Tag Archives: folklore

Buddhism and women

Again, excerpts from Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield, this time about women. I found these excerpts to be especially intriguing, and wonder how they match-up to our female and feminist readers, who I assume are of mostly Western cultural descent.

Soma and Mara

Once the nun Soma, having returned from her alms round and after her meal, entered the woods for a noonday rest. Plunging into the depths of the woods, she sat down under a tree.

Then the tempter Mara, desirous of arousing fear, wavering, and dread in Soma, and wishing to cause her to interrupt her concentrated meditation, went up to her and said, “The goal is hard to reach, hard even for sages; it cannot be won by a woman with whatever wisdom she may have.”

Then Soma thought, “Who is this, a human or a non-human, who is saying this? Surely it is the evil Mara who wants to interrupt my concentrated meditation.” Knowing that it was Mara, she said to him, “What does one’s gender matter to one whose mind is well-composed, in whom insight is functioning, and who comprehends the Dharma?”

Then the evil Mara thought, “The nun Soma knows me.” Being sad and sorrowful, he vanished there and then.

adapted from the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by C. A. F. Rhys-Davids

And this one, which is more esoteric, but just as interesting (and a beautiful poem):

Songs of the Nuns

Free woman,
be free
as the moon is freed
from the eclipse of the sun.

With a free mind,
in no debt,
enjoy what has been given to you.

Get rid of tendency
to judge yourself
above, below, or
equal to others.
A nun who has self-possession
and integrity
will find the peace that nourishes
and never causes surfeit.

Be filled with all good things
like the moon on the fifteenth day.
Completely, perfectly full
of wisdom
tear open
the massive dark.

I, a nun, trained and self-composed,
established mindfulness
and entered peace like an arrow.
The elements of body and mind grew still,
happiness came.

Everywhere clinging to pleasure is destroyed,
the great dark is torn apart,
and Death, you too are destroyed.

from the Therigatha, translated by Susan Murcott

Lastly, there is this story, which involves gender identity, but one that puzzles me as well (comments about this one would be much appreciated!):

Sariputra and the Goddess

Thereupon, a certain goddess who lived in that house, having heard this teaching of the Dharma of the great heroic bhodisattvas, and being delighted, pleased, and overjoyed, manifested herself in a material body and showered the great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas, and the great disciples with heavenly flowers. When the flowers fell on the bodies of the bodhisattvas, they fell off on the floor, but when they fell on the bodies of the great disciples, they stuck to them and did not fall. The great disciples shook the flowers and even tried to use their magical powers, but still the flowers would not shake off. Then the goddess said to the venerable Sariputra, “Reverend Sariputra, why do you shake these flowers?”

Sariputra replied, “Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons and so we are trying to shake them off.”

The goddess said, “Do not say that, reverend Sariputra. Why? These flowers are proper indeed! Why? Such flowers have neither constructual thought nor discrimination. But the elder Sariputra has both constructual thought and discrimination.

“Reverend Sariputra, impropriety for one who has renounced the world for the discipline of the rightly taught Dharma consists of constructual thought and discrimination, yet the elders are full of such thoughts. One who is without such thoughts is always proper.

“Reverend Sariputra, see how these flowers do not stick to the bodies of these great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas! This is because they have eliminated constructual thoughts and discriminations.

“For example, evil spirits have power over fearful men but cannot disturb the fearless. Likewise, those intimidated by fear of the world are in the power of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, which do not disturb those who are free from fear of the passions inherent in the constructive world. Thus, these flowers stick to the bodies of those who have not eliminated their instincts for the passions and do not stick to the bodies of those who have eliminated their instincts. Therefore, the flowers do not stick to the bodies of the bodhisattvas, who have abandoned all instincts.”

Sariputra asked: Goddess, what prevents you from transforming out of your female state?

The goddess replied: Although I have sought my “female state” for these twelve years, I have not found it. Reverend Sariputra, if a magician were to incarnate a woman by magic, would you ask her, “What prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?”

Sariputra: No! Such a woman would not really exist, so what would there be to transform?

Goddess: Just so, reverend Sariputra, all things do not really exist. Now, would you think, “What prevents one whose nature is that of a magical incarnation from transforming herself out of her female state?” Thereupon the goddess employed her magical power to cause the elder Sariputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. Then the goddess, transformed into Sariputra, said to Sariputra, transformed into a goddess, “Reverend Sariputra, what prevents you from transforming ourself out of your female state?”

