The house was new, so new that the dusty smell of wet cement still hung about it. The front garden was in shambles, many cabook bricks still thrown about. Rounded discs with dabs of left-over dried cement had not been picked up. A board was pulled up to the cement steps, over an oozy spot. We stepped onto the verandah and then into the front hall, curiosity getting the best of us. We’ had to find out the meaning of the “goings-on” of the day before. This was a new house and a Buddhist family would move into it that day.
The day before, a house blessing had taken place in this home. Before a Buddhist will move into a new house a house blessing must take place. A large, white, frilly paper house is erected in the livingroom. Into it are placed bowls of rice and other delicacies. Bowls of rice are also set in the kitchen and other places in the home. The food is an offering to the spirits; it is supposed to placate the spirits. The Buddhist feels that the spirits can do harm or good. When the spirits come into a new house they should be pleased; so the people offer what they can.
Saffron-robed Buddhist priests come to the home to recite Buddhist scriptures; the more they recite the more pleased the spirits will be. The Buddhist feels that much repeating of Buddhist scriptures will drive away the spirits, and it will sanctify the house. The chanting goes on all night. The paper house is erected to invite the good spirits to come into the home. After tile ceremony the food is put into an earthenware jar, sealed with wax, and hung on a rafter for the life of the house Or until it is· destroyed.
All of this has a touch of Animism about it. Classical or pure Buddhism does not really believe in evil spirits. In fact, this belief is contrary to the teachings of Buddhism; but practical Buddhism, which ninety percent of the people, both educated and uneducated, practice, believes in them.
In the afternoon the Buddhist family moved in: father, mother, sister, two brothers, granny, granny’s sister, a nephew, and the small daughter of a favorite niece. Family life would now continue in the new home.
A tremendous amount of emphasis is placed by Buddhists on the family. They always eat together -never on the run. They talk much together. If a member of the family wishes to go out for the evening, and finds himself at the other end of town, he never makes his request by phone, but he first goes home and asks permission to leave again. Home is a place for fun, not a place to leave to have fun elsewhere. If the sister in the home goes out for the evening she is always accompanied by a brother. Care is taken to protect each member of the family.
Here, in America, most every person is an individual, and lives for himself or by himself even though he lives in a family. But to the Buddhist the family comes first. He is careful to live circumspectly that the family may not suffer disgrace. Public opinion looms large in a Buddhist home. In our American homes parental influence is called interference, but in a Buddhist home parental opinion is respected and obeyed.
Temple bells are ringing; the thumping of drums can be heard. The night will descend swiftly like a thick velvet cloak over the lanes and paths to silence the bustling in the shops, the incessant chatter in the market-place, the rasping bark of stray dogs, and the daily, never-ending cawing of the crows. We do not see the members of our Buddhist family for they have gone inside their home to worship.
Every Buddhist home has a family altar. The whole family sits down before the image of Lord Buddha. The image is lighted by a coconut oil lamp and flowers are placed before it as an offering. Although many illiterate Buddhists will pray to the image, this family meditates.
An informed Buddhist does not pray for he does not believe Lord Buddha is a god. He believes only that Buddha is the leader of his religion and as such worthy of great honor. His religion is a principle or a philosophy. His aim is to get rid of desire, for if one can really do so, he is free from sin and will eventually come to the blessed state of Nirvana—the place of “no desire.” It may take many reincarnations, but if a blameless life is led in each successive life lived, there is a possibility of reaching this blessed state. So far few have reached it.
Just how does the Buddhist meditate? Sometimes he almost seems to be quoting one of our Psalms. He lowers his head before the image and thinks: “Ah, the flower on the altar is beautiful, fresh and new; it is good to look upon. It has a sweet odor and it gladdens me. Soon it fades and dies. So man is like the flower; man is like the grass in the fields. He is born but like the flower and grass he fades and dies. So my obligation is to be like a sweet-smelling flower, an individual who does good works and who will not repulse others.”
He then searches his life for things that may have hindered his road to perfection. He thinks of ways and means to overcome these sins and he resolves to do better. At the next period for meditation he goes over what progress he has made and probes deep to find where he has failed. “Did I make progress today? Ah, no, I slipped here a bit and tumbled there, but was a wee bit better about the other.” The Buddhist makes a daily evaluation, and takes time for it.
