realm of the dead … you will constantly adore me, for I shall be gracious to you. You will dwell in the Elysian fields … [Apuleius, The Golden Ass at 219-222].”

Friday, 1 April 2016

How to be a Bodhisattva

Defining Bodhisattva
Buddha statue from Ghandara (Pakistan), 1st-2nd century CE.
Loosely put, bodhisattvas can be described as Buddhist deities, or if one comes from a Christian background one might understand them to be like saints. Bodhisattvas are particularly important within the Mahayana tradition and practitioners are encouraged to aspire to become bodhisattvas themselves. The history of the bodhisattva concept is described thus:
“The term ‘bodhisattva’ appears first as the title the Buddha used to refer to himself before he realised nirvana. The Jataka Tales, popular scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, extend the concept of bodhisattva to include previous lives of the Buddha before he was born as Siddhattha Gotama [Skt. Siddhartha Gautama] … Already on the path to Buddhahood, the bodhisatta (Skt. Bodhisattva) in these stories exhibits many of the qualities of a Buddha, most notably a selfless desire to serve others regardless of the consequences for himself.   
… Mahayana Buddhism … seized upon the concept of the bodhisattva as one of its most important spiritual ideals. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism are expected to take and repeatedly reiterate the ‘bodhisattva vow’, a promise to dedicate one’s life to the welfare of other beings and to forgo final realisation of nirvana until all beings have been led to release. In essence, the bodhisattva vow replaces nirvana, the supreme goal of Theravada Buddhism, with the supreme goal of Mahayana Buddhism: Buddhahood [Reat, Buddhism: A History at 50-51].”

The Lotus Sutra

"Jizo Bodhisattva" by Christina Hess. Source:
Recently I have become increasingly fascinated with the Lotus Sutra. When I first encountered it, it felt like a revelation. I read book IV, within which there is a parable about a rich man with a poor son. The son believes he is unworthy of prosperity, and so slowly the rich man uses skillful means to ensure the son accepts the wealth that is his birthright; wealth being a metaphor for Buddhahood. I responded powerfully to this story because it reflected where I was and have been for years – an admirer of Buddhism but more or less convinced that I am incapable of taking up this seemingly long, difficult and austere path. The key message of the Lotus Sutra is that enlightenment is within the reach of us all and Buddhist realisation is ultimately not for the few but the many, whether man or woman, renunciate or lay-person, human or non-human. This profoundly validating message lies at the core of the Lotus Sutra.

Historical context
Scholars agree that a significant portion of the Lotus Sutra represents the earliest Mahayana teachings to have been committed to writing. Coincidentally it was also the first Buddhist Sutra to be translated into a European language (in 1852 it was translated from Sanskrit into French by Orientalist Eugene Burnouf). It was originally written in either Sanskrit or, more likely, in Prakit, a related though more humble Indian dialect, perhaps around the time of the birth of Christ, circa 500 years after the lifetime of the Buddha. Although the earliest date we can give the Sutra with any certainty is 255 CE, when the first Chinese translation was made  the original Lotus Sutra has long been lost. The earliest Sanskrit copies we have date from the 5th or 6th centuries, though several Sanskrit copies, some made as recently as the 11th century or possibly later (when Mahayana Buddhism in south Asia entered a period of severe decline, following Muslim persecution and subsequent absorption into Hinduism), have been discovered in Nepal, Gilgit (north Pakistan) and Xinjiang (NW China). Its name in Sanskrit is the Saddharma PundarikaSaddharma means something like doctrine, truth or good law. Pundarika has a wide range of meanings including white lotus flower. Note that during the lifetime of the Buddha India was not a very literate society – instead of recording the Buddha’s teachings in writing the first Buddhists committed his teachings to memory. The Lotus Sutra is said to be what was originally a secret teaching given by the Gautama Buddha at the end of his life. The Sutra is widely accepted as authentic amongst contemporary Mahayana Buddhists (over half of the world’s Buddhists are Mahayana), but is disregarded by Theravada Buddhists, which is unsurprising, given that it is a foundational Mahayana Sutra.

Schools of Buddhism

I have been studying and practicing Buddhism on and off since my teenage years. As a child one of my family members was interested in Vajrayana (Kagyu) Buddhism and so inevitably I was exposed to this form of Buddhism first. Later, when I was in my mid to late 20s I became quite devout for a number of years but found myself most drawn to Theravada Buddhism. Subsequently I developed a renewed interest in Vajrayana Buddhism and explored the Gelugpa and then Nyingma schools within the Vajrayana tradition but stopped a couple of years ago – somehow Vajrayana Buddhism just didn’t seem to be quite working out for me, despite my continuing respect for its teachings. In recent years I have developed an interest in Nichiren Buddhism, a Mahayana lineage from Japan. In an attempt to make sense of these many paths I want to try to summarise the core teachings of Buddhism, as recognised by a number of the most prominent schools, and then look a little at the different practices associated with various lineages. What I am hoping to find is that despite the different styles of Buddhism that have developed in different parts of the world there is nonetheless an identifiably common thread that runs through them all.