Thursday, 4 June 2015

instant karma or everything zen

I was really kind of baffled to learn that the Laughing Buddha, a traditional fixture of Asian take-away, is in fact not the sage Gautama Buddha or an avatar thereof—like thin Elvis versus fat Elvis, but a completely different character called Bùdài.
This friendly monk represents contentment and enlightenment as well but his following developed at a time when Buddhism was taking root in a unified, ancient China and the two were conflated. I suppose the distinction is always just out of grasp for someone not intimately familiar with Eastern thought, but maybe the Buddha is the Bùdài as the Dionysian force is to Dionysis (Bacchus, the god of wine). The Buddhism that was taking root across China was also a significant departure in terms of practise from the original foundations. Thanks are owed to the bureaucratic harmonisations underlying the teachings of Confucius and his disciples, that instilled a sense of place and hierarchy that in some senses enabled disparate kingdoms and people to come under one mantle, but the revival of Buddhist thought needed some adjustments to fit to the present and enduring societal framework. As paralleled by the independent stance that monastic Ireland took towards a centralised Church authority in Rome, Buddhism as first envisioned was also meant to be a retiring one—cloistered from the illusionary, impermanent world-at-large. It surprised me even more to learn that the concept of Zen (Chàn), with a somewhat divergent but very well attested history and scholarship, was incorporated into Chinese outlook in order that each could mediate in his or her own manner and discover Buddha’s teachings—know that enlightenment is attainable in the everyday—without cossetting oneself in an abbey.  While I am not sure it was exactly planned by the state (nor less authentic for it) to promote civility, there are certainly practical reasons behind it as well, since a coherent community could not very well have all its eligible men skivving off their responsibilities to hearth and home by becoming monks.  There is a delicate balance, I think, between not selfishness but rather self-interestedness, that is concern for one’s salvation in private, and the civic-mindedness of seeking the same while a part of the society around one.