No denominations and no congregations exist in Buddhism. No records are kept, no membership lists are made. No budget system exists; no offerings are taken to the temple except of flowers or food and clothing for the priests. The priests are beggars and go from home to home with begging bowls and are usually plentifully supplied with food, clothes and money. Some wax fat. Young boys consider it a privilege to sweep the temple and to keep it clean. And the people come. Their rigid home training compels them to worship at the temple; many of them worship there daily. The sick, maimed, blind, and orphaned are taken care of by relatives or friends. Those who have no one to care for them live on the streets. Use is also made of the government sanitariums and hospitals and retreats. A true Buddhist is a person who cares.
Ruled by the Horoscope
The Buddhist lives by the stars. As soon as a child is born a qualified astrologer makes a chart of the child’s life. He does this by reading the stars. He draws a picture of the heavens as they were at the time the child was born. He then performs some sort of hocus-pocus and calculates from this chart when the child is to be married, whether he can marry the one chosen for him (the stars must agree) and so on. To me it looks like a primitive form of Art Linkletter’s Univac on TV, where couples are matched on an automatic electronic machine, which reads the details and then drops out the card that shows which couple is matched. When the child becomes an adult the astrologer decides, by the chart, when he is to open a business or when he is to set out on a journey. Nothing of importance is done without the horoscope. The proper hour is always chosen, even if it is to set up business at four o’clock in the afternoon. Journeys are postponed because of it. Marriages are cancelled at its command. Everything must be done on the auspicious day and on the auspicious hour.
A Baby Is Born
As almost everywhere on this earth, a baby is a source of wonder and joy in a Buddhist home. He is a wanted child and the more there are the merrier. The mother-to-be takes great care to consult the horoscope as to what time she is to enter the hospital. When she goes she always goes northward or eastward to the hospital because that signifies the rising sun. Someone goes before her to be on the look-out for a funeral or for divorced persons, as that would mean bad luck. It must all be pleasant on the way. If something unpleasant comes up a different route is taken.
After the baby is born a naming party is given on an auspicious day. The astrologer, after reading the child’s horoscope, tells the parents that they may choose any name provided the lucky letters he gives are used. After the child is named it is registered with the State.
If the child happens to be a girl another party is given when she comes of age, when she becomes a woman. Only nursing mothers are invited to the party as this symbolizes that the girl will be as fruitful as the nursing mothers. The party is also a token of esteem for the guests. During the party the mothers pronounce a blessing upon the girl, that she may be as fruitful as they are.
While the Buddhists hope for births many Americans prevent births. Many in our land feel they must first have a car, a new home, a few pleasure trips, and sterling silver before they have room for a baby. Not so the Buddhist. Babies come first and they are thoroughly enjoyed and reared with sacrifice.
About to Be Married
It always amazed me that a Buddhist marriage could be happy in spite of the fact that there is no courtship at all, as we know courtship. The marriage, if not always happy, is usually a contented one, due no doubt to the fact that the girl has been prepared to give in and to accept everything as the working of Karma or fate. Seldom does she assert herself. Only in the upper grade of society does one find much unhappiness.
Most marriages are contented ones also because a husband has been chosen with care by the parents. He must be able to support the girl. He must come from a good background with no taint of disorderly conduct in the family. Negotiations are made as to how large a dowry a girl’s parents must give. The bigger the dowry the better chance for a well-to-do husband. Arrangements are made for the couple to meet with the parents, at which time both the girl and the young man are painfully embarrassed. After the meeting the city girl has the right to turn down the young man chosen by her parents, who then proceed to find another. (The village girl never sees her future husband and she is not consulted at all.) If the girl is attracted to the young man their names are registered, and an auspicious wedding date is set, which usually is within two months after the arrangements are made. Quite often the couple is allowed to go out by themselves during these few weeks.
