USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’
Folk Beliefs

Reincarnation

My informant is a twenty-three year old man who is half-Japanese, half-Mexican. He grew up more with Japanese culture, and was very eager to share the folklore he knew from this culture. The following is from when I interviewed him in the USC Village.

 

Peter: “My grandparents aren’t devout buddhists, but my grandparents would use reincarnation to get me to behave as a child. They would tell me that if I’m a good person– a kind person– I’ll get a good second life… But if I’m mean or treat people poorly, I’ll come back as a cockroach! [He chuckles at his own ephaptic shout of ‘cockroach’] Now that I think of it, my grandparents would also bring up karma in this way.”

 

Me: “Karma?”

 

Peter: “Yeah, like, you are rewarded when you do things for people. People often do things for you in return. Or if you do something good, something good will happen to so. Same for the bad.”

 

Me: “Has Karma or Reincarnation influenced your life in other ways, or has it affected your own philosophy?”

 

Peter: “Well, some of my professors gave me letters of recommendations for USC. So… I rewarded them with gifts to thank them for what they did. As far as karma goes, I think it sticks with me — whenever someone goes out of their way for me, I make sure to make up for it in the future. It really makes me appreciate and value the people who do good things for me.”

 

Analysis:

I think this is an example of a folk belief/superstition being passed down to a generation that has repurposed the belief to fit his modern surroundings. My informant is not buddhist, but he has found the beliefs of karma and reincarnation useful to shaping his own view of the world. He chooses to reward those to help him because he wants to make everything equal the same way karma is said to make things equal.

 

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle

Taiwanese Death Practices

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MW.


MW: If a person dies, we have to not eat meat. Because our religion is Buddhism. They believe that you have to clarify yourself, as a family, so that your family member that died will go to heaven.

BD: You can’t eat meat for how long?

MW: I think for at least 30 days.

BD: Does only your family do this?

MW: It’s not only just my family. I think all Taiwanese families, and probably Chinese families too. For seven days we will turn on the lights, after they died, we believe that their spirit will come back. The light needs to be on so they can see. We also have to clean the front doorway, like with no shoes, so that they can walk into the house. Another thing we do is put coins at the door because we believe there is a God controlling the money, and he can walk in. But this one we do all the time.

BD: Not just after someone died?

MW: No, all the time for good luck.


 

Analysis:
This conversation had quite a few folk beliefs, some regarding death, some about good luck. It is rooted in Buddhism, according to the informant, and it is interesting how food is related to death in this way. The Providence Zen Center.  says the time period should be 49 days, for people to “check their consciousness and digest their karma,” http://providencezen.org/49-day-funeral-ceremony.

general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Dog Buns

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: This is a tale my roommate heard  when he was a kid.

Dialogue: It goes… There’s this Buddhist who’s, you know, vegetarian, everyone loves him, he’s very holy, um, and, the queen of the land who, I guess doesn’t really like him or wants to bring attention away from him and to herself, uh, comes up with this plan to make everyone hate the monk… So, she, um, cooks these dogs, and… puts them into meat buns… um, which could also look like vegetarian buns, and she gives all of them, uh, to the monk, and, she says, “Look! I’ve, I’ve prepared these nice, uh, veggie buns for you! Why don’t you go eat them?” Uh… She’s thinking, then she’s going to reveal they’re made of dog, and he ate them, and everyone’s gonna hate him… Um, but the monk instead digs a hole in the ground, buries the buns into the ground, puts dirt back over them, and waters them, and then the dogs come back out of the ground! And, then people realize that the evil queen put dog in the buns and now the dogs are back to life, and now they get rid of the queen, and everyone loves the monk again.

Analysis: Sort of just a cute story, really something meant for kids, like a fairy tale (and perhaps it is, and my roommate just didn’t refer to it as such). Nice little morality tale about not letting jealousy get to you, with the added iconography of the Buddhist monk instead of the traditional Western protagonist.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

Dreaming of Buddha

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: This is the story of an accident that happened to my roommate’s mother when she was young.

Dialogue: Um… I don’t remember how old she was, probably between, you know, 10 and 13. Um, she was playing hide and seek, and was in a two-story house, um, and she really wanted to be tough to find, so she climbed up out on the balcony, on the railing I think, and held on to the opposite side of the railing. Um… After that she accidentally let go and fell two stories and… landed on the ground, uh…

What happened after that, when she was unconscious. She had this dream where… uh, it was completely dark. She was looking around, and she could see these demons coming up everywhere, um, including the Devil I think, and so, her reaction was like, “What do I do, there’s demons all around me, there’s total darkness?!?” And then this light appears. I think it’s supposed to be the Buddha, is what she said, and it says, “Hey, uh… Don’t go towards those demons! Come towards me, that’s what you should do, that’s gonna be good.” Uh, so she goes on, she, you know, runs past those demons, heads to the light, and when she comes to, um, her whole family is, like, around her cuz she fell two stories, and they say she is completely unharmed. She gets back up, like, good as new, and, um… ever since then she’s been quite a bit more religious.

Analysis: I debated whether or not this deserved a “miracle” tag based on the fact that a two-story fall resulted in absolutely no injuries. I’m impressed by the fact that a single dream brought about a life-long change, but I suppose it is because views on religion in America and views on religion in Vietnam are different. It would be interesting to hear the dream told from the mother herself, though, just to get as much detail as possible on what happened while she was unconscious.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Myths
Narrative

Angulimala

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. I asked J.H. for her favorite legends and myths surrounding the Buddha. As a self identified Buddhist agnostic, she takes these stories as metaphors with values them for their important teaching opportunities.

J.H.: “Angulimala was basically a serial killer. He was a bandit, who would kill people in the forests of India, and he would cut off a finger for each person he killed, and put their finger on a necklace that he wore around his neck. So mala means necklace basically, and Anguli is finger. So he had a finger necklace around his neck, and one time he came across the Buddha in the forest and he started chasing him to kill him, but no matter how fast he ran he couldn’t catch him. And so finally, the Buddha just stopped and Angulimala caught up to him, and the Buddha promised him freedom from his pain and suffering if he would just start meditating with him. Angulimala was so impressed… by the Buddha’s fearlessness, that he decided to try it. And the legend has it that he became enlightened, and what’s so beautiful about this story is that the Buddha thought that nobody was irreparable. Because the Angulimala apparently killed thousands of people, as the legend has it, but the Buddhist tradition says that all people have the opportunity for full liberation, no matter what your path has been.”

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 Angulimala myth for its teaching of acceptance of all people. 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.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Myths
Narrative

Metta -Lovingkindness

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.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs

Ehipasiko

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.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Kitchen God and Chuang Mu

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.

 

Customs
Festival
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“Hungry Ghost Month”

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.

Folk Beliefs
general
Signs

擲筊 – Fortunetelling Blocks

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.

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