Informant (J.H.), my mother, is a 50 year old Buddhist meditation teacher from Los Angeles. J.H. identifies as biracial, with both African and Southern European heritage. I interviewed her after stopping by for dinner one Monday evening. J.H. had a traditional roman Catholic upbringing, and has been studying meditation for 15 years. J.H. shared one of her favorite Buddhist stories, which explains the origin of a meditative chant that she teaches. Our story takes place during the Buddha’s lifetime.
J.H.: “There were 500 monks and nuns, who were sent into the forest to meditate for the rains retreats, which lasted for three months in the winter. Within days, they came running back to the Buddha saying that evil visions and sounds and smells were haunting them and they were too scared to stay in the forest, but the Buddha sent them back. Again, they came running back to him, terrified. Little did they know, that the tree spirits in that forest didn’t want them there, so they were doing anything they could to scare them off. So the Buddha sent them back a third time, but this time he sent them back with messages of love for the forest deities. These messages were; may you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be safe, may you be free. So when these monks went back into the forest, spreading love to these deities, it melted their hearts and they welcomed them. This is called ‘Metta,’ and one would use this when dealing with their own internal fear, or pain, or sadness, or when wanting to send compassion or care to others’ fear, pain or sadness, or suffering. We still use the ‘Metta practice.’ It is a traditional Buddhist practice for emanating kindness and care.”
While J.H.’s story stands on its own, Metta, or lovingkindness, is also a central part of the Buddhist tradition. Such stories in Buddhism are common, and often walk the line between myth and legend. While they are myths to Agnostic-Buddhists such as J.H., who teaches them strictly as metaphors for a greater lesson, these stories can be considered legends by the more traditional Buddhists who do not question their literal truth. Further, this particular Buddhist folk story does not leave the timeline of human existence like most religious mythologies, as from my experience Buddhism traditionally discusses life on earth rather than any divine being or beings. Metta is a very popular form of Buddhist meditation, always using some variation of the quote the monks told the tree spirits in J.H.’s performance.
Informant (J.H.), my mother, is a 50 year old Buddhist meditation teacher from Los Angeles. J.H. identifies as biracial, with both African and Southern European heritage. I interviewed her after stopping by for dinner one Monday evening. J.H. had a traditional roman Catholic upbringing, and has been studying meditation for 15 years. J.H. shared one of her favorite Pali phrases, which she uses in her teachings. J.H. was hesitant by my classifying it as a ‘proverb’ due to the word’s Christian connotation in American culture, so I explained the folkloristic definition of ‘proverb’ for clarification.
J.H.: “What Ehipasiko is is basically a phrase that says ‘see for yourself’ would be the most basic translation. For me, why I chose Buddhism is because the Buddha doesn’t require people to follow a faith based narrative. It’s more about seeing how our own behaviors lead us down a path towards more confusion and pain and suffering, or down a path of peace and calm and joy and equanimity. As Buddhists, we are asked to pay attention to how we respond to situations, we’re not asked to have a being that we can’t see help us or save us from life’s truths…. Pali was the formal oral language during the Buddha’s time, but it wasn’t the written language. There wasn’t a written language until 500 years later, it was Sanskrit. Ehipasiko was the oral language, and then there was Sanskrit. Honestly, a big part of my attraction to who the Buddha… has a lot to do with who Jesus is. I think they’re very similar. Not that the religions are similar, but the men Siddartha Gautama, and whatever you want to call him, Jesus, lead very similar rebellious traditions to what was being practiced at the time. Judaism was what Jesus was rebelling against, and Brahmanism is what Siddartha was not necessarily rebelling against, but saying it wasn’t enlightenment.”
J.H.’s Buddhist Sangha is especially targeted toward people who have had struggles with society and are seeking alternative guidance or recovery through spirituality. J.H. seems to appreciate the proverb for its open endedness and universal truth. Ehipasiko makes for a good introduction to how personal of a practice Buddhism is. As a teacher, J.H. speaks fluently and openly about the history and philosophies of Buddhism in general as well as her particular Sangha, or group.
This piece of folklore was gained unintentionally, when my friend reprimanded me for whistling at night so as to avoid being afraid of the dark. It was past midnight and was very dark. The moon was not out, so everything was dark and muffled. It was cold, but it was still manageable to be outside. People were preparing for festivities, but the environment seemed entirely surreal. It was out of legitimate concern, however, that my friend scolded me so quickly and harshly. For the sake of safety and good fortune, my friend believed that this was just not to be done. It also said much about my friend’s spirituality. She had learned this tradition from her parents, who are strong Buddhists. She believed strongly that ghosts and spirits still interacted with the world and could affect it depending on how they were treated; particularly if they were treated well or ignored.