You may wonder why the couple is not given more freedom. The reason is that the Buddhist is deeply concerned about public opinion and does not want anything to happen to the girl before her marriage. A brother in the family will also take care not to disgrace his family for that will make it impossible for his sister to make a good match. If a couple make up their mind to marry outside of the parents’ wishes, the dowry is not given and oftentimes they find it difficult to get along. Poverty is regarded as such a horrible thing in the Orient that hardly ever will a couple put their desire above the wishes of the parents.
Put on your best bib and tucker and come with us to a Buddhist wedding, for it is a gala affair, often lasting for several days. Parents go “all out” to outdo others in the matter of weddings. A house will sometimes be mortgaged, some precious heirloom will be sold, or a large crippling loan will be made in order to give the daughter a big send-off.
The wedding is performed in the home of the bride or in a hotel, depending upon the income of the parents. But no matter where, a huge structure with a platform is built and outlined with electric bulbs or lanterns and gaily decorated. There the ceremony is performed and the guests look on. Even though the registrar is there, an uncle always performs the ceremony.
First a group of girls sing songs extolling the virtues of marriage. Then the uncle charges the couple, as a minister does in a church ceremony in America. After the charge, the uncle takes the right thumbs of the couple and ties them, which is the actual tying of the nuptial knot. An attendant then comes with a basin and a jug of water and the uncle takes the water and pours it on the hands of the couple, the water being caught in the basin.
This is a beautiful symbol and signifies that whereas these two lives were once separate, they are now joined. And they are now so closely one that they are like the water that has gone into the basin. For no one can say what water was poured on which hand after it draws together into the basin. The uncle then takes a cleaver and whacks open a coconut on the steps. This is watched carefully, since the coconut is regarded as a symbol of fertility, and the number of pieces into which the coconut breaks is held to indicate the number of children the couple will have.
The reception is a grand affair, and it offers more delicacies than are ever seen at any wedding in America. The couple is sent off early but the relatives and friends enjoy the festivities throughout the night.
The Sting of Death
Sad day. Our Buddhist neighbors have turned all of their pictures against the wall, for pictures are a sign of gaiety. A nephew has died and he will be buried the same day.
For the Christian death is the gateway to perfection of life eternal, but for Buddhists it means utter despair. They never hope to see each other again. Death to them isn’t the final end of the physical frame but an aspect of change in the cycle of transmigration. It is believed that in death the individual is either re-incarnated in another form, animal, human, or otherwise, depending upon his goodness in life, or he remains in a state of suspended animation to be re-born. To the lower castes at least death is the temporary cessation, if not the termination, of a continuous struggle for existence.
The funeral service is conducted by a priest, the purpose of whose message is to reprove the mourners, not to comfort them. He tells them something like this: “You are suffering because you are selfish and selfishness is contrary to the teaching of Lord Buddha, for Buddha told us to get rid of desire. So you should not desire the dead one back. Crying and weeping shows yom desire. Time will heal.” The body is then buried or cremated, according to the means of the family.
Seven days to three months after the funeral alms are given in the name of the deceased and the poor come for a free meal. This resembles the doctrine of Purgatory. The alms are credited to the one who passed away and the ceremony usually becomes an annual event. A light is also kept burning in the deceased’s room. Life becomes normal in the course of time but the wound goes deep and the scars last long.
Karma or Fate
The Buddhist idea of fate or Karma is that whatever happens comes to you because of what you did wrong in this life or in a previous life. Have you broken a bird’s wing in this life or a previous one? Well, no wonder you get sick. How long a Buddhist remains sick depends on the stars. While he is receiving treatment he does much good, as giving special offerings to the temple or remembering the poor as a sort of payment or neutralizer for that sin. According to the Bible, Job’s friends had a somewhat similar conception of suffering. We remember that they said to Job: “You must have sinned, you didn’t trust God.”
If you tell a Buddhist that you as a Christian do not believe in Karma, he will say to you: “Ah, yes, you do. You believe in Predestination—you think God does it.”
Buddhists are resigned to Karma and try their best to overcome it by good works.
From the home life of a Buddhist we can learn many a lesson. They often put us to shame, but we have also many privileges and joys to which the Buddhist is a stranger. He lacks especially the great joy which we have of knowing that Christ paid for all of our sins and that, come what may, we are in the hands of a loving Father.