And Sariputra, transformed into the goddess, replied, “I no longer appear in the form of a male! My body has changed into the body of a woman! I do not know what to transform!”

The goddess continued, “If the elder could again change out of the female state, then all women could also change out of their female states. All women appear in the form of women in just the same way as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male of female.’ ”

Then, the goddess released her magical power and each returned to his ordinary form. She then asid to him, “Reverend Sariputra, what have you done with your female form?”

Sariputra: I neither made it nor did I change it.

Goddess: Just so, all things are neither made nor changed, and that they are not made and not changed, that is the teaching of the Buddha.

from The Vimalakirti Sutra, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman

To me, it appears the basic idea is that gender itself is a mental construct that is ultimately false. This will be problematic within a Mormon context, but does this ideal of extreme “gender colorblindness” have merit, or is it itself a dead-end road to travel?

Actually, the Buddha would chide me for framing the question in that way, but what can I do? I, myself, am a product of Western constructual thinking.



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Same name, new flavor

So, I’ve been reading Teachings of the Buddha, which is a collection of Buddhist stories and teachings edited by Jack Kornfield, the director of the Spirit Rock Centre in Woodacre, California. I came across two teachings with titles that should sound very familiar to Christians, but with completely different (and interesting) messages.

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Gotami was her family name, but because she was tired easily, she was called Kisa Gotami, or Frail Gotami. She was reborn at Savatthi in a poverty-stricken house. When she grew up, she married, going to the house of her husband’s family to live. There, because she was the daughter of a poverty-stricken house, they treated her with contempt. After a time she gave birth to a son. Then they accorded her respect.

But when that boy of hers was old enough to play and run hither and about, he died. Sorrow sprang up within her. Thought she: Since the birth of my son, I, who was once denied honor and respect in this very house, have received respect. These folk may even seek to cast my son away. Taking her son on her hip, she went about from one house door to another, saying: “Give me medicine for my son!”

Whenever people encountered her, they said: “Where did you ever meet with medicine for the dead?” So saying, they clapped their hands and laughed in derision. She had not the slightest idea what they meant.

Now a certain wise man saw her and thought: This woman must have been driven out of her mind by sorrow for her son. But medicine for her, no one else is likely to know — the Sage of the Ten Forces alone is likely to know. Said he: “Woman, as for medicine for your son — there is no one else who knows — the Sage of the Ten Forces, the foremost individual in the world of men and the worlds of the gods, resides at a neighboring monastery. Go to him and ask.”

The man speaks the truth, thought she. Taking her son on her hip, she took her stand in the outer circle of the congregation around the seated Buddha and asked: “O Exalted One, give me medicine for my son!”

The Teacher, seeing that she was ripe for understanding, said: “You did well, Gotami, in coming hither for medicine. Go enter the city, make the rounds of the entire city, beginning at the beginning, and in whatever house no one has ever died, from that house fetch tiny grains of mustard seed.”

“Very well, reverend sir,” said she. Delighted in her heart, she entered within the city, and at the very first house said: “”The Sage of the Ten Forces bid me fetch tiny grains of mustard seed for medicine for my son. Give me tiny grains of mustard seed.”

“Alas! Gotami,” said they, and brought and gave to her.

“This particular seed I cannot take. In this house someone has died!”

“What say you, Gotami! Here it is impossible to count the dead!”

“Well then, enough! I’ll not take it. The Sage of the Ten Forces did not tell me to take mustard seed from a house where anyone has ever died.”

In this same way she went to the second house, and to the third and forth. Finally, she understood. In the entire city this must be the way! The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have seen! Overcome with emotion, she went outside of the city, carried her son to the burning-ground, and holding him in her arms, said: “Dear little son, I thought that you alone had been overtaken by this thing which men call death. But you are not the only one death has overtaken. This is a law common to all mankind.” So saying, she cast her son away in the burning-ground. Then she uttered the following stanza:

No village law, no law of market town,
No law of a single house is this —
Of all the world and all the world of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.

