Queen Mahamaya had a dream one night, a phoenix bowed to her and then entered her. The queen work up and with the king Suddhodana, consulted the sages of the day.
Many told the royal parents of a great child to be descended from them, he would either be a great warrior or a great king, they said. His parents were delighted, a great child would be born to them! They thanked the sages and sent them back with gifts. As they walked out, a holy man walked in, “you’re majesty, my warmest congratulations on this great joy… you have born a great person to us…”
“Of course, my son will be a great warrior, I just named him Siddartha (warrior)…”
“No my lord, he will not be a warrior.”
The king looked at him, “what are you talking about…”
“This young prince will be a great religious leader, leading the world to enlightment.”
“You mean a monk! What a preposterous suggestion! That must not be. My son must be greater than that, he will not be some Hindu priest, he will be a warrior and a king…”
“And you my queen, you have brought a great blessing to our world, you will soon be brought to your reward in heaven”
“Are you saying I’m going to die,” a shocked queen looked back in response.
“Men! Take this fool away!”
The queen was to pass away six days later.
Having seen one part of the sages prophecy come true, King Suddhodana was desperate to make sure the other would not come true. In desperation he asked wise men how to prevent his son from becoming a leader. They responded by telling the king to make sure the prince avoided seeing suffering, aging, birth and death. If he did not see the stages of life, he would not contemplate these and would fall into the path of a religious leader. Hearing this, the king resolved to give his son every pleasure in the world, he was exposed to all the luxuries available to men. It seemed to be working. The young boy was growing into a successful young man, living a wonderful life, expert in all the art forms of a prince and knowledgeable in the means of governance.
But something was weird with Siddhartha, he was always finding time to explore and contemplate. Sick of the gilded cage from which he lived, Prince Siddhartha decided to go on a tour of the country, and that was where he witnessed the four stages of life.
Despite the kings best efforts the prince was still able to witness the sadness of human existence, which woke him from his secular and earthly slumber sending him on a six year search for wisdom. The young prince was shocked from his trip out into a deep state of confusion, what was life for? If we all are born and then waste away and suffer is there any true meaning in life? Why is there such injustice in life? Why not just end this life of pain and suffering? But can pleasure be the answer, can pleasure have meaning without suffering?
The confusion brought him into a deep state of contemplation. He was tempted many times and in many ways but finally found enlightenment under a Bodhi Tree and came to preach the Middle Path.
The Middle path is a way of living that both moves away from the extremes of complete sensual indulgence as well as severe ascetism – to stop wanting, to not see the possessions of this world as our being. This was expressed by the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is full of suffering
- Suffering comes from desiring or wanting
- Suffering stops when desiring or wanting stops
- To stop these desires and wants we need to follow the Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a series of eight practices in our lives which we need to practice everyday, that will eventually lead us to ultimate liberation from the state of samsara and endless suffering.
The teachings of Buddha emerged from Hinduism like a torch. The Buddha rejected Hinduism believing the way the priests was wrong. There was no god, we were our own gods (or buddhas) and we did not have to take lifetimes to reach Moksha but were able to contemplate our selves. Perhaps most practically, Buddhism rejected the caste system – people were the same, there was no caste system. It spread throughout the Asian world, finding its way through the Indian Subcontinent, to East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia (as far as Afghanistan) and practiced today by over 350 million people. Perhaps unsurprisngly, since a prophet is never believed in his hometown, Buddhism never took root in India to the same level as it did everywhere else.
Considering that Buddha lived 500 years before Christ*, there was even wild speculation that Jesus spent his missing years in India learning from the wise men at the Nalanda University.
The Buddha preached for thenremainder of his life, and people came from near and far to seek his wisdom. Close to his final days, the Buddha predicted that there would come a time when the world would forget the dharma. He prophesied that a successor would arrive to guide the world in the right direction, a Buddha that would teach the concept of loving kindness, this buddha would be called the Maitreya. According to these holy scriptures on Buddha Maitreya’s appearance people, “Will lose their doubts, and the torrents of their cravings will be cut off: free from all misery they will manage to cross the ocean of becoming; and, as a result of Maitreya’s teachings, they will lead a holy life. No longer will they regard anything as their own, they will have no possession, no gold or silver, no home, no relatives! But they will lead the holy life of oneness under Maitreya’s guidance. They will have torn the net of the passions, they will manage to enter into trances, and theirs will be an abundance of joy and happiness, for they will lead a holy life under Maitreya’s guidance.” The Maitreya Buddha is hence heavily worshiped among Buddhist, with many temples set up for the Maitreya Buddha and sutras chanted in anticipation of the Maitreya Buddha. The Maitreya Buddha is represented differently according to different people. I always knew him as the fat and happy Buddha (in the Chinese cultural rendition of Maitreya) without knowing much about the theology behind. I liked the fact that he was fat and happy, especially when I was younger. I’d honestly be disappointed if he was not fat though…
Perhaps phenomenally in a region with large Buddhist populations like Myanmar and Thailand, the biggest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia is located on the Indonesia island of Batam – the largesst Buddhist temple in Southast Asia was located in a muslim majority nation. We had taken a day trip out of Singapore to visit the Indonesian island of Batam, and one of the sites that I wanted to see was this temple. It was a must see attraction on every blog about Batam.
But my first impression was once of disappointment. Having grown up in Singapore and accustomed to seeing some sort of unique architecutre to indicate a temple I was expecting a pagoda or a very outstanding structure to greet me. Instead, what I saw was an all white building block that looked like a 1970s style block. It did not look like much from the outside, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to guess that it was a temple except for the comparatively small Maitreya Buddha statue on the outside
This was the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia? Where was Ashton Kutcher…
But we were there already, and the sun showed no mercy, so we walked into the shelter of the temple to enjoy some reprieve from the heat. The temple was constructed in the 1990s to serve the large numbers of Indonesian Chinese on the island. The white building was deceptively small, but stretched very very far back. It had three main halls with the centre one dedicated to the trinity of Buddhas (Trikaya) as well as a small statue of the Maitreya.
Another was dedicated to the Chinese folk hero Guan Yu, and a third was dediacated to the Chinese goddess of Mercy, Guan Yin. The large temple also housed countless other rooms on the second floor, a large canteen serving vegetarian food and even a mini modern cafe (modernity huh). On the walls were cartoons that told the story of Buddha, from his miraculous birth to enlightenment.
It was there that I recalled the story of Buddha and his journey to enlightenment. The part I most recall is his meditation under the Bodhi tree and the many different temptations sent to turn him away from his enlightenment particularly those of the temptation of Mara. It was a philosophical point that struck me, espeically considering that Buddhism is a way of living and does not believe in gods, that Mara was our human biology our natural urges and fears that were putting up a struggle.
That aside, I was impressed with the commitment of the devotees. There were full time volunteers dressed in all white performing all functions in keeping the temple running. There were however no monks in the temple. I still do not think this is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia (the Kek Lok Si in Penang feels larger) but, as the Buddha might say, does it matter? A temple is a temple, a big temple is a temple, a small temple is also a temple.
I just want to be happy (maybe not fat though), like Buddha Maitreya.
ON THE MAP