Travel Culture

Published on August 1st, 2014 | by Tayla Gentle


8 things about Buddhism you never learned in school

Read time: a bit over 5 minutes

Unless you’re the enlightened type, it’s unlikely that your understanding of Buddhism extends much beyond a vague notion of peacefulness, the ‘om’ sound and those statues of the fat and jolly Chinese guy.

But that’s okay. We’re not judging you. Buddhism, even in its most basic of principles, is a complex beast. There are a crazy variety of traditions, beliefs and practices all based on the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, to which people dedicate years of study.

But then there are the more whacked out tales of animal transfiguration, super strength hair follicles and power of the mind dry-cleaning. So here’s our not-so-definitive guide to Buddhism’s strangest stuff.

Buddha was a spoiled little prince

This is not cultural insensitivity, this is fact. The story of the first enlightened one kicks off in a palace in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, when the super spoiled, super sheltered prince Siddhartha Gautama saw suffering for the first time. In the face of illness, old age and death he said, “Sheeeeit Mum, I gotta renounce this life of luxury, yo. I feel like there is more out there for me to see and learn, ya dig?”*

And so he did. He shooed away his servants (all but one anyway) and hit the road. He had himself experiences, he made friends and he came to a certain understanding of himself and his place in the universe. Basically, this Siddhartha Gautama guy was a real dude.

*Slightly gangster conversation with mother may be fictionalised.

Will the real Zen master please stand up?

Sorry to be the one to tell you this but your whole life is based on a lie. The friendly fella who fronts up your local Chinese takeaway is not Buddha, he’s actually Buddai, a former Zen monk that lived in 900s China.

Apparently, he carried all his possessions in a cloth sack, which is apt considering his name translates to ‘cloth sack’. He is also seen as the incarnation of Maitreya Buddha, meaning he is believed to be the Buddha of the future, which in turn means the future Buddha is going to be a very content, obese man with prayer beads. Cool.

The Buddha gets between a rock and a high place

Golden Rock, one of the most significant religious sites in Burma (Myanmar) and pilgrimage hotspot for devout Buddhists, is, well, just what you expect – a golden rock.

This massive, granite, gold leafed boulder has been precariously perched on the edge of Mt Kyaiktiyo for so long now that it features in Buddhist mythology. Namely, that the boulder’s miracle grip is due to its resting on a lock of the Buddha’s hair. Take that engineering, take that gravity, take that science.

Dalai Lama: the drunken playboy

Tsangyang Gyatso (aka the rebel Dalai Lama) was plucked from his village in India at 15-years-old. This in itself was unheard of as most reincarnated persons are found before they are five. Even more unheard of was Gyatso going on to become Dalai Lama without first becoming a monk.

Instead the young fella would just get around town drinking all the booze, writing all the poetry and winning over the all the ladies. He was even said to be a tantric master. Wink. On a side note, surely “I am the Dalai Lama” is the best pick up line ever.

The Bodhi Tree lives!

So there’s a little town in India (Bodhgaya, for all you fact checkers) where you can sit beneath a direct descendant of the original Bodhi Tree. You can sit in the shade of the Bodhi Tree’s great great great great (etc.) grandblossom, in the same spot Siddhartha attained enlightenment. ENLIGHTENMENT. It’s pretty much the most holy place in the whole Buddhist world (after Sri Lanka’s Temple of the Tooth relic).

As the story goes, Siddhartha had been fasting for years until one day he decided enough was enough. This fasting thing was taking him nowhere fast. So he said “yes, please, and thankyou” to a young woman’s offer of milk and honey (not that kind of milk and honey) and then contentedly sat beneath said Bodhi Tree. He vowed not to move till he had attained enlightenment. As it turns out, enlightenment can be had in approximately 49 days, guys.

Tigress to impress

Bhutan sounds like the most epic of places. Take the tale of Taktsang Palphug (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery for example. There was this dude named Guru Padmasambhava, who is credited for introducing Buddhism to Bhutan. He is also said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks and three hours back in the 8th century. Good times.

According to legend, Guru Pad took a shining to the remote temple location, fancied himself a bit of a mountain getaway and decided to fly there from Tibet on the back of a tigress. Tigress you say? Wait, it gets better. Supposedly, the tigress was actually the former wife of an emperor who left her wealthy life, transformed into an animal and joined Guru Pad in the caves for some serious meditation. YOLO, I guess.

Buddhists don’t buy into the God idea

Interestingly, one of the biggest misconceptions about Buddhism is that all Buddhists view the original Buddha as God. While Buddhists don’t explicitly teach that there is no God, they instead offer that none of us can really ever know if there is a God. And even if there was a higher being, it wouldn’t change human existence and experience on earth.

Buddhists don’t look to a higher power for help, they do not rely on miracles, and there is no promise of a heavenly paradise afterlife. When Buddhists pray to Buddha, they are using his image as a reminder of how to live a life enriched by his teachings, rather than seeking acceptance or forgiveness from a God. He’s pretty much the best kind of role model.

Self-mummification was a thing

Sokushinbutsu – self-mummification – was a pretty elaborate 10-year process (and is not advocated by any Buddhist sect, anywhere). It involved 1,000 days of eating nuts and seeds, heaps of exercise, then another 1,000 days eating only bark and roots. After this, the monk would then begin drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of a local tree which would clear the system and deter any animals from feeding on the body after death.

The monk would then lock himself in a tomb, in lotus position, with an air tube and a bell. He would ring the bell once each day to let those know outside that he was alive. When the bell stopped ringing the tomb would be sealed. After another 1,000 days, the tomb would be opened to see if the mummification was successful. If so, that monk would then be considered a Buddha. Mull that one over.

Get more Buddhism in your face on a Geckos trip around Asia. Whether you hit Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia or any other Buddhism-centric locales, you’ll probably have the time of your life. Might even reach enlightenment, if you make an effort (it requires a lot of effort).


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

A sucker for air fare sales to Asia and a good story, I've eaten my body weight in Philippine chicken, trekked the highlands of Myanmar and practiced with a very legit yogi in India. He could stand on his head for three hours. I once got lost in a rainforest in El Salvador and found myself eating burritos with a corn farmer. To me, travel means bantering with tuk tuk/moto/jeepeney drivers, mosquito bites and coconuts. But never socks and sandals, not when travelling, not ever.

Back to Top ↑