Against The Stream ~ THE BIRD OF IRON

MANY BUDDHISTS ARE PROUD of the fact that not a single drop of blood has ever been shed in Buddhism’s name, but they are proud only because they compare Buddhism’s history with the records of other religions, which cannot make similar claims; the history of several world-religions is written in blood. Buddhism never waged war, nor did it ever practice blood-sacrifice of any kind, nor persecute anyone for holding different beliefs. But that is no reason to be proud, for it is only right that blood should not be shed in the name of religion (or for any other reason, for that matter); religion should be used to heal, to improve, to unite others in understanding, not to hurt, destroy, or cause division where no natural division exists.

During its history of over 2,500 years, Buddhism never spread by means of violence or coercion, but by means of Reason; people embraced it from understanding, not be-cause of force. And although Buddhism in Asia is now old, tired, and declining, in the West it is alive and growing, fulfilling ancient prophesies. One such prophesy, made about 1,200 years ago, by Padma Sambhava, the great Indian Buddhist teacher who spread Buddhism throughout Tibet, and whom Tibetans revere as Guru Rimpoche— The Precious Guru— is recorded thus:

When the Bird of Iron flies, and Horses run on Wheels, then the people of Tibet will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth, and the Teachings of the Blessed One will go to the Land of the Red Man.

1,200 years ago, there were no such things as air-planes or automobiles, and America— the Land of the Red Man— was yet to be discovered by Europeans. For centuries, Tibet had been isolated and was known as ‘The Forbidden Land’. But when the Chinese communists took-over Tibet in 1958, many Tibetans, with the Dalai Lama, fled their homeland as refugees, taking with them their culture and religion, and settled in various parts of the world, like India, USA, Europe and Australia. The West gained what the East lost; many Westerners have eagerly received the Buddha’s Teachings from Tibetans since then; the Tibetans have been extremely successful in spreading Buddhism in the West.

But others, too, have carried the Teachings of the Buddha to the West, and a great drama is unfolding here.

Many Westerners now openly declare that they have no religion, but this doesn’t mean that they are irreligious. In many cases, it means that they could no longer accept the dogmas and unreason of religions that require belief in things that have no factual support; many of them are deeply religious in the sense of living by principles that are important to them. If they can hear the Teachings of the Buddha explained in a clear and reasonable way, many will accept and live by them.

If we are to present the Buddha’s Teachings in such a way, we must, therefore, be able to distinguish the Dharma from the customs and traditions that have grown up around it in Asia, for Dharma is not something local or regional, but Universal. The West will never adopt Asian culture wholesale; it has its own culture and superstitions to deal with. Dharma should be propagated in the West in suitable and acceptable ways, shorn of Asian superstitions and cultural accretions as far as possible. Western forms of Buddhism will develop as time passes; we need the Essence— the Dharma— to inform and invigorate them.

All religions have elements of the miraculous, and Buddhism is no exception; there are stories from the life of the Buddha that are simply incredible. According to the legends, when the baby Siddhartha was born, he raised one hand towards the sky and pointed the other towards the earth, saying: "In the heavens above and in the earth below, I see no-one who is my equal. This is my last birth; I shall cross the Ocean of Existence". He is also supposed to have taken seven steps, and from each footprint a lotus-flower sprang up.

Some people still believe these things really happened, but it is highly unlikely they did. Of course, we cannot prove they didn’t, any more than we can prove they did, but it is more likely they were added to the account later— by people with more faith than wisdom— to glorify the Buddha, to ‘gild the lily’, as it were. As it stands, the statement attributed to the baby prince: "I see no-one who is my equal", seems rather egoistic for someone who would later proclaim a life of humility, simplicity and self-effacement— even supposing that he was able to speak as soon as he was born! However, in Buddhism, such things are not regarded as important, and Buddhism neither stands nor falls because of them; it is based upon a much-firmer foundation than legends of miracles that cannot now be verified.

Buddhism has two parts: the part of the past— with accounts of things that cannot be tested or proved by personal experience, and some of which is very doubtful, like the myth above— and the part of the present, the Here-and-Now. This is the Dharma that people can test for them-selves and get the results therefrom, just as the Buddha said we should: "Test my Teachings as a goldsmith tests gold". These Teachings do not require belief, but are to be "comprehended by the wise, each for himself".

We often hear people telling of how ‘God’ saved them from danger or sickness, etc. But what about all those not saved? If ‘God’ did save someone, it must follow, as the inverse of the claim, that ‘He/It’ must also have neglected to save the others. The believers conveniently disregard this aspect of it.

Many Buddhists think of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas as ‘saviors’, but this is just weak-mindedness. The Buddha has nothing whatsoever to do with our living and dying; that is entirely our own affair, and we should not try to implicate Him! And if we knew what He taught, we would understand this.

In the Dhammapada, verses 11 and 12 of the first chapter, the Buddha says:

In the unessential they see the essential;
In the essential, they see the unessential.
They who entertain such wrong thoughts
Never realize the essence.
What is essential they regard as essential;
What is unessential they regard as such.
They who entertain such right thoughts
Do realize the essence.
The Essence is more important than the Name and Form.


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