In honour of Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday here, I’m reposting an early post I wrote retelling the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment and the significance for featuring the daughters of Mara on my site’s homepage.
The Buddha for our age is Shakyamuni Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama. His mother, Queen Maya gave birth to him without pain in a sacred grove. It is said that as soon as he was born, he took his first steps, and lotus flowers emerged from his footsteps. However although he was born into a great royal family, it was prophesised that he would either be a great king or a great ascetic. Fearing his son would renounce his earthly birthright for a life of meditation and poverty, his father built an enormous palace devoid of age, sickness, poverty, or unhappiness. The young prince grew up completely oblivious to sufferings of the world, and the king even dyed his own hair to shield his son from the march of time.
But unbeknownst to his father, the prince yearned to see outside the palace gates, so he took his charioteer Channa to explore the places beyond his paradise.
What he saw that night became known as the “four gates.” Siddhartha saw a frail elderly man, followed by a sick and emaciated man, followed by a corpse. The sheltered prince was horrified by the suffering he saw, but then his eyes fell on an ascetic.
The contrast of this one night to the life of privilege and materialism he had always lived spurred the prince into action. He relinquished his princely life, left his young wife and son, and vowed to work toward the end of such suffering. He became an extreme ascetic, subsisting on a single grain of rice until it is said he was almost translucent. He devoted himself to renunciation with the same abandon he had lived his royal life of luxury.
But one day he saw a girl by the river. Named Sujata, she offered him a bowl of rice. Realizing he had been living in extremes, the Buddha ate the rice and vowed to find a middle path to enlightenment.
But even the Middle Way was fraught with dangers. During his meditation, he encountered the demon Mara. At first, Mara sent his beautiful daughters to tempt and distract Siddharta.
But after he managed to overcome the women, Mara revealed himself in his full fury. Siddhartha faced his literal and psychological demon full on, and when he vanquished the great demon, he touched this right hand to the Earth to testify to his Enlightenment.
You may wonder why I have chosen to use the daughters of Mara fresco for my blog.
First, the pictures in today’s blog come from one of my favourite temples in Korea called Wawoojongsa (와우정사). Documenting renderings of the life of the Buddha is one of the many traditions we have when we pilgrimage. And it also reminds me of a particularly lovely day trip I took with Mr. Lee.
But beyond these reasons, it is also one of the most interesting renderings of the daughters that I have ever seen. Not only is the woman shown in her tempting beauty, but she is also revealed as the demon she is in the mirror.
When you experience a great change, such as moving to another country or entering a new life stage, I think you learn a lot about yourself. Your neuroses emerge – your prejudices – your flaws. They are all revealed before you when you see yourself from a new perspective. This has been my experience in Korea…and preparing for marriage…and in writing down my thoughts in this blog.
I also think this is the enormous challenge Canada is charged with every time a new community of immigrants lands on her shores. Every time settled Canadians are confronted with new ideas or customs, their self proclaimed notions of multiculturalism are challenged and hidden prejudices are revealed.
Perhaps even more dramatic is the change Korea is going through. From a relatively homogenous nation periodically subjugated to foreign rulers, Koreans are now traveling extensively, marrying outside their culture, and encountering non-Koreans in their daily lives on Korean soil. This constant interaction with ‘the other’ is holding a gigantic mirror to the Korean consciousness, and revealing a great many troubling things.
And like the Buddha for this age, our role is not be overwhelmed by our own or our culture’s inequities. Rather we must observe, examine, and set aside the horrors we see in the mirror in favour of a different reality.
But I am not a Buddhist. I don’t see the end of suffering as relinquishing desire or quenching the thirst which fuels the suffering. I think we hold this mirror up to our flaws, our inequities, our prejudices, our hidden ugliness, in order to recognize, admit, and change those things which bring suffering to others and ultimately ourselves.