I was able to start asking my first round of questions on Buddhism yesterday when a conversation with the festival sponsor and former monk of 19 years, Ngawang Dorje, turned into a veritable lesson on the basics of Buddhist philosophy. He’s the first one I’ve met who speaks English well enough to explain any of it. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Everyone is trapped in samsara, cycling through birth and rebirth in this world of suffering. There are six realms in samsara, represented by the universal mantra Om Ma Ni Ped Me Hum. Humanity is a being’s highest attainment in samsara because only humans are capable of saving themselves from this cycle by entering nirvana through enlightenment – achieved only through Buddhist practice and mediation. However humans are vulnerable to four major sufferings: hunger, sickness, dying, and death. Below humans, in the second realm, are gods, who may not attain enlightenment and who do not suffer until death. However their death is a great suffering. Ngawang Dorje describes these gods feeling and smelling their bodies rotting and they are given no comfort from other gods they may have called friends – the gods’ relationships are very shallow and based on looks. The third realm is that of the semi-gods. Their major suffering is that they are constantly fighting with the gods but, as demi-gods, they can’t compete on the same ground. Despite some inevitable sufferings, these first three realms are considered relatively favorable.
The fourth realm of samsara contains all animals. They suffer because they cannot speak, and because they eat each other. In the fifth realm are insects. The exact description of their suffering is not clear to me yet, although I think is has to do with being considered undesirable and everyone else killing them all the time. Finally, the sixth realm is called the realm of pechri – “hungry ghosts.” They suffer greatly because though they have large bodies, their necks are no bigger than a single strand of hair and thus they may never eat or drink.
Outside of samsara there exists a heaven, in which reside many Buddhas, “thousands of Buddhas,” as Ngawang Dorje explains, and other enlightened beings. There are also some enlightened gods (however I haven’t been able to ask yet how they got there, if gods in samsara cannot attain enlightenment directly from the god-realm). Tibetan Buddhists pray not only to the Buddhas and enlightened gods, but to some unenlightened gods which reside in samsara, as well. One of my questions, then, was why – if human beings are higher than samsara gods – would we pray to them? The answer provided is that, though they reside in a lower realm, they are still able to help us and to protect us. Ngawang Dorje explains that there are both personal deities, “I can have my own deities; you can have your own deities,” and also general, widely recognized deities.
These universal deities are the ones recognized and honored in festivals like this one, Dumzi, during which several days are spent preparing thorma – intricately painted and decorated sculpture representations of the gods made from barley, rye, millet, corn, or rice flour mixed with giu (butter) and tato pani (hot water). Some of the thorma are beautiful, and some are rather grotesque. For example, a guided tour last night of the day’s production revealed that the armless, vaguely human-shaped thorma with a stick protruding upward and diagonally out of their side and topped with a red globule are actually representative of the gods’ hearts extracted and apparently speared. The white and light-colored grain thorma are peaceful gods, while those painted red are wrathful gods. Some are white with red hearts atop their stick. I concluded that these are otherwise peaceful gods with wrathful hearts. The dark-colored thorma which the little monks fashioned into something resembling a starfish or man in flight with all limbs spread are actually the hungry ghosts.
Additionally, I’ve learned that there are two types of meditation: First is bipashana, which is a non-religious meditation and “will keep you happy all the time,” says Ngawang Dorje. I question him on this because he just finished saying there’s no real happiness in this life for anyone. He confirms that even the happiness coming from bipashana is, in the end, not a lasting or true happiness because after all there is no real happiness in samsara. There is also Buddhist meditation, which includes the contemplation of the Lord Buddha’s teachings.
A key point of Buddhism is the acquisition of karma: Good, compassionate acts earn the believer good karma, and mean-spirited acts are either a debit to one’s bank account of good karma, or they pile up as bad karma in a separate account only to come back to haunt you later. I think of the idea of karma as a faith-injected version of the English saying “What goes around, comes around.” Accumulating good karma is important for Buddhists because it helps ensure that when they die they’ll be reborn as a human again – hopefully into even better circumstances than the current – and not as an insect, or worse.
All of this information takes a while to process. After having lived in the monastery for a month already, this explains so much. A 30 minute discussion has illuminated more of the Buddhist faith for me than a 12-week world religion course I took in college.
While I simply listen and don’t give voice to any of my reactions during our conversation, I draw some conclusions. Underlying the theory of karma and rebirth is an inherent assumption that we’ve come into this life on earth having earned it. I see that a belief in karma as an eternal record of one’s actions helps keep order in Sherpa society and motivates people to do good while dissuading them from bad, but if one’s good works are the only thing that count when it comes to reaching heaven, then there is little room for mistakes. If I were a non-committed agnostic, looking for a religion to follow, Buddhism wouldn’t be my first choice. No true happiness in this life? Everything depends on my good works? I prefer the Christian god who freely gives grace, eternal life, and real happiness. I’ve learned a lot about the Buddhist way of life during my time here, and I’ve come to understand that there are two types of adherents: on one hand the devout believer who embraces all of Buddhist tradition with it’s fantastic stories of deities and demons, on the other hand the conscientious practicer of Buddhist philosophy who attempts to approach everything in moderation, who practices nonviolence, generosity and compassion. There are lessons I have learned here which I will certainly take with me as I move on from Pema Choling, but my faith in my own God has not diminished and as far as I am a student of Buddhist philosophy, I fall into the latter of those two aforementioned categories.