In Taiwanese culture, spirits and ghosts are very accepted, and they are to be honored and respected. As a result, every August is known as “Hungry Ghost Month.” You are not supposed to go outside after dark because that is when the spirits come outside to mingle and visit. Also, you are also not supposed to whistle at night, because the ghosts will hear it and follow you home, bringing misfortune and spreading it to you and your household. Although generally you are not supposed to go outside at night, there are still festivals held during this month that individuals attend. During the festivals, everyone wears masks and celebrates together. The usage of the masks is ultimately very symbolic because during the month of ghosts and spirits, you cannot be sure if you are celebrating with other humans or if you are celebrating with ghosts; the masks are representative of the mingling that occurs during the festivals of this month.
As the collector, I felt very moved by the tradition. At night when no light was present, it seemed impossibly surreal and it felt like ghosts were out and about. Although later on, I felt more that it was a trick of the mind, at the moment, it was truly awe-inducing and frightening.
This story was told during the daytime at a friend’s home. Sitting in front of the shrine her family keeps to honor the ancestors and the deities of Buddhism, it was told in order to explain the reasoning behind some of the rituals done on specific Buddhist holidays. She learned about these beliefs from her parents, who are strong Buddhists, and they are part of her self-identification. To her, they are fully real and are the reasons why luck and fortune come and go out of people’s lives. They are also why she believes that honoring the dead and the deities are so important and can never be neglected without severe consequences. Having lived this way her entire life, it also means her way of living to her as well.
The Kitchen God and Chuang Mu are said to keep you safe from evil spirits and misfortune. As deities of the house and home, they take care of the inhabitants if they are respected. As his name implies, the Kitchen God’s domain is the kitchen, but kitchen is very important in meaning to a house. Chuang Mu means the Mother of Beds, and she is the spirit that sits on beds and watches over you to make sure bad dreams and misfortune stays away. Their protection, however, is only bestowed if they are pleased with you and your family. If you anger them through disrespect or neglect, then they will withdraw their protection from your household. As a result, in order to show that you are respecting them and that you have not forgotten about them, you have to burn incense and give offering to the Kitchen God and Chuang Mu every few months.
This piece of folklore shows how much religion is a part of daily life, which is remarkable. It emphasizes respect for the dead and for the gods which is definitively part of Asian culture. It also shows how real religion can be to individuals and how deeply it can be associated with someone’s identity.
擲筊 (Bwa Bwei) Blocks and the Different Responses擲筊 (Bwa Bwei) is an ancient from of fortune telling. My informant, a Buddhist, uses these wooden blocks as a way to ask Buddha questions. Bwa Bwei comes in the form of two curved red blocks; one side of the block is flat and the other is round. The blocks are thrown onto the ground and the way they land represent different answers. In figure A, one lands on the flat side and the other lands on its round side. This represents a "yes" answer. Both figures B and C represent "no" answers, but have different meanings. For figure B, Buddha is angry at the question being asked. For figure C, Buddha is laughing at the question. The blocks have to be thrown three times and get the same answer all three times in order to be a confirmed answer.
My informant told me about this ritual when we were visiting a Hsi Lai Temple, a Buddhist worshiping center. She told me she had learned this from a monk when she was little girl attending Temple. She uses this method to answer a lot of personal and financial question. An example of questions that she was ask are “Will this business deal be good for the company?” and “Will my daughter get into college?” I asked her if she truly believed that Bwa Bweis revealed the best answers and possibly, the future. My informant replied that for her, they have never been wrong.
I think that this form of fortune telling is a way to emphasize and support the idea of destiny. Since the questions asked tend to be ones that reveal what will happen in the future, the answers seem to suggest that the future is set in stone and is just waiting to happen. At the same time, I also view this practice as a stress reliever of sorts since the questions are usually associated with stress-inducing topics. By getting an answer, the person no longer has to really worry anymore since the result is inevitable.
This is a Buddhist proverb and my informant doesn’t remember where he heard it. It means all lust leads to sorrow. My informant likes it because it reminds us that our spiritual well-being is often more important to our happiness than our physical world; he takes lust to mean want in general rather than only sexual want. Buddhism says that attachment is what leads to suffering, so detaching oneself from desires in the physical world will lead one away from suffering.
Humans are often said to feel a sadness after an orgasm, perhaps because it is a let down; the ecstasy is just suddenly gone. The French call it le petite mort, meaning little death. In this way, lust does directly lead to grief. On a larger scale, though, all sexual and romantic attachment usually leads to grief due to human drama and the breaking apart of relationships. And on a scale larger than that, all human wants, which the word lust could be used to represent, lead to grief because having our desires in the physical world fulfilled doesn’t bring us lasting happiness. We get what we want and then that’s it; there will be a void again afterwards. Beyond that, everything is ephemeral, so it may not even be important that we got what we wanted, be it reaching a goal or acquiring a physical object. Buddhism recognizes this and communicates it via this concise proverb.
My informant had a personal experience with this folk belief while attending her grandmother’s funeral in Thailand. She and the other funeral-goers were kneeling in prayer in front of the Buddhist temple where the funeral was being held, when she noticed a black butterfly fly over her grandmother’s coffin as the monks chanted a sutra to help the soul pass on.