This next one also has a very familiar-sounding title to Christians, and even has a familiar beginning premise; however, the moral is not so familar:

The Woman at the Well

Ananda, the attendant to the Buddha, having been sent by the Lord on a mission, passed by a well near a village, and seeing Pakati, a young outcast woman, asked her for water to drink.

Pakati said, “O monk, I am too humbly born to give you water to drink. Do not ask any service of me lest your holiness be contaminated, for I am of low caste.”

And Ananda replied, “I ask not for caste but for water,” and the woman’s heart leaped joyfully and she gave Ananda water to drink.

Ananda thanked her and went away; but she followed him at a distance.

Having heard that Ananda was a disciple of the Buddha, the woman went to the Blessed One and said, “O Lord, help me and let me live in the place where your disciple Ananda dwells, so that I may see him and minister unto him, for I love Ananda.”

And the Blessed one understood the emotions of her heart and he said, “Pakati, your heart is full of love, but you do not understand your own sentiments. It is not Ananda that you love, but his kindness. Accept, then, the kindness you have seen him practice toward you and practice it toward others.

“Pakati, though you are born low caste, you will be a model for noblemen and noblewomen. Swerve not from the path of justice and righteousness and you will outshine the royal glory of queens and kings.”

That last one is dense with multiple nuggets of wisdom embedded in it.

So, what do you guys think?

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Not Mixing Up Buddhism

I found this story in Teachings of the Buddha, and I do not get it. If you get it, or have an interpretation thereof, please write in the comments:

Not mixing Up Buddhism

Once a monk on pilgrimage met a woman living in a hut. The monk asked, “Do you have any disciples?”

The woman said, “Yes.”

The monk said, “Where are they?”

She said, “The mountains, rivers, and earth, the plants and trees, are all my disciples.”

The monk said, “Are you a nun?”

She said, “What do you see me as?”

He said, “A layperson.”

The woman in the hut said, “You can’t be a monk!”

The monk said, “You shouldn’t mix up Buddhism.”

She said, “I’m not mixing up Buddhism this way?”

The monk said, “Aren’t you mixing up Buddhism this way?”

She said, “You’re a man, I’m a woman — where has there ever been any mixup?”


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The blurring lines between fact and folklore

So, lately I’ve been working on a blog with a friend of mine where we chase down and document Mormon folklore. Usually, when people get past the idea that we are saying “These stories are true” and merely “We heard this story,” they also enjoy it, both those in and outside of the Church.

Lately I have been contemplating what exactly constitutes folklore and what constitutes doctrine. For example, I wrote about how some people say that similarities in the shape of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers’ junction and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers’ junction show that the Garden of Eden may have been in Jackson County and then Noah relocated to the Middle East during the Flood. This got me interested in the whole concept of the American Garden of Eden and especially Adam-ondi-Ahman.

Adam-ondi-Ahman is one of those things where it’s established as pretty solid doctrine in our Church — sort of. We have a hymn about it, which is about as solid as you can get when it comes to “Is it official doctrine?” A lot of the information we can piece together from journals and sermons from Joseph Smith, but when it comes to the Church saying, “This is the official definition of Adam-ondi-Ahman,” we don’t really find many contemporary sources, if any. So what is it? Is it doctrine or is it folklore?

The more I look into Mormon folklore, the more I begin to believe there might not be much of a difference. Our Mormon doctrines and Mormon narrative intertwine with each other until they are inseparable. Joseph Smith’s vision of his older brother Alvin’s eventual fate in the next life has greatly influenced our understandings of agency and the Atonement. And our unique eschatological timeline (such as Adam-ondi-Ahman) relies heavily on a patchwork of sermons and statements pieced together like an incomplete puzzle.

Storytelling is an integral part of our Mormon theology. Stories such as the famous “milk and strippings” story concerning Thomas B. Marsh and his wife (and their eventual apostasy) or the transfiguration of Brigham Young may not actually be factual, but we tell and re-tell it as a warning against personal ego interfering with the greater good of the community or to show God’s approval of prophetic succession. The Book of Mormon, which we purport as the complete gospel of Jesus Christ, comes to us not in the form of a bullet-point presentation or a treatise on Christian theology; it comes in the form of stories. And as we interpret and re-interpret those stories, so goes our doctrine.

