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.
From interview with informant:
“My family, every time we go on a big trip, like whether it’s an emotional trip or a physical trip, we all have to sit in the same room on a different surface and take a moment of, like, repose, that my father decides. We take or moment, and then we stand and we go on our journey. I don’t know if it’s a Russian tradition or a Jewish tradition or something from my dad’s family, but it’s something that my family does.”
This is a simple custom that makes a lot of practical sense. It serves to bring the family closer together while preparing for potentially arduous or important times in the near future. It sounds a lot like a moment of prayer, but the informant made it sound very secular, more like meditation and contemplation. It could have any mixture of cultural, religious, or familial roots like the informant suggested. A secularized Jewish prayer, perhaps, or just something a family member thought of that stuck. Not sure about the “different surfaces” aspect. That certainly makes it sound more like something specific to this particular family.