When my informant mentioned the butterfly to an aunt afterwards, the aunt told her that butterflies are containers for souls, and that they carry souls away. The timing of the butterfly’s flight, as well as the fact that she’d never seen a butterfly in Thailand before, convinced my informant of the validity of this folk belief.
My informant suggested that it may be comforting to someone mourning a death to equate their loved one, and maybe death itself, with a butterfly, which is almost universally considered to be beautiful and graceful.
The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism, which rejects the idea of an unchanging self or soul, and so the soul’s flight in the butterfly could be considered the luminal stage between death in one body and reincarnation in the next. Also, while human/alive, we can’t fly—it could be exciting to think that in death, we are able to rise beyond the limitations of our past human bodies.
The first time my informant got her period, her mother told her to go to the stairs, hold her breath, and walk down the number of steps she wanted her period to last for. For example, my informant decided that she wanted her periods from then on to last for three days, so she went down three steps while holding her breath. According to my informant, it worked for her; her periods now last three days.
I asked her why she didn’t just go down one step, and she said, “because it wouldn’t be possible, biologically, so to keep the legend true, you have to go down at least three or four.” This response suggests that there’s an element of conscious self-delusion for every girl who performs this custom, and that the belief is important more for its own sake than for the fact that it works.
My informant proposed that going down the stairs represents that the performer is taking the steps to becoming a woman. The girl holds her breath because Buddhism (the main religion of Thailand) encourages believers to endure suffering. Not breathing also symbolizes the pain of menstruation.
I agree with her assessment. A girl’s first menstruation is, biologically, the marker of her transformation from girl to woman. Taking physical steps represents that she is crossing that threshold.
Annotation: This folk custom appears in the 2001 Thai movie The Legend of Suriyothai. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0290879/
My room mate, ThawZin, is from Burma. He is a Buddhist, and is very religious. This is the story he told me from his country.
ThawZin: “First, some background info! In Buddhism we have different classes for spirituality. There are the demigods at the top, followed by humans, animals, hungry ghosts, then devils. Hungry ghosts are what we call ‘preta’ (pronounced pale-tar). Pretas are people, who, when they were alive, were greedy and malicious. Their death is usually caused by a greedy act they brought upon themselves. You know… pretas are actually pitied by humans, because they have to face suffering, but they deserve it. It’s karma. They are invisible, but they can scare mortals. They like eating the gooey shit coming from meat and other things, haha! That is why, every time I go to the market with my mom, we always have to spit on the floor, so that they won’t follow us. Their appearance: they have big bellies, and small heads. The big bellies symbolize how greedy they are, you know… They want so much, but the little head, little face, little mouth, symbolize that they can’t get anything, can’t get shit, you know? Haha!
Anyway so the story… my mother told me this before. In Burma there’s this guy. He was fucking greedy during his life time. One day he was really hungry. He loved eating intestines, so he went to his wife and said, ‘Where the fuck is my food?!” But the wife didn’t have anything prepared. He was so angry, so he went to the barn and, you know, he cut the tongues of the cows there while they were still alive! I mean the cows were still alive, and he just cut them, and so they were bleeding and shit. The cows were like… mooing the whole night, haha! And they died a slow, painful death. He went to his wife, threw the cow tongues down at the table and told her to cook them for him. So the wife did. As he was eating the cow tongues, suddenly his own tongue started to dissolve. You know, it dissolved all the way to his insides. But karma did not kill him yet, it made him suffer. The cow tongue just dissolved his insides for days, until he died. He died just like the cows… a slow, painful death. When he died, that is when he became a preta. Well, he was reborn as a preta.”
Me: “Where in Burma was this? I mean, is there a specific place where he haunts?”
ThawZin: “Oh yes! It is in the old first kingdom of Burma, in Bagan.
Me: “Do people avoid that place?”
ThawZin: “Oh not at all! Actually you know, when he died, his preta was located under the ground. And then one day farmers in Bagan found that one part of… you know, the ground, started becoming fleshy. And that’s when they figured out that there was a preta there. They don’t avoid it. They constantly plow over the land, again and again. The greedy guy has to suffer again and again, getting plowed, but they can’t do anything about him. It’s karma, man. He deserves what came to him, and he has to stay there until he has repaid his debt, his bad karma.”
ThawZin’s story shows a lot about the Burmese culture, especially about the strength of the people’s belief in Buddhism. For one, the whole idea of a preta ghost is based on Buddhist beliefs in spiritual hierarchy and rebirth. As well, he says that even though people pity these pretas, when the farmers found out that there was a preta under the ground, they still plowed over him, again and again, even if it made the preta suffer, because they believed in the Buddhist concept of karma: that people deserve what is coming to them, good or bad. In many ways, his story also comes as a story of morality, particularly for the idea that greed and blind rage are unwanted negatives that will get you in trouble, and will follow you even after you die, in your rebirth, or the afterlife.