So what do you guys think? Adam-ondi-Ahman — is it folklore? Or is it doctrine? Is it even possible to separate Adam-ondi-Ahman folklore from Adam-ondi-Ahman doctrine?

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Mormon Folklore Project

So, I dunno if anyone who reads this blog didn’t know already, but my friend David and I have started a website called The Mormon Folklore Project, collecting Mormon folklore stories of all kinds and sizes. You guys should totally check it out or something. It’s pretty awesome. And you should submit a story or two or three. You’ll be blessed for it, I’m sure. 🙂

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Literalistic imagery

Most people know the story of Prometheus. He took pity on mankind and so he stole fire from the gods and used it to teach man, especially in technology and the sciences. For this, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock where his liver was picked apart by birds everyday. Because Prometheus was immortal, he suffered immense pain, but could never die. And thusly he suffered until a Greek hero named Heracles rescued him.

Prometheus also becomes a time-traveling robot who helps save the world and eventually sacrifices his life in a vain attempt to stop Fate from taking over humanity's destiny.

Prometheus also becomes a time-traveling robot who helps save the world and eventually sacrifices his life in a vain attempt to stop Fate from taking over humanity's destiny.

Prometheus plays a proto-type trickster figure, representing both the good and bad of humanity. He became a symbol of technology and progress, willing to defy the very gods in order to improve the lives and lots of common humans everywhere. There are symbols and imagery within this myth, rich and glorious, which convey important lessons and warnings to future generations.

There’s much in the Prometheus story for the modern-day reader to swallow in order for it to be true. For one thing, Prometheus was a titan, and we’re pretty sure titans don’t exist. Also, supposedly, the gods lived on Olympus, but we’ve had people hike up the mountain and have not found any pantheons yet. There’s not a lot of scientific evidence for it, even though we know many people back then believed this story to be factual. We try not to fault our ancestors too much for believing such an outlandish story, but if someone said they truly believe the Prometheus story to be absolutely factual, we would laugh. Still, despite the fact that this myth is not true, we can still derive much from it. The fact that this story is fiction does not take away from its timelessness or lessons taught.

So how come when somebody tells us that Noah’s global flood is probably not factual, that the Abraham sacrificing Issac story makes no sense within the Abrahamic narrative and could just be made up, or that Job might not have been a real person or Jonah probably didn’t actually spend three days in the belly of a whale, we as members of the Church become defensive about it? Like Prometheus, a lack of factual evidence certainly doesn’t detract from the morals of the story – such a parameter for usefulness would have rendered Aesop’s famous fables completely void.

When my wife tells me that she doesn’t believe the Garden of Eden is a factual situation but is instead an allegorical representation of every human’s experience being cut off from God’s presence, why does it bother me? I know that the fact that it might have never happened doesn’t take away from the spiritual significance of the story; it certainly doesn’t bother my wife. In fact, I’ve had spiritual experiences which tell me that such an interpretation is not only fine, but commendable. So why does it nag at the corners of my prideful, foolish heart?

"Guys, you should totally think about maybe wearing some clothes sometime - oh, never mind. I'll tell you about it when you're older."

"Guys, you should totally think about wearing clothes sometime - oh, never mind. I'll tell you about it when you're older."


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The hand pointing at the moon is not the moon

In the tradition of Christ’s Socratic dialogue, I present to you a story while asking, “What think ye?” This gem of a story comes from Zen in 10 Simple Lessons by Anthony Man-Tu Lee and David Weiss:

Dan Xia taking shelter in a Buddhist temple on a cold evening found himself with little fuel for his meager fire and took down one of the Buddha images from the altar and added it to the embers. The temple custodian was appalled by his sacrilege and chastized Dan Xia for his irreverence. Dan Xia calmly took up a stick and began scratching about the embers, and replied: “I am looking for holy relics among the ashes.”

The puzzled and still furious custodian asked: “How can you get holy relics from a wooden Buddha?”

“If there are no relics to be found,” replied Dan Xia, “how can this be considered a Buddha, and if not a Buddha, how am I committing any sacrilegious act. Would you mind if I added the two remaining Buddhas to my fire?”

When I found this story I literally laughed out loud. When my wife heard me, she asked me what was so funny so I read this story to her and it upset her greatly. She took the side of the temple custodian, whereas I like way of Dan Xia’s thinking. So, my dear readers, what think ye?


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